I'm 52 years old and I've been married for nearly 30 years. I love my wife (let's call her Grace). We have two kids. We've
made a decent life together. But I wouldn't say we've ever been happy.
We've had more than one stretch of a whole year or more of not sleeping
together. Right now we're in a two-year drought. We're not exactly a good fit. I'm peanut butter ... and she's ketchup.
I met Grace in college. She'd been dating the same guy for several years and assumed they would eventually get married. But something clicked between us, and we began a torrid affair. She ended up leaving her long-term almost-fiance for me. She felt guilty about it, as did I. She was the cheating woman and I was the "other man." Our mutual guilt bound us together, and we became engaged.
I had a feeling during our engagement that we probably shouldn't get married. We were friends who had enjoyed a wonderful, sensual time together, but there really wasn't much more, certainly not enough to build a lifelong relationship on. But neither one of us wanted to be the one who ended it, so here I am, 30 years later, still married to her. I've never cheated on her, not once. I'm an honorable man. I'm pretty sure she's cheated on me several times, but that's not the point of this tale.
So far, it's just a mildly depressing story. Fasten your seat belt and put your tray table in the upright position.
Grace's best friend in college was a sweet, pretty woman named (let's say) Gwen. They did everything together. When Grace and I started going out, Gwen would often accompany us. The three of us shared a lot of good times over beers at the various bars and pubs close to campus. Gwen was fun to be around. She never seemed to date anyone, and I often wondered why.
Grace asked Gwen to be one of her bridesmaids. After the wedding, now that Grace and I lived together, we saw less of Gwen, but we were all still close. About a year after the wedding, I accepted a job offer in another state. Grace and I had to vacate our apartment a day before the actual move, and Gwen kindly offered to let us stay overnight with her.
We stayed up too late, drinking wine and reminiscing. Grace and I fell asleep entwined on the sofa. Gwen slept in the recliner beside us. When I woke up the next morning, Gwen was gone. I went to the kitchen to get a drink of water, leaving my wife asleep on the sofa.
Gwen was there, wearing a bathrobe. She was smoking a cigarette. I could see tears coursing down her cheeks.
"What's the matter?" I asked. I touched her shoulder.
She put the cigarette out in the sink, turned, and embraced me. When she did, the robe fell open. She wasn't wearing anything beneath it.
"I don't want you to leave."
I was shocked ... and aroused. But I'm an honorable man, so I gently pushed away from her. "Gwen ..."
She pulled away and closed her robe. "I know, I know, it's wrong."
She left me there in the kitchen, confused. Later that day, she reappeared, and acting as if nothing had happened, saw us off. There was no goodbye embrace.
I never told Grace about this incident. I'm pretty sure Gwen didn't tell her either.
Over the years, we moved several more times. We saw Gwen less often. I heard through Grace about Gwen's string of failed relationships: a momma's boy ... an emotional blackmailer ... a serial philanderer. Gwen began to collect cats. The best friends gradually drifted apart until they no longer talked regularly on the phone. Eventually Gwen and her cats moved in with her elderly mother and took care of her until she died.
About ten years ago, I stopped by Gwen's to pick up some things we'd left with her after another move a couple of years before. She lived alone in her mother's house, with half a dozen cats to keep her company. By that time, I'd gained a middle-aged paunch and my hair had turned mostly gray. She was still attractive but she too had put on weight and her blonde hair was obviously dyed. She'd developed permanent frown lines around her once-pretty mouth.
The house smelled faintly of patchouli and cat urine. After we'd located the items in question and I'd put them in my car, Gwen poured me a glass of iced tea and we sat in silence. We'd not been alone since that time 20 years before in her kitchen.
Curiosity got the best of me and I asked a blunt question: "Why haven't you ever married?"
She turned her face away from me and sighed. "My best friend married the only man I ever loved."
I was stunned. But now it all started to make sense: the fact that she never dated when I was around ... all the time she spent with me and Grace ... the embrace in the kitchen.
"I didn't know," I stammered.
"I tried to show you," she said, "but you wouldn't see."
There was an awkward silence broken only by the meowing of a cat twining around Gwen's ankles. Finally she spoke. "Maybe you should go." She walked to the front door and opened it, waiting for me to leave.
Shaken, I walked to my car. I sat in her driveway for at least thirty minutes and thought. For Gwen, all the time she'd spent with Grace was time to be closer to me. All her failed relationships ... probably because of me. The cats? That was probably my doing too. She had become a spinster because she had been carrying a torch for me for over twenty years. Now her youth was gone. My youth was gone.
What if I'd responded to her advance so long ago? Maybe ... just maybe ... I would have ended up with someone who actually wanted me, jelly for my peanut butter. Sure, it would have been quite a scandal: "Husband leaves new wife for her best friend" --- but maybe I could have been happy, instead of merely not-unhappy. Maybe ... just maybe ... Grace would have found another man more suited to her, mustard to her ketchup. And maybe poor Gwen wouldn't have become a little old cat lady. I wept for us all.
I briefly entertained the crazy notion of going back inside, taking her in my arms, and telling her I'd always loved her. Of course it would have been a lie. Of course my loyalty to my wife ... my love for my kids ... my honor ... wouldn't allow it. I'm an honorable man. Maybe they can put that on my tombstone: "He was an honorable man." I think I'd rather have been a happy man ... a loved man.
Eventually I drove away. I haven't seen Gwen since then, but I've thought about her every day for the last ten years. I guess that's payback for all the time she spent thinking about me.
What might have been? I don't know. I only know that my life is now dissected by streams of grief, sadness, loss, regret. I will live the rest of my life in exile from my heart. By the rivers dark, in a wounded dawn, I live my life in Babylon.
* * * * * * *
"By the Rivers Dark"
Then he struck my heart
With a deadly force,
And he said, ‘This heart:
It is not yours.’
And he gave the wind
My wedding ring;
And he circled us
By the rivers dark,
In a wounded dawn,
I live my life