The nightmare began on Friday evening. It began when William said he wanted Isabelle to go with him, to a work dinner, to meet a man called Mr Richard Pike. She’d asked him if it was really necessary; it was Friday night, and usually, after they put the kids to bed, they relaxed with a glass of white wine on the sofa. Their three-month old daughter, Lila, kept them up most nights, and it was their little weekly self-reward, this one small thing that they did for themselves.
“Please,” Will had said. “I really want you to.”
She had never been able to refuse him; that was her weakness. She looked at him-into his face with its liquid brown eyes, sharp eyebrows, and cheeks that were naturally tinted pink- and she said yes.
And so William drove the four of them to meet Mr Richard Pike at this mysterious party- Isabelle, Lila, and their four-year-old son, Raoul. The entire way there Will exuded a strange aura, as if he could not bear to be near her.
At the party, William had led Isabelle to Mr Pike, and said, in his quiet way, “Love, this is Mr Pike. Richard, this is my wife.”
Mr Pike was an older man, perhaps in his late forties. Isabelle shook his hand, and Mr Pike had pulled her forwards, gently, and kissed her on the cheek.
“It’s lovely to meet you my dear,” he said, and he smiled at Isabelle.
Isabelle felt uneasy the entire while, without being able to pinpoint a reason, like the way she always felt when realized she’d forgotten something without knowing exactly what.
“Izzy, can you take the baby?” Will had asked her then, and she complied, taking Lila from him, hoisting her onto her hip.
Then she watched as he went to greet Richard Pike. There were several loud laughs and greetings exchanged, but Isabelle noticed that after Richard Pike patted William on the back, the hand remained there, around William’s waist, like a silent show of ownership. The gesture made Isabelle feel suddenly lonely.
It was then that Lila began to wail uncharacteristically, quietly at first and then loudly, lustily. Isabelle took her to the bathroom. She watched Lila suck greedily from the dark brown nipple, and remembered how once, during sex, William had done the very same thing.
“I’m in love with Rick,” was how he said it.
They had just eaten dinner, and Isabelle had put the kids to bed. As she headed for the dishes, William came up behind her, caught her arm, and said, “Do you have a minute?”
She had been excited at first. Their sixth anniversary was coming up, and she’d thought it was maybe to do with that, a trip he’d planned away or something like that. But then he’d said, with his eyes searching her face, “I’m in love with Rick.”
At first, after the white shock, she’d thought that maybe Rick was a woman.
But then he’d said, “I’m sorry, Izzy. It just happened. I didn’t think, after all these years, I’d want a man. But it just happened that way.”
“A man?” Isabelle had said, blankly.
“Richard. Rick. We’re together.”
As the first jolts of anger and betrayal surfaced, she thought first of their children. “Do you want to leave tonight?”
“If you want me to,” said Will. He looked at her with those large brown eyes, his arms folded across his chest.
Isabelle felt a jolt of wanting in her lower stomach. She hated it, what he could do to her physically, even now. She looked away.
“I think that’s a yes.” Will looked at her, and then he turned away. “I’ll pack my stuff.”
“Do you regret them?” she asked quietly. “Our children. It’s okay to say so, if you do.”
“Of course not,” he said. “How can you say that? A father, regret his own child?”
But Isabelle had begun to regret them a little. If it weren’t for the kids, she could wipe William from her life completely. If it weren’t for them, she could pretend he was just a memory.
The next day, as she was feeding Raoul, the child screamed, “Papa! I want Papa!”
Could he sense it? Could he, a barely four-year-old child, sense that his father’s absence from the room was not temporary, but infinite? Papa had not stepped out to the dairy, or to work- Papa was gone, for good.
“Your Papa’s not here,” said Isabelle. “He’s not here, so please, my darling, just eat your food.”
“I won’t!” said Raoul, and he kicked out at the plastic plate. It flew off the high chair and upended on Isabelle, sending bits of mashed apricot flying onto Isabelle’s dress. For a moment Isabelle just sat there, and then she slapped the child, hard.
Raoul stared into Isabelle’s eyes for a minute, and then he began to wail.
“I’m so sorry,” said Isabelle. “I’m so sorry, so sorry.” And then, like her son, she began to cry.
Later, she was woken by Martha’s hands on her shoulders, saying, “There, there, my dear. It’s not all lost. It’s not all lost.” And it was the kindness of the words that brought Isabelle to fresh tears.
“I don’t want you back,” she said steadily.
William scratched the back of his neck. “It wasn’t a pity offer. I meant what I said.”
“And I meant what I said,” she shot back. How could her voice come out sounding so steady, when inside she was slowly breaking apart?
“What?” he said.
“I can’t,” she whispered.
“You can’t? Or you won’t?”
“I can’t be with a sodomite,” she said. The moment she said it she regretted it, and then she began to cry, because she knew that he would never know that regret, and that it would live inside her now, hard as rock, for as long as she lived. It was the weight of that knowledge that brought her to tears, there, standing across from a man she had once loved.
He stared at her, unmoved, and as she had feared his face had now acquired a strange, closed appearance. She looked at his lips, his lovely red lips, and remembered how, at the very beginning of their courtship, she had asked him whether he wore lipstick. He had laughed, and then he had kissed her. He had tasted of berries and salt, and Isabelle had carried the taste around in her mouth. She hadn’t eaten, the entire day, lest it disappear. Again, she felt the crushing weight of guilt, the thought that perhaps, if she had behaved a little differently, Will wouldn’t have fallen in love with a man.
“Were you always gay?” she asked, looking up at him. “That day when we met. All the days after. Have you always liked men?”
“Yes,” he said, looking steadily into her eyes. His hard expression had not shifted. “But I did want you, Izzy. All the while, I did want you too.”
Later, she sat in the same park and stared at the trees. She had always loved autumn. Maybe she liked sad things, painful things, but the sight of the trees stripped, leafless, always gave her a strange sense of satisfaction. But after all, beauty and pain went together. Painful things were so often beautiful.
A strong wind came then, battering the remaining leaves, causing them to fall to the ground or up into the air. Isabelle wrapped her arms tighter around herself. She heard voices, men’s voices, and looking up she saw William and Mr Pike, both in winter coats, walk onto the grass. They were holding hands, and Isabelle felt an acute stab of jealousy. It was stronger, more potent, than the grief she had felt in the past days. She had never thought she might be jealous of a man, but here she was, at thirty-three, doing that very thing. Mr Pike disengaged his hand from Will’s, and put a gloved hand on either side of Will’s face. As she watched, they kissed, passionately. Will had let his hair grow long, and it blew between them, caught inside and between their conjoined lips.
Isabelle turned her face away. For the first time she began to cry, pushed to the brink by the knowledge of her own impending isolation, an isolation to which she saw no end.