Have you ever wanted to love someone, but couldn’t?
That’s how I felt about Tammy. We never should have gotten together in the first place, but it was her birthday and I didn’t know what I was getting myself in for. She invited all five of us from the office and I was expecting to just have a drink and go home. Fast forward to the bar, half an hour past when we were all supposed to meet, and every time her phone buzzed I knew it was another person canceling at the last minute. But she was glowing with warmth that wasn’t dampened by her disappointment, and I had nowhere else to be, and hours can melt together so fast when you’ve found someone to be lonely with.
Tammy blamed herself for how the party turned out in a vicious, self-deprecating way that left me scampering to reassure her. And the harder she was on herself the kinder I had to be, until somehow without meaning to I called her beautiful because I couldn’t bear her thinking otherwise for another minute. The way her face lit up in response was proof that I wasn’t lying, and the way she smiled back made me feel like it was the first time she’d ever really believed those words.
Tammy stayed close to me as we were leaving together. Close enough to feel her breath on my neck. Then her arms were wrapped around my arm and her warmth wasn’t just something to be imagined anymore. Just to keep her balance, she said, but no amount of steadying herself was enough for her to let go. She’d been drinking after all, and needed someone to drive her home…
Well I think she really was beautiful that night, and the more of her she trusted me to see, the more beautiful she became. But love? It wasn’t her fault that she came to love me, and it wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t feel the same.
A starving man doesn’t care what he eats though, and the lonely will cling to anyone who makes them forget what it’s like to be alone. Tammy and I stayed together, and the phrase “maybe this is what love is supposed to feel like” kept hoping up in my head. Tammy treated me with devotion and smothered me in kindness, and the longer we stayed together, the harder it became to imagine my life being any other way.
Tammy would do anything to keep me, and she reminded me every day. I could think of no better way to thank her than with everything I had to give. She was nothing but joy on the day I asked her to marry me, and basking in that light I told myself that her happiness would be enough for the both of us for all my years ahead.
Then there was my other wife. The one with the shaved head. The one with the nose rings, and the leather jacket, and the tattoo of snake twisting from one thigh to the next. I don’t know if you could call Zara beautiful—certainly not in the same way you could Tammy—but you could call her other names and they’d all turn her on.
I met Zara in another town where my company headquarter’s was. I had to go once a month, every month, but it didn’t take long before I found an excuse to go every weekend instead. Tammy was pregnant, and I wasn’t proud about what I was doing. But neither was I ashamed, because any guilt I should have felt was a drop in the ocean that was love.
Zara was everything I’d never known I’d wanted. She was wild, unrestrained, insatiable. She was a witch who put me under her spell, a demon who had claimed my soul. These are the types of excuses I’d tell myself whenever the guilt began to crawl up my spine. When I’d hold Tammy at night I’d tell myself stories of all the mad things men have ever done for love I’d put myself in their noble company. And when I fell asleep, I’d dream of being back with the girl whose touch was fire.
A weekend was never enough to spend with Zara, and every time was harder to leave than the last. I couldn’t leave Tammy with the child though, and the anxious worry that this had to end began eating away at me night and day. I kept them both a secret from each other, swinging back and forth, barely trusting myself to call one by name without my tongue betraying me with the other’s. The more the pressure grew the more insecure and defensive I became, until one day by surprise Zara told me she was jealous of my time. She didn’t want me to leave again. She wanted to be my wife, and fool that I was, I told her that I wanted the same.
It wasn’t a very official wedding—Zara wasn’t into that sort of thing. Our hands were clasped in the forest and our feet were in the stream when I placed a ring upon her finger. My life as I knew it had ended forever, and I couldn’t imagine anything but happiness to come.
I told myself then that I would make one last trip to end things with Tammy. She’d be better off alone—I wanted to believe—than with someone who didn’t need her anymore. I would do my part and help pay for the child, and I wouldn’t need much money because nothing I could buy would fill my heart the way holding Zara did. Tammy would cry, but I wouldn’t break, and in five years time—in ten years time—when I’m old and grey with shaking hands—I’ll hold Zara all the tighter knowing that I was almost too weak to follow my heart.
And maybe that’s how it would have gone if Zara hadn’t followed me back. She thought she would surprise me by making the trip to help me move. She thought she was being clever by calling my work and pretending to be a client setting up a meeting at my home. How could she have known that Tammy was home while I’d gone to the store to pick up some things for our new born child?
The police were home before I was. The weeping young mother and the screaming punk—it wasn’t hard for them to figure out what happened. The knife-slashed curtains and the shattered plates—there must have been quite a fight to be loud enough for the neighbors to call the cops. The blood-stained carpet and the dirty tracks into the nursery—there was no way to hide the evidence, or mistake what happened to my daughter who was slashed into ribbons before she’d ever learned her name.
Zara and I never spoke again. Not even at her trial where I was called as a witness. I couldn’t even meet her eyes when I told the jury about the affair, that I’d loved her, and that I knew it was wrong. I told them that Zara had been jealous, that she’d killed the child, and that I never wanted to see her again.
The only thing that could have been harder to bear was when Tammy forgave me. She said it wasn’t my fault. That I’d made a mistake. That we could learn to be happy together again. And I believed her, because as heavy as this weight was for me to bear, I knew that I couldn’t bear it alone.
That was almost twenty years ago, and Tammy and I have moved past it the best we could. We had two more children, both boys. I’m glad of that, because if we’d had a girl I don’t think I could have looked at her without thinking about the child who had been cut. If Tammy can still love me after all that, then who am I to say that I can’t love her in return? Despite everything I’d done to avoid being alone though, I know that it’s only a matter of time.
Tammy is sick, and she isn’t going to get better. I’ve been spending every day at my wife’s side, and our youngest will be leaving to college in a few weeks. Then it’s just going to be me and my regrets, thinking about the words Tammy said to me last night.
“I told you I’d do anything to keep you, and I did,” she told me. “If you didn’t think Zara killed our daughter, you never would have stayed with me. I had to do it, don’t you see? We’ve made each other so happy through the years.”
I always knew I never loved her, but it’s taken me my entire life to find out why.
WRITTEN BY: Tobias Wade
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