It was around eleven o'clock and the party was progressing well when, in the middle of "Truth or Dare," Anthony Williams urged his wife to confess the worst thing she had ever done, and she announced she had been unfaithful to him.
There's a context, a background. There always is. Margaret wasn't just being bitchy. She had been drinking. Well, who hadn't? They were all celebrating the season and the end of the semester. There's more. She hadn't been feeling well. There was this persistent chill and a vague malaise in her shoulders. It was almost bad enough to make her miss the party. She thought she might be coming down with something, but Anthony had insisted they go.
Then there was the game. They were playing "Truth or Dare" to remind themselves of when they had been kids. The game and the alcohol helped Margaret a little, but there was a kicker, that she was angry with Anthony. Oh, not terribly angry. Just doing a slow burn. Tony, stop grandstanding! Just be quiet for a change! He was expounding on the Iraqi war and on global warming, on the worthlessness of their students, on everything in general, being terribly overbearing, finally telling anyone who would listen that the worst thing Margaret could ever have done was burn a roast.
People were laughing and tossing one-liners, trading urban legends and cutting each other off. They were reaching across to the coffee table to snag nuts or candy or other hors d'oeuvres, sometimes spilling a little wine or whiskey. The small fireplace put a smoky smell into the air, and those sitting close by were ruddy from the flame, even Margaret, who was trying to draw some warmth from it. Everyone else seemed to be having a wonderful time.
Just before her turn at the game, Margaret saw Matt Cameron kiss Nancy Eberle under the mistletoe. This wasn't surprising, given all the teasing and flirting that was going on, but it was far too long a kiss, and he had one hand on her waist and the other at her cheek, in a way that was. He whispered something to her. It was obvious, and indiscreet, but no one else noticed. Julia Cameron was in the middle of the urban legends group. Jake Eberle was three-quarters drunk, staring into the fire and occasionally looking up to howl at the end of a story.
It came around to Margaret's turn. She could tell from the progression of dares that hers would be to pull her skirt up to her hips so everyone could be flashed by her thighs and panties. She wondered who would be the first to have to show a body part. Anthony was laughing. "Hey! That's only for me!" — Stop it! — leering around — Stop it! — then saying "Come on, Margie! Tell them your little truthie," and Margaret felt the muscles around the base of her neck grow tense, thinking Damn it, Tony! and getting wound tighter and tighter, so when it slipped out it was with a snarl:
"I was unfaithful! To you!"
And then it was too late not to say it.
Margaret remembers that her husband's expression didn't change at first. He held the leer, but it became more and more forced, until finally he let it go. They were looking directly at each other, and his expression became so bland he seemed almost serene. The room filled with silence. The party noise didn't dial down all at once, but it was quick enough. Those who were closest by had begun to howl like Jake Eberle when they first heard her confession, but they'd caught on right away. Those away from the game kept up their conversations until it became clear to them that something momentous was happening over by the fireplace. All ultimately turned to stare. Margaret was the center of the world. No one spoke. Even Jake was paying attention.
"Would you explain?" It was Anthony. He was no longer being Tony. He sounded sober, quiet, thoughtful, not the least bit belligerent. She would have thought he'd be belligerent. Why was he being so soft about it?
She thought, My marriage!
Then the full truth of who knew hit her. Their whole circle of friends. All of them sitting or standing around her, all of them waiting for the whole story, the dirt, the stuff that would let them feel superior to her and to shun her. Did she suck him? Does she like anal? Does she do threesomes? Did she pull the train? They would become so charged up with thoughts of a found-out, honest-to-fuck cheater in their midst, a bona fide, flesh-and-blood slut to replace their pale imaginings, that they'd have extra-good sex when they got home. How wonderful to have Margaret's real infidelity in mind. The husbands would suppose that she'd be easy, and the wives would think it too, and fear it, but they'd enjoy the idea that Tony-the-cuckold might need consolation. One in particular would even act on the fantasy, though that's neither here nor there.
Oh Tony, please no. Margaret was still looking at Anthony, then her friends, again at her husband. She doesn't know when her hand moved to her mouth. Tony. She remembers a whine or cry forcing itself past her hand, but for what seemed the longest time she didn't actually say anything. She was asking his forgiveness only with her eyes. Please. She remembers somehow getting to her feet. Please. She remembers looking around, finally saying "I'm sorry" while she tried to get out of the circle without touching anyone, one "I'm sorry" to each person she came to, each person she bumped against. Finally making it to the hall, where there weren't any people, then to the bathroom, shutting the door, locking it, sitting on the toilet, putting her face in her hands and rocking forward and back, because she knew that with five words she had destroyed her world.
It can't have been long before the knocking started.
Poor Margaret, sitting on the pot in a freezing bathroom in someone else's house, knowing what would happen — not every step but the terrible, long course. Thousands, millions of people have shared the experience, but she did not feel part of a community. Poor Margaret, trembling and wiping her face with her palms, first the left side, then the right, then the left. How much of the trembling was shivering? I can't face him. I can't watch him despise me. By now, Anthony would be gone. He would have grabbed his coat and left her there alone, his outrage having been multiplied by his public humiliation. Where will I stay?
The bathroom felt like a cell, all the better for locking herself away, she thought. It was small like a cell. From the door to the back wall it had just barely enough length for a small linen closet, a plain sink below an ordinary medicine cabinet with a weak light, the toilet, and the one fancy thing — an old-fashioned bathtub with four claw feet. It was perfect for her. The tiny, casement window at the back wall had milky glass, so she was cut off from the world. It was cold like a cell. Was that because it was all tiles, colorless ones, black and white, set in checkerboard? So cold. Margaret hunched down and hugged her arms close to her body. She couldn't hear the people from in here, just vague murmurings, so she was safe for now. She imagined staying forever. It would soon be a terribly lonely place, but she didn't deserve any better. I fucked him and fucked him. There was no other place for her. Could she stand the cold? Maybe she could wrap some towels around herself. What would happen when other people needed to use the toilet?
More knocking. It seemed to reverberate off the tiles. Even the sounds hurt her. Sharp noises ricocheting off the walls. Margaret pressing her palms to her temples. Hammers in her head.
"Margie?" It was Judith, the hostess, her friend. Margaret looked at the door for a moment and pulled more tightly into herself, to resist the chill. Again, "Margie. Hey, let me in, kiddo."
"Judy?" Was her voice strong enough to get though the door? Rise up, Margaret. It was a trip of only seven feet, but Judith called a third time before she got there. By then, she was shivering terribly and her arms ached from the holding. When she opened the door and saw Judith was smiling, she fell on her, put her head on her friend's shoulder, and broke down completely. For her part, Judith let her stay a minute, patting her back. She seemed completely at ease, as though friends fell on her neck in her bathroom and cried every evening. "Come on, kiddo. Let's wash your face. I'll heat you a washrag."
"Close the door." Margaret was shivering enough to put a quaver in her voice.
"Please close the door." Shivering. "I don't want anyone to see me."
"Please close it!" That effort took what was left out of Margaret. She staggered to the toilet and sat and, when she did, she sagged to one side with an eddy of vertigo or syncope.
"Sure. But it's okay. Tony explained everything."
Margaret blew on her hands. She put a hand on the side of the tub and leaned, to stop the bathroom from rocking. Then she turned and gave her friend a look of complete incomprehension. It would have been funny in a comedy. Pure shtick, the character taking long moments to realize what she had just heard. Or Wile E. Coyote running across the air, delaying his doom by lack of realization. It wasn't at all funny to Margaret, who didn't get the joke because there wasn't any joke. "What do you mean?"
Judith's face changed. "Ohhhh!" She blew a quiet little whistle, the kind used mostly by men, that signals significance. "Well, that explains it. He's covering for you, and doing a pretty good job, I might add. He's a quick-thinking guy."
"I don't understand. What are you saying? What's Tony doing?"
"He explained that you two cooked up your, um, confession in advance, but you never expected people to take you so seriously, and you've had a few too many drinks. You know. Yadda yadda. People want to apologize to you, but he's telling them you need a few minutes alone. He's got them telling drunken-friends stories. He's the center of attention again."
Margaret still looked like she didn't understand. Finally, she put her face back down in her hands. "No one would believe that."
"Well I was almost fooled." Judith chuckled. It had a snide sound. "Anyway, you have deniability."
"But," began Margaret, and almost stopped, "he knows the truth." And therein lay the real problem, the one without a solution, to be contemplated while Margaret huddled on the toilet, now sensing the beginning of nausea. Now grabbing the seat below her to make it stay still. Now awash in memories.
Their bathroom was different. One afternoon we did it in their house while his kids were home. How could they not notice me? We did it in the shower, fornicating under the water jet while John's children were watching TV downstairs, not forty-five minutes before Janet was due home. I had to dry myself and rush getting my clothes back on, then sneak out the side door. My hair was still wet and dripping down my back. I was terrified the whole time, terrified and hot.
"What? I'm sorry." Whatever Margaret had was getting worse, She was too weary to hold herself up. I need to lie down.
"I asked, when did it happen?"
Margaret wiped her eyes with the washrag. She unfolded it, spread it completely over her face, and inhaled the heat. "It was a long time ago. It started the night of our tenth anniversary."
"Oh my! Sounds like you had some serious issues."
"It wasn't that serious. It was stupid. Tony hadn't gotten me a present. And he had to cancel our dinner out because of a meeting. I was hurt, and furious."
"And you ran into Mr. Soft-Shoulders."
"More like Professor Gorgeous." Please stop pushing. Judith reached out and Margaret handed her the washrag. Judith soaked it in hot tap water, wrung it out, and gave it back to her.
"Who was it?"
"Don't. He's not here anymore. No one ever knew. Not until tonight."
She couldn't keep it from herself, though. She couldn't keep from remembering because she was weak with whatever she was catching, and the drinks, and what she had said. It was so small a thing in the big picture, being upset with your husband. Then she saw good-looking John Boehler, at the club without his wife, and they got to flirting. She thought she shouldn't dance with him, but she did. She knew he shouldn't walk so close, but she let him. She was afraid something would happen, and she let his hand first brush her hip, then hold her fingers. When they got to her car he said, "What you need is a good anniversary kiss." He gave her a sweet, almost chaste kiss that went on and on and became something completely different. Before he let me up, I knew he was going to have me.
"So how long did it last?"
"Three... oh my goodness." Judith's eyebrows rose high. She whistled again. It was the exact whistle Anthony used. "I thought maybe you fell off the wagon for a weekend."
"No. I fell off big time." Margaret tried to laugh, but it came out as a whimper.
"I guess it was the real deal."
"It was so crazy. I know people say that, but it was."
Judith asked something else, but the past came back and pushed Judith aside. It made Margaret remember the first time, in John's minivan in the parking lot at the club. She remembered herself saying "No. We can't. Not here," and John answering, "Watch." It took a couple of minutes to lower the back seats. There was a plush sleeping bag. The windows were tinted. It wasn't until weeks after he broke it off that she realized he had prepared for her, or for someone.
"Are you all right? I mean physically?" Judith was still there.
"I don't feel very well."
Not Saturday night at the party, but six years earlier, Margaret had felt impelled, excited, scared, unspeakably high. John Boehler and she had French kissed, and he had squeezed her breasts through her dress. He'd unbuttoned the dress, pulled her bra up, and licked a nipple. I was out of my mind. He'd worked the dress down to her waist and up from her legs, petting her, kissing her, removing the bra entirely, pulling off her panties and fingering her like her senior-year boyfriend had. I felt guilty, but I wanted it. I knew I shouldn't but I wanted it too much. It was electrifying. Finally, he'd pulled his pants down and gotten on top of her, and when he'd pushed his erect penis inside her, the first new penis in twelve years, she had come, and kept on coming, one wave after another, until he was finished. My God. Why did you have to let it be so much more exciting than sex with Tony? Why couldn't it have been awful? I'm sorry, God. It's not your fault.
It was exactly like high school except that she came and she hadn't back then. Neither was even naked. Her dress was rumpled around her middle. His pants were down at his knees, but he hadn't bothered to pull off his shoes or remove his jacket. Floating outside the minivan was a thought of Anthony, and how she was fouling the nest and should get home. But, inside, Margaret felt the pressure of John's penis, the dampness between her legs, aftershocks from her vulva — and the weight of a man who wanted her, who planted intimate little kisses on her, and who bathed her in hot breaths.
At home it was different. Anthony was absolutely apologetic, as hang-dog as a man can be. He'd gotten her a nice card, and flowers, and an expensive bracelet. He promised to make the evening up to her. But. But, but, but. He was too late for all that. He had failed her. And there was still the humming up and down her slit, put there by another man, and the memory of the rush. And — Oh my God! - her thighs were damp. She could smell the sex. She hurried into the bathroom to cleanse herself and became so horrified that she almost confessed everything to Anthony that very night. But — the final but — she had lain awake until 3:30 a.m., playing back the details of John Boehler pumping her. When he had called her the next day, she'd dithered and hedged and finally agreed to go to his house. I'll explain to him why I can never do that again.
By the end of the day it got a lot easier.
Six years into the future, Margaret couldn't stop her memories and couldn't shield herself from the understanding that her actions had finally struck her husband, her marriage, her family, everything. Why did it have to happen? It almost didn't seem like me, but it was me all right. I thought about you all the time. I obsessed about your body, about your penis. All day I thought about doing it with you, wondering how you'd use it on me next. After I'd been with you in the afternoon, I'd think about it that night. I'd be out of sorts until I could be with you again.
More knocking. A quiet double-knock.
"That will be Tony. I'll leave you two alone."
"No! Don't leave me with him."
But Anthony wouldn't have it. "We need a little privacy, Judy."
Anthony closed the door and Margaret rose and stepped back against the tub, far enough that she pushed the shower curtain with her body. Her feet were now cold, all the way up her calves. Somehow the curtain felt prickly and bad where it touched her skin. She didn't have any strength. The shivering was worse. It wracked her in surges. It was time to sit again, wasn't it, or lie down? She couldn't keep standing like this. Would Anthony understand if she couldn't stand? She couldn't look him in the face anymore, not even to plead with him, certainly not to ask if it was all right to sit. Here is where retribution began. She was almost rocking as she tried to stand still. She held her hands together in front of her, as though in prayer, and Anthony... well, Anthony took a breath and asked:
"Are you all right, honey?"
His voice was soft again. His Anthony voice. It wasn't right. He would use the voice that cut through her. He would demand an explanation, or he'd tell her he was through with her, or he'd slap her. She half-hoped he'd hit her but at least let her go home with him. Whatever you did to me, I'd deserve it. She tried not to start crying again. That won't fix anything.
"I'm so sorry, Tony."
"Oh, that's all right. I was being an asshole. I deserved it."
"That's not it, darling. You know it's not. I never meant for you to find out." Tiny black dots, a mist, began to appear in the air.
"About the affair? Well, that was a long time ago. I think John Boehler is out of the picture. At least I hope he is."
Anthony smiled and, once again, Margaret didn't understand. She tried to think, but instead she felt something terrible happening inside her. The room grew darker, and she sensed a rushing, and the next thing she knew she was sitting on the edge of the tub and Anthony was kneeling in front of her, holding her so she wouldn't fall into it. He was apologizing. "I'm sorry, honey. Lean on me. That's good. Put your head down. Okay. Okay. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have shocked you like that."
He sounded far away.