Friday Flash Fiction – Uncaged
“How long have you been in love with him?”
She recoils, jerking back in her chair as if he has hit her hard across the face. She wants to laugh, partly out of shock, partly out of the absurdity of the whole thing, but registers the look on his face and remains silent.
He isn’t angry, instead his face is strangely blank, his eyes wide and laser-focused on her. She notices his lips quiver slightly and understands that he is trying hard to keep them tight, to stay in control. Eventually, when it is clear she isn’t going to reply he speaks again.
“A few weeks? Months?” Caleb’s voice catches at the edges. “Longer?”
The question spools before them. Would he believe that she had never really examined it? That she never allowed herself to? It was something dangerous, a caged animal that she couldn’t acknowledge, let alone move towards. She knew that if she even placed a hand on the bars it would devour her whole, and then she would be trapped too.
So she had pretended it wasn’t there. Chalked it up to something girlish and fickle, just a fleeting crush on an old friend. And then, later, told herself it was simply admiration and respect for the clever, charming man he had become. And when it wouldn’t go away, when it became intolerable to even be in the same room as William, she refused to admit that anything was wrong at all, throwing herself into Caleb as if she couldn’t hear the animal howling and thrashing in the cage.
Across from her, Caleb’s hands are fists, his nails white half-moons against his palms. She watches him clench and unclench them for a moment before answering, wishing, perversely that one would actually strike her. She needs the pain to be direct and visceral, wants to see him snarl at her, to attack so that she has a reason to fight back. Anything is better than this, than the twisting guilt that lies in his composure.
“Caleb,” she says, addressing the table. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
And she was. For him of course but also, shamefully, for herself too.
“How long?” Caleb repeats steadily, and then adds in a whisper, “Was it when -? Was it because of her?”
“Because of Anne?” She says sharply, still unable to acknowledge that name without venom boiling up inside her.
She had tried to repeat it after the incident, almost casually, as if the name would lose its power if she said it enough times. It never did. It still carries the image of the glossy young woman in her bed, wrapped monstrously around her husband, his eyes half-closed in familiar pleasure.
Caleb nods, wincing slightly, and she sighs, scooping her hair up into a bun and then letting it fall back to her shoulders.
“No,” she says. “I mean, maybe. I honestly don’t know. I wish I did.”
He unclenches his fists. “I know it’s been difficult, but I thought we were on the right track. I never imagined you could -” And then he stops himself. She knows this is because all routes of conversation will come back to the fact that he took the first shot, that it was him who first began to chip away at the shiny, once unshakeable veneer that protected their marriage.
It is also true that it was during those weeks after the incident when she allowed herself to briefly examine her friendship with William, although she will not tell Caleb this. It was William’s constant, reassuring presence during that awful time that gave her the courage to move forward, that helped her to stop defining herself as the wife who had been cheated on, and instead as a woman who had choices. The fact that William encouraged her to give Caleb another chance, to at least see if they could salvage what they had, made her idolise him even more.
At least I never acted upon it, she thinks bitterly, at least I have a bit of restraint. But then that isn’t fair, because she knows if she were to give him the choice, Caleb would far prefer for it to all be about sex. If Caleb had been in love with Anne, and her stomach tightens with the idea, she knows it would have been very different. Sex is just weakness; love is unforgivable.
“I’ve tried,” she says, looking at him then, hearing the cage creak open.
That face. She doubts she will ever know another’s as well as she does Caleb’s. He is so handsome, almost comically so, although his knowledge of this lessens the effect somewhat. She can chart every wrinkle and every line on that face, could describe in detail the tiny pin prick of a scar above his eyebrow or the order in which his face brightens as he smiles.
And yet, his eyes are not the ones she fell in love with. She can’t pretend she doesn’t see the guilt that is always there beneath their warm brown surface. She has tried, that part is true, and as much as he reassures her, as much as he makes countless promises that it will never happen again, she knows that she will never be enough.
He begins to cry and then she is somehow throwing her arms around him, burrowing her face into the side of his neck and trying to soothe them both. They apologise again and again, for the big things, for the months of sleeping with other women, for falling in love with another man; and for the small ones too, for all the times they let silly arguments spoil their evenings, for all the things they said and didn’t say when they had the chance.
At the end of the night they are lying next to each other, their faces still puffy and bloated with tears, their throats sore from the hours they have attempted to shuffle the pieces into an order that fits. She places her hand on Caleb’s chest and he pulls her a little closer.
“I do love you,” she says softly.
The animal steps out into the darkness and begins to sniff the air hungrily. It’s then that she hears the other unspoken part of her sentence.
Just not as much as him.