Thursday, July 24, 2008

Love's End

Ellie had once loved Richard for many reasons, but as their marriage finally came to its long-deferred end, none of those reasons seemed real anymore. She hadn't forgotten them; she could vividly recall, if only in fact of thought and devoid of associated feeling, the joy at seeing him enter a room once upon a time, or hearing his voice at the other end of a phone line. A memory of him--lying on their bed on a Saturday morning before they were wed, with the sun streaming in through the window and falling across his golden skin, lighting up the hairs on his forearm like tiny little flames--was still there, still easily accessible. She still found him beautiful, as he had always been, but his beauty was distant now, something only to be admired, but not loved. The reasons she loved him had slipped away from her, and had she tried to reach for them, her fingertips would have found nothing but a gossamer mist merely hinting at something long having lost its substance.

They lived like two ghosts in the same flat, even as the paperwork became final. It was a lovely flat, which neither of them wanted to leave, but neither could afford on their own. So Richard moved into the guest room, and they went about their separate lives, often going days without speaking, then sharing a dinner together, as if it were a perfectly natural thing to do.

Somewhere between love's beginning and love's end, Ellie began to consider that she had been so ready to love him, so eager and dedicated, that perhaps she had failed to notice that he had really never loved her at all. The thought weighed on her; she wondered, fleetingly but often, if she had been a fool. Had there been a time when he cared for her in equal measure, or had her own fervent devotion served as pale substitute for the mutual adoration in which she'd believed?

No matter now. She'd already fallen in love with someone else. Richard knew they were friends, his former wife and this man who lived some distance away, who took up Ellie's time with long and intimate phone calls. Sometimes he listened, from another room, to their conversations, felt his gut swell with envy as they traveled winding paths from subject to subject, books and film and music which he'd never read, or seen, or heard. Not that Ellie hadn't tried; still, petulantly, he'd regard her laughter, floating in from her bedroom, as a deliberate insult, and wonder why she hadn't been so keen to speak to him about these things--until a more reasonable part of him forced itself forward, reminding him that she had, and he had turned her away.

* * *

Ellie decided to tell Richard that she was in love this other man. It was a practical concern, in part; they would need to sell the flat. But it was also just something that Richard needed to know. She told him, hesitantly but candidly. He feigned happiness for her, even as his insides churned with jealousy. It wasn't that he wanted her, he told himself, but that he wanted what she had.

He wasn't sure it was true, but then again, Richard wasn't completely certain that he had ever cared for her in equal measure, either.

* * *

The week came when they were to leave the flat. Ellie's new partner, John, came to the home they were abandoning to a younger couple, and Richard met him, even though he didn't have to; he could have found countless excuses to be gone for the evening, any one of which Ellie would have gladly accepted. But his curiosity outweighed his impetus for self-protection, and any sense of propriety.

The three of them spoke, haltingly, inelegantly, over a bottle of wine, and Richard couldn't avoid the realization that the awkwardness was his responsibility. He was, at turns, too jovial, then too solemn. He persistently expected to catch Ellie and John shooting each other exasperated or pitying looks, but they did not, and he found himself having to resist an unreasonable agitation at their failure to indulge his suspicions.

Ellie and John were, unbeknownst to either, both proud of the other for deftly handling the uneasiness Richard wore on his sleeve. Secretly, quietly, admiring each other, they failed to notice much of his discomfited emotional fidgeting, which, in the end, made navigating it that much easier.

In spite of the simmering tumult, Richard liked John. He watched, more obviously than he should have, John and Ellie interacting, his hand on the small of her back, leaning in to listen to her with an intent expression of interest Richard couldn't recall having ever offered. They were, together, precisely as his eavesdropping had led him to expect they would be.

* * *

When John left that evening, Richard approached Ellie with an uncharacteristic candidness. He told her that John was a good man, that John would be able to love her in a way that he never could.

Ellie gave him a half-smile, and nodded. And with that, they were both free.

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