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Susan Hubbard

An Accident of Desire

The whole thing started at my wife's office.

I dropped by to say hello--I happened to be in the neighborhood--but as usual she was too busy to give me more than a nod. Okay, I didn't mind. I wouldn't like Sandra to visit my place of employment, if I had one.

I'd been laid off for six months. When I first stopped working, every day brought a little gift I hadn't expected: waking up at ten instead of seven, eating lunch for breakfast (and then again at noon, if I felt like it), being home when the mail came--I got to read the magazines before she did. I even said yes to a few new subscriptions. But the thrills were wearing thin, and my prospects didn't look bright.

My wife teaches French at the community college. That day I left her office and beetled across the quadrangle in the center of the campus. I'd made it halfway across the street that separates the campus from town, when something caught my eye.

I noticed a woman walking briskly in the opposite direction. She had a full head of raven-colored hair that stopped me short--it had to be Rosie Mantuso. I worked with Rosie for nearly five years back in Chicago. She was a peach: sense of humor, style, and these blazing brown eyes that could knock your socks off. Of course I wasn't married then.

"Rosie," I said. Then I shouted it: "Rosie!"

The woman must not have heard. She kept walking and I set off after her. I kept yelling her name every few seconds as I ran, until I got so winded that I shut up. Funny how fast you get out of shape.

"Rosie!" I managed to say it as I reached her, and she turned to give me a look.

Of course she wasn't Rosie Mantuso, no way. This woman had a face like a hatchet, and she cut me a stare so blunt I stopped cold. She walked away and I turned around, still trying to catch my breath. Okay, I've put on a few pounds since I got laid off, and I'll admit I'm not the man I once was. I looked around, watching everyone near me to see if they were laughing. But all I saw were students moving across the quad, hunched over from the weight of their knapsacks, their faces pale and pinched--the way they tend to be at the community college where my wife works.

I headed back across the quad and I almost reached the spot I'd been before, when I realized I wasn't alone--a young woman had fallen into step with me. At first I thought she was my wife--same height, same hair color--but then I saw her haircut, short like a boy's, and I noticed she was a little stocky. She had on brown-rimmed glasses, and she carried an armload of books. She looked up at me with a small smile, and of course we fell into conversation.

If she'd seen me just make a fool of myself, she didn't mention it. She said she was a first-year nursing student. I said I was self-employed.

We reached the edge of the quad. I paused before I crossed the street, to say good-bye to her, but she showed no sign of going anywhere. The expression on her face was docile and plain. She smiled without showing teeth.

She crossed the street with me and we kept walking. It was only four blocks to the apartment house. As we came up the front walk, I paused again, thinking now she'd take off. But darned if she didn't trot right along with me, into the foyer and up the stairs.

As I unlocked the door to our apartment, she stood beside me, waiting patiently. At that moment I thought I probably should have offered to carry her books, and I began to tell her so, but she interrupted. She said they weren't heavy.

Inside, this woman headed straight for my wife's favorite armchair. She stooped to put her books down on the floor--the book on top of the pile was called Basic Anatomy. She took off her coat and folded it over the arm of the chair. Then she sat, crossed her legs, and looked at me.

She wore jeans and a sweater and boots that fastened with Velcro. She seemed a no-nonsense kind of girl.

I didn't know what to say to her, but I figured I'd better offer her a drink. I fixed one for me, too, and sat down in my armchair across from hers. We chatted. To this day I don't remember a word we said. We made polite conversation. Small talk.

After a while she asked to use the toilet and I showed her where it was. When she went in there, it dawned on me: My wife would be home from work pretty soon, and I wasn't sure she'd take to finding a stranger in the house. I headed for the phone, to call and tell her. Then I realized she'd still be in class.

Class would be over in ten minutes, and then my wife would walk home.

What I did next made perfect sense to me at the time. I shouted through the bathroom door--told the woman I had an errand to run, I'd be back in a few minutes. She said okay, fine. Then I grabbed my jacket and bolted. I went out the door, down the stairs, across the street, back toward campus. I sprinted until I felt winded. Then I trotted. Every step I ran, I knew a little more about how much my wife wouldn't like being surprised by a strange female in the apartment. But I felt sure I could explain everything to her.

By the time I saw the building where my wife teaches, I could also see her: a little figure in a blue dress, coming out the doorway. With her were three other people--colleagues, students?--people I didn't know. As I got closer I saw they were all talking a mile a minute.

"Sandy," I said. I had to say it twice before she heard me.

"You're here again?" she said.

"I need to talk to you. It won't take long," I said, so she came over. Her friends waited and watched.

I told my story to my wife. I said a strange woman, a nursing student, had followed me home and was waiting back at our apartment. I told her I'd made a special trip to tell her--I'd wanted her to know so she wouldn't be surprised.

My wife took all this in without batting an eye. She looked at me hard. Then she turned on her heel. Over her shoulder she said, "You expect me to believe a fairy tale like that?"

I began to say something, but she interrupted me. "I should have expected something like this, once you subscribed to that pathetic magazine."

Which one? I wondered, but she took off with her friends. I followed, waiting for a chance to get a word in. They all jabbered in French. I only took Spanish in high school, and I never got the hang of it.

They crossed the street and headed down the block, talking, talking. I came along behind them. They stopped at a restaurant--this new place, a sidewalk café I'd only heard about from my wife. Chez Honoré,, it's called.

My wife claimed a table and the others sat down with her. I stood on the sidewalk outside the iron gate, waiting to be asked to join them, but also thinking about the woman back at the apartment. Finally my wife stopped talking long enough to look over at me. "Go back home to your floozy," she said, in a voice that carried right across the restaurant.

What could I do?

I turned and headed home. I didn't run this time. What was the point?

I walked home, wondering if anyone would be there, thinking maybe the whole thing was a dream--and this is no joke, it's happened before and seems to happen often now: I find myself standing in familiar places, but nothing going on seems familiar. Lights loom and blink out, sounds fade and blare, and there's a strong smell of ozone in the air. I get this metallic taste in my mouth and a hum in my head. I can't tell if any of it's real.

When I unlocked the door and came inside I saw the coat lying across the chair. I went down the hall to the bathroom, but the door stood open. The bathroom was empty. So was the kitchen. Finally, I opened the door to the bedroom. There she was, curled up under our comforter, asleep in our bed.

She didn't look any better asleep than she had when she was awake--unlike my wife. When Sandra's asleep, she takes on the look of an angel.

"Wake up," I said to this woman.

She didn't stir.

"Come on," I said. "Time to get up."

I reached for her shoulder under the covers, and then she stirred. I nearly fell on the floor--this woman had taken off her shirt.

She blinked and looked at me. "You have to go," I said to her, looking away, at the ceiling. "My wife will be home any second."

This wasn't strictly true--my wife was back at Chez Honoré, having a drink with her friends--but it might be true. My wife rarely has more than one drink.

The woman didn't open her mouth--she just lay there.

"Gonow," I said to her. She sighed and pulled back the comforter. Damned if she hadn't taken off everything.

"Get out of here!" I shouted at her. She stood up, pulling the comforter around her, and she moved slowly toward the living room.

I grabbed her coat and her books and gave her a little shove toward the door.

She moved slowly and steadily ahead, as if she were automated or maybe sleepwalking, and only when we were halfway down the stairs did I ask myself: Where are her clothes?

I pushed her shoulder to keep her moving. We were coming down the front steps of the building when my wife appeared. She marched down the street, alone, wearing a beret I'd never seen before.

"Quick, what's your name?" I said to the woman wrapped in our comforter. She said Mary or Marie, something that begins with an M. No--to be honest, it was Muriel.

When my wife came closer, I said, "Sandy, this is Muriel."

My wife said, "You are beyond belief." She swept past us without another word.

I turned to watch her go. I could hear each footstep as she climbed the stairs and I thought, This is it--this is the end of a chapter in my life.

But I was wrong, as I've come to know very well since. It wasn't the end of a chapter--it was the end of my life. And I saw it pass, climbing up the steps, disappearing through the door with my sweet, the love of my life, my wife.

What could I do? I turned and followed Muriel. Swaddled in down, she led me away, across the street, far from the apartment house, into places I never would call home, places I had only just begun to imagine.

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