She woke from her sleep with her heart pounding in her chest and her eyes darting wildly around the room. She could still hear his voice in her head.
“I’ll never take you back!” he hissed down the phone, “I’ll never take you back!“.
And then silence.
This was the last time they would speak.
A FEW WEEKS EARLIER
“Were we once?”
She let her eyes take in the words as she felt a tremble down her spine and she felt her heart skip a beat.
It had been seventeen years.
She was a grown woman, married with two children.
She was running a successful business, living in a beautiful home, and to the outside world she had the perfect life.
Not knowing what the message itself contained, she slowly pointed her mouse on the words, clicked, and held her breath.
Are you currently married? I am trying to remember your maiden name.
Do you by any chance remember me?
A YEAR EARLIER
Sometimes in the depth of one’s despair a knight in shining armour comes along, sweeps us up off the dusty earth, and carries us away from the life we were desperate to leave behind. Over a period of time, grateful for being rescued and unsure of the place to which this all might lead, a person may become shrouded with feelings of guilt in return for the kindness that was shown, the reasons for which will be explained shortly.
Loneliness and lovelessness is a terrible place to be. Claudia and Gareth had been married for twelve rather platonic years. He never ceased reminding her of how he had been there for her all those years ago and that if it was not for him and his family, she would have never amounted to much. Claudia truly believed that he was right, and always acknowledged the debt that she owed him, even though she did not know how she was going to ever repay him. As the years melted away, she struggled to love him. She wondered sometimes whether she had ever really been in love with him, or whether the love that existed between them was more obligatory from her side. Love on extended credit terms. As if he’d been a love loan shark of sorts.
He was depressed and took a sadistic pleasure in bringing her bright soul down with him. His scathing tongue and judgemental nature often left her reeling. Her soul shrank as he demeaned her and criticised her in front of his family and her friends. How could a man who professed to love her so much speak to her as if she meant nothing to him? She would watch movies where two people would connect on such a deep level that they were virtually inseparable. She watched sadly as couples would hug each other and kiss each other, not out of any form of marital obligation but from a place of absolute love. Sadly, Claudia realised, what she had with Gareth was not love, and yet she longed to experience this with every fibre of her being.
EIGHTEEN MONTHS EARLIER
The human spirit is a funny thing. When is feels undernourished it eventually tires of the depravity and goes off in search of sustenance. Sometimes it is actively sought out; other times it invites itself in unannounced.
A deep friendship had formed between the two women, both of whom were unconsciously seeking a way out of the mundaneness of their loveless marriages. It began with their two young children who had formed a bond at school, culminating in numerous social invitations which often continued late into the evenings.
Their time spent together was often one of each woman unburdening her soul, each seeking a deeper meaning in their stories. Denise had been repeatedly molested by her stepfather as a young girl, and he was serving time in prison for murdering her mother in cold blood. He had walked in on her and a lover briefly after their separation and in a blinding rage had returned to his car to retrieve his pistol, and turned it on both of them. Denise’s mother was wrenched from her life and she was left to put the shattered pieces of her life back together.
The deep friendship soon became more than that. The two women felt as if their souls were intertwined and each began feeling things towards the other that went far beyond the boundaries of friendship.
It was New Year’s Eve. Denise, her husband and their children were spending the night with Claudia and Gareth as they rang in the New Year at their holiday home. The revelry continued late into the night as the house party became a street party and copious amounts of intoxicating liquids were consumed. Gareth had left the party and was spying on a set of neighbours who were performing carnal acts behind semi-closed curtains. Denise and Claudia had, with their arms around each other’s waists, teetered up the street, holding each other up, giggling uncontrollably. Denise’s husband had passed out in one of the outside chairs and they quietly crept past him.
Closing the door, they both fell on to the bed in the master suite, whispering and reminiscing about the evening’s events. The chatter soon quietened and the two women found themselves locked in each other’s embrace. They stared into each other’s eyes, both knowing that they were on the brink of crossing into forbidden territory, while the fuzziness of inebriation removed the usual boundaries of inhibition.
Breathing quickened and hands snaked around the other’s body, each craving the contact of the other ones skin. Lips parted and touched and soon the two women were completely lost in each other, each feeling the relief of the longing that they had both kept at arm’s length from each other for what seemed like an excruciating amount of time.
Suddenly the bedroom door swung open and glaring at the two women from the shadows stood Gareth, his eyes wild with hurt and anger. “I knew it,” he seethed, “I knew that there was something going on between the two of you!” The words shot through Claudia’s heart and suddenly a deep sense of sobriety came over her. Denise hurriedly straightened her clothes and stumbled off the bed, apologising as she pushed past Gareth in the doorway.
“It’s not what you think Gareth,” Claudia pleaded, suddenly realising what is must have looked like through her husband’s eyes, and feeling secretly relieved that it had not gone any further than it did. With mascara streaked across her cheekbones and tears running uncontrollably down her face, wishing the world would swallow her up, Gareth yelled at her to leave the room. Claudia stood in the passageway, feeling the floors and the walls vibrate as he slammed the bedroom door behind her, and it was then that she knew that her life had changed its course and that when the sun rose friendships would need to be reassessed and a marriage would need to be rebuilt.
Yet when the sun’s golden fingers reached through the gaps in the curtains and played with the curls of hair that fell across her face, Claudia awoke, not with a gripping sense of fear in her heart, but rather a sense of peace. Peace at having opened her soul up to another human being, someone who loved her unconditionally; someone who “got” her; someone who made her feel that she was worthy and not some dismal failure with an almost suffocating debt that hung over her head like a sword.
She got up off the sofa and slowly tiptoed towards the bedroom where Denise and her husband were still fast asleep, Denise’s husband oblivious to what had happened within metres of where he had been sleeping the previous evening. She looked down at her friend, wondering how she would feel when she awoke and how they would plan their way forward, each knowing that so much had been said and yet so much had been left unsaid while an even deeper connection had been forged between the two women.
Claudia then walked over to the master bedroom, the door still shut. She grasped the cold metal handle and turned it. It clicked but the door was locked. She suddenly felt the fear welling up from her stomach and wrapping its icy fingers around her throat. She felt as if she was a prisoner, a trespasser of sorts, even though she was on the other side of the cell. Breathing in slowly through her teeth and feeling the skin on her neck prickle with dread and trepidation, she made a fist and quietly knocked on the door.
“Gareth,” she whispered, “Gareth, are you awake? Please open the door.” First there was silence but then she heard movement behind the door, and then the key turning in the lock. The door slowly opened and Gareth stood there, staring at her with a look of disappointment and disbelief in his eyes. “I don’t know what you want me to say to you,” he said quietly under his breath, “I don’t know what to say.” Claudia felt the tears welling up in her eyes as she realised the enormity of what he had witnessed the night before. “Can I come in? Can we just talk this through? I need you to hear me out,” she whispered, worried about waking Denise and her husband in the room next door.
Gareth stepped back and let Claudia walk past him, where she sat down on the edge of the bed, her face cupped in her hands. “We were drunk,” she said as he stood against the closed door looking down at her, “I don’t even know how it happened, it just all happened so fast, I thought we were going to lie down and pass out after everything we’d had to drink. I didn’t know where you were. I wasn’t even thinking about you because I knew you’d probably gone and joined another party.”
“What the hell were you thinking?” he whispered loudly, “We’re married, we have two children; are you ready to just throw everything away. For her? What about us?”
Claudia sat staring blankly at the floor, her body completely numb, thoughts rushing through her head but being unable to hold on to even just one of them. “Gareth, there’s no love left between us,” she whispered, her voice trembling, “Even though I am still coming to terms with what happened last night, I know that none of this would have happened if we’d just worked through our stuff when we had the chance. I love you, but I’m no longer in love with you. You can’t give me the love that I need, but I’ve found that love in Denise. I love her so much, so much that my heart aches. And yet I have such a deep sense of responsibility towards you and the boys. I can’t let my marriage go, but I can’t let her go either. I just need some time to work things out. I know I’ve hurt you and I know it’s going to take time for you to forgive me, but I feel as if we’ve reached a turning point in our marriage and we’ve got to figure out how we can fix this. If we can even begin to fix this.”
Gareth slumped against the wall and sighed, “Okay,” he said, “I really love you and I don’t want to lose you, but I am confused and I don’t know how to make room for a third person in our relationship. Does Denise feel the same? What about her kids and her marriage?”
“I don’t know,” Claudia said, wiping the tears away from her eyes, “Everything just seems so complicated. We haven’t spoken since last night, so I don’t even know what she’s thinking or feeling or whether she even remembers what happened.”
Gareth straightened his body against the wall and opened the bedroom door. “Look, I really don’t know what to do right now. Let’s just try and get through the day. We can try and work this out once they’re gone. I’m going to make coffee.” He turned and left the room and Claudia lifted her head and stared at herself in the dressing table mirror. Twenty four hours ago and everything had been so different.
“Morning!” she heard Denise’s voice calling through the doorway, “You sleep well my friend?” Claudia looked up at Denise and smiled. “Yeah, and you?” Denise laughed and went on to explain in great detail that their bed had been attacked by an army of ants and that she thought they had carried her out of the bed during the night. “How are you feeling after last night?” Claudia asked, desperately trying to figure out whether last night had even happened in her friend’s eyes, “Oh, a bit of a headache but I’ll be okay,” she smiled and added, “Where’s Gareth?”
“Making coffee,” said Claudia, “He’s in a bit of a bad space this morning, so just be careful when you go through, okay?”. Denise’s eyes widened and then she smiled, “Don’t worry, I’ll go and talk to him, everything will be alright.”
Claudia suddenly felt empty. How was it possible that something that had meant everything to her had meant so little to Denise? She was practically skirting around the subject as if nothing had happened. Confused and sad, she got up and took a long shower, letting the water wash away her hopes and fantasies and dreams of happiness. She felt like a complete idiot.
Sometimes the Universe plays tricks on us. Mind games designed to make us reassess our perceived realities. Sometimes those tricks are unfair and taunting, like bullies on a playground, spinning around like a merry-go-round, chasing and teasing and cruelly laughing; and sometimes they are like rose tinted lenses, making things appear to be in a state of blissful perfection for a period of time, only to be shattered by a word, or a look, or a thought, or a deed.
In Claudia’s case, it was the sight of Denise’s car driving off down the road, windows open and children’s hands waving out the back windows. A feeling of emptiness crept into her soul like a thick cloud of fog over a dusty township on a winter’s morning.
Fortunately, life has a way of shaking us from time to time, bringing us back to reality. After a few days of stilted conversation, Claudia decided that she could no longer stand the gaping cavern that had opened up between her and Denise. She picked up the telephone and asked that they meet, sooner rather than later.
It was a wintery day, but they sat outside under the weak rays of winter sunlight. Finally Claudia could say everything she’d been holding on to. “Denise,” she started, biting her lower lip nervously, “How much of what happened on New Year’s Eve do you remember? I’m not talking about the party though; I’m talking about what happened between you and me when Gareth walked in on us.”
Denise sighed and crossed her arms. “Look Claudia,” she said uneasily, “I remember what happened. It’s a bit hazy, but I remember enough. I love you my friend, so much, but we’ve got to pretend this never happened. I can’t wreck the life I’ve worked so hard to build for my family just for the sake of my own selfish needs. God I would do anything for it to just be the two of us together. We understand each other. We’re soul mates. I’ve never connected with anyone like I’ve connected with you. But no, this chapter needs to be closed. It never happened okay?”
And so it was with those words that Claudia’s world shattered and tinkled to the floor in a million little pieces. She felt a gust of wind blowing around her feet and watched the pieces drift off into the sky, like tiny dandelions, and she knew in that moment that she had no choice but to bring her focus back to Gareth and find a way, any possible way, to dig deep into her heart and soul and reconnect with her husband. It was either that, or she was going to have to make her own way in the world, just her and the children. She had always said that she’d rather be alone and happy than in a relationship where she’d lost all sense of who she was and where she was going. And in truth, it was the latter rather than the former that rang true for her in that moment.