I am not her. Not anymore. No matter how easy it is for me to pretend that I am.
But instead of saying any of that, I just say, “Sam is a good man.”
And Jesse leaves it there.
He turns off the water and I’m instantly cold. He hands me a towel and the moment I wrap it around myself, I realize how naked I feel.
We dry ourselves off, not speaking.
I’m suddenly so hungry that I feel ill. I throw some clothes on and head downstairs. I start brewing coffee and put bread in the toaster. Jesse comes down shortly after, in fresh clothes.
The mood has shifted. You can feel it in the air between us. Everything we’ve been pretending isn’t true is about to come tumbling out of us, in shouts and tears.
“I started making coffee,” I say. I try to make my voice sound light and carefree but it’s not working. I know it’s not working. I know that my inner turmoil isn’t so inner, that trying to cover it up is like brushing a thin coat of white paint over a red wall. It’s seeping out. It’s clear as day what I’m trying to hide.
“I’m starting to think you don’t want to be here,” Jesse says.
I look up at him. “It’s complicated,” I say.
Jesse nods, not in agreement with me but as if he’s heard this all before. “You know what? I gotta tell ya. I don’t think it’s that complicated.”
“Of course it is,” I say, sitting down on the sofa.
“Not really,” Jesse says, following suit, sitting down opposite me. His voice is growing less patient by the second. “You and I are married. We have been together, have loved each other, forever. We belong together.”
“No!” he says. “Why do I feel like I have to convince you to be with me? This isn’t . . . You should never have done what you did. How could you agree to marry this guy?”
“You’re my wife, Emma. We stood in front of a hundred people right down the road at that goddamn lighthouse and promised to love each other for the rest of our lives. I lost you once and I did everything I could to get back to you. Now I’m here, I’m back, and I’m in danger of losing you all over again? This is supposed to be the happy part. Now that we’re here together. This is all supposed to be the easy stuff.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“It should be! That’s what I’m saying. It should be that fucking simple!”
I am both stunned at the anger directed at me and surprised it took this long for it to surface.
“Yeah, well, it’s not, OK? Life doesn’t always work out the way you think it will. I learned that when you left on a plane three years ago and disappeared.”
“Because I survived a crash over the Pacific Ocean! I watched everyone else on that helicopter die. I lived on a tiny scrap of a goddamn rock, alone, trying to figure out a way to get back to you. Meanwhile, what did you do? Forget about me by August? Submit for a name change by Christmas?”
“Jesse, you know that’s not true.”
“You want to talk about the truth? The truth is you gave up on me.”
“You were gone!” My voice goes from zero to sixty in three seconds and I can feel that my emotions are bursting out of me like a horse kept too long behind a gate. “We thought you were dead!”
“I honestly thought,” Jesse says, “that you and I loved each other in a way that we could never, ever forget about each other.”
“I never forgot you! Never. I have always loved you. I still love you.”
“You got engaged to someone else!”
“When I thought that you were dead! If I had known you were alive, I would have waited every day for you.”
“Well, now you know I’m alive. And instead of coming back to me, you’re sitting on the fence. You’re here with me, crying about him in the shower.”
“I love you, Jesse, and even when I thought you were gone, I loved you. But I couldn’t spend my life loving a man who was no longer here. And I didn’t think that’s what you’d want for me, either.”
“You don’t know what I’d want,” he says.
“No!” I say. “I don’t. I barely know you anymore. And you barely know me. And I feel like you want to keep pretending that we do.”
“I know you!” he says. “Don’t tell me I don’t know you. You are the only person in my entire life that I have truly, truly known. That I know loved me. That I have understood and accepted for exactly who they are. I know everything there is to know about you.”
I shake my head. “No, Jesse, you know everything about the person I was up until the day you left. But you don’t know me now. Nor do you seem to have any interest in seeing me for who I am today, or for sharing with me who you are today.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m different, Jesse. I was in my twenties when you left. I’m thirty-one now. I don’t care about Los Angeles and writing travel pieces anymore. I care about my family. I care about my bookstore. I’m not the same as I was when you left. The loss of you changed me. I changed.”
“I mean, fine. You changed because I was gone, I get that. You got scared, you were grieving, so you came back to Acton because it felt safe and you took over your parents’ store because it was easy. But you don’t have to do any of that anymore. I’m back. We can go home to California. We can finally go to Puglia. I bet you can even sell some pieces to a few magazines next year. You don’t have to have this life anymore.”
But I’m already shaking my head and trying to tell him no before he’s even finished. “You are not understanding me,” I say. “Maybe at first I came home to retreat from the world, and sure, initially, I took the job at the store because it was available. But I love my life now, Jesse. I choose to live in Massachusetts. I choose to run my store. I want this for myself.”
I look at Jesse’s face as he searches mine. I try a different tactic, a different way of explaining to him.
“When I’m in a sad mood, do you know what I do to cheer myself up?”
“You eat french fries and have a Diet Coke,” Jesse says, just as I say, “I practice the piano.”
The difference in our answers startles him. His body deflates slightly, pulling away from me. I can see, as it quickly wipes across his face, that it’s hard for him to reconcile my answer with who he believes that I am.
I imagine, for a moment, that the next words out of his mouth might be, “You play the piano?”
And I’d say yes and I’d explain how I got started and that I only know a few songs and that I’m not that good, but that it relaxes me when I’m feeling stressed. I’d tell him how Homer is normally asleep under it when I want to play, so I have to pick him up and put him on the bench beside me, but that it’s so nice to sit there next to my cat and play “Für Elise.” Especially when I pretend “Für Elise” is about his fur.
It would mean so much if Jesse wanted to fall in love with who I am today. If he opened up and let me fall in love with the truth about who he is now.
But none of that happens.
Jesse just says, “So you play piano. What does that prove?”
And when he says it, I know that the gap between us is even larger than I thought.
“That we are different people now. We grew apart. Jesse, I don’t know anything about what your life has been like for the past three and a half years and you won’t talk about it. But you are different. You can’t go through what you went through and not be different.”
“I don’t need to talk about what happened to me to prove to you that I still love you, that I’m still the person you’ve always loved.”
“That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that I think you’re trying to pretend that we can just pick up where we left off. I was, too. But that’s not possible. Life doesn’t work that way. What I’ve been through in my life affects the person that I am today. And that’s true for you, too. Whatever you went through out there. You can’t keep it bottled inside.”