Six months into their affair, Ryan had taken Emily on a weekend trip out of town. The night they arrived had all the makings of a torrid, illicit event. The city was remote and unfamiliar, but the possibility of discovery loomed over Ryan more heavily as the only married person in the arrangement. His fear impacted them both. Stuck in the hotel room, they had sex throughout the evening and well into the night until they had mentally and physically exhausted the novelty of having such a length of time together.
By the next day with the morning light streaming through the sheer layer of curtains, the affair felt less like an affair. It felt more natural and maybe even wholesome. They now laid in the bed together. On the television was Pulp Fiction. Bruce Willis had just shot John Travolta and his body flew out of the room. The film had been edited for network airplay and cut away at the moment of the bullet’s impact.
“Have you ever seen someone die?” Emily said. It was a completely unromantic question, but one Emily was thankful she could ask because to her it meant that she was able to be fully unguarded with Ryan. She had passed the point of needing to work tirelessly to impress him.
“No, thankfully,” Ryan said. “Have you?”
“I was with my mother when she died,” Emily said, turning her body so that she was facing him. “When I called my brother to let him know that he should come say goodbye, he asked if she was faking. It was bizarre. So needless to say, I was alone with her and holding her hand.”
Ryan lightly stroked Emily’s arm with his fingertips. Emily did not know if Ryan was uncomfortable and if in turn, she should stop. Emily did know that she wanted to be vulnerable with him. She wanted to go deeper. She also liked the attention in so far as it was a sign of him listening — really listening — to her.
“For about a year after that I was really not okay. But being there when she passed was important to me. She was terrified of death and I couldn’t imagine her dying alone. It was the worst thing I have ever been through, but being there with her at the exact moment was in a weird way the greatest honor of my life.”
“That makes a lot of sense actually,” Ryan said.
“For me the greatest moment of my life was watching the birth of my son. I can imagine the reverse would be true.”
Emily felt her heart cleave, like a small palpitation. All of the things Emily loved about Ryan she had loved since the beginning of their friendship. Ryan was kind and loving. He was funny, but never annoying with his humor. He had an infectious laugh and a genuine enthusiasm for life. But the two qualities Emily had found most attractive in Ryan early in their friendship she could not rectify in her mind as his lover: he was a dedicated father and seemed like a wonderful husband. The reminder of these two qualities made her anxious. She scanned Ryan’s face for some recognition of the impact of his words, but she found none.
Now it was time to move on from the conversation. Emily flipped through the channels and stopped on HGTV. It was one of the house flipping shows she loved. It was not the usual show about happy families inhabiting a space, but rather about the possibilities a house offers for a yet to be realized person.
Ryan had moved to the edge of the bed so that he could reach the hotel room telephone. He made a call to order room service for them both. Ryan did not have controlling qualities, but rather he knew her so well. Emily liked that he could order for her without consultation and with full confidence. She also wished that sometimes he was more assertive, although she did not like to admit this to herself, least of all to Ryan.
Ryan moved back across the bed, closer to Emily. Once situated, he scrolled through his phone, looking at March Madness predictions.
“Do you think it was the most important moment of her life?” Emily asked. This question had slipped out so carelessly and now it lay there in the air, inhabiting what felt like a massive space between them. It was possible that in that moment she could have made a cute joke, changed the subject entirely and turned everything around. One time she called the college basketball bracket the “chart/spreadsheet” thing. She received endless, fun-spirited teasing from Ryan for months afterward. Instead, she had taken the hard turn towards derailment.
“What?” Ryan asked as he continued to scroll through his phone.
“Do you think the birth of your son was the most important moment of her life?” This is what digging in looks like. Emily was in a hole and going down deeper. Emily could not call Ryan’s wife by her name aloud, but she could think it. Rachel. Was it the most important moment of Rachel’s life? It was too hard for Emily to say her name and it was not needed anyway. He understood.
“Weird question.” he said in a way that Emily took to be a gentle warning. She assumed he meant something like, I don’t like that.
“I mean, she had two other children with another man before that,” Emily said. “Was the third one as special?”
The cruelty of the statement was not lost on Emily. Her jealousy of Rachel had manifested into this ugliness, and it flowed out of her in a way that felt uncontrollable.
“I am going to take a quick shower,” Ryan said, choosing avoidance over confrontation. He exhaled deeply and grunted as he got out of bed. Ryan had a pleasant enough face, but he was short — shorter than the already short 5’4 Emily — and round in the belly. His personality had given him bonus points in the early days, but now Emily didn’t see the physical flaws — she simply found him lovely and desirable.
As Emily listened to the muted sound of the shower water running, she thought about apologizing when he returned. She did not know how to do so. I’m sorry — I’m crazy about you and I’m just incredibly jealous. But she did not want to be that sort of person. Admitting her insecurities also meant by extension that this relationship in its current state was not enough for her. She feared he would see that. She could not handle an ungentle response from him. She could not face the possibility of him saying anything that would make the relationship feel less solid, even if the solidity of the relationship was a fantasy they had both constructed. She also worried that she had ruined the relationship entirely in one bad moment. Emily was worried that her comments had snapped him back to reality and that he would come out of the bathroom suddenly feeling like this all needed to stop. She really did not want this to stop.
There was a knock at the door. Room service — she had forgotten about it. Emily let the man into the room and he placed the tray on directly on the bed.
“Is it okay if I sign for him?”
“Not a problem,” said the hotel staffer as she signed the receipt, leaving a tip amount that Ryan would approve of. “Have a great day, Mrs. Leavitt.”
Ryan returned to the room, having put on a change of clothing in the bathroom. Emily took this to be a sign of a further distance forming between them — a slap in the face of the intimacy they had shared.
On the bed, with the tray placed between their legs, Ryan turned the television volume up. They ate identical meals of french toast and bacon and watched television in silence for several minutes.
“Are you doing the chart/spreadsheet thing this year?” Emily asked.
“You mean the bracket?” Ryan said and laughed. “You’re the worst,” he shook his head and smiled.
“We should get out of this room today.”
“I agree.” he said and leaned over and kissed her forehead.
Emily’s mantra then became: It will all stay the same. Today will be okay. Tomorrow will be okay. Everything will be okay. Like nothing ever happened.
Kelly Schoenegge has an MFA from Butler University, where she served as the Fiction Editor for Booth. She is a staff fiction reader for Ploughshares. Her work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions. She served as a Kenyon Review Peter Taylor Fellow from 2020-2022. Kelly is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and has served as a judge for the NBCC’s Leonard Prize. She is currently working on a novel. Kelly lives in Indianapolis with her wife.