His and Hers by Cynthia Cendagorta
May 1996 The bathtub had just been cleaned. That’s the part she emphasized as she told the story, though I wasn’t sure why. She said, “I was standing there, arguing back at him, and then next thing I know I sort of fell over the bathtub.” I guessed she didn’t want to be overly dramatic. That’s the kind of person she was. “What did he do then?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine the two of them having room for that kind of violence in their small bathroom, the one upstairs with grey blue hand towels. “He sort of stood there,” she said. “Has he ever been violent with you?” I asked, pulling on the phone cord, those long, spiral ones that you have to un-kink and tug with you. I was sitting on the floor in my apartment in Pullman, Washington, where I was in graduate school at the university there, and she was some twenty miles out in a more rural area of Idaho where many of the professors and their wives lived in older, custom homes. She answered, “It was more of an awkward scuffle that ended badly. And I’m not sure he meant to do it, really. And no, never.” I wonder if she is apologizing for him when she shouldn’t, like women sometimes do, but I want him to be innocent too, so I accept it. Later, I will feel bad about this, but I didn’t then. “You are going to leave him, right?” “It’s complicated,” she said. “We have the children, we have the house, we have 20 years into this thing.” I nodded my head to the phone. It is complicated, I agreed. They had the children, they had the house, they had 20 years into this thing, and they also had me sleeping with him three times a week for six months, which threw a wrench into things. She didn’t need to hear that right then, though. She needed me to listen, and I wanted to listen, be there for her. I always liked her, Molly. I liked her a lot. *** December 1995 It was a beautiful night, the first time Warner and I were together, about six months before Molly told me about the bathtub. The snow glistened in silver lint drifts outside the window of the Warner house. Inside it was warm and bright, the tang of the cut tomatoes and the hint of basil in the air and the easy chatter of guests that filled the house. The Warners were what I imagined the Fitzgeralds to be during the Tender is the Night years. They were charismatic and lovely, even when they had too much to drink. Of course, I know the Fitzgeralds got wasted and made fools of themselves, but that’s not the part I like to remember about them. That’s not what I like to remember about the Warners, either. The Warners were more educated than Scott and Zelda and less glamorous, or at least he was. She was naturally beautiful and wore shimmering blouses over sleek jeans, and long earrings that sparkled on her earlobes, setting off her long dark hair. She didn’t finish her degree because she left university early to marry him. He was sandy blond with light eyes and an all-American smile. They were catalogue perfect together in their mid-forties. He had his doctorate in political science, lots of publications in prestigious journals, and had won the Truman Prize. He had been my mentor and graduate advisor for the last year, and I admired him greatly. He was god like Dr. Warner to me, in his element when he lectured on political philosophy, and he had my attention. Then he became Just Warner. He became Just Warner in the elevator one day when he told a joke then looked at me in a way I couldn’t warn you about in advance, if it happened to you, but you’d know. I knew. I started calling him Warner that day when I talked about him to friends, a form of casual intimacy that said what I couldn’t say out loud about what had changed between us. That’s how I ended up at Warner and Molly’s house over Christmas break, hanging out with other professors and their wives. Everyone at the party was well read and talked about politics and the economy and liked to be anywhere Molly was. Warner’s wife, Mrs. Warner, Molly, was everyone’s friend. We all swirled around her like minor planets. She was thoughtful, bringing a refill before I knew I needed one, introducing me as her friend, not his student, to all the profs at the party. She was generous that way. The snow was still coming hard at eleven o’clock that night and I had to drive back to my apartment in Pullman or I would be driving on icy roads on the way home. I told Molly I had to leave. “You will stay here tonight,” she said. “No if’s ands or but’s. I’ll make you a bed in the guest room.” She made up the guest bed after tucking in their two children, ages seven and nine, who had been up late with the party. Watching her read to the kids and bustle around was the most beautiful part of the night. She invited me to listen in while she read Good Night Moon and Peter Rabbit, sang a lullaby and turned off the lights, leaving only nightlight glow. The kids’ room smelled like youth and the best fabric softener in the world, and I would try to find that brand for years, sniffing boxes in every supermarket I went to, never finding the exact one. I think I fell in love with her and the house and the kids and the fabric softener at the same time I fell in love with him. I decided I had to get out of there while I still could and grabbed my car keys and trudged out into the snow around midnight. I had been drinking and shouldn’t have driven, but I went anyway. A few miles from the Warner house a rabbit darted across the road and I swerved to avoid it. The car fishtailed, and I did a 180 degree turn and slid off the road, slamming into a snow bank with part of the car in a ditch. Snow crashed down over my windshield and covered it entirely. I was pitched sideways with my body against the driver’s side door, zero visibility making the space seem smaller, more claustrophobic. I took big, gulping breaths and tried to think. I told myself not to panic, that in these situations a clear head meant the difference between freezing to death and making it out to tell the story. I crawled across the center console and used all my weight to open the passenger door. After a few tries the door opened and I made it out on the road to survey the damage. My car was almost invisible in the snow, which kept coming, persistent and powdery, in fat frozen flakes. I walked a mile or so down the road back toward the Warner’s, hands stuffed deep in my pockets, head down, until I saw the light of a farmhouse set off the road. I was cold and unprepared and paying the price as I trudged down what might have been a driveway in the moonlight, snow up to my knees. A man opened the door, and I asked to use his phone. He let me in, and I called Warner, sobbing, and told him what happened. Warner laughed softly into the phone and said, “It’s ok, Cyn, I’m coming to get you. I’ll tow you out, and you will come home with me. You’re fine.” Every confident, ever capable, Warner. I was so relieved when I saw Warner’s truck headlights coming towards me. He was strong and at quick, hooking my car up to his hitch, pulling me out of the ditch. He put his arms around me and whispered in my ear that it was okay. When we got to the house Molly was waiting and gave me a hug and a blanket. “You will stay here tonight,” she told me, holding my hand. “This time I mean it.” She put her arms around me and kissed the top of my head. “Goodnight you two,” she called as she headed upstairs. It was about 1 am by this time. Later, when I tell this story to friends, they will ask me why Molly would just leave the two of us alone like that. I will tell them I didn’t know, at the time, and honestly, I didn’t care. Just Warner suggested we go out back in the snow by the fire pit, so he could smoke a cigar. We warmed our hands and talked for a while and then he leaned over and kissed me for the first time. I kissed him back. He smelled like whiskey and smoke and Molly’s fabric softener. My hands wrapped in his sweater, his in my hair, and he felt like he was mine. We talked and drank and kissed some more, and then he took me back into the house. We went downstairs to the guestroom, quietly, where he showed me what older men knew and he became Just Eric. Mrs. Warner, Molly, was asleep upstairs. It was a big house. *** September 1996 I felt like it was as good a time as any, two months after Molly asked for a legal separation from Warner, to tell her about him and me. It had been nine months since I first slept with Warner, the night I crashed my car into the snowbank. I had moved on, both physically and mentally, since leaving Pullman and graduate school in June. Warner and I were together December to June, seeing each other when we could, going on trips to his conferences, staying in hotels, drinking together in Pullman bars. The more we fell in love the more brazen we became, as if the secret was already out, when it wasn’t. Molly and I maintained a friendship during that time, not close, but friendly enough to talk about life and for her to tell me about how their marriage was failing. I don’t know how I dared to talk to her, while sleeping with him, while loving him even. It just happened. I can’t defend it, I only know that is how it went down. In September I was in Washington, D.C. on a Fellowship in the U.S. Senate that Warner helped me apply for. The distance helped. We didn’t have a bad leave, more of the acknowledgement that there was nowhere for us to go in Pullman, literally and figuratively, that didn’t involve a divorce and a disclosure to the university. I couldn’t stay in the space where we were anymore. For reasons I still can’t articulate, I couldn’t be his student during the day and then be his lover that night. I couldn’t make both of me show up with any authenticity in the classroom any longer. I left my full ride PhD funding, took the terminal MA, and accepted the Fellowship. Warner tried to talk me out of it, told me we could stop seeing each other until the PhD was done, that he would wait for me. I told him it was for the best, that I loved him, but I was leaving. I still talked to him a few times a week after moving to DC, but I was talking to Molly more. “I’m sorry you are separating, Molly. I really am.” I was talking to her from my postage stamp apartment in DuPont Circle, in my bedroom that was so small I could barely move when I got out of my bed. Gina, my roommate, made me a deal where she took the bigger room for $20 more per month. I didn’t really think that one through and said yes. She roamed the apartment (if you can roam in a place that small), with panties on and no top, leggy and long, a straight-A chorus girl. She had a slight lisp and a job doing communications for a senator from New York. She knew about the relationship I was in with Warner before I moved to DC and didn’t think it’s very ladylike of me to sleep with another woman’s husband. I didn’t think it is very ladylike for her to lecture me topless on propriety, but I knew my case isn’t strong. I explained to her that he was so funny and insightful all the time, that he even smelled smart, that he picked me. I told her he was my mentor first, and still was, that is so many ways he made me. He taught me how to think about life and to have an opinion I could defend, how to love a world of ideas. She didn’t like it, so I stopped talking about it. Gina was out with friends, so I was spending my evening talking to Molly back home in Idaho. I did this a lot. She liked to talk on the phone, especially after she and Warner split, so it worked out. I liked to listen to her and she said I made her laugh, so we got along fine. “He had women on the side, you know?” she asked me. When she said this, I got up from my bed so fast I almost hit the wall with my face. I was on a cordless phone, and I started to pace down the hallway, about 10 feet long. There was a lot of turning involved. “Molly, I need to tell you about Warner and me. I don’t know how to say this, but…” She cut me off. “You had an affair with him, I know. Sweetie, I think he is in genuinely in love with you, really. I’ve known for a long time.” “Oh Molly…” “Listen, we brought you into our lives. You spent time with us, and it happened. Of course, I was hurt and angry. I mean you were here in my family home, with the kids and me, you even slept here a few times. I think that was a mistake, in retrospect.” She laughed as she said this. I agreed. She said, “I think I even called you a whore in my head once, but I am not angry anymore. This breakup had been a long time coming.” I chewed the thick end of my braid, not sure what I should say. I was shocked to hear that she called me a whore, if only in her head, and even if I deserved it. It’s seemed so unlike her. “I’m sorry, Molls,” I said, my nickname for her that I picked up after I left Pullman. She didn’t ask if I still talked to him, and I didn’t volunteer. Warner was coming to Washington, DC, for a conference in three weeks, and he wanted to see me, but I left that part out. Originally, he had planned to stay at my apartment for the few days in October he would be here. I told him about Gina and how I made the bad deal on my bedroom and that there was no space for him at my place. Given that, he was planning on sharing a hotel room at the St. Regis with my other political science professor, who I privately called Professor Perdon because he always said that when he bumped into anyone. I thought he was an arrogant French asshole, and I knew he didn’t particularly like me either. I couldn’t understand why Warner was best friends with Perdon, since Warner was curious and kind and Perdon was a know-it-all and an ass. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to see Warner anyhow. I had been spending so much time with Molly on the phone, and then this conversation, so intimate and honest. I felt like I would be cheating on her. *** October 1996 The conference arrived and the professors piled off the bus at the convention center, all corduroyed and loafered, arriving for pre-conference activities. I had arranged with Warner to meet him here, but I didn’t realize he and Perdon came as a set. Perdon spoke first; he always did. They saw me at the same time, and Warner smiled and waved and Perdon commented on what a surprise this was, in a saccharine nasally voice. He knew about Warner and me. Warner told him a few months into the affair, which really pissed me off. I didn’t want my status as graduate student to change because of Warner. I wanted to earn what I got, not be known as someone’s pet. Years later, I will wonder if there is a distinction worth making between being doing good things and becoming someone’s good thing, or if you could really ever untangle your degree from the person awarding it. I wanted to smack Perdon as soon as he opened his mouth, but instead we went for beers at my favorite Irish Pub, The Dubliner. We sang Oh Danny Boy and Drunken Sailor until we were happy being together. It was so good to see Warner. I hadn’t realized how much I missed him. He was comfortable to me then, known, in the way that lovers become after so many hours in each other’s presence. He was sweet but not too forward, but I could tell he wanted more than the chummy comradery the Dubliner allowed. Warner seized the opportunity to get closer to me when a good song came on. He dragged me onto the small dance floor of the pub and started to move, grabbing me by the waist, urging me to join him. He was so open and vulnerable in that moment, so clearly wanting me to be with him publicly, that I had to look away. Warner wanted to go to bed and said so in a loud, drunk voice, but Perdon said was clearly not happy. When we got to the room Warner wanted me to lay next to him and Perdon went into the bathroom and locked the door. I rubbed Warner’s arm and talked to him as he sprawled out on the side of the bed. “I have been talking a lot to Molly for a while now, sweetheart. All of this has gotten really complicated.” Warner sat up, suddenly sober. “Jesus Christ, that’s really sick, you know that? You have been sleeping with me for almost a year and now you and she are best friends?” I said, “It’s not like that, I got to know her over time. You invited me to your house all those times. We all hung out and it was so lovely. I sort of fell in love with her.” “Now you are in love with my wife? You want to be with my wife?” “No, I’m not a lesbian, obviously, Warner. I loved you. I do love you, too.” I felt like I was explaining this so clearly. Warner was silent. “I only mean I really like her. She is what you see is what you get, you know? I feel like I can’t do this anymore and still be her friend. I want to be her friend, Warner. I want to be what you see if what you get, too.” “You want what you see is what you get? Well here I am. I was thinking about getting a sabbatical here to be with you. What do you think about that?” he asked, staring at me. I was speechless. I didn’t expect this. Dr. Warner, Warner, Just Eric wanted to really do something with this. I knew he cared about me, but I thought we were time and place bound, not portable. I wanted this so badly not long before that night that I would have killed to hear these words. I had imagined us running off together, teaching at some beautiful Midwestern liberal arts college, having more children. It all made sense when we were in the rolling hills of Idaho, when he was just him and I was just me and neither one of us could truly have the other. And then, then I knew who he was, and who I was with him. He cheated, he did what he wanted regardless of what it did to others and I saw what it had done to Molly. I saw what I had done to Molly by wanting him more than I cared about her. I saw who I was when I fucked a man in his house with his wife and children asleep upstairs and I didn’t like it. I needed to do better. I owed her, Molly, for that. Whenever we talked about it, Molly told me that I was young and stupid when it happened, that he was in a position of power, that he knew better. She told me I was the one that lost in the deal. The student is what she called me. She was implying I didn’t know what I was doing, as if taking away my agency gave me back my innocence. I don’t think she realized that I knew exactly what I was doing, every time, and that it didn’t make a difference. If I lost anything it was only that I gave it away. I tried to tell her that it took two, that I made the same choices Warner did, but she wouldn’t hear it. She needed me to be as good as she once thought I was, so she could keep me. If I was his good thing once, I had also become hers. Years later, the #metoo movement will complicate my memory even more, forcing me to excavate the individual actor in me from the power dynamics of this relationship. I will fight for my agency when I tell this story, because it feels better that way. I will say, “but I wanted it too”, making me a home wrecker, but making me powerful in past tense, not powerless. It will never be as easy to untangle once I go down this road of self-reflection in the context of the new rules of engagement. I know that it will always up for grabs, the truth, the consequences, the narrative of it all, even if I know nothing else about these events with certainty. Warner was sitting on the bed with his face in his hands, saying Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, over and over. Perdon came back into the room from the bathroom, looked over the two of us, and said, “Hey, Cyn, why don’t we go downstairs and have a smoke?” I wasn’t sure why he wanted to spend time with me because we never really get along, but I was drunk, and I wanted to get out of this difficult conversation with Warner. I said I’d go. I kissed Warner on the forehead and grabbed my purse. He didn’t say anything. I wondered for a moment if he was crying, but I didn’t think so. I didn’t think he would. He was always such a grownup. We got into the elevator and when the doors closed Perdon came at me, eyes open, and pushed me against the wall. He smelled like stale beer and sweat when he shoved his tongue into my mouth. He was not scary or aggressive so much as fumbling toward me, like he was trying to deliver a package and tripped over the doorstep. I cut off the kiss, let it melt into the nothingness I felt when he kissed me, and the moment passed. Neither of us said anything about it as we stepped out of the doors and into the night. As we settled into the grass on the front lawn of the St. Regis and lit up our smokes, I said to him, “I think you’re a jerk and I know you don’t like me, so what was that for?” He laughed and said, “That’s what I like about you. You don’t give a shit about anything.” I didn’t like that comment, how it made me feel. I liked to think I gave a shit, I liked to think that I gave a lot of shits about a lot of things. I cared about Molly enough to not make this any worse after I came clean to her. I cared about her too late, clearly, but I cared. And like she said, I was young, I was the student. I didn’t like the way Perdon was painting me, like he knew who I really was, and I wasn’t so good after all. He looked at me and said, “That kiss, that kiss is for Molly.” “What the hell are you talking about? What?” He took a long drag off his cigarette before he answered. “Here’s the thing, I’ve been with Molly for two years.” He lifted his face to the stars and blew perfect, concentric rings. Again, I said, “What?” I was laying down, staring upside down at the fountain and the lit-up words of the hotel behind my head. The headlights of the cars that came through valet kept hitting us like a police spotlight, making me spin. “Molly. Me. We’re together. We’ve been together for two years, and I am in love with her. She loves me, too.” I tried to sit up but couldn’t get there. I felt like I was going to be sick. “She knew you were sleeping with Warner, figured it out a long time ago. And no, I didn’t tell her. That’s what the kiss was for. It was like a thank you. You made it easier for us that way, you see?” I did see. Perdon said, “Here’s the funny thing though, I think that poor bastard is really in love with you. He told me he wants to leave his teaching gig and move her to be with you while you finish the Fellowship.” I remembered that part. “Listen, I feel bad for taking his wife, but you’re breaking his heart, I can see that. That’s why I asked you to come down here, so we could have this little talk. He is still my best friend, and I don’t want to see you hurt him anymore than you already have.” I covered my eyes with my arm to shield me from the headlights moving through valet. I was hitting one checkpoint after another in a road I didn’t want to be on, swinging hard around curves I never saw coming. I was in the snowbank and the doors wouldn’t open. Perdon said, “You know he has been screwing his students for years, but I think this time he really has feelings for you and then you took off. Kind of fitting, because Molly deserves better than that.” I said, “I did know that. She told me. And she does.” I was beginning to feel like all this time I hadn’t been really paying attention to the relationships around me. “So, I think it would be better if we get this whole thing out on the table tonight. You and me. Just us though, Warner doesn’t know about Molly and me.” I rolled on my side, facing away from him, and vomited into my hands. Perdon finished his smoke and he walked me back up the room, where I fell asleep, restless and sick, next to Warner. Years later, this part of the story will be what I remember most. The unraveling of who we were when we were together, when it was only Molly, Warner and me. Molly and Warner will divorce and move on with their lives, and I will stay in touch with both of them, talking on the phone and sometimes visiting, even after I am married with a family of my own. They will remain as lovely as I knew them to be in the Scott and Zelda days, all their qualities frozen in time like the snow-covered driveway when I was up to my knees in it. I will say, when I talk about them, that I was young when it happened, that I was the student. I will say mistakes were made, but love was made too, and that we were happy once, all of us. All I know, is that at one time, I will say, I was both his and hers, and the memories of it all will be grey blue, like the towels in the upstairs bathroom, open for interpretation.
Cyndy Cendagorta is working on a collection of short stories about broken things, including bodies, children, faith and love. She runs a policy consulting company in Reno, Nevada that specializes in social innovation, and is a special needs mother and advocate. She holds an MA in Political Science from Washington State University and is a past Women’s Research and Education Institute Fellow. Her work can be found in Cagibi, The Spectacle, Salmon Creek Journal and Please See Me. She lives in Reno, NV, with her husband and three children.