“Ready and willing,” I tell him. I have the spatula in position.
“Go!” he says.
And with two flicks of the wrist, I have flipped our dinner.
Sam turns the heat up on the soup to get it ready.
He grabs two bowls and two plates.
He grabs himself a beer from the fridge and offers me one. I take him up on it. The cool crispness of it sounds good, and for some reason, I have it in my head that having a beer helps to make this seem like just another night.
Soon, the two of us are sitting down to eat. Our dining room table has benches instead of chairs and that allows Sam to sit as close to me as physically possible, our thighs and arms touching.
“Thank you for making dinner,” I say. I kiss him on the cheek, right by his ear. He has a freckle in that spot and I once told him I considered it a target. It is what I aim for. Normally when I kiss him there, he reciprocates by kissing me underneath my eye. Freckles for freckle. But this time he doesn’t.
“Thank you for flipping,” he says. “Nobody flips like you.”
The sandwich is gooey in the center and crunchy on the outside. The soup is sweet with just a little bit of spice.
“I honestly don’t know which I love more, this or your fried chicken,” I say.
“You’re being ridiculous. No tomato soup has ever been as good as any fried chicken.”
“I don’t know!” I tell him, dunking my sandwich. “This stuff is really outstanding. So cozy and comforting. And this grilled cheese is toasted to—”
Sam drops his spoon into his soup. It splashes onto the table. He drops his hands and looks at me.
“How am I supposed to pretend everything is OK right now?” Sam says. “I’d love to pretend things were different. I would love for things to be different but . . . they aren’t.”
I grab his hand.
“I can’t talk about soup and cheese and . . .” He closes his eyes. “You’re the love of my life, Emma. I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you.”
“I know,” I tell him.
“And it’s OK if, you know, I’m not that for you. I mean, it’s not. It’s not at all OK. But I know that I have to be OK if that’s what ends up being the truth. Does that make sense?”
I nod and start to speak but he keeps going.
“I just . . . I feel . . .” He closes his eyes again and then covers his face with his hands, the way people do when they are exhausted.
“Just say it,” I tell him. “Whatever it is. Just let it out. Tell me.”
“I feel naked. Like I’m raw. Or like I’m . . .” The way he’s trying to find the words to describe how he feels makes him look like he wants to jump out of his skin. He’s jittery and chaotic in his movements. And then he stops. “I feel like my entire body is an open wound and I’m standing next to someone that may or may not pour salt all over me.”
I look at him, look into his eyes, and I know that whatever pain he’s admitting to is a drop in the bucket compared to how he feels.
I’m not sure that emotional love can be separated from physical love. Or maybe I’m just a very tactile person. Either way, it’s not enough for me to say, “I love you.” The words feel so small compared to everything that’s in me. I have to show him. I have to make sure that it’s felt as much as heard.
I lean into him. I kiss him. I pull him close to me. I press my body against his and I let him run his hands up and down my back. I push the bench back slightly, to make room for me to fit, straddling his lap. And I rock, back and forth, ever so gently, as I hold him and whisper into his ear, “I need you.”
Sam kisses me aggressively, like he’s desperate for me.
We don’t make it to the bed or to the couch. We clumsily move only as far as the kitchen floor. Our heads bang against the hardwood, our elbows bump against the low cupboards. My pants come off. His shirt comes off. My bra rests underneath the fridge, next to Sam’s socks.
As Sam and I moan and gasp, we keep our eyes closed tightly except for the fleeting moments when we are looking directly into each other’s eyes. And it is in these moments that I know he understands what I am trying to tell him.
Which is the whole point, our only reason for doing what we are doing.
We don’t really care about pleasure. We are aching to be felt by the other, aching to feel each other. We move to tell each other what’s in our souls, to say what words can’t. We are touching each other in an attempt to listen.
Toward the end, I find myself pressing my heart into his, as if the problem is that we are two separate people, as if I could fuse us together and when I did, the pain would be gone.
When it’s over, Sam collapses on top of me.
I hold him close, my arms and legs wrapped around him. He moves and I hold him tighter, my limbs asking him to stay.
I don’t know how long we lie like that.
I swear I’m almost asleep when Sam knocks me back into reality by pulling himself off me and rolling onto the floor between me and the dishwasher.
I roll over onto his shoulder and put my head down, hoping that this reprieve from reality isn’t over.
But I can tell that it is.
He puts his clothes back on.
“He’s your husband,” he says. His voice is quiet and stoic, as if it’s all hitting him right now. I find that this happens a lot with shocking things; it seems to hit you all at once even though you could have sworn it hit you all at once an hour ago. “He is your husband, Emma.”
“He was,” I say, even though I’m not sure that’s exactly true.
“It’s semantics, really, isn’t it?”
I grab my shirt and throw it over myself, but I don’t respond. I don’t have anything comforting to say. It is semantics. I think I’m heading into a time in my life where words and labels will lose their meaning. It will only be the intent behind them that will matter.
“I’m so miserable. I feel torn apart,” he says. “But it’s not about me, right? He’s the one that spent three years lost at sea or wherever he was. And you’re the one that lived as a widow. And I’m just the asshole.”
“You’re not an asshole.”
“Yes, I am,” Sam says. “I’m the asshole who’s standing in the way of you two being reunited.”
I am, again, at a loss for words. Because if you replace the word “asshole” with “man”—“I’m the man who’s standing in the way of you two being reunited”—then, yeah. He’s right.
If I hadn’t run into Sam that day at the music store, if I hadn’t fallen in love with him, this would have been the greatest time in my life.
Instead of the most confusing.
For a moment, I let myself think of what my life would be like right now if all of that had never happened, if I’d never allowed myself to move on.
I could have done it. I could have shut myself off to life and to love. I could have pinned Jesse’s name to my heart and lived every day in honor of him, in remembrance of him. In some ways, that would have been a lot easier.
Instead of writing that letter telling him that I needed to let him go and find a new life, I could have spent my days waiting for him to return from a place I thought he could never come back from. I could have dreamt of the impossible.
And my dream would be coming true right now.
But I gave up on that dream and went out and found a new one.
And in doing so, I’m ruining all of us.
You can’t be loyal to two people.
You can’t yearn for two dreams.
So, in a lot of ways, Sam is right.
He is the wild card.
In this terrible-wonderful nightmare-dream come true.
“It’s like I’m eighteen all over again,” he says. “I love you and I have you and now I’m terrified I’m going to lose you to Jesse for the second time.”
“Sam,” I say. “You don’t—”
“I know this isn’t your fault,” Sam says, interrupting me. His mouth turns down and his chin shakes. I hate watching him try not to cry. “You loved him and then you lost him and you loved me and now he’s back and you didn’t do anything wrong but . . . I’m so mad at you.”