Gwen said, “You smell like you.” She snuggled closer.
“That’s good,” I said. “I mean, I guess.”
I felt her face smile on my bare chest. She whispered, “It is.”
The scent of our lovemaking was still in the air. Gwen’s breathing slowed into sleep.
When I woke up at dawn, she was already gone. Home to shower, then drive to the airport to pick up her husband who was flying back from a business trip. I showered myself, made coffee and toast, and ate at the kitchen counter. The cup I drank from had been my ex-wife’s; she hadn’t taken it when she left. She hadn’t really taken anything aside from what she could fit in her small suitcase, which was all I found of hers gone. I’d stored away the brief note she’d left for me under her wedding rings on our bureau. It told me simply that she’d fallen in love with someone else and they were moving together to another state. Even after two years, I still took it out from time to time and re-read it. That had all happened long before Gwen. I wondered if the time would come when she would give a similar explanation to her husband. We’d talked about it.
Before I left for work, I sent Gwen a text that said: “You smell like you. Like love.”
She replied with a couple of heart emojis. Given the arrival time of her husband’s plane, she was probably in the airport’s cell phone lot waiting for him. His text saying he’d landed would probably be the next she’d receive. She’d pick him up outside baggage claim, they’d embrace across the console separating her car’s front seats, and their lives would resume together. Like mine had with my wife for whatever period of time there had been while she had the lover I knew nothing about.
The elementary school where I taught was in the midst of Character Education Week. Teachers were expected to start lessons that morning with a discussion about doing the right thing in spite of challenges or temptations. I didn’t do that. Instead, I allowed my students to draw pictures depicting any character trait they wanted. While they did, I used a smiley face emoji to reply to another text from Gwen. It said she could come over next after I got home from school on Friday, but could stay for just an hour or so.
I’d only seen a photograph of Gwen’s husband on her cell phone’s screen saver, but I recognized him right away that Friday morning. I’d unknowingly gotten in line behind him at the café where I sometimes stopped before school for coffee, and he turned to take a twenty-dollar bill out of the fanny pack he wore backwards around his waist. He was in running gear and was still wet with sweat. He was taller than me, more muscled, better looking.
The line moved forward so that he was at the front of it. He gave the barista his order: a black coffee and a latte. I knew the latte was for Gwen; it was what she always asked me to get her, too. His mannerisms were unhurried, his exchange with the barista friendly. She fitted his drinks into a cardboard tray, and he left a generous tip, stuffing the rest of his change into the unzipped fanny pack. As he lifted the tray, a five-dollar bill fluttered from the pack to the floor at my feet. I looked down at it, then glanced around me. The barista had turned away; no one else was in line and none of the other customers had seemed to notice. I watched Gwen’s husband push through the café’s front doors and start up the sidewalk, then bent down and picked up the five-dollar bill.
I moved forward to the counter. The barista turned to me and asked, “What can I get for you?”
We stared at each other for a long moment. Finally, I said, “Actually, nothing.”
I hurried through the front doors and looked up the sidewalk. Gwen’s husband was standing at the corner next to the passenger door of her empty parked car. He’d set the tray on the hood, and was taking a set of keys out of the pack.
I trotted up next to him while he fumbled with the keys. “Excuse me,” I said and extended the five-dollar bill in his direction. “I was in line behind you back there at the café and you dropped this.”
He looked from the bill to my face. Our eyes held. His were gentle, kind. He smiled, then took the bill from me and said, “Thanks. Thanks very much.”
From the corner of my eye, I could see the light-blue camisole Gwen had worn when she’d last come over in the car’s back seat. I hadn’t known who my ex-wife’s lover had been until six months after she left and an acquaintance told me; it had been someone we’d met together at a party several years earlier. Now I was standing across from my own lover’s husband. From the trusting, good-natured way in which he regarded me, I was certain he knew nothing about me.
“No problem,” I said and started back towards the café. I walked slowly, waiting until I heard the sound of Gwen’s car pull away. As it did, my cell phone pinged in my pants pocket. I took it out and saw that she’d just sent me a new text; my fingertip hovered over her blinking name, then dropped to my side. I replaced the phone and sat down on an empty bus bench. I felt numb, untethered. I knew that if I didn’t leave quickly, I’d be late for work. But, I continued to sit where I was and watched a boy wobble by on his bicycle riding with no hands and disappear up the street. I cringed inside. If he made it to his destination without falling, I’d never know.
William Cass has had over 180 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. His children's book, Sam, is scheduled for release by Upper Hand Press in April 2020. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a couple of Pushcart nominations, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.