Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Other Man

I've been watching too much Alfred Hitchcock Presents...

I can’t imagine why any husband would want to meet his wife’s lover and the cause of his pending divorce casually over coffee. To meet the newer model? To meet the competition? His reasons would always remain a mystery to me.

I understand it would be a blow to a sexagenarian to lose the trophy wife younger than half his age to a kid ten years her junior, but let’s be realistic: he had to have seen it coming. How long could he have expected to keep her interest?

I’d arrived first and got a table for two in a cafĂ© if his choosing, his turf. It was filled with a crowd of would-be college professors in their fifties, most wearing sandals or turtlenecks, some both, all debating the genius of Ginsberg and Kerouac. I was truly out of my element, sitting there, waiting for the man I’ve cuckolded to arrive and offer me his condemnation. I felt awkward and dizzy, that feeling you get when you’ve taken that first walk into a strange girls bedroom, only this was worse.

I’d gone into his bedroom and fucked his sweet, beautiful wife.

That overriding sense of guilt is what brought me here; the knowledge that any wrath he could muster publicly I deserved.

Ten minutes and a nervous cup of coffee later Lawrence arrived. He looked as though he was in perfect shape twenty years ago but his muscle loosened and his granite jaw had long turned to jowls. His age seemed to have only turned against his looks in the last few years.

I stood as he approached and foolishly offered my hand to shake, hoping to set the tone of our conversation with a modicum of respect. He ignored my hand, sat down and motioned for the waiter.

“Orange juice, please.”

“Large or small?”

“Large. And I’d like this much orange juice and this much water, please.” With his fingers, he measured a neat 3:1 ratio.

“And for you, sir?”

“More coffee, please.”

“Very good, sir.”

The waiter waddled off to retrieve the diluted orange juice and he and I were finally alone. “What is it, Mr. Peterson, that you do exactly?”

“Do?” He called me Mr. Peterson as though I were one of his students.

“Your chosen vocation? How do you intend to take care of my Elizabeth?”

“Oh. I’m a photographer—“

“—how bohemian—“

“—at the newspaper.”

“Her tastes are expensive. I must warn you, I’ve spoiled her considerably with tastes for things your mind is too young to comprehend.”

Before I could respond, the waiter arrived with his beverage. He refilled my coffee and Lawrence quickly thanked him and shooed him away.

“We’ve thought a bit about money, but—“

“—but you’ll have each other? How romantic.”

As I resigned myself to the fact that anything I say will be cut off with a discouraging amount of sarcastic condescension, Lawrence withdrew a mysterious packet of what I could only assume was Metamucil from his shirt and began stirring it into his orange juice.

He caught me eyeing it, “It’s amazing what age does to ones internal workings.”

“It’s the one disease you never look forward to being cured of.”

“Citizen Kane. Perhaps you aren’t fatally useless after all, my boy.” He seemed genuinely surprised.

“I’m glad you think so.”

“I suppose you’re wondering why I wanted you to come and meet me, and there isn’t much use for pretense, so I’ll have out with it. I still love her. I wanted you to understand that I’m not giving her up without a fight.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to. She’s beautiful, smart, charming… Everything any man would want. But it isn’t my choice and it isn’t your choice.” I felt awkward and more than a little stupid speaking to this man as such. I suppose that’s why he started things off so combatively, to put me ill-at-ease.

To put me further off and to prove to me that he didn’t care much for what I had to say, he lifted his glass and took his concoction in with one full, steady draught.

A little out of breath, he responded, “It tastes terrible, nursing it’s no good.”

“I imagine,” I said politely.

“How far are you willing to go? To keep her, I mean.”

“I’m not sure I understand. She’s made her decision and it’s pretty clear. You told her you wouldn’t sign the divorce papers unless I agreed to meet you here. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here at all.”

“A verbal agreement, as such, isn’t exactly legally binding.”

“Keeping your word would be the honorable thing to do.”

“Ho-ho. The young trophy dalliance of another man’s wife has the nerve to mention honor? Is that the sort of honor they teach in Sunday schools these days? To sleep with the wives of better men?”

I suppose anything I could say to that would be a losing argument. I accepted his wholly warranted insult with silence.

His breath got heavy, almost certainly with rage. He continued his rant, “I met her, a student in my course eight years ago and I knew then as I know now that she and I would be destined to be together, to die together. And a whelp like you isn’t going to interfere with that, by God.”

His face was flushed now, “How did you meet her? What makes you think you can get involved with the higher forces of love, forces you can’t even begin to comprehend?”

He was gasping now, I tried to answer him, but he continued with all the passion and conviction he could muster, “Her and I were meant to be together, don’t you see? The stars themselves reached out and… and…”

And with that, he collapsed to the floor.

“Help, somebody!” I shouted as I ducked to the floor, turning him over and checking his pulse, searching desperately for any signs of life. A dozen possibilities ran through my head: a stroke, a blood clot, some type of aneurism? It could have been anything.

The next half an hour was the most excruciating period of my life to this moment. The waiter summoned the paramedics. One of the hippies sitting nearby knew CPR and started chest compressions until their arrival. The manager cleared the restaurant of patrons.

That left only myself, the Samaritan doctor, the staff and what was fast becoming a corpse. Soon enough, though, Lawrence Parnell was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

My mind was in such a daze that I’m still not quite sure how I got to the townhouse Lawrence and Elizabeth shared. I do, however, remember letting myself in with the key Elizabeth had left in a potted plant in the hallway on days when she and I were to rendezvous.

“Elizabeth?” I called out to her once I got inside.

“Lawrence? Is that you?” she called from the bedroom.

“It’s Mark!” I called back.

“Mark? I’m in the bedroom.”

I covered the familiar path to her bedroom to find her staring into her vanity, applying mascara to her eyelashes. In the doorway I stood, not knowing how to tell her. “What is it?”

She was so beautiful; sitting there half-dressed applying her makeup. Her flowing black hair fell across her back, covering most of her freckled shoulders. Her breasts, resting pertly in her bra…

I had to focus, goddamnit.

“It’s…”

She stood up, put her arms around me and kissed me. “What is it?”

Pulling her away from me I stuttered, “I…it’s…”

“Come here and sit on the bed and tell me all about it.”

“Lawrence…” I muttered.

“Lawrence?” she asked, “what’s the matter with Lawrence?”

“He’s… He’s dead.”

“Oh. That.”

Suddenly, I was confused. “Did you hear me? I said Lawrence is dead. I don’t know how it happened. He worked himself up lecturing me and then he just collapsed.”

“I know.” Was she in shock?

“You know? What do you mean you know? Are you hearing me? He’s dead.”

“I heard you. Lawrence is dead. I talked to the police and they’re on their way here.”

“The police talked to you?”

“Of course they did.”

“The hospital, the doctor, wouldn’t the doctor call?”

“Why would the doctor call me? The police handle homicides.”

“Homicides? What are you talking about?”

“Don’t you see? Lawrence was poisoned.”

Nothing she said was making any sense. “Do you hear what I’m telling you? Lawrence is dead.”

“I know, Mark. I killed him.”
“What?”

“I killed him.”

The world has gone topsy-turvy. I must have been drugged. I can’t be hearing anything right.

“Why…? Why… did you? What are you saying?”

“You know I didn’t love Lawrence anymore.”

“You loved me…”

“Well, not exactly.”

I’ve been punched in the gut. Perhaps I suffered a concussion. I could be having a nightmare.

“Not exactly? What are you saying?”

She kissed me again, but I didn’t know how to respond. For her it must have been like kissing some type of dead fish.

“I was fond of you, but you were a means to an end. Lawrence and I haven’t been in love in…since…well ever really. And I didn’t have any way to get rid of him. He simply wouldn’t let me leave him. And then when I met you, well, naturally I saw a way out.”

I couldn’t think enough to answer in anything but more questions. “A way out?”

“Well, we’re lovers. You have a motive, now. This plan solved both of my problems. I switched Lawrence’s Metamucil with a mix of arsenic and those herbal supplements that you take. When the police called me, I told them you’d left me in a jealous rage before you went to meet Lawrence and that you’d probably be on your way back.”

“But, we made love this morning. And we were going to move in together.”

“Mark, don’t you understand? I need my freedom. And this was the best way to get the both of you out of the picture. Lawrence is dead, and you’re going to hang for his murder.”

“But I’m innocent, it was you.”

I could hear sirens approaching. Slowly, things started to sink in and I realized what was at stake.

“It wasn’t anything personal. I was fond of you.”

Betrayed, stabbed in the heart, I rose to my feet.

“Do sit down, the police will be here in a moment. It’s no use trying to escape.”

But I had to try…