William Cass | Those words

William Cass PhotoMia was a new instructional assistant at the elementary school where I taught. I noticed her husband as I was entering a café to get breakfast before work. He was sitting alone at one of the outside tables with a lidless paper cup of coffee in front of him. I was sure it was him because of his distinctive shock of prematurely gray hair. I hadn’t met him, but had seen him across the room at our staff back-to-school party the previous month. He was a good-looking man, tall and broad-chested. At the party, she’d had her arm linked through his as they visited with another couple, and I remember being aware of the way she gazed at him as he talked. I know he didn’t see me as I pushed through the doors of the café because he was studying his cell phone at the time, frowning as he scrolled through items.

I ordered a muffin and tea and then found myself a table inside. The place was crowded and the only one available was up against the window, so I sat there. It was a nice morning, and the window was open. Mia’s husband sat immediately outside it with his back to me. He was talking on his cell phone and wasn’t two feet away, so I could hear him clearly. I was just taking my first sip of tea when I heard him say, “No, Mia doesn’t know anything. She doesn’t suspect a thing. Her mind doesn’t work like that.”

I set my cup down. He said, “I miss you, too. And I can’t wait to be with you again this weekend. I’ve booked the same room in the same hotel.”  There was a pause. “That’s right…Wayfarer, Saturday, room twelve. I’ll get there ahead of you and check in, so there won’t be any problems. I’ll be in the room at four o’clock.”  Another pause followed, and then he said, “You, too.”

He made a kissing sound, then tapped the phone’s screen, and put it in his pants pocket. He blew out a breath and ran his fingers through his hair. Then he stood, picked up his cup of coffee, and walked off down the sidewalk. I watched the back of him until he disappeared around the next corner.

I found myself blinking and shaking my head. I didn’t really know Mia; she’d just started working at our school that fall and helped in the self-contained special education class across campus. But, she seemed nice, quiet and gentle. Everyone I knew liked her. I swallowed as I thought of my own situation the previous year when my wife had left; she’d told me she’d been having an affair for six months, and I hadn’t suspected a thing either. Someone else must have known, but no one had told me. I’m not sure what I would have done if they did.

I took a bite of muffin, but wasn’t hungry anymore. I left the café and turned in the opposite direction from the one Mia’s husband had gone. I walked back to where I’d parked the car, then drove to school to start the day.

That was a Thursday. I saw Mia out on the playground while I was on recess duty later that morning. I watched her push a girl in a wheelchair around the jungle gym while other students played on it. She was leaning down talking to the girl as they walked and they were both laughing. I guessed she was about my age: thirty or thirty-five. I glanced away. I couldn’t remember even having spoken to her yet. I knew that telling her what I’d heard couldn’t be our first conversation. A basketball rolled my way, and I tossed it to the group of students who were playing with it and settled an argument they were having. When I looked back to the jungle gym, Mia and the girl were no longer there, so they must have headed back to their classroom. I didn’t see her again for the remainder of the school day.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I thought about Mia’s situation and my own the year before. I wondered, as I often had, if things might have turned out differently for my ex-wife and me if I’d understood her dissatisfaction and unhappiness earlier, if we might have been able to do something to save our marriage. My ex-wife and her lover had moved to another state shortly after she left. We had no children. I doubted I’d ever see or hear from her again. I thought about irretrievable opportunity, and then those familiar words found their way back into my mind: betrayal, infidelity. As they did, the same, old ache spread over me.

About five o’clock, when I heard the first birds tittering in the trees outside, I got up and went to my computer in the den. I typed up what Mia’s husband had said exactly as I’d overheard it. I didn’t sign my name, but printed out what I’d written and put it in a sealed envelope with her name on it. I knew there wasn’t enough time to mail the letter to her, but I could put it in her mailbox in the staff workroom that morning. Ours was a large school with almost seventy staff members, so there would be no way she’d be able to determine who had left it there.

So, that’s what I did. I got to school early while the workroom was empty and put the envelope in her box. It was still there at morning recess when I went to check my own box. I was waiting across the room for my turn at the copier when Mia came in, and from the corner of my eye, I watched her lift the envelope out of her box, stare at it a moment, then slowly open it. I could see her shoulders fall as she read, see her eyes close, see her bring the letter and the torn envelope to her chest. I left the workroom quickly without making any copies.

On Saturday afternoon, I went to a farmer’s market across town. I’d never been there before, but found some nuts and fruit and cheese to buy. I checked my watch as I wandered the aisles and the afternoon light began to fall. I waited until a few minutes after four before I returned to my car that I’d parked under a tree across the street from the Wayfarer Hotel. I got in, put my purchases on the seat next to me, and watched the front of the hotel. It wasn’t a fancy place:  a row of a dozen or so rooms with an office at one end and a faded sign on a pole at the parking lot entrance.  Room twelve was on the far end. Two cars were parked in spots perpendicular to its door at the edge of the gravel. There were a handful of other cars in the lot. It was quiet.

The street remained empty until a short while later when a red compact crawled into the lot. I recognized it from school as Mia’s. She parked a couple of doors down from room twelve, turned off the ignition, then just sat there. I watched the back of her remain perfectly still. A train passed in the distance, a long one. An old woman left one of the rooms near the office, shuffled down to a soda machine next to it, and returned with a can. When the woman’s door closed behind her, Mia emerged from the car.

She was wearing jeans, sandals, and a red fleece jacket. She stood staring at the door of room twelve with her arms folded. The curtains at the window next to the room’s door were closed. Her brown hair was down like she usually wore it at work; the small breeze lifted it now and then from the nape of her neck. Watching her, I felt my heart quickening.

Finally, she walked over slowly to the room’s door and leaned an ear against it. She stood there like that for a long moment before pulling back suddenly, shaking her head, slumping down and sitting against the door. I watched her cover her face with her hands and her shoulders shake. I didn’t know what to do. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure that I’d been right letting her know. Perhaps, she already had a sense and could have dictated things on her own terms without this; or maybe the affair her husband was having would end without her knowledge and their relationship would remain unchanged. Perhaps it would even improve. It was possible; stranger things have happened.

I didn’t know why I was sitting in that car except for some selfish connection to my own personal past and pain. I guess I was hoping for something, rooting for it. For that, I felt ashamed. I wanted to offer her comfort, but, of course, there was no way to do that; I had no business interfering. I knew I didn’t want to, and shouldn’t be, there for whatever would happen next, so I started the car and pulled away. I didn’t glance over at Mia as I left. I just drove staring straight ahead on an empty road heading to my empty house wishing I’d never overheard her husband’s conversation. But once I had, there were only two choices: to do something or nothing with what I’d heard. And I’d made the choice I had knowing that it was informed by my own experience. I wondered if choices like that could really ever be made otherwise.

I drove on as a siren wound off across town. At one point, the streetlamps blinked on. At another, the breeze rose and rustled leaves on trees that had made their fall turn, splashes of nodding color.

William Cass has had more than 100 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Ruminate. He recently was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He can be reached at: william.cass@sbcglobal.net

 

 

 

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