Melissa Wiley

The End of Longing

After my husband left for work this morning, I made another cup of coffee and washed dishes. I wiped soapy hands against jeans before lifting my shirt up to a mirror that we lean against a window ledge in our kitchen. Where glass rests against more glass, I looked into the smaller rectangle and saw fresh evidence of the fact I’ve lost a little weight over the summer. My waist and stomach have shrunken, though my husband hasn’t noticed. While he goes to work in a downtown Chicago office and I work from our apartment, an egg inside my ribs keeps expanding and presses on my diaphragm. Early mornings when I first awaken, I sense the sheen of its unbornness. Falling back asleep, I watch myself give birth not to a baby but to myself again. I tell myself I’ll have another lifetime for everything I’ve always wanted. I tell myself I can afford to do little more in this one than watch life happen.

One Friday evening in Manhattan, where my husband and I were spending a weekend a couple of weeks before this, we had a rare evening of fullness. The evening left us with nothing that either of us still wanted. Two of my closest friends and their spouses met us for dinner in the West Village, where we stayed for hours talking after our food was finished. None of us were in a hurry to leave our wholeness, to begin breaking it into pieces. Near eleven, an actor best known for a television series that ended more than a decade ago walked into our corner of a courtyard. The play he was starring in had finished production. He sat at the table across from us beneath a garland of paper lanterns, and he seemed to be at ease so long as we kept ourselves from staring.

Earlier that evening, before we had met our friends, my husband and I walked past the theater where he was performing. We saw his face and the play’s title, “The End of Longing,” without wanting to buy tickets, without even giving it consideration. Since his television series aired its last season, the actor has become better known for his alcohol and drug addiction. Less attractive in person than I would have expected, he drank water only and sat at the far end of the table from his castmates, who ordered wine, beer, and salads. His smile stayed toothless while they were laughing.

Unlike many of my friends and unlike my husband, I have never wanted to live in New York City. I have never wanted to move somewhere that leads more easily than other places to dreams of living an alternative existence. I have never wanted to pay more money for a smaller apartment, to ride more crowded subways than Chicago has already, to pursue another direction than my life has taken. Yet the morning after our evening of fullness, I could not help wishing some things were different. I could not help wishing my eyes were blue and sparkling rather than dull and brown. My last morning in this city for what I imagine will be a long time to come had started with my husband staring into my face as my eyes blinked open. Gazing at me with concern and revulsion, he told me to look in the mirror, when he watched me face my own reflection and absorb the fact my right eye was bleeding.

An internet search confirmed my symptoms matched those of a subconjunctival hemorrhage. Though frightening to witness, the condition is not a serious one. This form of internal bleeding is normally caused by too hard of sneezing, coughing, or straining from constipation. In the past few days, however, I had done none of these things. Overnight, after the evening of fullness ended, some blood vessels had simply burst at random. New York City is also one that can easily cause blood to break open from arteries. It can easily delude things into breaching their natural boundaries.

After we dressed and walked to Chelsea to buy breakfast, my eye was still weeks away from healing. Already forgetting the strain New York put on my body, my husband said he would never return to the Midwest again if he had his way about things. Temperatures had reached the mid-nineties as we bought bagels and iced coffee, as I continued walking several steps behind him. The air stank of sidewalk garbage, though my husband said he couldn’t smell it. Where I saw pools of urine, he only stretched his neck higher toward the tops of the buildings.

As we wandered closer toward the Village, an apartment complex with a striking art deco entrance caught his attention. He stopped and told me to look at what I knew had been a boutique hotel only a couple of years before this. When he pointed to the beauty of its cornices, I nodded in silence. I let him think he was the first one of us to see this. He would have had no way of knowing I stayed here once before without him, though he would have remembered me leaving him for the weekend had I taken time to remind him. He would have remembered having wanted to go with me when I told him I wanted to spend time with my friends without him. At the time, he seemed to understand this. He also did not ask me where I was staying, because he assumed I was staying with my friend who lives in Harlem.

I never told him that one of the friends I was visiting lived in Chicago, however, not New York City. Almost ten years older than I am, Sara lives only a matter of blocks away from our own apartment building. She has been married for decades to someone I have always found funny and handsome. Still she asked me if I wanted to meet her in Manhattan along with another man she was sleeping with. She asked me if I wanted to watch her live out an alternative existence. Looking back, I can see she must have known what my answer would be even before I did. Otherwise, she would not have risked telling me about the affair she was having. She must have sensed a desire for another life stirring inside me even if she knew nothing about the egg weighing on my diaphragm, pressing as it grows against my sternum. Had she ever really known me, had she ever seen me clearly, she would have understood I am content with waiting, with doing little more than watching.

At the time, I often met her for coffee at a bakery halfway between our two buildings. Sometimes I arrived early to engage in the briefest of interactions with its manager, whom I found attractive and often kept me sane during days of petty conflict with my husband. His dark and curling hair, the length of his eyelashes, and the smoothness of his movements as he reached for a scone or muffin made my own life seem less random. Sometimes I lingered at his counter shamelessly. I wanted nothing in these moments beyond prolonging a relationship best characterized by being completely painless. Inevitably, I gained a little weight in the process, consuming more pastries than I needed. There is always a price to pay, though, for passing pleasure that amounts to nothing. I have gone there less and less since meeting Sara in New York City. Since my right eye was bloodied, I have no intention of ever returning. I am done with longing.

After I told her yes, I would meet her for the weekend, Sara confessed that she and her lover see each other in Chicago fairly often. In New York, however, they could be freer of their spouses. They could love each other in public, could roll over on top of each other in Central Park near one of its oldest stone bridges. Had the manager of the bakery paid her the same amount of attention as he paid to me, Sara said she would have taken it further. Had they had any chemistry, had her light not already dispersed itself among so many other men already, she would have seduced him. As it was, she said she found him too skinny, a comment I suspected was voiced from defensiveness because she felt ignored by him, because he rarely made eye contact with her. I knew she wanted me to ask her questions, allowing her to tout her own sexual successes. I changed the subject.

When I first walked inside the lobby of the Midtown hotel where Sara and her lover were staying, I had been curious, expectant. I wanted to see someone whom I knew fairly well inhabit another life in another city. I sat waiting for them for twenty or more minutes. On one of the lobby’s velvet couches, I could have opened the book I kept inside my purse and had been reading on the plane. I kept my purse zipped, however. I looked down at my legs and then stared into my inner wrists. Thinking Sara could still be having sex at this moment, I studied my wrists’ central useless tendon, which allows for no tighter grip, makes me no stronger a person. Should another tendon rupture, a surgeon could use this one to replace it. I knew this only because Sara had once told me this happened to her after a bicycle accident. This tendon had been grafted onto her thigh, helping her repair the damage. Her right inner arm had looked strangely smooth compared to her left one ever since. Then she confessed she had fallen half in love with her surgeon. She said she would have slept with him were she not heavily sedated.

Both of my own tendons still reach for my inner elbows without touching them. Each one resembles a string tied to a balloon that has floated into the sky and left me stranded. They are matching strings connecting my body to nothing beyond it. That Sara has only one left now seems almost symbolic, whereas I still have my fantasies if I need them. I still can let them go, watch them vanish. Whenever I lift my shirt up and see my stomach, I know for certain how much good going to the bakery less and less has done me. I know I was ten or more pounds heavier two years before this as I sat waiting for Sara and her lover in the lobby.

Eventually, she called and told me to come up to their room because she wasn’t ready yet. She needed more time to apply her makeup, to finish her coffee. Nearly noon and she was still wearing a robe, still braless. Two empty champagne bottles lay sideways on the dresser. It had been only a few weeks since I had last seen her, yet her eyes slanted higher up at the edges than I remembered. Back in Chicago a little more than a week later, she admitted to having plastic surgery. Defending herself without me accusing her of anything, she said it wouldn’t be long before I’ll want to do something similar, before I’ll find attracting men’s attention isn’t easy. I knew as I sat waiting for her to dress for our day in Manhattan that she had told herself the reason I had come here was only because I lacked courage to do what she was doing. This weekend, it was already clear she was going to have her way with everything.

When I first met the man she was sleeping with, I couldn’t help but notice he was balding and chubby. Sara’s husband was far more charismatic, more hirsute with a far more sculpted body. When her lover stretched his hand out to me, I grasped a palm that felt as soft as a baby’s. He wore a salmon v-neck sweater and laughed at everything I said even when I wasn’t being funny. He told me he had bought Sara several leopard-print blouses the night before this. They all had sequins for eyes staring out from where her nipples hung behind them. When she flew onto the floor to show me, he rhapsodized about how sexy she looked wearing them all. His worship of her, of all her vanity, I realized was his main attraction, what made him necessary. I told myself I could not imagine ever sleeping with someone who gave himself away this easily, who had such terrible taste in clothing. Had I ever been similarly tempted, had the manager of the bakery ever asked me to meet him after closing, seeing Sara with her lover might have saved me.

Once we left and started walking toward the nearest subway, neither one of them felt like visiting any of the museums that Sara had said we would visit. They both wanted to do more shopping as they walked with their hands inside each other’s back pockets. After a lunch of sandwiches and salads, I suggested that we separate until early evening. I told them I wanted to visit the Whitney, a special exhibition. After glancing at the gift shop, however, after seeing the price for admission, I decided instead to sit outdoors at a café. I took my book from my purse and started reading. I looked up and could not help noticing I was being noticed by a table of two men across from me. Crossing one leg over its opposite, I watched as other men in passing turned their heads toward my aloneness. I realized I could take a lover here if I wanted. I realized there was power in turning my head back to my book, power in withholding.

A group of much younger women walked past me in heels that sounded as if they might puncture the pavement. The shortest and most brightly attired was holding balloons, each one inflated into the shape of a phallus. A bachelorette party then. As the one holding the balloons moved closer to the intersection, she let go of them all, seemingly by accident. The two men at