The Story Would Save Them

by Graham Hillard

Jeremy’s affair had been neither furtive nor brazen but quiet, unobtrusive—like a minor anniversary, Morgan sometimes thought, allowed to pass without celebration. Such a comparison, once made, gave way to further ironies. Jeremy had been faithful throughout his sleek late-twenties, only to stray when his body began to stretch and sag, as if upon a long exhalation. He had waited patiently through Morgan’s dissertation years, her endless days in the classroom and lab, only to cheat at the awarding of her postdoc and her assumption of something like regular hours. So, too, had his manner seemed to alter—in a way, Morgan felt, that touched on parody. When she had finally confronted him, forcing herself to act at last on the evidence he had been too polite to conceal, he had used the word adultery, a term that belonged, in its fussy self-aggrandizement, to their parents’ generation. To adults. Yet here, Morgan knew, was the greatest irony of all. She was an adult herself now. The very depth of her marital problems proved it.

Pulling her brush through a stubborn length of hair, Morgan glanced at Jeremy’s reflection in the wide bathroom mirror. They had not yet abandoned this morning ritual, he at his sink and she at hers, yet the habit seemed formal now, with an element of performance about it, as if the two of them were actors auditioning for roles just beyond their ability. Pursuing the thought, Morgan turned her gaze back to her own reflection in time to see herself finish. As it had for days, the sight both reassured and repulsed her. She had remained herself despite the trauma of the previous week. What the mirror showed could be accepted without self-deception. Yet surely, another part of her insisted, her uncritical eye represented a kind of selfishness—a failure to notice blemishes that would now, in larger scale, cost her her marriage.

For the signs, she had to admit, had been obvious, if only she had made herself see them. First had come Jeremy’s longer hours, even as hers had grown more reasonable. Next had been a pair of forgotten dinners and a series of late-evening texts she should have asked him to explain. Most pronounced of all had been a tightening in Jeremy’s posture, a sharpening in his dress and bearing that spoke of some fresh, uncommunicated ambition. For years, he had had a software engineer’s studied ruffledness. Too hip, too knowing, to wear clothes properly. Now, he seemed catalog-ordered. Pressed and ready. Had he, too, experienced a sudden blooming into maturity?

Certainly he had seemed happier. Seemed happy today, despite their unresolved arguments and the tension hanging between them. Or perhaps the tension was hers alone. Even now, adjusting the inch or two of collar above his sweater, Jeremy appeared newly boyish, serene. A beautiful animal released from captivity. Though the metaphor was unjust, she lingered on it for a moment before realizing that she was staring, her hairbrush hanging uselessly at her side like a clubbed hand. Beside her, Jeremy let go of his collar and turned his head, angling his eyes until he met hers in the mirror.

“You’re glaring. Is everything all right?”

“Of course it is. But your fold is wrong.” She took a step toward him and lifted her hands to the fabric, pretending to smooth the crease. “There,” she said. “You’re ready to see her.”

Jeremy tensed beneath her fingers, and Morgan experienced a sudden thrill of self-loathing. This—her sad, useless sarcasm—was no way to send him off. Or to begin her own day. In half an hour, she would be lost in the same chemoinformatic database to which she had given the last six months of her life: the proteins and peptides, the data analysis algorithms that were already leading, in competing labs, to breakthroughs that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. Today, cancer was being fought on the level of the individual. When they finally arrived, oncological vaccines would be customizable. Yet Morgan would still be here, in this bathroom, unable to say plainly what she wanted and why.

She tried again. “I’m sorry. Believe me, I know—”

“Look,” Jeremy interrupted, raising his hand to silence her. “You’ve made your feelings clear. And so have I.”

Morgan said nothing. She was still holding his collar in her two hands, and she let it go and dropped them to her side. She took a step back, giving him space, just as Jeremy turned to face her. His expression was softer than it had been a moment ago, but she saw that his eyes were already moving over her shoulder—in the direction, presumably, of the digital clock in the bedroom. Of course. Grown-up Jeremy couldn’t be late. He was designing a new self, a new version, and one errant keystroke could crash the system.

Besides, he had made his feelings clear. Not just once but several times. A week ago today, she had come upon his phone and had, in an impulse swiped from television dramas, read his texts. And in doing so had confirmed what she’d wanted to ignore. Jeremy had a girlfriend. A twenty-two-year-old seven months out of Brown. An intern whom Morgan had actually met at an autumn launch party and whose palpable eagerness had left her both bemused and faintly repelled. Confronted, Jeremy had denied nothing, saying instead that while he didn’t want a divorce, he had no intention of ending the affair. The straightforwardness of this declaration had left Morgan mute, less in anger than in stunned perplexity. It hadn’t been until the next night, and the next two after that, that she had found her voice. What he was proposing was unacceptable. She wouldn’t allow it. Yet here they were, several days later, their situation unchanged. He was leaving—flight, not fight—and in a moment she would leave, too. Work, their mutual refuge, would stretch their quarrel over months if allowed to do so. All she had were mornings like these.

And so she held her stance, blocking his passage into the bedroom beyond. He spread his hands—an appeal, perhaps, to her reason—and she watched as he fought to keep his face clear of emotion. To show annoyance or anger would be to engage her, and his plan required that she vanish. Become irrelevant. Until she stepped aside, then, there was weakness in his position. A good scientist, she would probe it. Define its limits.

She said, “I need to know that you’ll be home for dinner tonight.” There. A sensible, wifely request. Had her that been an if, her need a little less pleading, they might have been any other couple.

Jeremy’s hands fell, and he looked away again—not at the clock this time but into the vague middle distance, perhaps at the towel rack he had tidied minutes earlier. “I can’t promise anything.”

“And why not?” It was a sullen, self-defeating question, and Morgan knew immediately that she shouldn’t have asked it. Yet she had committed herself and had no choice now but to wait for an answer.

“I may have other plans.”

“With her? Again?”

“Morgan.”

“You can’t do this, Jeremy.”

“Morgan, I am.”

With that, he stepped past her, moving carefully to avoid body contact. She turned to watch him before she could catch another glimpse of herself in the mirror. The woman there would haunt her all day if sighted. Taking a step into the bedroom, she saw through its second doorway that Jeremy was already moving down the staircase, satchel in hand. She thought briefly of following him, of protesting further, but what could she say that wouldn’t make things worse? Instead, she returned to her closet, a palatial space accessible by the master bathroom, and pulled on her boots and coat. In less than a minute, she was in her car, radio turned up, windows tight against the cold, heading across town.

***

How had this marriage, this partnership of equals, taken so wrong a turn? Morgan had met her future husband on a hot Southern quad, rushing distractedly to a sandwich counter before another three hours in the lecture hall. She had been a student then, an undergraduate, as he had, and had caught sight of him only an instant before the two of them had collided. Her book—she still owned the dog-eared Quantitative Chemical Analysis—had gone flying, as had her binders and purse, and Jeremy had stooped calmly to retrieve them before introducing himself, even placing his hands on her shoulders to make sure—his words—that she hadn’t hurt herself.

Even in the South, even in the early years of the new century, such behavior on the part of a man was considered retrograde. Provocative. Yet rather than protest, Morgan had met his eyes and said her own name, feeling as she did so that she was opening up a parallel universe, an alternate reality that had no business existing and that had to be pursued for that very reason. For the first and only time in her life, she had skipped her class, and the two of them had gone to dinner together, walking across campus arm in arm. Three days later, in the pleasant chaos of his dorm room, they had made love for the first time. They had been together ever since.

The man she had met that day—with whom she had eaten, talked through the night, and ultimately set up a household—was as unlike her fellow biochemists-in-training as she had been from the teenage boys back home. Even from the start, Jeremy had been bursting with excitement: about the way he would live, the money he would make, the way his field would change, with no effort at all, what it meant to exist on this planet. Though Morgan had been similarly ambitious—her high school dates had known instinctively that her future lay beyond them—her course of study had already taught her circumspection, respect for processes. Leukemia, cystic fibrosis, lupus: All would be cured through the efforts, the combined man-hours, of tens of thousands of people across the generations. The long night in the lab, her professors called it. The students in her department were already gearing up.

As, of course, was she. Jeremy had known—no one could deny this—exactly what he was signing up for when he married her, three weeks after graduation. Had known it and had thrived. Far from losing himself in their various moves—for her internships, her doctoral study, and now her research fellowship—Jeremy had discovered the budding tech sector, the promising firm, in every town. By the time they had arrived in Nashville, itself an up-and-comer, he had begun to develop a name for himself, an ever-widening circle of friends and collaborators. His life, as far as Morgan could tell, was going exactly as he had planned it. So what, she asked herself again, had gone wrong?

Not for the first time in the last several days, she made herself recount Jeremy’s arguments, the bulk of which seemed ripped from contemporary-lifestyle blogs. He loved her—on that point he was firm—but her desire for monogamy was mere evolutionary baggage, a holdover from the days of cave dwelling. Of torch-bearing hordes creeping into unsuspecting encampments. In the twenty-first century, marriage was about trust and mutual respect, the pooling of emotional resources. Yes, he was having an affair, but now Morgan was free to do the same. In any case, he refused to be constrained by her squeamishness.

Easing off of the expressway, shielded from the low winter sun by a row of billboards, Morgan repeated Jeremy’s word, hearing the censure in its drawn-out sibilants. Was it squeamishness that kept her from other men’s beds? An archaic sense of virtue? Two nights ago, over a third glass of wine, she had downloaded Tinder on her phone and had spent a long hour swiping left, hardly seeing the faces that flashed across her screen. Did fairness demand that she choose one of them? Fuck a stranger to appease an accusing universe? This morning, in the physical closeness of the bathroom, the answer had been no, despite the anger that she felt. Now, as she navigated the midtown traffic, fighting her way across three lanes to make a right on Broadway, she wondered if she had dismissed the possibility too easily. How comforting, how just it might feel to swipe right instead. Seduce and be seduced. Keep her own secret or, copying Jeremy’s behavior, fail to keep it.

Just ahead of her now was her turn and, immediately beyond it, the site of the work that would soon clear her head of other thoughts. Morgan watched as the street receded beneath her and the lab’s understated logo came into view: a sugar-phosphate backbone webbed by spidery base pairs, all rendered in a pale-olive green. Here was yet another metaphor for her consideration: Her marriage, two spiraled nucleotides—a strand of social and legal DNA—was in danger of unraveling. Could the parts be put together again, or would replacements have to be slipped into the gaps?

Gripping the steering wheel with more effort than necessary, Morgan pulled into the parking lot and found her space unoccupied, a promising development at last. She switched off the engine and reached for her purse on the passenger seat beside her. Inside it, her phone had begun to buzz, and she removed the device and glanced down at its screen. An incoming text. Jeremy. It’s a “no” to dinner tonight, his message read. We’ll talk soon.

Letting out a quick breath, nearly a gasp, Morgan re-read the text in the heated silence of the car. She gazed ahead without seeing, trying to imagine a scenario in which Jeremy’s message meant anything other than what it clearly did. After a moment, she blinked into focus and watched as two of her colleagues passed in front of her on their way to the building, each staring at his own phone as if mimicking her. Both men were handsome, their faces aglow in the cold, and as Morgan stared at them a feeling from her adolescence—desire mingled faintly with loathing—welled up in her. She closed her eyes against the sensation, silently counting to five, then ten, as it passed. The colleagues were young, both of them. Both were postdocs like her. She tried to remember if either was married but found that she couldn’t. Or did she require a married man? Such a question, with its brutal hypothesis, was better left unanswered.

Morgan placed the phone in her purse once more and stepped out of the car, ducking her head against a sudden, biting wind as she walked across the pavement. The lobby desk normally occupied by Sera, the cheerful, headscarf-draped receptionist, was empty, and Morgan recalled the reason only as she passed alongside it. A patent had been awarded to one of the basement teams. The morning would begin with a celebratory gathering in the first-floor lounge. All hands on deck for cappuccinos and raisin brioche. She would have to take the stairs to avoid it.

As she descended, she paused on the landing and pulled her phone from her purse once more. The screen was dark, dormant, and she saw a shadowy reflection of herself on its surface. Two minutes later, safely alone in the cube she shared with four labmates, she slumped in a chair and read Jeremy’s message for the third time. She glanced at the closed office door, its motionless doorknob, then back at her screen. Near the bottom-right corner sat Tinder, a finger-sized square waiting to be touched, its orange flame lurid against a sea of white. It was early still, not even nine o’clock, but she knew that what she wanted could be found easily enough. If she wanted it, that is.

Sitting up straighter, she checked the doorknob again. Still nothing: Everyone would be upstairs for another twenty minutes at least. And what would they say, in any case? Revise yesterday’s notebooks, then carry on! Jeremy might respond similarly, were she to trust his assurances. And how much better—of this she was certain—to choose a stranger rather than a workmate. She could be browsing now, selecting from among thousands the man with whom Jeremy might be effaced. Or through whom.

Here, she knew, was another worry to hold her in place: the fear, almost a certainty, of exploiting whomever she chose. Yet who would say no, even to those terms? She had appraised herself honestly in the bathroom mirror. Her face was still girlish, her body so nearly young. The man she picked would be no victim. Wasn’t the bigger worry excessive gratitude? Or, unthinkably worse, love?

Pushing the thought aside, Morgan moved her thumb and opened the app, watching as its interface filled her screen. Now that she had given in to the impulse, she wondered how she had held out so long. Her husband had sent his text from less than a mile away, already in the presence of his lover, guiltlessly certain of the evening that awaited him. She would have to have an evening of her own—the only way, she now understood, to even things out. Restore a balance. The sole remaining questions were whom, how, and where: mere details, waiting to be determined. How easy to do it now, make plans and reclaim a portion of what she had lost. Alone and unwatched, free for the first time in days, she was ready at last to get started.

***

The man Morgan chose was tall and heavily built: a former athlete, she felt sure, or perhaps one still. Though she had told herself while browsing that Jeremy played no role in her selection, she knew that she had picked someone—dull, earnest, aggressively unsophisticated—certain to inspire her husband’s contempt. The man’s interests were boating, the city’s hockey team, and the large dogs partly visible in his out-of-focus selfie. An hour of drinks after work had revealed him to be apolitical, bored with his job—up for anything with the right lady, he had said without smiling, and twice as much with the wrong one. His name, he had told her, was Chad. And within seconds of meeting him in person, Morgan had known that she could never sleep with him.

It was with grim fascination, then, that she watched herself walk, coat pulled tightly around her, across the parking lot of Chad’s apartment complex, two steps behind him as they made their way to his unit. What had changed her mind—altering her plans in a single, jarring instant—had occurred just as the check arrived, and even then the moment had felt less genuine than scripted: as cinematic as her reading of Jeremy’s texts. Glancing away from her companion, draining the last of a disappointing martini, Morgan had seen from across the bar the familiar back of a head. A white collar protruding from a sweater. Her husband was here, somehow, in this place he would never have chosen. Across from him sat the intern, and as Morgan stared the girl leaned forward and took a bite from Jeremy’s plate. Morgan looked away, obeying an unshakeable instinct that to see more would put Jeremy beyond her reach for good. Or her beyond his. Turning back to Chad, she watched him place two bills on the table and reach for his coat. She made herself look in his eyes as she asked him to show her where he lived.

Approaching his doorway now, distracted by the clip of her boots on the pavement, Morgan told herself to focus not on her nerves but her agency—a word made tedious in recent years but a useful one nonetheless. She was present in this moment, aware and in control. She was choosing what she was doing, had her reasons for it, and could stop it if she wished. Though her heart was beating more quickly than it had in months, the reminder calmed her, and she quickened her pace and drew alongside Chad as he reached into his pocket. Smiling as seductively as she knew how, she pulled the jangling keys from his fingers and inserted one of them into the lock, choosing nearly at random from among half a dozen of equal size. It worked. Chad grinned at her as she handed the ring back to him.

“This is it,” he said. He swung the door open and flipped on the lights. “I straightened the place. The dogs are put up. Let me get you another drink.”

“You do that,” Morgan answered, hardly listening but moving instead through the cramped entryway into Chad’s living space. To her surprise, the room before her was neatly kept, the furniture clean and new. Among the tidy chairs, the single well-stuffed sofa, was nothing of the overgrown child. The momma’s boy or village fool. That she had expected otherwise seemed suddenly unfair—a way of thinking that she would look back on and hate. Perhaps her other assessments had been wrong, as well. Turning around, feeling at once friendlier and as if she had something to atone for, she took a step toward Chad and put her shoulders back, letting her coat fall slowly to the floor behind her. The gesture was sexier than she had intended, but she liked the way that Chad was staring at her as a result, as if he had never seen anything better. As if she were naked in front of him.

Dropping the keys and nudging the door shut, he strode toward her and pulled her into a sudden kiss, more gently than his size might have led her to expect but far more firmly than she was used to. Though his impatience was disconcerting, she felt herself relaxing into his embrace almost immediately. Perhaps this—lively sex with an artless jock—was exactly what she needed. The antidote to the poison of her week, of her husband’s post-adolescent mistress. It was, after all, exactly what she had come here for.

Pressing her body into his, beginning to warm to the thought, Morgan tried not to review the now familiar evidence. She needed this. She needed to fix her marriage. The marriage was broken. Jeremy had broken it. The equations, as drab and musty as freshman calculus, had seemed solvable as recently as this morning: a series of problems awaiting her investigative skill. Now, however, a new and wilder variable was making itself known: the start of something like elation inside of her. Or, conversely, like hysteria. Only seconds old, the sensation was already impossible to name—it felt feral, unhinged—but she knew at once that it could carry her into oblivion if she let it.

Grabbing Chad’s face, she mashed her lips against his and concentrated on the pressure between them. The wintery roughness of his skin. After a moment, she felt his hands on her belt, but this, too, seemed indefinable. Bereft of any context beyond the mechanics of fingers on a buckle. A prong lifted from a leather strap. Only when she felt her zipper moving downward, Chad’s hands on her waistband, did she gather herself long enough to grunt an assent. But by then she was nearly bottomless, her pants around her knees and her panties taut across her thighs. The lewdness of the pose flustered her, and she leaned back to free her hands and finish the job herself. Chad’s eyes were still closed as far as she could tell, and he seemed to be mouthing something, as if the two of them were still kissing. She stepped quickly out of her boots and slacks and let her underwear fall to the carpet. Then she pressed forward again and began to remove Chad’s coat.

It was a disadvantage, an indignity bordering on humiliation, to be undressed so much sooner than a new partner, and as Morgan worked the buttons of Chad’s shirt, determined to catch him up, she felt a tremor developing in her fingers. A fault line running the length of her self-possession. Opening his eyes, Chad glanced down and pulled her hands aside and began to undo the garment himself. Morgan watched his movements, his rigid frown of concentration, and understood that a critical impasse had been reached. A stumble made that might bring them out of their mutual trance. Lowering her hands to Chad’s buckle, willing herself not to think, she coaxed the leather through the frame and moved on to the snap of his jeans. It gave with a pop, and she tugged the jeans down, hardly bothering with the thin gold teeth of his fly. Before she could lean forward, however—before she could touch him or even look up—she felt his hands under her arms. Her body being lifted and spun around. Now Chad was behind her. Their momentum, just as Morgan had desired, had been rescued, and she could give herself over to it once again.

Steadying herself, she bent forward and took hold of the sofa back, her heels raised from the carpet and her elbows bent. Now that her body was still, her mind began to churn again, despite her intentions to the contrary. Before her was the irrevocable instant, the point on the graph to which all lines had led. She knew this pose, this exquisite anticipation, from her own marriage—her many years as a willing and faithful lover—and she knew that this was the picture that would torment Jeremy were he ever to find her out. No matter what he had previously said. With her husband, such positioning was visceral. Thrillingly dangerous. An enactment of dominance stripped of its malice, bubbling up from a wellspring deep with trust. Now, she thought, the act was vaguely demeaning, despite her ability, should she so choose, to put a stop to it. Yet wasn’t the debasement part of the appeal? Losing Jeremy, she could let go of herself, as well. Disappear into unreality just as her husband had wanted.

The idea was a compelling one, and Morgan allowed herself to pursue it as Chad moved behind her. After a few seconds, his body met hers, and for a grateful moment she could think of nothing else. She turned her head to look at him but found the angle unworkable, so she closed her eyes and concentrated instead on her senses. There, so deep within her that it might have been subatomic, stirred once more the feeling she had experienced earlier. The strange and frightening euphoria that threatened to sweep her out to sea. She imagined her body, frail and destructible, borne up on a wind-tossed raft. If she could only crest a wave, reach its frothing edge, she would be safe. Her ride exhilarating. But there was peril, too: a mortal danger hidden beneath the thrill. One mistake, one instant’s carelessness, would send her flying. Would shatter her against a roiling surface.

Opening her eyes, she tried again to glance over her shoulder, aware that abstraction alone would never deliver her safely. What she needed was personal, no matter how temporary. An establishing of some kind of connection. She strained her neck, feeling the pressure between her shoulders, and found Chad’s face at last. To her dismay, his eyes were glassy, staring but not seeing, as if he, too, was lost in a world of his own invention. She said his name—the first time she had done so since meeting him—but he merely increased his pace in response, and Morgan felt something inside of her change, as abruptly as a deadbolt sliding into place. As irreversibly as a pool of water turning brackish. Whatever it was, it was enough. She had to stop, had to get away. And not soon, not when Chad was finished, but now.

Moving her arm, still twisted toward him, she placed her palm flat against his stomach. The gesture seemed to wake him, for he blinked rapidly and looked at her, as if startled, against all reason, to find her there.

“What the fuck?” he said, his voice dazed but his body continuing to move.

“I’m sorry. I—”

“Oh, no,” he interrupted. “No, no, no, no.”

Morgan tried to stand up, to turn around, but his hands on her waist were holding her still. And it was too late, anyway. She heard Chad cry out—whether in anger or pleasure she couldn’t tell—and after a few more moments she felt him stepping away from her. He didn’t speak, and neither did she. Instead, she watched as he crossed the room and disappeared down a narrow hallway, heading, perhaps, to a bathroom. She would have liked the use of one herself, but this was no time. Gathering her clothes, she pulled her underwear on swiftly and stepped into her pants. She put on her coat and boots. Somewhere in the back of the unit, Chad was naked, whereas she had never come out of her blouse or bra. The disparity struck her now as something shameful, as if, in not bothering to undress her fully, Chad had declared her beneath his interest. But such thinking—the near-opposite of what she had felt only minutes ago—was ridiculous. A punishment she hadn’t earned and didn’t deserve. She would simply shake it off, shake all of this off. She would start right now.

Taking her purse from the counter, she stepped out of the apartment and into the bitter night air. Across the parking lot, her car sat where she had left it, well away from the others and illuminated by a gleaming lamppost. She walked toward it, not bothering to shut the door behind her, glancing at her watch as she went. This was how she would pull herself back into the orderly world. One gesture, one act of normalcy, at a time. The hour was seven o’clock. She stared at the watch’s face, disbelieving it. But there was no mistake. Seven o’clock on the dot. It had only seemed like hours, as if the entire evening had already passed. The truth was sharper. Harsher. She had been in Chad’s apartment less than fifteen minutes.

***

Turning into her driveway nearly half an hour later, Morgan was surprised to see light behind the thin lace of her dining room curtains. The kitchen, too, was aglow. Jeremy, his habit unbreakable, had been through the house already, switching on every bulb in his path. But how had he beaten her home? The answer to that question would require a story, and Morgan wanted to hear it even less than she wanted to tell Jeremy her own.

She took her time pulling into the garage then shut off the engine. For a moment she sat without moving, her hands in her lap, ordering her thoughts. Was it possible that she was wishing her husband back in the arms of his lover, for a few more minutes at least? That three or four hours’ solitude was worth yet another betrayal? She had given no thought to the rest of the evening beyond the knowledge that the time would be hers absolutely. She would use it to cleanse her mind and body in peace. Shape the events of the night into a narrative, not for her husband but for herself. Now, however, she would have to pass a gatekeeper, pay a toll of sorts, and the idea wearied her, as if she had already had the confrontation she wished to escape.

Climbing out of the car, determined to avoid it if she could, she felt her way to the door and slowly let herself in. Her husband was sitting at the kitchen table, and almost before she had closed the door behind her, well before she could stop him, he began to talk. Though she moved through the room without answering, without so much as a glance in Jeremy’s direction, she caught a sense of his words and understood that the evening had been momentous for him, as well. But now was not the time to deal with it. Now was not the time even to hear it.

Instead, she climbed the stairs and entered the bathroom, going first to the toilet and then the shower, stripping off her clothes as she went. Only when the water began to pour over her head did she allow herself, finally, to consider all that had happened, and when she did she surprised herself with the clarity of her thinking. Between bad sex and assault, she knew, lay an uneasy expanse, its borders political as well as moral. The current orthodoxies of consent were intricate, necessary, and utterly without mercy. What she had decided—it had taken her until this moment to do so—was that she had not been raped. Yet neither had her wishes been respected. Deciding what to call that middle ground, what flag to plant there, would be the work of weeks. Perhaps months. Let Jeremy stew in whatever revelation had brought him home early.

Stepping out of the shower, Morgan drew on a robe and moved into the bedroom. To her surprise, Jeremy had taken his place on the far side of their mattress, and though his back was turned to her, she understood that he was still awake. That he was choosing, in his silence, to enact a gesture of peace. In part because she was too tired not to, Morgan chose to accept it, lowering herself onto the bed and allowing her limbs to relax against the softness of the sheets. How many times had she and Jeremy lain like this before, side by side, not speaking, not revealing, but discarding, through their very stillness, the troubles of their day? Might there be a way back, through something similar, to what they had once had? Or would everything, in the end, have to be told?

The thought was one to sleep on, to dream through, and Morgan found upon opening her eyes again that the night had passed and she was alone in the room, light streaming in through the curtains on either side of her. Standing up from the bed, straightening her robe and running her fingers through her hair, she walked downstairs to find Jeremy scooping coffee into the machine, his back to her once again. This time, however, he turned around nearly at once, and almost without pausing he resumed the conversation he had attempted the previous evening. He had seen her at the bar, he said. Just as she must have seen him. The sight of her with another man had shown him the truth of all she had felt and said, and he had left his girlfriend without a thought. He had stumbled home—how, he barely knew—and now he was ready to apologize. To beg if necessary. To forget without question anything that she, last night, had done. In short, to resume the lives that they had left off.

All this Morgan heard while standing mere feet from him, her bare toes freezing on the unheated kitchen floor. And at once she saw that without meaning to she had entered a particular kind of story, as firm and unyielding as a Victorian corset. With her own tale of woe—with exactly the allotment of suffering that she possessed—she could buy her husband’s fidelity. His return, not now but forever, to the marriage bed. His anger, not against her but on her behalf. Something better, far better, than mere forgiveness. Though she had read no literature since college, she understood that she could take a place beside its great and cunning heroines. And who could blame her? Who could say that she had taken anything that didn’t belong to her already?

Unless, that is, there was another story to be told. One that she alone would conceive, as pure and clear as a diamond. In this version, she and the man whom Jeremy had seen had gone their separate ways. She had roamed the city for a time, and then she had come home. There was nothing for Jeremy to forget. Nothing that he would have to avenge. Forgiveness—that impossible and blessed thing—would be hers alone to confer. She would teach herself to do it.

This was the story that she would make hers, if she could bring herself to be brave enough. The one that she would let herself believe and, in time, would recall as easily as if it had really happened. In such a way, all would be made well. The story alone would save them.

Meeting her husband’s eyes, she took a step toward him and began to tell it.

Graham Hillard has contributed to The Believer, Blackbird, Image, Notre Dame Review, Sewanee Review, Sou’wester, Southern Humanities Review, and numerous other journals. He has also written for The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Oxford American, Sport Literate, and other magazines. He has been a resident fellow on several occasions at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a Tennessee Williams scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists, and a recipient of an individual artist fellowship from the Tennessee Arts Commission.