Isabelle Carruthers adores Tom Waits, smoky bars, sushi and Mai Tai's. She's our Associate Fiction Editor at Mind Caviar, and also serves on the staff of Clean Sheets as a Fiction Editor. Her writing has appeared in Clean Sheets, Zoetrope All-Story Extra, Physik Garden, suspect thoughts, Moondance, WordSalad, Amatory Ink and Philogyny. Her fiction has or will appear in The Mammoth Book of Best Erotica, Clean Sheets: From Porn to Poetry, and in Villains & Vixens, the forthcoming anthology edited by M. Christian and Jamie Joy Gatto.
E-mail Isabelle Carruthers.
Before He Was Mine
We’re down on Magazine Street, dog on leash, broiling under the July sun. The hound, named Lucky Dog in honor of the infamous wiener wagons of the Vieux Carre, looks decidedly unlucky today. He limps along, tongue unfurled, glaring at us occasionally with puppy-dog eyes full of reproach. A look that says, “I’m a damned hot dog and it’s all your fault.”
We pause in a sliver of shade beneath a storefront awning. There’s a bottle of water in my backpack and I offer this to the dog with a guilty conscience. He laps at the tepid puddle in the palm of my hand. Now he loves me again, and licks my fingers gratefully. I scratch his ears, the thing he loves most, and we relax in the shade for a moment. Adam has wandered a few feet away to investigate the window display at a gallery next door.
And then there are black sandals moving through our space, and a surprised exclamation that busts through the traffic noise to land on my ear. The feet stop, turn and approach, and crimson-tipped toes nudge the grungy leather shoes my lover wears. My eyes lift slowly, to ankles and thin calves, past the hem of a black sundress, upward to pale arms. Wrapped tightly around his neck.
He hugs her back, this strange female, and I first assume that she’s just an old friend. But I notice that her body is pressed too closely to his, her embrace too tight. She is still holding him even after his arms fall away from her and hang limply at his sides. Then he stumbles over a greeting, with the name “Kathy” in the middle of it, and it begins to sink in.
We inhabit the same streets, the same bars, the same eateries. It was inevitable that someday our paths would collide, when I least expected it. But I wasn’t expecting it today.
She fawns over him, remarking on the longer length of his hair, stroking his unshaven chin, touching him the way that I do. Like a lover. She seems not to have noticed me yet, still scrunched down on the sidewalk with the mutt. I feel sweaty and small, badly dressed in threadbare jeans and a soggy shirt, acutely aware of my weathered toenail polish. I’d like to disappear, and do this scene another time, when I’m cool and beautiful, with a proper pedicure.
But she sees the dog, and squeals as if she’s recovered a long-lost child. “Lucky! Remember me?” Kathy leans over and immediately finds the good spot behind the ears to scratch. She remembers. Lucky Dog nuzzles her crotch, detecting a familiar scent, strains at the leash. I have no choice, and release him to the arms of another woman.
And then she sees me. “Hi,” she says, with a smile that is forced and uncertain.
“Hi,” I respond, lamely. I don’t know what else to say.
“This is Elisabeth…,” Adam begins, and I can tell by the hesitation in his voice that he doesn’t know what else to say, either. Or how to say it. Of if he should say it. Maybe he won’t, and I’ll forgive him for that. But he takes a deep breath, and drops the bomb.
“… my wife.” His expression is somber. He looks like he wants to crawl inside the nearest manhole.
“Oh!” Kathy straightens abruptly, processing this news. The thing she least expected. “Well. Congratulations,” she says, and we both know she doesn’t really mean it. Her eyes narrow as she sizes me up. She’s noticing that my hair is unkempt and my make-up is hours old. She looks at my breasts. She looks at my toes.
She’s wondering what I offer that she didn’t, what I am that she wasn’t. Why me, and not her? But I don’t sense hostility or resentment, just confusion. And pain, a lingering ache that still persists after all these months and now flares anew upon seeing him.
Kathy doesn’t realize how much I know about her. That I know enough to feel bad for her, lousy for her sadness even though I had no part in it. That she cried and pleaded for him to stay, that she tried for months to rekindle the romance she had stubbornly imagined. That she didn’t understand why he would not return her love, and pushed for answers until he finally gave them in the kindest way he could.
And I know that he was the love of her life, before he was the love of mine.
She steps back, away from us. I can see that her hands are trembling, her eyes suddenly too bright. She was unprepared for this moment, and she is undone, naked. Her lips tighten, holding back words she can’t speak. She says that she must run along, late for something, somewhere. Her voice has fragile edge, and I know she wants to get away, quickly, before she loses her composure. I want to touch her arm, to say something gentle, so she’ll know that I understand, that I’m sorry for her grief. But I know this gesture would be strange and unwelcome. She would not understand my empathy.
Kathy says good-bye, and then she’s gone. We watch her walk away, each of us silent with our own thoughts, as she disappears from view. Then we gather our dog and move up the street in the opposite direction. We do not speak of her then or later, but her memory is heavy, wrapping around me like a shroud.
And in the night, when my fingers play on his flesh and my lips slide onto his swelling cock, I remember that he was inside her, before he was in my mouth. When he explores my body with warm hands and lips, I remember that it was her skin he touched, before it was mine. I moan at the soothing heat of his tongue, at the strength of his hands pressing my thighs apart, knowing that he gave this to her, too.
He enters me, penetrating the veil of her sadness and longing, completing me in the way that no one else can. Because of her, I am whole. But because of me, she will never be.
I catalog these moments in his arms; the fullness of his cock inside me; the texture of his skin; the taste of his kiss. The sound of my name, whispered. I make love to him desperately, embraced by her tragedy, as if I could give these memories back to her. I do this for her, in kindness, to thank her for letting him go. I do this for myself, because I know what it means to lose.
And later, as I wait for sleep, lulled by the innocent warmth of his body, I offer a prayer for the woman he left behind, the one who struggles to recall the taste of his kiss, the texture of his skin, and the sound of her own name, whispered. Because he was the love of her life, before he was the love of mine.
© 2001-2002 Isabelle Carruthers. All rights reserved. Do not copy
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