It would end in disaster, everyone said, and everyone was right, but everyone was on the outside of the situation and therefore did not know everything. She was on the inside, living with a man and in love with another woman, loving the man but not being sure anymore she should live with him, loving the extravagant Italian meals he cooked and the way he stood frowning when he painted in the corner of their living room that served as his studio, loving his longish black hair on the nape of his neck. But she also loved the longer black hair of the other woman, and how the other woman would kiss her and then pull back and look at her intently and then kiss her again, laughing; the other woman’s mouth was softer than the mouth of the man she lived with, and she could not stop thinking about kissing her.
The man she lived with knew that she cared for and admired the other woman, who was older; he admired the other woman as well. She was a well-known artist represented by a prestigious gallery. So far, he had been in only a couple of inconsequential group shows, but the other woman assured him that his work would be appreciated in time. He loved his girlfriend, whom he called his partner. The other woman sometimes stayed over when they all had drunk too much, sleeping in their king-sized bed with them, and though nothing had happened between any of them (though he wasn’t positive about what, exactly, had or hadn’t happened on the days the two women went off alone to spend time together), he enjoyed the aura of sexual possibility. He felt as though he had two beautiful women, and when the other woman was around he felt sexier than he did with his partner, whom he had lived with for nearly six years now.
The other woman had not been with anyone for a long time, and longed for a man to be her partner. Instead, this lovely, sensual younger woman had appeared in her life to confuse and exhilarate her. Every day she listed to herself the reasons why she should not be drawn more closely into this relationship with a young couple, but in the end those reasons did not seem very important when weighed against her own loneliness. She liked the man very much; he was generous and witty, and he had promise as an artist. She was drawn to him sexually, but the younger woman had declared that she was far too jealous to share the man she lived with. The other woman thought this was wise, because things would likely fall apart very quickly if the three of them were to start up anything in bed. She thought it would be wisest not to sleep in their bed at all, but she lacked the willpower to carry through on this insight. It felt too good to lie between them, or on the side next to the wall, to occasionally feel one or the other’s arms around her, to wake to the man making coffee and asking if anyone wanted toast, and if so, cream cheese, butter and jam, or just butter?
The life the young woman was living with her partner, that had once been so satisfying, had now begun to seem hollow and dull unless the other woman was around. Yet she also felt she was betraying her partner every time she felt this, and thought that if the other woman were not around, they might eventually return to their former domestic ease and intimacy. She tried not to call the other woman, but still she thought of her all the time, and in the end would invite her over, and feel immediately that life was interesting again. The three of them played cards, or watched movies; they cooked meals together, or he cooked for the women while they cuddled in bed, reading to each other. On weekends, they sometimes drove upstate for an afternoon to visit antique stores and farmer’s markets. At parties they sprawled comfortably together on their hosts’ couches while everyone speculated about what was going on between them. The other woman was having an affair with the man, or had become a lesbian; after years of painting men, she was now exhibiting female nudes, several of which clearly resembled the younger woman.
But the other woman had not become a lesbian and was not having an affair with anyone. It was true that the younger woman had modeled for her. But she had only kissed the younger woman, less than a handful of times. She thought she might really like the younger woman as a friend, and not a lover, but then again, life was mysterious; maybe, now that men did not seem as interested as they used to be, it was time to experiment, to explore another aspect of herself. How could she do this with the younger woman, though, without feeling as though she were betraying the friendship of the man? Even if he didn’t mind—and she wasn’t sure whether he would mind—she would make herself too vulnerable to the woman. Sex always made her vulnerable, and it would not be wise to give her heart to someone who also, clearly, lived with another person, slept with him every night and sorted through the bills with him and discussed who would use the car that day and who would take the train. No, it was impossible to enter into any kind of sexual affair, and she grew jealous that the younger woman had someone, while she had no one, only this halfway and increasingly unsatisfying relationship.
The man could not figure out how to make his partner happy. He would come home from work and find her crying, or in bed in the middle of the day. Lately, she didn’t want to leave the house, and he often ended up having to do the grocery shopping and other errands. He was glad that she had the other woman as a friend to talk to. She called and texted the other woman every day. Whenever she talked to the other woman, her voice grew light, and happy, and he felt this was a good sign, and that soon she would shake off whatever was bothering her.
Then the other woman had a show in England and went away for several weeks. The man’s partner grew more and more withdrawn, and often seemed angry at him. She was never in the mood to make love. He worried now that she would fall into the kind of terrible depression she had suffered around the time they had first met, when he had been married, when the woman who was now his partner had been the other woman. What a mess that had been. Disaster, in the end. Eventually that time had begun to feel like the distant past, as though those miserable, confusing events had happened to other people. All that was over, finished.
Although lately, certain memories of his ex-wife had resurfaced. How she had woken him one morning by putting her mouth on him. How she would laugh after accidentally burning dinner, or spilling wine on their new sheets, but be upset at mishearing something he said. The times she had slammed a door on him, only to immediately, contritely, open it again. The images struck him with surprising clarity and immediacy. At night he lay in bed with his partner, filled with those images, painful reminders that in spite of his deep love for his wife, and his best intentions, he had failed to keep his promises to her; when his partner rolled over in sleep and moved against him, he turned away.
Kim Addonizio’s “The Other Woman” is from her second collection of stories, The Palace of Illusions, due from Counterpoint/Soft Skull in September 2014. She is also the author of two novels from Simon & Schuster, five poetry collections, and two books on writing poetry. Addonizio plays harmonica with the word/music group Nonstop Beautiful Ladies. She currently divides her time between Oakland, CA and New York City and is working on a book of essays. Visit her online at www.kimaddonizio.com .