the state of being infatuated or obsessed with another person, typically experienced involuntarily and characterized by
a strong desire for reciprocation of one’s feelings but not primarily for a sexual relationship [Google Dictionary]
His Alice had been gone two years – the grief of loss diminished, but never entirely assuaged – when he saw the obituary for Yvette’s Howard.
He’d hardly known Howard, but they stayed in touch over the years through Christmas cards, and Yvette sent a sympathy card when Alice died. With her characteristic attention to detail, the next Christmas card was addressed not “Mr. and Mrs.” but simply “Chuck,” and she scribbled “Sorry again for your loss” on the card.
On the way to work he bought an equally classy condolence card and scrawled “Thinking of you” below the printed message.
He wanted to write more. He wanted to say what she must already know: that the urgency of physical intimacy yields with age to the more important, durable intimacy of shared minds; that not having someone with whom to swap and appreciate each day’s trials and triumphs is a crippling loss. He wanted to suggest that consoling sorrow might grow from solace to a lesser but nonetheless welcome affection and affinity.
He did not know how to say all that, so he sealed the card and drove it to the post office to be sure it reached her.
They’d worked together for several years. She was smart, hard-working, confident enough to challenge him or any other man in a large department of a large insurance company, yet tactful enough not to bruise male egos — an important skill back then.
And pretty. No, that understated it. Dark hair drawn back into a chignon, fine-drawn features: high cheekbones, piercing blue eyes, a wide, thin-lipped smile that could light up her face. Tall enough to come up to his shoulder. Severely packaged in businesslike pants-suits most of the time, but on informal occasions wearing skirts and sweaters that showed off a handsome figure. Yvette was beautiful.
Just as important, she left him no doubt that the attraction was mutual.
The company asked them to head a small committee to create “community events” and encourage participation. Most employees knew only those who worked nearby. Fighting daily commuter traffic left little time for socializing; half-hour lunches in the company’s huge cafeterias left little opportunity to close the gap. People will be happier and therefore more productive, the vice-president instructed, if they feel part of a community. Find ways: Games, shows, outings, family picnics; be inventive.
They proved a good team, tackling the project with a will, successful enough that management wanted them to keep at it. They gladly did so, meeting often over lunch, where they could linger because on company business. Their desks were near enough to leave each other notes. They talked about the arts, and discovered shared tastes in books, theater, music.
Somewhere he learned a phrase that described such collaboration: They were office spouses.
More physical intimacy seemed initially innocent: Their bodies brushed occasionally; he put an arm around her waist, and she did not object; he held her chair, close enough to inhale her perfume.
He wanted her. On Valentine’s Day he put a box of chocolates on her desk, in the original shipping box to hide the bright red heart-shaped package from passersby. She arrived, opened it, and promptly offered bites to their office neighbors. “Bought it on impulse on the way in,” she lied, “on sale.”
She gave him the last piece. “Enjoy!” she smiled, and then let her face turn somber. “We have to talk.”
At lunch, she came right to the point. “I’m very fond of you, Chuck. I might love you. But you have a family, and I’m not a homewrecker. I’ve accepted my boyfriend’s invitation to marry. You and your wife must meet him.”
So they went to dinner, the four of them. Alice accepted that they were celebrating the engagement of a co-worker with whom he shared a company assignment. Howard accepted that he was meeting his fiancée’s co-worker who might someday be her boss, a fabrication Yvette had urged. He and Alice attended the wedding.
Meantime, he and Yvette handed the community-events committee to others, so had no further occasion for long lunches or after-hours stays.
He was bereft for a time, but came to understand that it was the right decision. He turned his attention wholly to his wife, and she responded; their marriage grew deeper. If Alice guessed that his sudden ardency was rebound from an unconsummated infidelity, she never let on. They put the kids through college, downsized to a condo, had time for plays and symphonies and art museums and traveled to Europe and the Caribbean.
Her inoperable pancreatic cancer was a tragedy. He unstintingly nursed her himself until the final days, and mourned her inconsolably. Almost 80, he joined two senior men’s lunch clubs, volunteered weekly at Meals on Wheels, and resigned himself to solitude at home. Through all that, he never gave a minute’s thought to Yvette –until he read that obit.
He hadn’t thought of much else since.
He went to Howard’s funeral; signed the register; waited in line to murmur a prayer at the casket and take her hands for a moment to say how sorry he was. Her grief was evidently as profound as his when Alice died. The pallor of loss made her more beautiful than ever. He sat through the service in a pew at the back, skipped the interment solemnities and went home for his first daytime stiff bourbon in years.
He recalled occasional news accounts of high school sweethearts who married others and then decades later, after their spouses’ deaths, re-discovered each other. His romance with Yvette had been entirely different: a stolen intermezzo whose melody lingered only faintly; a brief flame that left few embers to re- kindle.
On impulse he logged into his seldom-used Facebook. She was there, with several entries about Howard’s illness and death, the most recent asking if friends knew of a bereavement group where she might find comfort.
At a younger age, he knew, widows attract swarms of men who hope their condolences will prompt invitations to re-warm beds left cold. He and Alice had friends widowed in mid-life, and heard the complaints. Predatory sympathy, one friend called it.
Is it different, he wondered, at a later age? Or would a newly-bereft widow see even the most tentative outreach as predatory? Even when, at his age, the spirit must be less willing and the flesh hopelessly weak, so that he craved no more than companionship?
He waited a week, and a second week, fighting off the impulse to call.
Then one day it came to him that there must be other men seeking company: competitors. Waiting longer to explore a new relationship might put him at the back of the line.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. He took out his phone and dialed.
A winner in the Two Sisters Short Story Contest in June 2018