by Heather Burt
Faith slid her body off of Evan’s, onto the sweat-damp sheet. She squinted at the round blur of his face.
‘Justine’s in Burma now,’ she announced, remembering her sister’s latest postcard, then reached across him for her glasses, deposited on the bedside table sometime during the hurried, wordless first moments of their encounter. ‘I got a postcard on Wednesday. She sounded really impressed.’
‘Burma. How exotic,’ he said, his fingers swirling lightly around her breasts.
He’d seen a photograph of her sister once, in her wallet. They were remarkably similar. Long bodies, long, grey-blonde hair, grey-blue eyes. The sister’s glasses were narrower, with whimsical red frames. No one in the family could see worth a damn, Faith had told him. She’d worn glasses since she was four. Evan wished she’d wear them when they made love. He could imagine he was having sex with his highschool French teacher, maybe forget the other transgression altogether.
Faith’s husband couldn’t stand her sister.
‘He finds her kind of pretentious,’ she explained, the first time she and Evan met alone. ‘I think I know what he’s getting at. He’s quite astute in those kinds of judgments. But it’s not exactly pretension.’
‘What is it then?’ Evan asked, hungry for intimacies.
‘Oh. Justine’s a complicated person. I’ll get into it another time, when we’ve got more time.’
There never was, of course, more time.
He rolled onto his side, propped his head in his hand.
‘Isn’t Burma under some kind of corrupt military regime?’ he said, and she felt the soft bleariness of their lovemaking begin to harden.
She put on her glasses and checked the clock. Twenty more minutes, twenty-five at most.
‘Yes . . .’ she began. ‘The Burmese authorities are illegitimate and greedy and entirely self-serving. Justine said she debated a long time about whether or not to go. She didn’t want to support the regime by spending money there — apparently the government makes you change X-number of U.S. dollars at the airport — but at the same time . . .’ She shrugged.
‘So why did she go?’
There was an edge to his voice, he feared. He reached across the night table and tugged the cord of the venetian blinds to let in the last of the twilight. The sky over the city was multihued, ragged with cloud, blurred through the condensation forming on the window.
Faith sat up to explain.
‘I guess you could say she found a way to make it right. She talked to a guy in Bangkok who’d just come back from Rangoon, and he told her she’d have no problem sneaking by the compulsory money change at the airport. He told her that if she did that, she could change all her money on the black market, with regular people who could really use the U.S. dollars. And that’s how it turned out. She’s having a fabulous time.’
Evan turned his pillow on its end and leaned back against it. He opened the night table drawer for cigarettes, but there were none. Which was just as well. Another twenty minutes — nothing, really — and the agitation he sought to calm with nicotine, the pressure building in his chest, would give way to loneliness and languor.
‘What if she’d been caught?’ he tried. ‘At the airport, I mean.’
Faith looked down. She studied the egglike contours of his thighs beneath the sheet. Dear Evan. He struggled with moral complexity. When it came to their relationship, he said he understood, and most of the time she believed he did, but she imagined it was harder for him. Sometimes — those afternoons he’d putter about the apartment, or make her a cup of tea and suggest she read the paper, as if they were a regular couple — she suspected him of wanting her to leave her marriage. She wouldn’t, of course. She’d been very clear about that. Admittedly the circumstances had given her struggles of her own — uncertainties, guilt, moments of loathing Evan, or her husband, or herself — but those feelings stemmed from an arbitrary system of values, set down by a society that no longer existed.
‘Doing what you think is right involves risks,’ she said at last. ‘And you know I don’t mean that in a preachy way. What’s right is never clear-cut, is it.’ She pulled the sheet up under her arms and hugged her knees. ‘I think the biggest emotional risk we can take is acknowledging that life is morally ambiguous. There’s no universal rule book, and that can be a scary thing. You have to take responsibility, decide what you think is right and honourable and meaningful. That’s what I think Justine was doing. Yes, she could have been caught. And if she was, I guess they would have made her go through the official money change. But . . . I don’t know . . . She made a choice that made sense, for her. I admire that.’
She pressed her lips together and raised her eyebrows. She had a way of talking about such things, he’d noticed, that suggested she was trying the ideas out. She wandered, speculated. Had it always irritated him, he wondered? At first, it had been about sex. ‘Monogamy seems unrealistic and ultimately destructive,’ she’d said. (Not monogamy is, but seems.) ‘Isn’t it too much to expect of one person, that he or she fulfill all the sexual needs of another? If a woman one day said she would never again go for a walk or have an intimate conversation with anyone except her husband, everyone would think she had weird issues to sort out. But the minute she says she’s only going to have sex with this one person, no one bats an eye.’
He’d allowed the argument to make sense to him. Of course — he was in love with her. Nothing else mattered. It was the kind of love that severed all ties, made him completely self-contained, independent, even from her. It hadn’t mattered that her husband was his thesis supervisor, that he liked the man very much, that everything, including his relationship with Faith, would fall apart if they were to make their love public. None of that had mattered, and he’d allowed himself to hope that she would show up at his door one day and announce that she’d left.
He studied her profile, the tight, direct line of her jaw so different from his own loose and lazy chin. She was like that exotic, forbidden country Justine had cheated her way into.
Her marriage was the regime that kept him away, he thought next, for the metaphor was an easy fit. But its image troubled him. It wasn’t accurate. No, if there was a totalitarian power dictating his actions, it was his own desire — illegitimate, greedy, self-serving.
‘I think she should have done the money change,’ he said quietly. ‘Just been honest about the nasty part then made the best of the experience. Don’t you think that would have been better?’
Faith didn’t answer.
Outside, the sky was black. The white glow of a streetlamp, sliced by the shadow of the blinds, painted the wall behind the bed. He stroked her silvery shoulder with the back of his hand. She didn’t respond, so he withdrew. He checked the clock. They still had time — too much to give up, too little to do anything with.
The telephone on the night table rang, startling them both. He reached out, tentatively, and on the third ring, he answered.
Faith hugged her knees tighter. Evan never picked up the phone when she was over.
‘Hello?’ he said. ‘Oh, hi. . . Not much. I thought I’d get some writing done . . . Yeah? . . . Uh, sure . . . Yeah, sure . . . Carson’s? . . . Okay . . . Yep. See you there.’
‘You’re going out?’ she said.
‘In an hour or so. Peter and I are gonna have a beer and watch the football game. I haven’t seen him in ages.’
Something in his manner had shifted, she thought. She thought she should leave, go home, but the seminar she was supposed to be attending didn’t end for another fifteen minutes. She slid down and rolled onto her side, stretching her arm across Evan’s belly.
‘If someone offered you a free trip to Burma, right now, would you go?’ she said.
He stared out at the seamless black sky and frowned. His head hurt.
‘I don’t know. Probably,’ he said, then he glanced down at the clock, calculating the long, tyrannical minutes that remained.
This story first appeared in Green Hills Literary Lantern #13.