Other People’s Love Affairs


For 20 years, Erma and Violet lived together in Glass, neither simply as friends, nor precisely as lovers. If a question was raised (and one seldom ever was) about the nature of the relationship, they would share a quiet glance, blushing but unable to think of a proper response, not having a name for what they were to each other. They were corpulent ladies both, soft all over, down to the pale fleshy backs of their hands. They shared a room with two twin beds, and when she turned out the lamp each night, Erma would say, not shyly, “I love you, Violet,” and then listen for some time to the faint sound of her friend’s moving lips as she whispered her evening prayers. Lying there in the darkness, Erma was overcome with feeling, knowing it was she who rated highest among them.

Sex had never come into things, at least not in a conventional sense. It wouldn’t have, in Erma’s case, being something she had given up on and ceased to consider. All her life she had been conscious of being undesired. There was nothing lovable, the world had seemed to say, in a larger woman, or in a woman without an eye for lipstick and draperies. She had not been properly in love since the age of 11, when she’d pined briefly for the boy who hadn’t laughed when she’d sat in the pat of butter left cruelly on her desk chair. That she had wound up with another woman for a companion seemed perfectly natural and predictable to her, but she never considered hers the like of other people’s love affairs.

Mostly, they displayed little affection with one another, notwithstanding Erma’s nightly avowal. It wasn’t Violet’s way to hug and hold. She accepted Erma’s sweetness, but did not respond in kind. Only once had there occurred anything truly amorous between them, when news had come that Violet’s mother had died. They had shared their house for eight years by that time, but still the one knew precious little about the other’s family. Erma had not even known that Violet had a parent left living. That night, however, they shared one bed, and Erma kissed her friend’s soft, damp neck and ran her hands over her large body while she cried. “My poor little mom,” Violet said again and again. “She never hurt anyone at all.”

Their town was small, and they were known to people, traveling together as they did in their Volkswagen Bug, Violet always driving, except for one stretch of months when she had broken her ankle and couldn’t comfortably work the clutch. People waved when they drove by, and Violet tooted the horn. Erma had worked for many years in the card shop, and was known for that also, until eventually it closed and she decided to stay home with Violet, who had by then retired from the library. They didn’t fuss about clothing, which they bought through the post; their hair was cut cheaply by the barber in Glass. They were friendly with the bakers and the butcher, with the florist and the druggist, and with the men at the fish market, the tea salon, and the wine shop where they stopped each week for a bottle of port. It was Violet who established these relations, as though without effort, perhaps having responded differently than had Erma to the experience of growing up overweight and ignored. She was boisterous and outgoing, her hearty laugh used the way Erma had seen other women use a good figure or an expressive face.

They cooked together every night, elaborate dishes, stews and potpies in winter, grilled meats and potato salad in summer. They had large appetites, and were not not shy eating in front of one another, as both had been at other times in their lives. In the kitchen, as elsewhere, Violet directed, and though Erma was the more accomplished cook, she liked being told what to do, not minding even a harsh word when she’d done something wrong. Sometimes it would grow hot in the kitchen, and Violet would strip right down to her bra, her great dimpled stomach showing pink and unworried. “Don’t mind, do you, love?” she’d casually say, and then ask for a wooden spoon or a bowl she might need. “Doesn’t distract you, looking at this sweet old jelly roll?” And then she would laugh so that her whole big body shook and tumbled in a beautiful manner, like an image of water suspended for an instant in space.

Violet’s heart failed her as she had been warned that it would. Erma had tried a number of times through the years to institute diets for them both, not wanting to spoil their meals, but frightened of being left alone in the end; being the younger by several years, she’d been burdened by the pos- sibility of that. They were not at home when it happened, which made it harder, somehow. They had gone for lunch at a café they liked by the sea, and had eaten crab legs with buttered rolls and drunk white wine while seagulls landed nearby, waiting for what scraps they might leave behind.

Violet collapsed on one of the narrow paths that ran between the parks at the marina, where they had gone walking to move the blood and to take in the day. She had not complained of feeling ill, had not asked to slow down, as sometimes she did. Erma called the ambulance from her cel- lular phone, her hand shaking while she waited on the line; her other hand was holding Violet’s, which was moist and grasped weakly. “You fat jelly roll,” Erma said, whispering between sobs, Violet’s short, plump fingers pressed to her lips.

Other people on the path gathered and shouted for help; one man performed chest compressions while his wife held Erma away. From where they were on the ground, one could see nothing of the ocean and only a small patch of the sky. When the paramedics arrived, they opened Violet’s shirt, and Erma wept more, wanting to cover her friend, shy for her in this state of undress, which only she herself had been allowed before to see.

When, on the way to the hospital, she was told that Violet had died, the only thing Erma could think was that the end of her own life would come, too, either sooner or later, and that she would never, not once, have been kissed.

Violet had left a will, though she did not own a great deal beyond the house she shared with Erma. The will was in a safe-deposit box, which had to be opened by a cousin whom Violet had never mentioned, a woman who did not look a thing like her and who grumbled about the task, perhaps guessing that she would be unmentioned in the document. The cousin’s name was Catharine, and she looked only with curiosity at Erma when she met her at the house and was taken, riding in the passenger’s seat of the Volkswagen, to the bank.

“I suppose I knew her quite well when we were kids,” she said, unprompted, in the car. They were driving past the butcher’s, and Erma wondered if Mr. Billet had yet been told. “Haven’t seen her for ages, though. I understand she let things go in the end.”

Erma did not say anything. She hadn’t any idea what the other woman could mean, unless she was referring to weight. That there had been talk about Violet, even gossip, amongst the unknown people of her past was unsettling to think. Erma had not concealed a living world of family or old friendships from Violet; she had had none of those things when they’d met. That had been at a very low time, when she’d moved to Glass with what money she had left from her parents, two people who had wanted to be kind, but who’d never managed to hide their disappointment with life. They had died some two weeks apart, not because the one remaining (her father) could not bear to go on without the other, but because, in widowhood, he had been relieved of a burden, and had no obligations left to the living. She felt that her parents would have left their house and their money to somebody else if they could have, but had settled for her as they had settled for other things, too, because it had been their duty to do so. Neither her mother nor her father had ever been stout.

At the bank, Catharine was taken to the safe-deposit box, while Erma waited for her in the lobby. The floors were polished to a high gloss, and her eyes were bothered by the reflected glare from the overhead lights. She ate a mint from her purse, and blew her nose into a wrinkled tissue. She would have liked very much to be named next of kin. It had seemed only natural to her that she should be, but there were rules about that.

In the days since it happened she had not managed sleep. It was terrible to be in the bedroom with the empty twin bed beside her, sloppily made, as she’d long reproached Violet for doing. In the darkness there was only her own breathing, and she longed to hear the sound of her friend’s muted prayers. She could not even re-create them in her mind, unable somehow to recall ever having made out a word of the whispered invocation. What she did recall was the quietness of it, and the calm she had felt while listening, her buoyant and riotous friend transformed in the final moments of day.

There was a curiosity in the will. All had been left to Erma, without specification, except for a damaged roll-top desk, a cherry-wood antique that had been stored in the garage for as long as Erma had lived in the house. This was to be given to John Killian, the owner of The Green Man, where she and Violet had gone sometimes for drinks. John Killian was a tall and wiry fellow, balding since first she’d met him, friendly, but hardly one they’d remarked on at home.

He turned up at the funeral but did not make a show of himself. He brought flowers, as others had, the condolence enclosures addressed to Erma, but stopping short, it seemed, of treating her as a widow. She had settled on a service without denomination, remembering that Violet had been raised Catholic, but never having known her to confess. Her prayers, she reasoned, had been of a general sort. Cremation had been Violet’s wish as well as her own, a release from the body that was what she’d been known for. Afterward, many people went to the tavern, where Killian said a round would be served on the house.

She wrote to him one week later to inform him of the desk, and soon after, he called, asking when he might come to haul it away. She was curt with him, not liking how he seemed unsurprised by the bequest, and said he could come whenever he liked, that it made no difference to her in the least.

He arrived in a tweed suit, a rumpled walking hat in his hand. He stood in the doorway with a nervous appearance; with a briefcase he might have been a beleaguered salesman or a proselytizer. He had backed a small van up against the door to the garage, as she’d told him to do. It was borrowed, he said, his own car not large enough for the job.

“You were the only other person named in the will,” she said as she followed him outside and lifted open the garage door. “Strange, that. Of course, there were good times had in the tavern, but I wonder why she’d have wanted you having this desk of all things.”

“I admired it once,” he said quietly.

That he had ever been inside the house was not previously known to her, nor that he had been well acquainted with Violet before she had. Nobody had ever said so.

Killian had brought a dolly for wheeling the desk to the rear of the van, and she helped him tip the front end up off the ground and to hold it steady. The old desk was heavy, and she was obliged to press her whole weight against the side of it, to strain further as she helped him guide it into the van, along a short metal ramp he had borrowed as well. When they had finished, her face was flushed, and wisps of her hair had loosed and clung to her face.

“I should have brought somebody with me to help,” Killian said. His voice was high-pitched, and in the aftermath of their effort his shyness had increased. “It was bad of me to make you do it.”

“No, no,” was all Erma managed in response. She did not want him knowing how much she minded his taking the desk, or the damage wrought by her realization, inescapable now, that Violet had loved him first.

Summer lingered and then finally broke, and the trees on Erma’s street surrendered their leaves. Through all the autumn months, she was visited by the humiliating thought that the night spent sharing a bed with Violet had for her friend been long eclipsed by the love of a man. That she knew this man, and had spoken to him in Violet’s presence, made it all the worse. She wondered if they had laughed at her in secret, for it was possible that the affair had continued to the end; she thought of Killian on the landing with hat in hand, and tried to determine whether he’d looked like a man whose lover had died.

The first time she drove to The Green Man was on a cold evening in November. The streetlights illuminated swaths of falling rain. On the radio, she listened to a program about a man in prison whose paintings sold for fantastic sums. A critic said their beauty could move you to tears. She turned up the heat and warmed her fingers at the fan.

She watched the entrance to the tavern, a Dutch door through which could be seen a pin- ball machine and the yellow glow of a jukebox light. It was past midnight. She imagined Violet drinking there in the years before she’d known her, laughing, leaning over the bar, whispering to Killian when he poured her another. She imagined her buying songs on the jukebox, The Police, or Bruce Springsteen. She changed the station on the radio, searching for music, thinking that it would have been better to find that Violet had loved another woman in her life, because at least then she would know it hadn’t repulsed her to be touched by one.

A couple came stumbling through the door and turned up the street in her direction. The man held his coat open, and the woman stood very near to him while he wrapped it around her. Erma turned the radio all the way down and watched in silence as they approached. They did not have an umbrella, and they walked quickly, hunched over in the rain. It was nothing for them, plainly, to stand close in this way, nothing to kiss, as they paused once to do, nothing to hold each other’s hands. She could hear, as they passed, the sound of their shoes on the pavement, and of their voices when they spoke, and she could see the woman’s pale calves and her face lifted toward the man’s, and all of it seemed ostentatiously to proclaim, “We are lovers! We are lovers!”

She slouched down in the driver’s seat (a seat that still did not feel rightfully hers) and listened until their footsteps were gone. She did not look again at the tavern before starting the engine, but she glanced at it once as she drove past for home.

There were many other trips taken to the pub that winter. If she stayed until closing, she could see Killian locking up, waving goodnight to any bar staff who might have been on. Always he would turn up the collar of his overcoat, stop for a moment to light a cigarette, and then disappear around the back of the building, emerging again seconds later in his car. Only when his brake lights had gone from view did she finally make her own way off, sometimes following at a distance, sometimes going home, not ready for sleep. She was keeping the hours of a drunk or a criminal, but it was of little matter; she would have been up, regardless.

Why she watched at the tavern, and what it was she hoped to see there, she could not have said. Killian never seemed to stray from his routine, never leaving in the company of a woman, never turning left where he ought to have turned right. Often she phoned the tavern from inside the car, but when he answered she would find herself with nothing to say. There was only one thing she wanted to ask of him, but she dared not, and so she would hang up without having spoken at all.

In December, the streetlamps were hung with streamers and laurel, the tavern with strings of bright, colored lights. She and Violet had never made much of Christmas, but they’d had their routine: a splurge on something they’d wanted for the kitchen, a bottle of Champagne, a panettone from the baker, and, if  Violet had lately been moody or sad, a walk past the church to listen at Mass. What pained Erma now was not the end of these things, exactly, but the belief that Violet would have managed to carry them on in her absence. For it was clear now that, to Violet, they had merely been roommates, bound first of all by convenience and thrift. How stupid Erma had been. That most everything had been left to her was little consolation; she’d gotten those things because it was only fair that she should, as it had been, too, when her parents had died. The greater gift, it seemed to her now, had been Killian’s, precisely because it was worthless, because it was no more than a symbol. In this short, meager life, it is a thousand times rarer to be given what isn’t owed.

When she called Catharine, it was midday, though Erma had not yet left the house. There was leftover soup on the stove, bread to warm in the oven for lunch. It took Catharine a moment to understand who was calling; they’d not spoken since the will was retrieved.

“I thought I’d tell you how I was getting on,” Erma said. “And how the town remembers her. They still wave at the car when I pass. They forget, you see. Friends everywhere she went, Violet.”


“Was she always that way? When you knew her, I mean?”

“I suppose she was,” Catharine said, like a question, like she wasn’t sure. “She was a prettier girl than you might have guessed. Always larger. She felt badly about that, but she was pretty.”

“So she wasn’t always plain?” Erma fingered the coils of the phone cord. “I was, always.”

Catharine made no reply. “And she had a good sense of humor?” “Yes, of course,” Catharine said. “But you know that, Erma. You knew her a longer time than I did, from what I understand.”

Erma smiled, hearing that, and let the silence stretch a moment over the line. She was in the living room of the old house, the curtains open to the gray light, the fire unlit. It had been she who’d split wood for them winters, a job that more often a man would have done.

“Erma, why have you called?” Catharine said.

“She must have been popular,” Erma said, ignoring the question. “With boys, I mean.”

“That was part of the trouble.”

“And she left home after school?”

“She never finished,” Catharine said. “I’m surprised you didn’t know that.” There was, for the first time, some cruelty in her voice. “Once she left, she never came back.”

Erma was reminded of all the many occasions she’d been surprised by some item from Violet’s past, as though assuming that she’d not have had one at all, or that, as a matter of course, it would have matched exactly her own. That belief had been another part of the foolishness, for what in life had ever suggested that she might so pos- sess her beloved? She should have recognized Violet, because she’d seen her before: she was like the girls she’d once admired in school, in the hallway with books clutched tight to their sweaters, skirts ballooning from their pretty waists. She was the sort of girl who might offer to show you how makeup was applied or suggest asking a boy to Sadie Hawkins, never thinking those things could be hurtful to hear. She’d been kind, generous, loving in her way, but finally remote and beyond grasp.

“I held her all night when her mother died,” Erma said. “I held her while she wept.” She had never told that to anyone before.

Catharine was quiet a long time.

“I nursed that woman through the whole of her suffering.”

By the time they had said goodbye and each hung up, it had begun to rain, and Erma decided she wouldn’t go out after all. She put the fire on beneath the soup and settled in for the day.

After her conversation with Catharine, she did not return to The Green Man. She did not let go of Violet, did not surrender her to Killian. She simply did not feel there was anything left to be learned. There was solace to be taken in one thing, at least: that the biggest changes of her life had, all of them, already, occurred.

And yet, despite her resolve, she did see John Killian again, only some two weeks later, when one afternoon she answered the door and was met with his figure, standing in the same suit he’d worn the last time and the overcoat she’d seen on so many late nights. Her heart beat furiously at the sight of him. He had not removed his hat this time, and it cast his face into deadening shadow.

“Look here, Erma,” he said, before she was able to offer a greeting. He had the appearance of having memorized a speech. “What’s the meaning of you following me home, calling the pub, slinking around like a thief in the night?”

It was what she had feared he would say, and yet somehow it surprised her. Some women might have been angry to be thus confronted. Some might have been frightened. Erma was terribly, cripplingly ashamed. She sighed loudly and backed away from him a little, aware of the sweat that had broken on her hands, and of the color that had flooded into her face. It did not occur to her to lie, as it never had, really, in all of her life. Seeing her face now, one might have wondered if its lack of beauty had forever been a consequence of an inability to deceive.

“Come inside, Mr. Killian,” she said. “Come inside, John.”

She led him into the living room, pausing a moment to watch as he looked at the sofa, the fireplace, the dried flowers on the mantel.

“I’m having dumplings for lunch,” she said, and when he hesitated, still angry, she added, “I haven’t shared a meal in months.”

She took his coat and hat, and he followed her down the corridor to the kitchen. At the far end was the bedroom, and she was certain that he knew it.

From a sack on the counter she produced a number of pale yellow dumplings, placing them beside several others on an oven sheet. She motioned for Killian to sit down at the table, and when she had put the dumplings in to cook, she joined him. He still had not spoken since his initial demand.

“How long has it been since you were inside the house?”

“A long time,” he said. “Twenty years or more.” From the sadness in his voice, she believed him. “The desk was in the bedroom, then.”

They were quiet for a time, and she felt briefly that he meant to suggest she’d replaced him. He put his hands on the table. He wore no rings. One of his wrists was broader than the other, and irregular in shape, as though from arthritis. It would have bothered him lifting the desk. She wondered how he’d managed once he’d gotten it home.

“I’m sorry I lurked at the tavern,” she said. “I thought you’d lost your mind.” “I didn’t mean any trouble.” She shifted her gaze, not allowing it to rest too long on his face. “How did you find me out?”

“The car, Erma.” His anger seemed then to erode quite suddenly, giving way to a worn-out humor. He was laughing softly when he said, “Everybody recognizes that car.”

Erma smiled shyly and glanced once at the clock. “Not exactly 007, I guess.”

She stood, and went to take the food from the oven. She returned to the table with the dumplings arranged on plates with two forks. She offered a beer, and he accepted it.

“It was hard when I found you were named in the will.” She sipped her own beer, which she’d wanted, though she wouldn’t normally have had one with lunch. “It was something she’d kept from me, which I never liked thinking she did.”

Killan nodded. Steam rose from his dumpling where he’d cut it with his fork.

“She loved you, I suppose,” she said.

His chewing slowed, and she recognized in him the feeling she’d had so many times these months eating meals on her own: the almost overwhelming weight of the heart, the way the food became like stone in the mouth. The dumplings had not been made by Violet, though there were other things in the freezer that had.

“I drove her home from the tavern sometimes,” he said. “She drank too much in those days. She was mistreated.”

It no longer shocked Erma to hear such a thing said, though it saddened her to think of it. “She was prettier, then?” she asked, recalling what Catharine had said of her youth.

“Maybe she was, but it was never just that. You know what she was like. Sometimes, when I put her to bed she would say something sweet to me. But she was as likely to say something cold.”

“It’s terrible finding you were wrong about someone,” Erma said. She did not eat. She was thinking of Killian sitting alone at the desk beside Violet’s bed, listening and waiting for her breath to find a rhythm.

“I’m glad she never told you about me,” he said, some moments later. “It wasn’t easy pouring drinks for the two of you, seeing you in the passenger’s seat of that car. I’m glad Violet and I still had one thing to ourselves. It’s only fair, Erma, since you got all the rest.”

“Oh, no, no,” she said, as she had also on the day when he’d come for the desk.

She cleared their plates away. He thanked her and stood, though it seemed he might like to stay a while longer. As she showed him out, as they exchanged apologies and condolences, as they even embraced in the doorway where twice before they’d met as rivals, Erma knew that in John Killian’s eyes it was she who’d had the better end of things, who’d won Violet’s heart and what time there had been. He had no doubt suffered in coming to the house on this day, in standing in the living room regarding the artifacts of a partnership. He did not know, as all the other people of Glass did not either, that her endearments had gone for 20 years unanswered, that the desk in the bedroom had been replaced not by one large bed, but by the addition of a second twin. When they’d waved at the car as the two drove past, they had all thought or spoken aloud, “There is Violet with her Erma.” And when Violet had sounded the horn they had taken it for a proclamation of love, spoken as loudly as that of a couple huddled closely on a street after dark. They need never find now how mistaken they’d been, and what they believed would in time become its own truth. This was the gift that Violet had given in death, having been unable to offer what was asked for in life. It was quite a lot, really. For Killian, there was only the desk, and the memory of things whispered in the darkness of a room, thanks offered vaguely as breath through the lips, like prayers from the world between waking and dreams.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

D. Wystan Owen lives and writes in Berkeley, California. His fiction has appeared in A Public Space and The Threepenny Review.


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