Story A Week (SAW) 4: Jan 22nd, 2018
By Adam O’Sullivan
Phillip was mentally exhausted as he turned the car around the corner on to his street. It had been a long day at the office. The type where everyone has a question or a complaint, and it’s difficult to get any work done because you’re ranting about how people don’t understand the process. He was looking forward to getting home, having dinner with his wife Lisa, and then settling into the night watching some TV before bed. As a teacher, Lisa finished work earlier than him, so she would have started cooking when she got home, using the ingredients that Phillip had prepared this morning before he left for work. He left home later in the mornings than Lisa did, so he would chop the vegetables, season the meat and make other preparations required for the evening meal. It was a method that had worked for the 5 years they had been together.
As Phillip drove up to his house, he noticed all the lights were off. “Strange, “ he thought. He did consider the possibility that he had forgotten something this morning and Lisa had gone to the store, except for the fact that her car was parked next to his in the driveway.
Trying not to worry, Phillip grabbed his backpack and got out of the car.
“Maybe she took a nap”, Phillip thought as we headed up the walkway to his front door. He pressed his thumb into the screen beside the door and it lit up with a green tick before showing the message “Welcome home, Phillip!”.
The door swung open slowly, soundlessly and he stepped through, calling out “Honey, I’m home!”. In this contemporary home, the height of modernity, the phrase felt old school – the remnant of a time long past. Phillip had been told many times he was an old fashioned type of guy.
He noticed a faint glow from the direction of the living room near the back of the house. Phillip dropped his bag under the hallway table, like he always did. It was a ritual he adhered to so that he didn’t put the bag down somewhere else and forget where later on. He said “Front door close” in a slightly louder voice than normal, and a second later the front door deliberately and noiselessly closed again. It still felt somewhat strange talking to the door, like asking Siri a question. Not as strange as the first time, but these things were now commonplace.
Phillip made his way down the hall and turned into the dining room. The first thing he saw was the light of the candle, a bright flash in the completely dark room. The candle sat in a candlestick and was casting long shadows around the room. A split second later he registered the face of Lisa illuminated in the flickering candlelight. It could have been the set up for a romantic dinner.
Lisa was sitting at the dining table, staring into the flame of the candle with a glass of wine in her hand. In the candlelight the wine looked blood red, almost dark enough to sink into the dark but still vibrant enough for the eye to notice the subtle difference in colour. Other than the candlestick, the table was bare. Phillip got the sense that this wasn’t the set up for a romantic dinner. He was relieved that Lisa was there, and wasn’t missing or any of the other terrible instances he had feared as he walked up to the house. Now the air felt wrong in a different kind of way.
“Lisa? Is everything okay?”
“Please sit down, Phillip,” she said without turning to look at him. “We need to talk”.
Phillip’s mind instantly tried to think if he had done something wrong. Had he missed a birthday or an anniversary? Lisa’s memory was much better than his, but she usually forgave him if he forgot. She knew he didn’t willfully forget anniversaries, considering how much effort he put into celebrating the ones he did remember.
Phillip walked into the dining room and sat on one of the dining room chairs, to the right and closest to where Lisa was sitting. He almost reached out to her, to give her the strength to say what she needed to say. He just wasn’t sure if he would like what she needed to say, and she looked like she had been steeling herself up for this moment all day, so he left his hands in his lap. Lisa lifted the wine glass to her lips and took a large sip. She didn’t wear much makeup so there was no lipstick smear on the glass. She was still in the dress she had been wearing this morning when they got up, although it looked ruffled, like she had taken a nap. She looked like she was building up courage. Lisa was not a drinker, and the wine was probably the old bottle sitting in the cupboard, a gift from a previous Christmas. Phillip couldn’t see the bottle of wine, so he was unaware of how much she had drunk. The bottle must be in the kitchen, or finished off and thrown out.
“I’m sorry,” she said, as she turned her face to look at him. He could see tear tracks down her face. She had been crying before he got home. Her words weren’t slurred, and there wasn’t the distant, vapid look in her eyes of the drunk. She was still mostly sober, at least.
“For what?” His mind raced through the possibilities. Had she bought something without telling him? She liked to assert her independence that way sometimes, but none of her normal purchases had warranted such a meeting. Sometimes she would buy herself a new vinyl album, but that was just one hundred dollars every couple of months. The biggest purchase had been her impulse buy of a new video game console two years ago. It had been one thousand dollars they couldn’t really spend. She had put it on her credit card and they had been paying it off for months, but the joy on Lisa’s face when she played it was worth it. Besides, they were separate people living as a couple, and sometimes didn’t they need to do something impulsive to remind themselves of that? They still accepted each other and worked through the times that needed working through.
“A month ago. At work. The Christmas party. You were away. I was drunk. I just needed someone, and you weren’t around.”
Phillip had been sent overseas for the company he worked with. He had been gone for two months, returning in the middle of December. He had made sure he was back before Christmas. He couldn’t bear the thought of spending the holidays without Lisa.
Phillip’s family had been surprised when he had announced that he and Lisa were getting married. Phillip had only introduced them to Lisa a few months before. To Phillip and Lisa, it felt like they had known each other forever, like they had spent their lives waiting for this other person to appear. Phillip had almost given up on ever finding love, a string of bad relationships with women who asserted their independence by sleeping around. Lisa had been in an abusive relationship when she was younger and had remained single ever since, convinced that there weren’t any nice guys out there. It just so happened that their emotional baggage’s had complemented each other, like a perfect Tetris game. They had remained inseparable ever since. Sure, his mother had questioned Phillip to make sure they weren’t rushing into marriage. She later told Phillip that when she saw how he looked at Lisa, and how she looked back at him at the wedding ceremony, any small doubts in her mind were dispelled. They were like a fairy-tale couple.
But now Lisa had confessed to something terrible. Something Phillip had convinced himself he would never have to deal with again.
“You cheated on me.” It was a statement, not a question, almost half whispered as the air from Phillip’s lungs exhaled in a sigh. Seconds felt like minutes, as he spent an eternity wishing her to take it back. For her to tell him this was all part of some sick joke. He felt like she would raise the wineglass to take another sip for courage, but her hand remained on the table. Finally she blinked.
“Yes. Yes, I suppose you could call it that.”
“You suppose?” His voice slightly raised, he couldn’t stop himself, but he calmed himself down again. He needed to process this rationally. The emotions would come thick and fast, but he needed to deal with the immediate situation. “What would you call it?”
“He. He has a wife. She’s been away for a while. Like you were. After the Christmas party. I wanted to talk to someone, and he came up and invited me back to his place. Just to talk.”
“When a man invites a drunk woman back to his place, it’s never just to talk.”
“It wasn’t like that. We were just chatting. On his bed. Then we kissed. But we didn’t have sex. We just… played.”
The thought loomed large in his mind ‘AS IF THAT MATTERS’. The betrayal of emotions had already happened, whether there was full sex or not. Was she really trying to qualify the cheating? Hey, it’s not cheating if you’re in someone else’s home without your partner knowing and you’re both naked in bed, touching each other’s genitals for the purpose of sexual gratification as long as there’s no sex involved, right? When had cheating become something normal, just a part of life? Was it when every RnB song was about how you should cheat with the singer, because they’re your soulmate, and you’re their destiny? Phillip was an easy going guy on a lot of things, but sex – or at least the emotionally attached sex that some referred to as ‘love-making’ – was not one of them.
“Why? Why did you do it?” Phillip felt his voice crack.
“I don’t know why. It didn’t feel right at the time.”
“Then why did you continue?” A tear streaked its way down his face.
“I don’t know. I was lonely” Lisa turned back to look at the flame of the candle. Again, another qualifier. Oh, well if you were lonely, then that’s totally fine! It’s not like he had been lonely, in the middle of nowhere with no friends, just work colleagues. It hadn’t been his decision to go away for so long. He had tried to communicate with Lisa during his trip, but it had been like she was pulling away, as if the simple act of him not being right in front of her had made it too difficult for her to talk to him.
“Did I do something wrong?”
“No, you’re great, I just..” She turned back quickly to look at him and placed her hand on his. A silent promise, unlike the broken promise they were discussing.
“This is my fault. I’m sorry.” Phillip was on the edge of sobbing now. Any second and he would lose his composure to the ugly cry face. Maybe his emotions were the problem.
“No, you couldn’t have prevented it.”
“I thought you loved me?” Phillip snatched his hand away from hers, and Lisa slowly pulled her hand back, shocked at the emotion in his voice and the gesture.
“I do.” Phillip was instantly reminded of their wedding day. He forced the memory down.
“Do you want to leave me?”
“No, I… I don’t know what I want to do. I think I need some space.” Lisa’s shoulders shrugged forward, and it looked like the fight was out of her. She looked resigned to accept her fate.
“You cheat on me, and you want some space?” Phillip had raised his voice again. He couldn’t help it. The thought that she wanted some space from this relationship, after stabbing him through the heart like this. He thought this relationship was different, was unique, like how they showed happiness in the movies. He had gotten his hopes up again, allowed himself to believe that Lisa was different from his ex’s. He didn’t want to fall into the terrible thoughts and anger feedback loop of thinking all women were the same. He could see how some men could fall into that trap, become Men’s Rights Activists, in the same way he could see that some bad encounters could turn women into militant feminists, swearing against all men. You just had to remember that not everyone was the same, and deal with the terrible people in the appropriate method. The more you had to deal with shit people, however, the harder it became to be hopeful the next time.
These thoughts rolled through Phillip’s head, his mind racing as they sat there in silence. He quietened the thoughts down, tried to think rationally. He had stopped crying. He felt numb. His mind returned to the room and he looked at the woman who he had been so happy with these past 5 years. Lisa’s body was now tense. It was almost like she was waiting for a decision, or waiting for a reaction. He wondered if she was afraid he would hit her. He wouldn’t, violence wasn’t a part of who he was, and she knew that. But sometimes you get the idea of how a situation will play out from movies and TV. The one being cheated on ranting and raving, screaming and yelling, hitting out and hurting the cheater as much as they can. The reality was just numbness, a stark coldness, a feeling of betrayal and, finally, silence.
Their love had been a rare one. Almost old fashioned, if you transplanted the old fashioned idea 10 years forward when they were in their early 30’s. Phillip was from a small town on the outskirts of a larger metropolis, and Lisa from a country town in the middle of nowhere that no-one had heard of. They found each other in the big city, although calling Brisbane big by comparison to other cities in the world, hell, even to other cities in Australia, was a stretch of the imagination. He hadn’t decided what to do with his life yet and was studying IT as a mature student. He worked as much as he could in between classes, but her income as a teacher supported them during the first two years of their relationship. He danced silly made up dances and sang silly made up songs and she loved looking up gossip mags online and reading the comments crazy people left. He snored when he slept. It had annoyed her so much when they started dating. They had tried sleeping in separate rooms, but she would always creep back into his bed to feel his arms around her. She had adapted soon enough, and now could sleep through almost anything, much like he could.
His friends all loved her almost as much as he did, and she didn’t have many friends. Just a single girlfriend that had gotten married and moved away ten years before Phillip had met Lisa. They still intermittently wrote to each other when Phillip and Lisa had started dating, but her friend had never been back to Brisbane to visit. Soon after their marriage, Lisa and her friend would email less and less, each response taking longer to be sent, until eventually it dropped off altogether. Phillip and Lisa had each other for company by then. Lisa was a strong and independent woman, but there seemed to be a sadness behind her eyes that Phillip had noticed, a loneliness that was hard for her to put into words. Lisa had always had trouble expressing her emotions. The first time Phillip had told her that he loved her, laying together on her bed wrapped in light blue cotton sheets as the early afternoon sunlight made its way through the slatted wooden shutters on the window, Lisa had responded “Thank you”. Phillip had agonised about that moment internally, wondering if he had mistaken the emotion in their situation, or considering that was just Lisa’s way of reacting. As a shy, mostly quiet (some would say mousey) woman, sometimes it felt like she couldn’t connect with the world around her, or didn’t want to. Phillip knew that she felt and could feel deeply, as he rediscovered shortly after that moment when she started saying “I love you” back to him, without his pressing, almost with more vigour. Their relationship was somewhat private, shared at home. If there was any PDA’s, it was a small squeezing of the hand, or a shared smile between them that they thought no-one else saw. No-one could mistake that this couple was undeniably happy. It seemed to radiate from their bodies, this feeling of warmth and content. You could see they were happiest when they were together. Well, Phillip had thought they were.
He thought it was the two of them against the world, that no matter what others threw towards them, they could weather it together. “I am yours, and you are mine” was a secret personal phrase between them, written on love notes and whispered together in romantic moments. Phillip was so disappointed to find out he had been wrong, that it was apparently her versus him versus the world. Lisa had introduced a new element, a secret person who didn’t belong in their twosome. A third party that he was not aware of and did not approve of. He wondered if it was someone he had met from her work, if this attraction had bubbled under the surface for a while before being brought to the forefront by alcohol to remove inhibitions and excuses made to themselves to justify what they were doing.
Maybe his belief that relationships, especially marriage, needed to be monogamous was severely old fashioned. He knew some friends who enjoyed open relationships, but that was not something that interested Phillip. Besides, the current situation was different. They’d agreed to a monogamous relationship and yet one party had decided to change the terms when it suited them. At what point had cheating become mainstream? Usually in the movies, the cheater is the villain, a character who doesn’t respect the main character and flaunts their love back in their face. Or the main character will flirt with someone new, someone who opens their eyes to a world of wonder or makes them see the world with new eyes. It will only be a friendship building in intensity until we find out their partners are dirt bags, cheaters or abusers or someone the main characters need to be rescued from. So they rescue each other. They make a stand, or the ‘friend’ sticks up for them in their moment of need and suddenly the audience is rooting for them! They have to get together! Never mind that a massive relationship has just ended and the new relationship is based on micro-cheating – time for a new start, jump straight into happiness! Besides, the new relationship is with their soulmate, so who cares about past discretions? Love conquers all, right, even if you do have to weather a little cheating.
In reality, cheating is a vile business, where one person can’t control themselves against the desires of the flesh and decides to undo years of trust for a quick fuck.
How is a rational person supposed to deal with a cheater? Take them back and become a doormat? Leave and suffer alone? Start all over again and start dating? Start from the bottom on first dates, pretending that he’s a decent human being and not a garbage person? He was sitting in front of the love of his life and yet he’d never felt so lonely before in his life.
Phillip’s mind rushed and raced until he finally made a decision.
“I’m sorry. This is my fault. I gave you too much freedom.”
The look on Lisa’s face showed that she was scared. He enjoyed the look for just a second but then hated himself for it. Revenge is only sweet when love turns to hate and you don’t want the person in your life anymore. Where love still remains tinged with sadness, revenge will blacken your heart. He did allow himself to wonder what sort of torment she thought Phillip would inflict on her. Was she thinking he was going to keep her locked in the house? Was she thinking he was going to keep her from seeing her work mates? He was no more capable of trying to control her than he could murder someone who annoyed him. Emotions could flare up, but thinking rationally was always the best way.
“What do you want?” He asked her. If she wanted out, there was nothing he could do to fix the relationship. It would be over. If there was a flicker of hope, however…
“I don’t know. I want to work on this.” A long pause, as she seemed to be thinking. “But I can’t promise it won’t happen again.”
The phrase was like a slap in the face. Uttered so soon after the reveal of the betrayal. The cheater’s motto, it basically amounted to “I will cheat again, so you better be complicit in it this time. You can’t complain if I’ve implied that I’ll cheat again!”
He almost hit her then. He could feel the rage inside of him, and he imagined doing it. He felt the desire so strongly to make her feel this hurt that he felt. If he couldn’t do it emotionally, the way she had done, then at least he could do it physically. But imagining was all he did. He knew violence wouldn’t make him feel better, wouldn’t solve anything. It would just drag him down, not to her level, but far below. He wasn’t a fighter, and he wouldn’t hit anyone – even if it was the guy she had cheated with, smugly telling him he’d fucked Phillip’s wife. In that situation he would want to, and some would say he would be justified in wanting to, but his pacifism was a strongly held belief. Like monogamy. Breaking those would destroy who he was as a person. He was a gentleman, first and foremost. He may have been feeling blind rage, but he still had his morals. Even if she had been dispossessed of hers.
With a sigh, Phillip started talking, but not in words. He was saying numbers and letters. Lisa’s face scrunched up as she tried to understand what was happening. He could see from her face that though the numbers and letters seemed random, and yet they also somehow felt familiar to Lisa. He found that an interesting thought. The list of letters and numbers grew longer. She looked like she was growing concerned.
After 30 seconds of numbers and letters, perhaps the longest anyone had spoken since he had gotten home, Phillip stopped. It was a long sequence, but he had taught himself to remember.
Lisa looked at Phillip as he sat in his chair. As Phillip rose from the seat, her face never moved. She continued to stare at where his face had been, and as he moved from the chair, her eyes stared at the wall. Her face had become neutral, almost serene. Like she was sleeping with her eyes open.
Phillip went to the table, and grabbed the wine glass. As he lifted it from the table, Lisa’s hand released it. Her arm stayed on the table, motionless. He went to the kitchen and poured the remaining wine into the sink. He turned on the kitchen light and found the bottle of wine on the kitchen bench and checking how much remained. It looked like it was the first glass. He poured that down the sink as well, watching the blood red liquid swirl as it went down the drain. He threw away the bottle calmly. He washed out the glass and placed it on the rack to dry. He turned off the kitchen light so the only light was the candle in the dining room.
Phillip pulled out his phone and unlocked it. He scrolled to the depths of his Home screen and found the folder he was looking for. It was named ‘Taxes’. He clicked on the app and made his way back to the dining room. Lisa was still sitting at the table. In fact, she had not moved a single centimetre. Her face still pointed towards the chair that Phillip had sat in, her eyes unblinking. He checked his phone and saw that the app had established a connection. As a tear trickled down his face, he pressed a button on the screen of his phone.
A seam formed down the back of Lisa’s head. It split into two sections, and either section moved out from her head and then away from each other. The back of Lisa’s head was completely open, showing a mass of cables and blinking lights. In the beginning of their relationship, Phillip had seen this view many times before, whenever a tweak needed to be made. The last time had been for a routine check up, when they had discovered that one of her underlying memories was re-routing and looping. The technicians had come out and shown him how to pick up the warning signs if it ever happened again. With their instructions, he had erased the memory. Nothing critical, just a memory created and implanted about her childhood. Like all of her memories. Like her girlfriend. Like her childhood. Not all specifically requested by Phillip, but a template overlaid with a few adjustments to make her unique.
In truth, Lisa was one of the new series of automaton companion (AutoCompTM) – available for those with money and unlucky in love. They had been initially designed to be companions to people who had difficulties finding a partner due to physical or mental impairment. They doubled as a robotic nurse and carer, giving the purchaser their freedom and the family their lives back. Soon, they were marketed to shy people as a method to come out of their cocoons or as the ideal babysitter for your little one. Then single young professionals getting out of major relationships bought one to stay in the dating game as their busy work schedule hampered their social life while they searched for ‘the one’. However, as they became more common place, the requirements were growing. Chapek, the company that makes the AutoCompTM, internally estimates that at least 50% of people who had one had fallen in love with the device itself, and had started to reject human affection. Externally they stated they were simply filling a need within the market, even while they tried to figure out the best ways to make their robots more lovable. It was the way of the future.
Lisa was based on a girl that Phillip had dated in college. He had loved her so completely, but she had been aloof and distant. When she moved overseas, they had stayed together but eventually she had cheated and then cut off all contact. Phillip had been devastated. There had been entire days when he couldn’t get out of bed. Eventually he had returned to his life, pushing himself through it day by day. Two years later, after multiple online dating sites and still no luck, not even a first date, Phillip had pooled the money he had saved and bought himself an AutoCompTM.
Phillip pressed a button near the base of Lisa’s head and looked back down at his phone. A diagnostic diagram had filled the screen. Traits such as Libido, Loyalty and Free Will glowed on the screen as part of a scrolling list, each with attributes next to them. Phillip started tweaking the numbers. The Free Will was too high, he decided, and the Loyalty too low. He had wanted the relationship to feel real, just enough emotion to make the AutoCompTM love him back, but not enough to make her feel like his slave. He realised now that that had been a mistake. Even in the midst of the greatest love story, people can throw everything away for a bit of sexual desire. He opened her Memories folder and searched for the offending video. He tortured himself by watching it twice, before he finally deleted it, tears streaming down his face as he openly sobbed. Throughout it all, Lisa stared straight ahead as the candle burned out. He also erased her memory of the conversation. He wished he could do the same with his memory.
As the early morning sun started to rise, he was almost finished making adjustments. He hesitated for a second before bringing up the Internal Monologue dialogue box and typed in “You are dissatisfied with your job. It’s time to quit and find a new job.” Better to take temptation away.
“I’m sorry Lisa,” said Phillip sadly. “It’s all my fault. I just gave you too much freedom.” He wiped away the remaining tears as Lisa’s head put itself back together. The pieces fit so well you could never see the seam. The colour returned to Lisa’s eyes as her face showed a sign of recognition. She blinked quickly a few times, as if trying to remove a speck of dust.
“Phillip, my love”, she said, and he almost broke down again hearing her voice with so much love in it, “is everything okay?”
“It will be”, he replied. “I think we both will be now.” He watched her, to see if she remembered anything of the night. When he was satisfied, he said “I am yours…”
“…and you are mine” they finished the phrase together, and Lisa smiled.