The affair began with a conversation about Baby Einstein. “Aren’t you worried about her attention span?” Celia asked. “Because of the TV and flashing colors and all that.”
“It helps their brains somehow. Sarah has it all figured out,” Daniel said. “So not really. Sarah’s my wife. Our baby is Rosie.”
“So I assumed,” Celia said. “If the baby had it all figured out, then Baby Einstein must really work.”
They were at a party at a mutual friend’s house, and both their spouses were elsewhere. Celia was sure hers was off pontificating on the merits of micro-brewing, and Daniel’s was sitting on the porch swing, glass of chardonnay in hand, listening to a girlfriend talk about the dissolution of her marriage. “Poor thing,” she had said before heading out to the porch. “But come rescue me if I start to look desperate.”
“Do you have children?” Daniel asked Celia politely.
“A dog,” Celia said.
“Oh cool,” Daniel said. “Yeah, our dog is basically like a human child too.”
“Dogs are the best,” Celia said. “We have a human child too, though.”
Celia had pink cheeks and short brown hair. When she smiled, as she did now, Daniel saw that she had a slight gap between her front teeth. He found it charming. Celia herself knew that it was charming, at least to most men. Her husband had found it charming, and so had her husband’s friend on the night they had slept together a year ago. It had only happened once. After that night, the spell was broken for Celia; the allure of that particular man was no longer there. With him, she had closed her eyes, just for a second, and when she opened them again, he was just another man. The magic, or the potential of magic, had vanished.
“You’re funny,” Daniel said, and that was when he knew that he was a little more drunk than he thought he was. That explained why he felt so pleasant. He was embodying the perfect state of drunkenness.
“Funny haha or funny weird?” she asked. “That makes a big difference.”
“Maybe both,” said Daniel. “I don’t know yet.”
“Wait,” she said. She pulled out her phone and read the message displayed on the screen. “I’m being summoned. Good luck with Baby Einstein. I hope Rosie gets it all figured out.”
“Here,” said Daniel. He held out his hand, and instinctively, she gave him her phone. “Here’s my number, in case you ever decide you want to borrow the Baby Einstein DVDs.” He stepped closer to her and stood by her side, so that their shoulders were touching, and he showed her where he had entered his name. “Daniel,” he said.
“I’m Celia,” she said. “I’ll call you if I need anything.”
“Text me,” he said quickly. It was only Baby Einstein, but still.
“Well, that’s what I meant,” she said.
In the car on their way home, Celia and her husband Wes got turned around. “We are literally two neighborhoods over from our neighborhood,” Celia said. “How did this happen?”
“Do all these streets have racehorse themed names?” Wes said, slowing down in front of a sign that told them they were at the corner of Winners Circle and Golden Hoof.
“I’ll look at the map,” Celia said. She clicked on her phone, the bright screen a glowing beacon in the dark car. In the window of the passenger seat, she could see her outline illuminated by the phone’s face. She looked at her face in the glass.
“Do Siri,” Wes said. “Or, here, I will. Siri, how do we get home?”
“That is ridiculous,” Celia said. “Just take a right up here.”
“Siri,” Wes was saying. “Hello? Siri? Take us home.”
I think my husband needs Baby Einstein, Celia typed. Does it work on adults?
“Stupid Siri. She never works when you want her to,” Wes said.
Maybe Rosie can give him a tutorial, said Celia’s phone. She has it all figured out. Celia smiled. “Just take a right here, please,” she said to her husband.
That night, in their separate homes, Daniel and Celia got into bed with their spouses. They were both the last to get in bed: Sarah was already in bed with a book, Wes with the remote control. Sarah and Wes had gotten used to waiting for their husband and wife to join them in bed, though for different reasons. Daniel was always last because he put Rosie to bed, and he loved the moments right before she fell asleep, the way her face got so sleepy and her little hands balled up into chubby fists. Celia was always last because she was slow; she would wash her face, take off her make-up, scrub at her pink cheeks with one of those electric scrubbers. Sometimes, though, while Wes was waiting in bed, she would just stand in the bathroom and check everything that could be checked on the phone: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, the weather, email. Or she would just scroll through the pictures stored on her phone. Then, when she was ready, she would emerge from the bathroom and climb into bed with her husband.
Tonight was one of the nights Celia leaned against the bathroom counter, her back to the mirror, and checked her phone. After she made her way down her list of Apps To Be Checked, she just stared at the screen. Then the phone vibrated. Come to bed, it said. The thumbs up emoji followed the text, something Celia found horrible. It was clearly a man’s thumb, fat and insistent. “I’m plucking my eyebrows,” she called out to her husband.
“I wanted to talk to you about something I was thinking about,” Wes said over the sound of late-night TV laughter.
“Hang on,” said Celia. “I can’t hear you.” From the bedroom, the TV went mute. She turned the water on. “Water’s running,” she said. “Hold on.” She let the water run for a minute, and she stared at herself in the mirror, and then she watched her phone.
In Daniel’s bedroom, he fucked his wife. He thought about Celia. He fucked his wife harder, but the sensation felt the same. She moaned a little. He felt guilty for thinking about Celia. He didn’t even know her. And that didn’t really make it any better that he was thinking about another woman while his own wife was beneath him, the white bed sheets tangled around her ankles. He knew his wife. Even in the dark, even with his eyes closed, he knew what it would feel like if he put his hands on her waist, her breasts, her ass. “Come shower with me,” she said when they had finished. It was what she always said, what they always did after sex. In the early days, it had been exciting to see Sarah soaping herself up or closing her eyes and tilting her head back beneath the shower’s streams of water. But now it was just nice. When they showered together after sex, he always thought about how nice it was.
“I wanted to talk to you about something,” Wes said to Celia. The TV was on but still muted.
“Okay,” said Celia.
“You’ve just seemed weird lately,” he said. “Not weird exactly. Like preoccupied. Or bored.” Wes fiddled with the remote control as he talked, popping open the compartment where the batteries went and then snapping it shut over and over.
“Poor Wes,” Celia said. She gave his leg a squeeze right above the knee. There was the scar from his ACL surgery, a straight, pale line, marking a place of vulnerability. She rubbed it with her thumb without thinking, as if she was erasing it. “Do you think I’m unhappy?” she said. “Because I’m not.”
“No, not unhappy,” he said. “Are you just really tired maybe?”
“I’m definitely tired,” Celia said. “Everything gets to be kind of a lot after awhile.”
“But not tired of me, right?” Wes asked. “Hey, your phone just went off.”
“Oh,” she said. “Hold on.” She rolled over and grabbed her phone. I liked talking to you tonight, Daniel said.
“Your sister again?” Wes nodded at the phone in Celia’s hand.
“Sorry,” she said. “Wes, I promise I’m good. We’re good.”
“Okay,” Wes said. “I’m sorry. I know I seem like a girl.”
“It’s 2014,” said Celia. “You can’t use ‘girl’ as an insult anymore.” She heard the edge in her voice and cringed. It was too sharp. “I love you,” she said.
“I love you too,” he told her.
When the lights were off, she sent a message back. It’s been so long since I’ve talked to anyone, she said.
When Daniel read her message, he felt sad for poor, lovely Celia. It was hard, he knew, for some women, who had grown up to become wives of distant men.
In the morning after the party and those first few texts with Celia, Daniel woke up, and his phone wasn’t on his bedside table, and his wife wasn’t in bed beside him. He knew it could be bad. It could be catastrophic. “It wasn’t anything,” he imagined himself saying. He would tell her that he was drunk. He would say he was sorry. He would tell her Celia was interested in Baby Einstein. Baby Einstein was perfectly innocuous. “Sarah?” he called out. “I can’t find my phone.”
“I have it in here,” she shouted back. But she sounded fine, not mad or even upset. Daniel followed her voice into the kitchen where she was sitting next to Rosie’s highchair, her hair tangled from sleeping, her breasts pretty in her nightgown. Rosie turned Daniel’s phone over and over in her newly agile, still clumsy hands. “Yours is easier for her to handle,” she said. “Because of the case. You know how she likes phones.”
“No big deal,” Daniel said. He kissed Rosie on the head and then Sarah. Later that day, when Celia texted him, Daniel deleted the message without even looking at it. He swiped his finger, swept Celia’s words into a grave in cyberspace.
But then one day he saw her. It was a Wednesday. It was a warm evening, the kind of night where as the sun set, the clouds looked like paintings of clouds instead of the real thing and seemed even farther out of reach than they usually did. They were going to dinner at a restaurant often populated by a certain kind of young family: affluent and lovely couples, holding new babies in smocked onesies and tiny dresses, monitoring children toddling around the green space adjacent to the restaurant, dressed nautically, like little sailors or the future owners of yachts. Daniel was on his way back from the restroom when he saw Celia walking in. She was with a man who Daniel assumed was her husband. He held a car seat nearly identical to the one Rosie rode in, and Celia was looking around, like she was searching for someone else. She wasn’t smiling, but she didn’t look unhappy either. Then she turned, as though hearing a distant voice calling to her, and Daniel wondered if he had unwittingly, reflexively called out her name because then she looked in his direction. He didn’t think she saw him. Back at the table, he squeezed Sarah’s hand—it was cold and her rings pinched him as he pressed her hand to his—and they ordered dessert. He felt relieved but sad too, and he was unsure which feeling was stronger.
I saw you tonight, he texted Celia that night after he was sure Sarah fell asleep. At Henry’s.
I had the lobster risotto, she said, as if he had asked her, as if she had seen him seeing her and had been waiting.
And? he asked her. Satisfactory?
Yes, she wrote. But when I finished, I wanted more. I always do.
I understand, Daniel wrote, and he was surprised to realize that he really did.
The text messages continued. So did their marriages. Both Wes and Sarah said that things were going fine with Celia and Daniel, but Celia and Daniel texted each other all day long. Daniel emailed her when he was stuck in meetings. Celia sent him videos of cats talking like humans. If one of them was angry or annoyed or disappointed or happy, they texted about their anger or annoyance or disappointment or happiness. At the end of the day, they both deleted the conversations.
That was all there was to it. It wasn’t even really an affair. Celia caught herself thinking of Daniel not as an actual man existing in the real world but some person-like creature who lived inside her phone. Like Siri, only silent, more human, and with typos. Celia and Daniel expressed a desire to see each other again, of course, but it was difficult to arrange a time, and besides that, both of them knew that their affair would actually become an affair if they ever got to meet again. Right now, it was nothing but a few text messages. Some might even say it was a friendship, and friendships were harmless, healthy even. But when their phones chimed and purred miles away from one another, each of them felt happy in a way they didn’t when it was Steve texting Daniel about Saturday’s tee time or Erin texting Celia to get the name of the sitter.
Daniel still had sex with Sarah. It continued to be nice. Celia still had sex with Wes, though it wasn’t any fun anymore. It hadn’t really been fun in a long time. It was a lot of work. By the end of it, Celia was exhausted even if all she had done was lay there. It was the whole connecting thing that left her feeling worn out: the eye contact Wes liked to maintain, the communicating about what felt good, the way Wes’ hands moved over her body. She would turn the lights off and get under the covers, but none of that really changed anything about the part that came next. She would still have to feel Wes look at her, would still have to tell him that yes, that felt fine, no, she didn’t need to adjust her position, yes, it was nice.
Along time ago, after one of the first times they slept together, Wes told Celia he felt close to her. She had smiled. “You don’t need to feed me any lines,” she said.
“I’m not,” he said. “I just feel like I know you really well already.”
“Oh,” she said. “Me too.” And she rolled over, lying awake as he drifted off to sleep beside her.
Daniel began to dream of what it might be like to take Celia somewhere, somewhere away from their suburb. To the mountains, to the beach, where wind coming off the ocean would tousle her hair. To Paris, to Bali. Before I was married, she told him one day, I used to leave all the time. Just take off and go with the wind.
Brave girl, he said. Sarah would never do that.
Greece was my favorite, Celia wrote. I swam naked in the Mediterranean.
He didn’t know what to say to that one. I wish I had been there for that, he finally said. She said nothing but sent him a smiley face, and then a few hours later this: Download this app. It’s a picture thing. And he did, and later that night, his phone chirped. He clicked on the notification, which took him to the app, where a picture of Celia looked back at him. The photo was grainy and shadowy, and half her face was out of the picture, showing only her lips, parted slightly enough that the narrow gap between her front teeth showed. She was naked. To his horror (and his relief, if he was being totally honest), he noticed that there was countdown at the top left hand corner of the picture, ticking away the seconds until the picture would disappear. He hurried to memorize what her body looked like, to see what each shadow concealed. But a few seconds was so fleeting, and soon the picture was gone. You’re beautiful, he texted. But you disappeared too fast.
It’s better that way, she said.
Celia and Wes attended a party hosted by friends who had also been at the party where Celia and Daniel met, but Daniel wasn’t there. Celia circled the room looking for him, though she masked it as noncommittal social meandering, stopping by each little pocket of men and women to say hello. She only made one lap around the room. Then she settled into the empty space on her husband’s arm. He looked handsome tonight, smiling and laughing, the gentle curve of his cheek like the stroke of a pen held by a steady hand. She allowed her drink to be filled and refilled.
They were talking about the divorce of two of their friends. “It’s sad,” said one of the women in the loose circle of conversation. “They hadn’t even been married very long.”
“Better they figure it out now though,” Wes said. “You know? Better now than later.”
“Not every marriage is meant to be,” said the woman’s husband.
“And not every person is meant to be married,” Celia said.
“That’s true too,” said the woman.
“Like me,” said Celia. She brushed a piece of hair behind her ear.
“Oh,” said the woman, cocking her head in the same way Celia’s spaniel did when she gave him a command he didn’t understand. The woman looked like she was going to comment, but instead she glanced down at her phone; the screen lit up under the pressure of her thumb. Beside her, her husband laughed, a short sequence of seal-like barks. Celia didn’t look at Wes.
“Only joking,” she said.
“Very funny,” Wes said. The woman looked up from her phone now that it was safe again, and she laughed too.
“I thought it was a little funny,” Celia said.
On the car ride home, Wes was quiet. “I’m just really tired,” he said when Celia asked if he had fun at the party.
“That wasn’t what I asked,” she said.
“Those parties wear me out. I hate all the small-talk bullshit.”
“Me too,” Celia said.
“I guess I wonder, though,” Wes said, “if it isn’t all bullshit, the things people say.”
“Maybe,” said Celia.
When they got home, she paid the babysitter and Wes went straight to Jake’s room. Celia peeked inside. He had Jake out of the crib and was holding him, sitting in the chair where Celia had always sat to breastfeed their son. Celia watched him looking at Jake, touching the little tiny feet they had created together, the little tiny hands. “Hi,” she said. “Want to come to bed?”
“Not yet,” Wes said. “I’ll be there in a bit.” In the other room, Celia’s phone chimed. “You have a text,” he told her.
“Okay,” said Celia. Good night, she texted Daniel.
Good night, he said.
Daniel was in the middle of texting Celia one night when Sarah came into the bedroom—Daniel had just gotten off work and was sprawled on their bed, one shoe off, his belt unbuckled but still threaded through his pant loops—and jumped on the bed next to him. “What are you doing?” she asked. “You’re always texting.”
“If you knew what I was doing,” Daniel asked, “why did you ask me?”
“Rude,” said Sarah.
“Besides, I’m not texting,” he said. “It’s really embarrassing but I’m playing this game that Steve showed me. It’s some like medieval zombie game.” He opened up the app and tilted the screen so Sarah could see it.
“You’re right,” said Sarah. “That is a little embarrassing.” She touched the phone screen, which flashed with images of animated zombies in monks’ robes, with a gentle finger, as if she was testing its surface to see how far she might fall into it.
“I’m not texting anyone,” he said.
“But still,” said Sarah. “You aren’t here.”
Daniel turned his phone off and held his hands up, his palms facing her. “Look,” he said. “Here I am.”
When he went to walk their dog that night, he texted Celia. I can’t do this anymore, he said. Too risky.
Walk the dog? asked Celia. She knew he texted her when he walked the dog around the block. I have pepper spray you can borrow if you’re worried about hoodlums.
Beneath the hazy halo of light from a street lamp, Daniel paused. His dog whined, pulling forward, as she snuffled at a bush nearby. His thumb hovered over the keyboard as he thought about what to say, but then the phone vibrated again. I think we should meet up, she said.
Okay, he wrote. It disappointed him to realize how happy he was that he would be seeing her again, at last. When he woke up in the morning, the idea that it was too risky seemed like a foolish, fleeting concern, a mood that would pass, and soon it did.
On one hot afternoon a few days later, Daniel held the front door open for Sarah, who gripped Rosie’s car seat with one hand and her cell phone and keys in the other. “I’m not sure what time I’ll be home,” she said, now with one foot blocking their dog from escaping out the open door. “But late, probably. I’ll let you know.”
“Have fun,” Daniel said.
“What are you going to do today?” she asked.
Daniel’s stomach clenched. “Watch golf,” he said. He shrugged. “Maybe read by the pool.”
“Okay,” Sarah said. But she didn’t leave. She just stood there, her hands full, her hair falling into her face, the dog trying to get past the barrier her foot was creating. “Alright,” she said finally. Daniel kissed his wife and waved as she pulled out of the driveway. Then he went inside, sat on the couch, and texted Celia. Thirty minutes later, he watched Celia walk up the driveway. She was dressed like she was out for a run, but she wasn’t sweaty or red-faced. Her hair wasn’t even pulled back.
“I parked down the street,” she said. “And walked over. I’m out for a jog.” She made air quotes when she said she was “out for a jog.”
“Very sneaky,” Daniel said.
“Skills,” she said with a shrug. Daniel wondered if she had used these skills before.
Inside, he offered her a drink. His palms were clammy, and when she bent down to examine a row of picture frames on a bookshelf, he wiped them on his shorts. Celia, though, barely looked at him. She glided through the living room and into the kitchen and back into the living room. Daniel followed behind her. “It’s crazy you’re here,” he said. It was strange to see Celia in all the places he had been seeing Sarah for all these years. At the same time, though, it wasn’t as strange as he would have thought. The longer Celia was here among all of his and Sarah’s ordinary things, it became harder to imagine her wearing a sari in India or swimming naked in the Mediterranean.
He put his arms around her. “Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” she said.
“Was it hard to get away?” he asked.
“A little. Jake has a fever.”
“I’m sorry. Poor little guy.”
“It’s okay,” Celia said. “Wes can take care of him.” They never talked about their spouses, only about themselves. Celia felt weird even saying Wes’ name to this man whose voice was still new to her, in a house where she didn’t belong. Acknowledging that there was a husband at home, tending to a sick child no less, made her feel more vulnerable. It said, I’ve made the choice to be here with you, not him. I could be at home, but I’m here instead. It was a level of intimacy that unsettled her.
“Rosie had a super bad fever once,” Daniel said. “It was pretty scary.”
“Let’s sit,” Celia said. They moved to the couch. Celia picked up a throw pillow and put it in her lap. She played with the tassels that outlined its edges.
“I wish we were in, like, Mexico or somewhere,” Daniel said. “Wouldn’t that be nice?”
“It would,” Celia said.
“On a beach,” he said.
“Sounds great,” said Celia. “How soon can we get there?” They both laughed. Daniel reached out and pushed a lock of her hair behind her ear.
“Is this good?” Daniel asked when they were in bed together. “You’re so pretty.”
“Thanks,” said Celia. When she noticed his eyes were closed, she felt something inside her loosen, like she had been holding her breath in and was finally able to let it out. She moved on top of him. She thought of the blue of the Aegean Sea spreading around her like unspooled silk, of a Parisian man in an apartment overlooking the Seine, touching her, here, the way this man beneath her touched her now. She thought of prairie lands and tall buildings bright and blinding in afternoon sun, cobblestone streets in medieval towns. Celia let her mind roam and run through fields of flowers and swim through oceans, but then it traveled to her neighborhood and stopped in the grocery store five minutes from her house, in the produce section, where artificial rain misted the broccoli and kale–then she was back. Daniel opened his eyes. They were blue, the faded color of denim, the sky on a cloudy day, the color of the Post-It notes on Wes’ desk at home.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” he said.
“Me neither,” said Celia.
But neither of them meant it. With his eyes closed, it could have been Sarah in bed with him. It was different but the same. It was nice, just not unbelievable. It felt very real, in fact, and for a brief second in the midst of their lovemaking, he realized he was doing perhaps the most real, most cliché thing that a married man could do. The whole thing felt at once disappointing and invigorating. It would be better, he thought, somewhere else, in some other bed. He was pretty sure it would be less disappointing that way.
Celia believed it because she had willed it into being. She had done this before with someone else, and it had been disappointing, unnerving even. It hadn’t been what she had wanted. And yet, here she was again, and here was another man looking at her now, intently studying her. She was close enough to see dry skin on the bridge of his nose, like he had been sunburned the week before. Then she remembered a trip to the pool with his family, a text message he had sent about fair Irish skin. She wrapped herself tighter in the sheets. She made herself smile. On the floor next to the bed, her phone vibrated.
“I should go,” she said when it was over. “I’ll text you.”
Jake’s fever broke a few hours later, and just as she predicted, Sarah got home late from her sister’s house. “Why do I always have to the one to visit her?” she asked Daniel. “I’m the one with the baby. She should drive here for once.”
“I did the laundry,” Daniel said. “And put clean sheets on the bed. Does that make you feel any better?”
“A little,” Sarah said. “Thanks.” He reached over to rub her shoulders and felt her bra strap through her thin tank top. It was the one with the thick straps; it used to be a soft pink but after many rounds in the washing machine, the color had turned dingy. “That feels so nice,” she said.
Celia was in the nursery with Jake when she got the text from Daniel. Hi was all it said. She looked at it and then checked all her usual apps. She scrolled through her pictures. She opened up the text from Daniel again. Maybe she wouldn’t say anything back, but probably, she thought, she would, and if not to him, then someone else.
Alison Wisdom is an MFA candidate in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her fiction is forthcoming in Quiddity International Literary Journal and in Palooka Magazine and has appeared in Catch&Release, the literary blog of Columbia Journal.