Plural

Caroline Roper

Original Sin

She wasn’t sure if she could describe it as a coincidence when she ran into her ex at a concert. It was one of Mark’s favorite bands and favorite venues. She showed up with an old friend from college, rather than her husband, Ian. She hadn’t thought she was trying to run into him, but the second they locked eyes, she felt exposed as a fraud. Of course he’d be here. Maybe she’d known all along.

When she was younger, she described all her late-night rendezvous with a sort of shocked naivety. “We were just watching a movie, and next thing I knew, his hands were under my shirt.” That’s the type of thing she used to say, the type of thing she’d roll her eyes at now. And yet, ten years later, she still hid things from herself, as if the hedonistic and judgmental sides of her would never compare notes.

And so, when she went home with Mark, another version of herself watched with horror. She was a younger self, a teenager, pious and uncomplicated, appalled by the way adults were.


Her Love

When she was with her husband Ian, she sometimes tried to imagine that she was meeting him for the first time, and she’d ask herself if she’d still choose him. She would survey his features one by one, objectively determining that he was handsome—strong jaw, clear skin, meticulously groomed hair, immaculate posture. If this were a first date, with someone she’d met online for example, she’d probably feel relieved when he first walked in, that he looked the same way in person that he did in photos, that there was no exaggerated masculinity in his self-presentation, that he didn’t walk with any contrived swagger or wear strong cologne.

And his manners pleased her. He asked her what she wanted instead of ordering for her. He didn’t mock her diet. He watched her for signs of disinterest or disapproval, maneuvering around any topics that didn’t strike her fancy.

Now, married for several years, she waited for him at a bar of his choosing, staring down at the drink menu. He surprised her with a kiss on the cheek.

“Hey handsome,” she said, experimenting with this cheesy, exaggerated type of flirtation, the kind she said she used to do, but in truth, she’d never done. “I like this place, good recommendation,” she said, looking around the wine bar, which thankfully had no theme, just a comfortable, modern sensibility.

“Tom, from work, said it was one of his go-tos,” said Ian.

“Nice.” She looked at the menu searching for a fruity, uncomplicated red wine. “Look at us, getting out on a weeknight, exploring new neighborhoods.” It was one subway stop away from theirs, but they’d never been on this street before.

“You always say we should do this type of thing more often,” he said.

“I do, don’t I?” She flipped the menu over. “Maybe I should get something with coffee. I’m exhausted, I have no idea why.” She’d had trouble sleeping the last few nights. She hadn’t felt guilty, but only because she’d deliberately willed herself not to feel guilty, which produced an emotion just as unpleasant as guilt. She re-read one of her favorite novels from years ago, and focused on it more intently than she needed to, to crowd out other thoughts, then trudged through the day on a Grande Red Eye that tasted burnt.

“That sounds like you,” he said. “Black coffee and strong whiskey. Nothing too tame.” He winked. She realized he probably hadn’t flirted with her like this since their third date five years ago and it was oddly disorienting, made their timeline feel warped and bent over itself.

She shook her head and laughed, scoffing. “You know me. Wild thing.” Her tone was like verbally buttoning her top button.

He put his elbow on the table. “I just remembered. The vet called about Sandy,” he said, and then they were back to being themselves.


Their Code

She couldn’t write that she’d be at Mark’s place at 11. It was too blatant and prosaic, and she wouldn’t be pleased if someone sent her such a crass assertion. So when they developed their secret “code,” it was to turn the volume down on their deceit. After the night of the concert, he sent her a message with just a picture of a small hickey she’d left on his neck saying “miss you.” She recoiled. Ian didn’t snoop, but because they scrolled through their feeds together in bed or at the dinner table, their phones weren’t private places. And technology captured and stagnated desire, like a taxidermied butterfly. But she knew she wanted to see him again. She sent him a picture of a bar near her office. She wrote, “My favorite Friday happy hour spot” along with the picture, and he responded, “I’ll have to check it out.” She fixated on the moment when she would see his face again, nothing beyond that. On Friday, he was there, and she felt relieved just to confirm that his features were as they’d always been, that he still moved the way she remembered, that he still stirred something in her.

Her code with Mark became more complex. She sent him clues containing the next date, time, and place of their rendezvous. Eventually, she began posting her clues on Instagram to make the game more challenging for them both. Her words had to feel like a plausible, ordinary caption. He had to find it and know it was for him and decipher it for the exact date and place of their next meeting.

She took a photo at the farmer’s market in Chelsea with a glossy yellow bell pepper in the foreground. She set her watch to 8 and included her wrist in the photo. Seven of her fingers were visible, grasping the pepper in a contrived way. They met at the nearby Pepe Gialo on the 7th of the month, at 8. She photographed her dinner spread as she was cooking. “Rosemary and thyme make anything delicious,” she captioned it. In the photo, the kitchen clock said 9:00 exactly and the calendar next to it had a date circled in red with no descriptor to say what would be happening that day. They met at a restaurant called Rosemary and Thyme at the date and time her calendar and clock had said.

She liked the illusion that he had deciphered the code completely on his own, but of course, they knew each other’s favorite restaurants, and sometimes she gave hints in person about the next clue she’d write.

Sometimes, he missed it. Perhaps he was waiting in the wrong place, or hadn’t seen her latest clue at all, or had seen it but had chosen not to come.

When he didn’t appear, she’d stir her drink and pretend to text. She never chastised Mark for missing a clue, or followed up to invite him to join her, but sometimes she hinted to him that he’d missed an invitation. Occasionally, she’d end up reaching out to Ian, putting on a passionate performance for him to prompt praise that would soothe over Mark’s rejection.


Her First

Seth was the name of her first love. She was one of the lucky girls who could describe her first as her love. Their story was spectacularly banal. Teen love. First kiss. Mixtapes. Watching the football game with his hands in her coat pockets, arms wrapped around her waist. Trysts when their parents were out of the house. He made her spaghetti once. Canned sauce, boxed pasta. Impossibly romantic. They were on the swim team, and they’d have long afternoon practices to admire each other’s bodies in their swimsuits. They’d tear the corner of each other’s scorecards and tuck them under each other’s swim caps for good luck.

All the while, her friends were getting swarmed at parties by greedy hands and games with rules that commanded kisses if the bottle or cards or drinks said so. But she was safe. He protected her.

She eventually left him for another boy. There wasn’t a reason, except that they were both young and infatuation would trump familiarity for many more years. When Seth found out about the other boy, he called her a whore. His friends wrote “whore” over her photo in the yearbook. She sometimes heard them whispering “slut,” when she passed. Once, they surrounded her, pushed her against the wall of the high school, and scribbled “whore” on her arm with a sharpie. She once told this story to Ian.

He sputtered, “That’s awful. I mean they were kids, so of course they didn’t know better. But nobody stopped them? Crazy.”

She shrugged.

“And you still think about it? I guess you must. But why? What makes you remember that?” he asked. She said she didn’t know, but she couldn’t deny that the label lingered. In her thoughts, she played both characters, a frail teenage girl and her bully muttering slut.

She also told Mark. He laughed and smacked her ass, misunderstanding the tone of the story. “Troublemaker,” he teased, and she laughed along because it was easier than correcting him.


Ian’s Discovery

Ian’s reasoning was perfect. Exposed in the simple way he explained it, it was obvious that the code had never been so subtle. There was a familiar repetition to the when and where, and all it took was stopping by one of the hinted locations to be sure. It was a matter of time before he cracked the code. It was foolish to post the clues publicly, if she hadn’t deep down wanted him to catch her.

“I felt like I was losing my mind,” Ian said. “I thought, ‘there’s no way she’d do something like this.’ It’s like a fucked-up escape room or a murder mystery or something. But then I saw you, in the restaurant, across from him.”

She felt herself becoming two women, the one she could still inhabit, and this other woman, who had done this thing to the man she loved. Scowling at her in their living room, he’d never been more handsome. The table lamp highlighted his cheekbone, enhancing the contrast of his face. If the purpose of the code had been to prove that her lover was clever enough to solve her puzzles, then Ian had proven himself. Her eyes wandered to the darkest corner of the room. “I don’t know who I must be to do something like this.” Her voice wavered. It sounded a bit like vibrato, like she was singing. “I don’t love him,” she said, and as her body grew cold, she realized she had to be telling the truth. “I’ll leave him, and I won’t miss him.”

He was looking at her bewildered and disgusted, maybe even pitying her.

She searched for words to explain why she’d done this. The two selves became a multitude – thousands of women who spoke different languages and didn’t know how to tell each other what they needed. “I love you,” she said, insistent, but even this wasn’t quite true. “I wanted to love you,” she corrected.

He touched her arm. “So why do this?” he asked, gesturing at the phone. “Why this game?” he asked.

Somewhere in her was a scared girl who would cry and bury herself in his arms at a moment like this, but when she spoke, she sounded like a scientist, still puzzling over the matter, trying to solve it. “Maybe I forgot I could choose, maybe I thought I was just the type of person who would do this.” She felt herself overheating, head buzzing with shame, and she tried to calm herself. She searched for thoughts she could swallow like medicine. She fell back on him so reliably that she became unaware of him. He was like white noise, or the smell of one’s own house. She remembered when she was a little girl swimming in the pool in the summer. She used to close her eyes as she passed from the shallow end to the deep end and then open them, purposefully frightening herself by staring into water, darker where it was deeper, focusing into the depth of it so that it felt like miles below her. She, pretending to be alone in the depths of the ocean, where no one could reach her. She thought it might feel exciting. And then again, it might feel like she’d always felt.

“I don’t understand,” said Ian.

“I feel these urges,” she said. “It’s not what I want to do, it’s like…” she started with her hands a foot apart and slowly drew them together like magnets, slowing down as she got very close, as though the poles were misaligned. Then she drew them tightly together. “Like an idea comes to me, and I can’t stop hearing it until I obey it. Because that idea, in that moment, it’s all I can remember about myself. I can’t think about anything else until I’ve gotten rid of that idea, by obeying it. And so I go through with it, just to get myself back for a little bit, until the next horrible idea comes along.”

“What about me?” he asked. “Am I an idea you couldn’t get rid of another way?”

“No,” she answered. “You’re a decision.” But to her a decision was just that reasonable little voice humbly making observations about this or that man’s qualifications, dull and analytical compared to the louder demands of her compulsions. “You’re who I would want if I was somebody else, maybe who I think I’m supposed to be,” she said.

He was shaking his head, turning his head away as if to hide tears and then towards her as if he’d remembered this was one situation where it was entirely justified to cry. “Then this has all been wishful thinking,” he said. “Your wishful thinking,” he emphasized. “You know I can’t wait for you.” He began gathering his things and left. She made no effort to convince him to stay.