by Tom Owen
James Pirie had the life he always wanted. But what do you do when the life that was promised is no longer enough?
The pressures of day-to-day existence bore down on James like a weight on top of his chest. He pictured an ACME brand anvil like the one cartoon animals were forever dropping on one another. Every breath was like a struggle to lift this tremendous weight, to stop it crushing him.
James had satisfying employment in the City, a family he truly loved, food in the cupboards and shelter from the storm – nothing you’d need normally escape from. And yet, somehow, there was always this dragging weight. He can’t tell if it’s something missing, lost, that makes him feel this way, or something that was never there at all – an unfulfilled promise within himself.
Unsure of why he feels this way, James dwells on times he thinks he can remember – lost days of youthful exploration, summers of a hundred firsts. Lips brushed, hands held, seductive forms embraced and mastered – the unadulterated thrill that a young man gets from discovering what his body can do. Maybe he’s misremembering. Artistic licence. Real or imagined though, these distant fantasies are tearing at the fabric of his life now.
Life isn’t short, it’s a long drawn out battle – you have to find respite where you can, thinks James. This is his right. He needs this. It’s not that he doesn’t love Lauren, deeply with every part of himself. It’s a need for excitement, something new. A place she can’t follow.
These thoughts, he feels, are furtive – or should be. Is he being loyal to his wife, his kids, by yearning for this other time? Is looking back to the distant past for some spark of inspiration the best he can offer them. He knows he is vacant sometimes. Lauren notices him staring into space, a half-formed smile playing on his lips. She asks him what he’s thinking and James lies to her. Just work stuff.
He doesn’t even know why he lies, perhaps she’d be hurt or maybe just find the whole thing a bit pathetic.
And, of course, there’s something thrilling in the secrecy, of reclaiming some slice of a private internal life. Some small part of him revels in the subterfuge. He’s good at it now too, making up reasons to be half an hour late here, to slink off for an afternoon there. Long evenings at the computer, frantically closing windows at the first sounds of footsteps in the hall.
His early forays into this hidden world were clumsy. He made excuses about working late, catching up with an old friend, so he could grab a few extra minutes, even an afternoon away from the family.
There are websites, James discovers, where you can meet like-minded people. Usually married, always unsatisfied with their lot, searching for a little bit of exhilaration with a side of companionship.
First James just watches. Follows the discussions. It takes a long time for him to pull the trigger and message someone. It’s a simple enquiry about price to a girl named ‘Katya’. She seemed nice, friendly, knowledgable. But James doesn’t go through with it.
Katya mentions she is recently divorced. What if it was a quest for ‘otherness’, like James’, that killed her marriage? Was she a part of this world before, or after her relationship broke up? Is this catharsis or cause?
The discovery is like a bathful of icy water being upended over James. He cools things for a while. Stays off the websites. Pays more attention to Lauren. Makes an effort.
After a few months the pressure reaches a head and James is back on the websites. Poring over detailed fact files on every ‘model’.
Enough is enough. The secrecy has to stop.
He sits down with Lauren. He looks down at the floor, mumbles some kind of apologetic precursor to his admission of thoughtcrime.
“Please don't get upset. I need some space.”
A heavy, pregnant pause. Lauren glares at him; half wolverine, half spooked deer.
“I’m thinking of buying a road bike.”
Laura flings a cushion across the room at him.
Tom Owen is a freelance writer and editor of Smoke and Tales.
Visit his website: tomowencc.com