I've often wondered if adultery runs in the genes, like blue eyes or buck teeth. Am I unfaithful because it's written in my DNA?
The idea appeals to the scientist in me: We're all the sum of our genetic bar codes, no more, no less. See, yes, there it is, nestling between my red hair and my tendency toward the pear-shaped (hips, life, take your pick)—there, infidelity, clear as day. Biological proof that I can no more stay faithful than shrink a shoe size, however hard I try.
William stirs next to me. He reaches for my breast, and my nipple peaks instantly beneath his touch. His cock jabs my hip, already hard again. I smile. After eight years, we don't have sex that often, but when we do, we get our money's worth.
He rolls onto his back and pulls me onto him; I wince slightly as he enters me. He isn't to know I had sex with Jackson—twice—last night.
As he thrusts upward, I cling to the brass headboard for support, my breasts shivering tantalizingly above his mouth. His lips fasten on my nipple and there's a zigzagging pulse between my legs. I tighten my grip. William is the more selfish lover; I've learned to take my pleasure from him without asking. Jackson is far more thoughtful: always seeking out new ways to please me, holding himself in check until I've come, sometimes three or four times.
I shunt Jackson out of my head. Contrary to popular myth, women can be good at adultery. All they have to do is learn to think like a man.
My clit rubs against William's pelvis, and the familiar heat builds. His teeth graze my breast; swift, greedy bites. I reach between his legs, skittering my fingernails along the inside of his thighs and across his balls. He bucks inside me, hitting my G-spot, and I stiffen, savoring the moment at the crest of the roller coaster. Then my orgasm breaks over me in sweeping, almost painful, waves.
With one hand, I find the tiny sensitive spot between his balls and asshole, pressing just enough to send him wild. With the other, I reach for my beeping phone.
Only two people would text me this late at night. Jackson or—
"Shit!" I tumble off him, groping for my clothes.
He slams his head against the pillow. "Christ. I thought you weren't on call tonight."
"Emergency." I hook up my bra, and scrabble under the bed for my knickers. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
"Couldn't it have waited until after I came?"
I give up on the knickers, and pull on my gray pencil skirt before sliding my feet into a pair of skyscraper scarlet heels. I can only find a single topaz earring; I hate losing one of a pair.
Buttoning up my white silk shirt, I lean forward and drop a kiss on his sandpaper cheek. He smells of my sex. "Happy Valentine's Day."
William scowls. "You owe me."
"Get in line."
Fifteen minutes later, I ease my toes from the to-die-in stilettos as the elevator grinds its way up to the obstetric floor. There must be another butter-wouldn't-melt little genome tucked away on that adulterous double-_helix to explain my uncontrollable fetish for pretty shoes. How else to justify the purchase of lust-have red Ginas in a size 6 (the only pair left—and no, they haven't "stretched with wear" as the commission-only salesgirl promised) when I've been a size 7 all my adult life?
My mother was always perfectly shod. Even when the French bailiffs evicted us from our little appartement on the Rue du Temple because my father had stopped paying the rent, her footwear (if not her reputation) was beyond reproach. We might starve as a result, but she could no more resist a new pair of polka-dot peep-toe slingbacks than she could him. She brought her only daughter up in her likeness.
The elevator doors open and I hobble toward the delivery suites, uncomfortably aware of the draft beneath my skirt. Lucy is my best friend, and I love her to death, but I really hope she isn't on duty tonight. I'm used to moral sermons from my mother; she speaks from fingers-burnt experience after all. But Lucy and I have been les soeurs sous la peau since we crossed scalpels over a half-dissected corpse as medical students at Oxford. I'm the one she comes to for a Xanax scrip before she flies. It's not like she hasn't known about my affair for years.
On the other hand, when your husband leaves you for a teenage choreographer (forget semantics: If you're thirty-six, as we are, twenty-three is teenage) I suppose it entitles you to take a more jaundiced than jaunty view of other people's adultery.
My mobile rings as I reach the labor ward. Peering through the glass porthole, I realize my patient must still be in the back of an ambulance trapped in stubborn traffic somewhere on Fulham Road, so I answer the call.
"Jackson," I say, "I'm with a patient."
"You're at work?"
"You knew I was on call."
One of the perks of being a doctor (aside from delightful offers from strangers at parties to allow me to examine their anal fissures in the guest bathroom, heedless of both the social niceties and the fact that I am a neonatologist) is the ability to stay out all night unquestioned. As the pediatric consultant at the Princess Eugenie Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, I owe the hospital six nights on call each month. My husband has always believed it to be seven.
"You've got five minutes," I tell Jackson.
"That's not what you said last night," he teases, his Deep South drawl undiminished by nearly a decade in England.
I'm not having an affair because my sex life with my husband is either infrequent or unsatisfying. On the contrary: He's a conscientious lover. Though I have plenty of plausible reasons for my infidelity, I'm not sure that I can actually find an excuse that excuses me.
I shrug on my white coat. "What is it?"
"I need to talk to you."
"Now? Can't it wait?"
He hesitates. "I just found this neat motorcycle on eBay, an Indian. The bids end at midnight, and I wanted to talk to y'all about it first. . .
I can't help thinking he'd been planning to say something else.
"C'mon, Ell, you know I've always wanted one. It'd make it real quick to get to work. It's all right for you," he adds, an edge creeping into his voice, "living so close to the hospital. You're not the one gotta sit in traffic for an hour two times a day."
"I'm sure DuCane Pharmaceuticals would still—"
"For crissakes, Ella! How many times?"
"No one's asking you to raise money for their pills," I say tightly. "We all know they're immoral drug-pushing pimps who'll go straight to hell, yada yada. But the research program is different—"
"Suddenly stem-cell research is OK?"
"Jackson, I'm a doctor. What do you want me to say?"
"You don't have to leave your conscience at the door when you put on your white coat, Ella," he says bitterly. "Just your fancy shoes."
"I don't see what my conscience has to do with—"
"I thought you were supposed to be saving babies, not murdering them."
"Not that it's anything to do with neonatology, Jackson," I say, stung, "but since when did messing about with zygotes become equivalent to baling infants with a pitchfork?"
"Stupid of me to think you'd care."
"Stupid of me to think you'd be able to reason like a grown-up."
Subtext whirls through the ether. We both know what this is really about.
I switch my mobile to the other ear, reining in my temper with difficulty. Now is not the time to call him out for wanting to break our deal; we agreed from day one: no children. It's not as if the subject is going to go away, I think resentfully.
"Look. I only meant—"
"I know what you meant, Ella."
It's one of the things I've always admired about Jackson: his steadfast, unfashionable integrity. A gifted fund-raiser, charming, sincere, and articulate, he has the kind of likeable persuasiveness that, were he politically minded, could have seen him in the White House (although his incurable honesty might have counted against him). In the past couple of years, headhunters for several prestigious NGOs have offered him six figures and an open-ended expense account to run their capital campaigns or head up their development offices. All have gone away disappointed—though only after Jackson has charmed them into donating hefty sums to One World, the lentils-and-hairy-armpit environmental charity for which he works.
It's also one of the things that always irritates me about my husband: his rigid, my-way-or-the-highway Southern sense of honor.
I jam my mobile between chin and shoulder while I button the white coat over my smart crepe skirt. There's nothing I can do about the fuck-me red shoes. "Fine. If you've made up your mind."
"Think of it as a belated birthday present."
I close my eyes, suddenly awash with remorse. "Oh, Jackson. I'm sorry."
"I've been so busy at the hospital—we're understaffed—"
"I said forget it."
The silence lingers. How could I miss his birthday? It's Valentine's Day, for God's sake. You'd think I could manage to remember that.
Jackson coughs again. "How's the cold?" I ask quickly, guiltily.
"Actually, I feel kinda lousy, to be honest. I think I'm spiking a fever."
I suppress a smile. It's extraordinary, the way the same bug affects the male and female immune systems. I should write a paper on it: "A virus that will merely produce sniffles in the female of the species miraculously becomes an upper respiratory infection the moment it encounters macho Y chromosomes_._._."
"Look, Jackson, we'll go out on the weekend, I promise. I'll make up some excuse—"
"You choose. Anywhere you like."
"You'll enjoy it more when you're feeling better, anyway." Then, partly to appease my conscience, and partly because, despite William, despite everything, it is still true, I add, "I love you."
"Love you more."
It's our catchphrase, one of those couply exchanges you develop in the early months together and then later cling to, like a life preserver, out of mingled superstition and hope and fear when the going gets rough.
It is also, in six words, a synopsis of our marriage.
We met in America eleven years ago, at the perfect-storm moment; the one night when I was tired enough, and vulnerable enough, and (let's be honest) drunk enough for a window in my carefully nurtured cynicism to crack and give Jackson time to slip through.
I'd lost my virginity at seventeen (to my thirty-four-year-old tennis coach; the cliche embarrassed me more than being caught in flagrante by my grandmother, who'd merely nodded with the quiet triumph of one being proved right). Since then, all the men I'd dated had had just one thing in common: Not one was remotely available, and that's just how I liked it.
A part of me knew my behavior wasn't exactly well adjusted; but the rest of me figured it'd sort itself out when I met the right man.
It wasn't a coup de foudre when Jackson Garrett sauntered into the piano bar on Bourbon Street, in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and headed straight over to Lucy and me as if we'd been waiting there all night just for him. Love didn't come into it.
Jackson was—is—the most handsome man I'd ever seen. He's got this all-American, dazzling-white movie-star smile, and the kind of skin that looks golden even in the middle of an English winter. Eyes a Tiffany turquoise, with obscenely long lashes and the kind of sparkle that makes your skin tingle and your clothes somehow unbutton themselves. And a mouth so mobile and sensual you have no choice but to throw your anal British reserve to the wind and demand that it kiss you. Come on, it's my birthday, what are you, shy? (Look_ing back, I believe that's where three Hurricanes came in.)
After we came up for air, I grabbed my cigarette lighter and fumbled for my poise, waiting for him to zero in on Lucy. Men always do. Hardly surprising, given her fifties curves, perfect skin, and waist-length, old-gold hair; for the first year I knew her, I seriously considered a Sapphic conversion. The universal Law of Attraction, which dictates that people end up with partners of the same degree of attractiveness as themselves (unless money or power distort the equation), put Jackson firmly in her league, rather than mine.
But, bending his dark-blond head to mine, he murmured in my ear, his warm breath rum-sweet, "I always knew you colonialists didn't play fair. I should warn y'all, I surrender easy."
"I'm no Virginia myself."
"I'd Nevada thought it."
"I know there's something rude I could do with Kansas and Mississippi," I mused, "but these Hurricanes are stronger than they look."
His skin smelled of leather and soap and pine trees just after it's rained. There was a quiver in the region of my knickers.
He took the unlit cigarette out of my fingers and guided me toward the door. "I think we need to discuss the State of this Union somewhere else."
It was obviously never going to be more than a brief holiday fling, since Lucy and I were only down from North Carolina for the weekend. We planned to experience the "Come as you are, leave different" philosophy of the Big Easy before we graduated from Duke and—her words—went home to London and stuck our heads back up our uptight British arses.
So while Lucy generously waved me on, I went back to his apartment and slept with him (oh, the brazen shame of me!) the first night, with none of that tedious game-playing, no-touching-below-the-waist-till-the-fifth-date routine.
Over breakfast the next morning—Creole beignets, fresh fruit fritters, and cinnamon sopaipillas; dear Lord, the man could cook!—we exchanged some of the personal details we'd neglected in favor of energetic sex the night before, such as our names. Jackson was a fund-raiser at New Orleans's Tulane University. When I told him I was studying medicine at Duke, he nearly spat out his (strong, black) coffee.
"I'll be damned. I just got a job at Duke, I'm movin' there in a couple weeks."
Still aching pleasurably from the night's exertions, I decided Jackson was the perfect rebound lover (there'd been a brief and unhappy dalliance with a married History professor, recently ended and best not dwelt upon): the casual, restorative relationship that helps mend a broken heart after a romantic near miss; or at least someone to play hooky with while you wait to meet The One. He was not, as he warned me at the time, supposed to be the man I married.