A Harmless Encounter


          He was sitting on a stump in the back yard just staring out into space.  She knew he desperately wanted answers, and she knew equally well that the answers would bring him no satisfaction.  She had been unfaithful to him.  That sounded better than saying that she had slept around or committed adultery, but it meant the same.  She was sorry.  She hadn’t meant for it to happen and then she never intended to let him find out.  But it did happen and he did find out – sadly, after most all of their friends knew.


          Theirs had been a good marriage.  He was a good provider and she worked more because she wanted to than needed to.  They had three children who by all accounts were happy and well adjusted.  They didn’t make bad grades and they didn’t drink or do drugs and as teenagers go they were basically no trouble at all.


          A woman in her forties, she had been squeaky-clean all her life.  She was a model student through all thirteen years of elementary and high school.  She stayed on the Honor Rolls through college and even earned a Masters Degree in History.  When the children were small she didn’t work, but when she reached that point in life at which she felt they no longer needed her she decided maybe teaching high school would be a good way to stay busy without interfering too much with the children and her ability to be home for them.  She applied at the school from which she graduated and was given the position of History Teacher, grades nine thru twelve.  Like most other things in her life, it was the ideal job.  She could talk about things in which she was keenly interested to people who seemed interested and who were impressed with her way of teaching.  It was the job she had dreamed about since she was a small child, teaching the dolls and stuffed animals in her bedroom all about the great events of ages past.


          Then it happened.  She had a free period each afternoon immediately following lunch.  She went to the teacher’s lounge to relax and unwind and “talk a little shop” with whoever was there.  For a long time she shared the hour with Mrs. Thompson, the math teacher; but then Mrs. Thompson took maternity leave.  As her habit was by then well established, she continued to go to the lounge each day.  A young college graduate awaiting his first teaching position, Joe Elliot, replaced Mrs. Thompson.  Joe was twenty-six years old and considered strikingly handsome.  Like her, he had been reared in that community and graduated from that same high school.  He was unmarried and somewhat of a flirt.


          At first she paid no attention to his hugs and suggestive comments, but little by little she began to be interested in him.  She knew she could never marry him, and it would not turn into something serious, she was just playing along.  She would never act on anything.  It was just innocent fun.  It was no more than a series of harmless encounters that would never be anything but innocent flirtation. One day he sat by her on the couch, almost touching legs.  Then on another day he put his arm around her – nothing serious.  Then, almost without her even noticing it, he kissed her.  For the following few days she avoided the lounge and him altogether, but curiosity got the better of her and she returned on a Friday afternoon.  He was there.  One thing led to another and before they knew it (if we may be as generous as possible) they had committed fornication.  Hurriedly they dressed and each returned to their classrooms before the bell sounded.  She resolved to never let it happen again, but it did.  In fact, in time it came to be their routine: lunch in the lunchroom then sex in the lounge then class.  It was harmless – or so she tried to rationalize it.  She often thought of ending the illicit relationship, but never did.


          One day in the middle of their session the lounge door opened and they were discovered.  It was the janitor – of all people the worst to know of their secret.  They each covered their nakedness and she retreated out of the door without saying a word.  But her silence was short-lived.  Before the end of the day every teacher in the school – and a good many of the students – knew what was happening.  She thought about telling him immediately, but courage failed her and nothing was said.  Then, after a few weeks (in which the routine was not observed) Mrs. Thompson returned from maternity leave and things got back to normal.  Why had that janitor talked so?  Did she not know what was at stake?


          The janitor’s husband ate lunch at the same café as her husband and he was overheard and the secret was out.  He was devastated.  His trust shattered, his name ruined, his heart broken.  He confronted her and she couldn’t even deny it – much less explain it.  The hurt in his eyes was almost more than she could bear.  There he sat, alone, weeping, hurting.  There she stood – alone, weeping, hurting.  What could she tell him?  What could she do?  Could he forgive her?  Could she forgive herself?


          His was a different problem altogether – of course, he felt the betrayal and hurt and the broken heart, but it was more than that – well, it was more than he had ever dreamed it could be.  She not only destroyed his faith in her, but in humanity.  He trusted her.  He was blinded by the deep love he had for her.  He believed that if a man did what he was supposed to do – not necessarily to perfection, just to the best of his ability – things would generally work out for him.  He knew that good people suffered, but he didn’t think this particular type of suffering had come his way because of anything he had done.  It was, therefore, unfair.  And being unfair, it was contrary to his perception of how life works.


          He had always considered himself as somewhat of a wise man.  Friends turned to him in their hours of trouble and he helped them – at least he always thought he had helped them.  No – he had helped them.  He listened and understood and counseled and they listened and understood and took to heart his counsel.  He knew things. He was not naïve.  Why had he not seen this coming?


          You see, it was not just that he had lost faith in her, nor yet even that he had lost faith in humanity – he lost faith in himself.  He thought that surely there must be something wrong with him or she would not have done this.  Was he not a good lover?  Was he not good company?  Had she merely fallen out of love with him?  What could it be?  If such a tragedy had befallen him and taken him so totally unaware, how could he face tomorrow?  If he forgave her – which, by the way, he now knew he could do – could he ever really get over it?  How could he trust her?  Well, that he knew; he would trust her.  Even if it meant getting hurt again, he would trust her.


          His issue was not the infidelity; it was the lack of confidence he now felt in himself.  As he thought back over the encounter the two had upon his confronting her about the infidelity he was amazed at the lack of harsh words and yelling.  After all, he had every right to be mad.  She wronged him.  She violated her vows.  She introduced an unwanted third party into the bond that was supposed to be exclusive the domain of a man and his lawful wedded wife…


          But, hurt and even angry as he was, he couldn’t bring himself to yell at her.  He just looked at her and, with tears in his eyes, said, “Why?  How?”  She knew by the look on his face that he knew.  There was no need to tell him.  Someone else did that already.


          There they two were – suspended between the life that was and what was yet to come, whatever that might prove to be.  He could not possibly have hurt worse than he did right then; neither could she.  All of the years… the memories… the children… Could it be salvaged?  Could she be trusted?  Could he forgive?


          She left the window out of which she had been staring at her broken hearted husband and went to their bedroom and he walked to his pickup truck and reached for something behind the seat.  The children were all out with friends.  Everyone knew what had happened.  They were both filled with shame – she for her actions and he for his ignorance.  Two loud noises sounded almost at once.  And so ended a harmless encounter.


H. L. Gradowith


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