The tightrope

(edited extract from Double Happiness, by Rochelle Siemienowicz, Midnight Sun, 2024)

She knows he’s fucking someone else and she’s okay with it.’ Anna pointed the remote control at the TV to turn it off.
She and Brendan had been watching House of Cards and the Machiavellian Underwood marriage was revealing itself – Frank’s affair with a political reporter, and the fact that his wife, cold and beautiful Claire, didn’t entirely disapprove.
‘An emperor’s allowed his concubine,’ Brendan said indulgently. He was massaging Anna’s feet in his lap. They often sat like this, discussing shows they’d watched, the debrief as pleasurable as the watching.
‘But is Claire allowed a lover too?’ Anna wondered. ‘She seems to like Adam the photographer.’
‘It’s only fair if she does,’ said Brendan. ‘I like the way they’re not making a big deal of it.’
‘They might make a big deal of it. We’re only at the start of the series.’ Anna’s heart beat faster as they skirted the theme so close to her own secrets and lies. Lately, she’d initiated a lot of these conversations almost against her own will.
‘Too many stories assume an affair is the worst thing that can happen to a couple,’ Brendan said. ‘There are far worse things.’
‘Like living in cold silence, or bickering every day. An affair’s positively wholesome compared to that. As long as people are treating each other with kindness.’
Kindness was Brendan’s favourite virtue, and Anna’s. She used it to justify a lot.
‘You don’t really believe that,’ she ventured, thinking about Hawaii, when Brendan couldn’t even bear a spicy sex game with imaginary others.
‘I do believe it!’ He dug his fingers deep into the soft tissue at the base of her big toe. She winced and pulled away.
‘You wouldn’t be okay if I was having an affair,’ she said, noticing the thrill she got from this game.
‘It’s hypothetical. Not even worth asking,’ he said, rolling his shoulders and yawning. His willful lack of curiosity was infuriating.
‘It is worth asking.’
The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them. She shouldn’t be doing this.
‘All I’m saying is that scriptwriters are lazy.’ Brendan reached for her other foot. ‘It’s that puritanical attitude towards sex – in 2015 for God’s sake – that gives me the shits – the assumption that any good person is necessarily monogamous. Or else tortured and punished for their desire. Whereas evolutionary biology suggests…’
‘So you’ve finished Sex at Dawn?’
She was delighted he had finally read the book she’d been pushing on him, with its argument supporting the notion that Anna might be an entirely natural woman, a peaceable and loving bonobo, keen on expanding the intimacy of her tribe, instead of a greedy, war-mongering ape, hoarding bananas.
‘I skimmed it,’ he said. ‘It’s good popular science. Makes sense. Nothing new to me of course.’
Brendan never liked to admit he’d been taken by surprise. Most ideas Anna presented to him were self-evident, or ‘an imbecilic simplification’. His intellectual arrogance. When they met it had simultaneously turned her on and repulsed her. I’d like to bring that man down, she found herself thinking as she watched him lecture, scrawling on the whiteboard as he talked a million miles an hour. His arse was so skinny in his chinos, but she liked his strong forearms, the blonde handsomeness of his face. She was shocked by her own primitive will to power – to break him down and also undress him.
She had brought him down many times since, too. She had won many arguments, and he paid her the ultimate compliment of saying ‘that despite all appearances’, she had a more logical mind than his.
She didn’t need to bring him down anymore, now she knew the bravado of his arrogance, the vulnerability it masked. She knew the demons he fought when he struggled to understand new concepts or theories. But she was starting to wonder if his willful ignorance was also actually a brilliant means of control.
‘Could you really stand me sleeping with someone else?’ she said.
He focused on her foot. ‘There are too many variables I’d have to define first.’
There was his precision – the way he used defining terms as avoidance.
‘What if it wasn’t hypothetical?’
He inhaled deeply and massaged her feet in silence.
‘You’re scaring me.’
She knew she should reassure him at this point, but she couldn’t.
‘Look,’ he said at last, ‘I totally support other people’s freedom to do what they want, but you tried that open marriage stuff with your ex. You had a nervous breakdown, remember? Why would you even contemplate it again?’
‘It might work out now,’ she said. ‘Now that I have a different husband?’
She tried to say it playfully, like she was asking for her morning coffee.
He pushed her foot off his lap. ‘I don’t want that,’ he said.
‘What if I do?’
He looked over his glasses, stern. He was the professor now and she was in trouble. He blinked, slowly. ‘Is there something you want to tell me?’ He moved further along the couch away from her.
She’d been living the questions, like Rilke said, and now she finally knew it was the moment when she had to live her way into the answers. But she had no words. She covered her face with her hands, smelling garlic on her fingers.
She’d stepped off the cliff and she was falling, cold air rushing past and no solid ground beneath her. She heard the silence and stillness in the falling, and a part of her watched it, as if from above, aware that this was the climax to a narrative.
This was the scene required in any version of the grand old story of infidelity. The confession, the revelation. What would the reaction be? She was as curious as the reader who had nothing to lose, but she had everything to lose as he watched and waited.
There was no going back.
‘You have, haven’t you?’ his voice got louder. ‘Fuck. Fuck!’
The cat looked up with pointy ears and shifted on her cushion, then slithered out the cat-flap into the cold.
‘What have you done, woman?’
Her mouth was dry. The clock was ticking loudly. She looked around the lamp-lit room – the ruined sofa where the cat sharpened its claws; the white silk rug Roz gave them as a housewarming present, now grubby and greyish but still luxuriant. This was the room where they’d fought and made up, nursed their baby, and watched hours and hours of top-notch drama on that box that was now the fireplace and altar of their marriage.
What would become of this room? Was it too late to stop it dissolving? She sank to the floor at his feet, her head against his knee, begging for mercy and hiding her face from his stricken gaze.
He removed his knees from under her cheek very carefully, like she was a vat of poison he might spill if he moved too fast.
‘When? How many times?’ His voice was cold. He wasn’t even asking the right questions. ‘Do I know him?’
‘Is it still going on?’
‘Fuck! How long?’
She groaned. ‘Ten months.’
‘Fuuuuck!’ He was on his knees, thumping the floorboards, punching them. She worried about how much this must hurt his fists, and also about the noise he was making. She wanted him to stop. She wanted to be far away from those fists. In all their years of arguments and making up, he’d never come close to hitting her. But this would be the time if there was going to be one.
He was pounding a cushion and swearing. A small puff of dust rose out of it. She was relieved that at least he was hitting something soft.
‘You’ve ruined everything! I don’t believe this!’ He was yelling, standing up and looking around the room with frantic eyes that came to rest on an antique vase filled with flowers from the garden. He lifted it high, gathering all his force behind it. Brendan had thrown many things in his time, and now he was going to throw this precious Chinese vase, a wedding present handed down from his great grandmother.
He held it aloft. Paused.
Ugh. Fuck it. I like it too much!’
Holding the storm inside, he put the vase back on the coffee table with great care, breathing heavily. He straightened the doily underneath and rubbed at a watermark on the wood where Anna had rested a cup without a coaster.
‘Fuck you, Anna.’ He rubbed hard then left the room.
She listened for the sound of the front door and the car, but he returned from the kitchen with a cloth and a can of polish and began to rub the table with hard, jerky movements.
‘It’s always my job to clean up your fucken mess, isn’t it?’ he yelled, leering at her again, his face so close she could smell the onions on his breath.
‘Can you keep your voice down,’ she pleaded, pointing upstairs to Luka’s room.
‘Did you think of him when you were fucking around?’ He shouted louder. ‘Did you think of me and how I would feel?’
‘Constantly. I’ve been sick about it.’
‘Not sick enough to stop. Not sick enough to tell me the truth.’
‘I tried to … I wondered if maybe you already knew…’
He shook his head. ‘You are unbelievable.’ He kept rubbing at the spot though it had long disappeared.
‘I’ve been trying to tell you in a thousand ways,’ she said.
‘Not trying very hard.’ He stopped and gave a sickening laugh. ‘I never suspected a thing, except that one time in Hawaii when you were so fucken weird. I should have known. I’ve been a stupid trusting fool. A cuckold! Cuck, cuck, cuck!’ He spat out the ancient word and she wiped a droplet of spit from her cheek.
She hated that word, the sound of it, the meaning of it. She didn’t want him to attach himself to that word.
‘I’m a fucken cuck. How could I have missed this?’ He had his head in his hands as if he was wrestling with one of his mathematical equations. ‘I thought I knew you.’
‘You do know me,’ she said. ‘The reason you didn’t suspect is because I never stopped loving you. You could feel that.’
‘Is this what you do to people you love, Anna?’ He was crying. His glasses were off and tears were streaming down his cheeks. ‘I’m devastated, devastated,’ he sobbed.
‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ she said, crying now too because it was all so real, the sight of her beautiful husband, broken at last, and it was all her fault. She moved closer to him, wishing she could hold him.
‘What have you done, woman? What have you done?’ He murmured it softly to himself, rocking slightly, reciting it over and over. She wondered at his use of the word ‘woman’ for her, when he’d never said it like that before. He was a stranger in his shock and grief. It was awful and fascinating, to see this new thing in him that she’d never seen before, like he hadn’t seen the big thing in her, despite her timid attempts to show it to him.
She wondered about other things they mightn’t know about each other yet.
‘I never stopped loving you,’ she said, coming closer. She thought there was relief in his eyes. ‘I love you,’ she said again. Then she was holding him, and he was holding her, so tightly she couldn’t breathe. She let herself be strangled as his tears fell in her hair. She listened to the sound of his crying, her breathing and the clock, and the cat meowing outside the door because it only knew how to use the flap to get out, not in.
He pushed her away, roughly.
‘I’m so angry at you I don’t know what to do,’ he said.
They lay in bed with the lights off. She could hear his breathing, jagged with emotion. She blinked in the blackness, wondering if she should go to the spare room after all, but her instincts told her to stay close. She wouldn’t leave unless he threw her out.
He cleared his throat and sighed, as if giving in to an urge.
‘Where does he live?’
‘South Yarra.’
‘Is he rich?’
‘No, he lives in a flat.’
‘What does he do?’
‘He’s a filmmaker.’
‘Have I heard of him?’
‘Is he successful?’
‘He’s mainly unemployed.’ She was filled with tenderness for Jeremy, and also for Brendan and his reluctant need to know, his naked sense of competition.
‘Don’t tell me anything more, okay?’
They lay in silence.
‘How old is he?’
’Nearly 41.’
‘Nine years younger than me.’
‘Yes. But he looks older.’ She wasn’t sure if that was true but maybe it would help.
‘Does he spend all day at the gym then? Is he buffed and fit, your fucken unemployed lover?’
‘Not really.’
She thought of Jeremy’s half-hearted jogs around the Tan, his occasional push-ups. The strong body she loved in all its hardness and softness, laziness and greed. Brendan was trying to place Jeremy on some scale above or below himself but it wasn’t going to work.
‘What does he have then, that I don’t?’ It was almost a wail.
‘It’s not like that.’ She reached out and he didn’t push her away. She pressed up against his back, lips on his shoulder, and said what she thought might help:
‘He’s quiet. He’s kind of… ordinary.’
Was it a betrayal to describe Jeremy as ordinary? It was true that his subdued intelligence sat in the back row and did not announce itself from a podium, like Brendan’s did. Jeremy’s handsomeness was quiet too. But was he ordinary?
‘You’re in love with him.’ It wasn’t a question. Brendan had calculated ten months, plus ‘ordinariness’, must equal love.
‘He’s a good person. You’d like him,’ she said gently.
‘In what way is he good?’
‘He’s honest. Decent. Like, he stole a butter knife from a café for a picnic and went back a week later to return it.’
‘Ugh. I wish you hadn’t told me that. The fact he’s sleeping with someone else’s wife kind of undermines all that, don’t you think?’
‘I guess,’ she said. ‘It’s just that I reckon you’d be friends, if you met. He’s very lonely.’
‘In what way?’
She could hear the curiosity, despite himself; the gathering relief that his rival wasn’t richer or more popular.
‘He doesn’t have very many people. He hasn’t found his tribe.’
‘Is he married too?’
‘Divorced. His kids live with him part time.’
‘Please tell me you haven’t met the kids.’
‘I couldn’t stand it if you had.’
‘I know.’
She heard him processing it all, his mind skipping through possibilities, weighing information and making leaps and bounds from shock to practicality.
‘You’re not going to give him up are you?’ There was horror in his voice. ‘And if I ask you to choose, you’ll choose him, won’t you?’
‘I don’t want to choose.’
‘Then what am I supposed to do?’ He moved away from her and buried his head in his pillow.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a writer, editor and arts journalist. Her first book was Fallen (Affirm Press, 2015), a memoir about sex, religion and marrying too young. Her work has been published widely, including in The Age, SBS, Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue, Metro and ArtsHub. She has a PhD in Australian cinema and was for many years a film and TV critic and columnist. Her novel, Double Happiness (Midnight Sun) is coming in September 2024.