The two lay down together on the bed.
Atreus’s son paced through the crowd, like a wild beast,
searching for some glimpse of godlike Alexander.
Iliad, book 3: 284ff.
I parked the car four blocks beyond the house. Felt like I was following a plan that I had rehearsed a hundred times. What sense did it make? Helen would not know I had come, did not even know I was on my way. I felt like a visitor in my own house, I thought more about my students and my department than about Helen or the children. Perhaps my life had been going by too quickly. I found myself turning thirty now, nothing beautiful in my life or really engaging, I had come to know love and death so young – it had taken more than ten years for the speed and intensity of events around me to fall off a bit. I found myself suddenly and prematurely aged, in my role as a professor, fed up with all the drinking and dancing of my younger days, my wife finding her own way into her thirties, full of drives and desires of her own whose sensuous velocity I could never really match.
I stole in, careful not to make a sound, though as it turns out she would not have heard me anyway, what with the clamor of her own battle. Helen was beautiful, but above all she was a good wife, diligent; before seeing the kids off to school in the morning she had already prepared our repast, had cleaned the floors, ironed the clothing, even dusted off the old rock collection I’d gathered in the hills of Santa Eulalia on my first ever camping trip, back in third grade. She never got bored with my stupid archeological sentimentality—my baptismal brushes, soda bottles from the five continents, even the little spinning top made of bronze, the one that I won off that Chinese guy Alejos in three memorable games. Each of these knickknacks received its indifferent once–over as regular as clockwork. Helen was orderly, meticulous. And for this very reason when I saw the whisky glasses lying on the floor, the clothing strewn hurriedly across the furniture, I understood: she was exorcising our domestic routines—my custom was to fold up my shirt and trousers before making love.
The truth is Helen had tried too hard, had tried harder than you could expect from a girl who got married at twenty to a professional bum, and one who was not doing too well in his profession. She started out by straightening up the little dump we rent—“You’ll see, I’ll make it look like Barranco,” she said—then came the pregnancy with Martita and, no way around it, the loss of a year at the university. And then the conflicts between childcare and exams, lectures and diapers. Still it seemed like she was going to end up with a career; then her gynecologist told her the test was positive, congratulations, all that crap. It was the only time I ever saw her cry, she wept that she was ending up like every other housewife who studies psychology and then raises a family. Now, at the very least, I was getting a chance to hear her laughing, roaring even, moaning, again and again, beside herself.
The university became her obsession. Although we had enrolled together, she never drew the obvious, odious comparison; but I always felt like it got under her skin, to see the girls who had started as freshmen graduating before she did, and on top of that with me overseeing their theses. They were young, were not loaded down with kids, had time to sort out a path in life and a professional degree besides—“She’ll make whatever conquests she likes, right?” she would always say, and the double-entendre may have been intentional. Was she thinking about how all this was already out of range for her? For better or worse this was a constant thorn in her side; when Marta and the twins were older she went to work at the gym, she got her license, she discovered the aphrodisiac spell which her ankles cast over males of every persuasion.
I walked down the hall toward the door standing ajar; the mirror on the dresser excused me from having to get any closer. Helen was turned away from the mirror, mounted on the belly of her inflamed lover, going up and down, going in and out. It seems strange, but what most grabbed my attention then was my wife’s get-up—I thought back to one day when she had come into our room in a sheer negligee, and under that the same black lingerie she was wearing now, stockings, garters and all. She had undressed me then as if she were peeling a piece of fruit, had thrown me down on the bed with lecherous force, not listening to what I was saying about my clean white shorts and the waxed floor. Clumsy, coarsely, I had stripped off her lace panties and in five minutes hurried through the routine which her ambush had called for. Then for all her desperate efforts to revive my withered cartilage, it lay there sleeping, crushed, sated.
How many times had it happened, my drive and endurance vanishing midway through? This man, by contrast, knew how to give her pleasure without even needing to unravel the gauzy blackness which enveloped her, as if he knew by heart where to find her turgid vulva among this web of openings.
Quickly, fluidly, they moved on to new games, new positions, rolled, twisted together, buttocks and caresses, fingers stroking hair, tongues licking, eyes delirious and dark. It had been a good long time now since I had seen Helen’s face like this, her mouth open, lips swollen, jaw set, transfixed by pleasure. Our intimacy had become a monotonous affair, bureaucratic, frustrated. Here everything was audacity, spontaneity, fun.
But who was this person, this intruder, thrusting himself at one blow into my bed, into my life? Was he a neighbor? An instructor at the gym? Across the mirror I realized I knew those childish features: it was a student of mine from the past term, Alexander Parissi, son of a candymaker, expelled from the university after having flunked out of World History I for the third time. Was this some settling of scores on his part? Or was Parissi the unwitting instrument of Helen’s erotic vengeance? I took offense at my own role as a lover, at having been displaced by a kid like this; but I understood that Parissi was standing in as my opposite in every way, with his torrential twenty-one years—exactly what Helen, ten years older, needed.
In the end the boy was not to blame; at that age you don’t beg anybody’s pardon. Hadn’t I done the same thing with my old man’s secretary, with the cougars who sat around in cafés trying to score with younger guys? Back then I saw the world through the glasses of incontinent adolescence, I could give a shit what the thirty-year-old woman was thinking. They must have felt lonely, ignored, unsatisfied—at that age where they’re still going out, trying to look good, to complement their husbands. They were following their own paths and I was following my own path, just like Alexander Parissi was now, focusing his attention on prolonging Helen’s last orgasm as far as she would let him.
The two of them were lying limp now, relaxing from their climax, sleepwalking fingers still exploring each other’s pliant, moist bodies. Helen was trying to get him up again, sucking kisses all down his legs to his feet, where she began to stroke with her rigid nipples those lower digits where the last reserves of one’s energy are stored. Shaken by his devastating, unspeakable discharge, Parissi grabbed his odalisque’s waist and squeezed it against his body and said in his husky, tremulous voice, “To Troy, Helen. Let’s go to Troy.”
I thought of how often I had tried to get behind Helen that way, to no avail; on the other side of the mirror, I stifled the murderous impulse welling up in me. Reviewed in my memory the hungry lusts of older women I’d been with, reviewed how I could justify to myself what I had done with them twice a month, three times a week, four times daily. Back then Helen was a typical teenager in love, her head in the clouds; now she was a cougar, an insatiable Melusina. I thought about the children, about the hardship that would be theirs if I were to kill her. About the irreparable absence of their mother, about the nightmares, their sharp screams. And here, here, see how Helen screams, her face scrunched up, her contented smile, debauched, on all fours. And I say to myself here that it’s not worth doing… this enervating mirror reflecting back to me memories of my own lascivious behavior—a mirage rooted, too, in my impossible desire to be once more Parissi, abducting my own Helen, her arms like the snow, my Trojan Horse.
I went back downstairs and drove to the campus to teach. I never after that dared step outside my tedious routine, that I might not once more have to confront that ineffable mirror on the dresser. Helen has gone on being lovely, being beyond that a good and diligent wife: a warm kiss every morning, the same fleeting encounters as always, an indifferent once-over now and again. Over the years I have forgotten the sinful scene which was reflected back from that room. At times my ears are full again, though, of the sordid noise two bodies make in love.
© Fernando Iwasaki. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Jeremy Osner. All rights reserved.