Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Rival

1. She knew her husband loved another woman.
2. Her present and only marriage had lasted twenty-eight years. But even without experience of infidelity in some prior marriage, she couldn’t mistake the signs. He grew irritated when she talked; he turned away from her in bed; he had stopped chatting during his household chores; he no longer asked her opinion on anything; he seemed to tighten in revulsion when she kissed him. Most important: she noticed while dusting the desk in his study that the one lockable drawer was now locked.
3. She decided to follow him, in order to learn who the rival was.
4. It couldn’t be a working romance because he owned a men’s wear store and had no female workers, not even a secretary. She rented a car and parked outside the store for an entire day; the only female customers that day came with their men. The next morning, he left for work half an hour early. She thought an assignation after work would be likelier, but she was ready. She tailed him in the rental car. He stopped at a local high school, the one she had attended, and went into the administration building for fifteen minutes. After he left, she went in to find out why he’d gone there.
5. She waited till Monday to find the rival.
6. During the weekend, she went on a solo shopping trip whose real purpose was to copy the desk key she’d taken from his key ring. She had the house to herself at eight o’clock Monday morning, and shook badly as she turned the new key in the lock. She and her husband had lost some personal effects in a fire last year—she had already made an educated guess about what was in the drawer.
7. She is the rival.
8. It was on top of the stack: a crude digital photo, probably copied with her husband’s smart phone, of her posing for her yearbook picture. Dozens of other pictures were in the drawer. He had assembled every one he could find, all of her youthful photographs, records of her without sags or wrinkles, without added decades of savor-killing life experience. Looking up at her from those pictures, smiling and exuberant, is the one rival in the world she cannot banish, for every moment she is in his presence can only remind him of the rival, the woman he married, who lacked the scars of maturity and is his only true love.
9. She knows what she wishes she could do.
10. Weeks pass and she doesn’t tell him what she has learned. If he suspects, he doesn’t let on. The marriage becomes a settled economic arrangement with little said among the partners. He spends much time in his study and she is content to leave him there. After all, she doesn’t want him to see her as she so often is, consumed with a hatred that must show on her face. It is a hatred of the laws of causality, which interfere with the logic of a much-indulged fantasy. How much she wishes it were not impossible, even in theory, to board some sort of time machine and shoot that other woman dead. 

--Robert Laughlin lives in Chico, California. Two of his short stories are Million Writers Award Notable Stories, and his novel, Vow of Silence, was favorably reviewed by Publishers Weekly. His website is at

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