"I would like to talk about us, Annie. About our relationship."
I looked at him carefully, trying to gauge his meaning. Most men never said things like this, and when they did it was usually not a good thing. Three weeks had passed since I told him that I loved him, and maybe he was finally reacting. I braced myself and said this was okay.
"I feel," he started, "that since Gwen passed away, and since we started up again we haven't talked as much. It's like the first phase of our relationship just ended." He dropped his hand down like a guillotine. "Boom. And after that six-week break or so, we started up again and it was different. Good," he assured me, "but different."
I took a deep breath to collect myself. After all that I had done, it had come to this. Another man was deciding to stop being with me. God, why had I told him I loved him? Men hate to hear that. I could have kept him longer by just letting him screw me. But no, I thought Norton was different and I thought this would be different. I'd had hopes, high hopes, very high hopes. But of course reality often falls short. "What do you mean?" I asked coolly. I didn't want him to sense my unease and just react to that.
"I did not know how to have an affair," he said, "but we started, and in its own weird way it worked. I don't know what the end result would have been from that, but I was comfortable with the development of the relationship, with where things were going." He smiled, and it put me a little at ease. If he was letting me down easy, he was doing a good job. I felt hope rise, but I kept my emotions in control while he went on. It was a grand struggle within me.
"But when Gwen passed away, whatever straight line we thought our relationship was on was over. You were so great in that time. I've said that before, but I want to say it again. So we got back together, but it's different again, different from where it was. "Sexually," I put in. He was a guy, and I just assumed this was what he was getting at. Might as well just cut to the chase.
He stopped and stared at me. "That's part of it, I guess," he hedged, "but that flows from the rest of the relationship, like we've talked about before."
"And you think we've stalled," I said, trying to mask my disappointment.
He leaned in and put a hand on my cheek. "I'm not saying these things well, obviously. That's not at all what I'm saying. Let me start over with this. I want to see you, and I want to keep seeing you." He paused. "Is that what you're worried about?"
It was. "A little," I downplayed.
"I am so sorry for whatever I've done to give you that impression." He stroked my hair slowly, running each finger individually across my head. It felt so good. "I don't know what to do. I don't know how to behave."
"What do you mean?"
"I knew what to do back when I was single and dating a single woman." He chuckled. "Well, I sort of knew what to do. I was not
exactly Mister Super Stud or anything."
This comment made me laugh. "Oh come on, with your hair parted down on the side and those thick glasses of yours, you were a real dreamboat." This was a running joke between us. He had gotten much more fashion-conscious and even better-looking as he aged. "The great thing about being a man," he once called it. I mean, you could probably pick Brian out of a police lineup as an accountant, even today, but if his high school and college photos were any indication, he had come a long way, baby.
But he was back in serious mode as he picked up his thought where he had left off. "I sort of knew what to do when I was a married man and dating a married woman." He spoke plainly and sincerely. "There were rules that we both understood about each other's situations, and we could be supportive of each other as we made moves in our relationships. But I don't know how to be a widower." He looked down, sucking in some emotional response he did not want me to witness. "I am a different person, obviously, my life had changed. There has been loss, and of course for Natalie, a huge loss for her. So my role as father is completely different than it was, and all of these things affect me and change me. And with you, I feel like I almost, umm, almost cheated on you in some way." He was fighting a losing battle, trying hard to stay composed. "You made the hard decision to leave Dennis, and I had not gotten that for Gwen. You took that big step and started the twelve-month countdown to your freedom, to when we can be together publicly, no consequences." He took a deep breath and shuddered as he let it go. "I feel like I jumped to the head of the line, like I didn't have to do make the hard choices like you did, but I'm free and you're still not. And I don't know how to talk about it with you and if you're mad at me or if you feel I cheated and got out of my marriage without having to leave and publicly state our problems." This entire last sentence was a babble of blubbering, as he buried his face in my shoulder.
I patted him on top of my head, my hurting and vulnerable little baby. I was shocked more than anything that he could feel so comfortable with me that he would let this part of him show. He was expressing exactly what my psychologist had guessed was going on with him, what Dr. Alba called some sort of "survivor guilt." I would have to make another appointment with her just to tell her that she was right. I was not always comfortable with what she said about me, but she was certainly dead-on with Brian. Maybe I needed to reconsider my attitude towards her.
He snuggled himself into me, dampening my shirt sleeve for a few more minutes. When he was finished weeping, I told him how much I appreciated and respected him for his openness. Then I told him that I did not know how to date a widower, either. "I can't go public," I explained, "before the divorce."
Brian said he understood, but it was clear to me that he wanted to be able to actually date me. He wanted to take me out to dinner and a movie, that sort of thing. I said I had some ideas we could talk about later and we set up a play date for the kids. Then we made out for a while on my sofa. I sent him home felling like we had made progress.