|The first time I kissed a married woman was in a Taco Bell parking lot. The Taco Bell at Los Virgenes and 101, if you want to know. If you've driven past at night, up or down from Los Angeles, maybe peeling off on the twelve miles of curve that takes you from freeway to ocean, or maybe going up to Santa Barbara one Friday after work, escaping the heat of the valley during a summer weekend, then you've seen the big parking lot, dotted with artificial yellow light. We were away from the building. We'd gone through the drive-thru and were eating in the car. She had a bean burrito with cheese. I hate cheese.
In the moment before we kissed, I was talking about sailing. "I miss it," I said fumbling with my keys. "I just love being on the water so much. I can't believe I sold my catamaran." I looked up then and her face was too close to ignore. Under mine and tilted. I shouldn't have been surprised. I also shouldn't have kissed her. I know her husband. And that's just the first reason.
The moment after we kissed, I said, "You're married," which put him in the car with us. She nodded. It didn't stop us from kissing the second time.
One hand lost in her hair. With the other, I reached around her, pulled on the lever making the seat fall away and she fell back too and then was smiling up at me. "A practiced move," she said, which may have been a reason for her not to kiss me. But then I was on her side of the car, my heels bumping up against the glove box, my weight awkward and on my elbows, our legs a mixed arrangement, hers and then mine, then hers, then mine.
That kiss, the tangled-lying-back-in-the-seat kiss turned into something more. The kind of kiss women who kiss other women argue about being sex or not. I hold with a static definition: sex occurs when someone's fingers get wet. But still, talking about it, I have to acknowledge the truth. That lying down kiss was not just a kiss.
There were many things I knew that night in the Taco Bell parking lot, kissing a married woman for the first time. I knew, for example, if the Catholics were right I was writing a check for my ticket into hell. Even if only the Protestants were right I was in a lot of trouble. I knew I could never be president but that was probably true for reasons other than the kiss. I knew the best way to tell a parent that their child had a learning disability and was going to need special help. I knew the best way to get that child out of a corner of the bathroom huddled between toilet and wall because words printed on a page made no kind of sense at all. I knew intimately the way a secret could become a fearsome weight through silence and the passage of time. But I did not know the kind of secret that married woman would become.
What else can kissing a married woman her mouth ripe with the taste of cheap cheddar and Taco Bell fire sauce, my fingers touching her scalp, her breasts pushed against mine, my tongue tracing a figure eight on her lower lip kissing the passenger seat reclined in my ancient Land Cruiser, headlights from cars north bound on the 101 flashing up our bodies what else could that be but a secret?
She said, "Are you okay with this? With this affair thing?"
"This is kissing," I said, fingers still dry, safe in my definition of sex. "This isn't an affair."
"This has been an affair for a long time," she said, palms pressing against my ribs.
And we were kissing again.
In speaking of this, I am hoping to break the spell that binds me.
Her daughter is in my class. I am an elementary school teacher, third grade. I teach volcanoes, the Chumash. I make my students do book reports. Her daughter did a shoebox diorama on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. She'd seen the movie but not read the book. I told her mother standing in front of the school daughter off to the side trading Pokemon cards with a friend.
She said, "Really? That doesn't sound like her. Does it sound like her to you? Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," I said. Then dropped my voice to a whisper. "I've read the book."
"I'll bet," she said and, finally, I was the one to look away.
"This has been an affair for a long time," she said, palms pressing against my ribs. I took a deep breath, expanded into her. "Miss Johnson," she said. I shifted; my elbow hit the door.
Miss Johnson is what the children in my class call me. I have twenty exactly, thanks to California laws. I buy Fiskar scissors and glue sticks. I spend lunch hour Xeroxing pages from a workbook on bears. They hug me after Spring and Winter breaks or if I've been out sick a couple of days, especially if Mr. Tibbor is their substitute. All the kids hate Mr. Tibbor. I don't blame them.
They run up to me, the children in my class, and say, "Where have you been Miss Johnson?" And then they hug me. Not just the smart girls who read well and do their homework neatly and, I'm fairly sure, with their parents' help. But Sean, too. The boy who cannot read and I'm trying to get him into some kind of program, convincing his parents to get him into something where he can get more time than I have in a classroom of twenty kids all reading poems about bears. We call February
Febu-bear-y in my class. They are young enough that even the boys think this is cute. The parents think I am clever. I do not tell them I stole the idea from a third grade teacher I worked with at my last school. March is just March in my class. We only get cute with Febu-bear-y.
I've had parent-teacher conferences. Both her and her husband crouched into child chairs. He is tall and had to turn sideways, knees unable to fit under the desk. I told them their daughter was doing well which was true. I had no reason to lie. She and I weren't kissing at that point.
Do not think I'm going to tell you any names. Sure, Mr. Tibbor who deserves what he gets after he told Sean to shut up. In those words, something a teacher should never do. And the only noise Sean makes in class is when he cries. That's one of the things that worries me about him. And Sean, I'll give you him, and maybe even the old third grade teacher from whom I stole Febu-bear-y. Mrs. Addy. How's that? She probably had to be a third grade teacher. That's probably the deal that went with the name. But the daughter, the husband, and the woman I kissed. Those names I keep to myself. You might know her. Infidelity is a deal breaker. I don't want to hurt her life.
We did more than kiss. It became sex by anybody's definition. Not that night in that parking lot. Later. After we'd made the decision to see each other again. Premeditated. That makes it worse, right? The point at which we began planning.
Do not think this is all of my life. Teaching eight-year-olds cursive and giving spelling tests. Having sex with the married mother of one of my students. There are other parts which are separate.
Separate does not mean better. It means there are lines in my life which are crossed by no one but me.
That is the most frightening thing about the married woman I kissed in the Taco Bell parking lot. She exists in more than one segment of my life. I see her not just when I am lover but when I am teacher as well. This collision of selves makes me dizzy.
My family is another part of my life. There are no lines I allow them to cross. They see me only in corners of rooms, wine glass raised, wishing someone a happy birthday, anniversary, pulling out a funny story the one again about the plum jam that exploded in hot splashes of purple on my grandmother's stove leaving such a mess she had to mop the ceiling, wash all the curtains laughing with a cousin I see once a decade. My family thinks I am funny. They cannot see me running a classroom. They do not see in me the gentle head down, my hand on Sean's shoulder trying through touch to transfer the ability to read. I let him struggle with a word until it hurts me too and then I sound it out slowly, my finger on the page. I can feel the heat from his face on the inside of my arm. I stoop to be close to him. I say, "You're better at math than anyone I know." This is true. It is also true that no one in my class of third graders cares about math. Maybe I'll make a math project. Maybe I'll give them a forest of bears and trees and food and then word problems. If there is one bear in each tree and there are fourteen bears and five empty trees, how many trees are there in the forest? It's April but I'll give it to them anyway. I'll ask them the question aloud. Sean will raise his hand. The daughter will, too, but to ask what kind of trees they are.
My family does not see in me that I can care so much about someone. As much as I care about Sean. As much as I care about the married woman I kissed.
I try to keep it from being so wrong. I call her the woman I kissed.
We went out again. Made plans standing on the grass in front of the school, a slow line of Suburbans and Volvos, mini-vans, her daughter holding her hand. We made plans to see a movie.
I had seen it before and bought popcorn and coke, only one of each so we had to share. She was inside getting seats.
Through the movie I thought only of the touch of our shoulders, of the coke she kept on the far side so that I had to reach across her body to get it. Casual, constant contact.
At dinner, we both ate French dips and this is something I like about her. I said, "I'm so glad you're not a salad eater."
"I am," she said and poured the Italian dressing onto the side of salad on my plate.
"This is kid salad," I said pushing the iceberg around, chunk of tomato, pile of grated carrot. "We have this in the cafeteria."
In a curved booth, one bench fitted around three sides of a table, we sat at the base of the U. My legs stretched in front of her. Her feet on the seat, the top of one bare foot pressing into my thigh. My voice would fall and she would lean into me, her shoulder between my breasts, hair thick against my mouth and nose. "What," she would say.
I have said I know the cost of secrets.
Here is one I have kept: I am a lesbian. I have kept it from my family. I have kept it from colleagues. I have kept it from the parents of my students. Until this woman, I have kept it from the parents of my students.
I am a lesbian dancing in bars. Turning on the floor. I sing the words to a Madonna song. I sing, "I feel like a disco ball." The song is out for months before I know the words are really "I feel like I've just come home." I have only felt the disco ball way. Shattered and spinning. Light bouncing off my body in a dappled mix of colors. A whiskey tonic on the ledge by the mirror as I spin and spin. Later, in a car, my hands running up the sides of some woman, looking into her face, trying to identify the second of desire. Holding myself back to see her as she forgets herself. Forgets that I am watching. It does not happen every time that these anonymous women forget themselves in pleasure. It almost never happens that I do.
And when I leave them, driving home, tired, the muscles in my forearms trembling and sore, going down the coast road into my own home town, a private distance from the places where I dance, I slide back into the person that the geography of teacher demands.
My mother says, "Why aren't you married?" She points to my younger cousin, a zoologist with the San Diego Zoo, holding her husband's hand, a tall beefy man who works in construction. "Gracie's seven years younger than you are."
This happens every time I am with them.
"I like my space."
My mother has never been in my home. Neither has my brother.
"I do not like children," I tell my family. They believe me. I do not touch my cousin's child. I stand in the corner, wine glass in hand. I prefer Merlot. Pinot Grigio during the summer. It is a joke, with my family, that I am an elementary school teacher.
"What kind of career choice," my brother always says.
"I thought about being a pediatrician," I always answer.
"The only thing worse," my brother says.
It is not hard for me to stay silent about the married woman I am kissing. I am practiced. It is the kind of secret I am used to keeping. I know its cost. The hesitations before the hugs from my family. The serious conversations that stop as I enter the room.
I cannot speak of the married woman directly. She is so hidden, nestled inside me. I worry standing outside the school with her that it will show when I look at her. Lost and forgetting what I am supposed to say next. I must always distort. Looking at her out of the corner of my eyes, at the ground first, flexing my fingers and looking at the grass through the space between them. And smile and when I look up at her I am caught in a delicious moment which contains all of my possible selves and none of them. Caught as teacher and lover at once. I am afraid.
After the French dips and my cafeteria salad, we drove in lazy, city-wide circles. One looping freeway into another. I kept both hands on the steering wheel. I was afraid of what would happen in a parked car.
"A hotel," she said. "We're both adults. We have credit cards."
I pulled into a Ramada Inn. Her hand on my thigh. The heat of her palm through my jeans. I could not remember the last time I had been in a bed with someone, having sex somewhere other than my car.
Inside the room, we stood, nervous space between us. She touched my face. "Does this mean you'll pass my kid?"
"She's already passing," I said and then realized it was a joke.
Her hand on my face, palm light against my chin, fingers playing at my hairline, against my ear. Her thumb at the corner of my mouth.
I will not tell you what she looked like. That would give her away as surely as her name. But when I say that even alone I had to close my eyes against the desire I had for her, against the heat rising through my body. Maybe when I say that you get some idea.
The distance between us, her arm's length. I could not move toward her. There would be no stopping me, I thought, after the first step. After the first touch, alone in a motel room. We could hear the shushurah of cars speeding past. Heavy curtain pulled, we stood in a shadowed darkness. The picture over the bed, I was sure, was bolted to the wall. The red numbers of a digital clock, and, though I tried to mark the passage of time, I never saw the numbers change. Behind me, I didn't need to turn, would be a dresser, wide and low, with TV and mirror.
If I stepped toward her, pulled her against me, breasts, ribs, knobs of her spine against my arms, hair in my mouth, breathing in a want of her, I would have no resources with which to stop myself. No resources to draw upon standing on the grass waiting with my children for their parents to come, their nannies, their older brothers. I would not be able to speak to Sean's mother, to say again, "I have too many students. That's the only thing. He needs more attention." And I'd see in her face, again, that to put her son in a special program would be a failure. "If he gets it now," I'd say. "You have no idea how smart that boy is. I have no idea how smart that boy is."
She would be standing on the grass next to me, my married woman, Sean holding my hand and laughing at some joke I pulled out of the air for him. A whispered comment. Teachers always have favorites. My married woman next to me. Sean still laughing; his mother looking at me as if I am an insult. My married woman next to me would overwhelm all other possibilities. My desire for her would be as great there as in the hotel room, alone, where there was no need for secrets.
The bed wide behind her, my eyes adjusted to the dark. The picture was a seascape. "A nursing home picture," I said.
She stepped into me, turned, shoulder between my breasts, ear at my mouth. My own hot breath reflected back at me. "What?" she said. She turned her mouth to my throat.
"Over the bed," I said but still low. Her lips harder against me. I felt the echoing buzz of my voice. My hands traveling her. Up her stomach, cupping her breasts. "The kind of picture they have in nursing homes," I said.
"I want you." A directness I could not answer.
She moved away from me and to the bed. Peaked and stormy ocean wave above her. Oil so thick it was raised from the canvas. Clock at her shoulder. The numbers changed, but I had lost their relationship with time.
She closed her eyes.
I cannot do this, I thought and turned away. In the mirror, in the dark bubble of TV screen, I saw her reflected.
Picture, clock, bed.
I thought, I can move toward her looking in a mirror, walking backwards.
She opened her eyes and I turned, crossing the room, three easy steps, and fell in with her. All parts of me moving at once. She laughed, head back. Lost with her. Selves converged.
The secret Sean's mother tries vainly to keep is that her son, already eight, cannot read. I know the cost of this secret but it is Sean who suffers the price. In the hotel room, I lost myself. Lines have been crossed and there is no going back. My married woman is too bound up in me now. Concealing her, I conceal myself as well.
This is the kind of secret the married woman has become: the kind of secret I cannot keep.
I do not know how I will stand in the corner winter Merlot, summer Pinot Grigio repeating the same stories to my cousins, ten years older. Trading the same comments, as if they were new, with my brother. And when my mother asks why I am not married, I do not know how I will avoid the truth.
And on the lawn, Sean in hand, waving as children open the back doors of cars that seat more people than my dining room table, their backpacks slung over one shoulder, ready for music lessons, swimming lessons, soccer and tutors that round out every scheduled second of their day, I do not know how I will keep from hugging Sean against me, saying You are the smartest person I know and telling his mother she is the stupidest.
My married woman, tapping an impatient foot for her daughter, fully in my sight.