The late flight I boarded for Europe took off precisely on time. I sent one last email before they closed the airplane doors and commanded me to switch off my phone. The flight assistant collected the glasses of water, orange juice, and champagne. I looked around me.
To my right across the aisle sat a good-looking woman in what I estimated to be her late fifties: full-bodied, hair streaked blond with touches of grey, a white silk blouse with a few buttons open at the top tucked into very tight dark indigo denim jeans that were longer than capris but shorter than pants, her ankles and calves exposed. She took off her espadrilles and pulled on a pair of navy airline tube socks, and then began to rub some cream from her bag onto her face and hands. I glanced at her. She looked up and met my eyes.
“Pardon me doing my toilette in public,” she said. “It disgusts me to see women putting lipstick on as though no one else is around, smacking their lips, looking into their compact mirror. And here am I doing something similar.”
“Putting on face cream on a plane isn’t the same as putting on lipstick on a subway. The first is for health, the second for vanity. So in my book you’re OK,” I answered.
“You are discreet, thank you. Would you like to try some of my cream?” she asked. “It’s very dry on planes, bad for your skin. Don’t worry, this cream is good for anyone. Yes?” She was foreign, from somewhere in Europe.
“Sure,” I said. “Thanks, I will have a little.” I held out my hand. She squeezed a drop into my palm. I smelled roses.
In the seat immediately to my left was another woman, a bit younger, forty-five or fifty at most, less elegant and less well kept, more crinkles at the sides of her eyes and more vertical lines on her upper lips, and yet, despite them, clearly younger looking. She was covered in light freckles. She wore a practical navy woolen sweater and grey woolen skirt.
The Silk Woman immersed herself in an Ian McEwan novel, pausing every few pages to pull out her iPad Mini and tap some notes into it. The Wool Woman took out a German magazine and paged through it listlessly, then began to watch a movie.
Two hours into the flight the pilot announced that we were going to make an unscheduled touchdown at Goose Bay: no actual emergency, just a “minor” problem with the electrical systems, nothing to worry about, but regulations required that we have it repaired before proceeding. We landed without incident and were informed that we had to stay the night at the airport hotel and resume our flight in the late morning. It was an unexpected adventure, a deserted hotel on a deserted airport late at night, that led to passenger commiseration. A few hours later the two women and I found each other in the bar, where we sat down together and drank good Scotch and ate greasy nachos. The bar had stayed open late especially to accommodate the sudden influx of passengers.
“I don’t know either of you, really,” said the Silk Woman after a drink, a cigarette and some mutual explanations of background and reason for travel. “But here we are and actually that’s good. We’ll never meet again, most likely. So let me tell you something. I’m about to make a big decision and I need to talk to someone.” We look appropriately serious and nodded. It was like living in a play.
“I’ve been living apart from my ex-husband and family for ten years. My children are grown and out of the house, though they were still at home when I left.”
“And why did you leave?” asked the Wool Woman. “If we are to help, we must know that, you know.”
“I don’t know really, I had felt empty for a long time,” she said. “Never could put my finger on it. Then I became friendly with a man I met at random. I went to museums with him. He liked art. He was funny. We seemed to be in tune in some different special unique way. It was exciting, and he was serious about me. I’d never felt anything like that, couldn’t imagine anything like that could happen to me. I had, you know, everything a woman could want, so I told myself, over and over. A model marriage, a good-looking reliable man who was concerned about me, nice children, a comfortable – more than comfortable actually – lifestyle. I had — excuse me for mentioning it, but I know you will think this is a matter of sex — a regular sex life even after many years of marriage. But suddenly something moved inside me. A little death. One thing led to another. One day I simply picked up and left.”
“Why did you do it?” asked the Wool Woman. “It’s no small thing to leave a family.”
“It was —how should I say? — an absolute necessity,” the Silk woman replied. “Some things have no explanation. I couldn’t do otherwise.”
“So what is your problem now?” I asked, curious, even envious of someone who could give in to such sudden passion without hesitation.
“Well might you ask,” she replied. “The man I met lives in another city nearby, I live in mine. We spend at least half the week together, have a wonderful time when we meet. He works at his job, I work at mine. Everything feels OK … We miss each other, are happy when we meet.
“Yet … life is strange. My children aren’t a problem, they’ve adjusted. But, but, but … I think about my ex-husband. He hasn’t remarried, hasn’t re-attached. He didn’t make me happy, but we were together for many years. We speak on the phone sometimes, meet occasionally. Our meetings are OK, placid mostly, thought sometimes his irritation bubbles up. I left him, he’s angry inside.
“I like to look at myself from the side. I am happier with my new man, more than I ever was — I like it when he touches me on the street, I only tolerated it when my husband did — but in a strange way my ex-husband is still here.” She tapped her temple with her right hand.
“He’s a part of me, my husband. We’re bound. I thought I could put a line between the past and the future, but the line keeps moving forward. Every step I take it runs ahead of me, or is it behind? Like one of those dreams, a receding target you keep running towards. Or away from. My past is my present. This isn’t how it was supposed to be.
“You know, when my man friend now has trouble, I help him, with pleasure, but I have to say, his troubles aren’t really my troubles. They’re simply my man friend’s troubles, they don’t grieve me too much. When my ex-husband has troubles, it tears at me. I don’t want him miserable. He’s a part of me. And yet I caused him terrible trouble by leaving. And yet I need to be with the new man. Strange, neh?”
“What are you going to do?” I asked her.
She lit another cigarette and took a long puff. Her chin trembled a little. She looked into the space between the Wool Woman at me, catching neither of our eyes.
“I’m thinking of going back to my husband,” she said. “Actually, I’m not sure he would take me back, but if he would, that would be the right thing to do. He doesn’t make me really really happy, yes. Yes, some things about him drive me crazy. I should never have married him, if the world worked right. Yes, but his absence is … I don’t quite know how to describe it … a constant presence.”
Her last sentence reminded me of something.
“Goethe once observed, when he studied white light bending through prisms into the spectrum, that darkness is not the absence of light. He saw darkness as positive, a thing in itself, “ I recalled. “I think you are saying that your ex-husband’s absence is a positive thing, not a mere vacuum. It seems like the pain of your being out of his life overwhelms your subsequent pleasures,” I said.
“I suppose you could say that,” she said. “It’s a summary of my dilemma. Yes, the pain sometimes overwhelms the pleasure, not always, but it’s always there. I think perhaps I have to stop the pleasure and the pain.”
“Isn’t that hurting yourself?” I asked. “A bit masochistic?”
“Masochistic, Schmasochistic!” she said. “Labels! How I feel is how I feel! That’s what I have to live with.”
“Wait, I think I know what you mean,” said the Wool Woman, suddenly leaning forward, very animated. “People do such strange things, especially women. I don’t understand myself too well. I know only how I feel. I lived with a man who cheated on me terribly, but I took good care of him, felt obliged to, no matter what. He didn’t appreciate it. And yet …”
“My ex-husband sometimes accuses me of being unfaithful,” continued the Silk Woman “Because I left him and the children. For another man. But I’m think perhaps I’m going to go back to him and live a more restricted life … Less pain, less pleasure.”
“Can you really do that?” I asked. “Things won’t be the way you imagine when you go back, you know. He’s changed, you’ve changed.”
She was quiet.
“And what about sex?” I asked her. “Pardon me, but, since we’re talking frankly, and you mentioned it … You don’t look like a woman whose love life is going to be entirely over. And he will be continually suspicious of you now. What will you do? It won’t be the same when you go back, after what you’ve done to him.”
“I can live without sex,” the Silk woman answered. “I don’t need it. I don’t think about it when I’m by myself. I need my man friend, and I need sex with him, but not ‘sex.’ ”
“Ha!” interjected the Wool woman, scornfully now. “I can live without sex, you say. Ha! I can live without food, said the rich man. But how did he know? He’d never gone hungry a day in his life. It was his pure fantasy. Do you have any idea what you are talking about? You are talking about things you have no idea of, my dear. You’ve had a privileged life, a man or two here, money there, a good satisfying job. But you are too stupid to even recognize that. Never alone, never living by yourself, never struggling, always with some man or another, jumping from husband to lover now back to husband, always with someone. What are you talking about? Next you’ll tell me you can live without the company of people, but you don’t have the smallest clue as to what that means or how it feels!”
The Silk Woman looked indignant for a moment, then controlled herself.
“Fair enough, you are entitled to your opinion of me. I asked for it,” she said. “But — you will laugh at me — yes, I feel bonded to my ex-husband. In the midst of any happiness I have I think of him and what I’ve deprived him of, and how nice it would be if I could be happy with him. I ask you, tell me, haven’t I — not physically maybe, not in space perhaps but in some higher way — been really faithful to him?” she asked us.
I was aghast.
“I think you have,” said the Wool Woman slowly and steadily. “I know that kind of faithfulness. But let me tell you my story before you make a decision.”
“Go ahead,” I said. The Silk Woman and I leaned back in our chairs and focused on Wool.
“I came here from Poland,” she said, “After the fall of the wall. I pushed my husband to emigrate, to opportunity, and eventually we did. When we came here his degree wasn’t recognized and he had to learn to program before he could get any kind of work, so I did any thing I could to survive. I worked in people’s homes, I worked in 24/7 drugstores, I worked in doctor’s offices cleaning up at the end of the day. My husband complained a lot about the new life, but I did what I had to do. That’s my philosophy. Eventually, I had enough and …”
“How do you mean, you had enough?” I asked. I was curious about how women leave men.
“He liked to complain,” she said. “And I tired of his complaining, it was unattractive, I was doing all the hard work, I wanted to get on with life. So I persuaded him that we should divorce. We had a nearly grown son, he stayed on with me. We moved into a small apartment and made do.
“Then, working in drugstores at night, I started to meet people. They could see I had some class, that I was doing what had to be done, that I wasn’t another drugstore woman. Men asked me out. And after a while, if they looked respectable, I would agree.
“I worked hard, sometimes at two jobs, to survive. I didn’t want money from my ex. I felt liberated. I could survive on what I made. And I went through a bunch of men, a Russian, an Algerian, even a Vietnamese. You know, they were nice. The Vietnamese wanted to marry me!”
“You tried a lot of men,” said the Silk Woman.
“I realized I was free and didn’t have to answer to anyone except my son,” the Wool Woman continued. “And then I met Andrés, fifteen years older than me. A South American, from a fancy family, even though I met him in a doctor’s office as it was closing for the day and I was beginning to clean. He wined and dined me. Eventually I began to live with him. I cooked, I cleaned, I hand-washed his clothes, I did everything he let me do for him. I still worked at my odd jobs, he did nothing, he didn’t need to, he had some money, an inheritance. An ex-wife and a daughter too. We lived good, though I still worked long days.
“But after two years or more, I felt I was being used. He had easy life.” She rubbed her thumb against her next two fingers. “I still had to work. And I wanted to, I didn’t want to be supported. But he took me for granted. He took the difference between us for granted, not something to be changed or softened.
“I tried to leave him once after three years. I was gone a few months, lived back with my son in our old apartment, and then I came back. You know, I actually missed Andrés. He was fun to be around. And he cried to me all the time about how he missed me and how I should come back, and missed my place in his bed — Ha! His bed, not ours. And so I went back. I missed the social life, the company, the weekends after work with his friends in his country house.”
“One must learn to live alone first, to be satisfied with one’s own company,” said the Silk Woman sanctimoniously. “Yes, if you don’t, if you can’t, then …”
“Oh yes, you would know all about that,” interrupted the Wool Woman. “Let me go on.
“So we lived together. Our sexual life died down sharply. I thought he wasn’t interested. It bothered me. Sometimes I wanted to leave, but it was a good life.
“Let me get to the end, anyway, it’s late already. He died two years ago, suddenly. At the funeral there was another woman as well as me. She was his paramour of the past eight years, she was there already even when I had left him briefly, though I didn’t know it. I was his live-in friend who he begged to come back. She was his lover. I took care of him. He spent nights on made-up business trips with her. I was a silly goose. But he left me a little money, and now I don’t need to work, if I live the way I always did. And so here I am in Goose Bay with you people, traveling to Europe, treating myself to business class.”
I thought she had been a goose indeed.
“So, what’s your lesson for Silk? Do you regret having stuck with your Andrés?” I asked her. “You could have found someone else years ago during all that time.”
Now she lit another cigarette too.
“No,” she said. “He was what he was. Before I met him I was a girl, living with my small-town husband and my son. Andrés made a woman out of me. Silk will have to choose. You can’t have everything.”
He had used her as a companion, cheated on her, begged her to stay to keep him company, cheated again. And she didn’t hold it against him.
“I have no advice for you either,” I told the Silk Woman. “It’s every man for himself, and every woman too. Do me a favor? Let me know what you decide. And how it works out.”