Where Do We Go From Here?

Cassie sat in a dark corner of Starbucks, crouched over her cup, the dim lighting and long hair in her face obscuring her features from the other patrons. It wasn't intentional that she'd chosen their table; obviously her subconscious was having trouble letting go. She stirred her café mocha with a restless hand, watching the door, the diamond in her wedding ring flashing in what little light shone in her dim spot. She didn't have the stomach to drink the sweet beverage, even though it was her favorite. Sweetness seemed out of place in her life. He was late, and she was beginning to think he wouldn't come. She couldn't blame him, of course. It would serve her right if he left her sitting there alone.

'But he gave me his word,' she thought. Rob was many things, but a liar wasn't one of them. If anything, he was brutally honest. She missed that about him. She missed a lot of things about him.

She sat, still stirring her coffee, watching the other people in the quiet coffee shop. People watching had been an activity she and Rob loved. They would make up stories about the random strangers around them. Tonight, the game kept her thoughts from going to her problems.

The guy reading a sci-fi book in jeans and a Star Trek t-shirt had to be a genius inventor who created a dermal patch for caffeine addicts, since he wasn't drinking any coffee. A teenage couple cuddled at the next table, oblivious to everyone else as they laughed and kissed playfully, had run away from home to defy her parents' objections to their relationship. The barista, with goth black hair, was cleaning the espresso machine, his silver piercings glinting in the track lighting above the counter. He was the most interesting of all, Cassie decided. He was in a band that would be the next Guns 'N Roses. She'd see him on Behind the Music in about ten years.

The door of the coffee shop opened, followed by a cold winter blast, and Cassie's heart soared a little. He'd come.

He looked good. His brown hair was a little longer than usual, which suited him, and he had the beginnings of a goatee. She'd always tried to get him to grow one, but he favored the clean-cut, conservative look. He was wearing his favorite jeans and a green sweater she'd bought him under a brown bomber jacket. His face looked drawn around his hazel eyes, though, and she thought he'd lost some weight. She wondered if he'd been sleeping enough.

He wasn't wearing his wedding ring.

"Hi, Cass." His voice sounded tired and melancholy, with an undertone of bitter sadness.

"Hi, Robbie."

He sat at their table, and Cassie's stomach did a flip-flop. She was scared. She was terrified that he'd reject her and her apology, and she didn't know if she could handle that. She loved him so much, and she'd hurt him so badly. She had no illusions that all would be well after their conversation, but she had to try.

Because living without him was so hard.

"Thanks for coming," she started, reaching for his hand by reflex. She realized what she was doing and pulled her hand back to tuck her reddish hair behind her ear. God, it was so hard to be near him and not touch him, but she knew that it would make the situation worse if she did. They were most definitely not in a touching kind of place.

"It was time we talked," he said. He was pretending not to notice the hand thing, she could tell.

"Yeah."

They sat in tense silence for a few moments. She had no idea how to begin. She knew he warranted better than some pat explanation for her actions. He deserved the truth, however painful.

"Why?"

It was a simple, one-word question with a complicated answer. "I don't know," she said.

"Don't lie to me," he growled softly as he leaned across the table and grabbed her wrist, a look of controlled fury on his face. She'd never seen him so angry before. It frightened her a little, but more than that, it made her miserable that she could bring that emotion out in him. "You know why. I came down here when you called. So be honest, or I'll walk out that door." He released her wrist, and she resisted the urge to rub it. It didn't hurt, at least not in a physical sense.

"I , I guess," she said with a sigh. Folding her hands, she continued, "We were so young when we got married. I loved you so much, but I kept feeling like I had missed out on something." She paused, her mind trying to process her motives. "I think I was afraid that I had sacrificed something I could never get back, and I wanted to capture that moment if I could. I felt like there was no mystery left between you and me." She dropped her gaze, unable to look her husband in the face. "I did, I do love you. I'm so sorry, and I know that's not enough." Tears welled up in her eyes and fell to the table. "I am so stupid."

Rob rose from the table and got a napkin. He handed it to her so she could dry her tears, a reflexive action. "Was he the only one?" His voice was tight with pain, and her crying increased.

"Yes." It came out as a whispered sob. "I swear, that time you found us was the only time." She dabbed at her eyes with the napkin. "Thanks." She gave him a weak smile.

Everyone said that she and Rob had had a forever kind of love, like the movies or books. They'd met in the library at their college when they both needed the same textbook. It was instant attraction. They'd fallen in love and got married right after graduation. It had been a passionate whirlwind at first, before domesticity set in. They'd gone on Friday night dates and weekend getaways and it seemed like they were the only people in the world. But then work and bills and life began creeping into the mix, and gradually, the romance started to wane. Oh, the affection was still there, but the passion started to die. She wasn't sure anyone was to blame for it; it was normal for couples to feel that way, right?

The whole affair was painfully stupid, in retrospect. She'd met Ian at work. He was in the cubicle next to hers, and he was funny and sweet and very good-looking, and always complemented her looks. It was only a casual flirtation at first, an ego-booster; he'd make some cute comment and she'd make a witty retort, and they'd both laugh. Soon, there was some nonchalant, innocent touching-a pat on the shoulder, a light brushing of hands, fixing of a crooked tie. None of it was overt enough to cause attention, but the attraction was growing.

Cassie remembered the day it became more than casual. It had been a rainy afternoon, and Ian had asked her to lunch. In her heart, she knew it was a terrible idea. Married women didn't go out to eat alone with flirtatious male colleagues, simple as that; but there was this undeniable thrill that ran from her head to her toes at the idea of it. It was amazing to feel desirable again. Rob loved her, she knew, and he still found her attractive, but they'd settled into the predictable pattern that so many married people fell into. In her more honest moments, she could admit to herself that she resented being unsurprising. She wanted to be an enigma, and that was almost impossible with Rob. He knew her too well after seven years of marriage.

So she went out to lunch with Ian, and it was light and fun, with an undercurrent of sexual tension that she relished. After work that night, she went home to Rob, and with thoughts of Ian on her mind, made love to him. It had been incredible, really-the best sex they'd had in months. Rob had laughed and asked what he'd done to deserve it. She'd just smiled and laid her head on his chest, trying to keep the guilt of her face.

There'd been several more lunches that Rob never knew about, followed by drinks after work. She lied to Rob and told him that a group of her co- workers were going out, but it was just her and Ian. She started overcompensating at home, making fancy dinners and buying little gifts for Rob. The last thing she wanted to do was make him suspicious.

Through it all, she still loved Rob. He was comfortable and familiar; their bodies conformed perfectly when spooning in bed, and he always knew when to bring her a glass of water. There were a thousand little details that he knew about her that Ian never would, which simultaneously reassured and frustrated her. She adored him, but the fire they'd had was like embers now. He didn't take her for granted, exactly, but she missed the old days, when he explored her body like a kid at Christmas, or when he asked her a million little questions about her day. She wanted to feel exotic and beautiful, and she got that from Ian.

She'd honestly never expected to sleep with Ian. She thought she could control herself better than that, but one night they had too many drinks, and they ended up back at her house. Rob was supposed to be working late. Stumbling and laughing, she led Ian up to her bedroom, their bedroom, and in between sloppy, drunk kisses they'd ended up on the bed. A part of her brain was screaming at her to stop, that she'd regret this for the rest of her life, but her body was in a whole other place.

The most asinine part of all was that the sex wasn't even that great. It was awkward and fumbling. It wasn't that Ian was terrible, but he didn't seem to know what turned her on. After he came, they lay in the darkness, not speaking or touching. It was the most uncomfortable silence she'd ever experienced. The most prominent thought in her mind was, 'How am I supposed to go back to work after this?'

"You need to leave," she said, sounding cold even to herself. "My husband will be home soon." Ian complied, of course, but he looked confused as he pulled his pants on. Cassie pulled the sheet up to cover herself. She felt exposed and vulnerable being nude with this man who wasn't her husband.

Which is how Rob found them.

He'd come home early, planning to surprise her with a candlelight bubble bath. Cassie hadn't even heard his footsteps in the hall. She did hear the door opening, and a wave of panic and guilt crashed over her. There was no escaping from this.

Rob stood in the doorway, a smile on his face at the sight of her naked in the bed. Then he noticed Ian, fumbling with his belt, and the smiled slipped away. A look of unbelievable heartbreak filled his face, and Cassie started to cry. 'Oh, God, what have I done?'

"Robbie," she cried as he entered the room. She rose from the bed, keeping the sheet wrapped around her as she went to him. Ian had shrunk into a corner of the room. "I didn't mean to. It just happened." Her voice was high-pitched and frantic as she grabbed his arm.

He shook her off roughly and went to the closet. He pulled out his suitcase and began filling it with his clothes. "Robbie, please listen to me! Don't go," she wept. The tears ran in a hot river down her cheeks and she wiped them away with a corner of the sheet.

Wordlessly, he went into the bathroom and retrieved his toiletries. He threw them into the suitcase and zipped it closed with a harsh yank. He grabbed the handle, and Cassie threw herself into his path.

"We can talk about this. Please don't leave me. Don't do this," she begged, touching his chest. "Robbie. I can explain."

He looked down at her then, and his hazel eyes were colder than she'd ever seen them. "No explanation necessary, Cass. I see what happened here. Now get out of my way." He removed her hands from his chest and pushed her gently aside.

She fell to her knees then, as he brushed past her. She called out, sobbing, for him to stay, but he left anyway. Ian came and touched her shoulder, apologizing, and she screamed at him to get out. She cried herself to sleep on the floor. Her eyes were on fire, but she couldn't stop crying. She'd cried herself to sleep every night after that, too. She couldn't sleep in their bed; it was cold and empty without him.

"Cass," Rob said, breaking her from her reminiscence. "Why didn't you just tell me how you felt? Don't you know I would have moved heaven and earth to make you happy? You were my whole world."

She gave a sad half-smile. "I didn't know how to even express what I felt to myself. Sometimes I still don't know what happened. I knew that I loved you, but I didn't feel in love with you. Not like I used to."

He frowned. "What does that mean? You loved me but you weren't in love with me? That doesn't make sense. Why do people say that, anyway?" he asked, sounding frustrated. "It's a stupid thing to say, Cass."

Cassie sighed, leaning forward. "I mean, I didn't have the crazy, passionate feelings for you that I used to. Do you remember when we first fell in love? No one else existed but us. Somewhere along the way, all that passion went away. Don't you ever miss it?"

"Why would I miss it? I feel the same way now as I did when we first met." He paused for a moment, scrutinizing her face. "God, Cass, you drive me crazy. Even after all that's happened, I still want you. It kills me not to reach across this table and hold you and make you not cry anymore. But you know what? It terrifies me to be with you now. I don't think I could handle going through this again."

Lowering her eyes, she asked, "Would you ever want me back?" Hope flared in her heart for the first time in weeks.

"Honest to God, I don't know for sure. Part of me wants to just take you in my arms and say all is forgiven. Then the rational part of me says that you'll just burn me again. I still don't understand what went wrong. I thought we were okay, and obviously we weren't."

"I really do want to fix this, Robbie. I never want to hurt you again. I miss you so bad, it hurts. I can't even sleep in our bed. It's too lonely without you at the house. Even the dogs are moping around without you."

"I know I'm not ready to come home yet, Cass. I don't know if we can fix this. You betrayed my trust in you. It hurts even to look at you sometimes." He lightly touched the back of her hand. "You know I'm not the greatest at expressing myself, but it seems like something broke inside of me that night."

She met his eyes. "Do you want to try? I mean, you came tonight. That must mean something."

Rob ran his hand through his hair. "I don't know why I came. I guess I needed an explanation for all this madness. And I didn't want the last time image I had of you to be of that night."

"Robbie, I'm not asking for us to pretend that life is perfect, okay? We're never going to make this work if we're not honest with each other. But I really want to try again. I feel like a piece of my soul is missing without you."

"Me, too." He rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. "This is a lot to take in for one day. I need to get out of here. It's really hard being in the same room as you right now."

"I understand." It came out as a whisper.

"Look, I'll call you later this week. I need to think about all of this." He rose from his seat.

"I know." She paused. "I love you."

"Yeah." He brushed her hair out of her eyes. "I know."

She watched him walk out of the coffee shop. Hope and doubt warred in her heart. She took comfort in the fact that he said he'd call.

Rob never lied to her.

She wished she could say the same.

She finished her cold mocha and left the shop, the blustery January air chill on her face. She would go home to her lonely house, and for the first time in weeks, she thought she might be able to sleep without crying first. One way or another, her life would move forward based on her choices, and she'd have to live with what she'd done.

But maybe, just maybe, she wouldn't have to live alone anymore.