Could I ever be in a relationship with passion and honesty, with a degree of loyalty I’d never felt from Portia? My loyalty had always been first to her, but hers had never wavered from her parents, leaving me a distant second. It hadn’t struck me as off, but in hindsight I knew it meant we would never have been able to be true partners in our marriage.
In the past year or two I’d come to realize I’d been resigned to Portia as my lot simply because she carried so much of my history with hers. But, despite my hesitation and oft-noted reserve, I was raised in a house of passion, and children, and the most absurd sort of adventure. Though I wasn’t the one to pull the trigger on spontaneity and wildness, I needed it around me in the passive way that we also need air, or warmth.
Ruby’s mischievous face lingered in my thoughts as I took the lift to our floor.
It seemed as though she was placed in front of me at the perfect time. Not necessarily so I could approach her romantically, but so I could gain perspective on how many different types of women were out there—and that they weren’t all like Portia.
The process of splitting up a shared life with Portia into two separate ones was an excruciating, gradual process. First, it was the flat: with almost no discussion, we’d decided it went to her. Next, it was the car: also hers. She kept the dog, the furniture, and a sizable portion of the savings. I let it all go, strikingly unburdened.
Portia was my first kiss, my first love, my first everything. Married at nineteen, I’d believed in staying married despite misery, unfashionable as that view might have been.
It was simply that, one day, our misery reached a point where I could see no point to it.
I couldn’t see her being passionate with me ever again, and for myself as well our lovemaking had long since taken on a sort of mechanical, transactional flavor. There had been no mention of children in years and, to be fair, I was unable to imagine Portia ever loving her children the way my mother had loved us: with enthusiastic kisses planted to our bellies and constant physical reminders of motherly adoration. Now, months away from the divorce, I wondered how I’d ever imagined a life with her: clean, cold, everything in its place.
In the end, our divorce had started over something as innocuous as a rescheduled lunch. I’d received notice of a meeting that would run into the time we were meant to arrive at the restaurant midday. Portia often worked from home, but an hour of flexibility turned out to be too much to ask.
“Do you ever consider my day?” she asked. “Do you ever consider what I put aside to spend time with you?”
I thought back to the romantic holidays she’d canceled, and the anniversary dinners she had missed because she stayed late at a friend’s flat and forgot or, once, extended her girls’ holiday for another week simply because she was having too much fun to come home.
“But you fail, Niall. And, honestly, I’m sick of it.”
Being Portia, she needed to have the last word. And in that moment, with a sharp clarity I hadn’t expected, I was fine with that as the last word. I simply wanted out.
“I understand, Portia. You can only do so much.”
She’d startled slightly at the use of her given name; I’d only ever called her “Love,” for years. “That’s just it,” she said wearily. “Niall. I’m swamped. I simply can’t live my life and carry the weight of all this, as well.”
All this, she said, meaning: us. Meaning: the burden of a loveless marriage.
She looked up at me, eyes moving across my face, down my neck, and to where my hands were comfortably resting in the pockets of my trousers.
I could never escape the feeling that, when she looked at me like that, she was comparing me to someone else. Someone more posh, less tall, more American, less patient with her.
After what felt like minutes of ticking silence, she spoke again.
“We aren’t,” she began with exquisite understatement, “very natural together anymore.”
And that had been it.
When my alarm went off at six, it felt like I’d only just closed my eyes.
From beneath my pillow I could tell the room was still dark. Even so, I could hear the echo of horns from the city outside, the bustle of people up and out and already braving the chilly morning, on their way to work or school or whatever adulting they had to do.
I rolled to my side, doing the mental calculation of how many more times I could hit snooze and not be late, when I remembered exactly where I was . . .
Who I was with . . .
How much fun I’d had last night.
And whose bed was likely just on the other side of mine, separated by nothing more than an insignificant, paper-thin wall.
He could be in bed, right now. I closed my eyes and let myself imagine that, and suddenly getting ready for a day spent with him felt way more important than sleep.
I leapt out of the bed and raced toward the bathroom, careful to avoid any and all mirrors along the way. Today would be my first day of the summit. My first day working alongside Niall Stella, learning and being a part of what he did, not just a moving piece in the periphery.
And after last night, I saw him so differently. He was still the man who preferred to remain at the perimeter, watching and taking note of what was said and how, but he’d also been this relaxed, funny guy, with a bunch of other guys, just enjoying a drink in a bar. He could unwind, be social, laugh at himself and others in his gentle way.
He’d teased me again—in front of his brother—his dark eyes shining with amusement and fondness. I felt my stomach swoop low, my heart trip in my chest as I remembered. Would he be like this the entire trip? And if he was, how would I manage to keep from falling at his feet, professing my love?