But the thought turned sour in my mind and guilt clawed its way up my throat. I had truly moved on. I didn’t look back on my marriage with longing or any type of ache. It had been lonely and passionless. It hadn’t even felt like being married to a best friend; it had nearly felt like cohabitation with a colleague.
What could I expect her to say that would change how I viewed any of that? Was I going just because, in my new happiness, I simply felt bad for my ex-wife?
I wanted to call Ruby before I went to dinner, to tell her that, no, Portia honestly had no chance, and maybe that was wrong of me to let her think she did by my coming, but a dark and furtive part of me was simply curious: Portia had never in our relationship sounded as open and pleading as she had on the phone that morning.
It had thrown me enough to forget, for a few minutes, that Ruby had been waiting in my flat for me to drive her home before work. By the time I’d emerged from the bathroom, hand clutched over the receiver to beg her to wait just a minute more, she’d already left.
Even on the steps I could smell the pasta Portia had cooked—my favorite, with sausages and peppers and thyme. I could hear the music playing—my favorite Vienna Philharmonic recording of Brahms. The front door was unlocked and still required the familiar shoulder shove—low kick combination to open.
I bent to pet Davey as he ran across the floor to me, hopping on his hind legs and resting his paws on my knees. “That’s a good boy,” I said, scratching behind his ears.
Hearing the clang of plates on the counter, I looked up. Portia stood barefoot in our kitchen in casual cotton pants, a T-shirt, and an apron. I blinked, mouth agape. I’d rarely seen the woman without her pearls.
When she turned to me, she wore her wide, dazzling smile. I was immediately on edge.
“Hello,” she said, picking up a second glass of red wine from the counter and walking to hand it to me. She placed it in my grasp and then stretched to kiss my cheek. “Welcome home.”
I nearly wanted to turn and leave right then. It was disloyal, being here. I felt like my skin had been replaced with damp wool and I itched all over. It was wrong, and I knew it. Ruby had known it.
“Your home,” I reminded her, putting the glass down carefully on the sideboard. “I live several Tube stops away.”
She waved me off, returning to the counter where she was dishing up pasta into two bowls. “I’ve still not seen your flat.”
“There isn’t much to see,” I said with a shrug.
Portia nodded to the dining room and I startled slightly. I’d barely been here two minutes and she was leading me to the table as if I’d simply come home from work. No reacquaintance, no small talk. Certainly no playful banter.
I followed her in. It was surreal seeing the table set with candles and flowers, the placemats we’d received from the Wynn family for our wedding. The candelabra her parents had given us for our fifth anniversary. When we lived here together, Portia would cook on occasion, but it was always clearly communicated to be a production and used as a form of currency in the look-how-much-I-do-each-day ledger of our marriage.
I felt for my phone in my pocket, now desperately wishing I’d called Ruby before coming here.
We sat. Portia passed me the pepper and then set her napkin in her lap. Davey curled up on the floor, resting his head on my feet. Outside, cars drove by, their tires wet on the pavement. Inside, as always, silence reigned supreme at the dining room table.
“How was your day?” she asked finally, looking down with interest at her bowl of pasta.
My day? How about my month, or, better yet, the last eleven years of my life?
“It was . . .” I began and then stopped. The revelation struck me with a nearly physical blow: There was no mystery to be unearthed here. There was no secret to the silent isolation of our marriage. It was, and would forever be, like this between us.
Portia was lonely and having a hard time finding her footing in her new life. It had been true for me, too, in a way. I’d focused on routine, buried my free time in sport. I’d barely looked up long enough to see Ruby watching me, enamored, for months.
And now Portia was watching, waiting for me to finish my thought.
It was a strange thing to say; the perfect opening for her to ask more. But the quiet returned and I attempted to tuck into my meal. The sound of her chewing was as familiar to me as the smell of the wood from the dining room hutch or the cold stone scent of our kitchen floor.
“How was your day?” I asked in return, attempting some stab at a normal conversation. But it wouldn’t work. The bite of food I’d eaten sat like a lead weight in my stomach, and my head was full of nothing but Ruby. “Portia, I can’t—” I started, but she was already speaking.
She didn’t say at all what I expected: “We were terrible together, weren’t we?”
Finally, a laugh broke through the unease in my thoughts. “The worst.”
“I thought we could . . .” She paused, and for the first time since I arrived I saw a weariness, a vulnerability there. She rubbed a hand over her face. “Honestly, I don’t know what I was thinking, Niall, wanting to have dinner to talk. I wanted to see you. I’ve missed you, you know. Not sure I ever really appreciated you enough to miss you before.”
I lifted my glass of wine to my lips and said nothing. I tried with my eyes to tell her that I understood, that a part of me was glad to see her, as well.
Clearly I’d never been good at false sentiment. I closed my eyes, remembering last night. And in this dining room, that used to be mine, with a wife who also used to be mine, I knew the reason I felt so sick to be here was that I loved Ruby.