“It’s just that,” Portia continued, poking at her dinner, “now you’re here, I’m not sure what to say. Where to start. There’s too much, isn’t there?” She looked up at me. “Too much habit, really, where we don’t say very much at all.”
It was another needle in my thoughts. Ruby spoke of her feelings, her fears, her dreams and adventures. She wanted to hear mine. She took time to make it a habit of ours that we spoke, and I praised her for it. Told her I appreciated her honesty.
I appreciated it, even when it terrified me. Earlier, she’d told me she needed to talk something out with me—that she’d needed me. I’d been unable to get out of my own head long enough to be there for her.
“I don’t even have to ask you what you’re thinking to know your thoughts are elsewhere,” Portia said quietly, pulling me from my revelation. “You’re here out of courtesy.”
I didn’t reply, but my silence was as good an answer as any.
“I appreciate that, I do. I wasn’t always a good wife to you, Niall, I know that now. And I was wrong to think we could go back. I wanted to think we could find something we didn’t have before, but having you here now, looking so wary . . . I see it, too. It’s well and truly done between us.”
“I’m sorry, Portia,” I said, putting down my fork. “I wanted to hear what you had to say because I felt I owed you that. And I owed it to myself, too, to understand what you’d been thinking the whole time we were married. But it’s true: I’ve other things on my mind tonight.”
“I can tell,” she said. “It’s quite a shock to see you looking so . . . upset.”
I apologized again. “It wasn’t fair of me to—”
“Do you know,” she began, cutting me off, “when you moved out, you never once seemed anything but completely sorted? The last thing you said to me when you left was ‘Cheers.’ I’d handed you the folder with your passport and vital documents and you’d smiled kindly and said, ‘Cheers.’ Isn’t that amazing?”
I bent, putting my head in my hand. “It wasn’t sadness I felt at leaving our marriage, Portia, but I did feel something. I simply don’t know what to call it, or how to express it. Failure, maybe. Or regret.” I looked up at her, admitting, “Also relief.”
“Oh,” she said on an exhale. “I felt that, too. And then guilt, over being so relieved. And I’ve gone back and forth in the months since. How could I spend so much of my life with someone I was so relieved to leave when he did? How could I have made it better?”
“Well,” she said, folding her napkin and putting it on the table. “I for one wish—”
“Portia, I’m in love.” The words came out so suddenly and raw, I instantly wanted to pull them back in. I bent my head, wincing.
It was several long seconds before she spoke. “Darling?” Without looking up, I could hear her swallowing, hear her finding breath. “Tell me she hasn’t hurt you.”
I leaned my head back, staring at the ceiling. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for that to come out so baldly.”
“It loosens something in me to know you’ve moved on, even if it’s emotional to hear it.” She paused to take a deep breath. “I can hear it in your voice, see it in your eyes. This tightness and urgency. I could never have drawn this sort of reaction out of you. I was terrible to you at times, I know that. But you weathered it all with such calm stoicism. Do you imagine how that feels to know, truly, that it would be impossible to evoke a passionate response from you?”
I looked back to this woman I’d mistreated, been mistreated by. “I’m sorry, Portia.”
She gave a wan little smile. “Don’t be. It wasn’t your fault.”
“In general I am,” she said. “It’s been up and down. For the first few months after the divorce I was a bit on the wild side. Spending money frivolously, seeing men left and right.”
Nothing. I felt nothing when she said this.
“Recently I was seeing someone more seriously.” She toyed with the small charm on her napkin ring. “I suppose that’s what had me panicking these past few days. It’s hard to be with someone different, the fear of repeating past mistakes. We were together so long, Niall, that it felt wrong in a way to go off with someone else, like I was betraying you.”
I looked up at her. I’d personally never felt the sense of betrayal, but I understood what she’d said about it being hard to be with someone new. To be afraid. To figure out their rhythms and needs. To worry constantly about failure.
“He’s someone I knew from before.” She hesitated. “From work.”
Something clicked in my thoughts. “Stephen?” I guessed.
Portia sounded guilty when she admitted, “That’s him. Stephen.”
I caught the way he would watch her. It struck me only then how apathetic I’d been at the work functions, business dinners, and in the office when I’d stop by to drop off lunch or something she’d forgotten at home. Stephen couldn’t help but glance at Portia every few seconds, at least when I was near.