Abigail Rine Favale
Winner, J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction
He knew that neck. He had traced it with his fingers many times, with his lips. From where he stood, David could only see her profile, but there was something about the way she held her head that was instantly familiar—a little to the side, neck straight, as if listening to a sound in the distance. The chin had softened noticeably, the once angular jaw now rounded with flesh. And her dark hair, like his, had lightened with age. But it was Erica, no doubt, sitting just a park bench away.
In his memory—and, occasionally, in his dreams—Erica was immune to age. She appeared exactly as she did when they last saw one another, ten years ago, her body hard and reedy with youth and discipline. In his clearest mental image of her, captured from the vantage of her bed, Erica is standing in front of a full-length mirror, examining her body like a general might survey an enemy army, looking for a weak spot, an avenue of attack. She was pristine, but of course she couldn’t see it. That was why he was there, to adulate the body she was trying to conquer; he worshipped it, and she worshipped that.
Their affair was brief but intense, a collision of need. At first, David was able to compartmentalize it, hold it at arm’s length away from his stable marriage and satisfactory academic career. He had naively thought himself immune to infidelity, particularly with graduate students—if only due to his aversion to cliché. Erica was his lone lapse.
Susan never found out. She was a coast away during those weeks, handling the estate of her recently deceased mother—a detail that could be an unending source of guilt for David, if he let it. He remembers her return from California with agonizing detail; she slumped against him at the airport, almost shaking with grief and exhaustion. He held her silently, his nose against her hair, which still smelled like her childhood home, the home she’d gone back to sell. He burned with self-loathing, a fire that consumed any and all remaining desire for Erica. He called her that night, after Susan was asleep, to break it off. He doesn’t remember that conversation, the explanation he gave, if any. After that, David avoided Erica with precision, eventually hearing that she dropped out of the doctorate program—news he welcomed. The last ten years had given him ample time to mythologize their relationship, to see it as an innocuous blip, an exception that proved the rule of his otherwise flawless fidelity.
As for the pregnancy, something he instinctively thought of as “alleged,” when he thought of it at all—that was not part of his narrative. The final postscript to their affair consisted of a brief phone conversation, weeks after David had cut things off. Erica called him at work, leaving a vague message that David ignored for a few days, until he generously concluded that perhaps he had ended things too abruptly and they really did need one last rendezvous to feel closure. The conversation did not go as expected; he barely spoke at all. Erica told him matter-of-factly that she was pregnant, and she’d already made the necessary arrangements, so there was nothing he needed to do, she just thought he should know.
This news was shocking to him at the time—and deeply improbable. It was as if Calypso had materialized on Ithaca, after the blissful marital reunion, to announce that she was carrying Odysseus’ child. This was simply not how the story was supposed to end.
Abigail Rine Favale is a professor and writer living in Oregon. Her short fiction has previously appeared in a number of literary journals, such as the Potomac Review, Talking River Review, and Melusine. She has also published non-fiction essays with First Things and The Atlantic, among other places.