My Erstwhile Dear

by Cheryl Dietrich

Excerpt from In Formation: What My Mother Didn’t Teach Me but the Air Force Did

After all, my erstwhile dear,
  My no longer cherished,
Need we say it was not love,
  Now that love is perished?

Passer Mortuus Est by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I grabbed the phone on the first ring. “Hello?”

Renee’s breathless voice whispered, “Cheryl?” Even at the best of times she would not have been the caller I wanted. “Is this a good time to talk?” She was in tears, her voice thick with them.

“No, actually it’s not. I’m expecting someone any minute.” Expect was too strong a word; hope was closer; dreaming even more accurate.

“Oh.” She fell silent for a few moments except for her stifled sobs. “I really need to talk to you, but I guess I’ll try again later this week.”

“Yes, do that. That’ll be better.”

“It’s just—I don’t know what to do.” She started into her usual tale of romantic woe, the secret lover, the trysts, the fighting and making up.

I ignored my conscience and blatantly lied. “Listen. There’s the bell. I’ve got to run. Call me later this week, okay? Take care.” I hung up in the middle of her teary goodbyes. I didn’t offer to call her back. There was no guarantee her husband wouldn’t be around.

I remained next to the phone all evening, trying to read and every now and then checking to make sure I’d replaced the earpiece all the way back into its cradle. I sat up late, but neither phone nor doorbell rang.

Months earlier, I’d gone on a three-day temporary duty, TDY in military parlance (think business trip), to attend a conference in another city. I was a lieutenant, newly assigned to the Air Force Manpower and Personnel Center in San Antonio, still green, maybe a little naïve, lonely. A lieutenant colonel I knew at work had arranged for me to attend the conference with him, to stay quietly in the background, listen, learn, and occasionally hand him a file—all of which I excelled at.

The evening we arrived, we checked into our hotel then went out looking for dinner, a normal, innocent thing to do, dinner between two coworkers. The fact that we were male and female meant nothing. Not until he leaned close to me and sniffed, his light breath tickling the skin below my ear. “Ummm. What a lovely perfume. What is it?”

“Gucci.” A gift to myself from a long ago trip to Italy.

He sniffed my neck again. I felt a tingle that didn’t stop there but traveled leisurely down my body. Then he leaned away and smiled at me. We were on a public sidewalk in daylight surrounded by other pedestrians. There was nothing guilty in the smile he gave me. But I was dizzy from what felt like a moment of intimacy flaunted in the public street.

We stopped for a nightcap in the hotel bar after dinner. It was dark and virtually deserted. This time when he leaned into my space, his dark eyes hooded with sleepy desire, I whispered, “Don’t.” Even to my own ears it sounded less like a prohibition than a come-on.

“What happens TDY stays TDY” is the military version of an expression usually associated with Las Vegas. I told myself this was a harmless fling, far away from home, over as soon as we arrived back in San Antonio. On our return flight, I said, “I hope you don’t plan to confess to your wife. For her sake. It can only hurt her, and there’s no reason for that.”

He took my hand and held it hidden under the newspaper he was reading. “You’re making me fall for you.” He squeezed my hand tightly. “I’ve never done this before, never been, never . . .” He seemed to struggle to say the ugly words but couldn’t. I believed him. What did he have to gain from lying? Sex? He’d already gotten it without really trying.

I gently disentangled my hand and turned toward the window, studying the ground rushing at us from below, San Antonio coming into focus. He spoke so softly I could barely hear him. “I’m not ready to let you go.”

Adultery is a crime in the military, punishable under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. It is widely practiced and politely ignored when it can be. But when pressed—usually by angry spouses—commanders punish it severely, potentially to the point of court-martial or involuntary separation. It rends the fabric of trust and loyalty military units depend on.

Adultery is also a crime in God’s eyes, with a commandment all to itself, a ban whose trespass is punishable by eternal damnation. The Air Force is a merciful master compared to the God of the Old Testament. Fortunately, I was no longer bothered by the religious aspect of things.

Adultery is also, I still believe (though not so righteously), a crime against the family, against society, against the self. It weakens the ties that hold us together. My father, with his twin demons of adultery and gambling, abandoning his wife and children—his sins sent repercussions through two and three generations. I had always sworn never to have an affair with a married man. It’s easy to be virtuous when you’re not tempted.

I did not think of myself as an adulterer. I had made no promises, no commitments to anyone. I couldn’t think of him as an adulterer either—he was one only in the most technical sense, I quibbled. I believed it was some powerful attraction that pulled an otherwise honorable man to me, a passion he couldn’t resist. Adultery may have been a crime and a sin, but it was so flattering, it was also a turn-on.

In truth, there was something erotic in the convoluted arrangements we had to make to spend time together in San Antonio, where it seemed all eyes were potential accusers. Our meetings were fraught with the thrill of the illicit, the clandestine, the furtive, the sordid—the very words of infidelity slide seductively over the tongue.

He surprised me one night with a present. “Open it.” If he’d been a little boy, he would have had his hands behind his back, his eyes on the floor and his feet scuffing back and forth.

It was a negligee, but with nothing about it you could call satiny, silky or elegant. It was, in fact, downright whorish. None of my old boyfriends would have given me such a thing. They’d all been too busy admiring my mind and respecting my character. I held it up, struggling with feelings of amusement, alarm, and titillation. Titillation won.

“Go on. Put it on,” he said, his voice thick with urgency.

The garment was complicated, long and gauzy, white but so thin its color could better be described as clear, as see-through as a window. It hung on the body, shapeless except for a thick braided cord apparently meant to be wrapped around the body and tightened to emphasize breasts and waist and hips. The overall effect was to create the look of a dryad fleeing a lascivious satyr but not too fast—and only so he could get a look at her luscious fanny.

That, I was sure, was the theory, but its execution was beyond me, pajama girl that I was. “It’s pretty complicated. You’re going to have to help. Didn’t this thing come with…”

“Operating instructions?”

“Actually, I was going to say an owner’s manual.”

“An owner’s manual. I like that.” He began pulling the cords around and under my breasts, lifting and separating, but we never did get the “contraption,” as I thought of it, all the way on.

One afternoon his car was in the garage, so I gave him a lift home. He invited me in. His wife wasn’t home from work yet, and they had no kids, so we were alone. I asked to see the house. I was curious. I wanted to know more about him. I wanted to be able to visualize the easy chair where he sat when he watched TV. I wanted to lean over the sink and stare into the mirror where he shaved. I wanted to check out the books in his—their—bookcases and see what was sitting on his bedside table.

He took me on a tour of the house as impersonally as if he were a realtor and I a potential buyer. It was a spacious two-story, a reflection more of his rank and income than of his and his wife’s needs. It was neat, with nothing out of place, but bland, the furnishings all beige and other neutrals. Like most military homes, souvenirs from the occupants’ previous assignments were the only hints of personal history—an intricately carved chest from Korea, a display of German steins. Except for these, all I saw was his wife. Her taste, her needlepoint cushions, a Hummel collection. He seemed strangely absent here.

I’m a practical person. I was able to gaze on the bed they shared with only a spasm of emotion that came and went too quickly to identify. The door to a wide walk-in closet stood ajar. I saw their clothes hanging across from one another with no reaction but admiration for the neatness, the perfectly spaced hangers.

It was the bathroom that got to me, more specifically the toothbrushes, nestling against one another in a ceramic cup. This was intimacy, husband and wife standing side by side at the double sinks, brushing their teeth together, every morning, every night.

I took a deep breath. “I’d better get going.”

“Yes, I suppose. She’ll be home any minute.” I hadn’t been lost to the fact that he kept his ear attuned to the sounds of the house, listening for his wife’s entrance.

We went back down to the cozy den. “It’s a lovely house,” I said. “Thank you.” Thank you for giving me a glimpse of your real life, for reminding me of how peripheral I am, how—in the scheme of the day-to-day stuff—I am less significant than your toothbrush, your chair, the tchotchkes you and your wife have chosen together over the years. Thank you for allowing me in and letting me remain here, a speck in your life. “I should be going.”

“Wait. Let me kiss you, just once. I want my home to be full of your kiss.”

We kissed, gently and sweetly. I would have liked to press hard sucking kisses on his mouth, the kind that could lead us to throw off all our caution and all our clothes. I felt like an invader in this house and I wanted to conquer it with full-out force. He resisted, however, and kept the temperature mild, all the time listening for the sound of the garage door. When he suddenly thrust me away, I knew why.

He patted his short hair down and looked me over quickly. He was someone else now, efficient and calculating. “Anyway, thanks so much for bringing me home. Can I offer you a drink or something?”

His wife walked in, a petite blonde, everything about her trim and neat. Like the house, a woman of neutral tones. He greeted her with a peck on the lips, as natural as a husband could be. “The car’s stuck in the garage till tomorrow. Cheryl was kind enough to bring me home. I’ve been showing her the house.”

If she sensed anything out of the way, she had too much presence to show it. She smiled graciously and shook hands with me. “Nice to meet you, Cheryl. I’ve heard so much about you. Thanks for your help. Can you stop for a while? Join us in an after-work martini?”

I turned her down politely. Back home, I put on MTV, loud, just to fill the house with voices.

He was so cautious, so careful not to get caught after that. Sometimes I chafed at it. I offered him alibis, excuses I made up like so many fairy tales. I strewed his path with temptation.

One evening when his wife was at a meeting, we managed to get together for dinner, tucked away in a small Italian restaurant where it was unlikely anyone we knew would see us. If they did, it would be easily explainable as a brainstorming session. We had files open on the table, decoys. I had no idea what was in them.

“You sure you can’t stop by my place tonight? For a quickie?” I arched my eyebrows. “We could forgo dessert.” I leaned toward him and said softly, “I could be dessert.”

He smiled but shook his head. I couldn’t move him on this and already knew it, but I couldn’t resist teasing. The waiter came to remove our salads and replace them with pasta smothered with tomato sauce and olives. He had ordered for both of us. Puttanesca.

We ate in silence. I wondered if he was angry because I pressed him to come home with me. I wondered if he thought I was angry with him. I put my fork down. “I’m sorry to tease you. You know, I really do understand. Neither of us wants to hurt your wife. It’s natural, a good thing, that you’re so careful to protect her.”

He looked surprised. “You don’t get it, do you? You’re the one I’m trying to protect.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. I picked up my fork and knife to cut the long strands of linguini. He twirled his against the bowl of his spoon. I admired his dexterity, the neat little bundle of pasta and sauce he made. I wished I could do it that way. I started to ask him to teach me, then I realized he was concentrating on twirling the pasta just so, loosening it and picking up new strands on his fork, but never actually raising the food to his lips.

Finally, he set his utensils down, sighed, reached for his water glass, put it down without drinking from it. He didn’t look at me as he spoke. “You should know that I’m in love with you.”

“Oh” was all I could think of to say at first. I felt something shift inside me, then a crash as if a barricade had collapsed and left me defenseless against the bare truth. “I’m in love with you too.” The confession sounded bleak and weary, fearful.

It was only six, still light out, people passing on the pavement. He looked straight at me, sorrow and longing in his eyes. A red splotch of sauce sat at the edge of his mouth, which made him look vulnerable to me. I reached over with my napkin to wipe it off, but he stopped me with a quick look around the room.

No longer just adultery, but love. Once I got over the fear, once I realized This is real, this is truly love, I was happier than I had ever been in my life, ecstatically, energetically filled with joy. The world had become a wonder, a background for him and his love to exist in. At work I basked in his presence, feeling his love radiate out to me. We were usually very professional but sometimes the mask slipped. He was more often the one to make some incautious teasing remark or to look at me too intimately. I would quell him with a frown, bringing us back into line. But I rejoiced every time he took that little chance. I saw his inability to hold his love in all the way, all the time, as a sign of how strong it was.

Don’t get angry and never demand anything. Don’t ever ask for anything if you can help it. Otherwise you lose their love. That was a message my mother had branded into me. So I never suggested he get a divorce. He was the one who began hinting at it, with remarks like, “Perhaps it doesn’t have to be this way.”

“You know I will love you anyway. You have me already. I’m yours,” I told him, but I thrilled to the idea, to the daydreams forming in my head.

“It’s for me,” he said. “I want more. This isn’t enough for me. I just don’t know yet how to do it.” He looked thoughtful, like a man trying to solve a puzzle, difficult but not impossible.

I leaned against him. We were sitting up in bed. I kissed his back and stroked it. His skin felt soft to me over the taut muscles. “Whoa. You’re beating a dead horse. I’m an old man, remember?” He was just eight years older than me, but it was a pretense we had that I was a child compared to him. The gap between our ranks added to it.

“I just like feeling your skin. It’s so soft. That’s all I want.” I continued to run my hand up and down his back, stroking him like I was patting my dog Tippy (who lay sulking on the floor, resentfully displaced from her spot on my bed).

“Well, it’s not enough for me. I want more.” He pulled me down on top of him.

I felt loved. I felt fulfilled. I felt powerful.

From tremendous highs to crushing lows, the laws of nature and of the heart demanded an equal balance. Our affair ran the usual course, times of ecstasy and passion alternating with depression and dissatisfaction. Times when he didn’t (couldn’t?) call; when the hours we snatched seemed too short, the loneliness that followed too long; when secrecy lost its eroticism. I began confiding in my long distance friends—who must have learned to dread my calls. My ups were probably every bit as tedious as my tearful downs. Strangely, I never thought about Renee through all this. It never occurred to me that I had turned into her, that there was a karmic balance in my tears.

I had lied to myself. I wasn’t content after all to be a speck in his life. I’d thought I could handle an affair, but once love became a factor—I wasn’t cool enough or experienced enough to handle that. I wanted to be with him all the time, to be central to his life. To be the one whose toothbrush nestled close to his.

Early in December our headquarters threw its annual Christmas party. For a lieutenant it was as mandatory as it could be without an actual command. At my previous base, with its contingent of lusty young aircrews, parties had tended to be rowdy, drunken affairs, local prostitutes waiting at the bar. Work hard, party hard—that was the motto. I’d hated those parties.

But here at the Manpower and Personnel Center, with all its high-level officers and bureaucratic paper pushers, the parties were staid and boring, which was worse. People clumped into murmuring circles, holding cocktails and exchanging chitchat while Muzak played in the background. Later we’d sit at assigned tables, eat rubber chicken, and listen to senior officers deliver long, boring speeches euphemistically called “remarks.”

Still I started out eagerly. Another chance to be with my lover. I had not seen him outside work for several weeks. True, his wife would be with him tonight, but perhaps we could manage a moment, a seemingly casual kiss on the cheeks beneath the mistletoe, better yet, a quick tussle in the cloakroom. At least a look from him, something that connected me with him and showed our secret love to be the realest thing in the room.

I made myself up carefully. My hair was usually impossible, thin and lank, but that night I managed an insouciant flip. I put on my favorite dress, a rich, close-fitting burgundy. I wore my highest heels. I was tall anyway, and these would make me tower like a victor over the pleasant blandness of my lover’s tiny wife. I put an extra treat in Tippy’s bowl and sang Christmas carols as I drove to the party by myself.

It was every bit as dull as I’d expected. I did my best to mingle, something I was always awkward at, but tonight I started hopefully, my expectations and undisciplined heart giving me a glow. I stood around chatting with coworkers and their spouses, then moved on to other groups of couples, impatiently awaiting the entrance of the only person who counted.

Like radar, I turned toward the door just as he arrived, his wife on his arm. He had a jaunty piece of holly stuck in his buttonhole, and I had a fantasy of him discreetly passing it on to me, of me holding it hidden, its prickly leaves in my palm a constant reminder of our love—sharp and hurtful, yes, but real, undeniably real. I gradually mingled my way over to them. His wife greeted me first and pulled me politely into their circle. “My, Cheryl, how festive you look tonight,” she said.

They were in conversation with another couple I knew. I chatted with them awhile, talk so small it dissipated into particles and drifted away in the air long before it reached anyone’s mind or memory. We all spoke polite trivialities about the decorations in the club and upcoming holiday plans. Nothing from him but a sense of bored requirement—another evening of mandatory fun. I felt my smile begin to freeze, the corners of my mouth ache. I began an internal calculation of how soon I could murmur my apologies, slip away, and let the interest I’d forced into my eyes fade into dullness.

When I eventually left them, I hoped he’d at least take the opportunity to give me a casual hug, maybe a holiday peck on the cheek. But he just wished me a merry Christmas and started telling the other couple a funny story. It was as if I wasn’t even in the room. I felt my heart deflate and the smile vanish for good that evening. It was rather a relief not to have to carry it around anymore. Well, what had I expected? He was being cautious and rightly so. Grow up, Cheryl. Handle it like a woman, handle it like that ice sculpture there. Be a cold angel of ice.

I got through the rest of the evening by not feeling anything. I figured I could get through the rest of life the same way if I had to.

At the break before the speeches, I went to the bar for a refill. I gave the bartender my order and stood there frozen, not even trying to chat with anyone around me.

The bartender, a nice looking young guy, handed me a generous glass of red wine. He said, “I hope you don’t mind my saying so, but that dress looks great on you. It suits you.”

He moved on to another customer. His compliment touched me, as if he had sensed my unhappiness and done the only thing he could to assuage it. The kindness of a stranger—that was all it took to melt the ice shield. I could taste my heart now, tear-salty but sweet. It was better to have this aching thing than nothing at all.

One night his wife was going to be tied up at a work function for the evening. He’d begged off from escorting her, honestly pleading boredom. We would have a full four hours together at my house. I prepared one of his favorite dishes. I didn’t cook much or well but I was decent with Greek food, a skill he gave me far too much credit for. A steaming spanakopita sat on top of the counter, its crust golden and crisp.

I’d already taken care of his alibi for him. He’d told his wife he was going to hang out at the mall, eat in the food court and rummage through the bookstore. On his instructions, I’d bought a book for him on my lunch hour, smudging the time on the receipt while leaving the date intact. I’d checked to make sure he didn’t already have the book but would be likely to buy it: Andersonville by McKinley Kantor. It waited innocently for him in its Walden bag.

We always coordinated arrival times carefully. I glanced at my watch—six o’clock. I opened the kitchen door to the garage and punched the button. The garage door slowly rose. It stood open less than a minute before his car pulled into the empty bay I’d so carefully cleaned out for him. As soon as he was in, I lowered the garage door.

I was excited. We had time tonight, that precious rarity. Time to eat and drink and talk and still make love at least twice before he would have to shower with the Lifebuoy soap I kept for him, in the scent they used at his house. His wife had a keen sense of smell.

After a quick embrace, he let me go and looked around. He saw the table set for dinner, wine glasses sparkling, linen napkins I’d bought just for this occasion sitting pristine and folded on the antique plates I’d received from my grandmother. I’d already lit the candles. He bit his lip and turned to me. “Cheryl.”

It bothered me suddenly that he always called me Cheryl, that he had no pet name for me, nor I for him. I felt uneasy at his tone, his look. “This is so wonderful. What a lovely evening you’ve planned. But…” He stopped for a moment searching for words. I felt a tremendous hurt welling up and struggled to pull a door down over it, to hide it like I hid his car inside my garage. But the door refused to budge for a change, and all I had inside me was this spreading ache as he told me that his wife agreed with him about how boring the evening would be. She planned to steal away before dessert, before the speeches. “I can only stay an hour.”

Ordinarily, with the door carefully enclosing my pain, I would have smiled regretfully and said something like, “Well, let’s not waste any precious moments then.” But now I couldn’t. My anticipation had been too great. I turned away. “I don’t think I can do this anymore.”

I said it with no intention except to express what I was feeling, but he took it as an ending, perhaps with a little relief even. Perhaps a lot of relief—I’d been moody lately, not the lively, cheerful mistress a man would want. Maybe he considered it an ultimatum, pressure to come through with the divorce he hinted at. I wondered about it later, after he’d left, after we’d spent that precious hour talking sadly and soberly about breaking up. An hour not eating the dinner I’d prepared, an hour not making love.

Before he left, I told him, “No one will ever love you more than I do.”

He opened his mouth as if to reply in kind, a thoughtless ditto, but closed it again. He studied my face, sadness clouding his. “Yes. I do believe that’s true.”

We didn’t kiss goodbye. He took his book and left.

This should be where the story ends, a moment of poignant heartache. The end of an affair, as simple as that.

We couldn’t quite let go. We never again indulged in the easy, exuberant passionate affair we’d known, but we did begin to meet again. Mainly to talk. He hinted at a change. I heard his tone telling me to hold on, to keep holding on. So I did. My hopes began to rise.

He received orders for a new assignment far away. I should have been downcast, but the closer it got to his departure date the closer we seemed to be getting again. In his new job, there were already plans for him to go TDY to New Orleans in a couple of months. He urged me to take leave and meet him there. For a week we could be lovers with only the slightest degree of discretion needed. Excited anticipation crowded out every other emotion.

After he’d been gone a month, he called me. “There’s a job here that’s perfect for you.” He launched into an enthusiastic description of it and how his boss could pull strings to get me there. I barely paid attention to the details, so busy celebrating inside. He wants me, he wants me with him, he loves me.

Then he said, “Now, you do understand that this is just about a job, nothing else.”

I had that feeling like when something you can’t quite see seems to run past the corner of your eye and the hairs on the back of your neck bristle. “What do you mean?”

“Just don’t read anything more into this than a job offer.”

How was I not to read more into it? “What did you mean ‘nothing more than a job’?”

“Exactly what I said. What else would it be?”

I couldn’t tell him what I’d thought, about that five minutes of happy-ever-after euphoria brought crashing down. “It’s just…Has something happened? Is something wrong?”

He evaded my questions. I hated talking on the phone anyway and couldn’t imagine a worse way to have a worse conversation. “Look,” I said, “Let’s talk about this next month. Whatever the problem is that’ll give us a chance to work it out.”

“What do you mean ‘next month’?”

“New Orleans. Your TDY.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“New Orleans! We were going to meet there.” It had been his idea in the first place—I was certain of that. Now he denied all knowledge of the plan and no interest in it.

“I don’t understand.” I struggled to hold my tears back.

“Look, I have no interest in you anymore,” he said, nothing in his voice but brute indifference. “Sorry if that hurts, but that’s your problem.”

In writing this, I have had to stretch to recreate some dialogue, to capture accurately the conversations, the intentions, the feelings from twenty-five years ago. But there are two statements from this man that are seared word for exact word in my memory. This was one of them: Sorry if that hurts, but that’s your problem.

Here’s another good place for the story to end: me nursing my heartache, sadder but wiser, grieving but eventually getting over the lover who discarded me like a plastic toy.

The love I’d believed in with more faith than I’d ever given to God was a scam. I thought of his caution—the soap, the synchronized opening of the garage door, the carefully bought book with its smudged receipt. How could I not have seen these for what they were, a repertoire of tricks picked up from previous infidelities. I tried to work up a good head of angry steam to fuel my recovery through heartache and out the other end.

But I couldn’t. This is the problem with faith: it keeps believing against all evidence. None of the things I told myself seemed as real as the memory of ardent looks he’d given me; his touch—gentle, rough, impatient, teasing, hot as flames all over me; the words of love confessed as though reluctantly, sadly even, in out of the way places.

After the initial shock and grief, love, that persistent little monster, got the better of me. Something’s wrong. He’s hurt in some way. He needs space. He needs time. I love him. I have to understand. I have to have faith in him and in our love. I’ll give him time.

I saw it as a test. A puny sort of love it would be that couldn’t sustain itself through a bad spell. I would give him six weeks, I decided, without contacting him. Then I’d call. I wrote the date in my organizer, scheduled a time. That helped me feel I had some control.

I had six weeks in which to nurse an injured heart and buttress it with hope. I was cheerful and productive during that time, missing him, longing for him, but no more unhappy than a woman whose lover had gone on an Arctic expedition but was expected back soon. Optimism felt better than certainty; procrastination better than action. So I put off the phone call a day, a week, two weeks. Eventually though I called.

“Cheryl,” was all he said at first. Then again, “Cheryl.” He couldn’t have faked the relief, the joy in his tone. “Hang on a sec.” I heard a slight click in the background, then he was back on the line. “I just wanted to close the door.” Is there any sentence more romantic?

My heart leapt. I was back in a secret place, where I was happy to be. To hell with public recognition and affection. Let me be the secret he holds closest to his heart. I’ll hide my discontent better. “Just wanted to call, see how you’re doing. See if things are…better.”

“It’s so great to hear you, so wonderful that you called. I was afraid—” He stopped for a moment. I started to say something but he broke in. “No wait, listen. Things are, well, happening right now. Things are changing. Everything’s going to be fine. Going to be great. Trust me, please just trust me, okay?”

“Of course. I’ve always trusted you.”

“Then give me a month. I’ll call you by then. No, say two months, but that’s the most. I’ll explain everything then. Trust me on this. Another month and everything will work out.”

The Air Force is basically a large gossipy village, so I soon heard that he and his wife were divorcing. It made sense now, even his brusque indifference earlier. He’d been protecting me, making sure my name stayed out of the proceedings and no suspicion lurked around me.

I didn’t really expect to hear from him within a month—these things always take longer than projected. Two months passed, and he still hadn’t called. I heard his divorce was final. I told myself that of course he wouldn’t rush to contact me right away. He would need some closure. Three months and still nothing, except the rumors that paired him with another woman, someone I knew, someone not me. Four months. Armed with bitter resolution, I called him.

He was cold and distant this time and seemed surprised to hear from me. I’d given up hope, maybe even desire of becoming lovers again—or was I just fooling myself? But I needed not to be someone so insignificant to him that he could just toss me away like garbage.

“We meant a lot to each other,” I said. “And it seems a crime to waste that. Can’t we find a way to be friends at least?”

This is the other quote seared into my memory: “There is no room for you in my life in any capacity. Now you may think I’m a son-of-a-bitch—.”

“Yes, you are a son-of-a-bitch.” I stated it simply, a fact I was just now acknowledging. “And I never want to see you again or hear from you again or speak to you again.” I hung up. I didn’t bother to slam the phone down. I had no passion in me, not even for anger. I felt like an ice creature again, all heat drained out of me, a frozen shield hardening over my wounds.

I gathered everything of his I had (it was precious little) and everything that reminded me of him. I made a pile of the negligee contraption, a few trinkets, every photo he was in, even the damn Lifebuoy. I thought of lighting a fire in the fireplace and feeding each piece to it, chanting, “Here’s another piece of the heart you destroyed, you faithless son-of-a-bitch.” But I didn’t have the passion for a dramatic ending. Besides I had my doubts as to how reliably the synthetic fabric of the contraption would act in the flames, not to mention the soap. So I bundled everything up in a plastic bag and drove it out to a dumpster.

That night, the ice inside me crumbled, collapsed like a glacier calving. I lay on the floor crying hot, heavy tears into the rough shag. I was drowning, suffocating in my pain. Depression pulled me in so deeply I was trapped inside it. For weeks it seems—but it may have been mere days or many months—I stumbled through work and returned home to do nothing more than lie on the floor and weep. I was in so much pain I felt locked inside one of those fictitious rooms where the walls move slowly in and there’s no way out.

I think most people at some time or another have thoughts of suicide. In the past, when I’d been unhappy, I wondered sometimes what would happen if I just killed myself—but more out of curiosity than anything else. I even drafted elaborate suicide notes in my head. But I’d never before experienced this trap of constant, suffocating pain. My mind was so incapable of thought now it took some time for the idea of suicide to occur to me. But when it did, it hit like an epiphany. Of course! Here was my salvation, an escape route out of the pain.

I considered various methods, thoroughly and dispassionately. I had no firearms and couldn’t trust myself to pull the trigger anyway. A sharp razor in the bathtub? I didn’t know if I could do that either. I had no medications, no sleeping pills, and though I could probably get them, it seemed to involve too much effort for a spirit already drained of energy for anything other than feeling its own pain.

But I had my Fiat Strada. I worked it out, like I was checking off a list. All I needed was a weekend, a full tank of gas, blankets for the bottoms of the garage doors. I worried about Tippy. I was afraid she could starve in the house before someone found me. I wasn’t thinking straight enough to consider putting her in the kennel to keep her safe. I decided to take her with me. She loved being in the car anyway. We would just fall asleep together one last time. I thought briefly of writing a suicide note but I had no interest in explaining, blaming, or leaving instructions. I just wanted the pain to end.

Once I had it all figured out to the detail, once I knew I could kill myself and exactly how, I stopped feeling trapped. I’d discovered a way out in case I needed it. I still had the pain but I could breathe now.

I dried my eyes, got up off the floor and put Gloria Gaynor on the stereo. “I Will Survive” blasted my whimpering to smithereens. I played it over and over again. For as long as it took.

Cheryl Dietrich is a retired Air Force officer who moved to Asheville in 2002 with her husband and the Amazing Dog (Tippy’s direct successor). She is currently completing a memoir of her years in the military, In Formation: What My Mother Didn’t Teach Me But the Air Force Did. Three excerpts from her book have appeared in The Gettysburg Review and Shenandoah.

About My Erstwhile Dear—This chapter in my memoir came with a special set of challenges. How to write about a person I once loved passionately but now was indifferent to? How to convey the power of a relationship I’d almost forgotten? How to conjure up love, lust, joy, pain that I no longer felt? When I first exhumed this relationship, dead for over twenty-five years, I wondered if the process of writing about it would awaken old feelings. Actually, the opposite was true. In a chapter of my book (my life) that was so overwhelmingly about feelings, I was unable to feel anything. The writer’s mantra, “show, don’t tell,” rescued me. I concentrated on recreating scenes from the experience. I wrote down the memories of what we said and what we did. In this way, I attempted to call up my younger self and what she was feeling while allowing the narrator to tell the story.