If you don’t count Johnny Depp, until the day I met Charles Forest I never considered making love to a man other than my husband.
It was a bright morning in late June, one of those rare New England days that nearly convince you that all is right in the world, or at least that such a state of affairs might be possible. Charles’ driveway—a long, meandering path that must have been a bitch to plow—was lined with sugar maples and covered with dove-colored gravel. I cringed at the sound the little stones made as they crunched and popped beneath my tires. Although I’d taken the longest route possible, and had been careful to drive the speed limit, I was still fifteen minutes early.
Wisps of water vapor rose up from the lawn in the places where the sun broke through the trees. I climbed the steps to the covered front porch and, not wanting to catch Charles Forest in his bathrobe, decided to wait a few minutes before ringing the bell.
The house, a sprawling place that over the years had belonged to generations of farmers, was painted the same dusty red as the brick mill buildings in the city where I lived, not far away, but a world apart, really. The Forests’ property stretched on as far I could see: lawn followed by meadow, followed by thick woods.
After five minutes, I pressed the doorbell. Charles opened the door the moment the chime sounded, making me wonder if he’d been standing there, just on the other side, the entire time.
Charles looked the same as he did in the professional head shots you could find of him on the internet. That is to say, stern and jowly, his face vaguely resembling a pug’s. His eyes were a bit too large for his face with irises the color of March mud, the pupils cavernous black. I could see that his hair, mostly gray now, had been dark once. He wore the type of no-nonsense crew cut you’d expect to see on a cop or a high school chemistry teacher.
Charles was taller than I expected, maybe six-foot-three, though I suppose a person’s height isn’t something you can determine from photographs. I’d worked his age out to be 48 the night before when I was doing research for our interview. The man standing in front of me could have easily been in his mid-50s.
Charles Patrick Forest (the name he used on the covers of his books) had written eight best sellers and had published countless stories and articles. Five years before, one of his books had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
“Hi. I’m Nathalie LaFlamme. From The Sun.”
Charles smiled. His teeth were broad and bleached and flawlessly square. His lips—by far his best feature—were fleshy and voluptuous, the kind that fashion models would kill for. He swung the front door open wide, placing his arm high enough for me to pass underneath it.
“Glad you could make it on such short notice. Come in.” Charles shut the door and jammed his fists into the front pockets of his jeans. He wore a wristwatch that I was sure had cost more than my Subaru.
We stood in the foyer, both of us silent just long enough to feel awkward. At last, he said, “Why don’t you come into the kitchen? I just made coffee.”
The Forests’ kitchen looked like someone had lifted it from the pages of a magazine: creamy marble countertops were offset by custom maple cabinetry and a showroom’s worth of high-end stainless steel appliances. A photograph of Charles standing on a beach with a middle-aged woman and two teenage boys was tacked to the fridge with a magnet shaped like a miniature banana. The boys had Charles’ eyes.
I sat on one of the stools at the kitchen island while Charles set out coffee mugs and pulled two bottles of water from the fridge. He cracked the cap on his bottle and took a long swallow. A rivulet of water slipped down his chin and stained the front of his shirt. I held out a paper napkin. When he reached over to take it from my hand, I noticed a drop still clinging to his lower lip. I had to fight the urge to touch it.
A gentlemanly room with mahogany paneling, Charles’ study was lined with hundreds of books. A silver MacBook Pro sat in the center of an oiled pine desk the size of my living room couch.
We sat on a loveseat by the window. A copy of Charles’ last novel, the Pulitzer Prize winner, was in the center of the coffee table.
I took out my list of questions and opened the voice recorder app on my phone. I was about to start recording when a wiry, dark-haired woman—the one from the photograph—poked her head through the doorway.
“Oh, excuse me. I’m Dianne, Charles’ wife—Charlie, I need you to go to the store and pick up some things when you’re done.”
Charles nodded, and Dianne closed the door behind her. Then he turned to face me, his lanky frame all elbows and knees.
“How long?” Charles touched my left hand with his finger. His skin was dry and papery, and even after he pulled his hand away, the spot where his finger had been felt warm.
It took me a moment to realize that he was asking about my wedding band.
“Oh, I’ve been married for seventeen years. We have two girls, fourteen and sixteen.”
“Twenty-six years,” Charles said, nodding his head in the direction of the closed door.
He pointed to my phone, suggesting we should get on with it.
“So, tell me about this new book you’re working on,” I said.
“There is no new book. I haven’t written a word in years.”
I paused, wrinkling my forehead. This is not at all what I’d been expecting. The deadline for my article about Charles’ new book was at five o’clock the following afternoon. If I wanted to keep my job, I’d have to come up with something else to fill the hole.
“Then why did you ask to do an interview? Your agent told me yesterday that you were working on something—that I would get an exclusive story. I had to do a lot of juggling to come here today.”
“My agent is under the impression that I am working on something. I’ve been telling him so for years. I’m under contract for one more book.”
“But why not just get out of the contract? Surely you could just hire a lawyer, or ask your agent to—”
“No, you don’t understand. The thing is … I really want to write another book.”
Sighing, I clicked off the recorder and began gathering my things.
“I’m sorry.” Charles stared at the wall, his huge hands covering his knees. “I thought if I knew I was going to be talking to someone from the media—it might help me get back on track, motivate me to sit at the desk.”
Then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, Charles placed his hand on top of mine and began stroking the underside of my wrist with his thumb.
Like ripples lapping at the shore of a lake, waves of desire radiated out from beneath my ribcage and down into the hollow space below my belly button.
Charles leaned over and kissed me on the mouth.
He nibbled at the curve of my neck and pressed his lips into the delicate flesh opposite my elbow. His hair and skin smelled of sandalwood and cloves. I gripped the back of the sofa to keep from swooning.
A dog barking outside brought me to my senses. I pulled my arm from Charles’ grasp and forced myself to stand. The room looked all wrong, its dark wood and leather furniture too sharp a contrast to the day outside.
Charles stood up and tucked in his shirt. He adjusted his enormous Rolex, placed one hand on the small of my back, and escorted me out of the house.
My family is Catholic. My great-uncle Lucien, a priest, officiated when I married Paul. My daughters, Marie and Georgie, went to Saint Genevieve High School, the same school Paul and I graduated from.
My parents never talked to my sisters and me about sex. When I was ten, my mother gave me a book that explained what would happen when I got my period, and what I should do about it. She stocked the bathroom closet with maxi pads, and said I should let her know if I had any questions. I was sixteen when I finally learned where babies came from.
In high school, we had the Catholic version of sex ed, which consisted almost entirely of the girls’ gym teacher, a manly looking nun named Sister Maureen, warning us about the dangers of premarital sex, masturbation, birth control, and especially abortion. She wore a silver whistle on a nylon cord around her neck. In the event that we were harboring any impure thoughts, at the end of each class Sister would lead us in a vigorous jog around the field house.
In spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, Paul and I have always had a fulfilling love life. We are attentive to each other, and fit well together. This was true even after I met Charles, when my dreams became haunted by the smell of the leather furniture in his study.
One Sunday in October, when Paul and the girls and I were at Mass, Paul reached over and began stroking the back of my wrist with his thumb. I didn’t hear a single word of that homily.
After church, I went upstairs to change. I shut the door to our bedroom and dialed Charles’ cell number. I was relieved when I got his voicemail.
“Hi, Charles. This is Nathalie LaFlamme, the journalist who came to your house a few months back. I was just wondering if you’d started working on anything new and maybe wanted to talk about it?”
It was five days before Charles returned my call. Seeing his number on the caller ID made my face and neck flush red. I let the phone ring four times before deciding to answer it.
“Nathalie. I’m so glad you called. There’s something I want to talk to you about. Can you have dinner with me?”
“How about Tuesday at six-thirty? Meet me at Marcelo’s in Portsmouth.”
Marcelo’s is on Bow Street, overlooking the Pisataquah River. I’d walked by it probably two dozen times and had never once considered eating there, mainly because of the guy that stands out front wearing a tuxedo during the summer, beckoning passersby to come inside. The place looks too much like money.
The hostess showed me to a private dining room on the second floor. One whole wall was made of glass, the lights along the waterfront twinkling in the vanishing dusk. A log had been lit in the fireplace against the October chill. Charles, seated at a table for two near the back of the room, stood up when I came in.
He looked different than when I’d last seen him. He had a tan and seemed to have lost a few inches from his waistline. He wore a navy blue blazer over a cream-colored dress shirt open at the collar. His khaki pants had been meticulously pressed. He gestured for me to sit as he pulled out a chair.
Without asking if I wanted it, he poured me a glass of Chianti from the decanter on the table.
“Before you say anything, I want to apologize to you for the way I behaved the last time I saw you,” he said. “I don’t know what came over me, but I hope you’ll believe me when I tell you that I’ve never done anything like that before.”
“It’s not like I asked you to stop,” I said, hoping he would change the subject. I should have been glad that he wanted to apologize, but what had happened between Charles and me at his house wasn’t something I wanted to talk about.
“That doesn’t matter. I should have known better. I took advantage of you. Let’s see if we can put it behind us and start over again.” He raised his wineglass and clinked its rim against mine.
Charles set a neat stack of paper, held together with a red rubber band, on my salad plate.
“My next book.”
“Is this why you asked me to come here?”
“Yes, and I want you to read it. I want to know what you think. You’ll be able to write your article now, too. I owe you that—at the very least.”
When I began to protest, Charles waved his hand in the air, swatting away the very possibility that I might refuse his offer.
After dinner, Charles walked me to my car.
We stopped on the sidewalk beside my Outback and I took my keys out of my purse. The air was cold and clean and smelled like the sea. A thick blanket of stars hung low over the darkness of the water. Our breath came out in billowy clouds that disappeared into the night.
It was nearly 10 p.m. We’d been the last customers in Marcelo’s. The temperature had dropped since I’d arrived and my jacket wasn’t warm enough.
“Get in touch with me after you’ve read the manuscript.”
I nodded, hugging the stack of paper to my chest to conserve warmth. Although I’d finally get to write the article, at that moment, with Charles standing less than a foot away, the last thing I cared about was furthering my career.
Charles put his hands on my shoulders and kissed me on the forehead. “Thank you for having dinner with me. I had a nice time.”
I looked up at him, craning my neck. I’m tall for a woman, but no match for Charles’ height, even in heels.
He leaned down and kissed me on the lips.
The kiss was a friendly one. But the spice of his cologne and the feel of his lips, together with the wine, left me completely unmoored. I wrapped my arms around him and pressed my mouth to his, not caring that we were in the middle of the sidewalk.
We ended up at an inn overlooking the water, a thoroughly contemporary place that, although stylish, seemed bleak when compared to the cozy, fire-lit dining room where we’d spent most of the night.
Charles helped me off with my jacket and hung it in the closet. He took off his sport coat and hung that up, too, before turning off the light in the entryway.
I stood in the middle of the room, which was lit only by the moonglow pouring through the windows. Charles came over and put his arms around me. He planted tiny kisses at the base of my neck until my knees threatened to fold, but by then I was thinking about Paul and the girls. The room’s sharp angles and icy chrome fixtures had leached the fire from my bones.
Charles led me to the sofa and sat down beside me. He kissed my hair and we stared out the window at the reflection of the moon on the water.
After that night, I carved out a tiny pocket in my heart and let Charles live there. I called him after I read his manuscript, and wrote my article. We exchanged an occasional email.
It was almost two years later that I saw Charles again. He invited me to have coffee at a sidewalk cafe in Newburyport.
“It’s good to see you, Nathalie. How are you?” He placed his hand on top of mine and gave it a firm squeeze.
From his bag, he produced a hardcover copy of his new book, the one whose manuscript he’d given me to read.
“It will be in stores on Tuesday, but this copy is for you. Open it.”
I cracked the front cover to find a handwritten inscription on the title page.
“Not that. Read that later. Here.” He flipped the page to reveal the book’s dedication: For Nathalie.
I looked up from the table. “What about your wife?”
“It’s none of her business. I wrote the book for you.”
Across the street, a group of women stood on the sidewalk. An older lady wearing a green windbreaker pointed to our table.
“I think you have fans,” I said, nodding my head in the direction of the women. “They probably want to say hello.”
“They can wait. Take a walk with me.”
We strolled along the riverfront, my arm laced through his. It was a lovely, warm September afternoon. Cottony clouds drifted across the sky.
When Charles felt sure we’d lost the group of women, we sat down on a bench. He draped his arm around my shoulders. I leaned into him, my head resting in the space between his chest and chin. I could feel his heart beating through his clothes.
I followed Charles to his house in my car.
We entered through a side door that looked like it had once been meant for deliveries. Charles led me up a narrow stairway at the back of the house, its wooden runs made from a patchwork of oak boards. The stairs creaked when we stepped on them.
“No one’s here. Dianne and the boys are visiting her mother in Tampa.”
Our destination was a bright guest bedroom, simple but elegant, at the end of a long corridor. Late day sunlight streamed through windows that offered a beautiful view of the meadow behind the house, golden that time of year.
The bed was an antique four-poster, its wood dark with age. The spread covering the mattress was white chenille. Laid out on the floor in front of the painted brick fireplace was a hand-braided rug. A landscape painting of an afternoon river hung over the mantle.
Charles folded my clothes and placed them on a chair.
Despite our best efforts, we were awkward with one another: shy, fumbling, and much too careful. Beneath the thin covers, we held each other while the sun dipped below the tree line. We watched as the stars poked through the fabric of the evening sky. And for a brief moment, I was sure I could feel the rotation of the earth.
At breakfast six months later, I read in the New York Times that Charles had died of brain cancer. I pretended that something had gotten into my eye when Paul looked at me from across the table.
Charles’ last book, a historical novel about a young woman in Maine who loses her husband, a potato farmer, to a hunting accident, made it onto most of the best seller lists. I recently heard a rumor that someone had purchased the movie rights.
Marie, my youngest, went off to college last fall. With both girls gone, the house seemed lonely, so Paul and I adopted a French bulldog, Jane, from the humane society.
On weekends, we take Jane for long walks in the woods. One Sunday, just before Thanksgiving, she got free from her leash and led us on a wild chase through the trees. When we caught up to her, we found ourselves in a clearing, a wide meadow full of tall, amber grass whispering in the breeze. In the distance stood a rambling old house painted dusty red, its windows blazing in the setting sun.