“Do you know what love is?
I’ll tell you: it is whatever you can still betray.”
-John le Carré
One thing Ben Fenton never would have realized had he not mined his wife’s data was how often she kept her lies so close to the truth, especially when she was lying about the affair. “We had a district sales meeting at that big conference room at the Ambassador Hotel today,” was how her most recent lie began, “and I got up there and gave a big oral presentation. I was nervous at first, but it was pretty exciting once I got going.” It bothered Fenton how often he was allowing himself to wonder just exactly how big the oral presentation really was.
Fenton had isolated his wife’s data from the matrices of almost every cellphone carrying citizen and non-citizen in the country. For a month he had seen every phone call and e-mail, every location, each web site she’d visited, each text message, even the ones she’d almost sent—the ones she’d typed out but deleted. It was as close to stepping into another person’s mind as technology could allow.
“It’s godlike,” Fenton said to his dad after he first began spying on his wife. “And being a god is really fucking depressing.”
It had been Fenton’s father who had gotten Fenton the job with Domestic Intelligence and Counter-Surveillance a decade before. He had taken the job with DICS right after graduating from college and had never worked anywhere else. His father, retired from spy-craft for almost twenty years by then, would never reveal which of the agencies had employed him. “It’s an outfit you’ve never heard of anyway,” was all he’d say. This vagueness had always bothered Fenton. “Why do you think they call us Spooks, Ben? Being vague is what we’re best at.”
His father had even been vague about Fenton’s job opportunity back then. “I got word of some new agency they’re forming, some kind of computer mumbo jumbo, something I don’t understand, something you’d be into. They need smart kids. You interested?”
“Sure,” Fenton said. He would often wonder how many people entered the intelligence community by muttering such a word.
Fenton did not like lying to his wife even though his job often required it. The only lies he ever told her were the ones that meant a prison term if he didn’t tell them. Early in their marriage he had even tried to admit working for DICS.
They were at the lake when he told her, drinking tequila and listening to a small bonfire pop in front of them, and he was just drunk enough to say it. “I need to tell you something,” he said.
“What is it, baby?” she said. The fire in front of them climbed the wind. She had always called him this: “Baby,” a word that squirmed between her lips—bay-bee—a word that always made him want to kiss her. “Tell me anything, baby,” she said. The fire inched upward even more.
“I’m a spy,” he said.
She laughed. “So you think you caught me, don’t you?”
His wife flicked her hip toward Fenton and pinched her fingers into her waistband. She pulled the denim away from her skin and let him see that she was wearing a see-through lace thong. “I thought I saw you peeking in at me when I was getting dressed.” Then she craned her neck and arched her back; her breasts pointed out toward the flames, the firelight shining on them as if it were grabbing them. They drank more of the tequila and then slid into the same sleeping bag. This was the moment they would always point to as the conception of their daughter.
Fenton came to his wife a few days after learning of the affair and told her a lie of his own, misinforming her that his work was sending him to New York City for a training seminar. “What kind of training?” she said.
“New statistical methodology,” was all he could say. He was really bad at this, he thought.
“Is there any way I could come with you?” she said.
“What?” he said. He tried to think of something his father might say, some kind of quick and efficient line that would neutralize such a request. All he could think of was, “Huh?”
“It’ll be fun,” she said. “We could leave Hannah with my mom for a few days. It would be nice to spend some real time together. We could see a play! On Broadway! Maybe I should go online tonight and see if I can get some tickets…we’d have to pay through the nose, but, baby, it would be so worth it.”
“Okay,” he said. It seemed like this was all he could ever say to her.
He spent the next day thinking of an excuse that would get him out of going any further with this lie. He still hadn’t thought of one when he walked through the door of their home and she was sitting on the couch. When they made eye contact he saw that her eyes were wet and swollen; the veins around each iris reached outward like tiny red lightning bolts. “What’s wrong?” he said. He staggered his feet, readying himself for what he was about to hear, as if her words would jump out of her mouth and charge into his chest like some sort of verbal drone strike. “I’m so sorry,” she said.
“What…” he said. He swallowed hard, as if he had just eaten her words as she spoke them. “What is it?”
“I can’t go with you.”
She inhaled and in one breath said, “I can’t get out of work — technically, I have the vacation days, but there’s been so much drama at work and my boss has been such an asshole — I think he’s really worried about his job and he’s trying to take us all down with him, I really think that — and I’m afraid if I miss work right now that it’ll really cost us big time — I’m so sorry — baby, I’m just…” She wiped her eyes. Then her breathing stuttered in and out so that it seemed like she was being choked.
“Do you need your nebulizer?” Fenton said. He moved toward the kitchen to get it from the counter. Then he held his hand to his own chest, as if to keep his heart inside of it, as if it would split through bone and cartilage and then roll down his belly and thighs and dribble around between his feet. He knew she had almost told him about the affair just then. He wondered why she hadn’t, if maybe she was reconsidering everything.
She said, “I’m okay. I just need to sit here.”
Hannah began to cry. “I’ll get her,” Fenton said. His daughter was already sitting up in her crib when Fenton walked into the nursery. She reached up for him. He held her and said, “It’s okay. It’s okay, it’s okay. Daddy’s here.” But his daughter still cried. Then Fenton cried. Soon he could not tell their noises apart from one another.
Fenton’s wife drove him to the airport the next day; she even French kissed him before he got out. He waved to her as she drove away, then wheeled his luggage to another terminal and found in that lot one of the dozen agency cars DICS had stashed for its traveling associates. He would think of his daughter over the next few days as he followed his wife around the city in that car. He would think of how much he hated it that he was in town yet couldn’t see his child. Fenton wondered how often his own father had done the same thing.
On his third day “out of town,” Fenton parked his agency car half a block away from the restaurant where his wife and her boyfriend met for lunch. They were each taking half days at work and planned to do some shopping together after they ate. His wife had said in a text to her boyfriend that she wanted to be spontaneous with their time together after that, to just “see what else happens.” Fenton knew what that meant. It had always been important to her that sex be whimsical and unpredictable, even though phrases such as “let’s see what happens,” always meant she wanted to make love. It sounded like such a nice day, he thought. He’d have loved a day like that with her.
In Fenton’s lap was a long range camera and a high density conversation isolator. These tools were of the most cutting edge technology from the early 1980’s, tools that had for years been kept in his father’s storage unit, things Fenton had retrieved that same morning. The conversation isolator had a headset that connected to a small dish, out of which grew a long probe that looked way too much like a skinny penis. The whole contraption smelled of cigarette smoke and mildew. Fenton couldn’t even find their voices when he panned the thing back and forth against the window of his car. And people stared at him.
Fenton took pictures of them that he would never develop. Months later his therapist would ask why he felt it necessary to photograph them. The only answer he could give was that a picture from film seemed more real than the thousands of megabytes that had been assembled in front of him before that moment. It was as if seeing them through a viewfinder was what made everything real.
That same day Fenton tapped on the door of a stranger’s house. The woman who answered the door did it so fast that it seemed like she had been standing right behind it, as if she were waiting for someone. She stepped back when she saw Fenton. Her nose was pink and swollen. She had half-circles under her eyes that looked like charcoal rubbings. Her skin was as thin as parchment. She held tissues in each hand. Little balls of lint gathered above her lips. She wiped at her nostrils before she spoke, sending the paper flakes off her face toward Fenton. She said, “It’s you. You’re the guy.”
“What?” he said. He took a step backwards and almost fell off the stoop.
“You’re her husband. Your wife is the one sleeping with my husband.”
“Yes,” Fenton said. “I’m the cuckold.” Fenton decided right then that this was a word he’d never use again.
“Come in,” she said. She grabbed his forearm and pulled him inside in a way that felt too much like an abduction. “Make yourself at home. Sit down. Can I get you something to drink? Water? Beer? Wine? Do you smoke cigars? My husband does. Good ones, expensive ones. You can have all of them if you want. I’ll give them to you.” She stopped at a mirror in the hallway and brushed her face free of debris and tightened her ponytail and scooped her fingers under her eyes as if this might rid them of the shadows beneath them.
“No,” Fenton said. “No thanks. I’m okay.” He ran his hands down the fronts of his legs and then dragged the back of his wrist over his forehead. “Hey, listen, this is weird. I don’t even know why I came over here. You ever realize something is a bad idea way after it’s way too late?”
“Yes!” she said, and when she laughed it made her stumble forward so that Fenton lunged to catch her.
“Are you drunk?” he said. He was surprised to hear himself say this.
“No. Are you?”
“I wish,” he said. “Have you taken any pills, maybe?”
She straightened up and stepped away from him. “Why? Do I seem high to you?” She seemed like she might hit him and throw him out and call the police and say that a strange man had invaded her home. This thought scared the shit out of him.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Fenton said. “Jeez. I just—I feel like I might have a panic attack and…and Xanax really helps with those. I don’t have any because I haven’t had a panic attack in years but, you know, all of a sudden…” He put his hand on his chest.
“Oh,” she said. This word reminded Fenton of his wife. It was usually a good thing whenever his wife said this word because she usually said it in bed. In their better days she would roll over to him and reach beneath his waistband and say, “Oh?” and when she’d feel him harden she’d say, “Oh,” and then as they made love she’d say it over and over and over. Fenton felt his manhood awaken down there.
He sat down on the sofa then. He leaned forward and folded his forearms over his thighs. This posture made him look like he was having a bowel movement. “How long have you known about them?” he asked.
“Three days,” she said. “I’ve been trying to hide it that I know. But it’s hard. And I don’t know what to do. Part of me wants to pile his clothes in the front yard and set them on fire and not be here when he gets home.”
“That’s a good idea,” Fenton said. “I could help you do that.”
She shook her head. Every feature on her face seemed to get smaller until he thought her face might implode. And then she was crying. “I just want him to stop,” she said. “This isn’t the first time he’s done this, and I know it won’t be the last, and—”
“He’s done this before?”
She wiped at the corners of her eyes with her thumbs. “It happened years ago. After we were first married. It was a fling that was over by the time I found out.”
“A fling?” Fenton said.
“He told me he’d never betray me again. And do you know how much of an idiot I am? I actually believed him,” she said. Then she looked at Fenton. “Is this your first?”
“Is this the first time your wife has cheated on you?”
“Yes,” he said, “at least I think so.”
“Hey, you know what? Here’s what I think we should do.” Now she seemed happy—“Uncomfortably chipper,” was how Fenton would describe it years later—and Fenton wondered if she might be at the beginning of a manic episode. He felt as if he were nearing one himself.
“Tell me,” he said. He told her he was ready for any possible solution.
“I think we should have sex,” she said.
“We should do it. Screw them. We should screw each other. Me and you. Even the score. Show them they’re not the only ones who can have an affair.”
“I know I don’t look like much right now but I could go up and shower and—oh, I could shave it all off for you if you want, because I haven’t shaved in a while because my husband doesn’t even notice things like that because, obviously, because he’s fucking your wife and isn’t even interested in me when he’s home at night—and maybe you could even jump in the shower with me and then you and I could, you know…” and she made a circle by connecting the tips of her thumb and index finger, and she held her other hand up near this circle and began ramming her pinky finger in and out. Fenton wondered why she chose her smallest finger. He wondered if this was what she assumed would be the size of his own presentation.
Fenton looked down at his shoes. He ran his hands over the top of his head and when he went to rub his eyes he saw half a dozen strands of his own hair clinging to his fingers. Some of them were gray. Soon he would be single again. He’d be a single dad who was chubby, balding, graying, and had some rapidly developing trust issues. Manic episode or not, this might be his last best chance of actually making love to an actual woman for a long time, he thought. He considered it for a moment, then said, “I think… Look, I can’t tell if you’re being serious or not, so that kind of freaks me out, but it doesn’t matter because I don’t think it’s a good idea anyway. I think it would only complicate things more.” The part between his legs stirred despite his words, as if it seemed angry.
“That’s rational,” she said.
“Thanks?” he said. And much later he’d remember the thing he said next as the words that changed the trajectory of his life, the axis point he would blame for setting him on a course toward wartime captivity and the possibility of an early death in a foreign land. He said, “Anyway, I don’t think I could, uh, perform, knowing that they are together right now, knowing that they’re talking and laughing and joking and walking down those midtown sidewalks, shopping together, probably holding hands, maybe making more plans for days like this. The thought of it makes me feel like I could vomit. My wife thinks I’m in New York and—”
“Wait a second,” she said. “They’re having a date? Today?”
“Yeah. Right now, actually. Right this very second. And then they’re going to go back to our home to probably sleep together. According to the Behavioral Forecast Algorithm, there’s only like a one-tenth of one percent chance they won’t cap off the afternoon by having sex. It sounds like such a wonderful day for them,” Fenton said. “I’m just trying to survive it.”
“Wait, the what? Who? Al Gorithm?” she said, as if it were someone’s name. “How do you know all this?”
“I’m a spy,” he said.
They parked four houses down from Fenton’s home. The other woman sat in the passenger seat, still wrapped in the thin robe she’d worn when he first saw her from the stoop. She again clutched tissues in each hand, and the ponytail she’d tightened an hour before was gone and replaced by long tangles of blond hair that piled on her shoulders. She hadn’t even put on a pair of shoes. Fenton thought it must’ve looked to passersby like he had sprung this woman from the psychiatric ward. He tried not to look at her.
Years later, his time at DICS long over, he would be in Baghdad just before the start of the third Iraqi Civil War. He’d be the leader of a six person team of programmers working for a U.S. corporation who would pose as journalists while they hacked into the few drone tankers that still navigated the oil fields. During an idle moment of one of those workdays, Fenton would log into a storage cloud to see the pictures of his daughter’s wedding. He wouldn’t be able to keep the tears inside his eyelids when he saw her in her gown, when he saw her step-father walking her down the aisle, when he saw her smiling from inside that screen in front of him. Fenton had volunteered for this business trip the day after his daughter told him she wasn’t going to let him walk her down the aisle or dance with her at the reception. “You can still come,” she would say, “you’re invited and all, but, it’s just… it’s just that it’s my day, Ben, and this is how I want it.” And when he and the other five were abducted by a dozen rebels in black Toyotas, he knew that they had been discovered because he’d made the stupid mistake of indulging that old domestic spying.
The woman next to Fenton didn’t look at him either. She was looking at Fenton’s home through the tiny rectangle of her cell phone screen. She kept taking photos, as if gathering evidence. He wondered if she’d seen some of the actual spy equipment piled up behind her seat. “Do you think they’re in there?” she said. “Do you think they’re in there right now? Doing it?”
“I don’t think so,” he said. He knew he could find out for sure by setting up the eavesdropping probe and pointing it at the bedroom. But he thought that if he actually did hear them having sex that it might send him into actual cardiac arrest. He rubbed his chest again. “I don’t think they’re home yet.”
They waited. Fenton kept surfing radio stations and checking his own cell phone. He even answered a few texts from his wife while the woman next to him leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes. He felt then like she had been lying about not having any Xanax. HOW IS NYC?, his wife had typed. GREAT!, he wrote back. BUSY! He asked her about her day and she said she was bored at work and looking foreword to picking up Hannah from daycare. Fenton whispered his daughter’s name. GIVE HER A KISS FOR ME, he wrote. I WILL!, she wrote back. And then she wrote I <3 YOU!
An hour later his wife’s car rolled past the stop sign two blocks away. “Wake up,” Fenton said. He nudged the woman next to him. She leaned forward and rubbed her eyes. “Here we go,” he said. Fenton started the car as his wife and the other man pulled into the driveway. A tear repelled down the left side of Fenton’s face when he saw this. He put on his sun glasses as they drove toward his house. The woman next to him held her phone in front of herself and typed across the tiny keyboard on the screen.
“What are you doing?” Fenton said.
“I’m putting this on Facebook!” she said. Her fingers poked at the screen, and to Fenton it looked like she was jabbing a miniature tombstone.
Fenton’s wife covered her mouth with both hands when Fenton and the other woman pulled up. They got out. Fenton stood near the bumper of his car, afraid to approach them. The other woman moved toward her husband. He held his hands in the air and began saying, “Whoa-whoa, whoa-whoa,” as if he were speaking a ritual chant from some extinct language. Fenton’s wife sat near the front tire of their car. She had lowered her head by then and let her hair fall over her face as if it were a curtain.
A few years later he would talk with his wife about this. They would be sitting next to each other at Hannah’s third birthday party. His ex would tell him that she had only recently begun a new relationship, and this man would a year and a half after that become her second husband, the same man whom Hannah would eventually begin referring to as “Dad,” something she would do for the rest of her life. “It’s weird,” his ex would say, “dating again. Learning someone new. Judging that person, being judged right back. We’ve been on a few dates. Everything is going good but I wish I didn’t have to do it. I wish you and I could have made it work.”
Fenton only stared at her. Then he said, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say to that.” And they were quiet with each other until it was time for Hannah to blow out the candles. But after that they both began speculating about what life might have been like had they been husband and wife at these parties instead of exes. Then she would be the one to start talking about the day they’d never really talked about. She would whisper about what she had been thinking during that moment in the driveway as she sat near the tire. She would even ask if he knew what became of the other couple. Fenton would say that he wasn’t sure. He wouldn’t say that he had tracked their data for a while and had been sort of obsessive and vindictive about them. He wouldn’t say that he knew exactly what became of them, that they had stayed together. Then she would say, “What were you thinking? Like, what I mean is: what was going through your mind, Fenton? Was it the worst day of your life? Because that’s what I was thinking. I was thinking: this is the worst fucking day of my whole fucking life. I still think that.”
He wouldn’t be able to figure out how to tell her what was going through his mind then, so he would tell her that his mind had been blank, frozen up, like a crashed operating system. She wouldn’t believe him. “Maybe you’ll tell me one day,” she said.
What he had been thinking about in that moment was his own father. A story of his dad’s had come back to him right then as he saw his wife in the driveway, a story from the old man about a time right after the war when they were first interrogating Nazi officers. His father spoke of his favorite interrogation technique in which he would ask the Germans simple questions while he poked them in the chest. “Just a firm jab with my pointer finger,” his dad said. He said that after the interrogation there was someone assigned to poke the P.O.W. in the chest at all times, every minute of every hour of the day, for days and sometimes weeks at a time. They would do it in shifts, he said, and after a while the man in question would feel this constant poking all the time, even after it had stopped. At that point, his father said, it was impossible for those guys to distinguish between their own heartbeat and the prodding at their chest cavities. “It would come close to driving them insane,” he said. He said it would be something they would feel for the rest of their lives.
MIKE WILSON's fiction has appeared in The Allegheny Review, The Cleveland Review, Litro, Midwestern Gothic, NPR, Potomac Review, Roanoke Review, and Tweed's fiction blog.