In Front of the Elevator

“So why won´t you tell me?”

She pushed her hair back over her shoulder. It fell in soft cascades down her back, her amazing black curls that she loved so much. She liked the texture of her hair, the smooth feeling when she was playing with one strand, which she did quite often, when she was on the phone, at work, driving her car, when she was in a conversation, when she was sad, happy, emotional or just because she felt like feeling the smooth, silk-like texture of her hair between her fingers. Right now, she pushed it back because she was too angry to play with a strand and she wanted him to see her angry face. It should be answer enough.

He stared at her. Standing just two feet away, his eyes pierced her, but she avoided his glance. They had been out shopping for Christmas gifts and as usual, they had gotten into a fight over picking the right gift for his mother. She, because she talked to his mother more often than he could even imagine, knew that his mother did not long for yet another boring shawl to add to her selection of shawls given to her as presents for her birthdays, any holidays or Christmases by her son, her husband or her husband´s brother, who, in the tradition of a Hunton man, knew that you couldn´t do anything wrong with a shawl, which obviously does not mean that you do a good thing bychoosing a shawl.

He, however, preferred to believe that he knew his mother better than his wife, though he forgot that he only knew his mother from his childhood and had not spent much time with her ever since he was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland at the age of ten. She, on the other hand, talked to his mother at least twice a week, seeing that they went to the hairdresser together and his mother took her shopping when the new season items were out. Plus, when things happened in her life or his life, she went to call his mother, because she knew he would not see the necessity of informing his mother about promotions, new clients, opportunities, or the new interior decorator they had hired to redo the living room. Well, she had hired the interior decorator, so he might now even know that someone was redoing the living room and painting the walls in a shade of pale red that could be called salmon, but was named “Rose Kiss”, a color he would love, but wouldn´t if he knew the name.

Hunton, as he went by his last name as had his father before him and as would their son, should they ever decide to have kids or spend enough time together to actually discuss the option of having children and thus also spend enough time together to set this plan in motion, was a man of grand gestures, an alpha male, which obviously made him very attractive. It was, however, one of his many outstanding qualities that he did not stray, for he loved his wife dearly, even though she drove him mad most of the time.  Right now, she was making him lose his nerves and he hated losing his nerve, because as a Hunton man, he was not one to lose his nerves easily. Being married for six years now, his wife obviously knew how to push his buttons.

If you asked Hunton, he would tell you that it was an easy question and she could have given him a simple answer, which he would have accepted right away. However, things were not that easy, and his wife, Elisabeth, called Sabeth, after the character in Max Frisch´s “Homo Faber”, a rather questionable nickname, which she secretly loathed but couldn´t get rid of anymore since it stuck to her since her early childhood, knew that there was no simple answer to his question.

The number he was looking for should clearly not be higher than two, maybe three, but Sabeth knew that the only answer she could give him, which was the honest answer, for they had sworn to always be honest to each other, would freak him out. They had already gotten into a fight before, as he had picked the burgundy shawl and Sabeth mentioned that it wouldn´t match anything in his mother´s wardrobe, which he had refused to believe, but which she knew to be the truth, because she knew every single item in his mother´s wardrobe as they had bought them together on one of their many shopping trips. She knew that yet another fight would ruin the lovely dinner at the great restaurant they had eaten at over a year ago and which he had picked for tonight. Hunton knew how to pick good restaurants and Sabeth almost always left it up to him to choose the restaurant; only once did she put her foot down and that was when they had to pick a restaurant and or a chef for their wedding reception.

Sabeth glanced up to the bright neon number flashing mockingly above the closed elevator doors signaling that the elevator was still waiting on the first floor for Christmas shopper to exit or enter. She sighed, knowing too well that Hunton would not drop the subject until she had given him an answer and since lying was out of the question, she preferred to just be silent about it. If only the elevator would come, she thought, they would be out the store in no time, in the car in yet another minute and on the highway and on their way to the restaurant, where it would be impossible for Hunton to pursue this silly notion, because among the noisy Christmas shoppers having a loud conversation was clearly possible, whereas in the restaurant with its silenced atmosphere, the discreet waiters and the eaves-dropping people on the table next to them, Hunton would not continue having this conversation.

Hunton stared at her, but she still avoided his glance. Her eyes were fixed on the unmoving number above the elevator showing that the elevator was still stuck on the first floor. He knew she was evading his question, but he didn´t know why she refused to tell him. Hunton firmly believed that his wife was a good person, and so she was, but looking at the topic at hand from different perspectives, Sabeth and Hunton would not come to agree about the results.

While they were in line at the register to pay for a nice, lime-green sweater Sabeth had talked Hunton into choosing, a couple in front of them was having a discussion not too much different from the one Hunton and Sabeth had had back in the clothes department. The couple was arguing about the presents chosen and it was obvious that the woman did not like the presents her husband had chosen, among which a pair of dark grey leather gloves was the most contested one. As they fought, the controversy soon got out of hand and while waiting in line for only ten minutes, they managed to touch upon seemingly every subject they had fought about in the past, which also meant that they clearly had no idea of a good conflict culture and knew nothing of how to handle confrontations, because they had to be talked out, accepted and forgotten, since irreconcilability was the death of every relationship. While stuffing the change into his wallet, the man turned to his wife and said she was being stubborn and that she couldn´t always have his way with him, to which she replied that she could at least try. As an answer, he simply nodded sadly and said that she might have done so with the many men in her past, but that she couldn´t treat him that way. They turned and walked away, while it was now Hunton´s turn to pay for their gifts, so neither Sabeth nor Hunton knew how the conversation continued.

Hunton, who was not one to eaves-dropped, did not like to hear people fight in public, but the conversation had sparked his interest and he turned to Sabeth to ask her how many men she had had before she had met him. Sabeth, who secretly liked to hear such intimate details about other people´s lives, frowned, but did not answer, because she was considering the right thing to say very carefully. As with most men, Hunton was one to believe that all women should be practically virgins up to the day they meet their future husbands, but was at the same time willing to accept that this was an ancient notion long outdated by a more modern approach to relationships and marriage in general and sexuality in particular.

He knew that Sabeth had not been a virgin and that it had not been him who had deflowered her, but he did not consider it a spot of bother or a – negative – statement about Sabeth´s reputation, for he firmly believed that there had only been one or two men in her past that she had engaged with sexually. Sabeth, who had never lied to him, had never mentioned anyone else other than Tom, a short fling, and Marc, to whom she had been engaged to for over a year until she had caught him cheating with their downstairs neighbor, a sturdy Russian woman with a heavy accent, which hurt Sabeth more than she liked to admit, because she was on very friendly terms with the Russian lady, who had often invited Sabeth in for Чай, tea, sweetened with honey, and a nice hot bowl of борщ, Borscht, which Sabeth liked very much.

From Hunton´s point of view, it was not such a big deal for Sabeth to say that she had been intimate with two men before getting engaged to him. In his firm believe that Sabeth fit his rather outdated perception of women, this was what he could handle with the serenity that he was known for. From Sabeth´s point of view, things were not as easy, because even though she refused to lie to her husband, she could not tell him that there had been more than two, even more than five men in her past.

To Sabeth, it was a just a number. She had had different boyfriends in her early twenties, far away from the controlling glances of her overly conservative mother and the very strict father, who had made her believe that no man was ever going to marry her if she gave away her virginity too soon and let too many men exploit her sexuality that was, in her parent´s opinion, best suppressed. Far away from the ivy covered walls of her home and the stifling set of rules her parents had laid out for her, Sabeth enjoyed her freedom at college more than she would ever be able to tell her parents. She gave away her heart easily, she slept with men because she felt like it, and still she had gotten married to a good man, a loving husband, who was about to misinterpret this part of her past and who would turn that exciting time, which Sabeth had enjoyed immensely, into something condemnable and improper, which is why she refused to let Hunton be part of that time.

They had left the store and had walked over to the elevators that would bring them down to the parking garage, where Hunton had parked his BMW, of which he was very proud, carefully eyeing the rear view mirror as he had backed his car into the small parking space. With all the busy Christmas shoppers, however, it took ages for the elevator to come and Hunton had picked the topic up again.

“See, I just want to know.”

“What´s the point?”

“Knowledge?”

“Ignorance is bliss.”

“Says who?” Hunton joked.

“Thomas Gray.”

“Who?”

“Thomas Gray. ‘Ignorance is bliss’ is a line from his poem Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, where it says ‘Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.’”

“So what you´re saying is that I should enjoy not knowing?”

Sabeth did not answer.

“Sabeth, honestly, it´s not a big deal. I´m just curious. Look, if it helps, I´ll tell you how many women I have slept with.”

“I don´t want to know.”

“You don´t want to know?”

“Hunton, you are literally making a mountain out of molehills. It´s not important. It doesn´t matter. I am with you and you are with me and that´s all that should matter.”

Hunton mulled over what Sabeth had said, taking in every word she had uttered. Obviously, she was right that only the now was of importance, but Hunton slowly understood that her refusal was not a statement about their relationship, but rather saying something about her past, and he began to doubt that he would be able to accept her answer right away with all the noble tranquility he was known for. He started to think that the answer to his question might shock him and might unavoidably change the way he saw Sabeth. The wild, strong, loving woman that stood next to him, with her arms folded in front of her chest, her body expressing complete refusal that she thought necessary, not in order to protect her reputation, but to keep him from having to change his way of thinking about women. And even though she tried very hard, he had already changed, inch by inch, word by word, accepting that he had grown up in different times and had somehow overlooked that change in society.

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