I got to work an hour earlier than anyone else that morning. Hidden in my pocket were the four silver rings she'd left in my bathroom.
The editor who'd hired me for the internship was the second person to arrive. He told me that he was glad to see me so early and complimented my ambition.
This bureau of the newspaper was just a few rented rooms in a university building one town over from the main campus where I went to school. It felt like an old-fashioned newsroom, with steel desks pushed up against each other and no cubicle walls to hide behind.
I'd never paid much attention to her desk before. This morning it was cluttered with sheets of early design sketches and page layouts marked up with a red, felt-tip pen. There were two framed pictures. In each one, she was kneeling and holding one of her daughters. The girls didn't look much older than 6.
I lined up the rings single-file between the edge of the desk and her keyboard.
I was 20 years old and I wanted to be a writer — in other words, on track to becoming an asshole. I liked my internship at this small, local newspaper because it was job experience and because I didn't clock in until 1 p.m., which meant my bar routine went undisturbed.
I'd been surprised when I saw her at my bar because I knew she lived in that next town over, the newspaper town, and I'd taken her for someone who rarely went out. It's close enough to say her name was Rose, she was 33, and she had some graphic design job I never asked about. She had long, brown hair falling loose around her shoulders and a tiny silver nose piercing that winked in the light. Her friends were the same age.
"We need to properly welcome you to the business!" she told me, and her friend brought over glasses of tequila.
A few hours later, I was having trouble standing up straight. It wasn't the booze but the dancing, which I tended to avoid for reasons I'm sure were obvious. "We need to have an afterparty!" she said, and off I went with her and her friend.
While she drove, she sipped from a bottle of Smirnoff Ice. When we got to the friend's house, she asked me to stay in the car. I watched her and her friend talking on the lawn.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" her friend asked. Rose said yes. She got back into the car and asked me where I lived.
I woke up when she pulled the sheet out from under me.
"What time is it?" she asked, suddenly jumping out of the bed. She found her jeans and started pulling the legs back from inside out. "I really need to leave."
"It's OK. You can spend the night if you want to," I told her. "It's almost morning anyway." I looked at the clock. It was close to 5 a.m.
"No, no, I'd rather stay," she said. "It's just that, if I don't get back soon, my husband will wonder where I am."
I don't remember exactly what I said to her. I was trying to figure out how someone had snuck in and detonated a neutron bomb under my bed.
In a small college town, the problem for a young man with no car and unarticulated rage problems was that there were only two or three bars where I could drink regularly. That made me easy to find.
So I shouldn't have been that surprised when Rose showed up a few weeks later at another bar a block away from the one where we'd met the first time.
"I should have told you," she said. "That wasn't fair of me to keep secrets. I still like you, though."
I'm fairly certain I was the one who came up with the adult, reasonable idea that if we were going to continue to run into each other, the mature way to handle the situation was to talk about it someplace where we wouldn't be interrupted. Of course, I would never let her spend the night with me again, but — again, as adults — we should just come to an understanding about this obviously complicated problem.
That theory held up for about an hour at my apartment, while the rest of my half-empty bottle of Ten High whiskey drained away. There was some fumbling, and I started to walk her to the door. But before we got there, she dropped to her knees and started to tug me down by my belt buckle. She was looking away from me with an expression that I'll probably remember for the rest of my life: stoned, into the middle distance.
If your wife has ever cheated on you, or if you're the jealous type who imagines impossible scenarios of lovemaking and if, further, you have the right amount of self-hatred to imagine that you figure into these tableaus in some unflattering way ... I have some bad news for you. Based on my experience, you are probably right.
At first, I got lots of praise that was good for my ego. Then I started hearing why Rose got herself into the situation she was in. He doesn't listen. He stopped taking care of himself years ago. He finishes quickly, and on the extraordinary occasions he does go down on me, he treats the job like he's working a speed bag. There are oceans of false assumptions, perceived slights in your relationship, sexual dysfunction; the man who is fucking your wife will hear them all before the sun comes up.
Some time, when the sky was brightening, she lay there with her hands folded behind her head and her elbows pointed out like a starfish. "Does this feel like more to you?" she asked me. "It feels like there's something ... something more than just fucking."
That was the last time I let her into my apartment.
The rest of the semester, she occasionally sent me instant messages at work. Whenever this happened, I'd glance at her then look away as quickly, as if she were made of the same stuff as the sun. From the look on her face, she could've been editing the next day's police blotter. The messages always started out friendly, but if I responded, the tone shifted almost immediately, and she'd start asking when we were meeting again for drinks or letting me know the hours her husband stayed at work.
I felt bad for her husband but worse for her. I didn't care about my own role in things.
My internship was a disaster. I made a series of obvious journalistic mistakes and, by the end of the semester, lost hope that anything good would come from my time there.
"I've spent more time thinking about you than any other intern we've had," the editor told me in my exit interview. "I really have to encourage you to find something else. This is not the career for you. I'm not trying to be mean, but I'm not sure what is. You need to go back and find something else and forget about this."
Now, almost a decade later, I have a job in journalism. And I have a wife. I try not to look confused when someone calls us the "perfect couple," a phrase whose meaning is often lost on me. I do believe that we are as happy as any couple can be, married or otherwise, and that I've improved immeasurably as a human being, thanks to a woman who sees through all my bullshit.
I rarely think of Rose, but when I do, it's usually when my wife and I are having a problem. Other times, her name floats to the surface under mundane circumstances, like when I'm sitting on the couch watching a movie that I know my wife has no interest in. When this happens, I try not to worry as I rifle back to the last time I did something just for her, or I wonder what she might want to tell me that she can't find a way to say. I know how naïve it is to think, She'd never ... . Rose's husband probably had the same idea. All I can hope is that Rose's and her husband's mistakes warned me.