The Affair, by Wayne Scheer
She had begun thinking of herself as Margaret Rice Kellog again, Assistant Professor of Law at Princeton University and author of Law and Culture, and not as the mistress of Judge John Berryman.
Then he called from his private line.
Only he called her Maggie. In an instant, the distance created by their year of silence vanished. She scrambled to regain her composure.
“What can I do for you, Judge Berryman?” She hoped to sound calm, even cold.
“As I’m sure you know, there is a complex issue involving police procedure before the court, Maggie. I’d like to consult with you.”
Before she had a chance to respond, he continued. “Would you meet me at Pietro’s, tomorrow at one? Or we could meet in my chambers. Whichever you’d prefer.”
She wanted to hang up. She recalled the first time they met at Pietro’s, just after the affair had begun. His wife called while they shared dessert. It had been his civility that she found most attractive and most frustrating.
“I read your article in the Law Review, Maggie. Excellent work. Your analysis of search and seizure law is first-rate.”
Feeling the warmth in her cheeks, she inhaled deeply to regain control. “Thank you. About tomorrow…”
“Please try to make it. It’s strictly a professional matter, I assure you. You know how I value your opinion.” His voice sounded softer than it had at the start of their conversation, more tender. They agreed on Pietro’s.
She sat at her desk, staring out her window, replaying the way Judge Berryman called her “Maggie.”
When appointed to the New Jersey Supreme Court, John Berryman thought he had it all. A prestigious career, a thirty-eight year marriage, three successful children, four grandchildren. Margaret began clerking for him during his second year on the bench. He called her Maggie because she seemed so young. She hung onto his every word and laughed at the little jokes his wife no longer found amusing. Maggie’s obvious intelligence more than made up for her plain appearance. He enjoyed her company and, despite his attempts to suppress his feelings, felt attracted to her. Something in the way Maggie listened so intently to his opinions excited him.
He knew such thoughts were foolish. After all, she was the same age as his youngest son. Still, he found himself thinking about Maggie at night when his mind should have been on his wife.
One evening, working late, she kissed him on the cheek after he joked that he was too old for these all-nighters. He knew he should ignore her impulsive act, at best offer a fatherly smile and return to work. Instead, he acted with uncharacteristic spontaneity. He pulled her to him, feeling the softness of her lips, the shock of her tongue. He had long forgotten the thrill of a first kiss.
Their affair lasted more than a year. Guilt over the mockery he feared he was making of his marriage had kept the word “love” from passing his lips. This he regretted as much as the affair, itself. Maggie deserved to know how he really felt.
Now he had an excuse to see her again: a legal matter on which she could legitimately advise, although he knew there were others as qualified. If she chose to continue their consultation, it would be on a completely professional basis.
Judge Berryman sat at his favorite table at Pietro’s, the one in the back corner where he could watch everyone entering the restaurant. He ordered a scotch, straight up, despite the early hour, and nervously checked his watch.
Twenty minutes past one. He wasn’t sure if he felt angry or relieved.
When a state Supreme Court justice summons a young law professor to advise on a legal issue, there is usually no hesitation. Still, she toyed all morning with canceling. She had spent the past year avoiding professional and social functions where he would likely attend, especially gatherings where his wife might also be present. She had suffered one encounter with Janice Berryman during their affair. Mrs. Berryman, a well-known sociologist and author of a text Margaret remembered from her undergraduate studies, had joked about how Margaret had been spending more time with John lately than she had. “You probably know all his little quirks by now.”
Margaret laughed, but wondered what she meant. Was she talking about the way he runs his fingers through his thinning gray hair when he reads or the way he taps his thumb to his index finger? Or was she thinking of how he caresses the curve of her hip with the tips of his fingers when they lay in bed?
“Don’t let him fool you. Beneath his pretentious exterior beats the heart of a little boy dressing in his father’s robes.”
The judge laughed freely. He had a comfort level with his wife that Margaret would never know. “Don’t give away all my secrets, dear. It’s important that I retain at least a shred of dignity.”
Something in the way Janice Berryman’ s eyes pierced hers made Margaret’s heart pound. Did she know? Fearing a panic attack, Margaret excused herself and stepped outside, where she promptly threw up.
How could she meet with him again, even in a public place like Pietro’s?
But how could she not? No longer an awkward adolescent hiding behind books to avoid the derision of her peers, she had worked hard to become an accomplished legal authority. Consultation with a state Supreme Court Justice would offer her a major advance towards tenure.
The judge ordered another scotch, assuring the waiter that his guest would arrive shortly. It wasn’t like him to drink in the middle of the day, but he had cleared his schedule for the remainder of the afternoon. He didn’t want to rush through his lunch with Maggie. He’d surprise Janice, and go home after his meeting. But nagging at the back of his mind, perhaps he and Maggie would get together one more time.
No, he couldn’t let himself think that. He simply wanted to be on good professional terms with her. She had proven herself a fine legal scholar and he was as proud of her as he was of his own children.
He checked his watch. Thirty minutes late. Was she not showing up? He felt a slight panic. What if something had happened to her? He should have sent a car.
Just then, he saw her enter the restaurant. She had lost weight. It had been only a year, but she appeared older, more severe, than the Maggie he remembered.
She looked his way and smiled in recognition. A professional smile, certainly not intimate. He stood and waited for her to approach his table. Her eyes, which he recalled as vibrant, now seemed cold, covered in oversized glasses. Had she stopped wearing her contacts or was this a statement meant for him?
She held out her hand. He took it in his, but she retracted it from his grip before he could cover it with his other hand. Their handshake, quick and formal, would have convinced anyone watching they were barely colleagues.
He helped her to her seat. She explained her lateness without apology. A faculty meeting, she said.
“No worry, my dear. It’s good to see you.” He pointed to his glass. “Would you care for a drink?”
“Tea, thank you. I have office hours later this afternoon.”
That morning, Margaret had felt like a girl dressing for the first day of school. She wanted to wear the brightly colored sundress she had recently purchased. No. What was she thinking? She would put on her most professional outfit, the dark green suit and the black, comfortable flats.
She remembered the pearl earrings and matching necklace she had bought soon after the affair began. It was an extravagant treat, a sign that she was no longer Plain Jane who hid behind thick spectacles to avoid the stares she didn’t get from men. Obviously, she thought of herself as more than an object of a man’s desire, but she longed to see a leer in a man’s eye now and then.
The judge desired her. She knew it from the start. He paid attention to her as if she were beautiful. He noticed the pearls and told her they looked stunning on her. Stunning. No one had ever used that word referring to her.
For Christmas, the judge presented her with a matching pearl bracelet.
“I can’t accept this,” she said. “It’s too beautiful.” She cried.
He wiped her tears with his handkerchief. “Of course, you can. I want to give it to you, to show my…how much I care.”
She decided not to wear the pearls. No jewelry, no make-up, not even her contacts. And she would arrive late. She would let him see she how she, too, controlled her feelings.
Later that afternoon, in a small but elegantly appointed hotel room, he tried holding back his emotion. But to his surprise, words he had never articulated even to himself passed his lips. “I’ve tried living without you, Maggie. I’ve tried attending to my work and my family. But I can’t stop thinking of you.” They kissed. “I love you.” He watched as she adjusted the pillows behind her head.
She took her time responding. He could discern no sign of emotion. Finally, she spoke. “I’ve waited a long time to hear those words from you, John. But words aren’t enough. Are you willing to leave your wife and marry me?”
A shock passed through his body like a wave of electricity. His mouth went dry, his heart pounded. He had never expected her to be so blunt.
He tried imagining himself explaining his predicament to his wife and children. His bottom lip trembled. Was it cowardice on his part that made leaving Janice impossible? Was it the disappointment and the loss of respect, especially from his family, that he feared? Was he bound to his wife merely because of their history or did he love her more than he loved Maggie? The passion had left their marriage long ago, but he couldn’t imagine life without Janice. She had been there for him since law school and he through her Ph.D. He helped deliver their three children. They edited each other’s books, stood proudly at each other’s sides during endless parties and awards ceremonies. Recently, they had begun discussing retirement plans.
Yet what he felt for Maggie was also special, an odd combination of paternal pride and passion. He felt vital with her, potent and, yes, young. It was precisely the lack of history he and Maggie had that he found so energizing. While Janice knew his every secret, sensed his most intimate thoughts, Maggie admired him and sought to know him better
“No,” he finally answered. “I can’t leave my wife.” He felt his body shake. A tear tickled his cheek. “But I don’t want to lose you either.”
Maggie did not respond immediately. She wanted to slap him, scream and curse. Instead, she took his face in her hands and kissed his forehead. He watched as she slipped out of bed, gathered her clothes and walked toward the bathroom. He heard a muffled sound, perhaps a sob, and then the shower.
He stayed in the bed, staring at the ceiling, deciding whether he should join Maggie in the shower. To his surprise, his desire for her had vanished and he thought of his wife.
He should go home. Janice, he knew, would be working in her study. He’d suggest they go out for dinner and discuss vacation plans. Janice had wanted to return to the little bed and breakfast in the Adirondacks where they had honeymooned. This was an excellent time to see if the hotel and their love still held up after all this time.
But, for now, he dressed and sat on the edge of the bed. Maggie deserved a proper good-bye.
Fully dressed, Margaret remained in the bathroom on the pretense of drying her hair. She had had a good cry and hoped he couldn’t hear her with the water running. She understood their affair had ended a year earlier, but it took one more time for her to accept it. Although she had felt terrible falling into bed with him once again, now she had no regrets. His confession of love replayed in her mind. She had always known he would never leave his wife, but now she also knew that Judge John Berryman had loved her. She felt strong and in control. Opening her purse, she took out her makeup and her contacts. The judge would have to wait while she preened.
Wayne Scheer has locked himself in a room with his computer and turtle since his retirement (Wayne’s, not the turtle’s.) To keep from going back to work, he’s published hundreds of short stories, essays and poems, including Revealing Moments, a collection of flash stories, available at issuu.com/pearnoir/docs/revealing_moments. He’s been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net. Wayne lives in Atlanta with his wife and can be contacted at wvscheer (at) aol (dot) com.
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