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When you come home late from work and your wife asks “Are you having an affair?” it is hard not to look like you are trying to figure out the most correct thing to say. Even though you've never had an affair, you worry that your face looks just the same as if you have, and then you realize you've been silent for too long.
            “Of course not, honey, why would you think that?” you say, and it sounds exactly like what a guilty person would say, especially the part asking why she's thinking that, since a guilty person would want to know right away how much she knows, but then you tell yourself, Jesus, don't worry about it, you didn't ever have an affair, and even if you say the wrong thing she will see that, because she loves you, and she always seemed to trust you until now. You wonder what it was that brought this on, and it strikes you that you're thinking about this just as if you were totally guilty, except that your guilt might actually be an asset if you were guilty, because then you would at least know where your story is weakest and how you must lie.
            Emily steps toward you with such fear and conviction in her eyes that you're forced to wonder whether, somehow, without knowing it, maybe you did have an affair. Last year when everybody was going out to Turtles every Friday, you maybe drank enough that you lost a little bit of time, browned out a bit on a couple of occasions, but she was always waiting up for you to get home, and if she suspected something back then, she wouldn't have saved it for later. Hopefully it's just the hormones, you tell yourself, the sheer biology of pregnancy causing this. Even though she is not yet showing in her belly, she's been showing plenty in disposition the past few weeks.
            She lifts a pair of black panties from the coffee table, her thumb and forefinger pinching a corner of the waistband, and she holds them out toward you at arm's length. They are cotton, nondescript, average sized; you have no idea where they came from. You try not to look too surprised, at least not too surprised in a way that might be misconstrued as a recognition of the panties. But, then, not to look surprised at a strange pair of panties in the house wouldn't be good, either. Puzzled, you think, puzzled is the way I should look at these panties.
            “Are you sure those aren't yours?”
            “They're not mine.” She sounds disgusted with the idea.
            “Are you sure? I mean, they sort of remind me of those black bags at the airport, the ones that all look the same? And then everyone is standing around the carousel, picking up the wrong ones?”
            “Are you trying to make a joke of this?” She appears to be trying to read your face.
            “Where did you find them?”
            “The laundry,” she says, and you feel relieved. Everything is clear to you now. Take a laundry mix-up, add in Emily's hormones plus you working late the past few days and the result is this unreasonable accusation.
            “Bingo,” you say, but as soon as you say it, it sounds like something a liar would say. “They must belong to one of the neighbors.”
            Even though you said bingo a little louder than you meant to, it still seems unreasonable that Emily's expression does not soften, that she continues scrutinizing your face for evidence.
            “You know the dryer has a blind spot in it, right?” you say. “On the bottom, right behind the lint trap?”
            “Why are you acting so weird?”
            “It's the same reason you lose your socks,” you say.
            Emily is still trying to read your face. You wish there were some way for this to be over immediately.
            “Why don't I just go put them on the dryer,” you say, “and then whichever neighbor they belong to will take them back.”
            “Okay,” she says, so you take the panties from her and go downstairs into the basement and drop the panties on the dryer. You climb back up the stairs, and you start to worry that whoever owns the panties won't go into the basement for a long time, that the panties will just stay there on top of the dryer, collecting lint. You decide you will throw them away if it comes to that, and when you come back into the living room, visualizing the panties buried under cat litter and cold pizza at the bottom of a dumpster, Emily says, “But how will I know that you didn't just throw them away?”
            “Jesus,” you say. “I guess that's true.” A sharp glint of pain behind your eyes reminds you how hungry you are, and you are angry now, realizing there is no smell of food in the apartment, and Emily must have been sitting around all afternoon scrutinizing this non-situation with the panties when she could have been cooking dinner. “Why don't you trust me?”
            “You're acting so strange,” she says.
            “Wouldn’t you act strange, too, if I got in your face after a long day asking whether your fetus was really mine?” Rather than seriously considering your question, Emily appears to take this as an insult. “I could ask you, you know,” you say, “why so suspicious? Suspicion is the mark of a guilty mind.”
            “I wasn't that suspicious until I saw how weird your reaction was.”
            “It's fucking crazy to accuse me, then, if you weren't suspicious,” you say. “This is so clearly a laundry mix-up, but somehow you think it's more likely that I brought some woman over here, and then she forgot to take her panties with her, like she forgot she was even wearing panties when she came, I fucked her so good.” Emily is still looking at you like you have done something wrong, and you yell, “What the fuck is the point of being faithful if you're not going to trust me?” A pained look crosses her face, and you realize that this sounds all wrong. Not only that, but Emily's dad used to yell, so yelling is strictly out of bounds. Her mouth and chin quiver like she might cry, but you imagine maybe you see somewhere in her eyes that she is feeling guilty about accusing you. She sobs once, a raspy sob, and buries her face in her hands. Her back heaves with sobs, and you sit down on the couch next to her and, hoping that the crying is because you yelled but also because it simultaneously dawned on her how unfair she's been and that you were entirely justified in yelling, you put your hand on her back, but she jumps like your touch is hurtful to her. “I'm sorry,” you say.
            “Don't touch me,” she says, and she cries harder.
            “I'm sorry,” you say, but then you realize you should not be apologizing too generally. “I'm sorry I yelled.”
            You think back over missed opportunities, opportunities you passed up because you were afraid, if you did have an affair or even just a fling, that you would be bad at lying, or that you would be okay at lying but feel terrible about it. You wish you were a different sort of person, the sort of person who could have an affair, pull it off as though nothing has happened, without guilt. But any time you ever seriously thought about it, you knew that it would be irrevocable, and that word, irrevocable, would repeat itself in your mind, and you decided that you were not the sort of person who could pull off an affair, that you were probably the sort of asshole who would have a fling and then feel so much remorse that you have to selfishly confess to your wife, and then she has to wonder whether this means you don't really love her. Once you realized this about yourself, long before Emily got pregnant, you felt you were settling into monogamy, that you would, of course, still think things like, what would it be like to fuck Kaira? but then you would simply fantasize about what it would be like instead of actually playing through in your mind how you could make Kaira want you, whether you could get away with it, whether you would actually go through with it. You are suddenly furious with Emily, because you hadn't been thinking about any of this for almost a year now. You had settled into monogamy, but somehow she snapped you back into feeling guilty, even though the only guilty part of you is your mind. And isn't it much more honorable, in a way, to have a guilty mind, but to resist it? It seems profoundly unfair that there is no way to make Emily appreciate this.
            She starts to breathe more normally, and even though she is right next to you on the couch, gazing at the coffee table, she seems very far away. She is inside herself completely. There is a being inside her and she is inside herself, and she has no idea or concern right now for how you feel about this. You imagine that she is talking to the baby inside her, talking to the baby inside her about you, in fact, and strangely, you are certain that she is listening to the baby, that she is consulting with the baby on what to do about this situation. And you get that empty feeling in your gut again that comes from the fact that there is a being inside her and she is separate from you, but now added to the regular pit of the stomach dropping feeling of her and the baby's separateness from you is the fact of those panties sitting on top of the dryer.
            You tell yourself to slow down, think things through, determine the best way to proceed. For a while, you wonder whether you should take Emily down and show her just how huge the blind spot behind the lint trap is, and then you wonder if it wouldn't be better just to insist that she trust you, to refuse further explanations, maybe try to shed a few tears showing how hurt you are that she could suspect you, and say, beyond this line, dear, you must have faith. But then you get angry at this idea, that she should have to take you on faith, when in reality, in spite of the occasional temptations of a wandering mind, you are entirely faithful. These panties somehow blindsided you both, and what you really want, the thing that would make this all better, like it had never happened, is an elegant proof, as though this were a math problem, and then it comes to you, and you tell her, “You know, either you or me, or both of us, we could go knock on a couple of doors—we could find the owner, and that would be that.”
            As soon as you say it, you get nervous. What if nobody claimed them? What if the owner were away on a trip? What if the owner were that college girl who doesn't really live here, but just comes to stay with that guy in #4 every once in a while? You get scared that Emily can smell your nervousness, and that makes you even more nervous. And you realize, even though you are entirely innocent, even though, aside from the regular idle fantasies and some flirtatious interactions at the bar that basically everyone has, you are a paragon of fidelity, there is no way to prove this, and if you knocked on #4's door and that guy answered, he would see you and Emily there holding the panties, and even if the panties did belong to his girlfriend, his recognition of this situation in front of him would trump his recognition of the panties, and then he would knowingly say, yes, of course these belong to what's her name, too quickly, without actually making a show of closely inspecting the nondescript panties, and Emily would see that he is covering for you, that you two probably have prearranged some sort of elaborate cheaters' truce whereby any time a strange pair of panties shows up in the apartment, the other will claim ownership of them, and Emily will see you as one more member of a vast cabal, a massive conspiracy of cheaters.
            “We don't have to do that,” she says. “I believe you.” But the way she says it, you're not sure if you believe her.

© 2014 George Zamzow

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Author Bio

George ZamzowGeorge Zamzow grew up in rural northwestern Pennsylvania and received an MFA from Florida State University. He currently lives in Eugene, Oregon and teaches writing. This is his first publication.

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