The kids had indeed been fed, and hardly seemed to have missed me, though in few minutes Chloe rushed up to grab my knees with her applesauce-covered hands. I was just in time to get the last of the tomato and basil salad to go with my corn.
Leif had already slipped out by then. In fact, after our first night in Selu I hadn’t talked much to him. He showed up in his hut long enough to start the fire for us, then he left. It wasn’t hard to figure out he was sleeping with a woman – or women – elsewhere in the commune.
As she had the first time, Chloe fell asleep in my arms on the way there. When we got into the hut this time, Leif was there, blowing on embers. He nodded to us as we came in, but didn’t say anything. I laid Chloe down. Dante, without speaking, curled up next to her and fell asleep. Then, as Leif was getting up to go I asked him if he still thought monogamy was pointless.
He stopped at the doorway, erect in the orange glow. “It works for some people.” He thought for a minute. “I guess honesty is the main thing, and caring. Everybody has to agree about the rules.”
“So what are the rules here? Can anybody sleep with anybody?”
Leif nodded. “As long as you get agreement from one partner before starting with another.”
“What if your first partner doesn’t agree?”
“Then you have to choose, the old one or the new one. Some people here are exclusive. Some people aren’t.”
“Don’t you get jealous?”
“Of course. And we fight. And we make up. Just like married couples. But somehow we keep going.”
I sat still for a minute, digesting. It took some adjusting to believe that this sort of arrangement was not only possible but actually happening around me in the forest.
“My husband is seeing another woman.” My own declaration startled me. I’d been thinking about Charlie, of course. But I hadn’t planned to discuss the situation.
Leif looked at me for a second then sat down, cross-legged on the other side of the fire pit. “Without your agreement?”
“He never said a word to me, just started sending her e-mail messages. Then one day I found him in her bed.”
“I don’t know what to do.” There was more relief than I expected in admitting that.
Through the dimness, I could see Leif pull his beard. “Do you still love him?”
“I think so. I’m so angry it’s hard to tell.”
“Why do you think he’s seeing this other woman?”
“Because she’s younger. Or at least thinner. Because she reads more interesting books. Maybe…” I hesitated. “Our life is very busy. But he never complained. He said he loved me, and then he did this.”
“What reasons does he give?”
“For seeing her? I wasn’t giving him enough attention.”
Putting it that way made Charlie sound like a whiny toddler. Leif was silent, and as my words hung in the space between us, I remembered the last conversation I had with Darby. We were talking about relationships, why some succeed and others fail, and she had said, “You try to be present for the other person, you pay attention to each other, and then you have to trust god, or the powers that be.”
Leif finally spoke: “Can you forgive him?”
I watched the smoke rising toward its hole in the ceiling. Our marriage would never be the same. I could never trust Charlie in the blind way I used to. I could never totally turn my back. But maybe that was a good thing. I had taken him for granted too long.
The harder question was whether Charlie could forgive me. I couldn’t promise to transform myself. I could never quit the career I loved. All I could do was write fewer papers, attend fewer conferences, turn off my BlackBerry when I wasn’t on call. Maybe schedule some vacations that didn’t involve third world clinics.
It still wouldn’t be the sort of existence that Leif or any of the other Selu dwellers could approve. I could only hope it would be enough for Charlie.
We sat silently for a minute longer, then Leif got up and came around the fire pit to squat in front of me, once again clasping my hands in his. His fingers were fine-boned and cool. Their touch has stayed with me.