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The Hierarchy of Love

Updated: Sep 6, 2020

Not all endings happen with a bang. Some come on gently, like the early raindrops before the deluge. Sudden or slow, it didn’t matter, the result was always the same. A powerful storm would blow through, forever changing the landscape of one’s soul.

I knew the storm was coming before waiting for William on the wharf that frigid winter evening. Gazes that didn’t hold as long as they used to. Rushing from my bed before the glow of our lovemaking dimmed. Early drops signaling the end.

A blustery wind kicked up. Grit and dirt from an abandoned construction site slapped my face, bringing tears to my already moist eyes.

He was there when my vision cleared. No footsteps on the wharf to give away his approach. Like an apparition he appeared.

Appeared only to disappear.

“Beth.” He once breathed my name as if it alone gave him life, but now it lay flat against his tongue. “Thank you for coming.”

I mustered the strongest smile my heart could hold. “Of course. After all, it’s where we met.”

His jaw tightened and he studied his feet.

Under the dim streetlight, he looked equal parts youthful and ancient. Blonde hair with a loose wave in need of a trim. My fingers twitched at the memory of running through that hair, sun-warmed and thick with sea salt. Dark circles smeared under his bright blue eyes. I wanted to hold his head against my chest until his breath deepened into a rhythmic snore. Stubble covered his square jaw like moss on a stone. My lips tingled, wanting to caress his rough skin with kisses.

William walked past me; his cologne lingered in his wake. At the end of the wharf, he leaned on the rail and stared out over the dark Atlantic Ocean.

“Do you remember the day we met?” He didn’t look at me. For all I knew, he could be asking the question of the sea.

“It was early June, already too hot for a carnival on the wharf.” I followed him, bracing on the weary wooden rail. “Nathan nearly fell into the ocean right about here.” A three-year-old, a runaway balloon and a thirty-foot drop to the ocean could have been a recipe for disaster. Luckily, William grabbed my son around the waist and deposited the crying, squirming boy safely back in my arms.

He laughed, apparently lost in the same memory. “What did you call me?”

“My knight in scuffed-leather deck shoes.”

Neither of us was looking for an affair. We spent that first afternoon together, my son and his four-year-old daughter playing like old friends while we talked lovingly of our spouses. It was when the sun slipped below the horizon, with sleeping toddlers in our arms, that we stared into each other’s eyes and felt the tug of every cell in our bodies craving the corresponding cell in the other.

We spent every day of the summer together while his wife and my husband worked. Our kids became as close as siblings. We grew as close as the twined trunks of a topiary. It was early fall, when the kids went to pre-school, that the budding affair blossomed.

A stronger wind blew through the construction site. A sheet of sandpaper clung to the arm of his coat. Is that what I was? A tool used to scrub off the rough edges of his marriage.

He wore the task of ending our relationship like chainmail: weighed down and vulnerable. With a piercing word, I could coax him back to me. But for how long? We would only meet the same end later.

I could do this for him. I could absorb the burden of breaking my heart.

“It needs to end.” I pushed the stubborn words out.

We stayed there, only an inch between us, but the chasm grew with each wave that crashed below. I committed everything to memory. The woodsy notes of his cologne, the way his hair rustled in the wind. How his gaze fought to stare straight ahead and not fall into me.

“Do you believe in soul mates?” William said in the lull between waves.

“A year ago, I would have said it’s my husband. But now…”

He nodded. “Am I a bad person for loving two women at the same time?”

His question reverberated between my ribs. Love is a boundless emotion, but there’s a hierarchy to it. The love for my friends is different than the love for my family, which is different than the love I feel for my son. Some love is fleeting like summer rain, and there’s the kind of love that wraps itself around you like a roaring fire on a cold winter night. Other love ends abruptly, while some fade over time like wallpaper in the sun. There’s love that consumes a person’s being, and a love that lives quite comfortably in the heart.

That’s where my husband lives. In my heart.

But my love for William is enmeshed in my soul.

“I wish I knew.” While he’d understand my theory of love, I knew he was looking for a simpler answer. “Love should never be judged, yet we do it all the time.”

His hand inched closer, his pinky stroking mine. “If we’d met years earlier…”

I pulled my hand away after a few strokes. “Maybe in the next life.”

William turned to face me. The light reflected in his eyes like the moon on a calm sea. “Promise?”

We made no promises to each other in our short time together, but we broke plenty with the other people in our lives. “Promise. Go home to your family.”

With a final sad smile, he walked back up the wharf, as quiet as he came.

I turned back to the dark ocean wondering how long I would have to wait for my next life to begin.

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