The air smelled of sweet, smoky wood and the cloud forest chirped around us, thick with the heavy humidity of the Ecuadorian selva. I walked up the stairs to the cabin we shared. We had innocently and appropriately chosen to occupy separate floors of the jungle A-frame. I went up those stairs on purpose. My intentions were scheming, but safely disguised as professionalism and a simple need for sunscreen. I didn’t really need it- the intensity of the sun under the cloud forest canopy is hardly cause for alarm, even at the equator. It’s no big deal to step outside without it. I knew I could apply it myself, but he was up there and I was looking for a benign excuse to interact in that intimate space we shared. So I asked and he obliged, taking the tube from my shaking hands.
We stood in the bathroom in near silence, his soft hand rubbing my back. I stared down at the floor at the faded, woven, native rug, avoiding eye contact at all costs. I glanced up at the reflection of his face in the mirror, his green eyes squinting and focused across my tanned shoulders as he worked. Our skin touched, probably for the first time ever. There was no conversation, no direction. Up to this point our interactions had always been through words, joking and negotiating our way through an activity or our work together. This time we were silent.
We were friends, co-workers, traveling abroad with 15 students. I was in a shitty marriage. He was beautiful and single. We’d known each other for two years. Our friendship made me feel joy, the kind that children feel. It was pure and free of the complicated distractions and over-thinking that muddies relationships over time, even friendships. I embraced its simplicity, and I searched for opportunities to bring us together. Every interaction led to more respect, more admiration, more joy, and a desperate craving to see him again. I was adept at finding reasons to go up to his office to discuss student work, plan for next week’s lessons; these were things that I could just as easily email him about. But I wanted to see his face and be in his space.
I pulled my tank-top straps down off my shoulders (to avoid tan lines, of course). He didn’t flinch. He just kept massaging the sunscreen in, slowly and thoroughly. It was calculating and intimate in all the right ways, and in all the safe ways. It was intoxicating to feel in control, but also feel so out of control. Even this time in the jungle, it was alright as long as it was just about sunscreen. I never crossed that line. I was no cheater.
I was so good at it- loving him when I wasn’t allowed to love him. He had no idea, and as it turns out, neither did I. We were both in the dark, thank god. I loved the game though, the flirtation, all of it. It led me to a happier place, a place I felt entitled to be if only briefly. I loved how I felt around him today, particularly with his hand stroking my bare back, as I tricked him into intimacy. I didn’t really care how he felt- to this day I’ve never thought to ask. I’m sure he didn’t think anything of it in the end. Either way it didn’t matter. This was all for me.
Sarah is a Biologist living in Massachusetts with her husband and two kids. You can read more of her writing here.