Have you ever loved a man, and felt another woman’s presence there? You can feel it. You can see it every time he looks away when you meet his gaze. Every time he brushes you aside when you try to touch him, you know it is because it is not you he wants to be touched by. It is not finding lipstick on a collar that will clue you in. Another woman lingers on a man not like perfume, which can be washed off, but like a sickness. One day, he will be late home from work, and he will tell you traffic was bad; or the boss made him stay late; or there was some kind of crisis. He will apologise, he will kiss you, he will tell you dinner smells great. Then the next time he is late, what he tells you will be more elaborate. There was a wreck on the highway; there was mandatory fire safety training in the office; one of his co-workers had a birthday and they all went for a quick drink, and he wanted to leave, really he did, but that Jenkins – you remember Jenkins? The loudmouthed guy? – well he kept insisting that everyone stay longer. You will smile. You will serve him his dinner, you will sit at the table with him while he eats, and you won’t say a word. Gradually, the excuses will stop. You will know that he won’t be coming home until gone nine. It won’t be another woman’s scent that gives him away. His clothes won’t be crumpled from being dumped on a hotel room floor. You won’t find a condom wrapper in his pocket or a text message on his phone. He will be too careful for that. One day, the sex will stop. Then, it will start again. You won’t notice it starting again, just like you didn’t really notice that it had stopped to begin with. But some day you will realise that it has become a routine: a twice-monthly chore that has to be completed. You will notice that as he grunts his way to climax, he’s not even looking at you. He is looking at the clock. He is inside you, he seems to be enjoying you, but even as he is with you, he is counting down the hours until he can be with her. And this is how you will know that you may be married to him, but it is you that has become his other woman.
We hovered on the brink. His lips were dangerously close to mine; close enough that if I even breathed, we would make contact. If we kissed, the world as we knew it would stop spinning. If we didn’t – if I turned my head away, or if he shook his, and said “I could be disbarred for this” – I would leave his office the way I came: a client. I would like to say we didn’t think it through. I would like to say that we were caught up in the moment and we didn’t think about how just one kiss could start a fire we would never want to put out.
But the truth is we did think about it. We did think it through. We just stopped; pretended the consequences had never entered our minds; and let the world stop spinning anyway.
Growing up, we were not the Poor But Happy. Our poverty was not the kind that writers used as inspiration for sitcoms: our poverty was the kind that made people uncomfortable. When we went to church on Sunday, the in Mama’s stockings drew wide-eyed stares; my brothers, when they sat down, tried to pull at their pants to hide the fact that the hem showed six inches of ankle; I looked at all the other girls with their beautifully coiffed hair and their chintzy little bracelets, and I felt hate flow through my veins. For years I told Mama that I wanted one of those bracelets; that every girl in school had one and it was because I didn’t that I wasn’t invited to any parties. She saved for over a year, and finally got me that bracelet. By then, they’d gone out of fashion. I wore it once. Mama began to ask me why I never wore it, and I told her someone had stolen it. I saw her heart break, and I didn’t care.
On certain days, Mama drank her coffee with a little whisky in it, and we pretended we didn’t notice. Those certain days were Valentine’s Day; his birthday; the anniversary of the day he left; fathers’ day; the anniversary of the day he said, “Well, shit, if you’re pregnant, we ought to get married, don’t you think?” and she said no. Each day that reminded her of him was a day when we had to tread carefully around her. Her fury poured into everything that she did: she scrubbed pans violently; she bathed us aggressively; she chopped vegetables like it were one of his fingers beneath the knife. One morning, at breakfast on one of the certain days, Bruce kicked Rob under the table. “Ask her,” he hissed.
“You ask her.”
Mama slammed a pan down onto the stove. “Ask me what?”
The twins looked at each other, and spoke in unison (something they’d perfected when they thought they were going to get in trouble): “What was Daddy’s name?”
“Sonofabitch. Mr No-Good, Lyin’, Cheatin’ Sonofabitch.”
“What?” Mama rounded on him, spatula in hand.
“Nothing. But, wouldn’t that make you Mrs Sonofabitch?”
Mama broke the spatula on Rob’s backside that day, but he still said it was worth it to see Bruce and I laugh.
My heart yearned for adventure. Deep within me, discontentment churned; festered; and never slept. Ever since the day I watched Rizzo shimmy down the drainpipe and into Kenickie’s waiting car, I longed to do the same. I dreamed of throwing pebbles at a window at midnight; of climbing a tree to break in to my own house; of meeting my love on the 40 yard line in the moonlight. But these things never happened. I waited seventeen years for that dangerous first love who would whisk me away on the back of a motorcycle while I flipped my parents the bird; and while I waited, my life went on. Studies went on; my part-time job at a gymnastics school went on; fights with my parents went on. My grades were good; I mixed in circles destined for Ivy League, although that certainly wasn’t my destiny; I said my prayers each night and never, ever swore. But Mama’s pearls around my neck burned my skin, and I ached to rip them off and be someone else.
The night I met Russell, I was itching to rebel. Summer was just drawing to a close. I was at my first ever concert – a band that rapped country songs – and I had never felt more alive. It occurred to me that the three-thousand-strong crowd knew nothing about me; that for all they knew or cared, I was not some gawky school kid with good grades and only a slightly less spotless reputation. There could have been something in me: something dangerous and exciting; something that made mothers clutch their sons close to their chests and say “I just don’t want you associating with that girl”. Fuelled by this, I persuaded my friend that we should find a group tailgating later, and invite ourselves into their night. She agreed, and soon found a group of boys about our age with a truck bed and one bottle of vodka to be shared between ten of us. One of them, a scrawny, pimply thing, kept bragging to me that he was the one who got the vodka for us; and did I want to see his fake ID? His words fell on deaf ears. Parked just opposite us, a stranger was sitting on the bed of a Ford Ranger, looking at me. Behind him, his friends – a mixed group, three or four girls and two guys, all older than he was – were passing something around that looked like a fat cigarette but smelled suspiciously like something else; but he was just staring at me, drinking from a beer bottle.
“Excuse me,” I said to my pimpled acquaintance, and shimmied off the truck like I was Rizzo after all. I approached him, my stomach in knots. “Hey.” I was aiming for nonchalant; like I was the kind of girl who always had people staring it her; but it came out as a squeak; an excited, schoolgirl squeak.
“Hey,” he said, with a smile.
Then I did something I’d only ever done in my dreams: I stuck out a hand, and had him pull me onto the bed of the truck to sit beside him.
Draining the last of his beer, he tossed the bottle. He reached into a cooler behind him; pulled out another; and wiped the sweat from the top of the bottle before twisting the cap and putting it to his lips. “Want one?” he asked, and when I said yes, he handed me a beer. I must have opened a hundred beers before that night, but right then, my strength failed me. My cheeks burned when he did it for me.
“Were you at the concert?”
I nodded. “Second time I’ve seen them,” I blurted out, then wondered why I had lied already.
“Mmmhmm.” My legs were swinging. I could almost feel the sting of a switch against my hand, almost hear my father telling me to tell the truth. “You not doing that?” I asked, jerking my head towards the group with the doobie behind me.
“Naaaw. Not me.” He paused. “I’m Russ, by the way.” He stuck out a hand.
And so it began. I’d always dreamed of adventure; always wanted some excitement in my life. Really, I had it coming.
“What? What’s so funny?”
“You and your damn jalapenos.”
“Hey, the belly wants what the belly wants. You should be grateful I’m not sending you out to get me ice cream at three a.m.”
“No, it’s not that. Do you remember our first date?”
“Of course I do.”
“Do you remember the nuclear sauce?”
I thought for a moment. “Oh, shit!” All those years ago, this steakhouse chain used to serve chicken wings in a variety of flavours. The hottest on the menu was a flavour called something like ‘Scorcher’ or ‘Dragon’, and it came with an optional side of ‘Nuclear Sauce’. The menu, I remembered, carried a warning that the nuclear sauce had been known to melt faces. Me being young, and on my first date with my first white man, I felt that I had certain cultural expectations to live up to. I poured that damn nuclear sauce all over my wings, and went in for the kill. After a few bites, nothing had happened; and Hal, I remember, was staring at me in amazement. “Damn, chick!” he’d said. “You don’t think it’s hot at all?” But the nuclear sauce was one of those evil levels of spice that hits you after the fact. By the time the fire hit, I had already two of my wings. The next thing I knew, tears were streaming down my face; I was sweating; my throat was burning; and my nose was bleeding. This wasn’t some delicate rom-com moment, either: I went through a whole dispenser of napkins mopping up the various fluids that were leaking from my face. “Jeez,” I said. “I can’t believe you asked me on another date.”
“Well, I had you figured out.”
“Mmhmm. I thought if you were going to eat nuclear sauce on our first date to impress me, you were a keeper.”
I laughed. “Who said it was to impress you?”
I threw up my hands. “Okay, you got me. But I was young and stupid.”
“Yeah,” Hal said, smiling, “and we were so in love.”
We broke away from each other’s gaze. Were. It was a slip of the tongue, no doubt, but that little error revealed so much.
I had heard guys talking about women that were so ugly to look at that their testicles retracted when they saw them, and I’d always thought it was a vile phrase. But now, sitting opposite my parents in Joanne’s pristine living room, I understood it: I think if I’d had a pair, they would have retracted, too. Mother wore a duck-egg blue dress and had her hair pulled up into a puffy bouffant, like some sort of 60s Stepford wife. Of course she was wearing pearls, because when was a woman like my mother not wearing pearls? Dad was in a button down shirt and slacks. They looked more like they were going to church or to a wedding than visiting their daughter.
Joanne placed a pitcher of lemonade and a tray of cheese and crackers on the table between us, because if women like my mother could be trusted to wear pearls on all occasions, women like Joanne could certainly be trusted to whip out an appetizer for even the most unwelcome of guests. The ridiculousness of it all; the stiff formality of straight backs and hands folded neatly in laps; of polite “thank you”s and “no ma’am”s; the itchiness of my dress against my back; it all made me want to tip over into a scream.
Uncle Marty broke the awkward silence that was suffocating us all. “Natalie, you’re looking well.”
Mother swatted her hand in her brother’s direction, as if he were some pestering fly.
I stuck out my chin, tried to look proud; determined; defiant. “I guess you’re here to tell me how irresponsible I am,” I said, and neither of my parents would meet my gaze.
“Bit late for that now,” my mother scoffed.
“We’ve come to terms with it,” Dad said. “We know that anyone who is stupid enough to get pregnant and then run from the problem is too stupid to listen to sense.”
Fury burned inside me. I felt my nostrils flare, and I reached towards the plate of cheese and crackers, ready to throw it at his smug face. Subtly, smoothly, Joanne reached for the plate at the same time, and nudged my hand away while appearing to just be taking a cracker. I met her eye, and she shook her head. I nibbled on a cracker.
“We’ve told the boy,” Dad continued. “He showed up on our door like he owned the place, asking to see you. So we told him you’d got pregnant and run off to God only knows where.”
I felt that I’d been winded. It was hard to catch my breath, and there was pain in my stomach and in my chest. He came for me. He came back. Everyone was staring at me as I writhed, like a butterfly spread out on an entomologist’s board, under the weight of what they had said. They told him. “How could you?” I hissed. “I didn’t want him to know.”
For the first time, my mother looked at me. “So what was your plan? You were just going to hide out here forever, was that it? Leave us to deal with the consequences back home?”
“I bumped into your gymnastics teacher the other day when I was buying groceries,” Dad, leaning in closer, said. “I couldn’t even look at her, I was so ashamed.”
“Everyone is asking about you in church. Did you consider that, before you pulled this little stunt? Did you think about your parents, lying in the house of the Lord?”
“Of course she didn’t, Payton never considers anything but herself.”
“Did I fail you as a mother? What did I do that was so awful that you punish us like this?”
“You didn’t do anything wrong, my darling. Some people just turn out the wrong way.”
Joanne rose to her feet. “Alright, that is enough. You are guests in my home. If you have come here just to dump your vitriol and your poison here, I’m going to ask you to leave.”
My parents, with their meek stares and red cheeks, looked like schoolchildren who had been scolded. I felt a touch of glee at this: no one, no one, put my parents in their place.