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Nov 17, 2020

Fiction

“Well, our secret is out now, isn’t it?” Carmen said. 


Inside her head, the greeting sounded pithy, a lighthearted opening gambit in a meeting that she had every reason to believe would be excruciatingly uncomfortable for both participants, but even as she spoke the words, she wanted to suck them back in and banish them to the mental junk heap where the worst of her ideas languished. The words floated between them, now, like a verbal stink bomb. Revising this woman’s first impression of her was as probable as having leprechaun wait on them.


Carmen cleared her throat, adjusted her tone and said, “Thank you for coming Gina. May I call you Gina?”


The other woman gave a small tilt of her head, a gesture Carmen took as permission granted. She released a breath that doubled as a sigh of relief and continued. “I wasn’t sure you would agree to meet with me, but I appreciate that you did.” She offered a nervous smile. “Brad told me that he spoke to you about us, so you know who I am.”

Carmen licked her lips, picked up her water glass and took a long drink.  


The café’s patio was large and, to her relief, only a few other diners shared the outdoor dining space. No one was seated near enough to overhear a polite conversation between a pair of civilized ladies. At least, she hoped the meeting would be civil, hoped they would use their “indoor” voices, and if not leave here friends, at least leave the meeting feeling mutually respectful and satisfied that some degree of closure had been offered and accepted. 


But, sitting here now, she wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this wronged woman. When she’d arranged the meeting, Carmen considered the possibility that the aggrieved Mrs. Richmond might accept, only to give herself an opportunity to cause a scene. She had chosen this place because she knew it was one of the few establishments in the area that her former boss’s wife frequented with any regularity. It seemed reasonable that meeting here would help to ensure the two

would have a peaceful exchange. Self-serving? Yes, it was. But, given the circumstances, Carmen felt justified in stacking the deck, at least a little, in her favor.


“I’m surprised Brad kept the truth from you as long as he did,” Carmen said. “Brad isn’t exactly a champion when it comes to keeping secrets. Not that secrets are good,” she hastened to add, realizing both her tone, and content could be construed as sounding too personal…too chummy. She wasn’t staking a claim here, she was simply stating fact. “Secrets can be corrosive,” she said earnestly. “Not that infidelity isn’t destructive. It is. I know it is.  I’m not suggesting I know how you feel. I’ve never been married, so the whole idea of ‘til death do us part’ eludes me.” 


Realizing she was reeling through a minefield of thoughts that also belonged on her mental junk heap, Carmen rushed on. “But I have been in relationships. I mean, real relationships. Not just se—”. Carmen stopped talking and took a breath.

Gina said nothing. Her expression remained perfectly neutral.


“I won’t insult you by trying to make excuses or explain away my part in this. What we did was wrong. I know that. I have a moral compass. It just…I just…I wanted to talk to you that face to face, woman to woman. I thought you might have questions. I would. Have questions, I mean. I’m sure Brad would have objected, if I’d told him I was doing this, but I haven’t seen him since I resigned my position and left the company. Just so you know, I have no intention of staying in touch with him.”


Carmen’s lips curved into a small, sad smile. “Being unemployed gives you time to think. Too much time, actually.  I don’t know what Brad has told you about us, not that I’m asking. I’m not. I just thought, if you had questions, I should do the right thing and give you a chance to ask them. So, here we are,” she said. 


Gina’s expression remained maddeningly passive. The woman might as well have been carved of stone. Carmen wondered about Botox injections, chided herself for the unkind thought and plowed on.


“I’m sure you’re not interested in hearing the sordid details of our aff— our rela— our time together,” Carmen said, flustered by this woman’s calm.   Brad seldom mentioned his wife, but when he did, the information he shared cast his life partner in the most unflattering light possible. He labeled his Mrs. as brash and socially inept. He complained of her pettiness and her tendency toward disproportionately large responses to small slights and unintended injury.  Bradley Richmond had been masterful in coloring his wife as a shrew, and casting himself as the long-suffering spouse. And, Scarlet Carmen had swallowed his load of crap hook-line and sinker; willingly accepting the facts as presented because it made her feel less culpable. Believing he was the aggrieved party allowed her to pretend, during the dark hours of self-introspection, that he was a nice man trapped in an unhappy marriage and she was doing nothing more than helping a fellow traveler mine a few nuggets of pleasure from miserable bedrock of his existence.


Carmen felt a twinge of irritation. The woman seated across from her did not appear to be the hard-edged harpy she was purported to be. Carmen wasn’t naive, but she suspected Bradley Richmond had played her. It seemed Brad had exaggerated his wife’s faults and shortcomings in advancement of his own desires.


“For what it’s worth, it’s not like we planned for any of it to happen. I mean, our relationship has…had been entirely professional during most of the ten years we worked together.” She bit her lip to stop herself from saying more until the waiter, who was not a Leprechaun, arrived at their table, completed his tasks and moved along.  The young man rattled on, unnecessarily, in an annoyingly cheery tone about daily specials as he placed a basket of warm roles near Gina, refilled Carmen’s water glass and removed the extra place settings from the tabletop.


“I’ve already ordered,” Carmen reminded the waiter. 


Returning her attention to Gina, she said, “I took the liberty of ordering you a salad. Brad mentioned that you are fond of this place and, in particular, of the Chef’s salad. Did you want something to drink?” Carmen asked. “I wasn’t sure what you would want. Coffee? Tea? A glass of wine?”


Gina shook her head, directing the response to the waiter who acknowledged her response and turned to attend to other diners.


Carmen took a deep breath and said. “I don’t know exactly what Brad told you, but I want to assure you we weren’t involved emotionally.”


Brad’s wife arched a brow. 


Carmen hastened to explain. “I know. I know. Any betrayal is inexcusable. I can’t stress enough how much I regret what we did. What I did. I never imagined myself in the role of homewrecker. Not that I’m assuming this has wrecked your home. It hasn’t, has it? I don’t know where you and Brad stand. That’s between you. I realize that. I’m not fishing for information. Brad and I are finished. What does or doesn’t happen between you is none of my business. I just wanted you to know that he never made me any promises. He never suggested, in any way, that his feelings for you were being diminished and I never had any expectations that he would.”


Carmen plucked the napkin from her lap and used it to fan her face. “It’s warm out here,” she said. “I’m sorry. I wish we could eat inside where it’s air conditioned, but of course it’s safer out here in the open with the virus still raging.”


Gina tilted her head, ever so slightly, to one side. Carmen bit her lip again. She didn’t know what she had been thinking when she sent the message inviting Brad’s wife to meet with her. Honestly, she’d expected the woman to ignore the request altogether, or to respond with a resounding, “No!”, either of which would have been perfectly understandable. If Gina Richmond had refused to acknowledge her or meet with her, Carmen would have been able to tell herself that she’d tried to make amends for her misdeeds, thus relieving herself of a modicum of the guilt she felt over her part in the affair. The acceptance had come as a complete surprise. It took nearly a full day for Carmen to process the fact that Brad’s wife was willing to meet with her. Once she’d gotten over the shock of Gina Richmond’s acceptance, she’d steeled herself for the public dressing down she knew full well she roundly deserved. After all, affairs did not ‘just happen’, as so many wayward spouses liked to claim. Affairs could not happen without the willing participation on the part of both parties. What she had done was morally reprehensible. There was not explaining. There was no excusing. She’d decided that meeting with the woman she wronged would serve as a sort of penance.


She had expected a public dressing down, had even envisioned the potential for a little shoving and name calling. But she had not envisioned this…this passive aggression. She felt like a thief…like a bug pinned to a board…like a strumpet. Who did this woman think she was?  Why didn’t she say something? Why didn’t she call Carmen names and hurl accusations? The woman’s behavior was inexplicable, and it was affecting Carmen in a way that a full-on brawl complete with hair-pulling and face clawing could never have.


The waiter reappeared with their food. 


He served Carmen. She thanked him profusely.


He served Gina, who nodded her thanks.


He asked whether he could get either of them anything else, and turned to leave when assured, by Carmen, that nothing more was required of him.


“I can’t imagine what you think of me,” Carmen said with a self-depreciating shrug. 


Gina sat, placid as stone, selfishly keeping her thoughts to herself.


“That is the right salad, I hope,” Carmen said.  She had been far too nervous to consider breakfast, that morning. She was hungry, starving actually, but she worried that she would appear rude if she dug into her food first.


Gina smiled and nodded, and it took a beat for Carmen to understand that the smile and nod were not directed at her, but past her. She fought the urge to turn to see who had been graced by the salutation. The skin on her back prickled as she waited for the object of Mrs. Richmond’s affection to pass them, but no one did. She realized the person, or persons would have exited the patio through one of the half dozen openings in the ornate fencing surrounding the patio. Great. Now she would never know if someone who knew her, or knew Brad, had seen her sitting here with her former boss’s wife.  She added a new worry to the ever-growing string or anxieties she’d been accumulating since first crossing over the line from confident, respectable professional to home-wrecking strumpet.


Carmen, who prided herself on her ability to talk to anyone, anytime, anywhere about anything sat, tongue tied.  

  

Gina sat, seemingly content in her silence her hands resting, now, in her lap, her expression placid as a glass pond. 

  

The sensations in Carmen’s midsection morphed from hunger pains to gastric distress. If she didn’t take immediate evasive action, she was going to pass and impressive amount of gas in the presence of her former lover’s wife.


She excused herself and rushed inside in search of the ladies’ room, prepared to fight anyone who might try to stop her with a reminder that the indoor dining section was closed.


The ladies’ room smelled, heavily, of industrial disinfectant, but was blessedly empty. Carmen locked herself inside the farthest of the three stalls and sat there, much longer than was necessary, some part of her hoping Gina Richmond would have the good grace to take the hint and leave, and another part of her thinking she would be humiliated if she returned to the table to find the woman gone. Either way, her well-intended plan had been a mistake. What had she been thinking? How had she imagined this would play out? She cursed Bradly Richmond for being a two-timing jerk. She cursed her own stupidity for allowing herself to be pulled into such an indefensible position. And, for good measure, she cursed Gina Richmond for displaying such grace under pressure.

  

Carmen returned to the table just steps ahead of their waiter.


“You haven’t touched your meal, Mrs. Richmond,” he said, concern practically dripping from him. “Can I get you something else?”


“No, Jimmy,” Gina said, offering him a beatific smile. “We’re finished here. Please, put this on our tab,” she said gesturing to the pair of untouched meals. 


“No,” Carmen croaked. “I have to pay. I invited you.”  


Gina ignored Carmen. “Add the usual gratuity for yourself, Jimmy,” she said warmly.


The waiter nodded, smiled his thanks, cleared the table quickly and left the two women alone.


Gina pushed back her chair and stood. “It was lovely meeting you, Miss Wilkins,” Gina said. She turned and walked away, not waiting for a response from Carmen.


“Brad was right,” Carmen muttered, gathering her bag, and pushing away from the table. “That woman is a shrew.”

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