The room was quiet. I could hear a dog barking in the distance, the neighborhood kids playing on the street, the leaves of the big beech tree in my front yard rustling against the glass windows, animated by the playful breeze that had decided to grace us with its presence on this hot October day. All familiar sounds that used to bring me so much joy just until a month ago. It was my house, my living-room, the life that I – that we – had built in the past twenty years, yet I wished I could run as far away from it as possible. I was ashamed. I was angry. I felt as a powerless idiot. Did I have to speak to these women? Can’t we pretend it was one big misunderstanding, pretend it never happened and go our separate ways?
The three of us sat there silent – me, on the couch, forcing a smile as a polite host, and my two guests shifting uncomfortably in the two armchairs across the coffee table. No one had uttered a word for at least five minutes.
The kettle’s whistle provided a relief from the awkwardness. I shot myself into standing position as if given a command.
“Tea is ready,” I announced the obvious and headed to the kitchen as a well-trained solder. Tea I could handle. I just couldn’t bring myself to deal with the other stuff. Not yet.
I brought out a tray, arranged three cups in matching plates on it, added spoons, napkins and sugar, and went to the fridge for a carton of milk. I reached to open the door and saw Steven happily hugging the twins, one on each side, grinning proudly in their high-school graduation gowns. I couldn’t bear to look at it. I tore the photograph down from underneath the Grand Canyon magnet and shoved it into the nearby cupboard.
“I don’t know how you like it, so I brought both sugar and milk,” I said as I left the tray on the table.
“Thank you,” said Melanie, venturing an uneasy smile.
I had first met her a month ago, right after the funeral. She had looked much older than her 51 years – her face all worn out, her black mascara smeared under the eyes. It must have been difficult for her to attend the whole ceremony from the back of the church; I don’t know how she even mustered the courage to come and speak to me.
“My condolences,” she took my hand on the way out.
“Thank you,” I looked at her confused. “I am sorry. I don’t think I know you. Were you a friend of my husband’s?”
“Yes, I knew him very well,” she said through watery eyes – this woman who I’d never met was bawling her eyes out for Steven, whereas I, his wife of twenty-one years, were still unable to shed a single tear. I don’t know whether it was the shock that had not let go of me ever since I got the call from the hospital, the fact that I had not had a single moment of rest, taking care of two heartbroken teenage boys and funeral arrangements at the same time, or it was some kind of premonition… maybe I had always known, always suspected.
“My name is Melanie,” the woman said. “I would like to speak to you. Not now, in private. When you have the time. Please, call me… please.”
I got back to work at the local real estate firm where I had started a year ago; the twins were back to college, and the days started to roll one after the other in a predictable routine manner. The house was empty again, but for the most part I was already used to it. My friends Beth and Olivia were making sure I wasn’t left alone for long. They took me out regularly to brunch, dinners or just dropped by my place unannounced whenever they got the fright that I might decide to kill myself. But despite all of their worries, I was fine. Really. It was as if Steven was on a mission. I had known my whole life this could happen. I’ve been training for this moment since I met him. For the day I’d get the call, telling me that my husband had been killed. I just thought it’d be from enemy fire and not by a drunk driver. Little did I know…
Then one day I remembered the woman from the funeral. I don’t know why I had forgotten her. I was so intrigued about what she had to tell me. She did seem genuine and normal. More normal than myself even. So I found her card and called her. She did not want to speak over the phone, but I made her. I wasn’t going to meet with her blindly. That’s not what adults do. And then she did tell me. And then I knew.
Despite the long five-hour flight between Montana and Florida, Melanie had insisted she come see me in person. I agreed, but I had no idea she’d also bring the girl.
“I don’t know why I had to come,” Chloe protested. She sat in the chair, legs crossed, arms folded in front of her gigantic breasts, golden hair flowing from her tight ponytail. My God, she was young. Twenty-three years old, almost the age of my sons - our sons. She added, “After all, I wasn’t married to him.”
“But you have a daughter,” Melanie interfered. “Don’t you want to know more? For her? Don’t you want her to know her siblings?”
“Kara is one. She won’t remember him. I can tell her whatever story I like. And your children are 20 years older than her. What could they possibly have in common?”
“We could help you. It won’t be easy raising her alone.” Melanie sounded as if she was ready to adopt both Chloe and the baby.
“I won’t be raising her alone. I have my parents. And besides Steven set up a trust fund in her name when she was born. You don’t have to worry; I don’t need any part of the inheritance.”
“A trust fund?” I was perplexed. “We barely managed to save for the kids’ college tuition, and her daughter has a trust fund? Where the hell did he get the money from? Melanie, are you rich?” I turned to the older woman. “Sure, those medical bills must be astronomical…”
“No, I don’t work.” She replied. “He had always taken very good care of us, but…”
“So, let me get this straight.” I interjected. “First he marries you. Then you have Valerie, and the poor girl is diagnosed with cerebral palsy in the first months of her life. So you stay home with her; Steven takes care of you both, but somehow manages to also have a whole other family with me on the other side of the country. All of this while supposedly serving in the army. And as if juggling two families must have been a piece of cake, in the last couple of years he, a man of 49, also throws in the mix a young hot mistress. Please, don’t be offended, Chloe, I am not even sure if that’s the right word. Is the third woman a mistress when you already have two wives?” I sniggered. “My mind cannot make any sense of it. How does one make money when half the time he’s playing caring father in Montana, the other half – a happy family in Florida, and not to mention setting trust funds for a baby daughter on the side with his… with Chloe?”
“I’d pretend this was a real apology,” Chloe was in fact offended. “First of all, I also thought he was a soldier – when I met him he was even wearing his uniform. Second, I didn’t have any idea he was married…twice. And he was actually quite fit and charming for his age, which at the end of the day is just a number. So don’t get all judgmental on me when both of you ‘older ladies’ had no idea for over two decades you were married to the same man.”
“She was not judging, Chloe.” Melanie said. “She’s just trying to make sense of it all.” She turned to me, “For which I think I could help.”
Melanie took a sip of her tea before she continued, “Steve was in fact in the army. But he must’ve left around the time he met you, or shortly after.”
“How do you know?” Chloe cut in. “And in fact, how is it that you know so much more than us, and yet insist you were as clueless as we are?”
“I don’t know how he did it – maybe his contract was over, or maybe he did something for them to discharge him. But this is why it wasn’t a complete lie, and why he had all the uniforms and respective gear.” Melanie replied. “As for the second part of your question – I was just about to explain. You wonder where the money came from, how did I know about his death when it happened in Florida, how did I know about Chloe and Kara… You won’t be surprised to learn that he did have a back-up plan in case something unexpected like this happened. He did not put any of us as his emergency contact – it was his mother they called first. Then she told the hospital to call you, and then she called me and confessed everything.”
“His mother is alive?!” I couldn’t believe my ears. “I don’t even know why I’ve just exclaimed as an actress from a soap opera. I shouldn’t be surprised by anything by now.”
“Yes, she very much is. For me and Valerie she has always been nana Jo, but I guess for his ‘other lives” to work he couldn’t risk getting her involved. And you’ve probably guessed correctly already – the money is hers.”
“Sneaky bastard!” Chloe laughed.
“And this woman calls herself a mother, raising and acting as an accomplice to a son like that?” I was furious.
“I don’t know if it was all that bad.” Melanie suggested feebly. “When he was with us, he was the best father and husband, when he was with you he seems to have managed to get that perfect family – the one with an impeccable wife and two healthy intelligent kids, and as to why he needed Chloe, I don’t know, maybe he missed his younger self, a less burdensome time, or maybe he wanted to have a second try at having a baby girl… In any case none of us felt unloved, neglected or bad while we were in those relationships. We only felt cheated once we knew.”
“Melanie, that’s the whole point.” I interrupted her. “Don’t you see what this means – it means that none of it was real! We were all living in a dream world created by a man… and his mother!”
“Maybe you’re right. Or you could be reacting a bit hastily. What do you have to gain from hating the dead? I prefer to let it go and have a clean start. There are plenty of good memories to hang on to. And a man might be dead, but beyond the mess he left he also left us with two nice extended families, which I would love to get to know, if you are willing too.”
Melanie was a saint of a woman. She was the one that had it worse than anyone, and yet she was so fast to forgive and forget. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea getting to know her more. While I was wondering what to say, she cleared her throat, “Ermm, if you forgive me, I also took the liberty to invite someone else to our meeting. Someone who really needs to make amends…”
It seemed as if she had just given a signal because the doorbell rang this very moment. I looked inquisitively at Melanie before getting up and going to open the door. Before me stood a tiny old woman, her whole face wrinkled, her back a bit hunched over. However, she was very smartly dressed, had her hair done, and her fingers, clutched around the handle of a sturdy wooden cane, were adorned with all kinds of precious stones.
“Hello,” I greeted her. “Let me guess… You must be nana Jo?”
The woman crumbled to the ground and broke down in tears, “Forgive me... I loved him so much…”