Life in her shadow became a long dark moment.
It all started in the kitchen. John was seasoning a steak — with too much pepper, if you ask me — as he explained for the hundredth time why we should adopt a child. Knowing I was cornered until he was done pontificating, I leaned against the fridge, almost regretting my trip there for the glass of water in my hand, nodding and saying “uh-huh” at the appropriate intervals. He paused just long enough to chug the now lukewarm coffee I gave him earlier, then restarted his lecture with new vigor. I was only half listening, but to be fair it was the same argument as always, just packaged a little differently than the last time, as if changing something like the mere tone of his voice could possibly tip the scales in his favor.
Out of respect, and probably love, I always paid attention to these little speeches, or at least did my best to look like I was paying attention. But I don’t want kids. Probably never will. But as his partner, I’d decided to hear him out on the subject, always, with fingers crossed that one day he’d get the message on his own. As I watched him gesticulate with one hand and over-pour salt with the other, I wondered how much he would hate me once he learned the truth.
At last he reached what I like to call his “closing remarks,” but this time the closing took an awful turn. His face suddenly went droopy, like a switch inside him had turned off. Drool slipped from a corner of his down-turned mouth. As I watched mortified, John’s eyes rolled way back into his head and he slumped to the floor, face twisting to the side as his temple met the granite counter on the way down. Blood pooled under his head. I’m no doctor, but all evidence indicated my husband was suffering a massive stroke. Or a heart attack. And if not one of those, something just as terrible.
What followed was a blur. Mouth to mouth until, wide-eyed and gasping, he regained consciousness. Half dragging, half carrying him over to the couch. Deciphering his slurred answers to my over-panicked questions about what body parts and things he could see, hear, feel, move, count. Barely controlling my frustration as be refused to just — sit — down until I called his doctor. And searching for the doctor’s number on his phone, unlocked by a password that he could not refuse to turn over under the circumstances.
John is organized to a fault, so I found that number fairly quickly. But not before a text message dripping with sex flashed onto the screen.
Getting tomorrow’s lunch ready for you, it purred. All you can eat. Come hungry.
She was on her knees, looking back seductively over her shoulder at the camera, back arched, the supposed menu in full display. The betrayal hit with such stealth that stomach acid shot up and radiated into my chest. I took a moment to collect myself. I didn’t recognize her, at least not from that brief glance, but that was hardly any consolation. John and I had been together for nearly seven years, yet here he was, cheating on me. With a woman.
That an affair could stain our relationship was never really a far-fetched possibility. I know who I am. I know who I’m with. I know our needs and proclivities sometimes go unsatisfied and tempt us to stray. We’ve gone over this in therapy. We’ve also welcomed playthings into our bed and shared them with immense satisfaction, eliminating any need to look elsewhere, or so I thought. John’s lunch lady would disagree, I am sure.
Yet, somehow in the back of my mind I always expected that if an affair did happen, like a real ongoing thing with romantic feelings involved, it would be me, the slightly older, more experienced and admittedly shady one with an easy schedule, who would be the culprit. It never once crossed my mind that John, who barely had time to breathe between running a restaurant and a fledgling bakery, would end up being the sleazy one. And the possibility that a woman could steal him from right under my nose? Not something I had planned for. For the first time in a long time, I had been blindsided, caught without contingency.
Unable to resist hurting my own feelings, I imagined them in bed together, entangled and sweating and exhausted from their “lunch” while I putzed around the yard completely clueless, tending to his kitchen garden. This imaginary scenario delivered a one-two punch to the gut. I quickly became consumed by an overwhelming and familiar urge to know everything about the problem in front of me. About her, how they met, how long they’d been having this lunch time affair. An urge to get to the bottom of this situation. Now. A thousand questions flooded my brain.
A tortured groan then came from the couch, breaking the nightmarish spell that was consuming me. John’s eyes and bared teeth were clenched tight, and he was rubbing his chest. The interrogation would have to wait. I had no business driving to the ER in that shaky mental state, but John vetoed the idea of an ambulance with a heavy-tongued and strenuous objection. The embarrassment of being loaded into the back of that thing, he pleaded, would probably kill him before he even got to the ER. If only he knew how close I came to killing him before we even left our apartment, he might have seriously reconsidered the ambulance.
He was hastily admitted on arrival, and then came the waiting. That was the worst. Because I didn’t know if the ER doctor would emerge with good or bad news. At this point I was almost certain he wouldn’t die, so that wasn’t the problem. The cause for concern was that my inevitable confrontation with John would certainly depend on the severity of his condition. Could I chew out a stable patient that just needed an IV for a few days? Yes. A comatose patient? Probably not without raising some eyebrows. While they worked on him, that left me with nothing to do but sit and wait and weigh my options for how to handle that text. That was probably the most excruciating part. Because I had options.
One option was to take another peek, see how far back the message chain started. I still had his phone. It was tucked between his watch, wallet and a few other personal items in a small ziploc bag the ER nurse left with me for safekeeping. I fingered the black rectangle through the plastic, fantasizing about unlocking it and reading through all his texts. Not just the indecent lunch proposal that ruined my day, but all of them. I had the password now. He hadn’t time to change it before we got there. I could do it and he’d never know. I would read them all, and get whatever feelings they made me feel out of my system before they discharged him. By that time, I would know whether to keep my mouth shut, or give him a mouthful before I threw his ass out.
But that . . . that wasn’t me. I’m not like that. At least, I didn’t want to be like that. Not anymore. I needed to think. I needed to talk to someone that would talk common sense back into me. I needed to talk to my ex.
He picked up on the third ring.
“Alex here.” He sounded like my call woke him from a nap.
“Hey,” I said. “It’s me. Got a minute?”
“Mark?” He was more alert now. “Yeah. Of course. Everything ok?”
“John’s having an affair. With a woman.”
He responded with a low chuckle. “Mark, stop messing with me. I thought you were in some sort of trouble.”
“I’m serious Alex. I saw her naked picture on his phone.”
“Have you learned nothing, Mark? Things didn’t end so well when you searched mine, did it?”
“Don’t be an ass, Alex. You know that was different.”
A deep sigh indicated his disagreement. “Tell me what happened.”
I recounted the afternoon’s events, after which the line went silent for what seemed like fifteen minutes, but in reality, was probably only ten seconds.
“Alex?” I said. “Say something.”
“Well,” he began. “I’ll say a few things. But you’ve got to promise me you’ll only answer yes or no, ok?”
“Those are the conditions, Mark. You know how you are in situations like this, always bent on finding a motive and anticipating the next move like life is a chess game. Now, my guess is that this caught you off guard, which means, if I know you at all, that you’re very unpredictable right now.”
“I’m not going to kill him, Alex,” I said.
“It would be pretty easy,” he teased. “You’ve done it before. Slip something into a drinkable liquid, walk away, start fresh. No one would know.”
“I still love him.”
“Then listen to me, and answer my questions.”
“Does he know about your past life?”
“You mean the one where you turned me into a criminal? No.”
“Does he know you were married before?”
“Ok. But does he know you were once married to a woman?”
I took a deep breath. I hadn’t really thought about this for a long time.
“Well…that was part of the job, Alex. It wasn’t real. And we divorced not long after we lost . . .”
“Yes or no answers, Mark.”
“So he’s not the only one hiding something then, right?”
“It’s not the same thing.”
“A lie is a lie, Mark. Are you keeping this secret from him or not?”
“Now from what you’ve been telling me, John wants a child, right?”
“And you don’t.”
“You know why.”
“Yes, and it’s the same reason you’re keeping that secret from him.” he said.
His voice went soft.
“She was a beautiful little girl, Mark. I’m so sorry. She died so young.”
I started to cry. Leave it up to Alex to go straight to the liver. No one else can unpack my emotional baggage so deftly. It’s a skill I found amazing, yet quite irritating.
“You have to tell him, Mark.”
“He’s not going to like it.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
I tried to push away the memory of my daughter’s death. Too dark. “And what if he thinks he can somehow cure that trauma? I’ll never hear the end of it. You don’t know what it’s like, someone asking you for something you already had and lost.”
“Tell him anyway.”
“What about the lunch lady’s text message?”
“Well, tell him about that too. Clear the air and start fresh. Both of you.”
“What if we can’t?”
“At least you’ll have a clear conscience.”
“I hate how you’re always right.”
He laughed. “Almost always. I wasn’t right about us, was I?”
“We’re better off as friends, Alex. You know that.”
“I’m here for you Mark,” he said. “Anytime and always. Now, go check on that man and do the right thing.”
I was just about to hang up when he spoke up again.
“One more thing, Mark.” he said. “I can tell that after all this time, you still haven’t changed. Know how?”
“You haven’t said that you’re worried about if John will make it. Not once. Think about that.”
I hung up without responding.
John was discharged a week later. They told me it was definitely not a heart attack, and that it was definitely not a stroke. What they could not tell me, however, is what it definitely was. Probably just plain old exhaustion from overworking at the restaurant, they said.
We both came clean, just as Alex recommended. It wasn’t pretty. I actually moved out for a few weeks, even started dating another guy. That was refreshing, but it wasn’t John, so my cup always seemed half empty. I started texting John, then he would call from time to time to check on me. We slowly reconnected. First over coffee, then an occasional walk, then over a drink or two at the spot where we met, reminiscing about old times. He started sleeping over every now and then. I started to feel at home in his arms again. All talk of adoption had been suspended for the foreseeable future. Lunch lady’s number was deleted and blocked.
I still kept her number in my phone, however.
You see, Alex is right. Turns out I haven’t changed at all, after all this time. I still anticipate everyone’s moves. Especially when it comes to a loose end like lunch lady. No pun intended. Before I gave John his phone back, I copied her full name and phone number. Once I had that, it didn’t take long to find her address. A single family home on the other side of town. How convenient. I would have left her alone if she had kept her distance after John was discharged, if she had stopped showing up for no reason in places where she ought not to be, like John’s restaurant. She did not. So, naturally, neither did I.
I decided to put an end to things the third time I spotted her lurking at the end of our block. By then, I knew almost every detail about her, including the color and license plate of her new car, her early morning yoga schedule, the way she set up her coffee before leaving for said yoga. She liked a fresh cup when she returned. My research was thorough, careful.
I watched her pull away from the house before dawn, then sneaked through the back door that opened into her kitchen. She always left it unlocked for reasons I would never know. The small bottle was in my jacket. I removed the stopper, making sure that I only put one drop of the clear substance into the coffee grounds. I had to be careful this time. I had overdone it with John. Two drops were only supposed to sicken him enough to stop thinking about adopting a child and instead focus on our crumbling relationship, but it almost turned him into a vegetable. I guess the potency increases over time. One drop should certainly do some damage to the lunch lady. She wouldn’t suffer as much as John, but it should be enough to keep her grounded for a while. I planned to increase the dosage if she continued showing up.
I was almost out the kitchen door when I stopped, reconsidered, reopened the coffee maker, and added two or three more drops, just for the hell of it. Like Alex had said: Slip something into a drinkable liquid, walk away, start fresh. No one would know. Lunch has been officially canceled, for good.