They used it as kind of therapy, these lunches together. Even when one or the other of them was on vacation, they seemed to meet at least once a week. They were two of a kind, a study in how opposites did not always attract, and maybe that was the reason they did this: to remind each other about the things they didn’t like in themselves. They took comfort, too, in reinforcing the idea between them that they were the only sane ones in a world full of imbeciles.
Rae waited less than patiently for the waiter to take their order and then leave: cranberry and gorgonzola salad for both of them, Rae would have iced tea while Mina would stick with water today, thank you. This time was for them, and he was only a necessary intrusion. The discussions they had were not for public fare. There was nothing secret or conspiratorial in what they said, but they were both aware of the level of snobbery with which they observed the world, and here was where they talked about it. It sickened them both to see it in each other, but at the same time it was an incredible comfort, a validation, permission to continue the way they were.
Rae had long ago learned, over similar lunches with another co-worker, that she talked too much, and it was all inevitably about herself. Those lunches, more than two decades past, had been with someone who was her opposite. Wren had been incredibly quiet, nothing to look at in comparison to Rae in those days (it was Rae’s turn now, Mina was thin and lovely in contrast to Rae’s more than generous, stocky build), and she had recognized Rae’s self-centered need to be validated. She had patiently listened without hardly ever speaking of herself—and Rae never asked—while Rae carried on about the tremendous burdens in her life (oh, how inconsequential they all seemed these days). In retrospect, Rae wondered sometimes if Wren hadn’t been in love with her. The girl had never had a boyfriend, a fact that never seemed to bother her. Rae pondered their conversations, if such one-sided exchanges could even be called that, and thought perhaps Wren had just been patiently waiting for Rae to finally recognize the devotion sitting across the booth from her. Rae never had, not in time anyway. Of all those lunches in their favorite pub or malt shop or hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant, Rae couldn’t recall a single thing Wren had said, except one.
“I hate you, you know,” Wren said calmly.
Rae stuttered to a halt with her egg salad sandwich halfway to her mouth.
“I hate the way you’re so beautiful and everyone looks at you and you know it, but you act like you don’t,” she continued.
“I do not,” Rae retorted, stung.
“You do. You flip your hair and pose whenever anyone is looking,” Wren said.
Her tone was even, factual not spiteful, but Rae felt her temper rising anyway. If her hair was that bright, rich auburn that only came from undiluted Irish blood and curled in a pleasingly untidy mass around her shoulders and down her back, it was hardly Rae’s fault. She’d battled her hair’s obstinate tendencies for eighteen years and she hated it. Being called ‘Annie’ or ‘Shirely Temple’ all her life did not count as a compliment in her world (how little did she know she would happily kiss someone to call her those names twenty years later); and just because her mother had been a dancer when she was young and completely obsessed that Rae learn to stand, walk and sit as if she were a queen hardly mattered. No one cared about those kind of things in this day and age.
“So, how is your mom? I never got a chance to ask exactly what the surgery was she was having,” Mina said.
Rae drew her attention back to the present. Mina was setting the stage. She was much better at it than Rae. Rae still suffered from self-centeredness. She had resigned herself to it, chalking it up to being an only child. Mina had a sister at least, so she was more practiced in the arts of concern for others, even if it was ofttimes feigned.
“She’s much better. They called it ‘ventricle ablation’ I think, something about burning the connections so the electrical impulses in her heart would quit misfiring. She’s been going gun-ho ever since, and now I have to remind her not to overdo it instead of trying to get her up and moving.”
Mina made an approving sound as she daintily tore her bread into little pieces and arranged them on her plate. Rae took her own chunk of bread and tore off a strip and dragged it through the olive oil on the plate between them. It was her turn now.
“So, how has work been while I’ve been gone this week?” Rae asked purposefully. She had learned with Wren that asking about others and listening was important, but she still had to concentrate to do it.
“Oh, it’s been complete chaos.” Mina spoke as if she were bored, but her face suddenly animated as she launched into the trials and tribulations of her daily grind and how frustrating it was that no one, save Rae, had the brains God gave a goose and could be relied upon to do anything right. Rae nodded appropriately, watching the precise way Mina picked up her prepared pieces of bread and dipped them in the olive oil, trying to maintain interest in what she was saying.
Her mind was wandering badly today, caught up in her own concerns over the job application she had submitted to a local business on a whim just that morning. In a fit of depression brought on by her boss asking her if she was interested in moving out of her dead-end position at her current job (though he’d not said it in so many words), and Mina telling her about Rae’s intern having completed all the tasks Rae had set for him during her vacation in about one quarter of the time it would have taken Rae herself to finish them, she had come to the conclusion that she was worthless and needed to shuffle herself into some less demanding job. These were the things she wanted to talk about today, but Mina was taking the spotlight, and it rankled her on a certain level. Mina of all people ought to know when Rae needed to let off steam, or pout, or be petted and reassured that she was valuable.
Mina paused and Rae immediately arranged her face into a semblance of sincere interest, afraid she’d drifted off too far, only to find that the waiter had brought their plates. She smiled beatifically at him, hoping it wasn’t too fake. He smiled back and left them to their food.
“You were saying?” Rae prompted as she mimicked Mina picking up her knife and carefully cutting through her salad. Rae would normally dive right in and fork up mouthfuls of the assorted greens one step up from iceberg lettuce, but her mother-in-law had taken an inordinate interest in her weight of late, less than delicately offering weight loss solutions that had worked for her because she had lost forty pounds and all of her clothes were too big and it was truly annoying to have to shop for new ones. That was something else distracting Rae from Mina’s prattling, but if she concentrated on watching Mina’s methodical way of spreading her food across her plate and sorting through her bites as if they needed to be categorized before being eaten, it was easier to focus on her words.
“Well, the fireworks stand is up but they’ve decided they want Mason to sleep there every night!” Mina continued into how that was going to be very inconvenient and she would barely see him all week, but ultimately it worked out because it meant she wouldn’t have to be out in the heat with her bad back trying to stand in the tent or haul boxes which she absolutely could not do.
Rae felt her eyes glazing over, and she blinked and checked her expression. There was no saving the lunch now, Mina had the ball in her court and she was monopolizing the play. It happened like this sometimes. Usually, they took turns, and last week’s lunch had been all about Mina’s daughter Katie and how busy her summer schedule was and how her boyfriend was sweet but couldn’t manage to plan anything with a map, compass and carefully written instructions and how Mina was proud of Katie for her decisions concerning some mishap or other with a friend. Mina was an overbearing parent and Rae shuddered to think what Katie would turn out like under her mother’s tutelage. Rae wanted to say something about her own son doing very well with his voice lessons and volunteer work this summer, but Mina wasn’t leaving room for her to wedge it anywhere into the conversation. Rae was not a good mother, in fact she was crap at it, but she tried to make up for it by bragging on Luke whenever she could, seeing as how it was pretty much the sole result of his own genetics that he’d turned out to be such a good kid. It had little or nothing to do with her nurturing instinct. For instance, Luke wouldn’t be sitting here inside his own head having to remind himself to listen for keywords at which to nod kindly or laugh appropriately. He would be engaged with the conversation.
Despite her frustration, though, Rae took comfort that were the tables turned, Mina would be doing the same as she. More than once Rae had seen the same glazed look she was sure she wore now as Mina sat across from her and churned over her own internal monologue while trying to find cracks in the conversation to exploit to her own ends.
The waiter had returned. Rae offered another glowing smile and was poised to open her mouth to the affirmative—she had decided that since she was on vacation she might deserve a treat of creme brûlée—when Mina beat her to it.
“No! Thank you, I’m stuffed.”
Rae shook her head when the waiter glanced at her. She didn’t have to cave to Mina’s decision, but on the other hand, she didn’t need dessert either. Maybe a cigarette after Mina went back to the office instead. That was one thing she did not talk to Mina about even if it fell under the category of things that might be shared in these little therapy sessions. Mina didn’t know Rae smoked. Most people didn’t, and Rae meant to keep it that way. It was private, something she only did when she was very much alone. She couldn’t enjoy it otherwise, and she had been eyeing the welcoming shade of the trees outside in the tiny park beside the restaurant, where the fountain at its center splashed playfully in the heat of the day, when she’d arrived as a good place to unwind and light up. She had thought perhaps her lunch with Mina would negate her need for it, allowing her enough of a stress release that it wouldn’t be necessary to indulge in her guilty pleasure; but the decidedly one-sided nature of the conversation was only reinforcing it instead.
The waiter laid down their checks. “Any time you’re ready.”
Mina glanced at her watch. “I should be getting back,” she said forlornly.
Rae tried not to sigh in relief. Mina had not even asked how Rae was spending her vacation, but what would she have said? That she was spending mindless hours in front of her computer working to connect the dots on a piece of fiction that would never see an editor’s desk, or contemplating her utter uselessness in her current job, or wondering if she recalled enough from the few lessons with her husband at the gun range to use his nine millimeter under her chin without screwing it up, or alternating between double doses of Prozac and glasses of her favorite old fashioned whiskey cocktail to help her fend off the anxiety of returning to work on Monday? It was no wonder she was distracted.
“I’m glad we did this,” Mina said, gathering her purse and spreading her arms for a hug.
“Absolutely!” Rae packed as much sincerity as she had left into the exclamation and leaned in for Mina’s Americanized version of that supercilious French tradition of the buss on both cheeks. “I’ll see you Monday?”
“Yes! If not, I’ll let you know.”
Rae waved as Mina strolled off back up the sidewalk toward her office building.
Her truck was hot and stuffy and she glanced at the shade of the park’s trees again, thinking of the cigarettes in the coin drawer below the gearshift. But no, it was still too public. She would just have to hope that her husband and son decided to go to the hardware store for tomato cages tonight and leave her alone long enough to sit in her stew of thoughts with smoke twisting around her and maybe a shot of the vodka she was sipping so sparingly because the manufacturer had discontinued it.
Mina had disappeared from view and Rae wondered, even with everything she had said in the last hour—in truth in the hundreds of hours of their many lunches together over the years—what she really thought. For all the things they discussed, there was little substance and no truth. The select few times Rae had attempted anything near honesty, she had met that glazed look head on. She wondered if Wren would have looked at her any differently. But in those days, Rae had been more well adjusted, or at least ignorant enough to believe she was, and there had been no confessions between them of such dark matters. Maybe that’s what Wren had been hoping for. Maybe she could see past Rae’s ignorance even then, and she was waiting to help if Rae would let her. What might her life look like now if she had not let that relationship slip away like she had all such relationships in her life? Wren might have been able to teach her more about listening and caring instead of just hearing.
Rae sighed and turned the key in the ignition. It didn’t matter.
There weren’t enough lunch hours in the world to cure her now.