“Mike didn’t come home last night.”
I gaze at Mia, her lip trembling as the words escape in a jerky sob, and try to find the right platitudes to make her feel better. He loves you. He wouldn’t cheat on you. He probably just needs a bit of alone time. I know I should feel sympathy but I can’t help thinking, I told you so.
The first time I met him, I knew Mike Dalton was bad news. Tall and dark with just the right amount of designer stubble and eyes that invited you to bed the moment you looked at him, he smouldered raw sexuality. He wouldn’t be faithful to Mia – poor, sweet, innocent Mia – or to any other woman unlucky enough to fall for him. Even now, his gaze was roving the bar, searching for future conquests. He wasn’t the sort of guy to let himself get tied down.
“Mike, this is Helen. My best friend.”
He cast me a cool, appraising look, almost as if he were undressing me with his eyes, and that was when I knew.
I return to the present, knowing I need to comfort my friend. “What happened?” I ask gently.
As she begins her halting story, I find my mind wandering a little. It’s hard to concentrate on someone else’s misery when you’re still buzzing from your own far more successful evening. I’m not a stay-at-home body like Mia: I like to be wined and dined – preferably somewhere very expensive – and then to dance the night away in an exclusive club. And if sex happens to be on the menu… Well, let’s put it this way: I work hard at looking good and I’m yet to meet a man who hasn’t wanted to sleep with me. Perhaps that’s why I knew why Mia’s relationship with Mike was doomed to failure: I looked at him and recognized a kindred spirit.
“…And then I rang his cell phone, but there was no answer. And I sent him about twenty text messages but he didn’t reply to any of them.”
Poor, stupid Mia. She doesn’t realize that the more you chase someone like Mike, the faster he’ll run. I know they’re engaged but that’s only because she refused to sleep with him without some sign of commitment. I’ve thought of hinting to her that a ring doesn’t necessarily mean fidelity, but she’s naïve enough to think everyone else follows her own code of morality.
“Mia,” I say, interrupting her tale of woe, “do you think you might have rushed into things with Mike? I mean, he moved in with you only a couple of months after you met each other.”
“Because we’re getting married,” she says. Life is so simple from Mia’s perspective. “I love him and he loves me and we’re going to spend the rest of our lives together.”
“And he didn’t come home last night,” I remind her. Wake up, Mia. Open your eyes and see what’s happening under your nose.
Her lip trembles again. “When he didn’t reply, I started ringing round the hospitals. What if he’s had an accident somewhere – or been mugged and beaten up? He could be lying in a ditch somewhere, bleeding to death.” She finally breaks down properly. “That’s the only reason I can think of for him not getting in touch.”
She’s so heartbroken that I resort to comforting lies. “He’s probably sleeping off a massive hangover,” I say. “He was too embarrassed to let you see him drunk, so he’s crashed at a friend’s place until he’s sobered up. And his phone battery might have died – that’s why he hasn’t rung you.”
Her eyes shine with hope and I almost feel guilty. Almost, but not quite.
“Mike didn’t come home last night.”
Mia jiggles her new-born, trying to coax it to sleep. Her face is pale and drawn and she looks exhausted, but I suspect it’s not the baby who’s caused the dark shadows under her eyes.
No one was more surprized than I was when Mike and Mia got hitched. It seemed she’d finally tamed the sex-addict and turned him into a family man. Admittedly, she was three months pregnant at the time and Mike’s family are very conservative. His mom’s a staunch Catholic who’d made no secret of her disapproval when they’d started living together without being married first, and there was no way she would have let Mike abandon the mother of his family’s first grandchild.
“Has he done this before?” I ask. “Since you got married, I mean?”
She shakes her head. Pain leaks from her eyes but she’s trying to hold herself together – if nothing else, for the baby in her arms.
“Maybe he just needed a decent night’s sleep,” I offer. “You’ve said he’s working really hard on a new contract at the moment. What if he checked into a hotel, took a sleeping tablet and just zonked out?” I take a deep breath. “He loves you, Mia. You’ve got a baby together. Doesn’t that tell you something?”
Eventually, she dries her tears and makes a weak attempt at a smile. “I’m sure you’re right, Helen. I’m just really emotional at the moment – y’know, post-partum and all that.” The baby’s now sleeping peacefully and she kisses its downy head with tenderness. “You need to sleep like that at night and then Daddy won’t feel he has to be somewhere else.”
“Mike didn’t come home last night.” By now, the words are a well-worn cliché, but this time, it’s different. “He packed a bag and said he’d be back for the rest of his things later.” She announces the news in the lifeless tone of a robot, as if she’s still processing the information, wondering where all her calculations went wrong. “He’s left me, Helen – and he isn’t coming back.”
Little by little, I hear the whole story: how he’d tried moving out secretly, going back to their apartment when he thought she’d be at Gymboree with Elsa – only Elsa had started running a high temperature while they were out so Mia had brought her home early and caught Mike stuffing shirts and underwear into an overnight bag.
“At first, I thought he was just off on a business trip,” she says. “He’s had a lot of those lately. But when I asked when he’d be back, he told me the truth.”
She’s staring at her fingers, twisting her wedding band round and round as if it’s the magic ring in a fairy tale that will give you your heart’s desire.
“I’ve been so stupid,” she says in that hollow, empty voice that makes me want to cry. “All those times I thought he was working late, or away on business – he was with her. He says he’s in love with her, that he wants to be with her and not me – us.” Her gaze travels to Elsa, sitting on the floor, playing with squashy blocks, and I know she’s wondering how Mike can walk away from his daughter before she’s even reached her first birthday.
“Did he…” I choose my words carefully, not wanting to set off an emotional avalanche. “…Did he tell you who this mystery woman is?”
She shakes her head, the pain too new, too raw. She’s still in denial: she knows he’s gone, but she thinks if she doesn’t talk about it, it won’t hurt as much.
“I don’t understand…” And now her voice finally breaks. “I don’t understand how anyone can steal someone else’s husband like that.”
But he wasn’t always her husband. On the night Mia introduced us, Mike was still unmarried, not even engaged. The evening is imprinted on my memory: the vivid blue of the cocktail I was drinking, the thumping beat of the music playing in the background, the smell of his cologne as the three of us sat down at a table and the jolt of electricity as his hand grazed my thigh when Mia wasn’t looking. He was never right for her and we both knew it. He could have ended things there and then, before her heart got broken; and after a decent interval of time, we could have started seeing each other openly. But there’s always a certain frisson in having an affair: the sneaking into hotels in the middle of the day for secret sex sessions; the elaborate lies and alibis you concoct to avoid detection; the thrill of knowing you could be caught at any moment. Admittedly, he should have finished their relationship before she got pregnant, but by the time he knew, it was too late.
Before you start judging me, I’m not proud of myself. I never wanted to be a marriage-wrecker. Mia’s my closest friend – has been since the day we met in eighth grade. But this thing with Mike was bigger than both of us – all three of us if you count him as well. When he undressed me with his eyes on that first evening, I knew exactly what he was thinking. You’re hot and I want to sleep with you. And that’s what I was thinking too as I met his gaze. There was never a choice: I had to have him.
Did I feel guilty? A little, but not enough to make me stop seeing him. Besides, I used to argue with myself, if he wasn’t seeing me behind Mia’s back, he’d be cheating on her with someone else. At least I was someone who cared about her enough to make sure she didn’t find out. It would have destroyed her if she’d known. She was convinced he adored her as much as she adored him. Anyway, they weren’t even sleeping together at first. I wonder now if that’s why he stayed with her even though he had me. Perhaps he viewed her as a challenge: he wasn’t used to women saying no.
I have to confess, it hurt when he proposed to her. I wasn’t jealous – it’s not as if I wanted to marry him myself; but it made me question whether he liked her more than he was letting on. And for the first couple of months, they both seemed genuinely happy. He was cooling off towards me, almost as if he didn’t need me now he had a warm bed to go home to every night.
I didn’t want to lose him, so I started dating someone else. If Mike thought I was unobtainable, I knew he’d try to get me back. He couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else playing with his toys. And he was so desperate to sleep with me again that when I said I wanted him to stay over, he couldn’t refuse. That’s when he started ‘working late’. And what Mia didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.
I wonder now if Mia knew, subconsciously, that he was cheating on her. Did she get pregnant on purpose to make him stay with her? Mike was never that into the idea of having children but Mia knew his mom would be on her side: she told me so right after she got the result of her pregnancy test. For the next seven or eight months, every time she asked me to go with her to the hospital or showed me the photo of her latest scan, my gut twisted when I thought about Mike’s baby growing inside her. I’m not the maternal type myself, but the man I loved was having a baby with someone else, and it hurt.
I’ll never forget the day she went into labor. She’d asked me to be her back-up birth partner – just in case Mike was away on another business trip – and she rang me in a panic when she couldn’t reach him. Of course, he and I both got dressed straight away and headed for the hospital – in separate cabs, naturally. There would be time to pick up where we’d left off once this baby was out of her.
That night, I stayed over at his place for once – Mia was still in hospital with the baby so we spent the night in their carved wooden bed with the satin sheets I’d given them both as a wedding present. I pulled out all the stops – I needed him to see me as the antithesis of Mia. She’d looked pale and exhausted in the hospital: her face bare of makeup; her hair in rats’ tails. I shimmered with sexuality: my lips red and luscious; my underwear enticingly scanty. I should have felt guilty, but I didn’t. Mike’s always been like a drug I need more of – and I needed an even bigger fix that night to stop me thinking about Mia and their baby and how messed up everything was.
I tune back into our conversation, Mia’s last comment still ringing in my ears. “I don’t understand how anyone can steal someone else’s husband like that.” Am I lying by not telling her the truth? People say that what you don’t know can’t hurt you: I’m keeping quiet to protect Mia, that’s all. She’s too fragile to handle a double betrayal.
“So, you don’t know who she is?” I ask again.
Mia shakes her head. I can’t bring myself to tell her that Mike’s now living with me.
And it’s easy at first to keep things a secret. Mia’s far too busy looking after Elsa to put any effort into investigating what Mike’s up to these days. I buy a blonde wig and use it to cover my dark hair when we go out – just in case anyone we know sees the two of us together. Sometimes, we pretend we don’t know each other: I sit in a bar on my own and he comes over and tries to hit on me. If I play hard to get, he ups his game until I agree to go home with him. Occasionally, I give in straight away and we end up in a bathroom stall or in the alley outside. I know Mia was never adventurous like this – it’s not like I’m competing with her or anything, but I still get a kick out of thinking I’m giving him something she couldn’t.
“Helen?” Mia’s voice on the phone. She sounds… strange. “Are you free to come over? I need to talk to you.”
It’s a while since I’ve seen her. When they first broke up, she rang constantly, pouring her heart out as she over-analysed their marriage and tried to work out where it all went wrong. After several weeks, I started putting her on speakerphone, letting her noise drone on the background while I did my nails or sorted laundry. The occasional “Uh huh” Elvis-style was enough to convince her I was listening.
“I’ve been sorting through the filing cabinet.” Mia’s cheeks are tear-stained; she looks like she’s been crying again. She’s probably found the receipt for their wedding rings or the sample menus from the wedding caterers.
I pull my face into a mask of concern. “What did you find? Something that’s brought up painful memories?”
“Not exactly.” Two pink spots appear in her cheeks. “I was sorting through old household bills, trying to work out where I could economize, and I found these.” She dumps a pile of cell phone bills on the countertop in front of me. “Mike used to pay for both accounts, so I never bothered looking at any of the bills before now. I just checked mine every month and then let him file it away.”
“So, were you being overcharged or something?” I’m not sure where this is going.
She taps the name at the top of the bill and my stomach lurches. It’s not her bill: it’s his.
“There’s one number that keeps coming up.” Her voice is unnaturally calm. “Month after month after month.” When I don’t say anything, she continues, “It’s your number, Helen.”
“He was worried about you,” I say at last. “Remember when you first got married? When you thought he was having an affair? He was just asking me if I knew why you were acting so strangely.”
The words sound hollow, even to me, and Mia’s not buying any of it.
“He was ringing and messaging you more than he was me,” she says flatly. “Long before the two of us got married. While I was pregnant. After I had Elsa. Even after we split up. Admit it, Helen. It’s been going on for years.”
I don’t add insult to injury by continuing to lie. “I’m sorry,” I say at last.
“You’re my best friend,” she whispers. “You were my maid of honor. You’re Elsa’s godmother.”
Guilt grows like a tapeworm inside me – twisting my gut; squeezing my heart.
“I’d like to say I hope you’ll be very happy together,” she says as she opens the door and ushers me out. “But I can’t. You stole my husband. I’ll never forgive you for that.”
Sometimes, the word ‘sorry’ isn’t enough.
“The most I can say,” she adds before she shuts me out of her life forever, “is good luck. He won’t be faithful. He’ll do to you what he did to me.”
It’s been eight months since the last time I saw Mia or spoke to her. I’ve called, but she doesn’t answer. Every day, I’m aware of how much I miss her; and every day, I wish I still had her in my life. She’s the only one who’d understand what I’m going through right now – because Mike didn’t come home last night.