Between bites of avocado toast, I tell her first. She sucks her breath and smacks the table, rustling the ridiculous pussy bow on her polka-dot blouse. Despite her vow not to cry, mascara clumps her lashes in betrayal. It must not be the waterproof kind I talked her into during our last mall pilgrimage. Better than sex, the glistening pink tube bragged, as though it knew something we didn’t.
She asks what’s on my bucket list. Watching The Bucket List, I tell her. I’m on my third Bellini. She asks whether they have Make-A-Wish for grownups. Yeah, why should sad little kids have all the fun? She asks what I want to do, as though I have a choice in the matter. All I want to do is to sit in this chair, so that’s what I’m doing until I don’t feel like doing that anymore. As long as I sit here, we’re just two basic bitches brunching on a three-season patio. She asks how Dan is handling it. I tell her he’s golfing. I figure I’ll fill him in eventually. I haven’t known him as long.
The sprouted-grain toast forms a gummy bolus in the back of my mouth as she scolds me for not understanding marriage. Paul would be furious if she withheld such information, she says. Of course he’d be furious. He rants about the N.S.A. archiving his emails to anyone who’ll listen, while making no secret of reading his wife’s. You know there’s no escaping a man like Paul.
I swallow hard and shout over the nearby bus, beeping as it kneels, that I haven’t told Dan yet because he’d tell the kids—who, at six and three, can’t quite grasp the bitter karma of Mommy having slept around before she met Daddy. Without looking, I can feel the faces of the diamond-draped biddies at the adjacent table swivel in our direction, then turn away, newly quiet. We have an audience.
“Oh, god. The kids,” she says. Sometimes she forgets they exist. She never asks to see pictures. It used to bother me.
We chew in silence and watch a police cruiser sail past without a siren. My tongue glides over the slimy chia seed embedded in the molar I chipped last year, a casualty of grinding. I don’t want a warm-up, but I let the waitress fill the mug anyway.
Shit or get off the pot, something in me blurts, letting my tongue find the words. “If I got a wish, it would be to wake up next to Ben one more time.” Saying it out loud is easier than I’d expected, though harder than the other thing. Saying it out loud means admitting I’ve been lying to her for years.
“Christ. That’s still happening?” Her face has the serial monogamist’s mask of pity, like it did those mornings I’d stumble home to our three-flat wearing the previous night’s bandage dress. I’d make her swear not to judge me as I peeled off that fetid layer of skank and crawled under her comforter, my hair reeking of smoke from some 4 a.m. bar. I preferred to sleep off my mistakes while spooning her in a Blackhawks jersey from some forgotten boyfriend as she thumbed through a gossip rag. I would have been content to hang out there forever, but then came Paul. “He’s in private equity,” she gushed as she packed her share of our belongings and moved to a neighborhood by the lake that I still can’t afford.
“Only every few months,” I say. “Trade shows, mostly.” A hidden perk of work travel. My editor sent me to trend-scout at the Fancy Food Show, where I sampled Ben’s artisanal marshmallows. Days later, I could still taste the fine dusting of his sugar on my lips from our glancing connection. I pictured him toiling on his Vermont farm: kind brown eyes behind clear plastic frames, cuffed denim revealing inked forearms, leather apron. I contacted him for a follow-up interview for an article I only pretended to write. Our first emails were professional, until I sent him my number one evening, after an accidental bottle of rosé. Now we text photos, though never anything that would appear explicit: artfully plated charcuterie, his pug Belinda in dog booties, elaborate knots. A safe escape from the life I hadn’t known I’d need to escape from.
I haven’t told him yet, either, in case you’re wondering.
She crosses her arms and tells me it’s a terrible wish, that a genie would scold me for being a ho-bag. “Not to mention the kids,” she says.
“Exactly,” I say. “I’d prefer not to mention them.” I promise her I’ll come clean, right after I tell Dan about my chitchat with my obie-gynie to discuss the biopsy results. I hear I get a free pass on everything that comes after. Though, frankly, I’d rather wipe my phone on my deathbed and croak while Dan still thinks I’m a saint.
The waitress reaches under the propane heater’s canopy to flick it on, blasting my face with an uncomfortable warmth as the lecture continues. “I can’t believe you held this for a week. I’d be texting you before I left the doctor’s office.” She’s right. We took personality tests once, while job-searching. Her suggested careers were for people-people: gallery assistant, art teacher, hairstylist. I gawked at her soft skills in envy; my results included pilot and assassin. I still owe her for those months of our rent from the gap between her landing a dream job as a floral designer and when I started writing news briefs for a trade publication devoted to food service equipment. There’s something catchy for my tombstone—Here lies an expert on stainless steel.
“I’ve been busy—working on my bucket list,” I say. Time to find the little girl’s room. I stand and toss my wadded napkin on the table. A yellow ginkgo leaf spirals down into my empty chair, where it fans out comfortably, as though I were never there.
Nineteen-dollar cocktails mean that each toilet gets its own walk-in closet, adorned with throwback peony wallpaper and a heavy door that locks with a thud. I try to summon a shit, but nothing comes, a waste of the soundproofing behind the wainscoted walls. Instead, I break the seal, thinking as I do every time of when I first learned of this concept: that night we got giggly on the loose Zimas I’d smuggled in my kitty-cat backpack as we watched a group of New Trier boys play GoldenEye.
I hold my hands under the waterfall faucet until my fingertips go numb, then splash my face, leaving cakey smears of foundation on a rolled washcloth that smells like gardenias. In the gilded mirror, my face looks like raw pork tenderloin. My handbag holds emergency makeup, but what’s the point. She’s seen every worst part of me, and she’s still here.
From the lounge-stall, I taunt Ben: I think I’ll be a little tied up when you come next weekend. Instantly, a gray bubble materializes—a screen shot of a Burlington Bowline. One of the safest ones to use, it leaves behind no suggestion on the skin that a rope was ever there. My lips curl upward into something that almost feels like a smile.
I aim the dirty washcloth toward a homely wicker basket that looks out of place, but I miss the shot by a foot. I don’t bother to pick it up. If you tip north of twenty percent, you can get away with anything.
At the table, her phone is on her ear. She’s frowning. Our eyes lock as I brush more fallen leaves from my chair. She thrusts the phone at me. Her screen, larger than mine, feels heavy in my palm, like an old rotary. “It’s Dan,” she says. “He’s between holes. He knows you have something to tell him.”
I stare at the mug’s steam, still rising, and spit the loosened chia seed into the faux-dish-towel napkin, faint streaks of last year’s lipstick shade staining its striped border. I’d always thought she was someone who knew the shortest path to destroy me but would never take it. Here I’d mapped it out for her and loaded her with ammunition. So much for asking her to do the eulogy.