It doesn’t take opening her eyes for Melanie to feel the weight of others’ stares on her. Over the past week, she’s grown accustomed to the sensation—a pressure at the base of her skull that starts light as a fingertip and builds into a burn, like she’s two centimeters away from an open flame. She swears she can feel the scorch marks from where they’ve licked her scalp.
What she cannot get used to is the sneers when she meets the gazes, the vitriol spewed at her from behind hands and sometimes without even that shield. Melanie had known people could be cruel and judgmental creatures, ready to pick others apart for one action without any context. Quickly, she’s come to realize knowing and experiencing something are two very different things, and the depth of the cruelty cannot be underestimated.
As Melanie steps under the stripped awning of Le Doux, she experiences both within seconds. The burning crawls up to the crown of her head and the whispers reverberate off her eardrums as yells—mistress. homewrecker. whore—come from an elderly woman a table three feet away, a couple enjoying mimosas, agroup of twenty-something guys.
Melanie bites her cheek until they bleed, trying to keep her anger and her tears in check, the iron leaving an impression on her taste buds.
She ducks her head and approaches the maître de, who is wearing a crisp white shirt and black pants, and penciling a reservation into a gold-gilded book atop a podium. He looks up, and his eyes widen when they set on her, before he returns his face back to its neutral setting; at least he has the courtesy to be professional. “May I help you?” he asks.
“Yes, I have a reservation under Rochester,” she says, and he consults his book, nodding.
“Yes, the other half of your party is already here. Let me escort you back.”
She had hoped to be the first one here so she could be the one to set the mood, to feel like she was in the position of power. Now, that card is someone else’s hand, ready and waiting to be played.
The man guides her through a set of French doors, and the main dining room that even for 2:00 P.M. has a fair number of diners, many of whom seem to clock her. Down a short hallway, the man goes, stopping a few yards down in front of another set of doors. These, too, are filled with panes of glass, but drapes cover them. That’s exactly what they need right now: cover. Hence why they’re meeting under a name that belongs to neither her nor her lunch date.
The man presses his hand against the silver handle, and the door eases open. With a wave of his hand, he motions her inside. “Your table, ma’am.”
Melanie pauses outside the door, imagining herself sliding on the pieces of her armor piece by shiny metal piece. The time to run and hide has passed. She has to do this—although that doesn’t mean she can’t do it slowly. With her head held high, Melanie inches into the room, and as soon as she clears the door, she’s face to face with her host, with someone she didn’t know existed up until a week and a half ago, at least not in this context.
A bank of tables cloaked in sky blue cloth separates them from one another. On them is a beautiful setting with sprigs of yellow flowers no bigger than a fingernail filling the vase along with a rose.
Ella’s hands rest on the tablecloth, her nails filed into perfect crescents and lacquered with red nail polish. Her outfit looks like it’s coordinated for the day—a blue button down and white pants. Her obsidian hair sweeps around her neck and over her shoulder in a wave. Melanie automatically feels like she’s in the wrong place. She tried to dress nicely, and smartly—a pair of gray trousers with a violet blouse—but it doesn’t seem to reach the same level as Ella, which she is sure is how most people feel about her in general at this moment.
When Ella suggested meeting her here for a free lunch, she said it was because it was neutral ground; but there is no such thing as neutral ground anymore. All the forces are arrayed against Melanie, ready to fire on another’s behalf.
For her sanity, her dignity, her own self-worth. And maybe Ella knows that. How couldn’t she be aware of the rating system that has Ella at the top and Melanie at the bottom? But maybe, when you live in different worlds, awareness of what is going on in another fades. Ella looks to live in one of elegance—shiny hair and pressed linens—while Melanie is one of colorful rugs and comfort found in boxes of Chinese food.
“Hello,” Melanie says, and hopes that Ella misses the way she quickly wipes her palms against the sides of her pants.
“Hi,” Ella says, but doesn’t force a smile. Like the maître de, Melanie finds herself appreciating the woman, if only for her lack of fakeness. Some people may try at the niceties in a chance to win you over. Ella doesn’t give a shit. “Please, sit down.”
Melanie nods and takes her spot, elbows hanging off the table edge, opposite hands holding tight to them. When she realizes how small it makes her, Melanie adjusts and folds her hands in her lap.
“Thank you for inviting me. You really don’t have to pay for lunch, though. I’m more than capable of getting my own. I can get yours, too,” she says. Since Ella said she would pay, Melanie has felt uncomfortable about it, like it was another way of ceding power. She’d prefer to hold just a little bit in her hands if she could—and prove that she could.
“That’s okay. It was my idea, so I’ll take care of it,” Ella says, and the two of them fall into silence, one that feels as long as the days have been as of late.
Their words are lost in each other’s, and lips turn upwards, but not enough to be considered smiles. Because Ella made the invitation, Melanie feels like Ella should probably get the first word; but, Melanie’s also bursting with things to say, things that if held in could impact the conversation for the worst.
So, she blurts them out, talking so quickly the speech may as well gush from her mouth. “I’d like to say I’m sorry for what happened, and what’s happening now. All of it, really.”
“For what? Having an affair with my husband? For him disappearing?” Ella asks. Nope, she definitely does not have a smile; but then again, neither does Melanie.
It began last Tuesday when Melanie learned her boyfriend, Teddy, had disappeared somewhere between home and work the day before, leaving no note and no signs of why other than a stack of bad bank statements hidden in his desk drawer. The next day, police told her Teddy was not only her boyfriend but a husband to someone else—Ella—with whom he had a child, a white picket fence, a hefty bank account, and a seemingly perfect life that he never once alluded to.
On Thursday, as the media shared that investigators were trying to figure out if foul play was involved, they admitted that Teddy had played foul in his own life as he lived out two versions of it. Right away, people made up their mind about Melanie, and once they did, there was no returning the ether to its vial.
“That you’re dealing with this situation and him being missing, yes. For the affair, no,” Melanie says, and Ella’s posture goes to stone. “I think you need to know it’s an affair to apologize.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” The words leave Ella’s mouth with less snark and more wariness, as if she knows this answer is going to change her life one more time in a matter of a couple weeks.
“I didn’t know about you. If I did, I never would’ve been with him. I swear.” Despite Ella’s accusatory tone, Melanie doesn’t feel like injecting any shade into her own. This statement is not to win or an intended barb. It’s the simple truth.
“He never—” Ella dips her head towards the table and focuses on folding and refolding the napkin on her lap. “He never said anything about us? About his son? Matty?”
“He said he was divorced, didn’t have any kids, and at the time, he had been for a year. That was it,” Melanie says, reaching for her water glass.
Melanie didn’t know that when they met at a folk concert two years back, Teddy had given her a different last name, so if she looked him up, she wouldn’t have found a social media presence and just thought he was a fellow Facebook recluse like herself. She had no reason not to trust him.
That’s the kicker of it all, really: He was the one who lied, yet they’re both the ones getting punished. It’s so cliché it makes her sick. Men aren’t branded in the same way as women, held to the same standards. Time and time again, Melanie has heard the “other woman” narrative, but “other man” doesn’t flow off the tongue as easily, and isn’t part of the societal vernacular like “other woman.” Men aren’t treated like they broke apart their own marriage. That’s the homewrecker’s fault, the mistress who should’ve known better, as if the onus of honoring marriage vows fell on the person who didn’t make them.
She’s an actuary, using math and statistics to solve problems and gauge risk five days a week. With the information she received, she would’ve placed her risk with Teddy as low and that he was a fraud even lower; but he blew every calculation. An outlier in every sense of the word.
“Divorced.” Ella chuckles to herself sardonically. “We’ve never even talked about divorce. In nine years of marriage, it never came up once. Can you believe that?” Ella doesn’t give Melanie the time to respond, the question rhetorical. “Of course, you could. Why would he want a divorce when he could have the best of both worlds?” The woman rakes her hand through her hair and brings it to rest over her mouth. “He never even acted like anything was going on.”
Melanie had been elated when she and Teddy first got together, enamored, really, so much so that her family members and friends automatically knew something was up; but apparently, to him, it was business as usual. In having the best of both worlds, he mocked the sham of the one they had built together.
Despite the tilt of Ella’s head, Melanie spots the tears building in her eyes. “What did he tell you? Anything true?” Ella asks, but Melanie doesn’t really know what is true and what isn’t anymore.
“Well, he told me he was in sales, and that he had to travel a lot for business trips, but I know now those trips were—”
“To see us,” Ella says and Melanie nods. “And the ones he told us about were to see you.”
“Probably,” Melanie says, although it crossed her mind that if he had two women he was juggling, why couldn’t it be more? Who knows how many “loves” he had throughout the area, or in different parts of the country?
Throwing her balled-up napkin on the tabletop, Ella blots at her eyes, fingertips pressing against the puffiness beneath them that shows Melanie she was not the only one spending her days crying. “You know, when he got a promotion at work, at first he said that he’d have to take fewer business trips, but then all of the sudden, they started picking up more and more, and they said they were demanding more of him at work, and I actually felt bad for the son of a bitch.” Her lips pull into a tight, puckered smile. “He knew how to get me. How to get me to pity him and give him what he wanted. Meanwhile, he was looking for anyone he could to screw that wasn’t his wife.”
As opposed to what some people may think, Melanie wasn’t in this relationship to have a sordid, torrid affair that was purely carnal. She was in it because she loved him—loves him, if she’s being honest, or the version of him she knew at least. The man who would sing Lord Huron in her face; send her video messages to show her some ridiculous thing going on or tell her about his day; and cuddle on the couch after work had exhausted them and all they wanted was each other.
For the first time since Melanie’s admission, Ella’s gaze meets her, and in it, Melanie can see regret. “Sorry. I wasn’t meaning it against you. I’m just—I’m livid at him for doing this. For running away, and leaving me looking like a joke with everyone we know and to explain to our son whatever the hell this mess is.”
Ella opens her menu, and flips through the pages without actually looking at them, while Melanie runs her hand over the embossed cover, the indentation pressed into a leather-like fabric. It hadn’t occurred to Melanie that she wasn’t the only one in this equation on the receiving end of abuse. Another unfairness: that a wife is supposed to know better than to trust her husband and believe that his word is something he’d hold to.
“Of course he did. One of his lies was actually catching up to him.” Ella flips the page so hard, Melanie worries it may rip away from the menu board. “Why face the music when you can leave everyone in the lurch?”
“Right.” As of now, it’s the only theory that makes sense. The police found hundreds of pages of records in Teddy’s possession detailing wire fraud and tax evasion that apparently the Feds had found too and were ready to pounce on until Teddy got wind of their intentions. If that isn’t the case, and police find no signs of violence or capture, why hasn’t he called anyone to tell him what is really going on? To tell them what they’re seeing flashed all over the news isn’t the truth? Because it is, and he doesn’t care about how the fallout hurts them, his poor son, anyone. It’s the hardest part to accept: how little in the long run she meant to him. “It’s sociopathic.”
“That’s putting it kindly,” Ella says, and the tears edge into Melanie’s vision, too. She closes her eyes so they go no further. “I guess he broke both our hearts, didn’t he?”
Melanie looks at the woman across from her, and finds her in the same state. “Yeah.”
Slowly, Ella nods, and extends her arm to the center to the table to the drink menu. “Okay, we have a lot to talk and commiserate about, but I think we should get drinks first. Do you like wine?”
Melanie blinks at her, experiencing a bit of whiplash from the change in topic and tone. “Yes.”
“Then we’re getting a bottle. Maybe two,” Ella says. “How about Chardonnay?”
“Good taste,” Melanie says, and receives an actual smile in return.