Like a guilty thought, the smell of stale nicotine is buried but present. Tara has seen every version of Mayfair Diner, from smoker’s paradise to revamped mom and pops. Despite the changes, bad decisions still coat every surface like a thin film of nostalgia. Pentacles carved into the laminate, relationships inked on red pleather. The smell of the diner always hits her hard—Tara wants a drink, needs it. There’s no such thing as ‘just a drink’ with Mel, though. Any mention of alcohol brings on long-suffering sighs and lectures, as if Mel had personally sat through every one of Tara’s drunken screaming matches. As if Mel’s done more than just email once a year.
Vodka was their drink of choice in high school. She doesn’t touch the stuff now, but in high school they hid the flavour in juice, bringing it to school in water bottles. She drank too much back then. They all did. Sneaking and emptying bottles, lurching through the woods that separated their houses.
Mel arrives late with no apology. When Tara hugs her, breathing in the aura of sour milk and baby powder, she supposes that Mel doesn’t need to give apologies any longer. Having a baby is its own excuse.
There’s an awkward silence after Mel orders, building until Tara feels sharp-edged and prickly. She regrets not ordering the drink but neither of them wants this meeting to linger.
“You lost weight.”
Mel frowns. “Well, I was four months pregnant when we last met.”
“Must have been a big baby, then.” It’s easier to start a conversation with an insult. Some people can’t help but rise to them, escalating the situation until it boils over or subsides. Mel is the opposite; lobby anything in her direction and she’ll change course. Tara knows Mel, she just likes to pretend that she doesn’t.
Mel purses her lips but lets the comment slide. Just like she lets every comment slide. Melly Belly. They called her that in high school. Mel was fat—even when she was thin, she was fat.
“Do you remember the last time we came here with Katie?”
Katie. The real reason for their meeting. The name tastes like vodka at the back of her throat, like vomit burning as it rises. She thinks of dark winter nights, confusing wooded paths, and footsteps filled in with snow.
At her shrug, Mel launches into a confusing story about ‘that one time with cigarettes and Jell-O’ that Tara doesn’t remember, but she also thinks that, maybe, Mel doesn’t remember, either. Mel never smoked; she was too straight-laced for that. She’d panic whenever they went home, coating herself with perfume. Mel was the reason they chose vodka over tequila or rum.
The memory of Katie plays like an old movie, one ruined and ill-suited to the modern world. Tara and Mel have become caretakers to Katie’s unfinished story, one that they have no idea how to properly end. They only have the memories, nothing tangible, no Facebook post to send thoughts and prayers to. So, they meet once a year and re-examine. It used to mean something. They’d talk about Katie, how much they missed her, mixing new moments to old memories. If only Katie had been there. It didn’t mean anything anymore. Any similarities in their lives ended years ago.
She lets Mel talk. Her coffee gets cold. They comb through their shared Rolodex of memory. If any segments are warped or destroyed, they cut and splice stories together. Stripping the bad sections until the memory is restored, but never the same as it used to be. Fifteen years and this is all Katie is to them now, a story that has been told, twisted, and re-told.
When Mel pauses to drink some water, she glances at her phone. It’s harmless. A quick, fond look at whatever just appeared on her screen. Tara’s mouth sets. At her expression, Mel gives a warm, bracing smile. As if Mel is here for her and not the other way around. Tara’s skin prickles as though feathers are sprouting underneath. Her mouth sours.
“Remember when you passed out, and Katie told John to feel you up? And he told everyone how mushy you felt?” The story comes out before Tara can stop it, though she’s not sure she wants to.
“Tara,” Mel warns.
They’re not supposed to tell the bad stories. You’re supposed to gild the dead, not pick at them like carrion.
“And then you let him take you behind Max’s Milk.” Tara finishes before Mel can say anything else. If hope is a thing with feathers, then this destruction, that look on Mel’s face, is a thing with claws. It feels like scratching at a scab. The tightness under Tara’s skin loosens.
She wants Mel to say something, almost dares her to.
Instead, Mel deflates. With a deep exhale, she shrinks into the booth. Shoulders bent and eyes closed as though Tara has made a killing blow. This small, Mel looks just like she did in high school, falling asleep first at slumber parties or guarding their coats while Tara and Katie danced.
Mel finishes her lunch first, plate cleaned. Her eyes linger on Tara’s half-picked plate, pointedly quiet. Even this feels like a minor victory.
“I’m glad we did this. We should do this more often.” Mel’s voice is flat but her eyes are wary. It’s an empty phrase made threadbare by repetition.
“Definitely. Soon.” It’ll be another year of silence, broken only by the reminder of Katie’s birthday. What would they be without this meeting, without Katie skirting the edge of every memory, forcing her way into their conversation?
Their goodbye is part of their performance. Tara used to be the first one to break away, desperate to shake off the weight of someone else’s memory. Now, Mel has a fat baby and new stories to tell. New moments to film and post, better filters to add to memory.