All we had in common were a neighborhood and kids who were the same age and took a class together. But it was me Rachel called the afternoon before she left her husband. I wasn’t surprised the marriage was over; Zander had never bothered to hide his serial cheating, and it was a much discussed, open secret in town. Just surprised she called me.
I knew she wanted to make it a thing, like you see on TV. Laughing, crying, margaritas, and junk food. But we really weren’t that close, and though I liked her, and admired her, it was weird she wanted me with her as she packed up essentials and put together boxes of memorabilia. I asked if I could help; she said I was helping by being there for her, which made me sad. We barely knew each other.
The last time I’d seen Zander was at the local ballet studio, where our kids, barely out of diapers, dressed up in fairy tale clothes and skipped in circles. They loved it. Their daughter had stopped to help mine with a shoelace issue. I was trying to tell him this nice thing about his kid, but as soon as I mentioned her name, he interrupted me. What did she do? he asked in an aggressive baritone, like he was talking to the police. I couldn’t imagine what living with the guy must be like. I told my Danny about it when I got home; he just laughed and told me I didn’t realize how lucky I was.
I watched Rachel unload her bookshelf in the bedroom, slowly, volume by volume. Mostly poetry, mostly women, a lot of mid-century stuff in the confessional mode. She held each book in her two hands for a moment before fitting it into one of the small sturdy boxes that littered the rug. She broke her rhythm to wave a slim hardcover in my direction. Sylvia Plath. It was a signed copy, a gift from him, she said, angling her head towards the windows, as though Zander might be out there, bobbing his head against the glass like a balloon.
Rachel was upset, sure, but also befuddled by the latest turn of events. Rumor had it that Zander had spent all their money behind her back on some sketchy tax scheme of some sort. Since she was the family’s main breadwinner and had spent many years before their late marriage working overtime at a mangy law firm outside the Beltway, this amounted to nothing less than legal theft.
“Love,” said Rachel. “The great pretender.”
I didn’t know what to say to this, so I just sat there with what I hoped was a receptive expression on my face.
“The truth,” she said, “comes at you sideways, in little packages, delivered in between shallow breaths. Grief, too.”
I nodded and mumbled something about her having a way with words I envied. I told her I’d refresh our glasses, glad to escape.
I took my time on the staircase, studying the family photos that line its walls. They looked like ours, everybody happy, everybody beaming their appreciation of the good life into the camera lens. I straightened a couple of picture frames and picked up a stray ponytail holder on the landing before heading to the kitchen. It was kind of a mess, dried-up food stuck to cereal bowls along the counters and plated sandwich crusts and murky half-filled tumblers on the table. I scraped the dishes and put everything into the sink to soak before going to the refrigerator for our drinks.
Behind the pitcher Rachel had prepared was half a pizza wrapped in cling plastic, and I grabbed that, too. I carried our drinks and the food carefully back up the stairs, past all those smiling eyes. The last thing this house needed was another mess.
Rachel had moved on from the bookshelf and was sorting papers at her desk. She looked up when I came in and motioned for me to put everything on a dusty bedside table. I unwrapped the pizza; I hadn’t realized how hungry I’d become.
It was a pineapple, bacon, and broccoli pie, a combination that turned my stomach. My husband’s favorite. Sometimes he added mustard just for fun to see me fake gag. I must have made some sort of noise, because Rachel came over and stood beside me.
“Yeah,” she said. “I know. Disgusting. Danny called it brain food. The two of them were at it again a couple of nights ago, trying to figure out this IRS issue. Is the rest of the cheese one gone?”
I said I’d check and went back down the stairs and out through the front door and kept on going. I took some shallow breaths.