“Richard’s cheating on me,” I announced to my two closest friends. We had just been seated in a wide booth at an upscale brunch place in town. The menus had been placed before us, the silverware arranged accordingly. A late morning sun glare had settled over our table, illuminating our faces, and for some reason it seemed like a fitting time to make the announcement.
To my left, Shailene gasped loudly, cupped her hands over her mouth and emitted a muffled but still noisy, “Oh my god!” Her reaction was so piercing that it caught the attention of an older couple two tables over. She looked as though someone had just died.
To my right, Megan was peeling the butter knife away from her three-year old son and trying to shush her baby daughter. “Shhh Harper, shhh, no don’t grab Mommy’s car keys. Caden! Caden! Put the knife down! Wait…wait…Holly, what did you — Caden, Mommy really means it! You’re going to go into time-out!”
Again the goings-on of our table attracted the stares of the older couple.
“He’s cheating on me,” I said sadly. “We officially had the conversation last night. He’s found someone else. He’s moving out and we’re going to get a divorce. He’s going to live in an apartment.” I lowered my head and stared at the menu. Pictures of almond cinnamon buns, egg-white soufflés and whole grain pancakes stared back at me. I didn’t have the appetite for any of it.
Shailene continued to gape at me as though she was looking at a ghost and I certainly felt like one – the ghost of my fourteen-year marriage. What remained after courtship and vows, Lamaze classes, school musicals and birthday parties. I felt like a disembodied shell of my former, coupled self.
They must have known something was up when I convened an emergency brunch. Years ago, before I had children, my late morning brunches with various friends were a weekly ritual. I would roll out of bed at noon, eyes still caked in day-old make-up, breath still suggestive of the previous night’s spirits. My friends and I would lazily stroll into the restaurant of choice, and take our time detailing all the decadent stories from the weekend.
Times had certainly changed.
These days, with our hectic schedules, brunch outings were about as frequent as sightings of Haley’s Comet. But this morning was different. I had sent a frantic text to both of them, saying we needed to talk. Shailene was able to get her mother to watch her seven-year-old daughter at the last minute. But Megan was only able to offload one child – her seven-year old son who was at a friend’s birthday party. Megan’s baby Harper and three-year-old Caden would have to be present for my revelation.
“So that’s it?” Shailene asked. “He’s started seeing someone else and the marriage is over? Who is this other woman?”
“Poopy!” Caden exclaimed. “Poopy poopy poopy! Poop on your head! Poop on your head!”
“I’m so sorry, Holly,” Megan said. “Caden! That’s it! You’re in time-out! Turn your body around right now!”
Caden happily obliged, shifting his small body until he was on his knees and staring at the customers in the booth behind us.
“Megan, we’re in a booth,” Shailene pointed out. “You’re not really punishing him. You’re punishing the people behind us.”
Megan sighed. “Well what would you have me do? It’s a busy, crowded restaurant. I can’t put him in a chair in the corner. He’ll trip someone or run out the door.” Megan lifted her daughter who was starting to whimper from the car seat and onto her lap. She stroked the baby’s soft downy hair and for a brief moment, our table was silent.
Megan pressed Harper’s head against her chest and turned to face me. “Your marriage is really over?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s really over. Richard’s with someone else.”
“He told you that?”
“Yeah he did.”
We were silent again until Shailene, in her most demanding tone, asked, “Well, who is this husband-stealing whore-slut?”
At that moment our waiter had arrived at our table. He was a slender man of about nineteen or twenty – a mess of dark tangled hair and face still pocked with the last vestiges of teenage acne. “Oooh…,” he said when he heard Shailene’s comment. “Um, I could come back.”
“No!” Megan insisted in the same tone she used with Caden. “We need to order right away! Harper is going to be ready for nap in about twenty minutes, Caden will be trying to eat the tablecloth after that and I need to get home to take Trevor to the doctor because of his allergies. Ok. I’ll have three orders of chocolate chip pancakes with two sides of scrambled eggs. Coffee too! Lots of coffee! Regular.”
The waiter furiously scribbled on his notepad while she spoke. He eventually lifted his head and looked at Shailene. “And for you?”
“I’ll just have coffee and a side of cottage cheese please,” Shailene said with a smile.
Unlike the rest of us, who had blossomed into our gravity-succumbing, post-baby adult selves, Shailene remained the perky, natural-blonde, stick-thin cheerleader that she was in high school. Still the same height, and ostensibly still the same weight, Shailene turned heads wherever she went. In high school, she was every boy’s ultimate fantasy and not much had changed throughout the years in that regard.
Interestingly, in the almost twenty years since graduation, Shailene had settled down into a happy marriage (from what I could tell), but she still flirted blatantly with men. It was like an involuntary reflex that couldn’t be stopped. For the latter basis alone, her name was the first that popped into my head when I began to suspect Richard of cheating. Then, reasoning prevailed. Shailene was my close friend – almost like a sister…and she wouldn’t do that to me. At least, I didn’t think she would do that to me.
“And for you?” the waiter asked me.
“I’ll just have coffee,” I said softly. “I don’t want to eat anything.”
The waiter had lingered for a few moments but darted away.
Once he left, Megan immediately returned to the topic at hand. “So who is she? Caden, stop bouncing! Did Richard tell you? Caden stop bouncing!”
I shook my head. “No, but I’m pretty sure it’s one of the moms in our neighborhood. I asked him if he was seeing someone and he said yes. I asked him if it was someone at work and he said no. Then I asked him if it was someone I knew, like one of the other moms at school, and he didn’t answer.” I tried to avoid looking pointedly at Shailene.
Harper punctuated my comment by vomiting into Megan’s chest. It almost looked like a sci-fi special effect, with what appeared to be gallons of milky white fluid projected at high velocity from the mouth of a tiny being. When she was done, Harper belched and grinned.
Caden screamed at the sight. “Mommy, you’re wet! Mommy you’re wet!”
Megan grabbed a cloth napkin and wiped Harper’s face, then used the same napkin for her chest. I stood up and offered my own napkin but she was already bent over the side of the booth, buckling Harper into her car seat, while Caden jumped on her back, yelling, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! MOMMY MOMMY MOMMY!”
Megan stood up, still dripping from the residue of Harper’s breakfast. She swept Caden onto her hip in with one arm and picked up Harper’s car seat with the other. Running from the restaurant like an animal escaping a predator, she yelled, “I’ll pay you back for the pancakes!” over her shoulder at us.
“Poor Megan,” Shailene said.
Megan’s pancakes arrived a few minutes later and I had a few bites even though I wasn’t hungry. For the rest of the meal, Shailene and I talked through the roster of moms in the neighborhood and tried to figure out who the husband-stealing whore-slut was. The question ate me up inside. If I had to devote hours, days, weeks, months of investigation to the task, I was going to find out this person’s identity. The funny thing was, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that it was Shailene.