I’m going to see my girls today. They know something is wrong and Maxine made it clear that I won’t get out of Ruby’s without telling them what’s going on. They see me as a model of a successful life. I dread saying the words that I know will disappoint them.
My twists are pulled back into an unruly puff with one of Kendra’s hair ties. I throw on an old t-shirt, jeans and a pair of sneakers and grab my new eyeglasses off of the bureau. Bifocals. I frown at my reflection, pick up my purse and keys and walk out to the garage.
I’ve had a lot of time for thinking since I told my husband that I’d been unfaithful. I think about things like my new car. Like the diamond studs I wear every day that were an anniversary gift or the African painting hanging in the living room that Willard got from an estate sale because he knew that I would love it. I think about how Willard must feel like loving me was a waste of his time. I wonder how long he’s going to punish me by keeping us in limbo. Will he leave? Or would he ask me to leave?
I pull into Ruby’s and park next to Renee’s Corolla. Maxine’s car, a stark white piece of Italian design that is never dirty is parked all by its lonesome at the edge of the lot, far from cars or trees or anything that might drop a speck of dust on it.
The two of them are seated on the bench. They’re laughing, watching a video on Maxine’s phone. I plaster a smile on my face and sit next to Renee.
“You two ready? I’m hungry.” I wave to Bethany, who points in the direction of our usual table.
“Guess we seat ourselves now,” mumbles Renee. I follow her and Maxine. Renee, for once, isn’t wearing her signature purple sweat suit, but a dark blue, button down shirt, sleeves rolled up to her elbows and a white camisole underneath with a pair of dark jeans and boots.
Maxine looks smart and sophisticated in a simple short sleeved dress with ruffles along the deep cut V-neck. I don’t have to ask her what brand it is. Prada is her favorite designer and her closet is bursting with it.
As we sit, Maxine takes in my t-shirt and jeans and glances at Renee in the most put-together attire we’ve seen in a while. “At the risk of sounding like an asshole,” Max begins, spreading a napkin over her lap. “It’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers in here. Why does Renee look so nice? And Debra, why do you look like Renee usually looks?”
Renee laughs. I don’t. “Fuck you, Maxine. I’ve been going through some things. Looking suitable to be in your company wasn’t top of mind today.”
I often wonder how we’re still friends. After Renee moved back and we started having these brunches, it wasn’t my idea to invite Maxine. If I hadn’t known her for so long, I’d hate her.
I have to admit, though… I do look a little torn up.
Our waitress arrives and in an entirely too cheerful manner, asks if we want our usual orders. I change mine without really thinking about it. “I’ll have chicken and waffles. And a glass of sweet tea, please.”
I feel the stares from the other side of the table. Renee and Max gawk at me like I’ve grown a second head. I’m our healthy eater, always pushing egg whites and whole grains. I never drink sweet tea but today I don’t give a damn. I need comfort food.
“Going through some things?” Max leans in, laces her fingers together, props her chin on them and waits patiently for me to respond. I inhale deeply and for the second time ever, say the words.
“Look, uhm… So, I’m having an affair. Was having an affair.” I swallow. And swallow again. I can’t decide if I am hungry or if I’m going to throw up.
Renee speaks first, practically whispering across the table. “Did you…Sorry, I thought I heard you say you’re having an affair.”
I can barely lift my head to face them. “Had. It’s over. With one of my teachers.”
“Girl. No you didn’t.” Max sits back against the booth and covers her mouth.
“Does Willard know?” Renee asks. “And uhm… I mean, are you still together?”
I feel strangely like a little piece of the weight that had been bearing down on me has lifted from my shoulders. “He hasn’t spoken to me since I told him.”
“And how long ago was that?” Renee asks.
I roll my eyes to the ceiling and pretend to count the days and weeks since I had a meaningful conversation with my husband. “About a month ago.”
“I knew it!” Maxine squeals. “I knew something was wrong last month!”
Renee reaches across the table and grips my hand. I hold on tight and notice that I’m shaking. “You could have told us. We could have talked about it.”
“But I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell you. I’ve been giving out relationship advice like I know what I’m talking about.” I give her my helpless look. “And now I’m here and I had no idea what was happening with us. I’d just told Willard about it and everything was up in the air.”
“So who is this man? He’s one of your teachers, you said? How long has that been going on? What did Willard say? And Kendra must not know−”
Maxine is interrupted by the arrival of three hot plates — shrimp and grits with sausage and fried chicken and waffles. I cannot believe I’m about to eat this food.
When the waitress is gone and it’s just the three of us discussing my affair in hushed tones over fatty food, I answer Maxine. “He’s my Athletics Director. And it’s over. It’s been over since I told Willard.”
I pause, not for drama but to take a breath and busy myself arranging my plate. I douse the waffles in butter and syrup and start cutting the long strips of chicken still sizzling from the fryer.
“Is Willard angry?” Renee asks, her voice small and timid. She doesn’t like conflict. This qualifies as conflict.
“Willard is not talking to me. If Kendra knows, she’s doing a bang up job of hiding it. We haven’t discussed it, but I don’t want to tell her until we have to.” I spear a portion of waffle, add a chunk of chicken to it and chew. It takes everything in me not to roll my eyes and moan at the delicious indulgence.
“You should not bring her into this,” Max declares, her knife and fork working their way through her waffles and chicken strips. “There’s no reason she needs to know.”
“I agree.” Renee nods. “Why would you need to tell her something like that?”
“Because we got caught,” I blurt. The knife and fork I’m holding slip through my fingers and fall to the cheap porcelain plate with a clatter. The few bites I took roll around in my stomach and this part of the story especially makes me feel a little sick.
“We were in my office. He kissed me and I let it go longer than it should have. We heard someone in the hallway. David tried to find them but…” I shake my head.
“Who was it?” Max asks.
I shrug. “We don’t know. We just know it was probably a student.”
“So whoever that was could say something to someone and it could be a big thing. Or they could keep it quiet and it could be nothing,” Renee muses.
“Exactly. So I’m just waiting for some arbitrary shoe to drop and the waiting is killing me. It’s been a month! What are they waiting for? Maybe nothing will happen. Maybe I jumped the gun, telling Willard. I could have just ended it and let the whole thing blow over.”
Max chuckles but it comes out like a snort. “That’s sure how it works on TV.”
“People have affairs all the time, Max, then cut them off and go back to living their lives and no one is the wiser.”
“Not in the real world Debra. Out here, people have to pay for their mistakes. But you know what? It’s your marriage. Whatever.” She dismisses me with a wave of her knife.
“Don’t whatever me, Maxine. I would think you of all people would understand what I’m going through right now.”
Maxine tosses her silverware onto her plate. Her pouty lips purse and pinch into a tight bud. Her eyes, framed by thick, bushy lashes and well-manicured brows close and open, revealing two light brown orbs of fire.
“What do you mean me of all people?”
“Max–” Renee reaches out for her but Maxine flinches as if Renee’s hands are red-hot.
“No, I’m curious. I want to know what Debra means by me of all people. I want know what this whore thinks she has on me.”
“Let’s not say things we don’t mean,” pleads Renee.
“A little too late for that, I think.” I stare at Maxine, the word whore hurtling through my brain.
“You know what you are, Debra? You are an ungrateful simpleton. And that has nothing to do with me.” Maxine hisses, leaning forward, a manicured finger in my face. “I have never cheated on a man. You’ve known Willard for more than half your life. You’ve sat at this very table–”
She taps the surface of the table, her nail clicking on each syllable. “And bragged about all the things he’s done for you. Some young thing with a big dick swaggers into your life and shows you a few things. Now you see that you’ve fucked up and you’re looking for some kind of alliance to make you feel better.”
She sits back slowly shakes her head, her eyes never leaving mine, her bottom lip trembling. “You may have ruined your life but you did that all by yourself, honey. Me of all people? No ma’am. You don’t have a partner in this one.”
“Maxine, I’m sorry.”
“You sure are.”
“Look… there’s a lot happening in my world. Home is miserable and with this lingering black cloud over my job, I’ve not been sleeping well. I just…”
Max is wearing a tight lipped frown and attacking her lunch with fervor. My throat narrows so quickly that I’m close to choking. My eyes burn with unshed tears.
“I guess I thought my friends would understand.” I push my chair back from the table and toss the strap of my purse over my shoulder. “I have to go,” I manage to squeak out before I walk away. Away from the table, from them, from judgment, from shame and embarrassment.
How could I have thought they would understand? Neither of them have ever been where I am.
I hear Renee call after me, but I’m too intent on getting out before the first tear falls. I almost make it, heaving and sobbing by the time I get into the car. I crank the ignition so hard that the motor squawks and peel out of the parking lot, spitting gravel in the air.
And drive. Just drive, with no real destination in mind, but I suppose if I think hard enough about it, I know where I’m going.