Graham places his phone on the bar, faceup. He puts his finger on his phone, but instead of answering it, he gives his phone a shove. I watch as it slides across the bar and disappears over the edge. I hear his phone crash against the floor on the other side of the bar, but Graham acts as if he isn't at all fazed with the idea of having a broken phone.
"You just broke your phone."
He pops a pretzel into his mouth. "It's full of nothing but pictures and texts from Sasha. I'll get a new one tomorrow."
I lay my phone on the bar and I stare at it. It's silent for a moment, but Ethan calls for a second time. As soon as his name flashes across the screen, I have the urge to do exactly what Graham just did. I'm due for a new phone, anyway.
When the ringing stops and a text from Ethan comes through, I give my phone a shove. We watch as my phone slips over the other side of the bar.
We go back to playing tic-tac-toe. I win the first game. Graham wins the second. Third is a draw.
Graham picks up another one of the pretzels and eats it. I don't know if it was the shot I took or if I'm just confused by the turmoil of today, but every time Graham looks at me, I can feel the look trickle down my skin. And my chest. Everywhere, actually. I can't tell if he makes me nervous or if I just have a buzz. Either way, this feeling is better than the devastation I would be feeling right now if I were at home alone.
I replace the piece of pretzel grid that Graham just ate. "I have a confession," I say.
"Nothing you say can beat the past couple of hours of my life. Confess away."
I lean my elbow against the bar and prop my head on my hand. I give him a sidelong glance. "Sasha came outside. After you walked away."
Graham can see the shame in my expression. His eyebrows raise in curiosity. "What did you do, Quinn?"
"She asked which way you went. I refused to tell her." I sit up straight and swing the chair so that I'm facing him. "But before I got in my car, I turned around and said, 'Eight hundred dollars on a word game? Really, Sasha?' "
Graham stares at me. Hard. It makes me wonder if I crossed a line. I probably shouldn't have said that to her, but I was bitter. I don't regret it.
"What'd she say?"
I shake my head. "Nothing. Her mouth kind of fell open in shock, but then it started raining and she ran back inside Ethan's apartment building."
Graham is staring at me with so much intensity. I hate it. I wish he'd laugh or get angry that I interfered. Something.
He says nothing.
Eventually, his eyes lower until he's staring down between us. We're facing each other, but our legs aren't touching. Graham's hand that's resting on his knee moves forward a little until his fingers graze my knee, just below the hem of my skirt.
It's both subtle and obvious. My entire body tenses at the contact. Not because I don't like it, but because I can't remember the last time Ethan's touch sent this much heat through me.
Graham traces a circle over the top of my knee with his finger. When he looks up at me again, I'm not confused by the look in his eyes. It's very clear what he's thinking now.
"You want to get out of here?" His voice is both a whisper and a plea.
Graham stands and pulls his wallet out of his pocket. He lays some cash on the bar and then slips into his jacket. He reaches down and threads his fingers through mine, leading me through the restaurant, out the door and hopefully toward something that makes this day worth waking up for.
* * *
Graham once asked me why I take such long showers. I don't remember what my excuse was. I'm sure I said they were relaxing, or that the hot water was good for my skin. But I take such long showers because it's the only time I allow myself to grieve.
I feel weak for needing to grieve since no one has died. It doesn't make sense that I grieve so much for those who never even existed.
I've been in the shower for half an hour now. When I woke up this morning, I incorrectly assumed it would be a quick, painless shower day. But that changed when I saw the blood. I shouldn't be shocked. It happens every month. It's happened every month since I was twelve.
I'm standing flat against the shower wall, allowing the spray of the shower to fall over my face. The stream of water dilutes my tears and it makes me feel less pathetic. It's easier to convince myself I'm not crying that hard when most of what's falling down my cheeks is water.
I'm doing my makeup now.
Sometimes this happens. One second I'm in the shower, the next second I'm not. I lose myself in the grief. I get so lost that by the time I climb my way out of the dark, I'm in a new place. This new place is me, naked, in front of the bathroom mirror.
I slide the lipstick over my bottom lip and then my top. I set it down and stare at my reflection. My eyes are red from the grief but my makeup is in place, my hair has been pulled back, my clothes are folded neatly on the counter. I look at my body in the mirror, covering both breasts with my hands. From the outside, I look healthy. My hips are wide, my stomach is flat, my breasts are average and perky. When men look at me, sometimes their eyes linger.
But inside, I am not at all attractive. I am not internally appealing by Mother Nature's standards, because I do not have a working reproductive system. Reproduction is why we exist, after all. Reproduction is required to complete the circle of life. We are born, we reproduce, we raise our offspring, we die, our offspring reproduce, they raise their offspring, they die. Generation after generation of birth, life, and death. A beautiful circle not meant to be broken.
Yet . . . I am the break.
I was born. That's all I'm able to do until I die. I'm standing on the outside of the circle of life, watching the world spin while I am at a standstill.
And because he is married to me . . . Graham is at a standstill.
I pull on my clothes, covering up the body that has repeatedly failed us.
I walk into our kitchen and find Graham standing in front of the coffeepot. He looks up at me and I don't want him to know about the blood or the grief in the shower so I make the mistake of smiling at him. I quickly wipe the smile away but it's too late. He thinks it's a good day. My smiles give him hope. He walks up to me because, like an idiot, I'm not holding any of my usual weapons. I normally make sure I have both hands full with either a purse, a drink, an umbrella, a jacket. Sometimes all those things at once. Today I have nothing to shield myself from his love, so he hugs me good morning. I'm forced to hug him back.
My face fits perfectly between his neck and shoulder. His arms fit perfectly around my waist. I want to press my mouth against his skin and feel the chills that break out against my tongue. But if I do that I know what would follow.
His fingers would be skimming my waist.
His mouth, hot and wet, would find mine.
His hands would be freeing me from my clothes.
He would be inside me.
He would make love to me.
And when he stopped, I would be filled with hope.
And then all that hope would eventually escape with the blood.
I would be left devastated in the shower.
And then Graham would say to me, "Why do you take such long showers?"
And I would respond, "Because they're relaxing. The hot water is good for my skin."
I close my eyes and press my hands against his chest, easing myself away from him. I push away from him so often now, I sometimes wonder if my palms have imprinted against his chest.
"What time is dinner at your sister's house?" My questions ease the rejection. If I push away as I'm asking a question, the distraction makes it seem less personal.
Graham moves back to the coffeemaker and picks up his cup. He blows on it as he shrugs. "She gets off work at five. So probably seven."
I grab my weapons. My purse, a drink, my jacket. " 'K. See you then. Love you." I kiss his cheek with my weapons safely separating us.
"I love you, too."
He says the words to the back of my head. I rarely give him the opportunity to say them to my face anymore.
When I get to my car, I send a text to Ava, my sister.
Not this month.
She's the only one I discuss it with anymore. I stopped talking to Graham about my cycle last year. Every month since we started trying for a baby years ago, Graham would console me when I'd find out I wasn't pregnant. I appreciated it in the beginning. Longed for it, even. But month after month, I grew to dread having to tell him how broken I was. And I knew if I was growing to dread him having to console me, that he was more than likely already tired of the disappointing routine. I decided early last year to only bring it up if the outcome were ever different.
So far, the outcome is always the same.
my sister texts back.
You busy? I have news.
I back out of my driveway and set my phone to Bluetooth right before I call her. She answers in the middle of the first ring. Instead of hello, she says, "I know you don't want to talk about it, so let's talk about me."
I love that she gets me. "What's new with you?"
"He got the job."
I grip the steering wheel and force my voice to sound excited. "Did he? Ava, that's great!"
She sighs, and I can tell she's forcing herself to sound sad. "We move in two weeks."
I feel the tears threaten my eyes, but I've cried enough for one day. I really am happy for her. But she's my only sibling and now she's moving halfway across the world. Her husband, Reid, is from a huge family in France, and before they even got married, Ava said they would eventually move to Europe. The thought of it has always excited her so I know she's holding back her giddiness out of respect for my sadness over the distance this will put between us. I knew Reid applied for a few jobs last month, but a small part of me was selfishly hoping he wouldn't receive an offer.
"Will you guys be moving to Monaco?"
"No, Reid's job will be in Imperia. Different country, but it's only an hour drive to Monaco. Europe is so tiny, it's weird. You drive an hour here and you end up in New York. You drive an hour in Europe and you end up in a country that speaks a whole different language."
I don't even know where Imperia is but it already sounds like a better fit for her than Connecticut. "Have you told Mom yet?"
"No," she says. "I know how dramatic she's going to be, so I figured I'd tell her in person. I'm on my way to her house right now."
"Good luck with that."
"Thanks," she says. "I'll call you and let you know how thick she lays on the guilt. See you at lunch tomorrow?"
"I'll be there. And it'll give her a whole day to calm down."
When we end the call, I find myself stuck at a red light on an empty street.
Literally and figuratively.
* * *
My father died when I was only fourteen. My mother remarried not long after that. It didn't surprise me. It didn't even upset me. My mother and father never had a relationship worth envying. I'm sure it was good in the beginning, but by the time I was old enough to know what love was, I knew they didn't have it.
I'm not sure my mother ever married for love, anyway. Money is her priority when it comes to seeking out a soul mate. My stepfather didn't win her over with his personality. He won her over with his beach house in Cape Cod.
Contrary to her wardrobe and attitude, my mother isn't rich. She grew up in a meager life in Vermont, the second of seven children. She married my father when he was moderately wealthy, and as soon as they had my sister and me, she demanded he buy her a home in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. It didn't matter that he had to work twice as hard to afford her lavish spending. I think he liked being at work more than he liked being home.
When my father passed away, there were assets, but not enough to afford my mother the same lifestyle she was used to. It didn't take her long to rectify it, though. She married my stepfather in a private ceremony within a year of burying my father. She barely had to go eight months on a budget.
Even though my sister and I grew up in a wealthy lifestyle, we were not, and are not wealthy. Our mother has long spent anything my father left all those years ago. And my stepfather has biological children of his own who will receive his wealth when he dies. Because of all these factors, Ava and I have never considered ourselves wealthy, despite growing up and being raised by people who were.
It's why, as soon as we both graduated college, we immediately started working and paying our own bills. I never ask my mother for money. One, because I think it's inappropriate for a grown, married woman to have to ask her parents for help. And two, because she doesn't give freely. Everything comes with stipulations when it's given by my mother.
She will occasionally do things for Ava and me that we're both very grateful for. She paid off our vehicles for Christmas last year. And when I graduated college before meeting Graham, she helped me find an apartment and paid the first month's rent. But mostly, she spends her money on us in ways that benefit her. She'll buy us clothes she thinks we should wear because she doesn't like the ones we buy ourselves. She'll buy us spa days for our birthday and force us to spend it with her. She'll visit our homes and complain about our furniture and two days after she leaves, a delivery person will show up with all new furniture she picked out herself.
Graham absolutely hates it when she does this. He says a gift is a nice gesture, but an entire couch is an insult.
I'm not ungrateful for the things she does for me. I just know that I have to make my own way in life because even though money surrounds me, it doesn't line my pockets.
One of the things I've always been grateful for is our weekly lunches. Without fail, Ava and I join her for lunch at the country club near her house. I absolutely hate the place, but I enjoy time with Ava and we tolerate our mother enough to be able to look forward to our weekly lunches.
However, I have a feeling all that is going to change now that Ava is moving to Europe. She'll be preparing to move for the next week, which makes this our last lunch. The fullness that was just added to her life has made mine feel even emptier.
"Can't you fly home for lunch every week?" I ask Ava. "How am I supposed to entertain your mother all by myself?" We always refer to our mom as your mother when we're discussing her. It started as a joke in high school, but now we say it so often, we have to watch ourselves in front of her so that we don't slip up.
"Bring an iPad and Skype me in," she says.
I laugh. "Don't tempt me."
Ava picks up her phone and perks up when she reads a message. "I have an interview!"
"That was fast. What's the job?"
"It's for an English tutor at a local high school there. Doesn't pay shit but if I get the job, I'll learn how to cuss in French and Italian a lot faster."
Reid makes enough money that Ava doesn't have to work, but she's always had a job. She says the housewife role isn't a fit for her and I think that's what drew Reid to her. Neither of them want kids and Ava has always liked staying busy, so it works for them.
There are moments I envy her lack of desire for children. So many issues in my life and marriage would be nonexistent if I didn't feel so incomplete without a child.
"It's going to feel so weird without you, Ava," my mother says, claiming her seat at the table. I ordered her usual, a martini with extra olives. She sets her purse down in the chair next to her and pulls an olive from the toothpick. "I didn't think your move would bother me this much," my mother continues. "When are you coming home to visit?"
"I haven't even left yet," Ava says.
My mother sighs and picks up her menu. "I can't believe you're leaving us. At least you don't have kids. I can't imagine how I'd feel if you whisked grandchildren away from me."
I laugh under my breath. My mother is the most dramatic person I know. She hardly wanted to be a mother when Ava and I were little and I know for a fact she's in no hurry to be a grandmother. That's one aspec
t of her personality I'm able to find relief in. She doesn't nag me about having a baby. She only prays I never adopt.
Ava brought up adoption at one of our lunches with my mother two years ago. My mother actually scoffed at the idea. "Quinn, please tell me you aren't pondering the idea of raising someone else's child," she said. "It could have . . . issues."
Ava just looked at me and rolled her eyes, then texted me under the table. Yes, because biological children never have issues. Your mother needs to take a look in the mirror.
I'm going to miss her so much.
I already miss you so much, I text her.
"Honestly, girls, do neither of you know table etiquette by now?"
I look up and my mother is glaring at our phones. I lock mine and shove it in my purse.
"How is Graham?" my mother asks. She only asks out of courtesy. Even though Graham and I have been married for over seven years, she still wishes he were anyone else. He's never been good enough for me in her eyes, but not because she wants the best for me. If it were up to my mother, Graham would be Ethan and I'd be living in a house as big as hers and she'd be able to brag to all her friends about how much richer her daughter is than Evelyn Bradbury.
"He's great," I say, without elaborating. Because honestly, I'm only assuming Graham is great. I can't tell anymore what he's feeling or thinking or if he's great or good or miserable. "Really great."
"Are you feeling okay?"
"I feel fine. Why?"
"I don't know," she says, giving me the once-over. "You just look . . . tired. Are you getting enough sleep?"
"Wow," Ava mutters.
I roll my eyes and pick up my menu. My mother has always had a knack for direct insults. It never bothers me much because she jabs both Ava and me an even amount. Probably because we look so much alike. Ava is only two years older than me. We both have the same straight brown hair that reaches just past our shoulders. We have the same eyes that are identical in color to our hair. And according to our mother, we both look tired a lot.
We order our food and make small talk until it arrives. Lunch is almost in the bag when someone approaches our table. "Avril?"
Ava and I both look up as Eleanor Watts adjusts her baby blue Hermes bag from one shoulder to the other. She tries to make it appear subtle, but she might as well hit us over the head with it while screaming, "Look at me! I can afford a fifteen-thousand-dollar purse!"