We are gathered, six of us, around a small, scarred table at The Cantina—one of those Mexican restaurants that promises an exotic foray into a foreign culture, but take away the chili pepper lights and maraca shaking waiters, and it’s just another mall eatery. This table was probably meant for two, but most of us arrived late, and we just keep pulling over more chairs until we’re elbow to elbow. The margaritas are flowing. A platter of quesadillas, the oozing orange cheese congealing, sits mostly uneaten.
“You know Rick cheated on you, right?” my friend, Brooke, asks this, slurring her words ever so slightly. I shake my head no quickly, completely blindsided. The lights at The Cantina are low and I can’t quite tell if her face wears a mask of sympathy or simply disgust at my ignorance. “Oops, sorry,” Brooke covers her mouth with her hand dramatically. “I was sure you knew,” she continues. “He was a bouncer. He slept with all the waitresses. Sorry.”
“Wait, you were a waitress. Does that mean you slept with him too?” I try to get my mind around this new fact and just can’t. Then, I try to figure out how the conversation landed here. I can’t find the thread, so I wonder if Brooke has been saving this tidbit since we met at Mommy and Me five years ago and realized that we went to the same university, and she knew my ex-boyfriend. At least I realized it then—maybe she knew who I was all along. The other woman always knows the girlfriend or wife.
“It was almost twenty years ago. Why do you care?” Brooke shrugs her shoulders, noncommittal.
The other side conversations have stopped. Nothing else is this interesting. Birth control. Boy toys. Botox. The three Bs that have made up the majority of our conversation fall away. We are in our forties, or for a couple of us just close enough to taste forty, and these are the topics—not who hooked up with a bouncer at the after-hours party—but here we are, talking about the stuff of our twenties.
Everyone leans in. Maybe they’re waiting for me to launch myself over the table and throttle Brooke. Maybe they’re waiting for me to burst into tears. Only one of these women, Sara, is close enough to know the truth about me, the rest just tell me they think I live a charmed life. Size three jeans, handsome husband and two cute kids—a girl and a boy, six and four. The kids are well behaved in public, always, as is the husband. I love my kids, but they morph at home, running around like lunatics, pinching and poking each other, screaming and crying.
My husband, Luke, acts like a belligerent ass half the time, muttering, “Jesus Christ,” or “Give me a freakin’ break,” under his breath at the smallest request. The rest of the time he tells me I’m hot and he’s so lucky to have me. Luckily we still have good sex, but it’s quality over quantity and sometimes I feel like he only loves me when I’m naked. Does he love my brain or just my body? A question I grapple with regularly. So now everyone, except Sara, leans in, wondering what this person with her life completely under control will do.
Maybe if I were drunk, I would start a fight. That’s why I don’t drink anymore. I was a bad drunk, crying or yelling, saying inappropriate things, finding inappropriate men to ease my pain after Rick and I broke up. But even with Rick I drank a lot, enough that he asked me to stop—enough that perhaps it broke us up. Maybe I did know subconsciously that he was cheating on me. Maybe she’s right. “I think that was before we dated seriously,” I tell Brooke. “I was twenty-one when we started dating—that was only eighteen years ago. You already graduated and left, right?”
“I stayed on to get my MBA, remember?” I think she has a smirk, but I can’t tell. I wish I had a flashlight to shine right in her face, like a deer caught in headlights.
This really shouldn’t bother me, but it does. “You know,” I say slowly, “We actually dated into my mid-twenties. I thought I was going to marry him. So even though it seems like it was so long ago, that relationship affected the whole trajectory of my life. I moved to another state to be with him and gave up all the career opportunities I would have had if I moved into Manhattan like all my friends. Or, I could have just lived at home and commuted into the city like I did every summer during school. The garment district isn’t in New Hampshire—it’s here. I could have returned to my summer apprentice job and even gotten paid. Who knows, I could have had my own label right now, instead of just working part-time at a fancy-schmancy boutique whose clientele I’d like to slap upside the head.” I know this is a wildly optimistic and possibly arrogant, not to mention rude, statement, but I don’t care. Who knows what could have happened if I hadn’t dropped everything for Rick?
“I gave it all up, because Rick said, ‘I can’t live without you. Move here.’ The night he asked me to stay, he actually led me onto an airfield near his apartment, blindfolded. We had sex on the wing of an airplane!” I know I’m a bit too loud. I glance around and continue, quieter now, “I had told him that was my fantasy. He whispered, ‘Stay, I’ll make all your fantasies come true.’ So, was I a total loser to believe him when he did stuff like that? Well, was I?”
“He was pretty inventive, wasn’t he?” Brooke has a dreamy look on her face.
I start to get out of my chair. I am going to throttle her. Sara puts her hand on my arm and discreetly guides me back down. “If you didn’t move to New Hampshire, you wouldn’t have met Luke. You wouldn’t have the kids you have,” she offers. Before I can object and say we would have met somehow, before I can say we had mutual friends, before I can even say he came to New York on business—we might have met on the subway—she continues, “And, maybe you wouldn’t have moved back to Long Island when you did and where you—did, and you wouldn’t have your fabulous friends. But, I understand why you feel bad. This is someone you trusted and it makes you feel like your whole sense of judgment must be screwed up. And I think Brooke needs to lay off the margaritas.”
Kim pipes up, “You had sex on the wing of an airplane? Are you kidding me? How the heck did you pull that off?”
“It was a little prop plane. It wasn’t all that difficult.”
“Still, you just have the best luck with men—I mean, first a guy who would do that. So what if he may or may not have cheated. You were young. And now, you’re married to Luke who just so obviously adores you—we’ve all seen the way he looks at you. Plus, he’s gorgeous.”
“Yes, my life is perfect,” I sigh, and I’m sure no one knows if I’m serious or not. I don’t even know if I’m serious or not.
Sara is the one who knows the real me. The frustrations. The fact that I really thought I would have my own label and be the darling of the fashion mags by the time I was rounding the bend to forty. She always comes up with encouragement or just the right advice. The irony is that though she’s offering me support, we are out for her tonight. We are supposed to be here to cheer her up. Her husband is dying, slowly and sadly, and there’s not much she can do about it, but hold his hand. He’s not dying tonight, but he probably has only six or seven months to live, and it’s killing her too. Brain tumors do that—they kill the caretaker too.
We used to complain about our husbands to each other all the time. He does this, he does that. “That was BTI,” she said once, explaining why all the little things she used to complain about didn’t annoy her anymore. When I asked what BTI meant, she answered, “Before Terminal Illness.” It became our catch phrase for any petty thing that we should just let slide. So, when my husband lets out an audible sigh when I ask if he can take over my turn in Candy Land so I can pee, I say to myself “BTI,” and try to forgive him. He’s a great dad; he just likes to be a great dad when he doesn’t have e-mails to answer or a football game to watch. It’s not like a mom, who has to be on call 24/7. I can’t complain about him though, not when Sara tells me her husband cries because he misses the kids already, because he knows time is slipping away. She cries because she knows he’s slipping away.
“I’m losing him,” she whispered to me on the way here. I picked her up, so she could get drunk. So she could forget for just a moment. Or at least try to forget.
But here I am commanding the entire table’s attention for a soap opera that happened almost two decades ago. Kim is right—even if Brooke slept with my boyfriend, so what? At least she didn’t sleep with my husband. I hope. “So,” I say brightly, turning away from Brooke. “Tell us about the boy toy your friend has, Liz.”
Everybody leans in again. Good, the attention is off of me. “Well, he’s so hot, he even gets me going. And you know my husband is usually the only one who does it for me.” A barely audible groan rises from the table.
The other day Sara asked me, “Did you know Liz married the guy who made her crazy—the one whom she had hot sex with and worried if he was cheating on her? She’s still obsessed with him. You aren’t supposed to marry that guy. That’s the guy you get over and then marry the sensible one. You can’t live your life worrying.” Apparently Liz does though. She regularly slips her nanny an extra twenty to stay late while she follows her husband when he goes to the gym. To the best of our knowledge, she’s never caught him doing anything, but she still follows him anyway.
“Blonde. Green eyes. Nice muscles. Great ass,” Liz sighs.
“How old is he?” I ask.
When she answers, “forty-seven,” we let out a collective, “What?”
“Well, that was cold water in my face,” says Kim. “A boy toy is supposed to be twenty-nine. Who needs someone your own age or even older as a boy toy? Speaking of boy toys, I have a confession.”
“So,” Brooke begins again, without any regard to the fact that we are all on the edge of our seats waiting to live vicariously through the only single one among us. “Are you really upset with me?”
“Do you ever shut up?” Eve asks. She’s been quiet the whole night, but now her voice raises above the din of margarita fueled voices around us. “Seriously, just shut up. I have an eight week old. I’m nursing. I’m dry as the Sahara. I haven’t had sex in, oh I don’t know, forever, because apparently my mountainous belly was a turn off to my dear husband, even though I was horny. But, the thought of a penis going into my shredded dainty bits now makes me want to faint. So, I want to hear the story about Kim’s boy toy and I want to hear it now. It may be the closest I’ll get to sex in a while.”
“Are you drunk?” Brooke asks disdainfully.
“Most likely, but I’m going to pump and dump after, so don’t worry about it. Jane drove me, so don’t worry about that either.” She turns to Kim and commands, “Speak and make it juicy.”
“Oh, I don’t know. The moment has passed.” We all glare at Brooke. “Please, tell us the story,” begs Sara. “I haven’t had sex in ages either and since I’ll be a widow, I don’t know when I will again.”
“Okay, now the moment really has passed,” Kim says quietly. “The whole thing is too sad. I can’t talk about frivolous things.”
“Come on, it was just a bit of self-deprecating humor. There’s a chance that the chemo will shrink the tumor enough so that they can operate. It’s a waiting game now. So, I need things to distract me while I wait. I need to hear about boy toys. I need to remember that people are living, because it seems like it’s been so long since I have.” Sara checks her phone. “Okay, I haven’t gotten a call. Rob’s mother is still there. Unlike some of the nurses, I know his mother will call me if he’s in pain or has a seizure, so I have at least this moment to relax and try to forget. So, tell us. Please. Before my phone rings and Jane has to chauffeur me and Eve home.”
“Are you sure? It won’t make you feel bad hearing about the naughty divorcee and the pool boy? Well not exactly the pool boy—my pool is a foot deep and has Anna and Elsa from Frozen on it.”
“Please, Brooke just shared that she slept with Jane’s college sweetheart, it can’t be worse than that.” I kick Sara under the table, but she just smirks.
“Okay, so I was walking my dog and you know that old colonial that looks like a frat house dropped in the middle of suburbia—with all the guys hanging out drinking beer and playing basketball in the driveway every weekend? Well, I was walking Shelby by it and all of a sudden one of them whistles, and I hear the other one say, ‘Hey, it’s the MILF.’ I was kind of embarrassed, but kind of ridiculously thrilled at the same time. And yes, I knew I should have been offended, but I wasn’t. They see me walking the dog with my kids all the time. I never knew they thought I was a MILF. I have to say though, I’m glad they waited until I was alone to say it!”
“Do you think I’m a MILF?” interrupts Liz. “Because what if Todd finds a MILF? He’s a DILF. Is there such a thing as a DILF? I need to be a MILF. Do you think I should get lasered again? It really makes my skin glow.”
“You’re fine, Liz,” I assure her, a bit annoyed. I think everyone else is too. “Why don’t we let Kim finish her story,” I want to keep the conversation flowing away from Brooke and Rick and my disastrous sense of judgment. Every dip in the conversation, my mind spins back to a vision of them tangled naked in the sheets. I’m so glad I didn’t eat the quesadillas or they would be all over the table right now. As much as I’d like to believe that I can just brush the whole thing off, I can’t—not yet, at least.
“You know, this is just too embarrassing, I can’t go on. I’m not really a MILF. Not even close,” Kim protests. “Just leave the rest to your imaginations.”
“Come on,” pleads Eve. “I’m going to be up at 3:00 am needing something to think about. Help me out here.”
“I certainly need something to cheer me up,” says Sara. “Do it as a public service for us.”
“Okay,” Kim relents. “One of the guys caught up with me, all shirtless and sweaty. He asked what kind of dog Shelby is. I answered shelter mutt. He started going on about how he loves animals and has rescued three dogs and might rescue another. I thought he was going to ask me for a donation or something, but he says, ‘Can I take you out sometime?’ I told him I was probably old enough to be, maybe not his mother, but at least an aunt.”
“You look amazing,” Eve interjects. “I’m not surprised a twenty-one year old would want you.”
“Not twenty-one. That would be icky. He’s twenty-eight…I mean, he’s still a decade younger, but that’s not that bad. And get this, after I said I’m too old, he says “I like older women—they’re more experienced.’ I nearly fainted. No one says things like that to me.”
“You must have gotten on your naughty divorcee vibe,” I volunteer.
“Don’t know what it was and I didn’t care. I told him I’d go out with him. Then he offers to walk with me. The kids were with their dad, so I thought, What the hell. I deserve a little something.”
Liz leans in, “So, then what happens?”
Even Brooke is interested, seemingly forgetting her intent to dredge up the past. “Yeah, tell us. Did you sleep with him?”
Kim glances over her shoulder at the empty table behind us, then to each side, before she continues. “We get back to my house and sit on the porch swing. He’s so sweet, he leans over and kisses me, slow and gentle…then my cell rings. It’s my ex. Hannah threw up all over his white couch and could I please come get both kids, since Maddy saw her and was retching too. Even though nothing came out, he didn’t want to ‘take a chance.’ Son-of-a-bitch. It’s like he knew.”
“So, that’s it?” Sara asks, her voice ribboned with disappointment.
“That’s it,” Kim shrugs and throws her palms up. “It was the most tender physical touch I’d had in years. My ex was of the ‘why kiss when you can watch sports center over her shoulder’ school. At least it let me know that I’m still alive and desirable. Plus, he took my number.”
“Well, good for you,” I say.
“Yeah, good for you, Kim,” Eve says. “I’m a little jealous. I’ll never be a MILF. My own husband doesn’t even want anything to do with me. I swear I can see the disgust on Mike’s face when he looks at me naked. It’s gotten so, that I get undressed in the bathroom and come out covered head to toe in flannel pajamas, even though I’m roasting.”
“Eve, you’re beautiful,” I assure her. “I mean—your eyes, they’re gorgeous, such a striking green. And I think we all agree that you have the best hair.” Everyone nods.
“Yeah, I wish I had such a gorgeous honey blonde. You don’t even color it, do you?” asks Sara.
“Guys, do you hear yourselves? Thank you for the compliments, but it’s my eyes and hair—you glossed right over the fact that I’m fifty pounds overweight and look like I’m still pregnant. And I have these ridiculous chipmunk cheeks.” Eve pokes at her face, frowning.
“Eve, just stop being so hard on yourself,” I demand. “I see a beautiful woman who just created a life. That’s pretty amazing. We’ve all been there.”
“Jane, you don’t have to—I love you for trying to make me feel better, but it’s fine. I was just venting. You all look so amazing. And Kim gets called a MILF, and I just feel like I’ll never get back to where I was.”
“Eve, it took me a year to get back in shape after Maddy, and I was chasing a toddler,” Kim says. “It was even longer after Hannah. You’re eight weeks out from giving birth. And this is your first kid. Nine months up and nine months down. Remember that.”
“He’s my first and last. I’ll be forty-one next month. I just ran out of time. Getting married at thirty-nine kind of does that. Plus, I’m not quite sure Mike will ever even want to have sex again.”
“Plenty of women have babies in their forties,” pipes up Liz. “In fact, I was going to wait to say something, because it’s still early…” she pauses for effect while an anticipatory gasp ripples around the table. “But… I’m pregnant—ten weeks!”
“Holy crap—was it an accident?” asks Brooke, before quickly adding, “I mean congratulations!”
“Yes congratulations, Liz! That’s amazing news.”
“Thanks, Jane.” Liz just glares at Brooke.
Sara, Kim and Eve add their well wishes, before Liz shares, “You know, we were talking about having a fourth kid. I really wanted to try for a boy for Todd. He’s wanted one for so long—I felt kind of bad I hadn’t given him one.”
“You know the father determines the sex of the child, right?” asks Sara a bit exasperated. “That’s just basic biology.” She has no patience for Liz’s adulation of Todd. Her he can do no wrong attitude. She even told us once that if she did catch him cheating, she’d forgive him and try to be a better wife. It was a miracle Sara bit her tongue on that one.
“Actually, it’s genetics. And yes, I know,” snaps Liz. “You know what I mean. I love him, and I wanted him to get the boy he always wanted.”
“How do you know you’ll have a boy?” asks Kim. “Will he be happy with a girl?”
“Oh, I know for sure. We did sex selection. Worth every penny.”
I think Sara’s about to spray her drink over the table, but she swallows, eyes watering slightly.
“Not surprising,” mutters Brooke.
“Why do you have to be such a bitch,” asks Liz. “Why can’t you be happy for one second for someone else? Why are you such a miserable person? You’ve been hanging onto that little bit about Jane’s ex for years, because I remember you telling me before I introduced you at Mommy and Me that you knew her boyfriend from college.”
“I knew it! I knew you knew all along. Why’d you keep it to yourself? Were you waiting for the moment it would have the most impact—when we were all together and rapt. That’s happened before, though. So why now?”
“I don’t know. I just felt you should know, and I had kept it to myself for long enough.”
I’m so angry, but I realize in a flash that I’ll never know why Brooke chose that moment. And all of the sudden, I honestly don’t care. Yes, it felt like a knife to the heart at first. And yes, I can’t unsee the vision of them tangled in the sheets way back when. But when I really think about it, Rick was a lifetime ago, and even though my life with Luke isn’t always perfect, it’s mine, and I do love him. Sure, we have those everyday grievances that having small children breed, but we also have those moments—quiet moments after they’re sleeping when we collapse on the couch. He’ll rub my tired feet, and then cover me with a soft blanket when I fall asleep.
I need to appreciate the life I have a little more, rather than dwelling on something I can’t change in the past. And Sara is right, everything happens for a reason. If I didn’t move to New Hampshire for Rick, and we didn’t break up when we did, I wouldn’t have my kids and Luke… I wouldn’t have these crazy ladies around the table—my chosen family, warts and all, even Brooke. “Okay, I really need to get going now,” I announce. “I turn into a pumpkin at midnight. Is that okay with you guys?” I turn to Eve and Sara.
They both nod enthusiastically. “I need to pump and dump before my boobs explode,” Eve says, pointing to her chest. “These bad boys are rock heavy.”
“That’s it?” Brooke asks. “You’re not going to say anything about my dropping this bombshell after knowing for so many years? I actually feel kind of bad now. Maybe I should have kept it to myself.”
“That’s not you, Brooke. You live for the drama and you picked a dramatic moment. I get it. And I’m over it. Just don’t sleep with Luke. Okay?”
“You know I love you, Jane. I’d never sleep with your husband. Maybe Liz’s husband…” We all see the wink and get the joke, except for Liz. An angry flush creeps up her neck to her cheeks.
“What the fuck is wrong with you, Brooke?”
“Well lots of things, I’m sure. But, it was a joke, Liz. Chill.”
“Not a very funny one.”
“Okay, on that note, we’re leaving.” I motion to Eve and Sara.
“Yes, please—let’s go. I want to get back to Rob,” Sara says, rising from her chair. “It seems like every minute is so precious now, I feel guilty being away for this long. I’m sure he’s sleeping, but sometimes I just watch him sleep and think, ‘He may be gone soon.’ I won’t be able to look at his face anymore. I’ve looked at it for thirteen years. Then, poof it will be gone.”
We are all silent. I notice one fat tear slowly rolling down Sara’s cheek. None of us have seen her cry. She’s usually the shoulder the rest of us cry on. I put my arm around her. “I’m here for you,” I say simply. I glance around the table—my chosen family. “We’re all here for you.” It’s not much, but it’s the truth.