Her husband Eliot had disappeared amongst the other party guests. Kate excused herself from the circle of women she was chatting with to reapply her lip gloss. On her way back, she caught sight of Eliot and a young woman standing at the French doors that led out to the patio, away from the others, sipping wine, chatting in the moonlight and warm breeze.
The woman wore a short ruffled navy-blue dress, sparkly heels, and kept touching her neck. Eliot leaned in toward her, motivated, charming. He seemed to be telling her a story, his free hand punctuating the important parts, as he liked to do, making her laugh so that she almost spilled her wine. They settled down. He leaned in closer, touched her arm, and lingered there, whispering something in her ear that made her blush, bite her bottom lip.
This other woman was the first to notice Kate and froze. Eliot removed his hand impossibly fast, in a whir, as if it were never there in the first place.
It took under an hour for Eliot and Kate to finalize things with the mediator. When they walked out, Eliot actually shook her hand, of all things, then turned and walked away. He never looked back at her, not once. Kate kept her eyes on him, though, didn’t dare budge as he made a sharp turn onto another street and was gone.
Still standing there, Kate became conscious that something inside her was missing. Something vital. A part of herself had walked away with Eliot, and she’d never get her back. For the first time, she understood what heartbreak actually was.
Kate was hanging around with Tabitha a lot lately. They had worked together at Madeline Library in Bough College for about five years, but Tabitha just seemed to notice her now.
Tabitha reached over the table and snatched Kate’s compact. She checked her reflection, running her fingers through her long black hair, primping her spiky bangs that scraped against her eyelashes.
“I don’t know how you can see yourself clearly with the mirrors cracked like this,” she said.
“It doesn’t bother me.”
“Well, it should.”
Their dinners arrived, along with a round of drinks. Tabitha’s phone buzzed and shook on the table, but she continued to eat. When it buzzed again, she picked it up, pursing her lips in agitation.
“Tell him I said hi,” said Kate.
Kate pictured Tabitha’s husband sitting on his recliner, his long legs hanging over the footrest, watching TV, waiting for his wife to come home. The first time she met Nathan, she nearly dropped. He could pass for Eliot: thick brown hair, intense gray eyes, serious expression.
Tabitha speared her fork into her steak. Her diamond was now crooked on her finger. Kate’s ring was quite similar, cushion cut, though not as large. She put it away in her nightstand over a year ago, along with her wedding band.
“Kate, what do you think of that new guy, Christian? I’ll be working with him on the computer upgrades around campus.”
“I don’t know. He’s married, isn’t he?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
Christian was a good-looking man, striking, somewhere in his forties, with salt and pepper hair. He seemed nice enough, but Kate didn’t like his wandering eyes.
“Just that he likes to check out the college girls, you know?” she said. “He seems distracted.”
Tabitha was staring at her, into her, invasive. “Kate, don’t you think it’s time for a change?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re stuck. You’ve been divorced long enough. You should be reinventing yourself.”
The next weekend, Frankie, Kate’s hairstylist, draped a smock over Kate and adjusted her chair. Frankie’s hair was blue now. Last month was pink. Frankie’s hair color was the only thing she changed about herself. Her clothes were dated and frayed, and she wore the same black clogs for years. She stirred color in a purple plastic bowl with a spatula, frowned at the olive-green shade, and then stirred again.
“You’ll look like a new woman,” she said. “Believe me. Perfect color for fall.”
After getting her hair done by Frankie all these years, Kate still didn’t quite know her, not in a real way. For the life of her, she couldn’t remember her Japanese name. Was it something like Kiko?
“Frankie,” said Kate, “can I ask you a question?”
“Don’t worry. Your hair won’t be green.”
“That’s not it, actually. Were you ever married?”
Frankie’s eyes were stormy. “Sometimes, lady, things end. You have to let them go, even if you don’t want to.”
It had been a week, and Tabitha still hadn’t said anything about Kate’s chestnut hair. Did she like it? Surely she had noticed the color; it was much darker now.
Tabitha wanted to go dancing at a nightclub on Route 1, Castle. As she got ready upstairs for their night out, Kate joined Nathan in the family room. Something was off about him in the way he just sat there, examining the remote. Kate sunk into the leather couch, which creaked. He leaned forward.
“Kate, do you know Christian Wands?”
“Yes, he’s new at work. Why?”
“Tabitha talked to him for two hours last night.”
“Well,” said Kate, touching her hair, “they’re working on a project together.”
Tabitha was in the conference room with him on Wednesday, apparently discussing work related matters.
“Something’s going on,” he said. “I know it.”
“When does that ever stop anyone?”
She did sense a kind of heat between the two that day. Something was slightly off, the way they were sitting a little too close, too focused on each other. It was like they weren’t taking on the shape and form of a couple, but the shadow of one, a silhouette.
It was cold enough outside that Kate could see her breath, a relief after the claustrophobic heat inside. It felt as if the club was about to collapse with all the cramped, rowdy people and vibrating music. Kate wondered if the building was sturdy enough to hold that chaos. She realized they shouldn’t have come, especially Tabitha, a married woman, who insisted. Earlier, Tabitha had run into some people she knew and seemed to forget Kate, having a great time off without her.
Kate spotted Tabitha at a stone bench on her phone. She seemed upset now, stiff, hugging her body. Kate hung back.
“Do you honestly expect me to sit around and wait for you? You’ll never leave her, will you? Tell me the truth. Liar!”
Tabitha slammed the phone into her black fringe purse. She turned around, like she knew Kate was there all along, and sat up too straight. She shook her bangs out of her eyes, seemingly amused.
“Kate, I’ve been looking for you. Chip invited us to a party. They have a limo.”
Kate sat down next to her. “But what about Nathan?”
Tabitha leaned in close. Her breath smelled like alcohol and cranberries. “Don’t judge me.”
As the limo pulled away, Kate focused on the red taillights as they smeared and blurred into the distance.
It had been a particularly snowy winter and another storm was coming tonight. The grocery store was packed, and all the good stuff had been cleaned out. Kate settled for a slightly squished bag of bread. When she turned into the next aisle, she nearly collided with her ex-husband.
A woman with silky brown hair peeked out from the other aisle. “Oh, there you are,” she said to him, breathless. “What’s wrong?” She came all the way around, pushing a cart with a baby carrier.
Kate recognized her at once. The infant, wrapped in a pink blanket, suddenly reached out like she wanted to be held, straining and clutching.
“I have to go.” Kate stepped backwards.
She left her cart and ran out the store, managing to squeeze past a young man with a long line of carts in the entryway. She dashed right into the crowded parking lot.
“Hey, lady, wake up!”
She jumped back, avoiding a rusty, light blue pickup truck. The grisly driver in a camouflage trucker hat peeled past her, zigzagging in the snow and out of the lot.
Inside her car, Kate held onto the steering wheel to stop her hands from shaking. She turned the key, but the engine wouldn’t turn over, just clicked. She tried again and nothing, not even a sound.
The snow was starting to accumulate and it was getting dark. The sidewalk came to an end, so she was forced to walk along the thin edge. College kids honked, whistled, and yelled. The campus shuttle barreled past her, making her jump into the overgrown grass.
Someone pulled off the road. Kate kept walking, head down, and walked right past the car.
“Wait, stop!” The driver yelled out the window. “It’s me, Nathan!”
Inside Nathan’s car, Kate couldn’t stop shivering, even though the heat was on full blast.
“My God, you’re shaking.” He adjusted the vents to point at her, turned the interior light on, and looked at Kate closely. “Are you okay?”
Everything was amplified, and she was overcome. Nathan watched her, silent. The tears wouldn’t stop, and the more she became conscious of her crying, the more she cried. He reached out and pulled a strand of her hair that was stuck to her wet face, placing it behind her ear. He stroked her cheek with the backs of his fingers. She leaned into him, rubbing her eyes with her fists in that rough kind of way, rubbing them too hard, the way a child would.
Nathan coming inside just kind of happened. Kate didn’t invite him in, and he didn’t ask, but here he was, standing in her entryway, his hair covered in snow. Without thinking, Kate used her sleeve to brush it off. He pulled her into his arms and held her closely.
They swayed from side to side as if they were dancing. This is how she and Eliot actually danced together when they were young, on the rare occasion they did, kind of holding onto each other and rocking back and forth, leaning into each other so they wouldn’t fall.
He was sound asleep, despite the wind, and took up too much space in her bed. Her legs itched. She got up and left the room, closing the door behind her. Kate scooped up her cat Ruby and took her to the chaise lounge. She pulled the throw over both of them, all the way up over her head.
Early the next morning, Nathan was already fully dressed, smelling like her lavender hand soap. Ruby jumped off the chaise lounge and darted past him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t realize you slept out here.”
“It’s all right.” She sat up, hugging her legs.
He took a seat next to her and touched her exposed foot. “Kate, last night—”
“It shouldn’t have happened. She’s my friend.”
“She doesn’t know what friendship is.”
Kate hadn’t seen much of Tabitha since Castle; they seemed to avoid each other.
“You’re married, Nathan.”
He stood up, seeming to forget Kate was in the room, and paced. He faced the sliding glass door, then leaned on it, his back to her.
“It’s falling apart. She doesn’t even look at me anymore. I can move on, too, like she never existed, turn it off.”
“But no one can do that.”
“She can.” He turned to her. “She did.”
As soon as he was gone, Kate went to her bedroom and ripped the comforter off, then the sheets, the pillowcases, too, cracking the windows even though it was freezing. She opened the little drawer in her nightstand to get her rings. It was time to let them go.
A small photograph was wedged in the corner of the nightstand drawer. It looked like the type taken in a photo booth at a carnival or fair, cut out from a strip of four, but she couldn’t remember when or where it was taken. The edges were somewhat curled, and there were small black spots all over. Their faces were pressed up together. Kate’s full smile made her cheeks appear chubbier. She had that look like she’d been ingesting too much sugar or caffeine, the way her eyes were glazed over in pleasure and overindulgence. Eliot looked so young, his hair shiny, his frame thin.
She couldn’t pinpoint this memory, when they were somewhere during sometime in the past, pressing their faces together in the confines of that small booth, just the two of them, sitting on what must have been the hot, sticky seat. She thought of how young they were when that was taken, how life stretched out before them, how unsure she was, of everything: Eliot, herself, especially herself.
Campus was softer now that spring had arrived, even with the stubborn, melting snow. Tabitha was at least forty minutes late to work most days, and was a no-show at a big meeting. Kate couldn’t help but notice her frizzy hair and tired eyes lately, her chipped nails. She hadn’t seen her diamond ring. Was she still seeing Christian? People were talking.
Tabitha heaved a large cardboard box onto the reception desk, making the library patrons turn and stare.
“I was just fired. Come out with me, Kate.”
They stepped outside.
Tabitha readjusted her box so it sat on her hip. “First my marriage,” she said, “and now this?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You’ll get through this. You’re strong.”
“I’m just a good actress.” Tabitha pushed some slush with her black leather boot. “You know, I’m not seeing Christian anymore.”
“Tabitha, you don’t have to explain anything to me. It’s none of my business.”
“I don’t know what I was thinking. I guess I just thought Nathan didn’t love me anymore.”
The campus bells rang. Students poured into the courtyard. Kate watched over Tabitha as she walked away. She was impossible to miss.
Spring crept along, was rainy. On the first sunny day, Kate took a walk. She approached the pretty yellow house on Pebble Lane with the tumbling stonewall. It was exactly as it was when she and Eliot sold it almost two years ago. Nothing had changed.
She pulled the photograph out of her pocket and pressed it to herself. Her path, all those years, was obscured and hidden from view, and she could only see it now in hindsight, all lit up suddenly, as if it had always been. She started to see something underneath the thicket, a glimpse of her future self, like light bouncing off a mirror. This other person was willing her forward. She now chopped the tangled overgrowth that concealed her path into her future.
Looking at the house, it would change. Maybe not anytime soon, but it would. She knew that.
She took a step forward to the stone wall and wedged the photograph in between the stones.
Melissa Campbell lives in the New Hampshire Seacoast area with her fiancé and cat. She has been teaching college English for nine years and currently helps struggling students. Writing has been her passion since childhood. She has several creative projects in the works, including short stories, a novella, and a novel.