It happened quickly, but not quickly enough.
“You’re right,” he said, “I’ve slept with her.”
Frieda breathed out through her mouth like she’d instructed her boys to do when ripping off a Band-Aid: “In and… out!”
Tom reached a veined hand out to touch her knee, a gesture so familiar from years of marriage that Frieda hardly felt it. “I’m sorry. It was a mistake.”
“A mistake?” she snapped, pulling away. “What do you mean, a mistake? You’re saying you drove to her house by mistake? Fell into her bed, oops — my mistake!”
“Frieda, please.” He shook his head to himself, shrinking into his chest.
When had he grown so small, she thought, so tired? “So. How many times are we talking? Months?” She shuddered, “Years?”
“A few months. A year.” He refused to meet her gaze, and a memory of their son came to Frieda’s mind.
“Open your hands, Alfred,” she’d said, a scolding edge to her tone. He’d opened his small palms slowly, uncovering three chocolate chip cookies that he’d snatched from the pan. “Alfred,” she’d repeated, and he’d cracked his mouth open, just a smidge, to reveal a fourth cookie, still warm, melting on the roof of his mouth. His eyes remained glued on the floor, and an unrelenting wave of tenderness had washed over the young mother for her boy, her honest rosy-cheeked thief.
Frieda’s chest warmed for a moment now too, feeling her husband cower under her stare. Just a little mouse. But she quickly crumpled the feeling up and set it ablaze.
She’d known. Of course she’d known, deep down, for quite some time. The late nights at the office, the vague conversations, the fishing trips some Saturdays, he never bought more bait, why did he never run out of bait? Ah, and the flowers, what a sweet, spontaneous thought. Did he buy bouquets in pairs? She opened her mouth, then shut it, knowing the answer would do her no good.
Tom looked up at her silence. “It was nothing,” he hesitated, “it meant nothing, and it’s over. I told her that.”
Frieda said nothing, picked at the fraying throw pillow in her lap.
“I love you, you know I love you,” he said.
Twenty-nine years of I-love-you’s, and Frieda wondered when the words had started to mean nothing. It didn’t mean they had stopped loving each other necessarily, she would tell herself in the dark hours of the morning as Tom lay snoring beside her. Rather that enough repetition could dissolve meaning in anything. The old organist at church was living proof of that, zooming through “Amazing Grace” as cold and unfeeling as the stone Jesus by the door. This reminder would be enough to dispel the gnawing in her stomach and allow her to sleep, however briefly.
But now. Now. Her sleeplessness had had just cause and no words would hold her down. With a sigh of exertion, Frieda huffed out into the quiet, August night.
“Frieda,” her husband called after her, but he didn’t follow. It was past his bedtime.
The bell above the door tinkled as Frieda entered the diner. It was nearly closing time, and only one couple remained. They sat picking at a plate of fries and thumbing through pamphlets. Summer folk, Frieda thought irritably, and she took a seat in the back corner.
Frieda craned her neck up at the young man who had come to her table. “Oh, hello there, Robbie.”
She’d always had a soft spot for the boy, though she’d deny having the ability to develop feelings for anyone to her death bed. As a rule, teenagers made Frieda nauseous. But Robbie was a good boy, she knew that. And bright as anything, too — something of a memory whiz, the way he could point to anyone who walked in and recite exactly when they had last been to the restaurant.
“Will it be the usual, Mrs. H? It’s a little late for an eggs benedict, but,” he glanced around and placed a hand to his mouth as though sharing a secret just with her, “I’ve got an in with the chef, and I’m sure we could whip some up for ya.”
Frieda lifted a corner of her mouth and replied, “No, no, just a coffee. Please.”
“Decaf, black. Gotcha.”
She watched him head behind the counter, poking the cook’s shoulder with a grin before grabbing a mug. The cook chuckled, bent over a sink piled high with pans and plates. Frieda wondered how many litres of dish soap a place like this went through each month. How many eggs they cracked, how many hollow hearts they filled with hot coffee.
Robbie returned to her table and placed the mug down, pouring from the carafe with a steady hand and a look on his face, such a look, like a painter smudging the finishing touch of his piece just… so.
“Robbie, how old are you?”
“I’m 20 in October, ma’am.” He had a loud voice, far too eager to engage in conversation in Frieda’s opinion. But she was grateful for it tonight.
“And what of plans to go to college? Mrs. Carter always said how smart you were, said you knew the answers before she thought up questions.”
The boy grinned as he wiped a drop from the carafe, but it seemed to stretch inward, reaching for some private memory that she couldn’t see. “Yeah, she’s got a mouth on her, that Mrs. Carter. She was a great teacher. She really saw us. You know?” He looked up, and Frieda nodded. “But college ain’t for me. I’m plenty fine where I am. I help my Ma out. It’s good.”
“Fine, but you’re so young. Don’t you…”
Robbie looked at her expectantly.
“Don’t you want to take some risks, know what’s out there? You must feel sometimes, I don’t know… restless?” Her eyes searched his open face, pricked with an agitation she couldn’t comprehend. She wanted to see some yearning in him for the world beyond the nest, some fire. She needed proof from him that such a thing was possible.
“No, ma’am, I… ‘out there’ is my town and my car and my paycheck at the end of the month. This is my home, I don’t want anything else.”
Something within Frieda sunk, like a cold stone, into her stomach. She no longer wanted her coffee.
“Can I have the bill?”
Tom hadn’t moved an inch since Frieda left. She opened the door to find him still, his head in his hands, gazing glassy-eyed at the coffee table. An image of some famous statue came to Frieda’s mind, but she couldn’t recall the name.
Frieda stood in the doorway for a few moments, taking in the arch of his back, the ridges snaking up his neck, the way his shoulder shrugged inward like he was in a perpetual state of uncertainty. How strange they had grown, and yet how familiar. How comfortably familiar. She let out a sigh and headed upstairs to bed.
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