By Melissa Bowers
I am in a restaurant when I learn Rob has a wife. It shouldn’t matter, since I’m already a wife, too—Timothy sits across from me, cutting a chicken strip into toddler-sized bites between swigs of his craft beer—but something catches in my chest at the sound of Rob’s name. Maybe it’s because Timothy and I are hardly speaking at the moment, or maybe it’s because of the person delivering the news.
Amaya is supposed to be a ghost from the past. She is not meant to materialize inside the life I have now, this many years after college, as she exits Timothy’s favorite burger place. I don’t notice her until she sidles over and leans against the edge of our table, runs an invasive finger around its glossy tiles, slowly, as if she’s trying to seduce them one by one. We exchange pleasantries: Nice to see you. Yes, it’s been forever. What are you up to these days?
“By the way, Rob got married,” Amaya tells me. “She looks a lot like you, actually—brown hair, kind of wavy. They have a daughter.”
She winces a little when she says it, in sympathy or solidarity, as though we both have the right to feel jealous. Then she tsk-tsks and sets her lips in a thin, apologetic line, flutters her fingers over her shoulder: “‘Bye, honey.” The finality of her hips swaying toward the door.
“That was the Amaya?” Timothy asks through a mouthful of ground meat.
I raise my eyebrows.
“Oh yeah,” he says. “We’re fighting.”
Rob and I meet in a restaurant. It’s my second day as a server, and we are strangers at the bread table, brushing elbows, slicing endless loaves for prickly wicker baskets. He’s bent over the cutting board beside me—even in profile, he is charged with a vibrance so palpable it almost buzzes—and we do not look directly at each other until he insists on keeping the dull knife for himself, a show of gallantry.
“In case you cut something you shouldn’t,” he says, before he even tells me his name. “It hurts less if it’s sharp.”
College is supposed to teach me what I want to be when I grow up, but so far it’s taught me I have a shelf life. My friendships inexplicably fade to shadows, relationships dissolve. I am a supernova: a thing people can’t help but notice at first, bright and glittering and radiant for a brief time only. The shine wears off. I explode. In order to survive, I’ve learned to be the one who leaves.
I turn to brandish a quip, some half-joke held up like a shield, but freeze with my serrated blade paused in midair. There are blinding blue eyes, a shock of teeth. His smile takes up all of his face. “I’ll be careful,” I say instead.
Amaya watches us from her spot behind the host stand. She has her finger on the pulse of the restaurant, as hosts do, and she pulls me aside when I pass with my tray of bread. “I saw that,” she says. “The crackling.”
“The crackling between you two.” She smirks. “He’s just a baby, you know. A sophomore.”
“So?” I shrug out of her grip. “It’s a couple years. Not a big deal.” And it won’t be, when I am fifty-eight and he is fifty-six, when we are both silvery and slightly weathered. But right now, when I’m supposed to graduate in a few months and he isn’t, I seem every bit the older woman. Rob is too young.
He can’t even legally drink his Coors Light at our staff holiday party that December, where we press our foreheads together and dance, press our mouths together, our hips. Rob is not too young to know exactly where to touch me.
At the party, I leave for the bathroom and return to see Amaya running a slow hand down his arm, her mouth moving against his ear. He beams when I approach, and Amaya gives him a lingering gaze before scuttling away. “The music’s too loud,” he shouts over the noise. “I couldn’t hear her.”
Always, whether I am present or not, bodies orbit around Rob, waiting their turn, hoping he might pull them closer. I make predictions: I will remain a server until the end of college and he will be promoted to bartender by spring—his magnetism must be monetized. He is too charismatic to be anything other than the nucleus.
These are the things that come true.
Rob proposes fifteen months later in a restaurant—the opposite of what I expect. I assume he’s brought me here to tell me we are over, that my shine has worn off, as it inevitably does. I’ve even chosen my best breakup dress: deep V, slit thigh, you’ll-be-sorry.
Instead, Rob drops to one knee and sputters, “Will you?” with a kind of restless impulsivity, as if marriage is an idea that’s just struck him this minute. He looks jittery and a bit bewildered, yet somehow he’s thought far enough ahead to bring a diamond in a trembling velvet box.
Rob has just turned twenty-one. He is too young for marriage, but he is not too young to lock an empty break room and let me straddle his waist. He is not too young to untie my apron and unzip my jeans, to carry me up three flights of stairs to my apartment, to walk me home in the dark, to drive me to the hospital after I finally sever a fingertip at the bread table. He is not too young to lift my skirt on a beach in Puerto Vallarta—to know, when the police come, exactly how many pesos will buy our freedom.
I say yes although I mean Not yet.
Later, he admits he’d started to panic after my graduation—that he was sure I would leave him without a ring.
Later, as we pay our bill and exit into the winter night, Rob’s breathing is shallow. He apologizes for asking me to marry him in a restaurant rather than somewhere more exciting. “What if we don’t tell anyone for a while?” he suggests. “People might think it’s rushed. Maybe once some time has passed, okay?” I shove my left hand into my coat pocket, confused and self-conscious, suddenly ashamed of its new weight.
Later, when Amaya tells me Rob has a wife, I wonder how he proposed. I have no idea, but I hope it went something like this: he is calm and certain and in love with her, and she is wearing precisely the right dress. He fills vases with her favorite flower and offers her a bite of dessert that vaguely resembles wedding cake, the taste of foreshadowing. They do something exciting, almost dangerous—a hot air balloon ride, or parasailing—and she goes because he has grown into a man who can be trusted. She is safe. He asks when they are in the sky, while they are still suspended above the world, while they are flying.
I’m in a restaurant when I know: it’s Timothy. Not Rob.
Decisions are agony for me, even minor ones—I am a person who vacillates between menu options, wardrobe options, do-we-drive-north-or-south-or-nowhere options, and then immediately regrets my choice. This decision feels different. I’ve wavered for weeks, but here in this booth I am struck with the force of it, enough that I flatten myself backward and stop speaking mid-sentence.
“Yesterday you…what?” Timothy says. He swirls his hand in a keep going gesture. “Are you okay?”
Maybe? Maybe not? Another choice, something else I don’t know how to answer. What I do know is it has to be Timothy: Timothy, who is two years older. Timothy, who plays flag football with the other mechanics at his shop, who taught me how to change my own oil, who always says what he means, who would never want me to hide a ring in my pocket. Timothy, who makes absolute sense.
Up until this second, Rob and I have taken turns reaching out: I promise, he often says. It was nothing. It’s always been you. We’ve burned on and off and on and off, and for a recent moment, on again.
Rob took me to a concert last month. Timothy and I were brand new then, both still seeing other people—he was proudly anti-jealous, but for the first time since we met, he’d seemed worried. “Have fun,” Timothy had said, squeezing my hand. “Just please don’t forget I exist.”
One of our favorite groups. Seats on the main floor. Over a pounding bass that vibrated through our ribs, Rob leaned in to say he felt like we were on a merry-go-round, that time was making him dizzy. How could it already be three years since I’d returned the ring? Did I remember dancing at the holiday party? Did I remember how scared I was at the hospital, getting stitches on that finger? Had it left a scar?
“We could give this another shot,” Rob said then. “Like really give it a shot, not whatever we’ve been doing up to now.”
“What if we do?”
But when he pressed his lips against my ear to speak above the music, I imagined Amaya. “Maybe,” I said, pulling away.
Rob winced. “I was a kid.”
“It’s not that.”
“What is it, then?” he asked, and waited. “We just keep fixating on the past. Can’t we focus on what’s ahead of us instead?”
So I tried: I studied his face, attempted to conjure an image of our future. Everything was blank. I could only picture Rob in his apron, Rob pouring drinks behind the bar, Rob as I had always known him.
“It’s almost like…it’s like you’re looking at this whole thing out of order,” he said, suddenly animated. “You keep getting these flashes that don’t belong there anymore, you know? Interrupting everything as soon as we start to move forward. But I swear—twenty years from now, when we look back, we’ll wish we didn’t wait so long. It’s us. It really is us.”
His teeth, wide and bright. His smile eclipsing everything. I wondered: What if he is a supernova, too? Maybe that’s why he can’t tell we’re fading sharply, that together we are nothing more than remnants.
As he dropped me off, he parked the car and leaned across the console, the familiarity of him steaming the windows, but I had not forgotten Timothy. This might be the last time, I thought then, and here, in this restaurant, I know: That was the last time.
I find Rob and Amaya in a restaurant, a semi-fancy one with signature cocktails and a coat check. They are sitting on the same side of the booth—a bonus betrayal. At work, he laughs and rolls his eyes when patrons do this.
They’ve tried to cover their laps with his jacket, but one sleeve dangles down, dragging the whole thing toward the floor. Her hand is working, working, although only delicate movements are noticeable above the table. Rob brings a drink up to his mouth with careful indifference. Nothing to see here, folks.
I watch until I know he is about to come: his chest rising and falling in tandem with her strokes, his back arched just slightly, exhaling again and again through parted lips. When he puts a hand to the back of his own neck and squeezes—his tell—I approach their table, lean against the edge, run a finger along its glossy wood.
If this were the movies, I’d have a scathing line prepared: Don’t think I’ll need these anymore or Here, you lost something. In real life, I can’t speak. I just drop my ring into the bread basket, push his extra apartment key into the palm of his hand, all chilly metal and sharp edges, the dullest blade.
“Wait,” he says, “wait”—but I am gone before he can zip his fly.
We are in a restaurant when I break the news to my parents: Timothy and I are moving away.
Not to the next town over, or even a neighboring state, where visits would be hindered only by an inconvenient drive. It will be nearly three thousand miles—several time zones apart, five hours by plane.
My parents don’t like to fly. For her, it’s the acrophobia; for him, it’s the threat of turbulence. As if this specific aversion is genetic, I don’t care much for flying, either: the fullness in my ears, the lack of control, the absolute faith it requires in both people and machines.
“Couldn’t they let Timothy work remotely?” my mom asks after a long, horrified silence, her face contorted as though I’ve struck her. “They respect him. They want to keep him. There must be something—”
I shake my head. “He has to go.”
And I have to go with him. Because we are married, with a toddler, and this is the expectation: we’re supposed to be a team, for better or worse, in good times and bad, blah blah blah ‘til death. Scarlett is watching me from her high chair, so I don’t cry—my job is to make this transition exciting for her. An adventure.
I’m not one for decisions, but I know this: the only thing I’ve never wanted to leave is home.
Timothy isn’t eating with us today. Things are still a bit strained. They’ve been strained for weeks, in fact, ever since that pivotal meeting with his boss, and it’s not his fault he’s getting transferred—it’s “an honor” that they asked him to head up the new office—but tension has crept in anyway, swirling above and below and between our conversations until each sentence is swollen with it. Timothy was wrong before, at the burger place: we’re not fighting. We’re just relearning how to survive.
“Did you hear Rob has a wife?” I say.
My mom blinks at the non-sequitur. “Rob?”
“They have a daughter, too. Just like us.”
What I mean is: she is living my alternate life. What I mean is: if I’d married someone else, if I had made a different choice, I would be staying right here, like she gets to—where my child would still have Sunday dinners with her grandparents, where I recognize the streets and shops and schools and neighbors, where our future feels familiar. Rob’s wife will have the privilege of all these things, and what I mean is: occasionally, I regret my decision.
We celebrate Scarlett’s fifth birthday in a restaurant, without extended family or anyone we used to know, because we are three thousand miles away.
This is the kind of place that exists solely for children’s parties—video games, ball pits, colorful plastic playscapes. Employees wear elaborate animal costumes and perform on stage. In between bites of chewy, deflated pizza, we escape to the photo booth for pictures: me, Timothy, Scarlett, and her new baby brother. Take two. Take three. Take four.
We’ve lived here long enough by now to have made some friends, people who still find me shiny somehow. While our children clamber over each other with their boundless energy reserves, the adults drink wine from indestructible cups and talk about parenting and exhaustion and mortality. I’m standing in a long line waiting to settle the bill, but snippets float above the din:
…had to fly to Chicago this week for my aunt’s memorial. My mom’s a wreck…
…the worst! I lost an aunt to cancer, too. Lung…
…my dad’s getting his prostate out in a few days…
“It’s like we’re all just sitting around waiting for our turn, right?” Timothy’s voice, always clear and recognizable in a crowd. “Like the only surprise left is which part of us it will attack and how old we’ll be when it happens.”
I try to catch his eye from my place in line, to flash him a quick wave, an invitation to swap spots with me if he wants out of the conversation. We used to talk about other things. Ambitions. Travel. Music. Less important, maybe, but lighter, not the bleak stuff of grown-ups. When did we become the grown-ups? Weren’t we still twenty-five and meeting each other for the first time, twenty-seven and renting a cheap apartment, twenty-eight and saving for our honeymoon? But Timothy doesn’t look like he wants to be rescued. He is leaning forward, gesturing, sending occasional whoops of encouragement toward the kids.
While a man at the front of the line argues about an overcharge, I thumb through social media to pass the time. Somehow, even as my friends ping worries back and forth behind me, I still do not expect the smile that materializes in the midst of a scrolling stream of articles and ads, bright familiar teeth beaming above the word obituary.
Mutual acquaintances tag him as if he might still see their messages: former servers we’d worked with and danced with years ago, our manager from the restaurant. Amaya has written a post about how absolutely heartbroken she feels, lengthy and maudlin and punctuated with old photos. People send love. They tell her they are sorry.
I have intermittently wondered about Rob’s wife. Online searches proved fruitless—Rob never kept up with his social media accounts, and I didn’t know her name—but suddenly she is everywhere, all over the comment section and pervading his online memory book: Thank you, thank you, thank you for your thoughts and prayers everyone, thank you. There are pictures of them pressed together in a nightclub. On a beach in Mexico. At a concert, main floor.
Amaya was right. His wife does look like me, a little—especially now, with my eyes burning, every image blurring inward from the edges until each feature dissolves into an indecipherable haze. It might have been any woman’s face. It certainly might have been mine.
When I return to the table, we light candles that burn for a brief time only. We eat cake that reminds us of growing old.
In the car on the dark ride home, both of my children are uncharacteristically silent, as if they can sense this is a time for reflection and not for chaos. I scroll and scroll and scroll inside the unfamiliar absence of sound.
Leukemia, the fundraising page says. Bone marrow transplant. Months of chemo. Things seem to be improving each day, and we are so grateful. Thank you, everyone. Thank you.
He was thirty-four.
“Too young,” I say, mostly to myself, and also to Timothy, whose grip gently tightens, squeezing the flesh of my thigh.
“You okay?” he asks. His voice is almost lost against the whirring trees, but I can’t bring myself to roll up the window, not with all that air outside, fresh and necessary and completely undeserved. Available to breathe only by chance.
“We have to leave,” I tell him.
Timothy drives on for a while without speaking—just nods, as if he’s been expecting this.
“Before it wears off,” I continue. “Before it’s fucking gone.”
He squeezes my leg again, a comfort. “What if we stayed? A little longer, at least.” I don’t answer, so he says it again: “Let’s stay,” as though we have a right to.
Melissa Bowers is a writer from the Midwest. Her fiction was selected for the 2021 Wigleaf Top 50 and she is the recent winner of the SmokeLong Quarterly Grand Micro Contest. Melissa’s work has also appeared in The Cincinnati Review, The Greensboro Review, and The Boston Globe Magazine, among others. Read more at www.melissabowers.com or on Twitter @MelissaBowers_.