Arlene's lover's wife held out her hand, hesitant and trembling. “Jane, but, of course, you know.”
Arlene, said, “Arlene.”
“So. Can we take a table in the back?”
As Jane leads, walking past several occupied tables, she tucks her car keys into her bag, snapping it closed. Without saying anything, Jane turns, and, as their eyes meet, there is a glancing gesture toward two chairs at a vacant corner table. Taking the farthest chair, knees bending, stooping with delicacy, Jane places the bag under the table. Adjusting the chair, she sits on its edge, looks up at the taller woman.
Arlene takes the chair opposite, sits and leans back, folding her arms defiant. She hopes Martin's wife wouldn't cry. She can handle anger and hostility, not crying.
They look at each other.
Arlene's sharp high-bridged nose, her lips prim over not unsightly protuberant, smallish teeth, contrasts with Jane's round, softer features. Only their eyes are the same color — nearly: Jane's the lighter blue, less set-off from the light blond and straight, page-boy hair; Arlene's a deep blue, penetrating, the tone of her fine, black hair, naturally curled and pulled-back. Neither wear earrings.
When Jane reaches for the water, not asking, but pouring for herself and for Arlene, Arlene sees Jane's ring, same simple gold as Martin's, the ring — at her request — he drops ceremonially into the bowl on the hallway table, replacing it when he leaves. She hears the clink and dizzy spin of it.
Jane asked on the phone, “Is this Arlene?”
“Yes,” Arlene replied. “And who...?”
The voice went on, “Are you Marty's girlfriend?”
“Who is asking?” said Arlene. She called him 'Martin.' Even though she knew, she repeated, “Who is this?”
“The wife he lives with. Jane. His wife. Okay?”
“Oh ... So? ... I see.”
“Good. You know,” repeating, “I'm Jane, his wife ... I'm sure you know me.”
Jane had said 'please' several times on the phone: “Please meet me. Please.”
“Why?” Arlene had said, and repeated.
There are some things I need to know.” Adding, pensively, after Jane heard no response, “Maybe you too?”
“Me too. What?”
“We should meet. Talk. Please.”
Hearing, “Maybe,” Jane suggested a time, named an arty cafe, not far from Arlene's flat. Later that very day. She would be there. She would wait.
Arlene rang Martin. He was out of town. He must have known. She paced the front room of her flat. It was not until the last moment: Arlene walked to the cafe and stood across the road.
Jane sat, facing away from the street, behind the plate glass window near the door. Even now she is a shadow-woman, an unfocused figure lain across Arlene's life since she had met him. And while she knew things about Jane she didn't need to know, Arlene had little idea of what Jane knew of her.
The waitress brought menus.
At Jane's back hung tacked-up charcoal sketches of idealized male nudes. Other walls are hung with what Arlene's father called, “Accidents of paint.” The patrons seemed young — young would-be artists, boy friends. They paid no attention to the two women.
Jane spoke first, “Want to order?”
“Maybe a glass of wine. You?” Her lips closed slowly over her teeth. There was a matter-of-fact smile.
As Jane peered into the menu, Arlene's eyes slid over the nudes. She hadn't seen Martin for over a week. They had meet three years before, at the hot dog stand; it was a Red Socks – Yankees double header; she had been with Paul then; Paul, who introduced them; Paul, had been a brother Delta Sig at Penn State, Paul, a year before his death, three years after Paul and Arlene began Buddhist practice.
Jane asks, “Red or white?”
Arlene, “House red's okay.” She thinks Jane is more attractive than Marty said of his wife. He said she was dowdy, wore out-of-date, hand-me-downs from her mother. Arlene sees she is plainly dressed in an understated way, but the vest, embroidered peasant blouse, and skirt match perfectly.
Jane, turning to the waitress, “Carafe of house red. Two glasses. Small, mixed-cheese plate.”
As the waitress left, Jane smiles.
There followed a long, drawn-out silence, until Arlene asked, “So, how are you?'
Arlene knew Martin worked long hours, came home late, frequently getting up after the children had gone to school, once saying the miserable sex life he had with Jane maybe wasn't all her fault as he was frequently exhausted, but it was never half-good: even in the beginning. As he described their attempts at love-making, there was little pleasure for either. He doubted Jane knew an orgasm. Martin told how she got up two, three times every night to pee, always waking him, until he wore earplugs. He acknowledged Jane's days were unfulfilled; she wanted to be a teacher, but the quick pregnancy with Sally, then Tommy....
After the first months, Arlene requested he not speak to her about Jane, but as Arlene's meetings with Martin — except when she stayed with him on business trips to New York — were frequently arranged around obligations to children, family and Jane's schedules, she was inevitably mentioned. And now they share a table. And soon wine.
Arlene repeated, “So, how are you?”
Jane, after a time, first looking to see if their order is arriving, answers, “Don't you know?”
Arlene shrugged her shoulders, kept her arms folded across her chest, waited; sucking in her cheeks caused her lips to part exposing the sharp edge of lower teeth. She thought she might get up and leave, then deciding to stay, she offered, “What is it I can do for you?” There is an edge to the way she spoke.
“There are things I want to know. As his wife. . . I am entitled”
“Are you now?” The same edge.
“I have rights. We've been married eleven years; but I suppose you know that?”
Arlene had known coming here would not be easy. On the walk over she tried to prepare, but it was like briefing for a university exam without having been told the subject. Even the hour of meditation didn't calm her.
The wine, two glasses, a plate of miniature, wrapped Dutch cheeses and crackers arrived just as Arlene asked, though she tried not to, the tone contemptuous, “Don't I have any rights?”
The waitress beats a hasty retreat as Jane, seemingly stung by Arlene's assertion of “rights,” slumps back. Arlene leans forward filling both glasses. She slides one to Jane, saying, “This'll help.”
Jane pulls her chair closer to the table, making a deep audible sigh as she accepts the glass, whispering a “Thank you” then — in better voice — repeats “Thank you” before adding, “I appreciate this is not easy for you either.”
Arlene reaches for a windmill-wrapped Gouda, decides on an Edam, cuts it in half, offering a share to Jane, who mutters, “Thanks.” Then, as she accepts a napkin, “Thank you.”
Neither speaks as they sip and savor, without really tasting anything.
Jane feels her jaw shaking uncontrollably, her teeth chattering as they do after a swim in cold water. She finds it difficult to keep steady, not to break every cracker as she spreads the creamy substances, when, without wrapper, looking like every other Dutch cheese, the color, she fears, like her own, pale and lifeless.
Neither looks at the others' eyes as the ritual of sips and spreading occupies their hands.
Arlene notes Jane's fingers are not short and stubby as Martin said; not long and thin with painted nails like hers are, but, considering the demands of children, the nails are neatly rounded, cared for, and her hands are delicate and, like her other features, softly curved.
Jane sees Arlene's longer arms reach with assurance to cheese, crackers and wine. The nails are polished, a deep rose. There are no rings, but a tasteful, non-statement-making watch and several thin, filigreed bracelets dangle on her right wrist.
Jane sees Arlene's bra-less breasts do little to fill out her mauve silk blouse. Small breasts, as Martin said. Mystery and appealing dark brown nipples ... that's what he liked. Not hers, so full, sagging, particularly following the third, unanticipated, child. Sex was so infrequent these last eight years neither took care...and Jane being Catholic....
Arlene breaks the silence: “Where are the children?” Other people's children aren't very real, nor are wives, until you have had babies or were married. Arlene had neither experience.
“With Marty away, my mother, bless her, knows” ... her voice catches ... “knows I need a break. I get them back tomorrow.”
Just for a moment, Arlene thought she might ask where Martin had gone. Deciding against that, less edge now, she asks again, “Well ... so, what is it I can do for you?”
Feeling calmer now, maybe the wine, Jane says, the tone subdued, weak, almost pleading, “I need to know your intentions,” she pauses, the first time looking directly into Arlene's eyes, she adds, “Are you are taking my life?”
Arlene sees, as if a tap had been turned on, Jane's eyes fill with water, then before she could raise a napkin, tears fell from both lightly-rouged cheeks. Looking away, as she dabbed her eyes, saying, “I'm sorry. I wanted to be stronger.”
Eyes red, but dryer, Jane faced Arlene again. She took a deep breath, then asked, the voice lowered, “How did he meet you?”
Jane said 'you' without a tone of venom, as if Arlene was poisonous, as if there was a poisonous kiss. Arlene heard a neutral 'you,' the whole utterance a simple question, a desire to know, know how it began, maybe when.
Arlene might have told about meeting Martin at the baseball game, an introduction by Martin's long-time earlier, good friend in the fraternity, about the death of her soul mate, Paul, their plan of marriage and growing Buddhist spirituality, told about Martin, after his stirring eulogy, offering to take her home, about her need then not to be alone, about her asking him to meditate with her, about how he was unwilling, then willing, then needy himself, about how their spirituality grew week by week, soon a three-year anniversary; she might have told about how her best friend, taking a married lover, converted him to Buddhist practices; how she envied her friend's love and romance, until she found herself dipped into the same delights, often chaste spiritual encounters — not always — once or twice weekly, and finally about how naively she spoke to Martin about everything else — her life, his family — remaining the same, separated by the principles of karma and emptiness. Arlene might have told Jane how Martin did say this time would come and how before meditation, sometimes in bed, they would play on the-time-would-come phrase working it into how they teased each other. But she didn't.
Instead, Arlene, shifting away from the table, back against her chair, hands poised, finger tips on the table's edge, looking down at Jane's bag under the table, saying “We grew attached when I was afraid of being alone after the man I was to marry was killed”— not adding — “by robbers on the doorstep where we lived.” Then feeling like a family pet who had peed on the kitchen floor, she adds, “I encouraged, Marty, as you call him. I was needy and naive. I am sorry.”
Instinctively, Jane reaches to place her right hand's finger tips over the table-grasping fingers of Arlene, saying, “I am only trying to understand.”
Arlene, not looking at Jane, feels the touch of her fingers. Still staring under the table, but seeing nothing, her head hangs. She closes her eyes as she feels the tears emerging. She draws a deep breath, holds it.
Jane senses Arlene's pain and her fingers move to stroke the back of Arlene's hand as one might a kitten. Jane feels she wants to stand, go to Arlene, whisper in her ear, repeat, “I am only trying to understand.” She sees Arlene's fine, clean, black hair; she wonders if it smells as good as it looks.
Arlene accepts the comfort of Jane's fingers on her hand and, releasing her grasp, turns her hand so that their fingers come together.
Jane, reaching further, takes Arlene's hand in hers and gently urges it forward. She cannot see Arlene's face. She sees tears falling. She slides a napkin forward, simply saying, “Here.”
Arlene, lifting her head, sniffles, and accepting the napkin from Jane, for the second time says, “I am sorry.”
Jane doesn't know if the 'sorry' is because Arlene has broken down or is for screwing her husband. It doesn't matter now.
At the third repeat of, “I am sorry,” Jane rolls Arlene's fingers in hers and squeezes. Then Jane strokes the smooth inside of Arlene's wrist as Arlene relaxes her arm and — like a sacrifice — offers her other arm to Jane, wrist up. Jane slides the bracelets inches up and continues stroking. As Arlene's head is lowered, tears again fall directly to the floor.
The waitress, not trying to look, sees they remain that way: the blond woman stroking the others exposed underarms and wrists; neither speaking as they touch fingers and grasp hands; the dark-haired woman not looking up, her whole body occasionally shuddering; they seem utterly alone, unnoticed by any other patron.
Left alone Jane and Arlene eventually move closer to the table look sympathetically, knowingly into each others eyes, continue touching hands, stroking fingers, sip and finish eating, until Arlene says, “Look. You are in no condition to drive anywhere. You can call the children from my place. Give me the keys.”
In the hallway, walking ahead, Arlene drops the keys in the bowl. She hears Jane's ring spin and clink. #