7 January, 2016
Wednesday, 7:45 PM
They leave the car running and duck into Kwik Trip for what Nate insists on calling “necessities.”
He and Melanie walk the aisles slowly, trailing fingers over nonsense items: foam beer koozies, ping pong balls, flip-flops in the shape of Minnesota. Athlete’s foot medicine. Paper clips. Mints whose flavor is identified as “fart-taste.”
There’s an aisle of candy and an aisle of chips. They float down each, and Melanie is certain the man behind the counter, old and tough and sick of everyone’s shit, assumes they’re going to steal something. He raises to his toes to watch them.
Near the beer cooler there is a small display of remaindered clothing. The t-shirts would fit an obese person, yet Nate holds one to his chest as if to check its fit. The hem hangs by his knees.
“Breathtaking,” Melanie says.
Nate flips through the choices. John Deere. Golden Gophers. Minnesota State Fair.
“That one,” Melanie says. She holds the state fair t-shirt to her chin, modeling. It is poorly silk-screened with the words
Everything’s Better on a Stick!
Nate takes one of the Gopher t-shirts, and nearby finds a matching baseball cap and two pairs of heart-shaped sunglasses. All of this he deposits in front of the old man behind the counter, who frowns at the pile.
“You here to yank my chain?” he asks.
Nate shakes his head solemnly. “No, sir,” he says.
“Pete send you?” the man asks. “Is he behind this?” “No, sir.”
“Nobody wants this stuff.” The old man holds up Nate’s t-shirt then looks at Melanie. “You in some kind of trouble, Miss?”
He’s probably imagining the worst of what he’s seen on TV— tortured prostitutes, kidnapped ex-wives, human trafficking rings—but that kind of trouble isn’t the trouble Melanie is in.
Hers is a more usual kind: she’s flown here to be with a man married to someone else.
“No trouble at all,” she says. She smiles and hopes it looks convincing.
The old man touches a pair of sunglasses with the tip of his finger, as if he’s afraid it might snarl to life. “Something’s fishy about this,” he says.
“It’s all right,” Nate says. “I’m a cop. This is police business.” He digs his badge out of his coat.
The old man squints. “That for real?”
Nate hands it over so he can examine it. It’s for real, and just being in its presence makes Melanie uncomfortable. When Nate broke up with her at twenty-six, both of them fresh from graduate school, he cited his career as one of the reasons they couldn’t be together.
“Our life paths just don’t mesh,” he’d said as Melanie lay weeping on her bed. He stroked her hair. “Mel, we’re so different. A cop and a screenwriter? What will that be like in five years? We couldn’t ever have kids.”
“What does that mean?” Melanie demanded. “Why the fuck not?”
But he only frowned, as if the answer were obvious, and continued to comb his fingers through her hair.
Now he gestures to a rack of chips. “Do we need snacks?” he asks.
The two of them are already a couple of gimlets in, and they have a bottle under the front seat of the car. “We have the gin,” Melanie says.
“Okay,” Nate says. He looks back at the man. “We’re good on snacks.”
“Well, that’s fine,” the man says, pushing the badge to Nate.
He rings up the t-shirts, the sunglasses, the baseball cap. “It’s $17.95.”
Nate hands him a twenty and waves off the change. “Have a good night,” he says. He puts his hand on Melanie’s lower back— it’s the first time they’ve touched since he picked her up at the airport—and guides her toward the door.
Wednesday, 8:10 PM
They drive for a while, passing the gin back and forth, taking a tour of the blank land stretching between towns. She is careful not to touch Nate when she takes the bottle from him. She doesn’t want to confuse touch with something else, like decision. She still isn’t sure.
They’d taken pains to avoid promises or plans beyond the most basic: Melanie would fly to Minneapolis and Nate would pick her up. No one else would know. Melanie’s friends think she has a speaking engagement in Colorado; Nate’s wife thinks he’s training in Duluth.
Nate pulls into the parking lot of another gas station and cuts the engine. Melanie studies him. He looks different, like a slightly inflated version of himself. He’s put on weight. He’d warned Melanie about it before she came, breaking news with a bunch of fat cop jokes.
“Maybe it’s happiness,” Melanie suggested. “Maybe your life agrees with you.”
“Maybe,” he said, managing, somehow, to sound neither incredulous nor convinced.
Now he passes her a t-shirt and a pair of sunglasses. “We’re nearby,” he says.
During the first round of gimlets Melanie decided she wanted to see his house. This was a concession; what she really wanted was to meet his wife and two year-old daughter. But how could that happen? What would she do—pretend to be a Jehovah’s Witness stopping by to preach the Good Word? A local politician glad-handing for votes? A lost courier? Ridiculous. There was no way. But at least she could see the house, see the place where Nate lived. Maybe that would help her, one way or the other.
Melanie shoves the shirt over her head. This isn’t anything like how she’s imagined an affair to be. Movies, television, other people’s stories—all so sexy and dramatic. Those scorching looks. Those dark alleyway kisses. How does anyone decide so quickly?
If only she hadn’t written the movie, that stupid film she’d first imagined as post-apocalyptic with a twelve year-old heroine but, in a side-tracked, wine-soaked fit, had actually written as a dark, dreamy movie about what would happen if Nate came back to her. Wine was also to blame for her sending the script to her agent when she should have stuck it in a drawer. But before she could truly process these events, the movie was cast and shot. Then came the Oscar buzz and, later, the Oscars themselves— two for the lead actors and another for Melanie’s script.
During all of this, Melanie never told Nate about the film. She’d never called to run it by him or ask how he might feel seeing a version of himself on screen. She convinced herself it wouldn’t be a problem because it wasn’t a movie he would ever see. There was a lot of crying in the movie, a lot of drawn-out lovemaking, and a subplot involving a mother with Alzheimer’s. Nate would rather die than pay to watch those things. Plus, they hadn’t spoken since his baby was born, so he had no idea what she was working on. Melanie figured there was a good chance the whole thing could be released and go through its press cycle without Nate knowing a thing about it.
But at three A.M. the night of the Academy Awards Nate called just as the hired car dropped Melanie off at home. It had been a long night of champagne and tiny appetizers that, despite her best efforts, Melanie couldn’t cobble together to stave off bone-shaking hunger.
When she answered, she knew immediately he’d been drinking. “That actor was really good-looking,” he said. “You must have had a handsome muse.”
She slammed the car door and watched it pull away. The night had turned chilly and somewhere along the way she’d lost her wrap, so she shivered, teeth chattering. Her mind felt slack from champagne and terror, and she scrambled to find something to say. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I hope you aren’t mad.
“Did you like it?” she asked.
“I did,” he said. “Stephanie too.”
It seemed terrible, the idea of Nate’s wife—a dental hygienist from Nebraska—gazing up at the screen and thinking how romantic it was, how beautiful, how lovely—when the story was about her husband and what could have happened if he’d come to his senses.
“Does she know?” Melanie asked.
“No,” Nate said. “She’s doesn’t know a thing about you.” Melanie slides the heart-shaped sunglasses up the bridge of her nose and consults the mirror. It is dusk. The empty bowl of Minnesota sky is flooded pink and purple. There is no need for the glasses anymore, but the anonymity feels appropriate.
How could Stephanie know nothing about her? After all, Melanie and Nate had been together for three years. And surely Nate and Stephanie must have talked about their own past relationships. Wouldn’t they have compared notes? Revealed the sorry state of affairs that had led them to each other? But apparently not. Nate had made it so Melanie never existed at all.
Nate plucks at his giant t-shirt, blousing the fabric around his waist. “The house across the street from ours is for sale,” he says. “We’ll park there. It won’t be suspicious.”
He drives them through subdivision after subdivision, each of the streets named after a fruit: Persimmon. Peach. Lingonberry. But there is no fruit to be found, only scraggly saplings bending in the wind.
Nate turns onto Crab Apple Street and slows, easing the car to the curb in front of a palatial Colonial. A for sale sign sprouts near the edge of the lawn.
“That’s my house,” Nate says, gesturing across the street. “Steph’s SUV is in the driveway.” His own is sitting in the Hertz lot at the airport; the one they are in now is a rental, another disguise.
Melanie turns slowly, taking it in piece by piece. Tiny tricycle in the driveway. Purple ball on the lawn. Rocking chairs on the porch. Melanie leans closer. The edges of the dusk sky have dimmed to black, and it’s easy to see inside the lit-up rooms. At the far end of the house, Melanie sees movement near one of the windows and then the tip of a bushy tail as a dog snuffles by.
“There’s your dog,” she says.
“A Pomeranian,” Nate says. When they were together, he had fantasized about his future dogs, retrievers and setters and pointers, smart dogs with aristocratic faces and lust for blood. “A fucking Pomeranian,” he says. “Can you believe it?”
“What’s its name?” “Dog.”
“Come on. Dog?”
“The toddler’s choice,” Nate explains, shrugging. “When I write it out, though, I spell it D-A-W-G. Thug him up a bit.”
And then Nate’s wife is in the room, perfectly illuminated and glowing. She is the basic nightmare: slim and sylvan, a Shakespearian wood sprite.
“Don’t turn around,” Melanie says. “Your wife.” She leans closer and puts her hand on Nate’s thigh, a move she regrets immediately. How long has it been since she’s touched him?
“I’m getting out,” she says and steps outside before Nate can protest. To keep up pretenses, she nudges one of the pamphlets from the cylinder near the for sale sign. It’s partially waterlogged, but she glances down at the home’s selling points: indoor lap pool, game room, stainless steel kitchen. She raises her eyes and makes like she is taking in the home’s possibility, then turns to examine the neighborhood. Would anyone notice her gaze lingers longest on Nate’s house and the woman inside, bending to heap her arms full of toys—both child’s and dog’s—before leaving the room?
Melanie ducks back into the car. Nate’s face is frozen in an odd way, as though he’s had a minor stroke.
“This was a mistake,” she says. “We need to get out of here.” “Yeah,” he says and has the car in drive before she can get the door fully shut.
Wednesday, 9:38 PM
Another bar. That’s what they decide they need. Nate drives through the suburbs—Edina, Eden Prairie, Chanhassen— and stops finally somewhere in Chaska. The bar is a hastily-constructed clapboard structure lit with a Leinenkugel’s sign, its Indian princess logo poorly translated into neon. She looks lipstick-smeared and demented.
Inside, the crowd is sparse. A few men play pool in the back corner, and a few more grimly watch the History Channel. The only woman in the place is asleep on the bar, snoring in the nest of her folded arms.
Melanie finds a table in the back, partially obscured by dart machines. Nate comes back from the bar with a tray of drinks: a set of shots, a couple gin and tonics.
“I think I arrested one of those guys,” Nate says, settling in next to her. Her jerks his head behind him, toward the guys playing pool.
“This is probably reckless,” Melanie says. “Us being out in public.”
“Nah,” Nate says. He leans back to grab a bowl of peanuts from a neighboring table “For all he knows, you’re my wife.”
Melanie closes her eyes and tries to let that remark slip into nothing. Away, away. But it doesn’t go.
They sit quietly for a while. Melanie can’t figure out where to put her hands. She tries her lap, the table, her chin. Every pose she makes feels like crappy stage direction: Girl fidgets, unsure of herself.
What are they doing? Aren’t they smarter than this? Between the two of them, they have degrees and awards and accolades. Nate even received special commendation from the governor after pulling dozens of people to safety when the 1-35 bridge collapsed. She’d seen still shots of him in the national coverage— Nate dragging screaming children out of the water, one under each arm. It seems to her that people capable of such bravery should also be capable of restraint, though, really, what does one thing have to do with the other?
“Your house is lovely,” she says finally.
Nate sets down his drink. “You don’t have to do that,” he says. “We don’t need to do niceties.”
Across the room, one of the men playing pool makes an impressive shot and the rest cheer and clink glasses.
“We have to do something,” she says.
It is strange they suddenly have nothing to say after so many months of late-night phone calls, conversations that ended as the sun came up, first for Nate, then for Melanie. Melanie felt breathless those mornings, her chest cracked open from the pressure of her longing.
“What are we doing?” she asked once, afraid of the answer. None of the ones she came up with on her own were very good.
“Just remembering,” Nate said. “That’s all.”
Melanie is warm from the gin and shifts, uncomfortable, in her chair. Nate won’t look at her. He pretends to study the dart machine’s instructions for Cutthroat Cricket.
“You can go,” Melanie says. “At any time. I can get a cab.” Nate shakes his head. “No,” he says, “I’m not leaving.”
They are quiet again, and the noise of the bar overtakes them: the crisp click of a pool cue hitting its mark, the television’s chatter about Nazis, an amber trail of whiskey snaking into a glass.
The night’s momentum has faltered. Another bar, more drinks—it had seemed logical, but, really, what are they doing? Somewhere, somehow, the night had split along it seams and left them in a place they didn’t belong.
“I’m going to splash some water on my face,” Melanie says.
She heads for the hall, which pulses in the flickering light of the emergency exit.
In the bathroom, she stares at herself for several long minutes, until the door swings open and the only other woman in the place—the one who’d been napping on the bar—comes in. She pauses near a stall door, appraising Melanie.
“I don’t see a lot of women in here,” she says.
“No?” Melanie asks, smiling, trying hard to look like she hadn’t been seconds from crying.
The woman shakes her head. The dress she is wearing—a cheap black shift, sequined and feathered—rustles against her skin. “Do you have a cigarette?” she says. She holds out her hand before Melanie can respond.
Though she has never smoked, Melanie pretends to look in her purse for a pack of cigarettes. She shakes her head. “I’m out,” she says.
“Maybe a mint?”
Those she has, in spades. At LAX, Melanie killed time before her flight standing in front of the personal hygiene wall of the kiosk near her gate. She’d bought everything that seemed even vaguely associated with adultery: lotion, mints, mouthwash, Excedrin, a beard grooming kit, wet wipes.
She hands a whole package of mints to the woman. “Keep it,” she says. “I have plenty.”
The woman clutches the package under her armpit and swings open the stall door. “He’s handsome,” she says, turning to look again at Melanie, who can, out of the corner of her eye, see her own reflection in the mirror, and it is stricken. “Your man out there,” the woman says. “Handsome.”
“Oh,” Melanie says. “Thank you.”
The woman changes her mind about the stall and lets the door swing shut. “You two having an affair?” she asks.
Melanie isn’t sure what happens then, but it feels like what she imagines a stroke to be. A jumble of words explode soundlessly in her head and jagged lines of lightning cut across her vision.
“No!” she says. “God, no! Not at all!”
The woman removes the container of mints clutched beneath her armpit and pours out a handful. She crunches into them savagely. “Honey,” she says, and the room is awash in spearmint, “you need to get better at lying.”
Melanie’s heartbeat careens into a desperate, militant rhythm. “It’s obvious?” she asks.
The woman smiles. “Oh, sweetie,” she says. “But how?”
The woman tugs at her hemline, which is far too high for her age. She smiles again, extra sweet, the way you’d smile at a baby or a dumb dog.
Melanie’s cheeks burn. The woman’s dress, the nap on the bar. It’s suddenly clear: she’s a prostitute. A working girl waiting for business to pick up.
The woman comes over to the sinks next to Melanie. “Is this your first?” she asks.
Melanie nods. “I don’t know how I’m going to do it,” she says. “You’ve got some guilt?”
Melanie isn’t sure what she’s got, really. Stephanie was a fixture in Nate’s life a mere seven weeks after he’d ended things with Melanie, and because of this Melanie had spent years planning elaborate scenarios in which she would exact revenge. But for a while—at least before the baby came—Nate tried to keep in touch, to keep things friendly, and this way Melanie learned things about Stephanie that made her seem less hateful. Melanie knew, for example, that Stephanie had lost her virginity in the parking lot of a Days Inn. She knew Stephanie called Nate “Pickle,” something he’d vehemently tried to dissuade early on. She also knew that Stephanie had crippling anxiety and sometimes Nate came home to find her in the car, still in the garage, weeping and paralyzed, never having made it to work.
Melanie sort of liked Stephanie, or the character of Stephanie she’d built from these details. And Melanie definitely liked the idea of the little girl, Opal, who liked to ride the dog like a horse—yelling yee-haw! every time she clutched his scruff and clambered onto his back—and slept each night in the shadow of a giant stuffed armadillo. Shouldn’t knowing these details make it harder? Shouldn’t they override the stupid, brutish argument that keeps clattering around her head: but he’s mine.
“I don’t know if it’s guilt,” Melanie says.
“You’ll have to get out there and figure it out,” the woman says. She leans in to examine her own face in the mirror. It’s heavily made up, the foundation at least two shades too dark for her. “That’s the only way.”
Melanie washes her hands. Despite having turned only the cold knob, the water comes out painfully hot but Melanie keeps her hands beneath the stream, watching them turn red. She begins to cry.
The woman reaches over and turns off Melanie’s water. She yanks away a paper towel and wraps Melanie’s hands tenderly, almost like a bandage, and presses them between her own.
“I’m going to tell you what I think,” she says. “You’re here. That means you’ve already made up your mind. Don’t pretend you’re waiting around for permission. You already gave it to yourself.”
Melanie cries harder.
“Your makeup,” the woman says. She unwraps the towels and blots until the tears stop. Melanie blows her nose and wipes her eyes.
“You’re all right,” the woman says. She opens Melanie’s purse and digs until she finds a small pot of blush and a tube of mascara. “Hold still,” she says. She blows her minty breath across Melanie’s face to dry it. She works quickly, feathering the blush across the apples of Melanie’s cheeks and applying two coats of mascara. “There. You’re good.”
Melanie turns to look at her reflection. Her skin is puffy, but her makeup is back on and she looks marginally less terrifying. She can’t remember a time she has felt more grateful. In this moment, her love for this woman is immense. “Thank you,” she says.
“Now we’re even,” the woman says. The mints stay tucked in the crook of her armpit even when she waves Melanie out the door.
When she steps into the hallway, Nate is there, leaning against the wall, waiting.
“Have a good time?” he asks, grinning. “Make some friends?” He reaches over—slowly, as if she is a skittish horse—and lifts the purse from her hands. “I think it’s time to get out of here,” he says.
Melanie nods. “Yes.”
“Let’s go to the car,” he says, moving his hand to the small of her back. He leads her down the hallway, which seems longer now and darker. The light from the exit sign beats erratically, matching perfectly the cadence of desires in Melanie’s dark heart.
Wednesday, 10:48 PM
While Nate drives to Melanie’s hotel the radio plays quietly in the background. “Silver Springs” comes on, seeming like a sign, Stevie Nicks’ ragged voice howling You’ll never get away from the sound of the woman that loves you.
At the hotel, Nate puts himself in charge of Melanie’s bags and loiters near the elevators while she checks in. They ride to the fifteenth floor and say nothing. They haven’t said much since they left the bar. Nate made a few offhand comments about restaurants or galleries they passed, but other than that it was quiet.
“You still have time,” she says. He has her large suitcase in one hand and her carry-on slung over his shoulder. “To back out,” she says. The key registers and the door opens loudly, the lock sounding like teeth unclenching.
“I know,” Nate says.
While she shoves her suitcase in the closet, Nate fixes them a drink. He fills the ice bucket and pours the gin. From his pocket he produces a lime—boosted, probably, from the last bar.
They sit on the bed. The room is nice, expensive—she’d sprung for a suite, thinking an affair would be better suited to a large room.
Melanie sets aside her drink and curves her body toward his. He turns off the light, and comes down next to her. They are bathed in the beatific glow of the city, a light silver and forgiving.
“You’re sure?” she asks him. She doesn’t want to be presumptuous about his choice. Hers, she knows now, was made long ago. It feels ancient and heavy, something she’s been carrying since the moment he told her they could no longer be together. Her choice was always—will always be—yes. She can sense other choices, smarter choices, moving around the periphery of her brain, dragging their reasons—the wife, the girl, the disaster that is sure to follow—but how can they be expected to compete with the choice that will bring her back to where she’s longed to be?
Everything about them had, right from the start, felt fated. They met in line to get ID passes that allowed graduate students to stay in academic buildings long after undergraduates had been shooed elsewhere. They’d exchanged only hellos in that line, but then, over the course of the first month of school, they ran into each other everywhere: the bus stop, the coffee shop, the sculpture garden, the laundromat, the Ethiopian restaurant at the edge of town. Then one night they found themselves in line for the bathrooms at a damp, disintegrating townie bar that occasionally brought in good bands, and Nate stuck out his hand.
“This is getting ridiculous,” he said, and they shook. “How many people are at this school?” “Forty thousand,” she said.
“And here you are,” he said. “Again.”
When she came out of the bathroom moments later she found him waiting for her. He bought her a drink, and they spent the rest of the night huddled in a far corner, trying to be heard over the band. After last call, they were herded out, caught in the crush of the crowd, and Melanie lost sight of the friends she’d come with. Nate called a cab for her, but by the time it arrived she and Nate were hidden in the alley, pressed against the cool brick of the building. He kissed her in a way that made her feel savored, known. He bit her, catching her lower lip in his, but gently, and Melanie moved closer, memorizing the feel of him. Back on the street, the taxi beeped once then drove away, its lights washing through the alley, illuminating them, throwing languid shadows against the wall.
“This is exactly what I knew it would be like,” Nate said. He framed her face with his hands and pressed their foreheads together.
“Oh, you knew?” Melanie asked, teasing.
He smiled and kissed her, lightly, on the cheek. “Hoped,” he said. “Really, really hoped.”
From then on it was easy. Their relationship was insistent and steady, right up to the day Nate left. Afterward, Melanie’s friends badgered her. Weren’t there signs? Surely there were signs! He must’ve given some kind of indication. But he hadn’t. Melanie had a stack of dog-eared wedding magazines under her bed, and they’d recently spent an entire Sunday touring each jewelry store in town—his idea!—discussing payment plans and the virtues of asscher-cut over square.
But. That word—but!—so small and terrible. It invaded her life, became an echo, a litany in her head: He loved me. But. We were so happy. But. We made plans. But. Everything hinged on that one word.
Now she moves even closer, pressing her forehead into his. Up close, his eyes are remarkable, great pools of icy, Nordic blue, but it’s difficult, suddenly, to look at him. There’s so little left to say. In a moment, they will be kissing and it will be just like it always was, and the room will light with different colors— blue, red—as outside sirens wail down the avenue. And there will be another sound too, one only Melanie can hear, subtle, a different kind of wail. It will roll toward her across the prairie, gaining speed, gaining momentum—the sound of exquisite misery coming her way.