Wes Funderburke needs to shut up. Like now. He sits directly across the table from Angie, talking about the stock market, his face freshly shaved and splotchy pink, a Band-Aid on his bald dome where they recently scraped off what might yet turn out to be a cancerous mole. But it won’t be. In the past two-and-a-half years, Wes Funderburke has had, from top to bottom, multiple melanomas, a double bypass with two stents, gallstones removed, blood clots clipped off in his legs, and surgery for severe Morton’s neuroma in his foot. Yet here he is, having just devoured his osso buco and awaiting a slice of red velvet cake. He claims the cake is for him and his wife, Carol, to share. But Carol will sip her coffee, oblivious, while Wes eats the whole thing along with a shot of Sambuca. When the check is placed on the table, each couple will toss in some cash or a credit card, presumably splitting the bill four ways. But Angie didn’t order dessert, and while everyone else ordered cocktails and bottles of wine, she didn’t have anything to drink either. Just water. An appetizer as her entrée. No way she’s spent twenty bucks in total. The three other couples are probably pushing a hundred each. She shouldn’t have to “split” the bill. If Jim were still here, he’d handle it. She wouldn’t know how much they’ve spent, and she wouldn’t care, though she and Jim would talk and laugh about the silly injustice of it all on the drive home. You’d think someone would say, Hey, the DePaolas didn’t have any wine. Maybe they shouldn’t have to pay as much. Wouldn’t you? But oh well, what were you gonna do? These were their friends; they’d known each other forever. Angie and Jim had always enjoyed their company and looked forward to their evenings out with them.
Now, though, no—Angie does not look forward to evenings out with these people. She feels bad about this fact, a little guilty, but everything is different now. She accepts their invitations because the dinners give her something to do, an excuse to get out of the house, an event to look forward to, words and times to scribble on her calendar because the alternative—being home after the sun goes down, just herself and the dog—is unbearable. Her running joke is, “Don’t invite me to something just to be nice. Because I will accept.” Everyone always laughs at this.
But seriously, why should she have to pay the same amount as the Funderburkes? She won’t say anything, of course. She’ll keep smiling, keep laughing, and then she’ll be annoyed for the next few days. Or someone will suggest Angie not pay at all; the others will get it for her. This happens occasionally. Which, while very sweet of them, makes her feel even worse.
Her decaf tea arrives. Just to give her something to do with her hands.
The other couples are the Troutmans and the Dolans. Angie doesn’t know the Dolans very well. They’re friends of friends. There’s a real possibility that Angie will never see them again. The restaurant itself—chosen this week by Wes—is low-ceilinged and darkly paneled. There are no windows visible from their round table in this corner of the room. Strings of white lights are tacked up along the molding, illuminating framed portraits of strangers from other eras. It’s a table for eight. The chair to Angie’s left is unoccupied.
The food was pretty good, Angie must admit, though she isn’t sure she’d come back.
“I’m thinking about jamming some dough into Kevin’s . . . bar, or whatever it is,” Wes is saying now. His armpits strain against his sport coat. “Gotta be a tax write-off, if nothing else, right?”
So, okay, he’s moved on from the stock market to taxes and their son’s fancy new business venture, an establishment in Middletown that brews its own beer and serves small, overpriced plates prepared by some up-and-coming chef from the city. Gastropub, Angie thinks is the word for it. The Funderburkes scoff when they talk about it, as if it’s all just some frivolous side hustle the son will outgrow before he moves on to his real career as a hedge fund manager. She hasn’t been there yet, but Angie knows the place is doing well. It’s been written up in Connecticut Magazine’s “New & Noteworthy” column and is getting a ton of word-of-mouth all over social media. Angie has no idea where the kid got the money to open the place. Well, okay, not true—of course she knows where he got the money: from his parents. Or his grandparents. Maybe both. Whenever Kevin Funderburke and his entrepreneurial adventures arise in conversation Angie feels a clenching inside, a kind of soul nausea. She hates that the Funderburkes have the means to set their son up with his own hip, fun, publicly successful business, and Angie doesn’t; she hates that the Funderburkes have at least one kid who has stayed in Connecticut who they can see on weekends and holidays and for grandkids’ birthday parties or even just dinner on a Wednesday; and, in her darkest, most shamefully hidden moments, she hates that Wes Funderburke, with his enormous belly and chronic hypertension and mysterious polyps, is still alive, while Jim, seemingly healthy as a horse for seventy years, is not.
She wouldn’t mind a splash of milk in her tea, but it’s all the way on the other side of the table, and she doesn’t feel like asking for it.
“I need to get home.”
It’s Betty Troutman, leaning in from Angie’s right, her voice barely above a whisper. Betty has a pretty, youthful face (if a bit over-Botoxed), but a severe man’s haircut, dyed reddish brown. Tonight, she’s wearing big, colorful earrings of a complicated geometric shape and a gray wool poncho. Whenever she uses her fork, she needs to flip the poncho out of the way to free her arm.
“Those mussels,” she says, “are not sitting right. I . . . I need a bathroom.”
“Oh no,” Angie says, keeping her voice down. “Just go here.”
Betty looks over her shoulder as if checking for spies. “I’d rather not. It could—”
“What are you two conspiring about over here?” Betty’s husband Ron leans his elbows on the table, stretching around his wife to see Angie. “Plotting a coup, are we?”
Ron Troutman is a nice enough guy, if a bit stiff and formal—Jim used to say Ron would get visibly annoyed if you cleared your throat during a backswing or walked through his putting line—but Angie has never seen that side of him. To her, he just seems like a nervous guy who plans one joke or witty thing to say ahead of time and then picks an inappropriate point in the evening to awkwardly break it out.
“It’s nothing, dear,” Betty says, not turning toward her husband. “Don’t worry about it.”
Ron stays leaning on his elbows, holding his smile, unsure of what to do next. He’s wearing a brand-new, button-down shirt, right out of the box, creases clearly visible. Angie feels a jolt of pity for the man. Finally, he leans back and shifts toward Wes Funderburke, who now appears to have switched the conversation to the perils of lawn chiggers.
Betty puts a hand to her mouth. A thin layer of sweat glistens on her forehead. “This is—oh my God, this is so embarrassing—this is an emergency, Ange.”
“Come on.” Angie feels around under Betty’s poncho for her hand, then pushes her chair out and stands. “We’ll be right back,” she announces to the table.
Betty stands too, gingerly, gripping Angie’s hand, trying to relax her face. She attempts a smile that comes off looking more like a sneer.
The other two women, Carol Funderburke and Judy Dolan, glance at each other. Are we being left out of something? they’re probably wondering. The thought, Angie finds, is kind of exhilarating. She gives Betty’s hand a tug and they head off toward the bar.
“I don’t want to do this here,” Betty is saying, real fear in her voice.
“Don’t worry,” Angie says. “I’ll stand guard outside the bathroom door. No one’s getting past. You’ll have complete privacy.”
“Oh good Lord.”
They circle around the bar to the back hallway, Betty squeezing Angie’s hand harder as they go. There is only one single-use bathroom. Angie tries the doorknob; it’s locked. Betty groans.
“Don’t worry,” says Angie, and begins banging on the door with the heel of her fist. “Excuse me. Excuse me! We have an emergency out here!”
“I’m going to die,” Betty says. “I’m going to kill myself.”
“Oh, stop that.” Angie keeps banging on the door. “For goodness’ sake, Betty.”
Lately, Angie has found herself snapping into abrupt, silent annoyance with people for routine indiscretions—a mix-up at the pharmacy, her granddaughter sleeping till noon, her mailman’s occasional late arrival, Wes Funderburke—and she recognizes it happening now: the mussels aren’t agreeing with Betty. She’s embarrassed. It’s not a big deal. At least Angie’s aware of this about herself. That’s got to count for something, right?
“It’ll be fine, honey,” she says now, gently. “Just hang on.”
Finally, the bathroom door opens, and a big-chested, middle-aged woman fills the space. The woman’s hair is pulled back so tightly her eyebrows seem to be lifted upwards from the tension. “Rude,” the woman mutters.
“Yeah, sorry. But seriously—” Angie makes a shooing motion with her hand. “Out of the way. We have a situation here.”
The woman steps slightly, grudgingly, to one side, opening up a narrow strip of space in the doorway. She’s wearing a flimsy, loose-fitting, shiny top, and her breasts are so big that the top’s fabric drops straight down from them as if plummeting off a cliff, giving the woman’s torso a boxy, rectangular shape. She looks like a LEGO-person.
“Seriously?” Angie says. “We’re gonna do this now? Listen, this woman is in distress. Will you please move?”
The woman waits a beat, then another. Her eyebrows try to squeeze into a scowl, then, reluctantly, she steps fully aside. “Rude,” she says again before shuffling off.
Angie pushes the door all the way open and flicks on the light. The walls are painted a soft periwinkle, which is nice, but there’s another one of those black-and-white, old-timey portraits of a stranger on one of the walls, which is weird. She turns to Betty. “Okay, there we are. Totally private. Now off you go.”
Angie puts her fingers in her ears. “I’m just on guard duty.”
Betty takes a deep breath and holds it—the expression on her face looks like someone being pinched—then slides past Angie and closes the door. The lock clicks, the faucet begins to run.
Murmured voices float down the hallway from the bar. A Beatles song—the one that repeats “life goes ooooon”—plays softly on the speaker system. For a moment, Angie feels good, then catches herself feeling good and recognizes the meaninglessness of that joy. Still, it’s nice what she’s doing now, helping Betty out this way. Once, a couple of years ago, when Jim was still here, Angie was playing in one of her bridge leagues at someone’s house—she can’t remember whose—and sometime toward the end of the evening, after several bottles of chardonnay had been opened and emptied, one of the women posed the question, “If you could go back in time, back to when you were twenty or twenty five years old, and remarry your husband, would you do it?”
There were about a dozen women there set up around multiple tables in the dining room (it was the Funderburkes’ house, now that Angie thinks about it, that giant dining room of theirs), with teams rotating from table to table to play different opponents throughout the evening. And only three women—Angie, Betty, and one other woman, Laurie Wells, who has since moved to Norwalk—said that, yes, of course they’d marry their husbands if given the chance to go back and do it again. It was a silly, wine-fueled discussion really, but Angie remembers the enthusiasm with which all the other women (including Carol Funderburke) expounded upon their reasoning for why they would never marry their husbands again if offered a do-over. The conversation grew animated, everyone talking over each other, trying to one-up the previous illustration of spousal inadequacy. Hilarity ensued.
Angie kept quiet, wondering, Could this be for real? Maybe they’re joking.
But no, this was how they really felt.
All of those husbands are still alive, walking around in the world, continuing to be inadequate disappointments. Except for Jim.
When it’s you, then you’ll know, Angie thinks. Then you’ll know what it’s like.
But, then again, maybe not. Maybe they won’t know. Maybe they’ll never know. Maybe the dull, aching emptiness living inside Angie day after day will, for them, be relief.
Behind the bathroom door, the toilet flushes loudly. The tenor of the running faucet changes when Betty washes her hands, then turns off. Angie prepares her face, hoping to appear welcoming and sympathetic, yet also to convey a sense of normalcy, of putting this behind them and getting back to life. The bathroom door opens. Betty switches off the light and stands in the doorway, looking exhausted and haggard. Her poncho hangs crookedly to one side. The ring of hair framing her face is damp from sweat or maybe from having splashed water on her face, or both.
“That was,” Betty says, her voice raspy, “brutal.”
Angie laughs. She can’t help it. Just an unintentional bark at first, but then she has to cover her mouth, unable to hold it back.
“I mean, really just . . . catastrophic,” Betty says, and then she’s laughing too, and they reach out and take each other’s hands to steady themselves and keep laughing, the occasional snort slipping out until the laughter finally subsides and they can catch their breath. And then they’re standing there, holding hands in the hallway, eyes moist with tears.
Finally, Betty dabs at the corner of her eye with a knuckle and says, “I’m thinking those were the last mussels I’ll ever eat in my life.”
“We must never speak of this.”
“Speak of what?”
Betty smiles. A man enters the hallway and makes his way toward them. The man is in his forties, movie-star handsome, fit and trim, full head of swept-back, grey-flecked hair, sleeves rolled up to mid forearm, an expensive-looking but unpretentious watch on his wrist. They watch him approach for a moment, then Betty takes Angie by the arm. “Yikes,” she says. “Let’s get out of here before he goes in.”
They sidestep the man, who nods cordially to them, and head back through the bar, still holding onto each other, moving quickly as if fleeing a crime scene. Back at the table, the waiter is tallying up the bill. As Angie and Betty approach their chairs, everyone looks up at them, oddly expectant.
“Well, there they are!” Wes exclaims. “So, what kind of hijinks have you ladies been up to?” He laughs impishly, “Heh heh heh.”
Betty’s face twitches. “Oh,” she stammers, “we, uh . . .”
Angie reaches out and snatches the check from the waiter’s hand. “This is on me,” she says, then starts digging for her credit card around in her purse, which hangs off the back of her chair. There’s a moment of stunned silence, and then everybody starts talking at once.
“Out of the question!”
“We couldn’t let you—”
“That’s really not neces—”
Angie waves them off. “I insist,” she says, finally locating her credit card. “Please, let me do this.” She hands the check and her card to the waiter and gives him a nod that she hopes says, I’m in charge here. You can listen to me. He takes the card and heads off with it.
“Angie,” Wes says. “Really—”
“Nope, it’s done. I want to.” She sits, feeling charged and buoyant. “You all—I can’t tell you how much it means that you continue to include me. I just want to say thanks. I’ve been wanting to. Please, let me do this for you all.”
Betty settles in her chair and squeezes Angie’s knee under the table. “Thanks, Ange.”
“Yes, thank you, Angie,” says Wes, and raises his glass of Sambuca. “Cheers.”
No one again asks where she and Betty have been. When the receipt is placed down in front of her to sign, Angie tips thirty percent.
* * *
The drive from the restaurant in West Hartford to her house in Marlborough should take her about twenty minutes. Earlier in the day, the Troutmans offered to pick her up, but Angie declined, and now she’s glad she did. Sitting in the back seat of the Troutmans’ car would have felt awkward, plus now she has the luxury of sitting alone in the sweet hum of her own car—she still drives a minivan, just for herself—cruising through the darkness. She merges onto Route 2, radio off, the dashboard’s glow on her face, and feels a feathery warmth move through her. Maybe she should call one of her kids to pass the time? Her daughter is in Charlotte with her lawyer husband and two children. Might be someone’s bedtime, though; she probably shouldn’t get in the middle of that. Her oldest son is in Tampa, but talking to him always fuels Angie’s anxiety. He’s “working from home” as a PR rep, though Angie suspects he’s actually “between jobs” as a PR rep. She also suspects he and his wife aren’t getting along, fighting over the causes of their son’s recent delinquent behavior, shuttling the boy from therapist to therapist. Phone conversations with him can be taxing, in other words, and Angie doesn’t want to sabotage her mood. Her youngest son is single and works for Spotify in Amsterdam. He might have some fun things to share with her—tales of his latest European travels or Danish women he’s recently dated—but it’s three in the morning over there. So that’s out too.
She doesn’t think she has any plans for tomorrow. She’ll have to check her calendar.
Maybe she should clean out the closet in the back bedroom.
She could take the dog for a long walk if the weather’s okay.
She exits Route 2, and as she turns onto Route 66, a two-lane country road cutting through fifty miles of central Connecticut, her headlights sweep across a stand of thin trees and underbrush and illuminate a bright set of glittering, ghostly eyes. The eyes belong to an animal of some sort—though she’s never seen an animal like this before—standing on four legs in the gravel just off the road, low to the ground, looking back over its shoulder at her. The head is weasel-like, the body long and curved and dark, the legs short but somehow longer than they need to be. Angie’s blood shivers. Oh God, she’s seeing things. That is not a real animal. It’s . . . mythological. Or extinct. Or should be extinct. It holds there in the beam of her headlights, momentarily arrested, and the headlights glide past it as she completes the turn back to the road ahead, and then it’s as if the animal never existed; only the image of it remains, burned into her brain.
Angie realizes she’s been holding her breath and struggles for a moment to take in air. She considers pulling over, regrouping, but she wants to put some distance between herself and the animal. She’s only a couple minutes from home. She touches her own cheek and forehead, feeling a startling absence. This is what she misses most, what she longs for: being able to turn to someone—to Jim—and say, Did you see that thing? What in the world was that? She understands now that it’s possible for fear to be thrilling when shared. Yes, that’s what she misses.
She makes the final turn onto her street, and wonders if she’ll ever get used to the permanence of Jim being gone, the terrible truth of it. She supposes not, yet for the first time she feels a strange, hopeful comfort in this knowledge.
Maybe she’ll tell Betty about the animal tomorrow. Or one of her kids. It won’t be the same, though. She knows this. There will be a loneliness in the telling. Maybe this time, she thinks, she’ll just keep the memory for herself.