affair

David Marcu, Upsplash

The Other Women: Lean Cuisine

*The Other Women is an original short story series, with inspiration from Naomi Wood’s fiction novel Mrs. Hemingway.

The cafeteria smelled like Chinese food again. A lot of women in my office were notorious for bringing soggy leftovers, stinking up the entire room with the smell of chicken and MSG. Any other day I could stomach it, but today it wasn’t going to happen.

Marci and I always ate lunch together around 12:30 p.m. Brandworth, the small marketing firm where we worked, allowed us an hour for lunch, and she was the only person that I would want to sit with for a whole sixty minutes.

Besides the low-pay and obnoxious reminders to clean out the refrigerator every Friday, I enjoyed my job. It helped being able to talk to someone every day. Marci helped me stay a little sane – in between paper filing and the occasional inappropriate back pat from a corporate executive. Today was another day in the office, only instead of hitting the lunch truck outside of the building, I was brown-bagging it and Marci was heating up something frozen.

“Lean Cuisine?” I asked her in between the beeps that told her the meal was ready.

“Yeah, Justin wants to go to some riverside camping trip so that means I gotta lose the extra baggage,” said Marci as she stirred low-cal microwavable pasta primavera. “If I have to spend a whole weekend with his nerdy college buddies and their dull girlfriends, I at least want to have the body of a bombshell.”

“You’re right, if someone sees you shitting in the woods you’ll want to make sure you look nice and toned,” I smirked.

“You’re so annoying.”

I looked down at my own food, a pathetic sandwich and potato chips that was leftover from a budget luncheon last Wednesday. I had yet to go grocery shopping, probably because this week was the first week that I had actually been hungry. I heard breakups do that to you.

“What are you eating?” Marci asked, mid-bite mushrooms and noodles.

“Uh, peanut butter and jelly.”

“What are you, twelve? Did Mommy make it for you?”

“Screw you,” I got quieter, noticing the old women from finance were looking over at me. “Sorry, it’s just all I felt like eating.”

“Sarah, if you need some help you know you can just ask me. Justin’s mom is always bringing me over casseroles, which leads me to believe is the reason I’m on a temporary diet,” she picked up her plastic fork and let the contents drop back into the plastic container. Drops of reduced sodium sauce splattered onto the table.

“I’m fine. Just not all that hungry,” I munched slowly on a few stale potato chips to convince her.

The problem with breakups is not just the loss of an appetite. When you’re the one left, you just wander around and wonder what you did wrong. Then, you realize how much your life revolved around the other person. Everything reminds you of them. Street sounds, movies, commercial jingles, the weather—even a crappy last minute lunch shared over a work-break with your friend.

“You know what my ex used to do with potato chips?” I smiled a little, hoping that talking about him would make me get over the breakup.

“Hmm.”

“He would put his potato chips on his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I always thought it was so gross but once I tried it I thought it was genius.”

“That’s childish, and a perfect example as to why you shouldn’t be with him,” Marci pointed her fork at me, and more sauce dribbled onto the table.

“I don’t get how that matters,” I looked woefully at my sandwich, deciding if the stale chips between the white bread would make me feel any better. “Do you know he could only eat the crunchy kind?”

“Is talking about his favorite foods really going to help you feel any better, Sarah?”

“Probably not, I guess” I finished the last bite of my sandwich, feeling, remembering our last minute trips to Trader Joes to pick up peanut butter and the bread pickles I used to eat. Thinking of him only drew me closer to the gaping hole somewhere in my heart.

“Chin up, buttercup. He was boring and he deserves to get hit by a bus,” Marci scraped the rest of her primavera into her mouth and wiped up the mess she had made.

We packed up and headed back to our cubicles. Marci and I sat next to each other, with thin walls separating us, giving each employee a small and drab space to work their eight hour shifts. The first time I had spoken her, she had poked her head over the cubicle to mutter, “Hey new chick, ease off the Chanel, it gives me a headache.”

I thought about how we became instant friends, wondering if nostalgia would cheer me up, but even though I had Marci I still couldn’t help feeling as if a part of me was missing. I was spiraling into a dark place known as depression, although I lied to myself as I opened up my email, and blamed the pit in my stomach on the lack of sustenance of my lunch.

*

Ralph had ended it about a month ago on a steamy August morning, not long after I finished up the dishes that had been piling in his sink. The roaches in his city apartment would have a picnic with leftover Ramen noodles and buffalo sauced chicken wing bones, and yet he never seemed to mind the mess, or the bugs.

I had always called him “Alphie” because it sounded cute and fit the soft-spoken man who had a love of Star Wars collectables and spearmint gum. He never seemed like a “Ralph.” In fact, the name reminded me of a wire rimmed glasses, fifty-something year old man with graying hair and a pedo-stache. Not something you exactly want to be moaning under a knitted afghan.

And who knows, maybe this had something to do with my inability to be serious and my desire to find something in men that just didn’t exist. That thought left my mind quickly. It definitely was about not wanting to have sex with a guy named Ralph.

Something had been up with Alphie for about a month, I could just tell. He was as readable as a children’s pop-up book. But this time, he was as readable as a map in Spanish; I was hopelessly lost and the only thing I could say was, “Te amo.”

We didn’t live together, so I guess it was easier for him to become distant and make excuses during the final weeks of our relationship. Our after-dinner phone calls became scarce and my text messages would go unanswered for hours. How did I not see this coming, I had thought between the hot tears as he sat there — the bearer of bad news — stone cold and without any hint of sadness or regret.

That’s what angered me the most, besides being dumped and having no one to turn to but a co-worker and a bottle of cheap vodka. No one prepares you for that moment where you are left dumbfounded and alone, scraping your brain for an answer to try and realize what you did wrong.

Then, when you find the answer, you wish you never did.

*

“Hey Alphie, I’m going to be stopping over just to pick up the last of my stuff, so um, I’ll leave my spare key in your mailbox, and then um, that’ll be all. So um, thanks and maybe I’ll see you later. Okay, well, bye.”

Voicemails had never been my strong suit, and then again, neither were breakups. I only had one more box left of my things at his place—a sports bra, a Nicholas Sparks book, bobby pins, and three half used shampoo bottles—and then I would have no reason to speak or see Alphie again. I decided that after I stopped by his apartment I would hit the liquor store for a rebound date with a handsome man named Jack Daniels. Or, maybe even a ménage à trois with a chaser of Mr. Samuel Adams.

Marci had volunteered to go with me to Alphie’s apartment, but I decided it would be easier to go by myself. Plus, I was afraid I would start bawling and get snot all over her blouse.

Walking up to the apartment alone only brought up what little bit of sandwich and stale chips I had that afternoon, but still I managed to jiggle the key into the lock and enter a place that I used to spend time with him in, holding my breath as if smelling where he lived would bring back every memory we ever shared.

The door opened and I saw my box of things in the corner of the living room. I didn’t even want any of it; it was just another part of the process that everyone was telling me about. This process involved crying late into the night and packing on foundation early morning so people at work didn’t know you were an emotional wreck. It involved deleting pictures off of your Facebook page and changing your relationship status to private so no one would know that you were single, even though everyone would figure it out. It involved what I was doing right that moment, sitting in your now-ex’s apartment with a box of shit you didn’t even want, but you had to pick it up because it was part of the process of getting over him.

I sat on his couch and brought my knees up against my chest. The couch embraced my weight, its worn upholstery inviting and familiar. If only there had been one other imprint next to me—the way that felt normal to me.

As if to interrupt a forbidden moment, Alphie’s door rattled and someone was rapping three soft times. Startled, I knocked over the box and the shampoo bottles hit the ground with a hard thud. The stranger on the opposite side of the door heard my clumsiness and called out, “Hello? You there?”

My stomach dropped and my palms began to sweat. The voice that called out belonged to a woman. It sounded sweet like a soft church bell. Knowing all of Alphie’s neighbors, none of which were this angelic voice, I felt a pang of jealousy thinking maybe he had found the company of another woman.

I was overreacting, but I scrambled for the items that I had dropped and threw them back into the box, shoving it under the end table by the couch. I could have easily stayed silent and pretended no one was there, but I had to see her in case she had an intimate relationship with Alphie. Why else would she be at his apartment at 8 p.m?

Behind the door she was standing with her back towards the entrance, looking off down the hallway. She turned around with a lit up face, as if to see someone familiar. Her face dropped when she saw me, and she pushed up her dark square-rimmed glasses.

She seemed confused and scared, to see another woman in his apartment, especially one that looked like a homeless person with red eyes and business attire.

“Oh, I um…?”

“Oh uh, sorry to startle you. Um, Ralph isn’t here.” I was surprised I could even speak, all I felt like doing was vomiting.

The woman walked cautiously toward me as if I was an unleashed Rottweiler. Two women now stood near Alphie’s apartment—one ex lover, and one most likely, current.

“Um, can I ask who you are?” she was playing nervously with a dark hair strand that had fallen in front of her face.

“Oh, I’m just here to uh, water his plants,” I lied. “He forgot to so he asked me to stop by. I’m just a neighbor.”

“Okay, I was just knocking to see if he was here. I had a key anyway, but thanks for letting me in. His door is always jammed,” she giggled.

I eyed her up to see what Alphie might like more in this woman than myself. Her hair was decent, straight how he likes, but her glasses made her eyes too-huge and forehead small. She had a tight button-down blouse that buckled around her breasts, and a long brown skirt to pair with her oxford sneakers.

“I just came to pick something up I left last week, so I’ll be right out,” she said as she walked towards Alphie’s room.

Thinking quick, I moved closer towards his room and waited until she emerged, a sweater in hand. She jumped upon seeing me moved, and gave me a weak smile.

“So, you his girlfriend?” I asked, adding a smile to make me seem somewhat sane.

“Oh, no,” she laughed. “We’ve only been dating a few months, I don’t think it’s anything serious, yet.” She gave another weak smile.

My heart thrummed in my head, but something seemed weird about this relationship. I kept trying to get more information and hoped my casual conversation seemed not-so-creepy.

“Like actually dating? Or just friends?”

“Well, we met in May and have been dating since then,” she said, still twitching with her hair in her hand. “I just didn’t want to rush it because he seems like a great guy, you know?”

The woman stared at me because I hadn’t answered her question. I hadn’t said anything because I was doing mental math. In a minute, my fists started to clench. I’m sure my face was red, my eyes welled, and maybe I even looked like I was going to kill her. I’m not going to lie, it crossed my mind.

This chick had been dating Alphie since May, but so had I.

As if my life didn’t already suck, sure enough the doorknob turns and in walks Alphie. Really? Is this a sit-com where everyone is laughing at how pathetic the protagonist’s life is?

There he was, the simple man with simple tastes, decked out in his usual jeans and a button up shirt exposing a goofy t-shirt with a cheesy graphic. What does a man do when he is presented with his current girlfriend, his ex-girlfriend, and the act that both of them know he is a good ol’ cheater?

He says hello, or, at least that’s what Alphie did.

“Hey guys, uh what’s going on?” he tried to put on a smile, but I saw right through it.

“Well Alphie, I just met your new friend here. Did you tell her about me?” I was getting angrier. Alphie looked sweaty.

“Um, well Sophie. This is my um, ex-girlfriend Sarah.”

I started getting snippy. Sophie looked way too calm and collected and all I wanted to do was dump my box of shit on Alphie and then set him on fire. He wasn’t going to get away so easy.

“Yes Sophie, and I have a question for you, how good at little brain games are you?”

Sophie looked confused. “Um, pretty good I guess.”

“Well Sophie. Alphie and I broke up in August. Officially. And you and him started dating around May. Do you know what that means?”

I have to say, I had to give this chick some credit. She was totally unaware that she was the other woman, hell, she probably didn’t even want to be the other woman. But when she found out, you could say she didn’t take it lightly.

“What’s going on? Why didn’t you tell me you had a girlfriend?” Sophie’s voice cracked.

“Yeah, Alphie, I must ask the same question,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell  me you were cheating on me?”

Alphie looked at the two women in front of him – and then turned to look directly at me. I had hoped to see some sort of regret, some torn look realizing what he had done wrong. But when he looked at me, I saw his eyes narrow as if he was disappointed in me. The same eyes that used to look at and whisper “I love you’s,” and the eyes that used to look at me lovingly. Eyes that I adored and now these eyes looked right past me to this other woman. The one he really wanted to console and hold and love was her. It hit me hard but I knew right then and there that it was over…as if the whole cheating thing didn’t seal the deal for me.

Sophie huffed, red-faced and darted down the hall. Alphie, of course, ran after her.

“Sophie wait! Don’t leave!” I had never seen or heard him so enthusiastic and desperate. I was pissed.

“Alphie you asshole get back here!” I screamed as I ran down the hall.

They were too fast though, and Sophie was already halfway down the block by the time I ran down the stairs trying to catch Alphie. He had already begun crossing the street when I reached the corner.

I darted out into traffic dodging a taxi, and screamed. It wasn’t because of Alphie, though. A bus came to a screeching halt right in front of me, and like they say, I saw my life flash before my eyes. Can’t say I was happy to see that I had such a pitiful life, but at least I had something before I died a slow and horrible death.

*

I was being a bit dramatic. I didn’t actually die a slow and horrible death. I just figured that sounded better than, “I almost died chasing after my ex who was cheating on me and chasing after his other-woman in the middle of traffic.” The doctor laughed when I told him that. I however, wasn’t chuckling, due to the fact that three of my ribs were broken, I had a black eye and broken arm and leg. And a broken heart. There was no cast for that, the doctor said. Just Prozac.

Surprisingly when I awoke from too much pain medicine, the nurse told me someone wanted to see me. Alphie came walking in and for a brief moment, all I wanted was for him to hug me again. He didn’t though, just awkwardly stood at the foot of my bed.

“Hey,” he mumbled. “How are you feeling?”

“Which part of me? My heart that was smashed into a million pieces or the several bones in my body that now need mending?”

Alphie’s face looked hurt for a brief moment. I wanted him to feel bad even though I knew he really didn’t care about me or my feelings. Or my broken bones.

“I’m sorry Sarah. Really, and I know it’s not going to mean much but I think that maybe once you had some time we could be friends.”

“Is that literally all you have to say?”

The nurse came back in with a tray of food. I felt like throwing up and I didn’t know if it was the smell of something frozen or the thought of Alphie and I remaining friends after our disastrous breakup.

“Think about it,” Alphie said, and he gave my casted foot a tap before he left.

The nurse walked over with the tray and plopped it down on the table next to me.

“Here sweetie, you should really try and get some food in that body so the pain medications won’t zonk you out again,” she said.

“What is it?” I poked a fork around.

“It’s kinda like a Lean Cuisine, you’ll like it.”

I leaned over the table and puked.