Here’s a tip: if your ex-husband’s mistress-cum-missus asks for your help in proving that he cheated on her while he was married to you, just say no.
And, whatever you do, don’t invite her in for a cup of coffee.
‘Wine?’ I asked, stepping aside to let Rachel Slattery, now Rachel Slattery Thorsen, pass by.
Rachel frowned, wrinkling her pert little nose as she moved into my living room. ‘It’s a bit early for me, Maggy,’ she said. ‘But maybe . . . a mimosa?’
Of course. Let me just pop some champagne to celebrate her arrival. ‘It was my morning to open the store.’ I said. ‘To me, noon is the new five o’clock.’
I don’t know why I was bothering to explain. I’d started my coffeehouse, Uncommon Grounds, only because Ted, my former husband and Rachel’s current one, dumped me for her. Ted being a dentist and Rachel his hygienist, they’d apparently fallen in love over the spit sink.
Anyway, my point is that when you got right down to it, it was Rachel’s fault I had been upright and brewing coffee at five thirty a.m. ‘It’s wine or nothing.’
‘A white Zin?’
The next best thing to nothing. ‘Coming up!’
I left her with Frank, the sheepdog I inherited when my son Eric went off to college in Minnesota, and headed for the kitchen. Behind me, I heard Frank rouse himself and then, with a groan, settle back down on the hearth of the unlighted fireplace. At least one male in the family wasn’t enamored of Rachel.
I poured the leavings of a bottle of red Zinfandel into a glass for her and topped it off with flat 7-UP. Then I opened a fresh bottle of old vine Zin for myself.
When I went back in, Rachel was seated on the couch. She was wearing a short skirt and boots and, I had to admit, looked adorable. Lucky Ted: he’d managed to snag a younger woman just as the dress code he’d loved so much the first time around – minis, boots, platform shoes – cycled back into fashion.
‘Thank you,’ Rachel said, accepting the glass from me and sipping delicately. ‘Ooooo, this is delicious.’
‘I thought you’d like it.’ I took a bracing belt of my real Zin. Then I sank into the chair across from her. ‘Now, tell me again why you’re here?’
‘It’s really quite simple.’ She set down her glass. ‘Ted told me that you save all your old calendars. Stack them up for years. I was hoping I could take a little peek.’
The subject of my calendars probably came up as Ted was telling her what an unrepentant pack-rat I was. I thought I was merely being prudent. Want to know when in 1996 we’d gone to the Bahamas? I could tell you. Not to mention, what year we put a new roof on the house, the day the refrigerator repairman came in 2004, or the exact date and time of our son Eric’s high school graduation party.
Which, coincidentally, was the day before Ted dropped the R-bomb.
‘And you want these because . . .’
‘I already told you.’ Rachel rolled her eyes. ‘You wrote down where Ted went for conferences and training.’
‘That’s true,’ I admitted. ‘Along with where he was staying and, before cellulars, a contact phone number.’
‘I’m interested in more recent trips, say, the two years before he . . . uh, left you.’
‘You mean the two years he was bopping you?’ I asked pleasantly.
‘Well, yes.’ She tugged down her skirt and gave me a nervous smile.
‘Don’t you know where he was?’ I asked. ‘Weren’t you with him on all those trips?’
Rachel leaned forward. ‘That’s what I thought,’ she said in a low voice. ‘But apparently not.’
‘Hard as it might be for you to imagine, I suppose Ted could have gone to a legitimate dental conference or two without you.’ Though looking at Little Miss Tooth De-Lay, with her short skirt and long legs, it was pretty hard for even me to imagine it.
‘You don’t keep trophies from dental conferences,’ Rachel said, rifling through her patent leather YSL tote. YSL, as in Yves Saint Laurent. Rachel should know something about trophies. She was one.
‘Excuse me?’ I asked politely.
She came out with a stack of plastic rectangles. ‘Trophies,’ Rachel repeated, handing them to me.
‘These are key cards.’ I shuffled through them quickly. ‘From hotels.’
I shrugged. ‘So you want to turn him in for not returning his room key to the desk?’
‘You just don’t get it, do you?’ Rachel leapt up dramatically. ‘He’s been cheating on me. Now and then.’ She pointed to the keys and burst into tears.
I handed her a tissue. The woman managed to look good, even when she cried.
It should have pissed me off, but under the circumstances, I was heartened. If Ted had cheated on someone who could even cry pretty, then maybe his cheating had more to do with him than it did with either Rachel or me.
Not that it mattered. I was now a self-confident entrepreneur with a coffeehouse of my own. What my ex thought or didn’t think about me was neither here nor there.
Yet . . . it managed to hover everywhere. Old habits die hard.
‘Rachel, a few hotel room keys don’t prove―’
‘My brother caught them in the act,’ she choked out as she collapsed on to the couch sniffling. ‘Not that I didn’t suspect something was going on.’
I imagined Rachel would be pretty good at recognizing the signs of an affair, given that she’d been on the other side of one.
With a sigh, Frank hefted himself off the floor, staggered over to her and collapsed with his head on her feet. Good ol’ Frank, providing comfort wherever he lurched.
‘I’m sorry Ted cheated on you,’ I said, as Rachel leaned down to pat him. I was surprised to realize I genuinely meant it. ‘But if you have that kind of proof –’ I held up the key cards – ‘what are these for?’
‘I told you,’ she said, ‘they’re trophies.’
‘Soooo, you think he kept a key for every –’ I searched for the right word – ‘assignation?’
Rachel quirked her head.
‘Bop session?’ I tried.
‘Oh, yes,’ she said eagerly, ‘and that’s why I need the calendars.’ She took the keys back from me. ‘You know my family is in the hotel business.’
I nodded. The Slatterys were the Hiltons of southeastern Wisconsin, or so they fancied themselves. Rachel, Ted had told me when she first came to work for him, wanted nothing to do with the family business.
‘Well, you may not know it,’ Rachel was holding up a key card, ‘but these contain information.’
‘Isn’t that an Internet myth?’ I picked up my wine glass. ‘You know, the old “don’t leave your key because your charge card number is stored on it” scare?’
‘It’s true that personal information like your credit card number is not usually encrypted on them,’ Rachel said. Suddenly she didn’t sound like such a ditz. She sounded like a hotel heiress. ‘But they do have the dates of your stay, the room number and a code that can be traced back to other stuff in the hotel computer.’
I was starting to understand why she wanted the calendars. ‘So, you’re saying that you could tell what dates he stayed where?’
‘With the right equipment,’ Rachel said. ‘And my brother has the right equipment.’
I’d heard that a lot of the area’s young females agreed with that.
Rachel continued. ‘I want to check the key cards against where Ted said he was, according to your calendars, and cross-reference that with times I know I wasn’t with him.’
‘So you’re trying to catch him in a lie,’ I said. ‘But a lie to me? Why?’
‘Because then I can prove that he had no intention of being faithful. Which I’m hoping will put him in breach of the prenup he signed.’
‘Your prenup says he can cheat after you were married, but not before?’
The roll of the eyes again. ‘Of course not. But my lawyer says that if Ted entered into the prenup fraudulently, we might be able to throw out even the small stipend he’d receive.’
My first thought was: Ted, Ted, Ted – what have you gotten yourself into? My second was: how could this affect Eric and me?
After a few seconds, Rachel started to squirm. ‘So, say something.’
‘I’m just trying to get my arms around this,’ I said. ‘You want my help in nailing Ted for his nailing someone else, when he was already nailing you, while he was married to me.’
‘But why should I do that? I have a son to think of. If Ted goes belly-up financially, he won’t be able to pay for Eric’s education.’
A sigh. ‘That’s pretty selfish of you, Maggy.’ She stomped her fashionably-shod little foot. Dislodged, Frank turned tail and ran. ‘Ted sinned, damn it!’
I squinted at her. ‘Umm, you do understand that when you were “seeing” Ted, both of you were sinning, technically.’
Rachel cocked her head.
‘The seventh commandment,’ I tried. ‘“Thou shalt not commit adultery”?’
Rachel gasped. ‘It wasn’t adultery, Maggy. We were in love.’
Her blue eyes clouded over as she seemed to remember her reason for darkening both my doorway and my day. ‘Were,’ she repeated, sniffling.
I pulled a Kleenex out of the emergency box I kept on the end table.
‘Besides,’ Rachel said, taking the tissue, ‘that was before I found God.’ She blew her nose loudly.
Ted had never been much of a churchgoer, but maybe Rachel sought out counseling when things had started to go sour. ‘So are you attending Christ Christian?’ CC was the big church just down Poplar Creek Road from me. ‘Pastor Shepherd is a good guy.’
Langdon Shepherd was Christ Christian’s minister. And, yes, people flocked there.
Except for Rachel apparently.
‘Not yet. But I absolutely plan on working my way up to going to church,’ Rachel said devoutly. ‘I had an awakening – a revelation, really – on my way to Schultz’s Market after Stephen told me about seeing Ted and his slut.’
So she went to the market after finding out about her whore-hound of a husband. Maybe Rachel was shopping for something to console herself. You know, like cookie-dough ice cream. Or a knife.
But back to me. ‘Let me get this straight. You’re saying that you are absolved for screwing my husband because you hadn’t stumbled over God on the way to the grocery store yet?’
‘Ted always said you were too flip, Maggy. You should stop it.’ Rachel glanced apprehensively up at the ceiling of my living room like she expected divine retribution to come crashing through it. ‘He doesn’t like it.’
I wasn’t sure if she was talking about God or Ted. Though at one time, they had been pretty much synonymous in Rachel’s book.
She sniffed again. ‘I was betrayed by Ted. Led astray, like a lamb to the frying pan.’ A shadow of confusion crossed her face. ‘Or is it into the fire?’
‘To the slaughter,’ I supplied.
‘Ugh,’ she said, scrunching her nose. ‘That’s even worse. But the point is, Maggy, that I didn’t know I was sinning. The Bible says “ignorance is bliss”.’
Not unless the poet Thomas Gray was an apostle. ‘That isn’t from . . .’
Recognizing my folly, I stopped.
‘And the Bible also says “to err is human, to forgive divine.”’ Rachel wagged a finger my way. ‘You should remember that, Maggy.’
Me? I was too busy trying to remember which poet was responsible for Rachel’s second quote. Donne, Milton? No, no, Alexander Pope, that was it. Who said my English Lit class would never come in handy?
‘I’m not feeling very divine today,’ I muttered. And if I was going to ‘err’, it was going to be on the side of caution. I mean, how did I know if Rachel was telling me the truth? Maybe she wanted my calendars for some other reason. Maybe something that Ted had put her up to, something more sinister. Something that had to do with me.
OK, so I had trust issues – a residual effect of Ted’s affair that no one warned me about. I just couldn’t stop wondering what other things he – and pretty much everyone else around me – might be hiding.
Rachel was looking at me like a kitten whose ball of yarn had just disappeared under the couch. Bewildered by the yarn’s audacity, but certain something could be worked out. ‘You can’t still be holding a grudge.’
Still? The divorce was less than a year old. Admittedly a lifetime to a mere kid of twenty-five.
‘Then you’ve already forgiven the bimbo Ted is bonking?’ I asked her dryly.
Rachel’s eyes narrowed. ‘Are you being factious, Maggy? Ted says you have a nasty habit of that.’
Jesus, did these people have nothing better to do than talk about me? And study the ‘Word a Day’ calendar? ‘I think you mean facetious,’ I said.
Not that I was above creating a little internal conflict, too.
‘Anyway, you have the keys and I have the calendars,’ I said. ‘I doubt that you’re willing to turn over the key cards to me and I have no intention of handing my personal calendars over to you. Seems like we have a stalemate.’
‘He’s been too busy to get stale,’ Rachel sniffed.
I laughed, surprised at her quickness. My response elicited a tiny grin from Rachel. ‘How about this?’ she said. ‘You find the calendars and we go see my brother together.’
I glanced at the clock on the mantle of the fireplace that took up one entire wall of my living room. My robin’s-egg blue stucco living room. I’d planned to paint the room post-haste when I’d moved into my tiny post-divorce house, but now I barely noticed the color. As my grandmother said, ‘You can get used to hanging if you hang long enough.’
‘Come on, Maggy,’ Rachel was saying, ‘aren’t you even the tiniest bit curious?’
Curious? Of course, I was curious. I wasn’t an idiot, after all. I’d entertained the possibility that Rachel hadn’t been the first. At the time of my divorce, though, I hadn’t wanted to know. It was bad enough acknowledging that the last two years of my marriage had been a sham. I couldn’t face the possibility there had been more women, going even further back. That we’d never had what I’d imagined we did.
‘Don’t ask questions you don’t want answers to,’ I muttered to myself.
Rachel didn’t say anything. I glanced over and saw that she was waiting. No expression. No tears. No begging. No reasoning. Just waiting for me to do what she knew, somehow, I would do.
Now I felt like the kid. I sighed. ‘Are you sure you want the answers?’
My ex-husband’s trophy wife met my gaze. ‘Not knowing doesn’t change what happened, Maggy. It doesn’t make it go away. It only makes you . . . stupid.’