“You have pancakes every day.” He chides.
I stop. The forkful of pancake is dripping with maple syrup hovering in front of my recently injected lips. I watch a trickle of syrup slowly slide from the pancake to the fork and end in a pool on the white linen table cloth.
“Does that bother you?” I ask, stuffing the pancake into my mouth.
“No, it’s funny. Cute. It’s cute.” He reaches across and pats my free hand that’s resting on the table by my plate of pancakes.
I can tell from his forced smile and curt pat that he does not in fact think it is cute. John is one of those people. He means what he says and then backtracks with, “just kidding,” or, “I was joking,” or in this case, “I think it’s cute.” He plays it off well because he’s a charmer. It doesn’t stop the words from cutting and damaging. He’s good at that. The Band-Aids he uses to cover the wounds do little to stop the bleeding.
Last week it was that I should invest in a Peloton (because I was a size ten not four). The week before it was that I should try out a new spa in town that had an amazing new hair stylist he had heard about (because I had a few visible grays). Once, it was that I should look into new paint colors to spruce up my home (because warm tones are out). Another time it was a recommendation on how to cook vegetable beef soup using some alternate ingredients than what I had used (the recipe was cherished— my grandmas). Then it was that his friend’s wife had gotten her lips done (I have tiny lips), and so on and so on. He even told me that I should try Science Diet instead of the food my vet recommended for my two cats (he hates my cats).
I always thought of myself as a highly functioning independent woman, but when you get around a man like John for long enough—part gaslighter, part charmer, part asshole—you start to question everything. What’s even crazier, is the fact that I see it with such clarity. I know what he is. He snuck into my life when I was at my lowest. When I was so lonely I would’ve taken comfort in just about any scum of the earth as long as I wasn’t alone. I’ve told myself to get rid of him, but somehow I can’t ever shake him. Now, I’m afraid. He’s like a leech sucking me dry. I know what he’s doing to me. I know I can still get out before it’s too late. But I don’t.
“So, darling, what should we do today? Want to go for a ride and look at houses?” He sips his espresso while surveying the room. He isn’t even looking at me as he talks.
I’m still embarrassed about the espresso. We are dining at the Bear Ridge Country Club and the coffee the waiter offered John wasn’t good enough. He had to demand that they make him an espresso to go with his two poached eggs and whole wheat toast he ordered off the menu. I had ordered the buffet and eaten only the pancakes from it. It was a Sunday buffet, though. Who orders off the menu at an advertised buffet event? Why would you specifically go to a buffet and not eat it…or drink the coffee? I wasn’t able to make eye contact with our waiter, Logan, when John went on his espresso tangent.
“You just march back there, what is it? Logan? You march back there Logan and tell them that Mr. Ebiew wants an espresso.” He chuckled and added, “If this is supposed to be the big country club in town—better than Green Tree like you all say—someone will figure it out.”
Logan and I were both red with embarrassment.
I pour a bit more syrup on my pancakes.
“More Anny?” John laughs. “Maybe we should go for a walk instead after this.”
I stop drizzling the syrup and keep my eyes on my plate.
“I’m kidding darling, you know that.”
I feel tears well. How has this happened? How did I go from a life I wouldn’t change for all the money in the world to sitting at the club, with John, about to cry into my heavily buttered—and syrup doused— pancakes.
“John, why are we looking at houses? What’s wrong with what we have?”
“Anny we talked about this. Your house needs major upgrades. I’m not saying it’s not a lovely home, but it needs so much work—it’s so dark and warm and you know brown tones are out. Plus, with all the history, I think we get something that is both of ours. Something that I am a part of—no ghosts of the past.”
“So you’re saying we go in on this new house 50/50?” I catch my breath after it comes out.
His eyes squint behind his black square glasses and I see him flush. He clears his throat and adjusts his collar—a tell-tale sign he’s not happy.
“We talked about this Anny. The house will sell for well over a million and we will use that money for the new home. Or have you managed to forget yesterday’s conversation already? Perhaps you need to drink a few less glasses of wine each night if that’s the case. It’s starting to fog your mind darling.” He sips his espresso but keeps his eyes on me.
The insult doesn’t even register. I’m used to his “concern” with my drinking. I don’t want to sell my house. My house and my cats are all that I have left. The house was built with love. Every brick. Every shingle. Every swipe of the paint brush. From the stone fireplace to the toilets and every single thing in between. I don’t care if it’s a little outdated. It’s still one of the nicest homes in our small Nebraska town. Leaving it would mean leaving the last remnants of what I had before. Sometimes I still catch a scent of him here and there. I’ll walk into the master closet and smell his cologne. I’ll be getting ready for the day and expect him to walk out of the shower humming some god-awful country song. I’ll look out the back window and expect to see him coming around the corner on his green riding lawn mower. On the worst of nights, I roll over in bed and wait for his arms to encircle me and hug me closer and am startled—almost terrified sometimes—when it is the foreign skinny arms of John instead of his strong, safe ones.
“We just have to make sure there’s room for the cats to roam.” I say. Trying to keep my voice steady. The memories hurt and the tears are threatening to spill over onto my plate.
“About the cats, Anny. I was at my doctor the other day and he and I both agree they haven’t been healthy for me. My allergies are flaring up because of them.”
“John, you don’t have allergies? Since when do you have allergies? Besides, they stay outside for the most part other than in the winter, on occasion, when I let them in.”
“No, I’ve always had, what shall I say, an aversion to cats. Dogs too, actually. They flare up my sinuses and my asthma. I know it’s a lot to ask but really, when it comes down to it, they’re just cats Anny. I’m sure you can find them a good home.”
“They have a good home. With me. I don’t want to abandon them John and honestly, I can’t believe you’re asking me to do that. They’re my fur babies.”
“Anny, they aren’t babies. Don’t confuse the two, although I know you wouldn’t have context for the difference.”
I gasp and literally feel my heart stop for a moment. The look on my face gives me away and he quickly finishes tapping his mouth with the linen napkin and reaches across the table again.
“Oh darling, I didn’t mean it like that. Come on now you always take everything I say the wrong way. I only meant that you can’t compare them to actual children and you don’t know any better than to do that. It wasn’t meant to hurt you. Please stop taking things too seriously Anny. You have to lighten up.”
The tears pour out now. I’m somewhere between holding it together and sobbing uncontrollably. I should know how to handle these instances because they happen with more and more frequency, but for some reason, I don’t. I feel eyes on me. People dining at other tables look in our direction. Most of them are strangers, but I catch the eye of Mrs. Hangerman and see pity and kindess. Justin Kempel is with his family a few tables over and his eyes lock on mine. The tears keep coming. Justin. He was one of Dax’s best friends. I haven’t seen him for so long and didn’t know he was a member here. He was always so kind—especially after everything happened. His family would come visit, bring food and he’d even cut the grass for me during those first few dark months. I had stopped returning his calls and texts shortly after I met John—at John’s request. He was uncomfortable with Justin and his wife Lara and thought they were poisoning my mind about him. I even sent Justin a text asking him to never speak to me again.
Please come over I silently will him, begging him and reaching across the room with every ounce of the shining or whatever magic I can conjure. He smiles at me. A sad smile. A smile that says, I remember better days, don’t you? He turns back to his family.
“Anny for God’s sake please get it together. People are staring at us. You are embarrassing. I told you I didn’t mean anything by it.”
Dax would’ve never treated me this way. He loved pancakes, too. We used to roll out of bed on Sunday mornings and he would cook up piles and piles of them using some cheap, store brand box mix and we would eat every last one and wash them down with mimosas. Even during the miscarriages, he didn’t break the tradition and would bring them to me in bed.
I take a deep breath and try to collect myself.
“I’m sorry.” I whisper, drying the sides of my eyes with my napkin. There are black smudges on it now from my mascara.
“I don’t want to give up the cats, John. I’ll sell the house but the cats come. They’re all I have left and they mean a lot to me.”
“And don’t I mean a lot to you?” he says, frowning.
“Of course you do…it’s just, so do they.”
“We can keep the discussion going later Anny. Let’s drop it for now, ok? You should go to the ladies room and tidy yourself up a bit after that cry. You’re a bit disheveled.”
One of his perfectly styled gray hairs falls over his broad forehead and he sweeps it away. His hands are beginning to wrinkle and give away his age—which is much older than my own.
I sigh, set my napkin on the table and push back my chair. As I do so, I look down at my half eaten pancakes. Suddenly I’m not hungry. Suddenly, I don’t know that I will ever be ordering pancakes again.
“That’s a good girl.” He smiles. “I’ll be here waiting when you get back.”