Beth has less than four hours until she needs to show up at some diner she’s never heard of and meet Rio, and still, she’s spent the better part of the last half hour eating her words, trying and failing to come up with a way to ask Peter to use the toy store in the Kostra deal. As she’s cycled through various options in her head, Peter has babbled on about the weather (unusually warm for the end of March—and Beth feels far too aware of this fact, sitting in her black turtleneck to hide the marks Rio left on her yesterday) and about the problems with the Pistons’ this season (for this, Beth utilizes the skills she developed from pretending to be invested in Dean’s monologues—a careful rotation of nodding, mhm-ing and asking follow-up questions where she repeats the last string of words he’s just said).
“And what’s the average turnover rate?” Beth asks, acting as if she has even an inkling of what that means.
“Well,” Peter says, reaching across the table and plucking a fry from Beth’s plate. “Right now it’s almost 18 turnovers a game and I read that—”
A cheer erupts from a nearby table, and Beth turns to see a group of men high five each other before they glue their eyes back to the television.
They’re in a busy sports bar, surrounded by big-screen TVs and pitchers of beer. It’s not Beth’s usual style, but it didn’t go under her radar that it was a place where their conversation could get easily lost—if she could ever muster up the courage to steer it in the direction she needed it to go.
If she just said one sentence, each time it was her turn to speak, that led her down the path to asking if he would use his beloved family toy store, of all things, to smuggle drugs into the United States, that would be perfect. She just needs to trap herself in a corner, make it so she can’t wriggle out of it with a well-timed lie.
Turning back to face Peter, noticing his kind face—the dimple on his cheek, the laugh lines around his eyes—she can’t help but wish she could ask anyone else.
She’s gone back and forth over the last month in how she thinks Peter will respond. At first, she was overconfident, believing that she might be able to convince him by arguing that they’re helping people, that these are good drugs. Peter was a good guy—he’d want to help people, wouldn’t he?
Then she’d swung the other way. The closer she got to him, the more time she spent in the toy store, the more she realized that it meant everything to him. It was the legacy of his family and his solace after his divorce. It represented his childhood and his dreams. The thought of even asking was mortifying. So she’d buried her head in the sand and avoided it. There was enough on her plate already—it wasn’t like it was hard to think about other things.
Then, as time started closing in on her, as the thought of losing Rio became a sharp pain in her chest, she’d gotten desperate—she’d even considered bringing up his mother, arguing that they could prevent something senseless like that happening to someone else.
Remembering that angle makes her stomach clench. It was a betrayal. Mrs. Schott had taken Beth in when no one else had. She had cared for Beth and fed her and taught her—and still, even though Beth hadn’t seen Mrs. Schott in twenty years, even though she’s now long gone, too far away to ever be reached again—Beth feels protective of her image, of maintaining the illusion that she’s still the same person Mrs. Schott believed her to be: a good girl that deserved more than the lot she got dealt in life.
She’s not that person, Beth knows she’s not (and god, she doesn’t even really want to be anymore—she loves the thrill too much)—but somehow, it feels like once the truth is out there—once Peter knows she’s a criminal and a thief and a drug dealer—she’s admitting she was never worthy of Mrs. Schott’s love in the first place. It’s ridiculous, but she can’t help feeling like asking is giving up a part of herself—a fragile part of herself that had, at one point in time, badly needed someone like Mrs. Schott just to get through the day.
Beth’s eyes are focused on the plate of food in front of her when she looks up and realizes Peter’s been talking and she hasn’t even been pretending to listen. A blush colors her cheeks, and then Peter’s studying her with such tenderness in his look that Beth has to turn away from him.
He’s going to say yes, Beth knows it now. He will. But it will be because of this thing between them, because he wants her and he wants her to want him, too.
But she doesn’t.
She wants Rio, only Rio, but without the Kostra deal, she loses him. If she shows up to the diner empty-handed, she proves to him—once more—that she can’t handle this.
It’s Boomer all over again.
But how can she ask Peter to do this? Even if he did say yes of his own free will, how could she work with him when she knows she needs to end it?
Her heart clenches at the impossibility of the situation.
“You look very pretty today,” Peter says softly. His eyes stay focused on her face, and a small smile tugs at his lips when he sees Beth’s cheeks pinken again.
Beth’s heart begins to race. She can sense where he’s steering the conversation, and even as much as she knows she should end it, she can’t do it. Not here. Not now.
She needs to course correct. As much as she doesn’t want to, she needs to make the deal first.
Before she can think of a way to do it, Peter says, “You know, right before I bumped into you that first time, I’d been actually been thinking about you. Tim even said it there—the what if ? What if I’d asked you to prom that year, instead of Dean? It’s dumb but… I was waiting on the sidelines for a while. Waiting to see if it wouldn’t work out. If I could win you back.”
Peter shakes his head and laughs at the memory, but Beth sucks in a breath. She doesn’t want to have this conversation.
“I mean, I wouldn’t change it, you know? It probably worked out the exact way it should. But it’s funny how something small like that can change the course of your entire life. I had no idea then—I mean, now I can’t even remember why we broke up.”
Despite herself, the memory blooms in Beth’s mind. She remembers a fifteen-year-old Peter fidgeting in the school cafeteria, scratching his ear and unable to look at her. She had too many responsibilities, he’d said. She was always either staying home because she had to take care of Annie or dragging Annie along on their dates, the five-year-old trailing behind them complaining about being cold or tired or bored. He wanted to take Beth to a football game that went past Annie’s bedtime. He wanted her to be able to, at the drop of a hat, leave and go hang out with him and his friends in someone’s basement or out in a field, playing truth or dare or flashlight tag. He wanted to take her to the movies—an R-rated movie—and kiss her in the dark, not in the storage closet at his grandfather’s toy store.
He just wanted to be a normal teenager, and he knew it wasn’t Beth’s fault but…
He’d let the sentence trail off, and Beth had just nodded, acting like she understood, waiting until she was alone to cry.
She couldn’t blame him—she’d bitterly wanted to feel like a normal kid, too—but she’d cried over him for weeks. And one day, when she’d seen Peter holding hands with some other girl, she’d found herself bursting into tears during passing period. She paced back and forth in the hallway outside of her math class, trying furiously to wipe away her tears before going inside.
That was how she’d met Dean. He saw her crying and he told her the dumbest jokes he could think of until her tears dried up and she was laughing instead. Mr. McNamara heard them and came outside and issued them both a detention, and the rest was history.
Peter was right: one small thing could dictate your entire life.
Dean hadn’t minded Annie. He was goofy and he liked little kids (he found Annie’s constant insults toward him hilarious) and, when he wanted some alone time, he had no problem throwing his allowance money toward a babysitter. His chest always sort of puffed out when he did it, like he had done something very impressive, and Beth had been drawn to it, the way he seemed to take pride in taking care of her—of them.
Rio didn’t take care of her. He made her believe she could take care of herself.
“Me either,” Beth lies, pretending she doesn’t recall their teenage break-up. Before Peter can say one more thing about how their reunion was fated, before he can try to name this thing between them, Beth clears her throat and says, as politely as possible, “Would you excuse me for a moment? I’ll be right back.”
Beth doesn’t wait for Peter to respond. She sees him open his mouth, but she’s already slid off the stool and taken two steps toward the bathroom. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees the way he deflates a little—shoulders sagging, a sigh escaping his lips, but he shakes it off and turns toward her, smiling again.
Beth stares at her reflection in the mirror. There are bags under her eyes and she feels like she’s paler than usual. Sitting there and pretending everything’s right is draining her.
Beth tugs at the neck of her sweater and studies the purple hickies Rio left all over her. She can still feel his lips against her skin.
The guilt sits heavy in her stomach. She’s been on the other side of what she’s done, and she knows that it’s terrible. Unforgivable. It’s hurtful and it’s selfish, and Beth can’t believe she’s sunk so low.
(Twice, a small voice reminds her).
Did Amber feel like this, Beth wonders, pressing gently one of the bruises, when she was sleeping with her husband? Did her stomach twist every time she was reminded what she had done? Every time she eyed Beth’s photo in Dean’s office? Did she want to hide whenever Beth showed up at the dealership?
Beth had never spent much energy thinking about Amber specifically before. Her ire and her pain had been directed at Dean, but now she’s curious. What about Dean had appealed to that young, beautiful girl? What had made her cross that line with someone with whom she knew she shouldn’t cross it? Was the fact that it was forbidden enticing, exciting even? Or had there been something real in their affair, something that made Amber feel that it was right?
Had she believed that despite the circumstances, once the dust settled, it would all be worth it?
The fact that it was wrong hadn’t intrigued Beth; it hadn’t even crossed her mind in the moment. It wasn’t until after, until reality came back into focus with the dull buzz of Rio’s vibrating phone that she’d remembered.
She knows she’s treating Peter like dirt. She knows he—and Charlotte—deserve better.
But as much as Beth knows what she’s done was wrong, it had felt so… right.
It had started like their usual games. There was an edge to it, an anger. They were both punishing each other, but that hardly mattered. It had been personal. The sex they’d been having just before they broke up had been detached and distant. Rio had been refusing to look at her, refusing to truly touch her.
Yesterday he couldn’t keep his hands off her. Who cared that he was trying to hurt her as much as pleasure her, that his teeth were sinking into her breasts, that his nails were digging into her flesh? He’d forced her to look him in the eye. His gaze had been white hot, but she’d felt seen.
By the end of it, they’d worked off their fury, collapsed against each other in some sort of momentary surrender.
And then she’d kissed him, worried it could be the last time, that it could be goodbye.
And now she knows it was.
Tears prick at Beth’s eyes.
She can’t go back out there and ask Peter to use the toy store in the Kostra deal. If it was someone else—someone less good, someone she didn’t mind hurting—
It’s not, though.
Beth wishes, desperately, that there was another option. Her brain short circuits as she tries to flip through the rolodex in her mind of every PTA parent she knows that has their own business, narrows it down to those that would ever even maybe consider—
She bites her lip, hard. Shakes her head. It’s too late. She’s run out of time.
She’d let worry and anxiety paralyze her into doing nothing, and now, even if she could come up with some acquaintance that she thought might be tempted, she couldn't very well barge into their office today and pitch this off the cuff.
What she needed was too specific, because it wasn’t just someone who ran a business. It had to be someone morally gray, someone okay with breaking the rules, someone that wanted something—fiercely. Someone that might do anything to get it. And she would have to know what it was.
For that, there was no one.
It’s the shaking of her shoulders that alerts her that the tears welling in her eyes have turned into full-blown crying. Her sobs rack her body and she gasps, clutching at the counter as she tries to catch her breath.
She’s standing on a precipice and she can feel everything closing in on her, but all she can think about is Rio and what it will be like to be cut from his life. Never seeing him again. Never hearing his voice. Never touching him, or being touched.
It hasn’t even happened yet and the idea of his absence feels tangible, like a weight dragging her down.
The door to the bathroom swings open and Beth quickly sucks in a breath, tries to hide the fact that she’s a wreck. She can feel the woman glance at her, but Beth turns away from her a little, swiping furiously at her eyes.
She straightens up just before the woman disappears into a stall, politely pretending she didn’t realize that Beth was crying.
Peter’s twenty feet away, back turned to her. He’s so close, but the walk back to the table feels impossible.
Beth doesn’t know what she’s going to say when she gets over to him. Every option feels equally unimaginable.
She can see the curve of Peter’s shoulders, slightly slumped as he puts a bottle of beer to his lips and looks up at a television screen. Beth follows his gaze and watches a few moments of the game. The guy with the ball tries to get to the basket, but he can’t. The defense is too strong, and there’s someone stopping him at every turn. He passes the ball, but it doesn’t matter—there’s someone else there, ready and waiting to block the opportunity.
A wild shot is made, and it flies through the air. Beth’s surprised when it sails through the net anyway.
She sees Peter shift in his seat and glance at his watch when a commercial break comes on.
It’s the Kings to the Kingdom mattress commercial Beth’s seen a dozen times—only this time, the king has a queen. He looks even more sleazy now that he’s got some ditzy-looking blonde twenty-something on his arm donning a sparkly crown and using her sceptre to tap price slashes across the screen. At the end, she even curtsies.
Beth’s about to scoff when instead, she blinks and her eyes go wide because finally, finally she’s got it.
Beth’s leg bounces as she sits in the small booth at Jack’s Diner, anxiously waiting for Rio to arrive. She checks her watch again, but it’s still too early. Considering Rio always shows up exactly on time, she has five more minutes.
Beth looks around again, studies something new to try and distract herself. This time she focuses on an old 1950s advertisement for a station wagon.
The diner is… not what she expected. It’s kitschy. Knickknacks decorate cluttered shelves, novelty license plates are hung from the wall, and vintage Coca-Cola bottles line the windowsills.
This is not Rio’s style, and Beth wonders why he chose it. It’s right in the middle of his place and hers, yes, but it’s not like either of them have had trouble showing up across town before.
He must have also thought that this meeting would be the end. It seems oddly sentimental, avoiding the bar where so much has happened between them. She shakes her head at herself. She’s reading too much into it.
He’d scowled yesterday when she’d suggested that they only meet in public but she’d needed to draw a line. She refuses to keep falling into bed with him while he’s—while she’s—
They can’t keep doing this, is what she means. Not to other people, not to themselves. She’d told Annie she can wait. If she believes in this… thing… between them, then it has to be right.
Beth looks up when headlights stream in through the window. Rio parks his Cadillac next to her van and looks over it. He doesn’t immediately get out of the car, though. Beth watches as he seems to look at his lap, shoulders sagging. It lasts only a few seconds, and then he rolls his shoulders, shakes his head, and exits the vehicle.
He's steeling himself, she realizes.
Rio strides into the diner and, like the two of them are magnets, he quickly filters out everyone else in the room and his eyes lock on hers. Like always, his gaze is electrifying. Beth sucks in a breath, and Rio sets his jaw.
He slides into the seat opposite her without saying anything. He links his fingers tightly on top of the table and raises an eyebrow, waiting for her to speak.
The speech Beth prepared seems to evaporate under his scrutiny. She tries grasping at the words, but they elude her.
“Well?” he says after another moment passes.
“Well… I did it,” she says, shrugging—going for nonchalance—but once the words leave her lips, she can’t help it: she beams at him. “I got the deal.”
Rio’s mouth goes slack and he blinks, taken aback. But it seems he can’t help himself, either. His lips curve up into a small smile, and he nods once, impressed.
“Well, look at you. Pulled through at the last minute, huh?” He looks down, shakes his head in disbelief, and then looks back up at her. The tension has disappeared from his face, from his shoulders. He looks… proud. Beth feels her stomach twist—the good way this time.
“Here you are.” The moment’s interrupted by Jack, the 70-something owner of the diner. He sets down two milkshakes on the table, strawberry for Beth, chocolate for Rio. He wipes the condensation off his hands on his apron and smiles at them. “Enjoy.”
Jack shuffles away and Rio tilts his head. “What’s this?”
“Celebratory drinks,” Beth explains. “They don’t serve alcohol. It was the fanciest thing on the menu.”
Rio breathes out a laugh and decides to roll with it. He picks up his spoon and dips it into the dessert.
They eat in silence for a few minutes, mostly absorbed in their own thoughts, but every now and then they each look up at the same time and make eye contact. It feels surreal, after everything, to be sitting in tackiest restaurant in Detroit eating ice cream with Rio. It feels good.
Rio finishes before Beth and pushes the cup off to the side. “Well, can’t say I ever celebrated a deal over milkshakes but… I’m open to tryin’ new things.” The words settle over both of them, and they feel weighted, meaningful. Rio tries to reel it back. “Guess it’s fitting, considerin’ we partnerin’ up with goddamn a toy store of all things.”
Beth loads up a spoonful of the ice cream. “Actually…”
Rio looks at her sharply. “What do you mean, ‘actually’?”
“I didn’t make the deal with Peter.” Beth plops the ice cream in her mouth.
“I found someone better,” Beth says, straightening her back. She hadn’t expected him to be annoyed —it was no secret that he couldn’t stand the idea of having Peter around—and she finds herself digging in her heels, sure that she’s made the right choice, that he’s just being irrational.
Rio exhales through his nose. “Better, huh?”
“Yes,” Beth insists. “Better. Hiding the drugs in toys means smaller amounts and more shipping costs for us. Feasible, if need be, but not the best option.”
Rio huffs out a breath. “And what’s the best option?”
Rio squints at her. “Cars.”
“Yes, cars. It was successful before.”
It had been easy, once the idea came to her. The mattress commercial had reminded her: she did know someone that wasn’t shackled by a rigid sense of morality. She did know what this person wanted more than anything in the world. And she did have an in with her—a strange one, for sure, but she wasn’t above using it against her if need be.
She’d made an excuse to Peter, pretended there was a kid emergency, and hastily exited the bar. She’d driven straight to Amber’s wholesale lot and pitched it to her. Amber had hesitated at first, but Beth had needled her. Wouldn’t it be great, she said, for Amber’s acting career? She could pay for more (and higher quality) classes, professional headshots… God, with this kind of money, she could even afford plane tickets to LA and New York for auditions and hell, if she really wanted to, she could bankroll her own small film project. Amber’s eyes had lit up at this, and the deal had been sealed within thirty minutes.
“There’s one problem,” Rio snaps.
“Kostra ain’t got cars.”
“Well, we don’t need Kostra,” Beth says, waving her hand like it’s not a problem. “We can go back to our old distributor.”
Rio exhales loudly through his nose and tents his fingers together, pressing them against his forehead in annoyance. “Oh, you think it’s that easy, huh?”
“I just thought—”
“No,” Rio says firmly, interrupting her. “You didn’t think. You just barreled headfirst into a new plan without considerin’ what the consequences were.”
“We ain’t got a deal with our old distributor anymore. ‘Member how you clawed your way into this deal then abruptly decided you were out?” Rio’s mouth twists and she can see his jaw lock. No more cash, no more pills. The memory settles uncomfortably over both of them. He glowers at her as he continues, “That doesn’t fly in this business. You think you can pull whatever shit you want if you just bat your pretty little eyelashes, but it don’t work like that.”
Beth senses that he isn’t just talking about the drugs anymore.
“I don’t think that,” Beth replies indignantly.
She didn’t expect this. She had believed that Rio would be behind this, that he would be happy. A crease appears in Beth’s browline.
“No? Did you forget pullin’ the plug on that whole op outta nowhere? Did you forget your dealership got raided five fuckin’ minutes later? Fuck, Elizabeth. You think people ain’t heard about that shit? That they ain’t been rethinkin’ workin’ with us? With me? Why you think I’m wastin’ my time entertainin’ boys as green as Kostra and Krev? Why you think I’m puttin’ up with assholes like Fusil?”
“I didn’t know,” Beth says quietly. “I just wanted…”
“You just wanted to protect your li’l suburban mama image for your boyfriend. You still tryin’ to play perfect housewife by day and criminal by night. You still tryin’ to keep your hands clean.”
Beth opens her mouth to retort, because that isn’t it, it’s not, but she hesitates, remembering that maintaining her image had been a part of her hesitation. Not for Peter, but for his mother. His dead mother.
She couldn’t even begin to explain it.
“Yeah.” Rio scoffs. “That’s what I thought.”
He’s sliding out the booth already, and Beth feels everything slipping away from her.
“Wait!” she calls when he reaches the door.
Rio turns toward her, expecting that she’s got something to say, but she doesn’t. She just didn’t want him to leave yet. She just wanted a way to salvage things. Rio shakes his head and disappears into the dark.
The next day, Beth throws herself into cleaning her house from top to bottom. She finds every last vestige of Dean and throws it into a box. Old prescriptions, stray socks, some old USB drives, and even their wedding album (she drags the last one back out hours later— only because she doesn’t trust Dean to keep them protected, and they might mean something to the kids someday—and she stores it up in the attic, out of sight).
Charlotte texts her and asks about a coffee date and Beth avoids responding for hours and then guiltily makes up an excuse. She’ll meet up with her it eventually, she will—it’s just she physically can’t right now.
She’s doing everything she can to not obsess about Rio and the deal, and so she isolates herself, blasts Train, and gets on her hands and knees to wipe down every baseboard in her entire house.
She even avoids Annie and Ruby’s messages, at least until two days later when she runs out of things to clean in her own home and shows up at Annie’s doorstep Thursday afternoon.
“What are you doing here?” Annie asks when she swings open the door, still in her pajamas and munching on a bag of pretzels. She eyes Beth from head to toe and takes in her yoga pants, old ratty t-shirt, and mismatched socks peeking out of her Keds. “You’re wearing your cleaning outfit.”
“Yes. I want to clean your apartment.”
“What? Why?” Annie asks, half-offended until she reconsiders. “Actually, who cares? Come on in. Think you can finish by seven? I’ve got dinner plans with Marian.”
Despite how disgusting some parts of it are (particularly when she goes through Annie’s fridge and finds months-expired cottage cheese, or when she looks under the couch and sees dust bunnies the size of actual rabbits) cleaning Annie’s apartment feels good. Sadie pitches in while Annie blasts music on the stereo and watches from the couch eating a box of Cheez-Its. Beth gets so absorbed in the project that she works up a sweat and barely has the energy to think about Rio at all.
That is until Sadie disappears to go hang out with a friend, and Annie points out the hickies.
“So you and Peter banged, huh?” she asks, wriggling her eyebrows. “Jesus, he really went to town on you. I didn’t think he had it in him.”
Beth flushes. The hickies are nearly faded, but still visible, and she kicks herself for it. She’d been so focused on distracting herself that she’d forgotten to cover up before she left her house.
Beth makes a noncommittal noise and turns away from Annie, looking around the space for something else to clean. “We should do your baseboards.”
“Huh? Who is looking at my baseboards? No, we should talk about Peter practically devouring you.”
“How low do those hickies go?” Beth pointedly ignores her, but of course that doesn’t deter Annie. “See, now I would’ve pegged him to be one of those soft, romantic types. Like, a flower petal trail to the bed or something cheesy like that. I mean, that has its place, but I’m happy to see that you’re getting railed. You deserve it.”
Beth wishes the earth would swallow her whole.
“To be honest, I’m kind of surprised, though. I thought after our talk on Saturday—“
“These aren’t from Peter,” Beth interrupts, voice strained.
“Oh, shit.” Annie purses her lips. She hesitates for a minute until she says quietly, “Beth, I really think you need to cut him loose.”
“No, I mean, I think you need to go over to his house right now and dump him.”
“I’m planning on it, okay? I just need a minute to—to—process.”
Shockingly, Annie just nods. They sit in silence for a minute before she asks, “So… what does this mean for you and Rio, then? I mean, if it’s not Peter, it is Rio right?”
Beth sighs. “God, Annie, seriously?”
Annie holds up her hands. “You know what they say about when you assume.”
Beth pinches her nose. “Yes, okay? It was Rio.”
“So, like... did you guys talk about it? Is he going to dump the girlfriend? Are you going to be together?”
Beth squeezes her eyes shut. She would rather do anything than have this conversation. Even if she wanted to, she couldn't even begin to explain the insanity that was her weekend.
Miraculously, she’s saved when her phone starts ringing. It’s maybe the only time she’s seen Dean’s name on her caller ID screen in months where she’s felt relief instead of dread.
It only lasts a second, though.
“Hello?” she says, holding up a finger to Annie, who sticks her tongue out at her and mouths, I’m not done with this conversation.
“Beth? I need a favor.”
Beth sighs, exasperated. “What?”
“Please don’t get mad.”
“I need you to pick up Danny.”
Beth flips through her mental calendar. Thursday at six o’clock means... “From karate?”
“Yes, and before you say—“
“Dean, karate ended fifteen minutes ago.”
“I know, okay? I know! It was an oversight.”
“An oversight? Our nine-year-old son is waiting alone in a dojo and it was an oversight?” She can’t help herself—she’s scolding Dean at the same time that she’s scrambling to pull her keys out of her purse.
Annie mouths, Are you fucking kidding me?
“Look, I would be hightailing it there if I could but—“
“What are you doing?”
“Dean, I swear to god—“ Beth waves goodbye to Annie and starts taking the stairs down to the lobby two at a time.
“I may have told Emma it was alright to hang out at her friend’s house after school. A neighbor kid from my mom’s neighborhood.”
Beth doesn’t see the problem. Judith picks them up after school, since Dean’s still at work, and he gathers them all up from their various activities once he’s off. “So?”
“And then my mom went to bridge club. And locked up.”
“What does that mean?” Beth demands, sliding into her van.
“Emma’s locked out of the house. She’s waiting in the backyard.”
“Oh my god!” Beth’s fingers grip the steering wheel too tight as she blasts out of her parking spot and into traffic.
“Look, I’m almost there. She’s fine. This is why we got her that cell phone. I’ve been on the phone with her, like, the whole time.”
“Except now! When you’re on the phone with me! Why isn’t she still at the neighbor’s?”
“They had a thing. I don’t know, Emma was bad at explaining—“
Beth feels a headache begin to throb behind her left eye. She has to slam on her breaks, registering a stop sign too late. “They didn’t stay with her?! She’s seven!”
“Emma didn’t tell them. You know Emma. Thinks she can handle anything. Once she realized nobody was home, she didn’t even go back to the Fitzpatrick’s. That’s what I’m telling you: she’s fine. She’s just waiting and sitting on the back porch. Nobody can see her, nobody knows this happened.”
“God forbid,” Beth spits, voice acid.
“Look, Beth, the damage is already done, okay? I don’t need the lecture. I got a little mixed up—“
“Where are Kenny and Jane?” Beth asks, turning onto Main Street and doing her best to weave through traffic.
Dean exhales loudly. “Kenny’s at swim. Jane’s with my mom.”
“At bridge?” Beth pinches the bridge of her nose. “Dean, she’ll be a nightmare. She’s going to absolutely terrorize all those ladies.”
“Just—can you pick him up or not?”
“I’m already halfway there.”
Dean sighs with relief. “Thank you, Beth—really, thank you.”
Beth rolls her eyes, unable to formulate a response to that.
“Do you think that—no, nevermind.”
“Well, do you think since you’re already getting Danny, you could get Kenny too? That way I can just pick them both up from the house? I mean, I already have to go to my mom’s, and to bridge, and double back to your side of town, since that’s where all the kid’s activities are. You have no idea how long today has—“
Beth hangs up on him before he can get out another word.
Beth is gnawing on her cheek the rest of the drive, and she screeches into the dojo parking lot and scrambles out of the car so quickly that she leaves the van door wide open.
She flings open the door of the building, eyes wide and frantic—only to find Danny sitting on a chair swinging his legs back and forth, accompanied by none other than Charlotte and her son Micah.
Seeing that Danny isn’t in some sort of emotional distress, Beth immediately tries to downplay her frenzy to match Danny’s calm.
“Hi, sweetie,” she says, and then immediately mouths a silent thank you, I’m so sorry to Charlotte, who waves off her worries with a flick of her wrist. Danny looks up at Beth from his feet.
“Hi!” Beth says, voice syrupy and bright—she’d like him to think nothing is amiss, so that getting forgotten by his father isn’t some traumatic memory he’ll have to unpack later as an adult.
“I thought Daddy was gonna pick me up?”
“...Um. We switched,” Beth says. Charlotte clearly picks up on the lie, a light bulb seemingly clicking on above her head, and Beth cringes inwardly. Somehow Dean’s failures still have the capacity to embarrass her.
“Why?” Danny asks curiously.
“I just missed you so much that I called Daddy up to ask if I could take you out to dinner.”
“Yep. Whatever you want.” Beth smiles sweetly at her son, like this is all a secret plan.
Danny grins, glowing at the thought of this special attention.
“Can we get pizza? And then ice cream?”
“Absolutely,” Beth agrees, thinking about how it’ll be Dean’s problem to handle Danny all riled up from the sugar at bedtime.
“Yes!” Danny celebrates by hopping off his chair and pumping a fist in the air. “Can Micah come?” He gestures to the boy, who displays a gap-toothed smile and eyes as big as saucers at the prospect of junk food for dinner.
Beth blinks, locking eyes with Charlotte. She can sense Charlotte’s willingness—but also her hesitancy, like she’s not trying to overstep boundaries, like she senses Beth’s reticence. Beth’s stomach twists. Charlotte has no idea how Beth has wronged her, so Beth’s standoffishness is coming off as nothing more than simple, unfounded rudeness.
“What do you say?” Beth caves, turning toward Charlotte. “How does pizza and ice cream sound?”
Beth cringes when she steps out of her van and remembers what she’s wearing. She glances at herself in her side mirror and sees that her hair is falling out of her bun, that there are now bleach stains on her ratty t-shirt, that there’s even a smudge of something on her chin.
Beth peeks into the back of her car hoping she can find a hoodie or another shirt, but there’s nothing there but her first aid kit and a random change of clothes for each of her kids. She’s prepared for any disaster—except one involving herself.
“I look like a mess,” Beth admits to Charlotte as they walk into the restaurant, the boys darting ahead to get into the Pizza Palace Playroom. “How embarrassing.”
Beside her, Charlotte looks chic in pumps, black skinny jeans, and a striped sweater over a collared blouse. “Oh, god, don’t worry about it. We’re at a restaurant with a play place. I’m guessing we’ll see at least one person wearing pajamas, and it might not even be a kid. This is like the prime dinner choice of tired parents.”
Beth laughs softly, but crosses her arms over her shirt, trying to hide herself.
“To be fair, it also seems like maybe you rushed here from being in the middle of something else? When I was waiting with Danny, I said I’d text you so you wouldn’t worry he was alone, and he said it was his dad’s week.”
Charlotte reaches the door of the restaurant first and holds it open for Beth.
“Yeah,” Beth grumbles. “And then he called frantically while I was cleaning and now—this.” She gestures are her outfit again. “He’s still getting used to juggling all the kid’s schedules. That was kind of my job when we were together.”
“They never have any idea how hard it really is, do they? They act like it’s all playdates and mimosas while they bring home the bacon. Please.” Charlotte rolls her eyes and then smiles sympathetically at Beth.
They go up to the counter and order a large pizza—half cheese for the kids, half Margherita for themselves—and then settle into a booth with a pitcher of soda.
Beth wonders about Charlotte’s ex, wonders if it would be okay to pry, when Charlotte resumes the conversation for her.
“My first husband—Marcus and Trey’s dad—he was great. He got up with me in the middle of the night to keep me company when I nursed, changed diapers, the whole deal.”
Wow, Beth thinks. She’s not sure Dean changed more than ten diapers between all four kids. She’s definitely sure he never got up with her in the middle of the night—either to keep her company or let her sleep in, not even once, not even when they had switched to being bottle-fed. She’d sort of thought men like that were a myth—besides Stan Hill, who was an anomaly in most ways, really.
But Beth notices that Charlotte’s examples are limited to when her two oldest kids were babies.
Before she can figure out a way to ask, Charlotte continues. “Wesley died when Trey was two. Car accident. I didn’t date for a long time— years, actually. And when I met Micah’s dad—” she glances over her shoulder at the boys crawling around in the play structure tunnels, making sure Micah’s out of ear shot, “—I just thought, most men would be like Wesley, right? It was naive, but I’d met Wes when I was seventeen, so he was just the standard, my idea of normal. I thought my girlfriends who had shitty boyfriends just had bad luck. And Anthony seemed great at first. I mean, he talked a good game. He was all about wanting to take care of me and the boys, wanting to do right by us. But he was really pushy about getting married really fast.”
“That sort of sounds like my ex,” Beth admits quietly. Dean had wanted to get married right out of high school. She’d barely convinced him to wait until they were twenty.
“It’s hard to turn that down, you know? Especially when you think you’re someone with a lot of baggage that most people might not even glance at. I mean, I thought, Who would want to settle down with a twenty-seven-year-old with two kids? Anthony knew I had that insecurity, and he used it to pull me in deeper.”
“I know exactly how you felt,” Beth admits, telling her briefly about Dean and Annie. Back then, Dean had made a lot of offhand comments about Beth and Annie being a package deal, about how Beth and Dean were lucky that they found each other, with an unspoken because nobody else will want this hanging in the air.
Charlotte tells Beth the entire story of her second marriage. Anthony had seemed perfect up until the moment that Charlotte had gotten pregnant—and then he had turned cold and distant towards her older boys. They’d fought a lot after Micah was born because he wanted Charlotte to stay home, but when she did quit her job, he put her down in subtle ways, treating her if she were freeloading off of him. He insisted she homeschool the boys, but when she admitted she didn’t like it, he acted like she was just stirring up trouble for no good reason, that she was making it out to be harder than it was. Still, in public, he loved to put on a show about how he was providing for his family, how they were so happy together. He made Marcus and Trey call him “dad” and he got jealous of any mentions of Wesley.
“Wow,” Beth says, stunned. “Okay, Dean wasn’t that bad.”
Charlotte waves her hand. “That doesn’t mean he was good.”
The simplicity and truth of the statement settles deeply into Beth's bones.
“No, I guess not,” Beth concedes quietly.
And then Charlotte asks her what he was like, and surprisingly, Beth tells her.
Beth hasn’t ever really confided about Dean’s earliest missteps to anyone. She had been too protective over her decision to marry him to allow anyone any ammo to criticize it—or him. Even later, admitting anything to Annie and Ruby was like admitting she’d made a mistake; it was acknowledging she wasn’t happy. She knew how they felt about him, and they didn’t even know the half of it. Protecting Dean wasn’t really about protecting him at all—it was protecting the most fragile piece of herself. She’d done it for as long as she could.
She didn’t stop Annie or Ruby from criticizing Dean anymore, but it was still painful sometimes, the way that it still feels like a reflection of her—what she put up with, what she accepted, what she had sometimes even come to feel she deserved.
It doesn’t feel like that with Charlotte. Strangely, Beth finds it somewhat easy to talk about Dean with her. Charlotte doesn’t know the entire history, just what Beth chooses to tell her. It’s a weight off her shoulders, talking about it to someone that is so divorced from the rest of her life.
“I guess I didn’t even really realize how bad it was with Dean until I was able to compare how Dean made me feel to the way someone else made me feel,” Beth says vaguely. “Dean always made me feel small, and I knew that I wasn’t, but it was still nice to hear it from someone else, you know? Someone that wasn’t acting like he was above me, but like… by my side, I guess.”
Beth fiddles with a napkin, and her stomach clenches. She knows she’s walking a dangerous line here, but she’s feeling so lost after her fight with Rio, and like she needs to process it, and Charlotte is so easy to talk to...
“I totally get it,” Charlotte says, sipping on her soda. She looks back at the boys again, who are now doing karate kicks in the air before they descend into the ball pit. “That’s something that drew me to Christopher, you know? Like, there was no judgment there when my boys just sat on their butts playing video games instead of helping me move. He just lent a hand. And every time I spaz out feeling guilty about making them move, he just—” Charlotte shakes her head and smiles. “He’s just really supportive, in his own Christopher way. And I get the sense that he’s a really good dad, too.”
Beth swallows. She can’t believe she’d walked into this. What did she expect?
“Yeah, he is.”
“Have you met Marcus?” Charlotte asks curiously.
Beth nods, suddenly feeling that her throat is very dry.
“He’s cute,” Charlotte says. “In the photos, at least.”
“Oh, god, no. He’s so private. He says he has a rule about women meeting him—not until it’s serious. Which I respect—even if the way he goes about it feels a little over-the-top. He barely let me see his apartment, even when Marcus wasn’t there.”
“Yeah, it seems like as good as everything is going, we’re still a long way from all that.” Charlotte sighs. “I mean, don’t get me wrong—he’s great, and I can wait—it’s just. Well. We’re not you and Peter.”
Charlotte laughs lightly, but Beth’s brows knit. “Like me and—?”
Charlotte gestures vaguely to Beth’s chest lined with fading hickeys, and Beth instantly flushes bright red. “Oh.”
“I thought I was going to be the problem, wanting to wait until the third date. I mean, you’ve seen the guy. He exudes sex.”
Beth blinks, unable to process what, exactly, Charlotte is implying. “Are you saying… you haven’t…?”
Charlotte shakes her head just slightly. “Nope.”
Beth feels a knot unloosen somewhere deep inside her. She had just assumed that they would have—that Rio wasn’t the type to wait. Their own delay to fall into bed together had seemed to be driven entirely by their very specific circumstances.
Then again, maybe it had to do with the fact that Rio seemed to like to let the woman take the lead. Maybe waiting didn’t mean anything at all.
“We almost did. Last night.” Charlotte chews her lip anxiously. “But he stopped it at the last minute. He was really nice about it but… I don't know. I’m trying not to read too much into it.”
Beth nods, but she feels like she can barely breathe. This was after their fight. After he had stormed out of the diner. After she felt like everything was lost.
“Don’t—don’t read too much into it. It could be anything,” Beth manages to eke out, mind reeling.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a waitress appears at Beth’s shoulder. “I’ve got a large half cheese, half Margherita pizza?”
“That’s us,” Charlotte says, pushing back from her chair. “I’ll get the boys.”
Beth drops Danny off at Dean’s, deciding, after everything, that it would be easier than sitting around and waiting for Dean to make his way over to her side of town. It also means she gets to tuck in the rest of her kids, and she could use that normalcy.
Her brain’s going a mile a minute as she pulls back out of Dean’s apartment complex. She doesn’t even know how to begin to process what Charlotte’s told her. Despite everything, despite the cold way Rio had looked at her, despite the way he had seemed so done with her… she can’t help feeling, deep down, that Rio not sleeping with Charlotte must have something to do with her.
That meant that what she had felt when she kissed him on her kitchen table—maybe it hadn’t been just her. Maybe he felt it, too. Maybe—
Her phone rings loudly and jolts her back to the present.
“Hello?” she asks, punching the answer button with her brain still scrambled.
“Beth?” Annie’s breathless voice comes over the speakerphone.
“What’s wrong?” Beth asks, instantly concerned.
And then Annie says something she never could have expected. “Beth—I found Boomer. ”