Darkness Drops Again
I throw open the door of the upscale Mexican restaurant, running at least ten minutes late. Handing Declan and Seamus off to our sitter turned out to be trickier than expected. The boys are always so clingy on Friday nights after a long week at daycare. I hate leaving them, but Patrick and I desperately need a night out. To say we’ve begun the sad slide from lovers to roommates would be kind. Once inside, I consult the large entrance windows to smooth down my frizzy mouse-brown hair, reapply my go-to matte lipstick, and dab the sweat off my brow. Feeling moderately more pulled together, I approach the adorable millennial hostess.
“Welcome to Mercadito. How can I help you?” the petite brunette named Anna, according to her badge, says with a toothy grin.
“I have a reservation for four people at seven o’clock. It’s under Shaw.”
Anna nods knowingly. “Oh, yes, I just received a call about this reservation. Someone named Patrick said he was running about thirty minutes late. He wanted reassurance we wouldn’t release the table. Now, normally, we release tables after fifteen minutes,” she says to me conspiratorially, “but he promised to leave a disproportionately large tip if I worked a bit of magic. So I did. Your reservation has been pushed to seven forty-five.”
I feebly return Anna’s smile and offer my thanks, all while willing myself not to be disappointed. So Patrick is running late for a dinner I’ve spent a month planning. So what? I won’t let this slight snafu ruin our night. I scan the trendy restaurant and my gaze lands on the sprawling bar running along the back wall of the adjoining room. A fruity drink should do the trick and raise my spirits. I belly up and order my favorite, a Paloma Diablo. As the first sip of grapefruit and habanero hits my taste buds, I reach into my purse to retrieve my cell.
Me: Apparently Patrick is running thirty minutes late. What’s your and Ethan’s excuse?
As usual, it only takes a few seconds for my bestie since college to return my text.
Zara: Oh, shoot. I wanted to give you and Patrick some alone time before crashing your dinner, so I invited Ethan for a drink near my office. He just arrived.
Me: Dammit! The whole point of inviting you two was to take the pressure off this dinner. I need my wing people to make this less awkward.
Zara: Girl, it’s just a drink with your husband. Calm down.
Irritated, I drop the phone back into my purse and return to nursing my drink. As I scan my surroundings, I’m reminded that Mercadito was supposedly a frequent haunt of none other than Kristin Cavallari when she was in the city during football season. The lighting throughout the restaurant is dim and the decor is heavy on dark wood and large Mexican-inspired paintings. The servers wear cheeky T-shirts that say things like “The Taco That Changed My Life” and “The Shrimp Tacos Made Me Weep.”
After a few more generous sips of my drink, my attention is drawn to the other patrons. The crowd is younger, probably late twenties or early thirties, and fashionably dressed. I immediately feel self-conscious in my maroon skinny jeans and figure-hugging black long-sleeve blouse. It was the cutest thing I could find in my closet that would: a) keep me warm on this surprisingly cold March night in Chicago, and b) minimize the potential for muffin top. Granted I’ve lost all of the pregnancy weight from Seamus, but I haven’t gotten back into working out like I used to before kids. My core could definitely use some toning, as could my rear end from sitting all day at the office. A repressed memory chooses this moment to resurface. It was the last time I tried to initiate intimacy with Patrick. He was lying on his back in bed when I’d finished washing my face in the bathroom. The covers were pulled down a bit revealing his bare, strong chest. I crawled under the covers and cozied up next to him, resting my head on my hand so I could lean down for an exploratory kiss. Returning the affectionate gesture, Patrick ran his hand under my tank top and along my waist. He then stopped and gave my small love handle a little squeeze before removing his hand and rolling to the other side. Even months later, my face blushes scarlet at the memory.
I’m saved from further contemplation, by the brush of a quick peck against my cheek. I’m so startled I actually spill the last few drops of my drink.
“Oh, sorry about that. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
While dabbing the bar with a drink napkin, I look up and see Patrick’s apologetic grin. I’m struck anew by Patrick’s good looks. Handsome and fit as when we met in grad school with nary a strand of gray in his brown hair. I’ve always felt I’d married up.
Looking around, Patrick queries, “I thought Zara and Ethan were joining us.”
I can tell he’s as disappointed by their absence as I am. I rush to diffuse the awkwardness. “Oh, you know those two. They’re always late.” After a beat, an idea pops into my head. “Want to place a friendly wager on how long they make us wait?”
Patrick grins and his dark brown eyes light up. “I’m always up for making things interesting, Maeve. A crisp Hamilton says they make us wait for at least another half hour.”
My mood immediately lifts. I can’t count how many wagers we’ve made over the last fifteen years. Everything from how long it will take our food to arrive to whether an inexperienced skier will bite it getting off the ski lift. “You’re on, sucker. I’ll take the under on that action.”
A waiter appears at Patrick’s side to show us to our table. We are seated at the middle of six tables pushed up against a long cushioned bench with barely enough space between ours and our neighbors’ tables to squeeze through to our seats. I’m reminded once again that I’m now too old and impatient for hip haunts. Once our drink and appetizer order is taken, Patrick and I fall into uncomfortable silence. I find myself becoming absorbed in the drama unfolding at the adjoining table. What started as sniping between two roommates over bills and chores is quickly escalating into an all-out argument.
“So…how were the boys?”
My head and attention snap back to Patrick. “Oh, you know. Fridays are tough. They’re tired and clingy. They were both in tears when I left, but I’m sure MacKenzie got it under control within minutes of my departure.” MacKenzie is an adorable twenty-year-old blond currently in her junior year at Loyola and yet to pick a major. While I’m sure that is a significant source of tension with her parents, I selfishly hope she never graduates. My boys adore her. Seamus insists on being picked up as soon as she gets her coat off so he can nuzzle into her ample cleavage and stay there until bedtime. I guess he’s bitter his mom has a bit more of an athletic build on top.
While raising his craft beer to his lips, Patrick can’t help but point out, “I told you a Friday night dinner was a bad idea.”
My blood pressure instantly spikes. “Do you seriously want to go through this again? It was the only night the four of us could agree on before May!”
Sitting his drink on the coaster, Patrick doubles down. “I still don’t understand why you insisted on rushing this. The Saturday in May sounded perfect. At least by then it would have been warm. I froze my ass off getting here. And I had to cut short a call with my boss.”
Unbe-freaking-lievable. I take a long sip of my second Paloma before sarcastically adding, “Well, excuse me for thinking maybe we should get out of the house and go on a date more than once a quarter.”
Patrick darkly scoffs, “I’m not really sure I’d call this a date.”
Just as I’m about to say something I’ll regret, I feel the hand of my best friend since freshman year at DePaul University rest on my shoulder. Sensing the tension, she sheepishly apologizes, “I’m sorry we’re so late. You two are probably hangry.”
I look up and flash an appreciative smile. Zara Patel always looks cute, but tonight she looks stunning. Clad in a short black faux leather skirt and oversized black and white sweater. Zara never wears much makeup, as she is blessed with flawless light brown skin from her gorgeous mom, a minor Bollywood actor. She draws attention to her delicate features by keeping her black hair in a cute pixie cut. “Where’s Ethan?” I inquire.
Just then Ethan Colopy strolls up to shake Patrick’s hand and give him a slap on the back. “Sorry, just needed to make a quick stop at the loo. Good to see you, man.” Although exercise-phobic, Ethan has a trim figure and sharp cheekbones. He’s also a bit of a snob. Hence the random British colloquialisms.
“You two are ridiculously late and I should be furious, but you just won me a crisp ten-dollar bill from this guy,” I say nodding in Patrick’s general direction, “so I’ll let you off the hook.”
Zara shakes her head. “You two aren’t still betting on every little thing, are you? I thought you’d grow up a bit after having kids.”
“Never!” I promise as I smile triumphantly. Patrick good-humoredly rolls his eyes at Ethan. It seems Patrick is following my lead and letting go of our earlier tiff for the sake of the evening.
After the waiter takes Zara and Ethan’s drink order, I give an appropriately short update on the boys. Early on in my pregnancy with Declan, I swore to Ethan and Zara I’d never turn into one of those moms who waxes on interminably about her offspring. “Seamus is a chubby, happy little guy and Declan and I are working on reading. He’ll start kindergarten in the fall.”
Zara gasps. “You’re going to have a kindergartener! That’s so crazy.”
“I know!” I agree. “Weren’t we stumbling along Fullerton Avenue trying to find our way back to dorms like a minute ago and now I’m touring elementary schools for my son.”
Ethan groans loudly. “Please, don’t be like all those other moms at our firm who act like choosing the right kindergarten is a life or death decision. Just pick a school and be done with it. The kid will be fine.”
Now, it’s my turn to roll my eyes. “Who are all these other moms at Mulvaney Stewart? There are like three of us. The rest got laid off.” Ethan and I are fellow twelfth-year associates at a large AmLaw100 law firm, a distinction given to the one hundred biggest law firms in America. To say women lawyers are underrepresented would be a major understatement.
“Well, speaking of knocked-up lawyers,” Ethan obtusely continues, “there will be one less roaming the halls for the next several months. Nicole was put on bed rest for the remainder of her pregnancy.”
“What!” I’m shocked. Nicole is an overachieving junior partner who just announced her pregnancy a few weeks ago. She can’t be more than fourteen or fifteen weeks along. I’ve never heard of anyone going into labor that early.
“You need to get out of your office occasionally, Maeve. You do know Nicole is pregnant, right?”
“Yes, Ethan,” I say emphatically as I reach across the table and lightly slap his arm, “but she is only just starting her second trimester.”
“Well, someone must have forgotten to tell the baby because Nicole went into labor on Thursday. The doctor was able to stop it, but she’s on bed rest until she delivers.”
I shake my head as the waiter appears and attempts to create enough space at the minuscule table to accommodate our order. “That’s so scary.”
“Yeah,” Ethan continues. “The crazy thing is she was in the office when the contractions started. That overbearing English client she has makes her re-review all of the discovery the associates mark for production before it goes out. There are literally hundreds of thousands of pages to turn over because it’s a big unfair trade practices case.” Ethan loads up a tortilla chip with mango guacamole and devours it in one bite before continuing. “Well, Nicole was at her desk around midnight clicking through documents when she started having contractions. She said it just felt like tightness in her stomach on and off. She knew she’d have to go into the ER and get it checked out, but she wanted to put in another hour before going.”
“That definitely sounds like Nicole,” I interrupt.
“Yeah, well by the time she got to the hospital, she was having regular contractions. They thought she was going to lose the baby. They were able to stop everything, but she is not to even look at her work email for the next twenty weeks.”
“There’s no way Nicole will be able to stay away from her client emails. But I hope she proves me wrong and takes it easy. This isn’t the type of thing to take lightly.”
“Anyway, let’s get the focus back on me,” Ethan characteristically remarks. You don’t have dozens of women, and a fair share of men, regularly comment on your dark hair and blue eyes without letting a bit of it go to your head. “Now my murder trial team is down a member. Maeve, you need to jump in and help us out. You’d be doing me a solid and it could be really good experience for you. Maybe even look good on your proposal for partnership.”
My stomach immediately clenches. “Out of the question.” I shoot Ethan a look of warning while attempting a subtle side glance. Patrick seems to be enjoying his salad oblivious to the abrupt change in the conversation’s tone. “You know I don’t do criminal work,” I snap. Ethan realizes he has stepped into sensitive territory and nods slightly while averting his eyes. Confident I made my point, I add, “Well then, as I said, it is out of the question. I am more than satisfied with my caseload of defending student loan companies against consumer protection violations.” Feeling my stomach begin to unclench, I take a large sip of my third Paloma.
“Alleged violations, counselor,” Ethan chides.
Having polished off his plate, Patrick rejoins the conversation. “Murder trial, eh? I love that stuff. Couldn’t get enough of the Serial podcast. Ethan, fill me in on all the gruesome details.”
Like a happy puppy who’s been thrown a bone, Ethan leaps at the suggestion. “Oh, it’s pretty sordid stuff actually. Our client has been rotting in prison for two years awaiting trial for the murder of her only daughter. This case has it all: drugs, sex, beauty pageants, and strangulation. The prosecution even sought the death penalty before it was abolished in Illinois.”
Patrick’s jaw drops. “Wow, that sounds intense.” After a pause, he adds, “Maeve, this should be right up your alley. Wasn’t your father a criminal lawyer?”
I feel my pulse quicken and my breathing become ragged. Fixing my gaze firmly on the table and striving for nonchalant, I respond, “Oh, he never tried a murder case. Didn’t have the stomach for the stuff.” Raising my gaze to Ethan, I say pointedly, “And neither do I.”
I lie down in bed immediately after paying MacKenzie. As I struggled to calculate the amount to Venmo, I realized those three Palomas went down a bit too easily. That inkling was confirmed as I staggered up the two flights of stairs in our Lincoln Park townhouse to reach our master suite. I will definitely have a headache in the morning. The days when Patrick and I could close a bar down and still get up and run five miles along the Lakefront Trail are long gone. I raise my head cautiously and see Patrick brushing his teeth in the bathroom across the hall. Just then his phone lights up on the bedside table. Uncharacteristically, I grab it and hide it under the covers. I’m shocked at my own behavior. I’ve never been the type to snoop. And yet, here I am ducking down to read his latest text. It is one line.
Macy: I want you. Send pics.
My throat clenches and it feels as if the whole room is shaking. I throw Patrick’s phone back on the side table, dart to the bathroom, and barely reach the toilet before my cheese enchiladas make a reappearance.
Patrick makes a startled noise before letting go with a little chuckle. “I knew that third Paloma was a bad idea.”
He kneels beside me and starts to pull back my hair, but I shake him off. I attempt to regain some composure while wiping my mouth with Cottonelle and flushing the toilet.
“I’m fine,” I snap and proceed to the sink to brush my teeth for the second time tonight.
Patrick looks a bit confused, before ultimately shaking his head and going to bed. I keep brushing until I hear snoring. Then I head downstairs to Declan’s room and curl up in a fetal position on his bottom bunk. It still feels as if the floor is shaking underneath me. Little tremors warning me that my whole world is about to collapse.