Karen and Paul haven’t seen the woman at the Italian restaurant before this night, though they go every Tuesday for the ten dollar specials along with other approaching-adult-community-aged New Jersey couples. The woman is smiling.
“Fancy meeting you here! And for the specials, nonetheless,” the woman says from outside the seating area — a patio next to the parking lot, semi-obscured by a gated fence. From the asphalt, she appears shorter than the posts that stick out the top.
“Oh, you know, can’t pass up a deal,” Paul answers, waving back. He has a knack for knowing people.
“We’re just finishing up,” Karen says, her eyes twitching between Paul and the six dollar wine.
“It’s been so long,” the woman says. “Just a minute, Julia’s calling about prom.”
“Ah,” says Karen. There are four tables on the patio outside and the customers there are sparse because of August’s increasing humidity. The woman isn’t one of them.
“No problem,” says Paul.
“Who is that?” Karen asks.
“Who’s Julia?” Paul asks.
They whisper across the table, continuing to eat their respective pastas. Paul pushes Karen’s foot with the end of his toes, which creep out of sandals she had bought him years earlier. The woman walks closer to the trees that fence in the restaurant, which is mostly secluded but close enough to the convenience store down the block.
“I think she was the hairdresser,” Paul says. “Maybe from one of Allison’s friends?”
“Well, yeah. But Julia?” asks Karen. She is helping her own daughter, Allison, prepare for prom.
“Sh,” Paul says. “She’ll hear.”
The woman waves back near the trees, a smile on her face. She furrows her brow and points hard to the phone in her other hand, up to her ear. Then she motions the “1” sign with her pointer finger.
Allison had a phase in elementary school, which hadn’t seemed so far from her high school graduation until now, where she was friends with five or six Julias. They could never remember how many.
Out of the six, maybe seven Julias, none were consistent. Allison befriended them the way all children do, best friends for one year, forgotten the next. Sure, they’d had mothers, fathers over for playdates. Most of them wore Giants jerseys on Sundays, like Paul’s brother did, or spoke with that thick transplanted Staten Island accent. There was only one girl Karen forbid Allison from playing with, who, in first grade, walked into their home without socks, her feet muddied from the outside.
But now, at the table, the woman watches while Karen and Paul play nervous footsie and take bites of their linguini.
“Do you think she’ll leave?” Karen asks.
“Well she’s coming back now,” Paul, who also has a knack for the obvious, says.
The woman approaches, phone in hand, and thrusts her arms in the air in an open motion. This reminds Karen of a Zumba class she tried once when she wanted to find a hobby that would stick.
“C’est la vie. These kids,” she says, eyeing a knowing glance toward Paul, who pulls his foot away from Karen’s, whose ankle is now cold.
“So what have you two been up to since we last spoke? What’s it been, nine, ten years?”
“Oh you know,” Karen says, pushing her foot closer toward Paul’s, digging her toe nails into his skin.
“Life,” Paul adds.
The woman twirls a finger in her hair, where there are bleached highlights. She could be a hairdresser.
“You’ve always been so modest,” the woman says, and adds, “I remember all those PTO meetings we carpooled to together, Karen.”
She stands between two hydrangea bushes behind the metal gate, one of the blue petals low enough to the ground for her to crush. She is close enough for Karen to smell, no, nearly taste, her breath, which has no hint of Italian food.
“We sure had some laughs,” Karen says, and kicks Paul from under the table, motioning her head to the left, toward the door.
“It’s a shame I had to work during those meetings,” Paul says. Though his job at their cable provider, UniCall, sometimes wraps up before 4:30, Paul often goes on long drives he tells Karen are a part of his work day. Once, he went as far as Ohio.
“Typical workaholic, am I right?” the woman says, elbowing one of the posts on the fence.
Karen cooks elaborate dinners on days Paul gets home late. Spice rubbed eggplants and a yogurt sauce, chicken parmesan — once, lobsters she boiled and never attempted again after they screamed, and Karen still thinks about it sometimes.
“Do you still attend the pool club?” the woman asks.
“Not in years,” Paul answers, leaning his elbows next to the pasta. He rubs one into a spot of marinara sauce. Karen watches as it stains the hairs on his arm. When Karen cooks and Paul drives, he buys Arby’s and devours the two Smokehouse Briskets before he even sips his soda. In the past, he’d arrived to cold lobster, chicken parmesan, spice rubbed eggplants, and foil wrapped them — creeping through the garage door after dark to stash them in his car.
“We have a pool now,” Karen says.
“Ah, straying from the modesty I see!” the woman says and laughs. “I’ll have to come over sometime. But I guess our girls aren’t friends nowadays.”
On Thursday nights when they crack open the wine — once Paul finally returns home at close to 8 p.m. — they regale one another with stories from Allison’s childhood. Sometimes, it concerns the number of Julias they hosted when Allison was a child. They discuss one trip to Cape May, where Allison cried because she didn’t want to ride the pony at the petting zoo, but Karen insisted, and then the resulting tear-filled photo Paul breaks out at family gatherings.
“And that vacation!” the woman yells, throwing her arms further into the air, her elbows above her head.
“Sorry, which?” Karen asks. The three of them, Karen, Paul and Allison, had traveled to all-inclusives over the years in Jamaica, Mexico, St. Lucia. They had taken cruises to seven islands, rented a villa in the Keys, parasailed over the Pacific. Paul didn’t prefer the ocean, but it made Karen feel clean.
“That summer in Mexico. Maya Riviera, I think it was,” the woman says.
Karen and Paul have never taken a vacation with friends. They’d gone with family when Paul’s Catholic mother paid for their housing in Aruba and Hawaii, but never with another couple, or a single woman.
“Beautiful place,” Paul, eyes focused on the oregano in the corner of Karen’s mouth, says.
“And you two,” the woman says, toning her voice down and leaning further into the fence. “Wanted to fuck me.”
“Excuse me?” Paul asks.
“I think we need to go,” Karen says, widening eyes toward a server nearby who manages to evade them.
“While the girls were out in the pool. Don’t be coy. You invited me to your room,” the woman says.
“You’re definitely mistaken,” Paul says and moves back his elbows, ending in the casualty of a fork that was too close to the edge. Karen reaches for it and bends for longer than necessary.
“I’ve been waiting to run into you both,” the woman says with both elbows wedged between the gate’s prongs, her knees pushing the hydrangea closer to the couple. “Paul, you just whipped it out.”
Karen and Paul sit, silent, at their table. The linguine is cold, the breadsticks hard, but wet from the humid air.
“Karen, usually so quiet, kissed my neck! Ha!”
She shimmies closer. She can climb the fence if she wants.
“Could we have the check?” Karen yells. Paul’s toes make contact with her ankle again.
They almost had a threesome, once, with a neighborhood friend who had since moved away. Paul asked Karen if they could have one every year on his birthday since they began dating. They were drunk and it ended in tears once Karen saw the other woman kiss Paul on the stomach, which she always swore was her favorite part of him. They never discussed this.
“Well, message taken,” the woman says. She moves further away this time. She relieves the hydrangeas and inches back. The fence’s bars, when looked at through squinted eyes, remove diagonal pieces of her body.
She backs away without looking toward cars in the parking lot, without breaking eye contact with Paul and Karen. They look away. There, she fades into the woods, near where they think her car is parked, and then she is gone.
The waiter brings the check and Paul and Karen sit silently. Paul’s toes no longer rub against Karen’s ankles, and she asks if it’s possible Julia is even in Allison’s grade. They do not say the woman is ridiculous. They do not know her name.