There’s this woman, Ari, whom I know from my early motherhood years and with whom for a while I was locked into some weird Groundhog’s-Day repetitive loop. I ran into her at the grocery store about a year and a half ago after not seeing her for a decade. Then I ran into her at the grocery store a second time and a third time in the year or so that followed. Each time was the same: she managed to spot me no matter how oblivious I pretended to be, rummaging endlessly in my purse or inspecting avocadoes with the scrutiny of a jeweler. She chatted me up, talking about our days in mom-and-baby group so many years ago. Eventually, she said, “Can I make a confession?” Then in a whisper—and that whisper part really got me because obviously I’m not the only person she was confessing this to, right?—she said, “Sometimes I want a drink so bad I just can’t wait until I get home.” Having already made her way through the alcohol section, she motioned to the single-serving cans of sparkling wine in her cart and said, “Hence these gals.” Then she blushed and said, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I just said that. You know I’m kidding, right?” She fake-laughed, and I fake-laughed. Then she said, “We should really get together for dinner some time,” and I said, “Yes, that’d be great,” and she said, “It really would.” She confirmed my phone number, and I confirmed hers. Then we went our separate ways, and neither of us called.
The first time Ari confessed to me, I casually told my husband, Hartley, about it after brushing my teeth before bed. “Such a weird thing to confess to someone you hardly know,” I said, and he said, “Maybe she feels you do know each other. You all used to get together every Saturday. Sometimes multiple times a week, right? And we both know you’re weird about intimacy. You push people away.”
Hartley maintains that dating me, at least early on, was like dating a cactus: Every time he tried to get close, he got maimed. “Then why’d you bother?” I asked him once, expecting him to say I was hot or interesting, but what he said was, “I guess I’m a masochist.”
The second time Ari confessed to me, I talked with Hartley and our twelve-year-old son, Gabriel, about it at dinner that night. I said, “Does she have dementia?” I said, “Is there something about me that invites such a confession?” I said, “Do I look like an alcoholic?”
Gabriel said, “Well, you do like to drink, Mom.”
Hartley said, “You’re always telling me that I already told you this, I already told you that.”
I said, “Because you’re always repeating yourself.”
He said, “Well, maybe that’s just what people do. I mean here you are telling me again about what Ari said to you at the grocery store. I’ve certainly heard this before.”
“You’re making me want to strangle you,” I said.
“Own your desires,” Hartley said.
Gabriel said, “God, can you two stop fighting for once?”
I said, “We’re not fighting,” and Hartley eyed my wine glass, which was almost empty already, and which I was willing myself not to refill.
The third time Ari confessed to me, I said nothing to my family, but that night I dreamt that I lived in Ari’s dishwasher. She opened up the dishwasher and said, “Here you go, Jill. Got something for you,” and she piled in egg-crusted dishes and greasy forks and gritty, bloody-looking wine glasses. When she reached in to reclaim these things after they were clean, she said, “Good work, Jill. You did it again.”
The next day I went into the baby consignment shop run by another woman from our mom-and-baby group all those years ago, Erin. I’d heard she’d opened the shop when her son started kindergarten, but I’d never visited the shop before. I hadn’t really stayed in close touch with anyone from mom-and-baby group.
I pretended to shop for an imaginary sister-in-law, but eventually I said all casual-like that I’d run into Ari recently. Erin perked up. “Ari comes in here a lot. She picks up toys for the daycare.”
“Daycare?” I said. This was news to me. Not once had Ari mentioned a daycare when she was showing me her “gals.”
I told Erin then what Ari had confessed to me three times now and how each time she said she was kidding, and I said, “Weird, right? Has she ever said something like that to you?”
Erin gave me this squinty look, then said simply, “No.”
That look Erin gave me, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Had she judged me for betraying Ari by sharing her confession? That could explain Erin’s curtness with me, my feeling that she didn’t trust me, but the explanation didn’t entirely satisfy me. I felt like there was something else. I remembered how in mom-and-baby group, Erin’s baby, Samuel, always wore homemade outfits, each onesie or shirt with an animal embroidered onto the chest like a superhero emblem. I asked her one time how she had the energy to make those clothes, and she said simply, “It’s not that hard,” but the way she said it, I realized my question had offended her. That was another thing Hartley said about me sometimes—that my default tone was judgmental.
The fourth time I ran into Ari at the grocery store, I didn’t pretend to study fruit. I waved hello. When she brought up our baby days, I asked about Erin. “Do you ever see Erin?”
“Here and there,” Ari said, but her eyes seemed to narrow slightly like she was clamping down, bracing herself for something.
I eyed the gals in her cart. They were slender compared to the meaty cans of sparkling water beside them. Prettier, too, in pink and gold and magenta. The condensation told me Ari had taken them from the refrigerated section. They were ready to pop open and drink.
When Ari said she’d better be going, I prattled on nervously, trying to figure out the magic words to invite Ari’s confession. But Ari revealed nothing to me. She didn’t even suggest we get together for dinner.
Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award, and Shapeshifting (forthcoming from Stillhouse Press, 2021). Her fiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, The Southeast Review, Wigleaf, and other venues. Her work has been selected forBest Microfictions 2020 and the Wigleaf Top 50 2019, among other honors. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review. www.michellenross.com