The Other Kind of Coffee
The jewelry box snapped shut. Janet held aloft a dangly pair of emerald earrings her husband had bought for her before his deployment, checking to see if they’d match her dress. She hadn’t heard from him in weeks. It got lonely at home after a long day at the office. The utter quiet of the house late at night unnerved her. She tried listening to music, reading a book, or watching re-runs of daytime talk shows with the volume turned low in order to fall asleep. The bed felt like an island.
She uncorked a bottle of perfume and splashed a few drops on her wrists, which she rubbed together then dabbed at her neck and between her breasts. She slipped on a pair of black peep toe pumps and wrapped a cashmere shawl around her shoulders before stepping out into an autumn evening.
The drive to Michael Whitlock’s place took around fifteen minutes. He was outside in the front yard having a cigarette when she pulled around the cul-de-sac and parked. He walked down the driveway to meet her.
“Nice ride,” he said, extending a hand to help her out of the car.
“Thanks. Nice house.” Dramatic lighting on the limestone brick brought the house into relief against the darkening skies. Janet noticed Whitlock’s wife looking out the semi-oval shaped dining room window. The wind carried with it the smell of wet leaves. Somewhere, a dog barked.
“The mortgage has me reconsidering my life choices.”
“Oh, come on, Mike. It’s not so bad.” Janet’s laugh felt awkward and fragile, like an alabaster egg that had fallen but didn’t yet show any cracks. “Right?”
The events of the Halloween party were still fresh in her mind. She knew how much worse something could get.
“Oh, it’s fine. Even if I someday make it to Senior Accounts Manager I’ll still be paying for everything until the day I die. And even then…” He flashed a smile, erasing the surface tension behind his eyes. His voice seemed to drop an octave when he said, “Where are my manners? Come on inside! It’s getting chilly out. As you can see you’re the first to arrive.”
“Wonderful.” Janet adjusted her shawl and saw Whitlock holding out an elbow to escort her up the driveway. She paused, then nodded towards the silhouette in the window. “You sure she won’t mind?”
Whitlock waved Janet’s concern away. “Angela is not the jealous type.”
Her lips lemoned and she said, “That’s a first. I can’t wait to meet her.”
Angela was waiting for them behind the frosted glass door.
“Hi!” She held out her arms for a hug like she was on a rollercoaster. Janet stepped cautiously into her embrace. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
“Have you now?” Janet looked over at Whitlock, who shrugged. “I’m afraid I don’t know a thing about you.”
“Hence the invitation!” Angela’s voltage was set so high that Janet thought she might spontaneously combust. “Why don’t you join me in the kitchen? Michael, would you be a doll and grab a bottle of wine from downstairs?”
Whitlock looked at Angela who looked at Janet.
“White or red?”
The kitchen island contained enough crudités, dips, cheese spreads, and charcuterie to feed a battalion. Janet grabbed a piece of celery to test its crispness. When she saw that it didn’t droop like a drunk college boyfriend, she dunked it in the bowl of veggie dip and took a satisfying crunch of a bite.
“I hope you brought an appetite,” Angela said, attending to a steaming pot on the burner. “Michael told me you were tall but he never mentioned how skinny!”
“What’s that, dear?” Michael’s mellifluous voice preceded his presence in the room. He appeared a few seconds later double-fisting bottles of Anjou rouge.
“Oh, I was just telling Janet here she’s so thin she’ll need to eat for two.”
The doorbell rang before Janet could get off a rejoinder. Michael deposited the bottles on the island counter and went to answer the door. Angela pulled a knife out of the drawer and approached.
“You know,” she pressed the blade up against the neck of the bottle and began to twist. “Michael and I have been together since we were sixteen. High school sweethearts. Can you believe that?” She peeled off the ring of foil without once breaking eye contact with Janet. “And in all that time he has never cheated on me.”
Janet wished she could press pause on Angela’s little speech, or interrupt it with a trip to the bathroom. Chatter and footsteps meant the imminent arrival of company.
“Except now when we go to bed at night,” Angela craned closer, “I can smell some bitch’s perfume around his cock. So, tell me, Janet…is that bitch you?” The cork popped and Angela’s facial features shifted from a rictus of malice and suspicion to the glossy, fulsome mien of earlier as the other guests piled into the kitchen.
“Welcome, everyone! You’re just in time for a drink!”
Angela filled Janet’s glass first, who pirouetted away from the center of attention to the window looking out at an immaculately landscaped backyard. Janet sipped her wine and spied Whitlock in the reflection, wondering whether or not he realized he lived in a prison.
He came over with a tray of hors d’oeuvres while the other couples mingled.
“Hey.” Janet tilted her glass around to make the liquid swim. She raised her eyes to meet his.
“Would you care for an angel on horseback?” He had the posture of a butler but the shoulders of a quarterback.
“Is this your idea of flirting, Michael?” She could see Angela over his shoulder giving her the look. In response, she angled her elbows into caltrops.
Whitlock’s laugh was a one-note snicker, like a carefully released pressure valve. “Here, try one,” he lifted a bacon-wrapped morsel to her mouth.
She started chewing before she thought to ask what was inside. Something slippery and alien slid down to her tummy. “What the hell was that?”
Janet dabbed a tiny cocktail napkin against the corner of her mouth, then smiled with a hint of mischief. “Well, that wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever had in my mouth.”
After introductions and aperitifs, they all sat down to dinner. Janet was at the end of the table next to Roger, one of Angela’s colleagues at the hospital. The Whitlock’s neighbors, Jordan and Sam, were across from them laughing at their own jokes. Another couple alternated between talking about their children and dropping increasingly suggestive hints about being down for an orgy after they cracked open an eighth bottle of wine. The hosts, Janet noted, were naturally suited for this kind of thing. Angela was Martha Stewart on steroids while Michael, with his specialty in sales, could charm the gloves off an Eskimo.
Once they shifted over to the living room, things took on a livelier tone. Angela suggested playing Pictionary, but the others voted for Truth or Dare. To spice things up, Michael brought out a bottle of tequila he had picked up on a business trip to Mexico. It didn’t take long for them to get good and liquored up.
“Having a good time?” Roger leaned in close and put a hand on Janet’s thigh. She refused to squirm.
“Yes,” she admitted. “It’s good to get out of the house for once.”
“I can’t believe you’re married,” Roger whispered in her ear. “Are you a good wife?”
Janet slipped free from his encroaching grasp and excused herself to use the bathroom. Passing through the kitchen, she bumped into Michael, who was bent over the counter with his arms spread wide, watching fresh coffee drip into a pot.
The song in the living room had the others singing. Lightning flashed outside, illuminating late autumn rain.
“Yeah, you. You looked like you were trying to read a huge map.” Before Janet could say more, nausea hit her suddenly like a wave of desert heat. She didn’t feel very drunk but remembered the oyster. “Michael, I think I’m going to be sick.”
She wobbled with her next steps and found herself in moments later Michael’s arms, who led her the closest bathroom. Once inside, Janet dropped gracelessly to her knees and started heaving into the toilet. Michael took a towel from beneath the sink and placed it in front of her.
“I’m so sorry,” she said some minutes later while leaning against the toilet.
“Here.” Michael handed her a tissue.
“You’re a good friend.” Janet blotted the tissue against the mascara that streamed down her face. Then, she wiped her mouth. “Oh shit, some got on your slacks,” she said, crawling over to his standing figure.
“So this is where you two have been.” Angela stood in the hallway, her voice filled with vindication.
Michael whipped around so fast he lost his balance and fell into the shower
Janet continued sitting with her legs tucked beneath her on the floor. She glanced over at Michael’s unconscious body, then looked up and said, “It’s not what it looks like.”
“Don’t you dare tell me what it looks like, you silver-tongued hussy.” Angela’s chest heaved with growing agitation.
Slowly, Janet rose to her full height and the two stood face to face. “You know what, Angela? You’re a bright girl,” she winked. “Use your imagination.”
Without looking back, she brushed past Angela and started to laugh, quietly at first, while she secured the shawl around her head. With each step, her voice crescendoed to a cackle as she set foot out into the stormy night.