top of page

"En Garde" by Mary Claire King

Updated: Oct 2, 2021




Walking through Melinda’s apartment, Alice decided the bathroom would be the best place to hold a private conversation. The apartment occupied the top floor of an old French building and had once been a succession of servants’ quarters. Melinda’s soon-to-be ex-husband, Bertrand, had spent two years converting it into an arty open space with low ceilings and mansard cubby-holes for bedrooms.


"Hold on," Alice whispered to her husband on the phone as she walked down the hall.


Her youngest son, Jonathan, jumped out from one of the kid’s rooms, thrusting a toy sword at her.


En garde,” he yelled.


The shiny hood of his knight costume fell against his face as he lunged, covering the gnarled burn scar on his cheek. He appeared whole for a moment. Alice reflected that this was how he would be if she had been more attentive that night three years ago.


She covered the phone with her hand and whispered, “You look great.”


Across the hall, her older son emerged from the girls’ room wearing a Jedi outfit and brandishing a lightsaber.


"It's too early to get dressed up," Alice said, still covering the phone. "We're leaving for the picnic soon."


Thomas rolled his eyes and stomped back into the room where the kids were trying on costumes for the Halloween party. Jonathan dutifully followed his big brother.


Alice closed the bathroom door and sat on the floor, scooting near the sink, away from the thick mass of sour-smelling bathrobes that hung from a row of knobs. The shelves beneath the sink were coated in a white sheen of dust and soap scum, all but one crammed with perfumes, lotions, and bronzers. The empty shelf was where Bertrand used to keep his things.

"Sorry about that," Alice said into the phone. "What were you saying?"


"I don't understand why you need to spend all day Saturday with Melinda." Alice usually didn’t notice Xavier’s French accent, but it came out when he was annoyed.


"She's my best friend. She still needs someone to keep her company on weekends; they're difficult."

"If you say so," Xavier grumbled.

Alice stretched her foot towards the ladder radiator on the far wall. She pushed up a towel hanging there, and it held its shape as she lifted it, like a sculpture.

"Besides, she asked me to help set up the party tonight," Alice said. "You'll be there, right?"

"Maybe."


The phone made a click. Alice stared at the mismatched, petrified towels until she realized Xavier had hung up. She looked down at the phone, expecting an explanation from it. She could call him back and insist they talk it out. Years ago, she would have, but they had been married long enough for her to dismiss such drama. Hanging up was Xavier's way of lodging a complaint. Not without reason. Alice had neglected him lately. Yet she was determined not to become one of those women Melinda complained about—the paranoid, married ones who distanced themselves from newly-divorced friends. Besides, Xavier spent Saturday afternoons at the gym. He would get over it before the costume party. She tucked the phone into her pocket and returned to the kitchen.


"Is Xavier coming for lunch?" Melinda asked as she placed sandwiches in the cooler.

"No. He's catching up on some work," Alice said.


"You didn't tell him we were going on a picnic."


Melinda asserted this in the mildly proprietary tone she had started using whenever they talked about Xavier. While the divorce had unwittingly removed Bertrand's friendship from Alice, it had somehow conferred Xavier's friendship on Melinda. He was no longer merely Alice’s husband; Melinda now considered him an ally on her side of the divorce.


Alice walked to the pantry to get water for the kids and a bottle of wine.


"Is everything okay with you two?" Melinda asked.


"Of course," Alice said, setting down the bottles with a thud. "He's just busy."


Melinda arched her eyebrows in a dubious expression. They seemed unusually thin. Alice wondered if it was the effect of waxing or if Melinda had botoxed her forehead.


"He works too much; takes it for granted that you'll always watch the kids." Melinda shook her head as she spoke, her hair shimmying across her shoulders. It too seemed different.


"I don't mind taking care of the kids," Alice said. "That's why I stopped working."


As Melinda bent over to put the drinks in the cooler, Alice examined her roots. Her hair was definitely several shades lighter, and her skin looked awfully dark for the end of October.


"Have you been sunbathing?" Alice asked.


"I'm just lucky,” Melinda said with a flash of white teeth. “My tan lasts a long time."

*

Melinda drove as they headed out of the city. She still had a large, family car with three rows of seats, only now she blasted pop music in it like a teenager.


"This is way cooler than that radio station you listen to, Mom," Thomas called out from the very back.


Melinda shouted the words to the song. She flipped her blond hair and shook her shoulders toward the steering wheel as if it were a dance partner. Her two daughters joined in the singing.


"Don't you love this song?" Melinda yelled. It was a popular anthem about bad boyfriends.


Alice turned to look at the five kids. Thomas bounced so hard that Jonathan, on the seat beside him, bobbed up and down like an arcade target. They had reached the edge of the forest. Sunlight reflected the yellow and orange leaves against the car window, making Jonathan's unscarred cheek glow like honey.


Melinda's children were seated directly behind the moms. Margot, the oldest, pulled out a tube of lip gloss and slid it across her puckered mouth while squirming to the music. She glanced back at Thomas, hoping he would notice her. They were the same age and used to be pals, but at 11, they had grown too old for friendship.

Little Eugenie sat beside her sister, waving her arms and grinding her midriff to the beat of the music like an exotic dancer. On the other side, their brother, Ian, was bent down to the floorboard, trying to keep his video game in shadow.


"That'd make a good song about Bertrand," Melinda snorted when it was finished.


Melinda was the one who had an affair. It started at one of her Mardi Gras parties. Alice had seen the potential for trouble the moment Melinda introduced Stephane, a colleague from work. He was young and handsome in a way that reminded Alice of the popular boys in high school. He was obviously charmed by Melinda, who was dressed as Puss 'n Boots with a leopard-print leotard, black thigh boots, cat ears, and a long tail. The tail tangled between her legs constantly, repeatedly forcing Melinda to arch her back, bend down, and slide it out—a movement that Stephane studied with the focused attention of a predatory animal.


Her husband, Bertrand, refused to dress up that year. He had been moody and depressed since being passed over for promotion a few months earlier. He spent most of the evening standing in the corner with two other professors arguing about approaching Chinese world domination. He was oblivious to Melinda's tail coiling around Stephane's legs on the dance floor.


Melinda parked the car. The kids tumbled out and ran around like anxious bees searching for a displaced hive. Melinda and Alice spread a sheet in a clearing. The kids marched across it in sock feet until the leaves and grass underneath were flattened. The day was sunny but cool, and they kept their coats and scarves on while they ate. They could hear a faint rushing through the trees. At first, Alice wondered if it was a river, imagining something beautiful to discover. Only later did she realize it was the noise of a distant highway.

She and Melinda shared a salad. The kids ate chips and ham sandwiches with butter instead of mayonnaise because that was how the French made them, and neither Melinda nor Alice felt the need to fight the dominant culture on every single front. It was the trait that had first drawn Alice to Melinda.


They met at a Fourth of July picnic organized in a public park by a contingent of perfect American moms—the kind of women who could reproduce the American suburbs in the middle of a French city, complete with frosted and sprinkled cupcakes, tailgating chairs, and paper plates decorated with stars and stripes. Hardly any of them spoke to Alice. They stayed in tight-knit groups, shouting and cackling so loudly that tourists stopped and stared. Their French husbands stood at a distance. Thomas was only a toddler, but Alice was already doing things the wrong way. The only other child not wearing a coordinated red, white, and blue outfit belonged to Melinda.


"Put on your shoes and go play. All of you," Melinda said with a swoop of her hand. The kids dove into the middle of the sheet, elbowing to grab the last potato chips. A rain of crumbs fell from their laps as they ran off. Melinda poured more wine and sat back on her elbow.


"Xavier is coming to the party tonight, right?" she asked.


"Sure." Alice took a sip and bent to watch Jonathan struggling to climb up to the first branch of a tree.


"I told him he should come dressed as Zorro," Melinda said. "He looks good in a mask. What's your disguise going to be?"


"A witch," Alice answered without removing her eyes from Thomas. She willed him to reach down and help his little brother. "I'm borrowing one of the kids' Harry Potter wands."


Thomas finally grabbed Jonathan’s hand and helped him.

"And you?"


"Puss n' Boots," Melinda said.


Jonathan got his leg over the first branch. Thomas moved up the tree again.


"Will Stephane be there?" Alice asked.


"No, he told me was going back to his ex, so I told him not to come." Melinda waited until Alice was looking at her again before continuing in a whisper. "But two nights ago, he called me at midnight. He was lonely."


"Did you invite him over?"


"Yes." Melinda picked at the grass. "And, yes, we had sex. And no, he hasn't called since."


Alice twisted her mouth.


"I don't want to hear it," Melinda said. "Bertrand is causing me too much stress. I needed a break."


"What'd he do now?" Alice asked.


Melinda threw her head back and moaned. "The usual. He won't negotiate. His lawyer's unreasonable. Then he shows up with a bouquet of flowers sniveling about how he still loves me." She pretended to gag. "He's pathetic. I'm like,' If you love me, then give me your half of the apartment.'"

Although Melinda had claimed custody of Alice’s friendship in the divorce, Alice always felt obliged to defend Bertrand. Over the years, they had enjoyed plenty of his conversations in the corner. When the two families went hiking, she and Bertrand used to walk in front, talking about books or politics. He even came to visit on his own when Jonathan was in the burn unit at the hospital.


"I don't think Bertrand can buy another place without getting his equity," Alice said.


"I can't afford to buy him out!"


"You could sell."


"No way. I love that apartment.” Melinda took a sip of wine. “I told him that the only way he's getting me out is if he makes some horrific scene that will scar his children for life."


"So what are you going to do?"


"Find a solution," Melinda said, looking up at the sky.


Alice looked at the kids. Ian sat at the base of an oak tree playing his video game. Thomas climbed the tree with Margot close behind. Jonathan was still stuck on the first branch, fencing the air with a long stick, while Eugenie picked at something in the dirt. Alice looked from Melinda to Eugenie and back again.

"Aren't the kids cute?" she asked.


Melinda grunted and poured more wine. Alice waited a moment, hoping her friend would notice the little girl.


She finally called out in a casual tone, "What you got there, Eugenie?"


"Mushrooms!"


Alice glanced at Melinda, but her friend was bent over the telephone.


"Careful," Alice cautioned. "Some mushrooms are deadly, and you might not know which ones until it's too late!"


Eugenie frowned at the mashed brown flesh in her hand. "Is this the bad kind?"


"No message from Stephane," Melinda said.


"Probably not,” Alice said to the little girl, “but don't pick any more." She turned to Melinda, "Should we clean her hands?"


Melinda gave a dismissive wave. "I don't understand why Stephane freaked out. He knows I didn't leave Bertrand for him. One minute we're having sex every day at lunch and chatting on the internet all night, and the next he's doing me a favor if he comes over for some action once a fortnight."


"And I thought single people had more sex than old married couples," Alice said.


They laughed. They used to talk about how great single life must be over morning coffee, after dropping the kids off at school. Not always, of course. But when Xavier allowed his mother to deliver yet another diatribe against Americans without interrupting her or Bertrand spent the weekend whining about the mess in the apartment without helping to clean up, Alice and Melinda would console themselves with fantasies of how great their lives would be if they were single. That was before Melinda had the affair.

*

Everyone had chapped cheeks by the time they headed back to the city. The kids fell asleep in the car. At Melinda's, Alice set them up with bowls of popcorn and a board game in Ian's room. Then she joined Melinda in the living room. It was littered with piles of old children's clothes and Christmas decorations that used to be kept in a storage cabinet before Bertrand had taken it to his parents' house.


"Should we straighten up for the party?" Alice asked.


"No," Melinda mumbled without looking up from her portable computer. "Bertrand didn't leave me enough furniture to put away all this stuff." In fact, the storage cabinet was the only furniture Bertrand had taken so far.

"Come read this," Melinda said.


Much of Melinda and Stephane's affair had taken the form of salacious texts that Melinda liked to save and show off. They were written in a raw language, and Stephane's poor English resulted in vulgar oddities that popped up in Alice's mind like flashcards each time she saw him—hard rooster, wet kitten. Alice shuddered. "Let me see your new dating profile instead."


Melinda brought it up on the computer and passed it to Alice, who sat near the window to read.


"You said you're 35?" Alice asked.


"Men have unrealistic demands. It's the only way to compensate. Besides, I look much younger than any 40-year-old woman I know."

Alice glanced at her own reflection in the darkening window. She and Melinda were the same age, and to Alice, they looked it.


"Communications Director? Is that your job title?" she asked. Alice knew that Melinda did little more than translate press releases.


"It ought to be," Melinda said.


Before Jonathan's accident, Alice was a finance manager with ten people under her, and that was with a large multinational, not in a tiny local office. It didn’t seem fair that Melinda could construct such an inflated professional identity when Alice had been stripped of hers as soon as she went home to raise the kids.


"It doesn't matter," Melinda said. "There's no one worth dating on that site anyway." She said this as if she had no idea that 40-year-old women with three young children were considered almost undatable themselves.


"He seems nice," Alice said, pointing at a listing.


Melinda came over to look.


"Forty-five and never married? Must be something wrong with him." She bounced to the stereo. "I'd rather get a man the old-fashioned way."


Melinda flicked on the string of blinking Christmas lights that still hung on the wall and rummaged through a stack of CDs. Soon the thump of pop music rumbled through the speakers.


"I want to dance tonight. You'll have to share Xavier."

She swirled her hips and watched herself in the reflection of the windows. Melinda had always been giddy and energetic—a thrower of parties, the organizer of group vacations in the mountains, the mom who was willing to make twenty-five Christmas-package costumes for the scout troop parade. Alice wondered when, exactly, Melinda had decided to pour all that zeal into her sex life.


Alice stood. "We can probably move some of this stuff to a corner." She grabbed a pile of clothes and carried it to the base of Bertrand's bookshelves while Melinda danced with her eyes closed, rubbing her hands up the sides of her body. Alice retrieved another stack of clothes, then a box of Christmas bulbs.


Melinda finally twirled to a stop and opened her eyes. "Don't worry about the rest. No one's going to care."


"Do you want to put up any Halloween decorations?"


"We'll let the kids do that."


Melinda skipped to the kitchen and poured herself another glass of wine. "Want some?"


Alice nodded. Outside, the sky had grown dark and cold. She could hear movement in Ian's room. The game must be over.

"What time does the party start?" Alice asked.


Melinda slid a glass across the counter to Alice and turned towards the sink to finish her own.

"Whenever Xavier gets here. He's the only one coming."


Melinda set the glass down in the sink and moved towards the bathroom with the quick prance of a fashion model on a catwalk.


"I'm going to take a bath," she called without looking back. "You can feed the kids something from the freezer if they want dinner before I'm out."


Alice took a long drink and held the wine in her mouth. It swirled around her teeth and seemed to soak into her tongue like a numbing poison. She stared down the hall where her friend no longer was. The rush of water in the bathroom reminded her of the sound of the highway in the forest.


"Mama!" Jonathan shrieked as he came running around the corner from the bedrooms. "Ian took my knight suit! He won't let me have it!"


He threw himself into his mother's legs and hugged them with his little arms. Alice swallowed the wine she had been holding in her mouth.


"I can't be anybody now!" Jonathan sobbed.


The night of his accident, Alice was hosting a party. It started with cocktails in the living room, and the conversation grew so lively that her friends barely heard her invitation to go to the dining room. She had waited for them. When she heard Jonathan moving around the apartment, she had thought of the locks on the cabinets and the plastic protectors to keep his tiny fingers from getting pinched in doors. Someone was telling a joke. It would have been rude to walk away. Alice had not considered the scalding soup waiting on the dining table or how low the tablecloth had hung.


The distant murmur of the water stopped. Melinda slipped into the bath as quietly as a crocodile entering a river. Jonathan gazed up at Alice. His tears pooled in the crevasses of the scar.


"Tell your brother we're leaving," Alice said.


"We're not going to dress up?" Jonathan asked, suddenly confused.


Alice knelt down in front of her boy and gently passed her hand over his face to dry his tears—first the perfect cheek, then the one she would never again fail to protect.

"We can dress up at home. We don't always have to share."



Mary Claire King is a native of Charleston, South Carolina who resides permanently in Paris, France. Following a career in international marketing, she now works as a writer, teacher, editor, and translator. She holds a degree in English literature and creative writing from Agnes Scott College.

Recent Posts

See All

"Hangin' On" by Blake Kilgore

Tuesday night turned into Wednesday morning, and we were nowhere near home. Me and the boys were always on that pendulum, swinging from dangerous and thinking to drunk and lying in a ditch, grimy and

"Almost to the Point" by Jon Fain

After their early dinner their last night in Provincetown, they walked to the beach. Light reflected off the water, sprinkled the waves, and glimmered to the other side, past a boat, lighted also, mov

"On the Ellen Show" by Kathryn Lord

This trip Myrna Sweeney was in first-class. Free drinks though it was still too early for a beer. More legroom so her knees wouldn’t be bruised like they were after the trip to New York last week, her

Comentários


bottom of page