• Broadkill Review

"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."