Baklava at Midnight
By Melinda Williams
It was midnight. Or almost midnight. It was late enough for Holly to feel too tired for sleep. Her mouth had never been so dry and her eyes had never been so red. But none of that compared to her emotional state, for she had never felt so guilty before in her life. She’d never once been so reckless as she had been just hours before. The way her chest was flushed, for how long, she didn’t know, was a new sensation.
…try to get over it…
When Holly stepped into the restaurant the lights welcomed her with malice. It’s like they already know, she thought. She wanted to be amused but couldn’t find that emotion buried deep within the burden that was winning.
The peculiar restaurant, Cesar’s Mexican and Greek, served enchiladas with gyros, sopapillas with spanakopita, and always recommended a dessert of baklava. Holly had driven past it almost her entire life and had never stopped inside until that night.
“Alo! What’s it gonna be?” A big Mexican man asked Holly. He was tall and his neck, she was sure, was larger than her thigh. Though his brown eyes with long lashes looked jolly. His name tag said “Stephen.”
“Just baklava,” Holly said. She hadn’t eaten all day.
“Jus’ dessert! Okay, girl. One baklava it is.”
Baklava, being cheap, sweet, a little greasy, yet always wanted, almost made her think of herself at that moment. Almost.
She looked up at the booths lining the walls and the tables in the middle of the room. Only three other people were there. Was this a place people of the night came? People who had made mistakes? Perhaps someone else in there had done something that compared to what she’d done not twenty-four hours prior to this moment. One set of eyes met hers and Holly couldn’t hold the gaze. She lowered her eyes, already ashamed, even though there was no way the young woman could know her secret.
When Holly paid she noticed the diamond ring on her left hand. In one swift movement, which she’d never made before, it was off and inside her wallet. She wished she had taken it off earlier. Why hadn’t she thought to do it?
…try to get over it…
Holly grimaced and couldn’t believe she’d had it on during. During her lie. During her laps of judgment. During her elated bliss. Holly knew Stephen might notice the grimace and was thankful when he didn’t say a word. Some girls, he most likely knew and accepted, just needed dessert in the middle of the night and to have no questions asked. Holly’s thoughts were so cold and bitter they made her shiver. She couldn’t keep the flash backs, from what felt like moments ago, at bay and had a bad feeling that they would haunt her forever. She wrapped her trim leather coat tighter around her and let her hair fall forward. She hated to touch her face, but put both hands on her cheeks and let them remain there, until Stephen was ready with the change.
“Here ya go,” he said. “We’ll bring it right out.”
“Thanks,” she said. Stephen barely heard her.
Holly took a deep breath and a determined step forward toward the booth she was going to sit in. It looked like a booth no one would choose. It was the only one without an old and worn picture hanging on the wall beside it; the only seat in the entire place with more cracks in the leather than smooth surface. When she sat down, her heart was racing. It had been racing since approximately 12:32 the night before, but she wouldn’t admit to herself that she knew the exact time.
The first vision (not the first one she’d had that day, but the first since she’d entered the restaurant), was one she could still feel as well as see. A hand on her stomach. A hand inching its way down.. A tough hand, calloused and cracked. A foreign hand, though she had touched it before.
Holly closed her eyes and breathed in deep again. She wasn’t sure if she would go home. She still needed to shower, but the busy day she’d just suffered through hadn’t allowed for one. Her hands were cold. All she wanted was to stand underneath scalding hot water for an hour. But that meant going home, which didn’t strike her as a great thing to do. With her freezing hands, eyes still closed, Holly reached up and tied her hair back. It felt good to get it off of her neck. There was a knot of hair at the base of her neck, which she ignored, and included in what she swept up to tie.
“Here you go!” A different man, a younger one, set down a small white plate, with a flaky piece of baklava sitting on it, in front of her.
“Thanks,” she said after a swallow.
“That girl is quiet,” Holly heard the young man say to Stephen when he stepped back behind the counter. Stephen continued wiping down the counter and nodded.
“Ya, I seen that quiet kind of girl here before. They always seem to go for the cheap desserts,” Stephen said in a gentle way. Holly stole a glance and saw Stephen fold his towel and shake his head as he pushed open a door and walked into the back of the restaurant.
…try to get over it…
Holly stared down at her plate. The food looked detestable. She usually loved anything sweet, especially with honey. It was a small piece. Another norm would have been to eat the entire piece of baklava up in three or four bites. Instead, Holly’s stomach churned and clenched and the flush on her chest grew worse. She bit down on her lips with her teeth, hiding them for a moment. Her lips were cold, but had been so warm. That moment had been the best. Or worst? She couldn’t decide.
His lips had felt plumper than she’d ever noticed them to be. His head had been smaller than she had imagined it to be, when cradling it in her hand, against her own chest. Her lips, also warm, were enveloped by his, quietly, and not forcefully. Most kisses she had experienced had a sort of intensity with too much tongue involved. Both sets of lips usually moved quite a bit. She blew out from her mouth, trying very hard to rid herself of the memory of those lips that hardly moved at all. They pressed against hers… didn’t open or close… as if just touching was enough…
The bell on the door jingled and Holly welcomed the invitation for distraction. She realized that along with the plate, the young waiter had also given her a glass of water. Her mouth needed the water desperately. She should have been drinking water all day long. She could have gotten rid of her headache already, but no, she had been too busy at work.
Holly’s boss, Elenore, had noticed right away. Usually, Holly walked in with a smile and a story of the night before.
“How’s Matt?” Elenore had asked from her desk, peering over her glasses to Holly, whose hair was disheveled for maybe the first time in her adult life. It struck Elenore as the right thing to ask. Perhaps Holly would have a bad story, which would be a first. Holly didn’t remove her sunglasses as she answered, “Fine,” and sat down, not facing anyone.
“You were supposed to go look at dresses with your mom today, right?” It was Elenore’s bad attempt at conversation, and she couldn’t have been aware that she had asked one of the worst possible questions. Holly had already canceled those particular plans.
As Holly navigated her way through these questions for seven hours she had neglected to go to the water cooler and drink. She berated herself as she sat and stared at the cup of ice water now sitting in front of her. She didn’t deserve the relief that the water would allow. Holly decided she would wallow in her own pity, which consisted of a very dry mouth and the forever headache, a little longer.
She didn’t have to close her eyes for the memories to return.
She had lifted her shirt so that her stomach touched his. She remembered that. His hand had touched her back softly, with just enough pressure to hold her close but not stifle her.
How, how did she remember so much? Wine and drugs should be an excuse not to remember… an excuse to wave it off as a drunken mistake. Yet, Holly knew, she remembered every detail. She remembered wanting the moment to happen and fully allowing it to. There was no hazy moment of confusion. What the hell had she been thinking? His hand feels nice, caressing my own… his hair feels soft between my fingers… his breath smells nothing like Matt’s…
Holly shook her head. That’s what she had been thinking, but she shouldn’t be allowing herself to think of those things now. After all, she didn’t even like him, in that way. She didn’t. Matt liked him more than she did.
Speaking of Matt, Holly felt her phone vibrate, again, in her purse, which was leaning against her leg on the booth. He was probably worried sick, this she knew. She would be totally pissed off if Matt had ignored her phone calls and texts for an entire day. Did she even want a hot, seemingly cleansing shower? If it came along with facing the man she lied to and ignored all day long? Suddenly Holly’s greasy hair bugged her a little bit less. Maybe she could simply sit here with her untouched baklava for the rest of her life. She could become a fixture at the restaurant. Stephen could place an ad. Come and see the girl who cheated on her fiancé! See what that looks like! You’d be surprised how pretty she is!
You’d be surprised how okay he is. Holly shook her head and then regretted the motion as the blood seemed to shift entirely from one side to another in a painful way.
The thing that Holly regretted even more than what they’d done the night before, was her attempt at discussing it with him when she got off of work. She had to ask him to meet her. She had to instigate the conversation, the one where they actually spoke of what had happened. He never would have. Holly hated that.
They’d met for coffee. Screw you, she thought, when she saw his fresh clothes and hair that was still damp from a shower. She resented his clean body. Hers still had him all over it. Just fingerprints. But still.
“So?” She’d said.
“So?” He said. She could have sworn that he smirked. But no, his eyes did look sad. He had on his own ring. He had committed the worse offense. He’d already said his vows. Many, many years before.
“So… are you a mess?”
His smirk disappeared, as if this was a big and very serious surprise she was throwing at him. His eyes shifted toward concern and his jaw tightened.
His eyes narrowed in on Holly’s. “Are you?”
She wanted to shout and scream and punch him in the nose. Of course I am, you moron! Of course I am! How could I not be? How?!
Holly had taken a deep breath, a sip of her coffee, and said softly and collectedly, “I am a big fucking mess.”
There was a long pause and both he and Holly looked down at their coffee cups. When he spoke, the words inched out, leaching painfully to Holly’s eardrums.
“I think, Holly, you just need to try to get over it,” he had said.
…try to get over it…
Holly couldn’t look at him when he said that. She laughed a little, the laugh escaping by air through her nose and she raised her eyebrows. A cheat wasted on someone who doesn’t even care.
“Right,” she managed to say, nodding as she did so. “Okay. Yeah, I know. I’ll just get over it. I know I need to.”
“Really, I hate seeing you like this…”
But that comment really did send Holly over the edge, at least mentally, and he saw the look in her eyes and decided not to say anything more on the matter.
You are the one who held my hand. It was your skin touching mine. It was your fingers touching mine on purpose every time you handed me the joint. Fingers that she’d later placed so delicately on her own lips, in her mouth, as she kissed them and gently sucked on them. It was dark. Anything goes in the pitch black. Her stomach churned again. She wanted to blame him. The last thing Holly wanted was to allow herself the truth of knowing that it wasn’t only his fault. It was just as much her fault as his.
The jingling of the bell was now three people leaving the restaurant. She felt more alone now, with only Stephen back in view of where she sat. It was getting colder. Why didn’t they turn on heat in the middle of winter? It was cold. Restaurants should be warm and inviting. But she couldn’t blame them. She would turn up the cold to kick herself out, too. Stephen probably wanted to go home. That hot shower seemed like a good idea, but not yet.
How many glasses of wine had she had? At least she knew the evening wasn’t premeditated. No. Holly had always been more attracted to his wife, of all things. They’d often joked of the girl crushes they had on one another. He and Matt always smiled and said, “Well, whenever you two wanna…” That was the joke. Never before had she thought… no. Never. Weren’t scandals like these usually deep rooted? Surely, what she had experienced usually followed weeks of secret glances and touches… surely. What they’d done didn’t just spontaneously combust in such a way. But now she knew that they did. The tension had been there for a moment, born with the sharing of wine and then dead with the last moment their lips touched. The guilt was the only thing still alive.
Perhaps her guilt felt so awful because she had somehow inherited the guilt he should be feeling as well. It was all swept over for her to carry. He had none of it. That hurt, even if she didn’t exactly want him to be sad or guilty. She didn’t want to be alone in it. That was the truth, right down to it.
The last thing he’d said was, “But please, Holly, don’t think of me as a mistake. I couldn’t take that. I don’t think it was a mistake. I just… I just feel closer to you now. Let’s just take this as something that makes us closer. As friends.”
…try to get over it…
Holly never had a bite of her baklava.