Authors: Minka Kent
“I’ve got it.” He slides his key into the lock, and the door swings open.
The reassuring, baked-in scent of my home fills my lungs, and I can’t get inside fast enough. Sliding off my heels and leaving them crooked and overturned on the rug, I head to my bedroom and close the door.
I should be thinking about the lovely dinner I just had with a man who’s been the inadvertent center of my world since said world collapsed.
Instead, I think about the woman in the jacket.
I’m seated at the foot of my bed when there’s a soft rap at the door.
“Hey, it’s me,” Niall says, pushing his voice through.
I rush to the door, combing my hair from my face before opening it.
We stand in silence for a couple of beats, and then he runs his hand through his sandy hair.
“Was it something I said?” He chuckles at his corny line, despite it being a valid question.
“No,” I say. “God, no.”
“Then why did you . . . ?” He looks over my shoulder, then back at me.
He must think I’m a complete lunatic.
To be honest, I’m beginning to think that myself.
“It’s still early. I was thinking about opening another bottle of wine . . .” he says.
I get the impression that he thinks he upset me, that he thinks a drink will put me at ease. And to be fair, it almost always does.
“Sure. Just give me a second, and I’ll come join you,” I say. I need to make this up to him. We were having such a nice time, and then I started acting erratic. I can’t begin to imagine what must be going through his mind.
We exchange apprehensive smiles, though his leans more toward genuine confusion, and I shut the door so I can change out of my clothes. I can hardly breathe in this dress. The last time I wore it was in the office, but as it turns out, sitting around all day, every day, can do a number on a person’s waistline.
I sweep my hair out of my face and change into leggings and a T-shirt before joining him in the kitchen, where he’s uncorking the bottle.
His expression softens when he sees me. Relief, perhaps? He didn’t want the night to end like that. Then again, neither did I.
I can’t help but wonder if we’d have kissed by now if I hadn’t been so . . . preoccupied.
“I saw someone. It was upsetting, and I overreacted.” I blurt it out so we can be done with it and move on.
He stops twisting the corkscrew. “You want to talk about it?”
He sniffs through his nose. “All right then.”
I love that he doesn’t press on.
I grab two wineglasses. He pours. We cheer.
“Thank you,” I say when the dust feels like it’s settled enough. “For tonight, I mean. I needed that.”
“I know you did,” he says. “And you’re welcome. We should do it again sometime.”
“As long as your wife is okay with it,” I say. There I go again, running my mouth. I’d blame the wine this time, but I only had two glasses at dinner, hardly enough to throw a wrench in my filter.
“Pretty sure she’d be just fine with this.” He chuffs into his wineglass before taking a sip.
And then I remember the divorce papers.
He had them drawn up.
He signed them.
How could I have forgotten?
We stand beside the sink, our reflections in the dark window behind us catching my eye.
We’d look good together, Niall and I. If we were an item, we’d be that annoying couple who seems to be perfectly in sync at every move. The couple that never fights. That finds contentment in the smallest of moments.
It would be so easy to fall for him.
I don’t know how Kate could’ve ever let him go.
They don’t make them like him anymore.
I get the impression from her journal that her expectations were sky-high. Their marriage wasn’t perfect, but what marriage is? And Niall isn’t perfect, but he’s pretty damn close.
I finish my wine and rinse my glass. I could stay here and have another, we could share a little more conversation, let our gazes linger in all the right places, but then we would probably kiss. That’s what you do when your feelings are bottled so tightly they could burst at any moment. The bottleneck breaks, and you lose all sense of self-control. And while I want to kiss Niall more than anything in the world, I also don’t want to rush this.
He might have signed the papers, but Kate hasn’t.
I place my palm on his chest, which feels more solid than I expected it to. “Thanks again. For tonight.”
Niall’s deep-set eyes are glassier than usual. Whether he’s tired or disappointed, I can’t quite tell.
“Good night,” he says.
“Good night, Niall,” I say, turning to leave.
On the way back to my room, I think about all the sweet things Niall has said and done for me, all the playing house, all the times it felt like
were the married ones.
And I realize now, perhaps I got ahead of myself.
There’s a chance he doesn’t have feelings for me. There’s a chance that I’m nothing more than a cheap substitute for the real thing. A stand-in. A living, breathing cardboard cutout. A cure for loneliness.
I don’t know Kate, but I know that I will never be her.
I’ll only ever be me.
I decide on a whim Wednesday morning to search for Brienne’s Instagram account. It takes all of two seconds, and the profile is wide open. Perhaps she isn’t as savvy as I initially assumed?
Just a few days ago, she shared a photo of stacked moving boxes and geolocated herself at the Harcourt. Not to mention her entire profile is an open book—practically an invitation for stalkers.
I browse through the rest of her photos, pausing on one of those cliché close-ups of a fresh manicure, her nails painted a familiar-to-me shade of “Barefoot in Paris,” only that isn’t what concerns me about this picture.
She’s in her car, as evidenced by the steering wheel behind her hand. But when I zoom in, I find the distinctive silver four-ring emblem that could only belong to an Audi—like mine.
I place my phone down and give myself a second.
Grabbing a nearby notebook a moment later and a pen from a drawer in the coffee table, I flip to a clean page and start making a list.
Any of these things on their own would be nothing more than coincidence. But all of them together?
I just don’t understand why she hasn’t stolen my credit or tried to access my bank account.
It doesn’t make sense. Nothing about this case of identity theft is typical. Most people steal identities for monetary reasons, and yet she hasn’t so much as touched a single penny of mine despite there being literally millions of them.
My grandparents left me everything, and for years, I’ve hardly touched any of it. They put me through college. Gave me my first business loan so I could open my insurance agency. Left me their house. From the age of eight, I’ve never wanted for anything, and since they’ve departed this earth, I haven’t had the heart to tap into the generous fortune they placed in my name—not in any notable amounts anyway.
My grandfather always said, “Money talks, wealth whispers,” and it’s a motto I’ve always tried to live by.
I rummage through the rest of the other Brienne’s pictures, and at some point I stop gasping every time I realize we shop at the same places—or rather, she shops where I used to shop—and that her signature drink also happens to be a Sazerac.
I pore over her photos again, trying to pick up on any other nuances I can find and adding to my list whenever applicable. Almost in a trance, I’m catapulted into her familiar world, and by the time I stop to take a break, I realize it’s nearly two in the afternoon.
My battery flashes low, and I place my phone on the charger. I force myself to step away, literally and figuratively, but it’s only when I’m making my way outside to grab the mail that I realize her photos, while disturbing and unoriginal, paint her very much as a creature of habit.
Particularly on Thursdays.
When she goes to Italia Fina for happy hour.
From 3:00 to 6:00 PM.
I arrive at Italia Fina at half past three on Thursday and order a Sazerac from an unfamiliar bartender, before claiming an empty booth in the corner of the bar. Once settled, I spread out my laptop and notebook, opening a few random documents and spreadsheets—all props.
And then I wait.
The place isn’t nearly as busy as it used to be. Maybe there’s some new happy hour hot spot that opened recently that I’m unaware of. But there are enough patrons here that I don’t stick out like a sore thumb while simultaneously maintaining a clear view of the main entrance and the entirety of the twenty-six-foot bar.
By the time I finish my drink, it’s almost four, and there’s still no sign of the other me.
I check her Instagram again.
She hasn’t posted anything since yesterday—a close-up of yesterday’s cappuccino complete with a foam heart—and then I scroll through her most recent photos. Every Thursday for the past nine weeks, she’s been coming here.
There are still two “happy” hours left, so I order another drink from a server who walks past, and then I scan the room before turning back to my laptop screen.
By the time my second drink is almost finished, it’s half past five. I milked this one as best I could, but I order a third—this one not for drinking, but as a prop, like my work setup. I needed just enough to take the edge off my anxiety while still keeping a clear head.
Pressure builds in my bladder, and I check the time. Only twenty-five minutes left until the nightly drink specials end, and if she’s not here yet, I’m beginning to think she has no intention of showing at all.
I’m seconds from packing up when the front door swings open, spilling a dash of twilight into the dark restaurant for half a second, and then in sashays a confident woman, finger combing her hair as she smiles at the bartender and takes the last spot on the left. Crossing her legs at the knee, she hooks the heel of a pointy-toed black stiletto on the lowest rung of the barstool.
They converse for a second as she drapes her Goyard bag over the back of her seat. A minute later he mixes her drink.
A sugar cube.
She’s having a Sazerac, too, which should come as no surprise to me given what I already know about her from her profile.
The bartender glances in my direction, probably wondering why it is that two women have come in on the same night and ordered the same very specific drink.
Someone once told me a Sazerac is a man’s drink. The taste is distinct, acquired. And maybe it’s a fair observation, seeing how my grandfather was the one who first introduced me to them. Many of my friends who’ve sipped off mine coughed and sputtered and shot me looks like I’d just fed them poison, but not this woman.
She sips hers like she’s done it a hundred times before.
No puckered face. Not so much as a hint of a wince.
The other me sweeps her hair behind one ear, rests her chin on her hand and her elbow on the bar, and tells the bartender some story. At least that’s what I assume she’s doing. Her eyes are lit, her face is animated, and she’s talking with her hands—an old habit of mine, actually.
He wipes down the bar top in front of her with a blue rag, laughing at everything she says like he’s smitten with her. When a couple take the two spots to her right, she scoots over a little before leaning in and placing her hand on the woman’s arm.
She points to the other woman’s shoes.
A compliment, I imagine.
I used to be able to do that, to talk to anyone like I knew them. Compliments were my go-to icebreaker. I was quite young and on my fifth elementary school in three years when I learned quickly that kindness was the gateway to friendship.
The other me swirls her drink, once clockwise, once counterclockwise, and then takes a sip. It’s like watching a video of myself, each mannerism mimicked down to the last detail.
My stomach churns and rocks, and the burn of bile stings the back of my throat. I should’ve ordered an appetizer, something to sit in my stomach and soak up all the liquor I’ve consumed in the past few hours. Come to think of it, I can’t recall if I ate lunch today.
Too much excitement.
Too much preparation.
Nourishment was the furthest thing from my mind.
The threat of rising bile intensifies, and I’m left with no choice but to hurry to the ladies’ room. Slinging my purse around my shoulder and leaving everything else, I rush to the back of the restaurant and close the stall door.
Hovering over the toilet, I squeeze my eyes tight. The scent of sterilized air and industrial cleaner fills my lungs, making my nausea worsen for a moment.
But it doesn’t take long for the sensation to pass, and when it does, it’s like it was never there at all.
The strangest thing.
I leave the stall and wash my hands before heading back to my table, keeping my head down so as not to make it obvious. Sliding back into my booth, I sneak a quick glance at the bar.
But it’s all for naught.
The woman, her bag, and her drink are gone.
It’s as if she was never there at all.
It’s not until I’m headed home from Italia Fina that I realize I have five missed calls—all of them from Niall, and all of them over the past hour.
I had my ringer off while I was there, for obvious reasons.
He must have been freaking out, if he’s even capable of freaking out, that is. It doesn’t seem like his style, but then again, neither is incessant calling.
I texted him from the parking lot before leaving, letting him know I would be home in ten minutes. The message showed as “read” almost immediately, but he didn’t respond.
This isn’t like him, and of course my mind goes to the worst-case scenario and one of my biggest fears: someone broke into the house.
But my concerns are quelled the instant I arrive at my driveway.