They’d exchanged smiles. At least that’s all anyone had noticed. A smile – a simple courtesy or, so it seemed, something much more serious.
That was how the two young women saw it this day as they sat side by side on swings in the warm spring sun, the children close by playing in the sandbox. There’d been many times like this in the past, though then there had been three women instead of two. Now Melanie was gone, run off with a man the other two barely knew.
“Didn’t she tell you anything?” Kitty asked, thrusting her long jean-clad legs out before her and looking back over her shoulder at Ellen.
“Nothing,” Ellen said, digging the toe of one tennis shoe into the damp sod and gnawing at a hangnail.
“But, you’re her best friend.”
“In high school. Lately we were just – friends.”
“Still, she must have told someone.”
“Not me. Not Tom.”
“You asked him?” Kitty said, stopping the swing and turning full around. There was a note of shock in her voice.
“Of course. He’s our friend, too. Isn’t he?”
“Well, yeah. But I couldn’t have asked.”
The chain squeaked and Ellen breathed in the scent of new grass, damp sand and warm sun before answering. “Someone had to. For all the good it did.”
“He didn’t know anything was going on?”
“He’s as shocked as us. And hurt.”
“I can imagine.”
The thought of Tom alone and vulnerable produced an odd stirring deep within and Ellen felt her cheeks go hot. She hopped Kitty hadn’t noticed the flush.
Just then they were distracted by a scream that sent them racing to the sandbox. Randy had flung sand and some had got in Terri’s eyes. Kitty boxed her son smartly on the head and launched into a tirade, waving a finger in his face. The little boy’s screams echoed those of Terri.
Ellen picked up the little girl, hugged her to her bosom and carried her to a nearby plot of grass. There she sat with Terri in her lap, dabbing at the girl’s eyes with the corner of a Kleenex she dampened with her tongue.
In a little while the child quieted, snuggling close, whimpering. Her frail body was warm against Ellen’s breasts. She stroked the thin little arms, resting her chin on the round dome of the child’s head. A warm breeze blew their hair like tendrils of grass and a robin sang cheerily nearby.
Ellen remembered it was on a day much like this she, Roy, Tom and Melanie had gone out for the first time together on a double date while they were in high school. They had all smiled a lot that day.
Her smiles, and she supposed, those of Roy and Tom, were based in lust. They were intended to attract and, once connection was made, inevitably led to sex and a relationship that eventually resulted in marriage. She saw nothing wrong with it. It was part of a simple, natural biological process.
But, Melanie’s smile, then and always, was different. Her smile was a sweet, naďve radiance that never failed to draw a response from any on whom it fell. No one could resist such a smile and everyone she encountered loved her. Yet, that smile did not emanate from lust. Rather, it was a signal she and Roy and even Tom had misinterpreted in their youthful innocence.
Soon the children returned to their play, the incident forgotten. Ellen and Kitty reclined on the cool scented grass. Ellen lay on her back, eyes half-closed, gazing up at the thin clouds scudding across a blue expanse of sky. Kitty faced her, propped up on her elbows, chewing a stem between small white teeth.
“I hate when I lose my temper with him,” Kitty said, her brown eyes moist and blinking.
Ellen didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to. Kitty already knew how she felt about striking children.
“I mean, I’d never hit him if there was just some other way I could get him to understand.”
Ellen sighed and rolled over on her side toward her friend. “Maybe that’s why Melanie left Tom,” she said.
“Huh? You mean he was beating her?”
Ellen didn’t say it but she was thinking how Melanie had once told her there had to be more to love than just kindness. “No. I’m sure he never did anything like that. I just meant maybe he didn’t understand what she wanted.”
“What she wanted? What more could she expect? He has a good job, he loved her and the kid, gave her everything you can think of.”
Melanie had said love wasn’t about jobs and houses and things. It was respect and understanding which necessitated giving of a deeper kind. “But maybe not what she wanted.”
“What are you talking about, Ellen?” Kitty asked, raising her head with a puzzled look on her face. “You said she never told you there was anything wrong between them.”
“No. She never did,” Ellen said, realizing that wasn’t entirely true . Melanie had told her things; she just hadn’t understood. “But there must have been something…”
Kitty nodded. “Or, she wouldn’t have run off with this guy. How could she? And pregnant with her second baby.”
The girls exchanged a knowing glance as the revelation dawned on them.
“Oh, my God,” Kitty said. “It’s his baby, isn’t it?”
“I guess they did know one another better than we thought,” Ellen told her. And it surprised her because she had never suspected it. This man had answered Melanie’s smile with one that told her he might provide whatever it was she was looking for. And on that assumption she had sacrificed all she had, all she knew. For him. Could a smile really say that much?
The children laughed, music as gay as this beautiful day, but Ellen suddenly felt very alone and sad.
She sat up, shook out her hair, ran her long fingers through it. She drew up her knees and wrapped her arms around them, hugging herself as she had earlier hugged Terri. “What time is it?” she asked, glancing at Kitty.
Kitty drew back the sleeve of her blouse, turned her watch on her slim wrist and looked at it. “Nearly four,” she said.
Ellen scrambled up. “I’ve gotta go.”
“Yeah. Me, too,” Kitty said, getting up and brushing at her jeans. She went and got a protesting Randy. “Same time tomorrow?” she asked coming back.
“Yes. See ya, brat,” she told Randy, hugging him.
Kitty gave Terri a peck on the cheek. “Okay. See ya.”
Ellen picked Terri up in her arms and stood watching as her friend walked down the street. She had to get home but she waited until Kitty and Randy were out of sight.
Roy would be wanting his supper. He was always wanting something these days and giving little in return. Her eyes filled with tears and she felt one run down her cheek. She wiped it away with one hand, hugging the child close to her. She had to go home.
But first she’d take home Terri, the child Melanie had rejected because she so closely resembled her father. She’d take Terri home and, if she was lucky, maybe Tom would offer her a smile.