The other day I had lunch with my ex. We do this twice a year, which is all I can take. We meet in a strip mall, in a take-out deli with dirty windows. The tables are an afterthought, and there are always crumbs and smears under our hands.
Dan and I stood in line together, a malformed line, more like a small crowd bumping elbows. We took our tickets to order, and I stood just far enough away from Dan. The girl behind the counter smiled at us. I wanted to tell her that we’d been together for over twenty years, and that we had four kids between us! None of that would have been a lie, exactly. Dan lives on one side of the city now with his pretty wife and two daughters, and I live with my husband and two sons on the other.
Grabbing a handful of napkins, Dan mopped up the table before we sat down. Someone had left a ring of ketchup there, and someone else had eaten a cookie.
“Why thank you,” I said to Dan, in the sarcastic voice that I reserve for him.
Dan flattened his hands on the table.
He said, not sarcastically: “It’s the least I can do.”
I tried not to look at his wedding ring. It’s so easy to get into a bad habit of comparison.
Dan unpacked two enormous deli sandwiches wrapped in paper. A can of Coke for him, for me a cup of tap water.
I unwrapped my sandwich. The inside of the paper was wet, bits of shredded lettuce and pale pink tomato clung to it. The sandwich was too big to fit in my mouth, stuffed with banana peppers and provolone cheese, dripping with oil. “Oh my God,” I said. “There’s no way I can eat this.” I always lose my appetite when I’m with Dan.
“Try your best,” he said.
Dan wore a baseball cap, a dirty trick, because the hat hid his bald spot, and he looked the same as he did when we were twenty-two, living together in our first grown-up apartment. I wondered if he could see the frown tracks between my eyes. I wondered if my makeup was too obvious, my mascara clumped, my neck marred by lines of foundation.
Dan swallowed. “You look beautiful today,” he said, with his mouth full.
I cupped my hand over my mouth until I finished chewing.
Dan does a much better job of eating when we’re together. He finished his sandwich quickly, while I picked the lettuce off mine, and made a pile of it next to the bread. It looked like someone had mowed the lawn.
“You’re not going to eat it?” Dan asked. “You’re not going to eat anything?”
I picked through my lettuce with a plastic fork instead of answering.
Dan stopped chewing. Then he said my name. “Emily.”
Dan is better than me at dealing with pain. Back when we lived together, we both got sick with the flu, but he was the one who drew the bath for me. He cracked trays of ice into the bathwater and placed his hands beneath my head to keep me from going under. That night, my fever broke in waves of sweat, and I became a thousand different women, each dragging through a lake that opened like a wide mouth into the land. “We’re all swimming,” I said to Dan. “We’re swimming in the river.”
I held onto his t-shirt in the bed that night. He stayed up to watch me, even though I was barely there.
Dan had a fever too, but his never burned as high. This is why people shouldn’t have lunch with their ex. I decided to try saying that out loud.
“This is exactly why people shouldn’t have lunch with their ex,” I said.
“Why?” asked Dan.
I opened up my sandwich and a pepper, slathered with mayonnaise, slipped off the bread.
“You don’t want to feel anything, Emily,” said Dan. “What’s so terrible about feeling?”
“Does it erase my life?” I said.
“I don’t think so,” said Dan.
“I have a good life,” I said. I was thinking about soccer fields, and clouds drifting across a blue sky, and my dog. I was thinking about my children when they were little, two bodies that fit one on each knee.
Dan took a sip of his Coke. I didn’t remember him being a Coke drinker, but maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.
“I have a good life too,” said Dan.
There was a bit of mustard on his chin. I wanted to reach across the table and wipe it off, but I didn’t.
Dan tells his wife when he has lunch with me, and she doesn’t seem to mind. But I don’t tell anyone.
I wrapped my sandwich in its paper. I hadn’t eaten it. I’d just rearranged it.
“Save for later?” said Dan.
I slipped the sandwich into my shoulder bag, while Dan got back in line to order take-out for his family. I wiped down our table, clearing away a few remaining shreds of lettuce and the wet circle from the bottom of Dan’s Coke can.
The lunch rush was over, and I stood next to Dan while he paid. I let my arm touch his arm. The girl behind the counter smiled at us as she pressed a few coins into his hand.
Outside the deli, the sun glinted off the chrome. I had forgotten my sunglasses and felt a slice of migraine coming on. Dan held me at arm’s length and gave my shoulders a squeeze. “See you in six months,” he said. He stood in front of me with his baseball cap and a face that I knew like a jigsaw puzzle.
Then he went back to his car and I went to mine. I sat in the driver’s seat with the heat closing in on me and watched through my rearview mirror as Dan pulled out of the parking lot. I watched until his car became indistinguishable from every other car clogged on the four-lane road. I turned my key in the ignition and waded through Christian rock and talk radio, gave up and settled on static.
For the first time that day I realized I was hungry. I unwrapped the sandwich, spreading the paper on my lap, and took the biggest bite I could manage. The watery lettuce and the warm cheese and the hardened, stale bread scraped at my throat, but I took another bite before I’d finished chewing the first. A bit of oil mixed with mustard slid down my wrist. I didn’t like the taste of it, but I knew I’d swallow it whole.
Melissa Benton Barker's writing appears in Wigleaf, Peach Mag, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. She is the former managing editor for Lunch Ticket and a first reader for Vestal Review. She lives and writes near Dayton, Ohio.