Chapter 7 – Popuri
Just what is going on here?
Summer in Mineral Town is supposed to be about fun,and gorgeous weather, and beach parties, and seeing my dear friends and beloved family (and Rick) for the first time in almost a year.
It's supposed to be about running ourselves ragged serving the three people who ever actually come to the Seaside Lodge, and falling asleep to the sound of the waves in the double cot Zack helped us drag into the back room because Gray complained that we were being married too loud.
So, how is it that I barely have time to get off the boat before I find out that one of my closest friends is having Husband Trouble? And not just normal Husband Trouble, but Cheating Lying Philandering Scumbag Husband Trouble?
I found out about it when I went to give Karen the special tequila she and Ann sent orders for when I told them we'd be in Mexico. She was storming around, glowering and snarling like Mineral Town just brought in Prohibition or something, so I withheld her present until she told me what was wrong.
Elli! And Liam! And some other girl! In bed! And…I don't think I meant that the way it sounded.
Why Elli? She's a sweet, fussy, caring little Florence Nightingale, she's spent her whole life taking care of everybody else, and she deserves to be happy for once! And not just the doesn't know about all the other girls her husband has on the side kind of happy!
So, upon finding out that the sweetest, fussiest, caringest little nurse-girl in the world is unfathomably miserable right now because the man that she loves apparently doesn't return the sentiment enough to keep his clothes on around other girls, what did I do? What any red-blooded Mineral Townie would do, of course! I marched right over to the farm to demand details!
And what did I find? A ghostly pale, red-eyed, skin-and-bone apparition bearing only the remotest resemblance to my third-best friend in the world? Clothes discarded everywhere and pools of the lovers' blood dripping from Elli's scalpel-turned-murder-weapon?
No, and no. I found Elli baking a pie.
Yes, a pie. Strawberry pie, mind you, because she knew that I was getting back today, and she was hoping that her strawberry pie addict friend would stop by for a visit.
It was a sweet sentiment, but I love a good strawberry pie, and Elli's cooking…well, she can usually cook pre-packaged meals and end up with something edible, which is more than I can say for my almost-sister-in-law, but when she has to do anything from scratch – say, a pie crust – well, most of Mineral Town knows to run away. Fast.
But darnit, she looked so happy to see me, and so proud of her masterpiece, and so interested in my travel photos that not only could I not satisfy forty-five minutes of burning curiosity, my stomach is making some really angry noises from eating half a pie.
I haven't done that since…okay, fine. It was last week. I maintain that you just haven't lived until you've had Kai's chocolate cream. He makes this amazing dark chocolate pudding from scratch, and uses lots of fresh whipped cream, and everything.
Which I had better keep to myself, because there's still a good half a pie sitting here, heavy doughy crust and too-sugary filling and all.
Right, Elli. Elli, who has just returned with a pot of herb tea. Which she is much better at concocting than pie crust.
"Mmm," I purr happily.
"I'm glad you approve," she grins. "Just let me get the plates cleaned up - unless you wanted some more pie?" I shake my head vigorously. Forget girlfriend solidarity; I'm already getting heartburn. She looks a little disappointed, but smiles anyway. "Oh, okay; well, just let me get the dishes cleared away, and then you can show me the rest of your Brazil pictures!"
I groan inwardly. She must have some idea that I know what's going on with her, because as much as I'm loving this, I've never seen anyone this enthusiastic about vacation photos. Even Mom had to fake some enthusiasm after my fiftieth picture of trees, and beach, and Kai in swim trunks.
Hmm...maybe it's the third one that's keeping her interest. After all, as far as I know, Elli has a pulse, and Kai in swim trunks is even better than Kai in an apron.
However, I believe I have just started drooling, so maybe this isn't the best line of thought for right now.
As soon as she sets one of their sensible blue chip-resistant stoneware mugs in front of me, I take a huge gulp of the steaming, fragrant tea.
"Careful," Elli giggles. "It's a little hot."
"Thanks," I pout unconvincingly, and she giggles some more.
And then, just because I don't think that all this laughing is very healthy, I go right ahead and wipe that smile right off her face.
"Elli, it's okay. You don't have to pretend to be cheerful - Karen told me about Liam's new chicky."
She looks so horrified that for a minute, I wonder if Karen got her facts wrong, and maybe Elli doesn't actually know yet.
"Oh, for crying out loud!" she wails, just as I'm about to hug her and assure her that it's a mistake, and I actually meant Liam's new chicken. "You just got back today, and Karen's already dumped all this on you?"
"She didn't dump it on me!" I protest hotly. "I had to withhold her tequila before she told me what was wrong!"
"She still didn't have to go and tell you!"
"She did if she wanted her tequila."
Elli sighs, looking pained.
"Popuri, listen. I know that Karen thinks this is a big deal, but--"
"Karen thinks it's a big deal?!" I echo in a disbelieving squeak. "Elli, your husband is having an affair! What are you thinking, just pretending that you don't know?"
"I'm trying to tell you, sweetie," she huffs impatiently, and sighs again. "He was having an affair. But thanks to Karen and her abundance of free time to hang around here all day, I know for a fact that Liam's new friend hasn't been back here since I caught them in the barn."
"They were having sex in your barn?!"
Curled up at Elli's feet, Liam's dog Snoopy raises his head reproachfully at my dog-whistle shriek. Elli gives him an absent little pat and a fragment of pie, and he goes back to sleep again, using her foot for a pillow.
"They were milking a cow, Popuri. And technically, it's Liam's barn."
"And technically, he's your husband, and it doesn't matter if he hasn't done it again, because he was doing it for ages before you found out!"
"We don't know that it happened before then," Elli objects quickly, but she must know that she's being ridiculous, because she's staring into her teacup, and she won't look at me. "The important thing is that he hasn't done it again since, and since he didn't even know that I knew, it means he felt bad enough about doing it to stop on his own." Now she does look up, but I'm still not convinced. She looks more desperate to hear that she's right than sure that she is. "Liam was feeling neglected because I was always at work. But I talked to the doctor about cutting down on my hours a little, starting at ten and leaving at five on the dot, and ever since then things have been a lot better."
"Yeah, until he gets his panties in a twist about something else," I huff. "Come on, Elli; you can't really be telling me that you think he was justified in sleeping with some tramp--"
"We don't know that! She might be really nice!"
"--just because he didn't like your hours. If he's going to hold his faithfulness hostage every time he doesn't get his way, it doesn't sound to me like his feelings for you or this other girl go very deep."
"I just don't get it," she whispers, sounding so close to tears that my eyes fill before I can blink them away. "I know he loved me when we got married. He must have, to put up with the mess I was. He helped me with my student loans, and Grandma's hospital and specialists' bills, and he almost never got mad when I snapped at him because I was frustrated with Stu or stressed out from trying to learn what the heck I was doing at the Clinic." Her lip wobbles a little, and I scoot my chair closer to give her a cuddle. "It's not fair," she tells my shoulder pitifully. "Everything's been going so well lately. We just finished paying off all the bills, and Stu is happier than he's ever been, and Grandma's legs are starting to improve. I'm finally confident enough with my work to really enjoy it, and the doctor gave me a raise last month, so I can finally start contributing instead of being totally dependent on my husband. And then this comes out of nowhere and ruins everything! It seems like every time I get my life back together, something new happens."
I can't help it; I really can't. Maybe it's the pain of seeing my friend so miserable, or disappointment that I didn't get to punch his face through the back of his head as soon as his affair became common knowledge, or maybe it's just that the pie is giving me really, really bad indigestion. But whatever it is, before I know what's happening, I'm crying into Elli's shoulder, and she's patting my hair soothingly. On the bright (weird) side, I don't think she's crying, so she's pretty much sitting here, assuring me that everything will be okay, despite her creep of a husband.
"Hey, Elli! You here?"
And speaking of her creep of a husband, here he is!
At the sound of big, boot-ey, mud-tracking footsteps stopping short at the doorway, I jump away from Elli, even as she starts to tense and gets that and I suppose you're going to scrub that mess off the floor look in her eye.
"Uh, should I go away?" he asks nervously, eyes moving from my tearstains to the big wet spot on Elli's shoulder.
"No, but those muddy boots should," Elli replies sternly.
He grins like a little boy being scolded by his super-hot kindergarten teacher. Well, there goes my theory about him having an affair to get away from her sometimes-incessant nagging; it looks like he still gets off on it as much as he did back when they first started dating, and he never missed a chance to earn an Elli-lecture by telling her about his steady diet of potato chips and cola.
"Sorry. I'll clean it up."
"Don't do that," she huffs, up from her chair and dragging him back to the door. "Just take them off before you come inside."
"Okay, I'm going!"
During the flurry of activity, I nibble at the remaining half of the pie (I suspect that I have subconscious self-loathing issues), and play detective, alert and ready to pick up on any tiny clue that might give me some idea how the soppy-sweetest, in-love-est guy since my Dad could just up and get bored with a girl who makes him smile like that.
I don't have long to detect; it seems that Elli isn't about to let this threat to her housekeeping go on any longer than necessary. Before I manage to pick up anything beyond the way she knocks his hand away from her butt when he tries to guide her through the kitchen doorway, they're back at the table, and Liam is patting my hand soothingly.
"What's wrong, Popuri?" he asks gently, his expression chock-full of sympathy. "It's the pie, isn't it?" He continues through my shout of laughter and Elli's shout of indignation. "I keep telling her, you don't need to cook when you're already smokin' hot--"
"Well, that's what Karen is hoping," I interject knowingly.
"--but she just doesn't listen, and my dog ends up eating way better than he should."
"It is not that bad," Elli pouts. "You didn't even try it."
"It made your friend cry," he points out solemnly.
"It's not the pie, Liam." Struck by a fiendish little inspiration that I already know is going to come back to bite me in the butt, I heave a twenty-ton sigh, as Daddy used to say. "Actually, I was just telling Elli that I think Kai might be seeing someone else."
I don't know who looks more thunderstruck: Elli or Liam.
Actually, I think the furious, frantic tinge in Elli's expression might just edge Liam out of the running, although the baffled way his mouth is hanging open deserves some serious consideration.
Liam recovers first, unless it's just that Elli doesn't trust herself to say something that doesn't involve the kinds of words I always see scratched into the stalls of the train station bathrooms.
"Kai? Are you serious?"
My expression grows even more tragic.
"Well, it wouldn't be much of a joke if I wasn't."
"Yeah, I know, but...Kai? Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure!" I explode with all the anger I've had simmering dangerously towards this man since Karen told me about the wreck he made of Elli. "I don't get jealous and psycho over nothing -- I found her underwear all over our bedroom!"
He's starting to look nervous, but I don't know if it's from secret guilt over his own underwear-strewing side-munch, from my shouting fit, or from the waves of murderous energy rising off of his wife. But he's recovering pretty well, taking on that uncomfortable, disbelieving, sympathetic sorrow again almost before I can blink.
"Wow. I don't know what to say, Popuri." He scratches the back of his head beneath his glasses, then leans closer. "Look, I know you don't want to hear this, but guys aren't unfaithful for no reason. Usually, it means there's something wrong, and you haven't learned how to listen."
Now there's no question about who Elli's fury is for, and there sure is a lot of it. She pushes her chair back, but she's shaking so hard it takes her a few tries to stand up.
"Oh, really? So, do these guys ever stop to think that maybe it isn't always a woman's responsibility to know instinctively about every tiny thing that makes their lives less than the absolute bliss they deserve just for existing? They spend enough time complaining that women expect them to be psychic, that you'd think they'd show us the courtesy of just telling us when they're upset. Or maybe they just don't realize how upset they are that their girlfriend won't wake them up every morning with a blow-job, or cook bacon in the nude, or prance around in degrading leather things, or quit her job to become his full-time sex slave, until that DD-cup with the twenty-four inch waist walks by. Then they realize how hard-done-by they are, and jumping into bed with some tight-thonged...woman of ill repute the next town over is suddenly perfectly okay!"
I realize that I'm doing the equivalent of poking an angry bear with a sharp stick right now by trying to interrupt her, but I figure, as long as I'm on a doing-stupid-things roll, I might as well try to beat my record for The Stupidest Thing I've Ever Done.
"So thank-you for your startling insight, oh great relationship guru," she continues, finally managing to push out of her chair and earning a reproachful whine from Snoopy for disrupting his nap, "but we already knew that people who have affairs are generally selfish, spoilt, whiny brats who have a lot of growing up to do before they try for a relationship that doesn't come with free diaper-changes and breast feeding!"
She pulls sharply away from Liam's restraining hand at her arm, and we both watch in a stunned silence broken only by the swish of her skirts, the click of her heels on the bare painted wooden stairs, and the jarring slam of the bedroom door.
"Um...I can go," I offer lamely, scrambling out of my chair.
"Yeah, maybe that's a good idea," Liam agrees heavily, casting a nervous, reproachful glance at the closed door. Then, unexpectedly, he catches my hand and pulls me into a great big hug. "We've missed you around here, kiddo." After a few soothing pats to the back of my head, he continues. "I hope things work out with you and Kai. Just give him a break, alright? He's a good guy."
Well. I guess I should admire his sense of lying, cheating scum solidarity. Apparently, it even extends to men who AREN'T lying, cheating scum. And who does he think he is, calling me kiddo? Who's the one who's been married and traveling the world for the last two years, idiot? More importantly, between the two of us, who's been able to keep a relationship together?
I mean, I'm pretty sure there's no way she can pretend she doesn't know after taking his head off like that, especially if he talks to someone else and finds out that Kai's other woman is about as real as Ann's feminine side.
Oh, well. I may have just single-handedly destroyed a marriage - well, more like shot a few times it to put it out of its misery like a sick old horse - but at least Karen will be happy.
"OH, my God, Popuri. You did WHAT?"
Wow. There goes that idea; Karen actually looks kind of furious. And when Karen looks furious, in the presence of pizza and unlimited beer, you know you're in trouble.
"Um...well, I think that something I said made Liam say something that made Elli mad enough to tell him that she knows about his other girlfriend."
Now, all that made perfect sense inside my head.
"Great; so, go back to the part where I have another girlfriend," Kai orders from behind the counter of the Lodge, crossing his arms and frowning.
I bite my lip. It's true: the longer you have to think about these things, the stupider they seem. I just wish inconsiderate and hurtful hadn't snuck in there, too.
"I'm really sorry, Kai. I just...didn't think. I wanted to see if I could make Liam nervous, and..." I really don't know how to finish that, so I just make little helpless wavy gestures.
"You couldn't have just threatened to sick your brother on him?" he grumbles, but he still lets me worm one hand in under his folded arms to give his hand a squeeze.
I lean in closer and tug slightly, nuzzling the back of his hand with my cheek, and giggle in a completely grown-up and dignified way when he relents and plays with my hair.
"Popuri!" Karen barks when I start purring and kind of half climbing over the counter. "Focus! Now, do you know for a fact that Elli told Liam that she knows about Juanita?"
I climb back onto my stool.
"Oh, that's her name? Juanita? That's pretty."
"Popuri," Karen growls.
"Okay, okay. I don't know if Elli told Liam that she knows. But he's not stupid, Karen. I don't know if she really has to, after that."
"Fantastic," she sighs gustily, flopping forward to the counter top and narrowly missing our pizza. "There goes two weeks of hard work."
"You mean the stalking, right?" Kai asks, forehead puckering disapprovingly.
"It's not stalking," she snaps.
"You're hanging around Liam's farm, watching him, right?"
"Sure, it sounds like stalking when you say it like that," Karen huffs. "But it's not. It's in Elli's best interest, because she's been way too eager to overlook things."
"You think maybe she has a reason for that?" my dear sweet husband asks as one eyebrow disappears underneath his bandana.
"Honey, there's no good reason for her to put herself through this," I tell him earnestly, giving his hands a squeeze.
He smiles, and squeezes back.
"There's no good reason to give someone she loves a second chance if she wants to?"
"More like a twenty-second chance at this point," Karen mutters sourly.
He looks mystified.
"So, if she knows that for sure, why doesn't she either talk to him about it, or leave him? Or hell, both?"
Karen sighs gustily, picking absently at her crusts.
"We were trying to wait him out, see if we could catch him in the act, and then take the evidence to the divorce hearings."
"I don't know if that's exactly what she had in mind," I pipe up timidly. "She did spend an awful lot of time talking about how it hasn't happened again."
She chuckles darkly.
"Well, he's being extra-sweet right now, since he got his way and Elli slashed her hours at the clinic."
"I wonder what it'll be next," I add, so bitterly you'd almost think I was married to Liam, as horrifying and gross as that thought is. "Maybe she'll get a dress he doesn't like, or she won't wash his shirts right."
"You know, I'm surprised the doctor didn't put an end to this crap himself," Kai says thoughtfully. "Didn't he always have a kind of protective big brother thing for her?"
Karen snorts into her beer.
"That's not the only thing he's got for her." She heaves one of Dad's twenty-tonners. "You know, before Liam showed up, I was so worried that Elli was going to end up with Dr. Deadpan and spend her life starved for affection. Now I wish I'd just let her become Mrs. Deadpan if she wanted to instead of shoving Liam at her when he showed up and asked who the little cutie at the clinic was."
I squeeze her hand.
"Oh, Karen, you didn't know that he would turn out to be a vindictive, manipulative, dishonest rat."
"And hey, you never know," Kai adds, grinning. "If Dr. Deadpan plays his cards right, you still might get your wish."
I swear, it's creepy - he's hardly finished saying it, when the door swings open with such force that he and Karen look a little nervous, in case Dr. Deadpan himself was waiting just outside, overhearing this discussion on the possibilities of his love life.
But, since I'm being vigorously tackle-hugged, and Karen is still sitting right next to me and therefore probably not doing the hugging, I really kind of doubt that it's the doctor. Even Elli just gets gentle pats on the shoulder when he's feeling especially affectionate, so him tackle-hugging me would maybe happen on the same day that Rick nominated Kai for President of the World.
The mystery of my mysterious attacker is cleared up pretty quick.
"Oh, Popuri, you're amazing! I wanted to throttle you a little bit at the time, but you really knew what you were doing, and now everything is going to be okay!"
"Whoa, Elli, slow down," Karen orders, prying her off of me when I start choking. "What are you talking about?"
Elli blushes sheepishly as she catches Kai's bewildered eye, and she slides quickly onto a stool and continues to sing my praises.
"She was amazing, Karen; she knew just what to say to get Liam and me talking to each other! After you left, he came upstairs and threatened to beat the door down unless I let him in. Then he wouldn't leave until I told him what was wrong, so I asked him if he had ever felt like I didn't know how to listen, and when he didn't answer, I asked him outright if there had ever been anyone else while we were married."
"And he told you about Juanita, and now you're leaving his sorry ass, right?" Karen asks, fixing a stern, forbidding eye on Elli, who is totally oblivious., and shakes her head vigorously.
"No, of course not! Now I don't have to, because he cared enough about me to tell me the truth!"
Kai puts down the menu he's been dangling hopefully in front of her.
"So, did you ever find out if this girl was a one-time thing?"
"W-well, no; he didn't tell me exactly, specifically about Juanita."
Karen doesn't waste a second.
"What, exactly, specifically, does that mean?" she demands, leaning forward and crowding Elli a little bit.
Elli shifts back slightly and almost falls off her stool.
"Um, I just mean, he didn't give me her name. He said there have been indiscretions in his past, but they're far in the past, and I'm all he wants now."
"And you believed him," Karen finishes flatly.
"He wouldn't lie to me, Karen," Elli says quietly, but the sort of quietly that usually means you could probably talk Goddess Peak into standing up and moving twenty feet to the left before you could change her mind.
Kai and I both wince as a vein begins to pop a little in Karen's right temple. Normally, it takes Duke, or her parents, or Rick (or inflation, or bill collectors, or a bug in her popcorn, or bad beer) to bring it out.
"What the hell do you think it was, not bothering to mention his other girlfriend in the first place?!" she thunders.
"I didn't ask him," Elli replies in that same quiet, determined voice. "I didn't ask him because I was afraid he would tell me, and tell me that it was over between us."
"So, because he told you something close to the truth when you asked him point blank, you're going to believe him when he says that he's through with the woman he didn't admit he was sleeping with in the first place."
"Yes." By this point, Elli's barely managing a whisper, but Karen can obviously see as well as I can that Elli's not budging, because I haven't seen her this mad in years.
Then, unexpectedly, Karen lunges.
I'm in mid-lunge after them, shrieking at Karen not to hurt her, and I think Kai is running around the counter, before we realize that it's a bear-hug, not a beating.
"It's your call, Elli. I'm glad it worked out. And just tell him that if he ever hurts you again, I'll make him eat his own liver."
"I'll pass it on," Elli giggles, a little bit hysterically.
"Okay. So, go back home and rock his world," Karen orders, giving Elli a little slap on the butt.
"You worry me sometimes, sweetie," Elli informs her very solemnly, before sending my hubby and me a cheerful wave and skipping out into the humid summer night.
As the door clicks shut behind her, Kai shakes his head and laughs in disbelief.
"So, you think he's actually going to stop seeing the other girl?"
"Oh, no way in Hell," Karen replies casually.
"Oww...Popuri is confused," I inform everyone, rubbing my head plaintively.
Karen sighs, exasperated.
"Come on, Popuri, you know a lie when you hear one."
I, who have, in the last six hours, told a lie big enough to count for at least a dozen, shrug guiltily.
"Yeah, but what's the point of making Elli think you trust her husband when you don't?"
"Look, you know that she's getting tired of me trailing him. This way, she doesn't have to know about it, but I'll still know about it the second he slips up. If he doesn't, that's great. Of course, it'd also be great if the moon was made of cheese, and Saturn's rings were a giant pizza crust, but I doubt it's the case."
"Creative," Kai notes, grinning.
"Thanks," Karen says nonchalantly, reaching for her magically refilling beer. The more Karen drinks, the more neat metaphors she comes up with, so we like to keep her glass full when she comes to visit.
"But what are you going to do if you find out that he is seeing her again?" I ask, already picturing Karen in an orange jumpsuit and Liam in the graveyard as I ask.
"I don't know yet," Karen replies grimly, "but I have a feeling I'll find out."
Wow. Apparently, when Karen gets tipsy, she turns into a cheesy action movie script, too. Who knew?
End Notes: Aaaaaaaaaaand, there ends another awkwardly-chopped-off chapter! What can I say? These girls keep stealing the story, running away, and then writing me directly into a corner. Then, just as soon as I knock down some walls, they scamper into another corner, and before I know it, I'm guest-starring on DIY Disaster! Ahh, the perils of writing...and home rennovation. XD