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The House Guest


Alyssa swirled the icy olives in her martini, thinking about division. She stared through her chilled glass to the mirrored shelves of multicolored bottles in front of her at the hotel bar. Division, as in divorce.

Not only the physical division, hers from Bill, but what would happen after the lawyers finished. They’d already created a ledger of their lives together, then started the Macallens’ financial division. Which would be followed by the devastating subtraction.

Bill had subtracted her from his life, that was easy math. With a lift of his chin and a slam of the front door and a squeal of Mercedes tires. She’d asked him why he was leaving her, begged to know, yearned to understand. But Bill Macallen always got what he wanted, no explanation offered or obligatory. She had done nothing wrong. Zero. That’s what baffled her. Terrified her.

She jiggled the fragments of disappearing ice. Division. The Weston house. The Osterville cottage. The jewelry. Her jewelry. The first editions. The important paintings. Club membership. The silver. Money. The lawyers, human calculators who cared nothing about her, would discuss and divide, and then Bill would win. Bill always won.

All she’d done for the past eight years was addition. She’d added to their lives, added to their social sphere, organizing and planning as “Bill’s wife,” fulfilling her job to make him comfortable and enviable and the image of benevolent success. She’d more than accepted it, she’d embraced it, and all that came with it. And then, this.

I need a break, he’d told her that day. She pictured that moment now, a month ago, could almost smell him, a seductive mixture of leathery orange-green aftershave and his personal power. Bill talking down to her, literally and figuratively, wearing one of his pale blue shirts, expensive yellow tie loose and careless, khaki pants and loafers. A break! As if his life with her was a video he could casually put on pause while he did more important things. What things?

The music from the speakers in each corner of the Vermilion Hotel’s earnestly chic dark-paneled bar floated down over her, some unrecognizable tune, all piano and promises, muffling conversations and filling the silences. A couple sat at one end of the bar, knee to knee. On vacation, on business, clandestine. Impossible to tell.

At the other end, a sport-coated man, tie askew, used one finger to fish the maraschino cherry out of his brown drink, popped it into his mouth, and licked his fingers before he went back to scrolling the phone in front of him. Alyssa was in the middle. Alone. She drew in a deep breath, all peaty scotch and lemons and strangers and elusive perfume. Alone.

Alyssa felt her shoulders sag, assessing the other parts of her life grouped on Bill’s side of the ledger. She understood, she did, it was difficult when a couple split. Social allegiances were tested. Loyalties strained. She jabbed at the closest green olive with the little plastic stick. But Bill had taken the friends. Every single one of them.

And now—at the Club, at the gym, at the mall—Alyssa got only pitying glances. Fingertip-hidden whispers. As if they, in their hothouse world of affluence and connection, understood something she didn’t.

When she and Bill first met, that night at the charity event, they both had big plans. Now only he had them. When she wasn’t Bill’s wife anymore, who was she? And did she have the power to change that?

Her phone lay on the zinc bar, its glowing screen taunting her with the proof. No matter how many times she looked at it, her calendar messaged her new reality.

You have no events. No. Events. Only blank days, one after the other, calendared out in front of her. She scrolled back through her past, the listings grayed out now, ghosts of occasions. Charity balls, gala dinners, speeches by successful entrepreneurs, and a fundraiser where they’d auctioned off A Day with Bill Macallen. That went for thousands. Everybody loved Bill, and somehow, calculating again, Alyssa was the plus-one. Now, in the excruciating math of marriage—addition, division—she was the minus.

Nothing had changed for him. Bill was always jetting off, to New York, or Chicago, or someplace exotic. She reached into the shoulder bag hanging from the curved back of her barstool, slid her hand into a side pocket, and pulled out a postcard showing palm trees, like they used to see in St. Barts. Bill, she knew it was Bill, had sent the unsigned postcards, pictures of tropical flowers and cobalt skies, simply to provide his own manipulative entertainment. Here’s where you aren’t. He was taunting her, distant and nasty and gloating. Here’s where you will never be again.

Here in Weston, where she was, she had slush. Spring in Massachusetts. Her husband, fifteen years older, was off having fun. That didn’t seem fair.

She imagined Bill walking in and seeing her, alone on a Saturday night, on this well-worn stool at a suburban hotel bar. Her brown roots showing. Manicure failing. And courtesy of the doomed-to-divorce diet, gone almost scrawny at five pounds thinner. If Bill had caught her here—which he wouldn’t, she’d picked this place because it was out of their orbit—he’d have sneered that dismissive sneer at her vodka with three, now two, olives. Alyssa Westland Macallen, almost-divorced at thirty-five.

“May I get you another?” The bartender, high cheekbones and multi-pierced ear, paused in front of her, wiping out a champagne flute with a blue striped towel.

She looked at her watch, pretending. “Oh no,” she said. “How did it get to be so late? Everyone will be expecting me.”

“Ah.” The bartender held up the flute to the row of tiny lights twinkling above them. “Of course. If you’re sure?” Alyssa watched as he checked the glass for spots, then, turning away from her, slid it into place on a thin wooden rack.

Bill. William Drew Macallen. Where are you? And with who? There could be no other reason but that he was prowling for wife number two.

She stared at the pale place on her finger where, for eight years, three months, and twenty-seven days, her wedding ring had been. A piece of jewelry the universe prescribes to indicate one is married, and happy, and off-limits. There was no piece of jewelry denoting sorrow, or confusion, or disequilibrium. Or fear. Now her once-welcoming home was empty; and when the nights got dark and long, it terrified her. She knew Bill was lurking. Watching. Waiting. Bill was present in every shadow. Every noise. She hated being alone in that house. Hated it.

She’d rather be in a random bar alone than be by herself in that house. Maybe she’d simply drive around. Forever.

“Just the check,” she said to the bartender.

“But it’s early.”

The voice beside her—inquiring, hesitant—startled her. She hadn’t noticed anyone walking up behind her, and Alyssa was not here to find companionship or conversation. In fact, the last thing she wanted was to talk to anyone. What would she even say? Even the simplest of questions—How are you?—could send her to tears.

The newcomer’s fingernails were bitten and nubby, and her pilling sweater just the wrong shade of blue and uneven across the shoulders. She slung a raveled canvas tote bag over the back of her stool. Her curly-wild hairstyle had been an unfortunate decision, as was her hair’s artificially not-quite-auburn color.

But that was … unfairly judgmental. And the world wasn’t all about Alyssa Westland Macallen. It felt like it right now, but this woman was proof it wasn’t. To this newcomer, the world was about her. That was just as valid. Alyssa should at least be civil.

“Early? Oh, well, maybe, but I have to get home,” Alyssa said. No reason to take out her personal bitterness on a complete stranger. “Tough day,” she added, explaining.

“Tell me about it.” The woman shot her one sarcastic glance, then looked back down at the polished metal bar.

Not a chance, Alyssa thought. She poked at her last olive. The well of her loss could not be filled with chitchat. But a weight seemed almost visible on this woman’s thin shoulders. She’d made herself as small as she could, elbows close to her body, bare legs twisted around each other, one chunky heel of her scuffed black shoe hooked in the rung of her barstool.

Alyssa fingered her right-hand diamond, embarrassed at its extravagance. Her birthstone, a gift from Bill during the first April they’d known each other, and not even her seething annoyance with him would convince her to take that off. She turned her hand palm up, hiding the ring.

“I’m sorry,” Alyssa said. “Better days will come.”

Copyright © 2023 by Hank Phillippi Ryan

The House Guest
by by Hank Phillippi Ryan