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Shared Plates

by Colleen Rothman

I arrive late, marooned again at the banquette’s far edge. No one’s across from me at our six-top; Kate texted the group to cancel because Xander said his tummy was sad. The remaining four are already one margarita in.

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Over chips and guac, they traipse through topics assumed safe: cute things their kids say, tabloid gossip, planning for a second. I sit silently and lick salt from the rim. They don’t care to know about months of post-IUD spotting or the possible reasons my kid’s not talking yet. I land an easy joke about my mother-in-law that I instantly regret.

 

We were all in the same hospital at the same time. Around a cross-legged circle in a multi-purpose room, we took turns bawling while troubleshooting latch problems. Two years ago, that felt like enough.

 

Between plates, coursed into a meal of nibbles, come another round of cocktails. They tiptoe into honesty—the collective disgust of living with dudes. “Why is Jim’s pillowcase always yellow?” Kaitlyn cries. “I have to bleach it separately!” They howl with recognition of their invisible labor, clapping with glee at feeling seen. I push a forkful of arugula onto my plate and cough out a chuckle, not letting on that in our bed, it’s my pillowcase that’s stained. My overnight mouthguard—like a retainer, but for anxiety—makes me wake every morning soaked with drool.

 

“Men are just…gross,” says Katie. “Tell me about it,” Kathryn adds. “You’d never believe what I found in Dave’s browser history.” They push into riskier territory, hinting at deeper dissatisfactions. One by one, they recount long days spent groped by sticky fingers, of feeling touched out by nighttime. They admit to regularly recoiling from the fathers of their children, exhausted by headlines of monstrous men. They trade strategies for maintaining this tired celibacy, deeming liberal application of scented lotion the ideal barrier against cuddling. “I’m like the mom in Everybody Loves Raymond!” Kat laughs as she pantomimes slathering.

 

Habanero salsa tingles my lips from my half of a fancy taquito. No one wants to hear about the opposite problem; they’d rather commiserate about removing stomach-flu shit from boxer briefs. There are no laugh-tracked plotlines about midlife hormones going haywire—lost inhibitions, new fantasies, darker impulses. You’d never believe what’s in my browser history.

 

Kathryn pulls out her phone for nanny-cam confirmation of a timely tuck-in, and suddenly, we’re all behind our screens. Katie’s tagged me in a photo I don’t remember posing for, a curated highlight from an evening that’s not yet over. Dessert menus appear. I offer to split because it’s something to say, but they each order their own. In proper celebration of a night out that doesn’t require rushing home to pay a sitter, no one’s willing to go halfway.

 

Past my bedtime, in a hired stranger’s backseat, I dictate a fresh note—I arrive late comma marooned again—changing bank accounts back to banquettes, for itch to far edge rather than leaving them for later. I pretend these details matter, that scattered among strangers in the darkness might be one person who’ll notice, that there might be another way to share.

Author's Note

None of the Kates or Katies in my contacts list attended the dinner that inspired this story—not the one who baked lactation cookies for me, nor the one who traveled from another state for my baby shower, and definitely not the one who ghosted me after a string of playdates. Fiction is a safe place for me to explore the complexities of mom friendships, what can and can’t be shared, and the loneliness that can creep in even when surrounded by others. As I've fumbled through parenthood, fellow moms have been a lifeline, but making art has helped me to forge sustaining connections of another kind.

Colleen Rothman’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Mutha Magazine, and Jellyfish Review, among others. She is a 2018 Best Small Fictions nominee. After more than a decade living in the Midwest, she is proud to once again call New Orleans home. Find her on Twitter @colleenrothman.

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