The Mistress At Christmas

She's met his wife. Of course she has.

Posted Dec 17, 2010

Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby" is playing on The Other's Woman's sound system. She sings along with gusto, since it's clearly not Mrs. Claus who's inviting Santa to hurry down her chimney and trim her tree.

But in her voice there's a little more anger every year, an emotion as pointed as a poinsettia but not as pretty. You can hear it most clearly when she gets to the line about wanting a "ring" ("I don't mean on the phone").

If she's over 35, she probably suspects she isn't getting that ring.

Maybe she tells herself she doesn't want it: After all, she already has a full life and why clutter it up with a full-time relationship? Where would she find the time, the energy, the metaphoric and literal space? She gets the best of him and his wife gets the rest.

That's her internal monologue and, for much of the time at least, the mantra soothes her.

But holidays make it harder to find a safe place in her head. It's as if the world conspires against her from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day. Any day with a parade is not one of her favorites.

What's she going to do in celebration of the season? Put a photograph of herself and her 500-count Egyptian sheets on a Shutterbug card and send it out with a warm-hearted message? 

Halloween is her holiday, with masks and disguises, with catsuits and pirate outfits. She's a shape-shifter, a plunderer, a thief, and she knows it.

Call her all the names you want, and you'll discover that she's called herself worse. It's not like you're telling her something she doesn't know. She's the backstreet girl, the booty call in perpetuum.

She's Jezebel. She's Little Suzy Homewrecker.

So she makes the round of holiday parties, makes cookies and makes pies, makes jokes and makes new friends. She makes nice. She is nice. It's not bad, but there's a blanked-out figure where the man she loves should be.

She can't call him; too risky. She can't email him; anything in writing is out. She's tempted, at her worst moments, to drive by his house in order to catch a glimpse of him through the window when his home is brightly lit after dark. Is his car there? Is she there? The wife?

Not "his wife" but "the wife."

She thinks about his marriage as if he weren't part of the emotional equation, as if his own choices and desires didn't factor in.

She's met his wife. Of course she has.

Over the holidays there might be gatherings where they'll all meet by accident-on-purpose on her part, where she'll dash in perfectly dressed and pink-cheeked from the cold and with the anticipation of seeing him, however briefly and publicly, and he'll stand next to his wife, awkwardly shifting his weight from foot to foot and wrinkling his forehead in an embarrassed grin as if to say "You know how I feel, right?" He'll look about 6 years old, a kid who discovered where the toys were hidden long before they were wrapped and played with them without telling anybody.

If he told, then somebody might take the toys away because it wouldn't be fair. His sheepish look is undercut by a devilish grin. He shrugs his shoulders as if to say "OK, you caught me. But, hey, you know me inside out and I love you for it."

In the past, she's always found that little-kid-with-a-secret-look endearing. But today she's less impressed. Maybe she looks at the wife, a woman more like herself than she'd care to admit. Usually she thinks of her as the woman who has everything and doesn't appreciate it, but today his wife looks restless, tired, overworked, needy, a little frantic around the eyes. She looks older, but then who doesn't? 

Can this really be her rival? Is this the enemy she cries herself to sleep over on those nights when she can't convince herself that she has the best part of the deal?

During the holidays, the Other Woman goes for lots of long walks, to clear her head, to keep herself in shape, to get out into the world and out of herself. She walks by a rink and sees the skaters, singly and in pairs, moving with surprising grace. After watching for quite some time, almost mesmerized, she sees how one skater who'd been keeping up a lively pace slows, turns briefly to wave to her companion, and leaves the ice without faltering or looking back.

She thinks about how the only thing to do when you want to stop going in circles is to stop.

"Think of all the fun I've missed," she sings, a line from "Santa Baby" that begins to take on new meaning as she walks home.