Carla orders a glass of the house white and a Cobb salad. I’ve never seen a Cobb salad in person before, but I’ve heard that they’re the kind of thing upper-middle-class white women order with all these obnoxious alternations — no eggs, dressing on the side, no bacon, whatever. Carla orders it straight up, thank god, and tells me this place has the best Cobb salad she’s ever had. I order the house white and a Cobb salad. That makes Carla smile. She likes to be same-same.
Most people think she likes to control people, but I think Carla is the kind of insecure that makes her want a buddy to prove that the things she likes and the things she does are Good. It’s easy to make her happy. Once, when we were undergraduates and still saw each other every day, she got into wearing red lipstick. No one else we knew ever wore it, but for my birthday she bought me a tube of the expensive kind. At dinner, when I unwrapped it from its delicate white tissue paper, she said, try it on, so I tried it on and even though it made me feel like a clown, I kept it on all night, even reapplying after we ate, and then we became best friends. So now, whenever I meet up with Carla, I wear my red lipstick — the same one, even though whenever I use it, I can smell that it’s gone off, like old crayons — and I order whatever she’s ordering.
We don’t see each other that often anymore. Maybe once a month, sometimes less. Carla picks the place, some bistro I’ve never heard of. You’d think after a while the city would run out of bistros I’ve never heard of, but it never does. I always say, wow, this place is so nice, I can’t believe I’ve never been here before, and she always seems proud. Without fail, she’s already there when I arrive, waiting at our table in her red lipstick, and I like to feel waited for. We use each other, Carla and me.
Today, she looks tired. I’m tired too, so that’s good. We’re same-same. I’m tired because I’ve gone on four-and-a-half blind dates this week. The half-date, a coffee date, I enjoyed well enough, but had to leave early because my roommate got locked out of the apartment (no, really) and now that I’ve ditched him with an excuse like that, no matter how legitimate, he won’t want to go out again. I don’t like going on blind dates. I don’t really like going on dates at all. But Carla has a boyfriend, and she’s always saying we should double, and every other woman friend I have gets tired of me because being single is boring unless you’re doing something about it. So, I go on the dates because at least then I have something to talk about.
I have some news, Carla says, just as I’m about to tell her about the half-date. She sips on the house white. I take a sip, too. My lipstick leaves behind a waxy red smudge. Hers is still pristine: she’s wearing the nice kind of lipstick that doesn’t transfer, that you have to scrub off. But she wears it every day, so it probably isn’t even worth scrubbing off. She’s probably forgotten what her natural lip colour is. The house white is fine, indistinguishable from the dozens of other bistro-I’ve-never-heard-of house whites we’ve tried.
Oh? I say. Everything okay?
I’m in menopause, she says, and puts down her glass. She fans herself with her hand, maybe to show that she’s having a hot flash or something.
Menopause, I ask as I wipe at the waxy lipstick stain on the glass, making it worse. Carla, if you’re late, wouldn’t your first guess be pregnancy?
No, she says, you know how I was feeling so shitty all the time? The doctors say its early onset.
Carla, you’re twenty-six.
The waiter brings our Cobb salads. I’ve lost my appetite, but I pick through the massive pile of toppings and iceberg lettuce.
Anyway, she continues, this happens to some people our age. I went to the doctor and they said some people get some kind of premature thing, like they run out of eggs, or other people do it medically. They use like a nasal spray, like for allergies.
Carla doesn’t look sad about it, which either means this happened long enough ago that she’s come to terms with it, or she’s waiting till I make a big deal of it, confirming that she should feel sad before she gets upset. A little while after she’d bought me the lipstick, a professor we had died, and when we got the news, I cried. And then, like she was waiting for someone else to do it first, she did too.
Oh, Carla, I say, that’s awful.
Yeah, she says, picking through her salad. Somehow, she has conquered the monstrous Cobb salad and has managed not to make a mess. Mine is a disaster. She sneaks a look at the pile of food in front of me and seems to purposefully-on-accident brush a forkful onto the linen tablecloth in front of her. She shrugs as if to say, silly me, and plops it back onto her plate with a bashful sigh.
Yeah, doesn’t that kind of change your plans, I say. I know I have the power here to make it no-big-deal, to say: whatever, Carla, you’ll be fine, and she’ll think that the right thing to do is to go on like she’ll be fine, but I can’t bring myself to do it.
I guess, she says. How do you feel about it? I say. I don’t know, she says. She doesn’t look at me.
We finish our glasses of wine and she orders another round. I sip from my water glass and leave a stain there, too. Her lipstick is still perfect.
Do you remember how you used to joke about wanting to go through menopause? she asks. The waiter pours the wine and leaves.
I used to joke about wanting to go through menopause whenever one of us had our period or had gone on a bad date, like if we were in menopause, we wouldn’t have to worry about premenstrual syndrome and guys couldn’t blame us for not putting out on the third date because don’t you know how much harder it is to get turned on when you’re menopausal? I don’t think she got it, but Carla always went along with the joke. The thing was I was just so ashamed of all the things I didn’t have, and how I didn’t want them anyway, but I wasn’t going to tell Carla that. What I’d meant was I wanted to be out of the phase of my life where sex was all-consuming. I wanted to sit in my house all day and wear slippers and fan myself and have everyone leave me alone about my sex life, even if that meant I grew little whiskers I needed to pluck but my head hair went thin and I never ever had sex ever again, or never ever fell in love, period. In my mind, it meant freedom from expectation. First, you’re a girl, and then you’re a woman, and then finally, finally, you’re just a person.
Sure, I say, but that was a joke. I didn’t know anything back then.
But you sort of meant it, right?
Does it matter? What do you feel about it? I say. My patience is waning with Carla. I don’t like the Cobb salad. She gets the rest of hers packed up. I let them pack mine too, but plan my route home past a garbage can, so I can throw it away. If I were mad at Carla, I’d throw it out in front of her. When we were in school and we’d go for a night out, she’d always have the pre-game at her house, so she could sneak off and change what she was wearing if we didn’t match. If I was mad at her, and sometimes I’d be mad at her like you get mad at a lover — irrational and complete and terrifying — I’d wear something of my roommate’s, something weird that she couldn’t emulate. But then we’d all end up having a bad time. So mostly, I’d dress how I guessed she’d dress. Wear the red lipstick. That’s some kind of love, isn’t it? I’m losing patience with her but I’m not mad at her yet. Not yet. I sip my wine and dab my napkin on my lips, slowly wiping away the old, gone-off lipstick, the smallest passive-aggression possible. Carla purses her own cherry-red lips.
I know Carla is not actually asking me to medically induce menopause like I joked I would when I was nineteen. For a moment, though, I consider it. What a great friend I’d be. The thing about Carla and me is that sometimes I feel like if she didn’t care so much about the things I ate and wore and thought and said, nobody would, and you’ve got to at least have someone. So maybe that’s why we are the way we are. I could go on the nasal spray she mentioned — doesn’t matter how I’d convince doctors to let me — and together Carla and I would spend our days dying each other’s grey hairs and reading women’s magazine articles about sex after fifty, even though we wouldn’t be having any, and the best cannabis treatment for hot flashes, even though we’d just keep smoking like we normally do, and start going to bed at nine p.m.
You know, I’ve read all these articles, she says, about younger women in menopause. I don’t think it’ll be so bad.
When we leave the restaurant, Carla goes to the bathroom, and when she comes back, I notice she’s wiped her lipstick off, her lips now a strange half-pink, not quite a natural colour but not her normal red. Outside on the street, it’s neither raining nor sunny, just this terrible cloudy in-between. We half-hug, hold our salads in their dripping, compostable to-go containers outwards from our bodies and use our spare arms to briefly grip each other. We used to hug big and certain, with our whole bodies for minutes at a time, even to say goodbye for just an hour. Carla smells like she always does, bar soap and laundry detergent and now, whatever dressing they use on Cobb salad.
We part ways, I in one direction and she in the other, perfunctorily, like always. I watch her walk away, watch her shoulders relax as she becomes the person she is when she thinks no one is looking. I walk away and I think not about Carla or me or me and Carla, but about half-date guy. I could apologize for bailing early, and maybe because I’ve had two glasses of the house white, or maybe because I’m not yet in menopause and not yet free, I think I might ask him for a do-over. Maybe he’d say, sure, let’s go. I think about how happy it’ll make Carla to finally go on that double.
Hana Mason is a Victoria-based writer from Calgary. She was editor-in-chief of This Side of West Issue 18 at the University of Victoria, where she received a BFA and won the 2020 On The Verge Fiction contest. She has work in Little Fiction, Minola Review, Riddle Fence and elsewhere. More on Twitter: @hanamasonwrites