Monticello500x575I stole another woman’s boyfriend once. Maybe he was her ex-boyfriend, or she was about to break up with him. I can’t remember now except that he came to the apartment I shared with his girlfriend, and he watched TV with me while she went out and had sex with other men. One night, the two of us—my roommate’s boyfriend and I—reached for each other in the stairwell, and a few weeks later, my roommate caught us. When she moved out, she left me with a clogged sink, an overdue electric bill, and her kitchen table, a solid wood four-seater with a removable leaf.

She wasn’t really my friend. We met at the bar where we both waitressed in the year I took off from college. I’d just broken up with my last boyfriend, a boy who would be the source of my longing for years, an ageless boy I still miss sometimes, briefly, his absence caught in my throat like honeysuckle on a June breeze. The roommate and I moved in together out of convenience—a shared rent we paid in cash from our tips, a little less loneliness.

I didn’t really love her boyfriend, either. We were simply taking comfort in each other. But after his girlfriend moved out, we stayed together, our relationship the consolation prize of our betrayal, a thing we had to do to justify the pain we’d caused. We had nothing in common and fought constantly. When it ended two years later, I think we were both relieved, absolved, finally, of our misdeed.

But the kitchen table remained with me. I took it when I went back to college, snorting thin lines of cocaine from its smooth surface. I took it to graduate school where it stayed more or less decorative in my dining room, used for party buffets, and once for a meal I cooked for the man who would become my husband. Chicken Georgia. We were still new then. Being with him made me nervous, certain as I was that he wouldn’t—he shouldn’t—love me. I took one bite of chicken and forgot how to swallow, then jumped from the table and rammed my stomach against the edge of the counter. Afterward, I sunk to the linoleum floor and cried for how desperate my love was. My husband, not yet my husband, crouched beside me and said he loved me, too, and he was here, he was staying.

We moved the table to Alabama, then to New York, where it was too big for our apartment and got stored in my mother’s barn. This summer, with me four months pregnant, we moved it to Wisconsin. During dinner the other night, my husband pointed to the space between our chairs, and asked of our unborn daughter, “Will we put her high chair here?”

Some mornings, I wake up breathless with shame. What do we do with the things we know of ourselves, but cannot change? My father, dead ten months now, kept in his briefcase the court paperwork from the time, a decade ago, he hit a motorcycle while driving drunk, leaving that shame for me to find when I took over his business. I slept with another woman’s boyfriend. My daughter will eat at her kitchen table.

When my pregnancy test came back positive six months after my father died, I prepared for a miscarriage. For my body, swarmed by sadness and regret, to reject anything hopeful that tried to take root there.

But my former roommate’s boyfriend, he drove me to the community college one day after we slept together and got stuck like that chicken in my throat, like the boy I loved before him. He helped me register for classes, and then paid for my books. I got all A’s and a scholarship to another university, and then I went to graduate school and met my husband.

Maybe I’m keeping the table like an inheritance. Something I didn’t want in the way I got it, a story that circumstantially became mine. It started with a mistake, but the table will soon absorb crayon marks, get blanketed in Cheerios. Maybe someday we’ll replace it, move it to the basement of our next house, wait for our daughter to get her own place and need it. But it will always be the table we shared as a new family, a reason for hope despite all I’ve done to eschew it, despite all I’ve done for love.

Amy Monticello is the author of Close Quarters. Her work has appeared in The Iron Horse Literary ReviewRedivider, Waccamaw, and elsewhere, and was listed as notable in Best American Essays 2013. She is regular contributor at The Nervous Breakdown, and currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Photography by Liz Wuerffel