THE DINNER THING
So, they decided to go to the dinner thing. And now Audrey is looking across the table at her husband next to her oldest friend and her oldest friend’s beautiful wife and she thinks that perhaps it was really a mistake.
A screened-in porch. Thin little perfect French doors. Fireflies in the garden. Some kind of asparagus and quinoa concoction on her plate. Cloth napkins. The group was composed of three couples: Audrey and Ben, Liza and Natalie, and, lastly, Dennis Cuthbert and Susan Cuthbert.
Dennis and Susan were relatively new friends of Liza and Natalie, and they were those people. The kind that made Audrey feel both resentful and vaguely turned-on at the same time. Well-educated, straight teeth, J. Crew everything. She found herself genuinely wondering what their skin care regiments entailed, and she loathed herself for it.
Ben was talking a lot; the drinks from dinner were finally starting to hit.
“—just came up to our door and waited for hours, it was so sad.”
“Freddy, be careful!”
“We put out some water and called the right people, you know, but the guy who showed up looked high out of his mind . . . ”
“Remember when they had the Olympics in Russia?” Natalie says, slim arms folded on the table. “They tried to kill all the city’s strays and some guy from Moscow drove there and saved as many as he could fit in his car.”
Liza steps out onto the porch and slides into her seat, tucking her white skirt under her bottom. Audrey looks at her; their eyes briefly meet. Audrey looks away, knowing that they are both, in their own way, hating each other.
She’s probably dreaming of when everyone will leave, Audrey thinks, and she and Nat can do the dishes and talk about them all and unfold into each other. Nice house, nice kids, nice marriage. Freddy, their son, whizzes around the backyard with the iPad as a blond blur, pretending the digital plane on the screen is the real thing. It’s obnoxious behavior, but it’s not her place to say anything. If anything, she wishes she could clap her hand over Ben’s mouth, maybe stop him from talking about the stupid dog and talk about something else, something like television or current events or, god, even health care.
“The rescue we got Bailey at is always overcrowded, mismanaged,” says Dennis Cuthbert. He’s sitting beside Audrey and wearing a gingham-print shirt, speckled at the hem by the occasional crumb lost on passage from plate to teeth. “These places never have enough money.”
Does anyone? she thinks.
“We’re being careful about the ‘d’ word in the house,” Liza says with a grin. “Astrid’s new obsession is baby pugs.”
“She’s already become one of those old women who greets the dogs and not their owners at the park—we couldn’t be more proud.”
“Maybe next year.”
“I grew up with a husky,” adds Susan Cuthbert. “It’s good for kids to grow up with a pet, I think.”
Audrey looks at Ben, but he’s not looking back. At least they had Rigby, their fussy brown cat, she thinks. She reconsidered Ben’s words from the week prior, when this whole thing started. I mean, we’re not getting any younger. She had been sitting on the sofa, paging through a magazine and looking at some photos of Rihanna on a beach, and he had been at the kitchen sink, doing the dishes. Maybe we should get practical about it. They were so good when they were alone, together, didn’t he see? We’re not getting any younger. Married for five years without children was not what others called progress, but did they need more than just the two of them? Saucer-like vitamin pills, tiny little blankets. It would be a lot of change. Too much change maybe.
At least they had Rigby.
“We tried getting her in at SPA, but that was a bust.”
“A lot of 3M people send their kids there, I’ve heard,” Susan Cuthbert says, “so they probably get filled up decades in advance. They seem like planner types over there.”
“What about one of the Catholic schools?”
Liza laughs, Natalie smiles.
“I think they might have taken issue with certain, um, aspects of our home life.”
“Maybe,” Audrey says, trying to sound reasonable. “You never know!”
She did know, however, and she knew because they themselves had gone to Catholic school. She and Liza, back in the day. Ride or die. Pig tails. Lifetimes ago, worlds away, it felt like. Two very different beings. Didn’t the human body replace all its cells over a period of seven years? Thrice over then. Whole countries could rise and fall in the time between the present and their childhoods, when everything depended on a chalk-line and the arc of a jump-rope.
They started talking about religion now, one of those insistently bourgeois ways to suggest interiority by dropping some proper nouns and nodding thoughtfully.
“We never really talked about faith when I was growing up,” Dennis Cuthbert says, looking briefly up from his phone. “Lutherans, whaddya gonna do?”
“My mom could never stop talking about it,” Liza says. “She grew up Greek Orthodox, though… I think she just had a thing for gold bling.”
“Oh Colleen…” Natalie says, smiling, as though this was just one of many known, funny eccentricities.
Audrey is reminded of the time in the 11th grade when she and Liza were sharing a joint, clandestinely purchased from a noted school pariah, when they thought Liza’s parents were working late. Colleen came home, smelled it on their clothes. She didn’t yell at them, but she couldn’t resist a chance to regurgitate some choice quotes from a recent D.A.R.E. campaign commercial. Throughout, she played nervously with the gaudy bangles at her wrist.
Another thing to add to the list of maternal skills she lacked—
19) doubtful of one’s efficacy in discipline / “tough love”
They all move on to dessert, and Audrey assents when Natalie offers to fill up her glass of cabernet. As she brings the bottle down to the glass, Audrey catches a brief scent of Natalie’s perfume. It smelled like jasmine and something else, something bitter. Bitter in a pleasing way.
“So Ben, how are things with work?” asks Susan Cuthbert. This comes off innocently enough, but Susan’s tone—its lightness, its care—has a robotic precision that makes Audrey uneasy.
“A little bit of this, a little bit of that,” Ben says. “They’re still holding out on a promotion, but I feel good about it this year.”
Target Corporate. Brand Management. There were worse jobs out there.
“The new commercial is really cute,” Natalie says.
“I saw the dip in stock this week—any ruptures in the leadership?” Dennis Cuthbert asks.
Though you can’t see it yourself, you know Ben is nervously rubbing his palms together under the table.
“Uh . . . not sure,” he says, suddenly more keen on examining the tablecloth than continuing with that conversational thread.
Audrey resists the impulse to squirm in her seat. Increasingly, being uninformed does not feel like a simple preoccupation with other matters, as it did in your twenties; in your thirties, it was a great failure of character. Didn’t care about the community, didn’t care about the world. Didn’t know much about anything at all. And, more generally, this provided a basic architecture for one of her greatest fears—that someone might ever find her ridiculous.
Liza comes back with an immaculate apple pie and a canister of whipped cream. “Aw that looks gorgeous, Liza, really.” “Oh stop, it’s store bought don’t thank me too much.” “Hey, that takes work too!” “Who wants some? What about you, Aud? Freddie, I have pie! Yeah, kiddo, here at the table.” “Big slice or little slice? You’ll have to grab a plate.” “Big slice, please, I skipped lunch today.” “Susan, are you in?”
“No, thank you, I’m full,” Susan Cuthbert says with a polite, dismissive move of the chin. Audrey understands this, even though she herself takes a slice. Susan Cuthbert is a mother of two young girls and, no doubt, the bearer of two long stretch marks on her left side. We’re not getting any younger. The body always betrays its wearer.
The pie really was delicious. The slices are quickly consumed, reduced to crumbs.
After the plates are cleared, Astrid’s blonde head appears at the table. She has a butterfly clip near her temple and full, ebullient face. “Is it time to play?
Liza nods to the eight-year-old. The girl skips to the living room piano nearby, settling herself on the chair as Liza gets up from the table. Mother and daughter sit beside each other on the little bench, convening in whispers about what to play. Audrey has a notion to laugh, and Dennis Cuthbert does actually laugh. But she notices that his laughter is a father’s snickering, audible but not cruel.
They start playing a sweet, slow melody. Liza fills in when Astrid needs her, but the girl needs little help. She’s brilliant, everyone can tell.
The notes play against Audrey like rain on a church window. Without turning her head, her eyes drift over to Ben; she almost doesn’t recognize the look on her husband’s face, listening to those notes. He is escaping her and becoming someone else all at once, she thinks.
She briefly considers the other faces. She considers Liza, in particular. Tan cheekbones, dark bronze hair. Golden there, sitting beside her legacy, and Audrey thinks to herself about everything they had been through together—heartbreak, failure, parents dying, Liza coming out.
Once upon a time, in fact, everyone suspected that she and Liza were together. For the longest time, actually. But that wasn’t the case, not at all. That wasn’t what they were to each other. She had Ben, and Liza had Natalie. They all had jobs, pets, childrens, bank accounts, etc.
Maybe the details, however, aren’t enough to explain the thing itself. They don’t explain the unspoken theme, which is that they were always eclipsing each other, tossing the other into relief: if one of them slipped up or hit a wall, the other could fit around their shoulders, provide a safe darkness. If one of them had a break-up, the other could go home and thank the god of dirty bedroom ceilings that they didn’t have to experience such things in the blessedly spare present.
Had it been a decade that they had been together, Natalie and Liza? Time had begun to slip on banana peels. It felt like she had been thirteen for centuries, and now each day was a new decade.
A clock ticking. Minutes to midnight, and where were they?
Astrid holds a long G before taking her hands away from the keys. They all clap and smile. Liza holds Astrid’s hand as they do a tiny bow for their little audience. They return to the table, the daughter managing to balance herself on the seat of her mother’s lap.
Naturally, they shower them with kindnesses.
“That was wonderful, seriously, I’ve been trying to get Joey to take up piano for months.”
“It was really lovely, really something.”
“You should start a Youtube channel!”
Ben drinks more wine. She knows that he is oblivious to the fact that Liza and Natalie are annoyed and bored with them. Annoyed and bored at this old social obligation. He is too drunk on the wine and the house and the fact that he is friends with an architect and a lawyer and that they like the same things he likes. Audrey defers. It always felt terrible to be the agent of such annoyance and boredom in your oldest friend. She wonders if this is somehow reactionary, a drawn out response to something she herself is doing.
No, that couldn’t be it. Could it? She tries mentioning an old classmate to revive her.
“Jake Meister…why does that sound familiar?” Natalie says.
“He was always hanging out with Karl, wasn’t he? Karl Anderson?” Liza asks.
“Um, yeah, I think so.
“Better for it, probably. All his other friends got picked up for coke first year out of school.”
“This is the guy at Zorba’s?” Ben asks. “The one with the droopy eye?”
“Yeah,” Audrey says. She feels strangely harmed by these comments, as though they were being leveled at her in Meister’s stead. “He was always obsessed with you, remember? He was a sweet kid.”
“Invited me to his 4-H show at the State Fair once, for the chickens his parents raised in the backyard,” Liza says. “Really missed out on the One, didn’t I?”
“You could have been soulmates,” Susan Cuthbert adds dreamily, sarcastically.
They laugh. Ben laughs. Audrey can’t help but feel a pang of sympathy for young Jake Meister. For some inexplicable reason, their teasing irks her.
“What’s he up to now?” Liza asks.
“Jake? Didn’t really say.”
“And he works at Zorba’s? As a waiter?”
“Yeah,” Audrey says. “As a waiter.”
This doesn’t entertain them for long; they switch over to something else. She excuses herself to the bathroom.
“Use the one upstairs, the toilet down here has been on the struggle bus lately.”
She walks up the stairs. Perfect stairs. Soft carpet underfoot, tastefully trimmed by the polished wood. New construction. She hears Ben’s voice drift up from the dining room, a contribution to the cheery voices.
It seemed like they were always too young for these things.
She walks past the childrens’ rooms and into Liza and Natalie’s room, finds herself in the warmly-lit bathroom, a minimalist counter and glass shower. She uses the toilet and washes her hands, pausing before the mirror while drying her hands on the rack towel.
She gathers her things to leave, but something stops her. The second drawer of the vanity is ajar, almost demanding to be opened further. It piques her curiosity. She opens the drawer further and examines the small box of q-tips and the make-up palettes inside. She never considered herself one to rifle through others’ bathrooms, and she feels airily detached from the person now groping through the private stocks of her friends, trying to learn something about their morning routines and day-to-day habits.
She thinks about the bathroom she shares with Ben. The toothbrushes and pink walls.
We’re not getting any younger.
A hand resurfaces from the drawer, content with what it discovered. A tiny circle of plastic, only half-occupied by capsules. Soft, delicate colors. It was not an unsurprising thing to find in a woman’s bathroom, but it’s presence here, in this particular bathroom, is confusing to her. Maybe one of them needs it for the hormones? Was one of them having an affair with a man, of all things, and needed it to raise the body’s mysterious fertility threshold? It seems to hum in her hands, as though awake to its own mystery, its own siren appeal.
Who do you belong to? Audrey thinks. How long have you been in there?
Before pausing to reconsider, she clicks the small plastic fastener open, takes a few of the pills, and slide them into the bottom of her pant pockets. The anxieties that would normally plague her seem muffled and far away. It was a harmless act, really. Just birth control. And if either Natalie or Liza ever said anything, if they ever brought it up, she would find the words to make it ok. Even if it took days. Even if it took years.
She closes the plastic container and stashes it back in their respective places. Her gaze lingers on a black, fancy-looking bottle. It has a French word written in shiny, handsome letters on the side. A hand reaches out tentatively to it; cool to the touch. The hand takes off the cap, releasing the the briefest of scents. She recognizes the smell—Natalie’s perfume. Sweet, jasmine-ish. And bitter too, yes.
She pulls up her shirt sleeve, turns her wrist. No one would even notice. She sprays a bit of the fragrance on her skin, and waits for something to happen.