by Mark Cravens
We’d arrived for the dinner party and I didn’t want to get out of the car. So Dave stepped out first. He closed his door, walked quickly around to the passenger side, and hopped on the curb in what seemed like one fluid motion. I waited until he reached his hand out to open my door for me and only then did I claw the latch and kick my way out. He jumped back on the sidewalk to avoid the swinging door and remained at a distance, giving me room. I made him wait while I adjusted my outfit, then I jabbed the bottle of wine we’d brought toward his chest. “Here.”
“You can give it to her.”
“No,” I said. “She’s not my friend. You do it.”
Dave took the bottle and I looked past him. That’s when I first noticed the house, a sea-green cape cod that sat below street level and sank into a canopy of trees, its yard connected to the sidewalk by a set of cracked and crumbing cement steps. A strand of white Christmas lights along the eaves drew attention to a roof streaked with sooty black lines. We descended the steps into the yard. The hedges next to the porch emitted a strong and unpleasant odor like certain kinds of shrubs tend to do. Dave had been to this woman’s house before and spent the drive into town apologizing for its lack of exterior charm while I plucked at the zipper tabs on my boots and said nothing. He had assured me over and over that the inside of the house was the impressive part.
A large flowerpot full of purple hydrangea blooms held the screen door open against the front siding. Soft jazzy music leaked from the entrance. Happy Leif Ericson Day Everybody! Come on in! was the message posted on a red index card above the doorbell. The letters were written in a feminine hand – not cursive, but print written with a mixture of capital and lowercase letters to look stylish, like a font. Dave grinned as he read the note and then he looked at me. “Ha!” he said, clearly amused. “I think we should go in.”
“Whatever you want.”
The foyer was lit by a platoon of white candles which stood guard on narrow wall shelves. Their light made shadows that flickered and danced in the drafty air, and I held my arms close to me to avoid the tiny flames. We were met by an attractive short woman with impossibly loud footsteps. She appeared to be in her mid-thirties like us, with a large practiced smile and glossy black hair. This was Jill, our host. Dave worked with this woman.
“David! I’m so glad you’re here.” She buried the right side of her face into his chest as they hugged, then she turned to me and held out her hand. “I’m Jill Nishimura. You must be Sarah. Oh my god, David’s right,” she said. “Your eyes are lovely.”
I weakly tugged at her hand. “Thanks. I like your earrings.” I only noticed her red-and-yellow beaded earrings after I said it. They made her look like someone who was earthy and into folk music, but her short skirt made her seem like someone who could influence international politics using only her behind.
“And David, that shirt is nice.” She looked over her shoulder. “See, this is what I’m talking about,” Jill said to the tall man who’d just materialized behind her. “You men know how to dress all of the sudden.” She lifted her hand and pointed to introduce the man, who was thin and dressed like he was about to go on stage at a poetry reading. His brown corduroy jacket fit tightly and his tie was fat and silky black. “This is my boyfriend, Jarrett.”
He raised his hand in a bored wave. “Nice to meet you,” he said with a voice that matched his frame. He reached for the wine bottle in Dave’s hand. “I’ll take that. The kitchen is behind us if you’d like some hor d’oeuvres,” he said, “but you should really take a tour of the house first.”
“A self-guided tour,” added Jill. “But don’t go upstairs. We’re still working on the studio.” Another couple stepped into the entryway behind us and Jarrett touched her on the back of her arm, to nudge her away from us. “We’ll chat later, Sarah,” Jill said. “Enjoy yourselves. Eat! Drink!”
Dave turned to look behind him, at Jill. Then we started our self-guided tour. “Who are they?” someone at the door asked, referring to us. I noted a look of disappointment in Dave’s face and fought off a grin. We checked out the interior décor in silence. The farther we walked from the kitchen, the more the house filled up with the scent of potpourri sticks and fragrant dark wood furniture. Dave’s cologne also mixed in. He had bought a new scent for the occasion. I didn’t like his new smell and had told him so at the perfume counter the day before.
“I’m sick of smelling sweet,” he’d said. “It’s time to grow up and be a man.”
Just like that. A man. It felt good to know that I’d married something less than that.
So he’d bought his cologne. Then he’d insisted that I buy the awful boots.
I stopped in front of an open door, a bedroom decorated in an Eastern theme, with a bronze Buddha statue and a pair of samurai swords mounted above the bed. The room was so clean. I only felt comfortable poking my head in and giving it a quick look. The next room had the feel of a museum exhibit. Movie posters from the forties and fifties covered one wall, all inside vintage frames with Now Playing printed across the top. An old projector pointed toward a white screen with a reel set to go. In front of the projector sat two plush movie theater chairs in a plum color.
I thought of our house, with the crushed orange Goldfish crackers perpetually scattered around the kitchen table. We watched TV on a television in the living room, below yellow spots on the ceiling from that time the bathtub had leaked. And while we watched our television, we sat on neutral-colored furniture practically arranged against the walls, on top of durable carpet covered with toys and stains, in-between walls scarred with scuffs and gashes. Upstairs there was a bed in the guest room that I’d stopped asking Dave to make.
“Interesting choices,” I said.
“He’s into movies. She’s Japanese. So what?” More than once, Dave had talked Jill up as being someone that he had a lot in common with. He used words like culturally-aware, artsy, quasi-socialistic, athletic, all of which described the person Dave had become over the previous half-year. But I saw no comparison between myself and Jill. I wasn’t in that league. And Dave used to hate people like Jill and her league. Now he espoused the idea that so many varying commonalities connected everyone. There were no leagues, only self-made constructs that people created to feel inferior. We were all the same really, regardless of status or background. It was his new philosophy, presented over and over to me in confident, manifesto-styled speeches. The new skinny Dave, whose wife had to wear the same shiny expensive boots as everyone else, was in everyone’s league.
I walked back through the hallway and noticed a cabinet filled with ceramic statues–miniature people dressed in medieval clothing, walking with animals or holding fruit or other objects, some of them with wounds painted on their torsos in red, some whose hands were marked with the stigmata. I found them beautiful and Catholic and reminiscent of what little I knew about Renaissance art. Jill walked into the hallway with us and gasped like she hadn’t expected to see us there.
“What are those?” I asked, pointing at the statues.
“Patron saints,” Jill said. “We’re not religious. We just think they’re kind of quaint.”
I remembered a little about patron saints from college, that some represented certain qualities, that others were martyrs. I was about to ask Jill what qualities each statue represented. I bet she knew, but she’d answer like she was guessing, like it wasn’t a big deal that she knew. But then Jarrett walked up behind her and guided Jill back towards the foyer. It sounded like some other people were arriving. I stood close to Dave. “She’s putting on. Look at all this. Who collects statues of saints if they’re not religious?”
“Stop judging, Sarah. She’s cool. You’ll like her.”
“I don’t like her.”
He eye-rolled me. “Please, Sarah.”
“You know, it’s a lot easier to have a skinny little waist and a perfect house when you don’t have kids. What is she going to do when she has children? All these statues are going to end up broken on the floor.”
“They don’t want kids. Good for them. There’s nothing noble about having children anyway.”
“What do these people do besides decorate their house and throw dinner parties? They live pointless lives. Our life has substance.”
“Choosing to help overpopulate the Earth doesn’t make us any more substantial than other people.”
“Tell your children that.”
The tone of our conversation felt familiar. It triggered a thought. “She’s going to be here, isn’t she?”
Every time I thought I was free, she popped up again. It was obvious now why he’d wanted the new cologne, but I wasn’t sure who he wanted to impress, whether it was Jill or her. I heard Jill greeting another couple. The man, who Jill called Rex, spoke with a voice fit for radio news or game show hosting. His wife, a woman with a baritone voice that sounded cultured, said her name was Genevieve, but to call her Ginny. Someone turned up the sound system and loud jazz poured in from another part of the house, scratchy and popping, like it was being played on a vinyl record player. Jazz on vinyl. A film projector. People named Rex and Ginny. I wondered what sort of pretense was in store for the encore. Perhaps there was a room of original paintings by an up-and-coming local artist with a price tag posted on each frame. Jill could talk about what a deal she’d gotten on them. I could embarrass Dave by telling everyone that we bought our artwork at discount chains.
Finally we sat at the dinner table. A white wine had already been poured for each guest and I didn’t wait for anyone else before snatching my glass at the top of its stem and starting in. Two couples that we hadn’t met sat on the other side of Jill and Jarrett. Four other chairs at the middle of the table were empty. Dave and I were across from Rex and Ginny. I found out that Rex was a plastic surgeon and Ginny a pharmacist. They were in their late forties and pleasant to us, like they would’ve been to people they were stuck in line with.
Two more couples arrived, with she and her husband being the last to show. She was Melissa: tall and thin with a dark exotic face and auburn hair pulled back into a tight ponytail that curled around the front of her left shoulder. She wore a low-cut black sweater and a wine red velvet skirt. I already felt like the dumpiest, most homely woman there, and Melissa intensified that feeling. My jeans felt baggy where they weren’t tucked into the boots. My black sweater had grown patches of lint balls like mold.
I glanced at Dave and wanted him to look at me, to experience this with me. Instead he lazily scanned the people at the table, wearing the self-satisfied grin that had marred his face for the past few months. After some conversation that Dave and many others found enthralling – talk about one person or another’s exercise program or tennis racket grip – Jill allowed us to help ourselves to the food. We bunched at the entryway to the kitchen and I made my way inside with tiny footsteps.
Jill had prepared a meal of pork roast with a maple glaze, with sides of steamed asparagus and garlic potatoes sprinkled with rosemary and a drizzle of locally churned butter. All of it looked delicious and I thought how it must be nice to always have so much time to make a meal. I stuffed my face with the potatoes as soon as everyone was seated back at the table. The conversations remained horrible, and not because I didn’t understand what they were talking about, even though they probably thought I didn’t. Their chatting was too clever and contrived – intended to impress at levels that truly decent people never stooped to. In-between the office talk and inside jokes between Jill and my husband (“Ugh, Wilson is the worst!” “So so, what do you say?” “Ha!”), Dave joined in on simplistic rants with Melissa about class warfare and the hopeful end of the free-market economy. Jill held her wine glass up next to her face, shaking it gently while she eyed Dave like a salivating dog. Melissa leaned in, sharing thoughtful, head-tilting, almost loving glances with my husband. They discussed inhumane meat packaging, our president’s latest imperial ambitions, and carbon emissions. I continued to concentrate on my food, wielding the expensive flatware like a shovel. The fine china acted as my trough.
I hated that I mostly agreed with them. I tried to dredge up something I could say to counter them, my mind trying to zero in on some of my father’s old conservative rants, delivered to me with his feet propped up in a La-Z-Boy, his dinner plate resting in his lap. But nothing my father had ever said was sophisticated enough for these people. Besides, their ideas sounded less like statements of true conviction and more like collective back-patting. At some point, the room quieted except for a few giggles and the clinks of forks on plates.
“Sarah, what do you do?” Jill asked.
The other couples’ eyes lasered in on me. The question made me wonder if Jill knew anything about me other than my eyes.
“I’m a nurse,” I said.
“Yes. A true hero,” said Melissa.
“What kind of nurse?” Jill asked.
“NICU. It’s the intensive care unit for infants.”
Ginny brought her hand up to her chest. “That must be heartbreaking.”
Ginny shook her head and Rex smiled at me. I looked over at Dave again, who ignored what I said and mouthed something silently at Jill. Melissa’s husband whispered something to Jarrett. The other couples nodded politely and resumed talking among themselves.
“It must be rewarding, saving lives,” Melissa suddenly said to me.
“Yes, it is, Melissa.”
“You must feel so special.” She stopped for a second like she was waiting for everyone to listen. “I want to hear about it. We all do. Right Jill? Right Davey? Come on Sarah, let’s hear all about your heroic acts.”
Jill’s smile evaporated. She and Melissa eyed each other like boxers before a match, although I was the one being jabbed.
I talked like I had the floor. “The best part is that I get to hold these babies who no one else gets to hold, who a lot of the time nobody even wants. Many of them are born addicts. I get to feed them. I get to be their moms, all of their moms. Sometimes I’m all they have to comfort them. That’s the best part, that I can give them something they may never get again, and I’m the most important person in the world to them. I feel like they all love me. Not many people get that feeling. It’s pretty special.”
Jill fidgeted with her phone. Seconds later, Melissa fidgeted with hers too. Sour expressions became sourer. Rex nodded at me. Ginny knuckled an invisible tear in the corner of her eye and clasped her hands together in a way that made her biceps appear even sleeker. Phillip stared up at the crystal chandelier above the table. Melissa and Jill continued to tap on their phones, their lips tightly pursed, their brows furrowed, their shoulders and necks tense. The other people there, people who I didn’t know at all, went about their meals like nothing was happening. I bet none of them had as many real heartfelt experiences in a week as I had in an hour on the job, in just one afternoon with my sons.
I glanced into the hallway and I could see the statues in their cabinet, those martyrs who gave everything for their convictions and beliefs, for what was right. They did it with dignity. I decided that I could too. Then Dave’s face appeared right in front of mine. “You’re the best, babe. I’m so proud of you,” he said, and kissed me, his mouth parted, my upper lip between his, feeling his front teeth. Afterwards, he leaned forward, with his elbows on the table and his back curving beautifully under his snug shirt, blocking my view of Jill and Melissa. I wanted to imagine their shocked expressions, their realization that they couldn’t ever have what I had. But all I had was Dave’s placating grin, a brilliant and whitened half-moon on his face, only smiling as my fingers choked the life out of my serrated steak knife. Only smiling.
Mark Cravens lives in Apex, NC with his wife and four sons. At some point, he’d like to write a novel, but for now you can read more of his fiction at The Bicycle Review and Swamp Biscuits and Tea.