by Mitzi McMahon
I watch my friend from the doorway and think this was a mistake. I should be at home working on my marriage or at the dry cleaners or at the grocery store, anywhere but here. But Claire called, crying. Said she didn’t want to be alone while her ex-fiancé is tying the knot. I didn’t think it was a good idea for me to come, not now with my own shit so messed up, but I couldn’t say no.
Claire stands in front of the full-length mirror, a shot of whiskey in her hand. I take in the rumpled bed covers, the discarded t-shirts and argyle vests and jeans heaped on a chair, the costume jewelry scattered along the dresser top, and sigh. I kick my sandals off, push my toes into the plush white carpet and slip into the room. Coming up behind Claire, I zero in on her face in the mirror’s reflection, but she won’t meet my gaze.
“I remember our first date,” Claire says, eyes focused somewhere above my head.
“Some things we never forget.”
“Tom picked me up on his motorcycle and we drove to Pritchard Park.” Claire’s finger traces the circle shape of the shot glass. “He proposed the night after the Stones’ concert. Remember that night?”
Barely. Too many beers. And drugs. I did remember being suspicious at the time of the new guy in Claire’s life, but I might’ve felt that way about anyone. Claire and I had been friends since high school. We were an unlikely pair—she was in the chess club and on the debate team, I was into volleyball and track—yet we’d hit it off. I’d seen her through three serious relationships; she’d been my maid of honor.
“Have you seen her?” she asks, her eyes connecting with mine in the mirror. “The twit he’s marrying? Looks like a pogo stick with bowling ball boobs. How am I supposed to compete with that?”
I drape my arm over her shoulders, give a little squeeze. “Don’t be silly. You’re beautiful.” Claire has curves, gorgeous curves that swell and retreat and beg a closer look. So unlike my own boyish frame.
“And she’s five years younger than me. Than him. She’s a girl for chrissake.” She lifts the glass to her lips and the brownish liquid disappears in one gulp. No backwash, no grimace. She refills her glass and then holds the bottle out.
I’m more of a white wine girl, someone who favors fruity concoctions over the hard stuff, things like strawberry or peach daiquiris. But I’m here for her, so I turn the bottle up and let the liquid wet my lips. The tiny drop that gets through burns all the way down. “Five, huh?” I say and set the bottle on the dresser. “She’s got no idea what a real woman is.”
“Damn straight,” Claire says, pronouncing straight as though it has its own set of curves.
“Why don’t you set the glass down?”
“The reception starts in half an hour,” she says.
I hook my thumbs in the pockets of my jeans and skim my foot over the carpet, stalling. Earlier, on the phone, I’d thought Claire was kidding about the reception. I look at her, run through a half dozen responses and finally say, “What about throwing on something a little dressier?” I don’t think crashing the reception is a great idea, but if I can’t change her mind, Claire should at least be wearing something more fashionable than a Rolling Stones t-shirt and a pair of faded jeans.
She reaches for a string of pearls, misses, catches them on the second swipe. She flings the strand over her head and then thrusts her shoulders back and plants her hands at her hips. “How’s that?”
I smile to hide a sigh. Claire can be so stubborn. I cast around, spot the feather-top bed with its fluffy comforter, and sink down into them. I swing my arms and legs up and out, down and in, feeling like a kid in the snow. I don’t get to enjoy this kind of luxury at home. My husband, Rick, is allergic to more things than I can name so our mattress is wrapped in stiff, allergy-free coverings; our sheets and blankets are nearly threadbare from repeated washings in hot water. I close my eyes and see Rick’s face, angry and red, hear the fear in his voice as he asks me if I love him. I shake my head, pushing it all away, and turn onto my side.
I take a quick inventory of the windows: they’re open but I can’t feel any breeze. “What say you and me pop a movie in and order a pizza since it’s too hot to cook?” I pause, run my eyes along Claire’s frame, and say, “Or, we could try that new Chinese place downtown since you’re all dolled up.”
She catches my smirk and grabs a small throw pillow from the floor, tosses it at me. It sails three feet above my head and hits the hurricane lamp on the bedside table. Pillow and lamp tumble to the floor.
“Why don’t you come with me to the reception?” She gathers her hair up off her neck and turns back to the mirror.
“Not a chance.” I watch her as she checks her profile—left side and then right and back again—watch as she nearly falls into the mirror craning her neck to get a look at her backside.
Satisfied, or maybe dizzy from all the turning back and forth, Claire abandons the mirror and sits on the edge of the bed. “If we time it right, we can grab dinner while we’re there.”
“What’s your plan? Politely stand in the buffet line and make a scene afterward?”
She flops backwards, landing on my feet. “Shit, Maggie. I don’t know. What the hell am I supposed to do? Pretend it’s not happening?”
I free my feet and schooch down next to her. With my arms under her pits, I pull her up to the middle of the bed and lie down beside her, cradling her. “No,” I say softly, “you acknowledge it. And you stay here with me. We’ll watch a really bad movie and make loads of popcorn with lots of butter.”
She suddenly erupts into loud, forceful sobs. I wrap my arms around her, loosely, and run my fingers through her wavy brown hair. Over and over again, from her crown to the ends just below her shoulders. As her crying dwindles into an occasional sniff, I let myself feel her against me: her skin, her warmth, her curves.
During the summer between ninth and tenth grade Claire worked as a babysitter. I didn’t have the patience for bratty kids but Claire seemed to like it. She was at the Holton’s almost every Saturday night because the parents had a standing game of bridge. Their house was close enough to mine that I’d ride my bike over after Claire put the kids to bed. Mrs. Holton always left lots of snacks for Claire—Cheetos, Twinkies, soda—and we’d eat them and hang out. Sometimes we made prank phone calls, sometimes we watched movies.
In early July, right after the holiday, the neighbor kids were lighting firecrackers and shooting off bottle rockets. Everyone had big backyards back then with lots of space for fireworks. It was hot, but Claire shut the windows in an effort to dampen the noise so Sheba, the Holton’s German Shepard, would stop running from window to window and barking. While she tried to calm the dog, I grabbed the Cheetos and two glasses of Coke from the kitchen.
We situated ourselves on the couch, the bowl of Cheetos between us, and Sheba at our feet. Halfway through Interview with the Vampire, Claire snatched the coverlet from the back of the couch and threw it around her shoulders like a cape. “I want to suck your blood,” she said, her voice thick with a fake Transylvanian accent. She raised her arms and squinted her eyes, making me laugh. She pounced on me, and I laughed harder. Her teeth found my neck, and she sucked hard as though trying to give me a hickey.
I pushed her off. “Your impersonation of Tom Cruise is terrible.”
“Oh, yeah? Let’s see you do it better.”
“I don’t want to do Tom Cruise. How about Rob Lowe?” I jumped up, pulling Claire with me and then took a step back. I held out my arms, trying to affect a look of longing. “Darling, I can’t live without you.” I reached around Claire and, using a sweeping motion, eased her backward and kissed her.
She linked her arms around my neck and pulled herself upright. “That’s not how you kiss a woman,” she said. “You do it like Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman, when he kissed Debra Winger.” She placed her hands on either side of my face and drew me in. “Like this.” Her lips were both soft and firm. She held my head still while hers began to move back and forth, her lips never losing contact. The pressure built and my heart pounded. When I felt her tongue slide over my lips, inquiring, I parted them and she entered. My stomach hooked into my chest, sending tingly zingers to my toes.
It took me a second or two to open my eyes after she pulled away. My legs felt loose, my skin hot. “Where’d you learn how to do that?” I finally managed.
“I’ve got my sources,” she said, laughing. Outside, a loud burst of fireworks sounded, and we both flinched.
She seemed to get right back into the movie, but I spent the rest of the night in a lightheaded daze. I stole sideways glances at her, afraid to let my fingers brush against hers in the Cheetos bowl. I didn’t remember riding my bike home that night, but I did remember dreaming of her for weeks afterward.
The reception is in the historic part of downtown Madison, in a three-story brick building called Dania Hall. I park two blocks away, on the street. The building has its own parking lot, but I figure it’ll be easier, if things get messy, to make a clean getaway from the street.
“We can still retreat,” I say, making one last try. At her house she’d gone quiet after her crying jag; I assumed she’d fallen asleep so when she slipped off the bed, I was startled. She stood there, her face puffy and shiny, her hands cocked on her hips. Her eyes, sparking with determination and defiance, dared me to say no to her offer. I wanted to. I knew Rick was waiting for me, knew we had to finish our discussion. What I really wanted was some time alone to decide if I was ready to admit I needed a change. But I couldn’t be sure how much whiskey Claire had drunk, and it didn’t feel right letting her drive.
Ignoring me, Claire opens her purse and rummages through it. Out comes a tube of lip gloss, a green compact that holds pressed powder, a brow comb.
I eye the building’s door while fanning myself with a crumpled take-out menu pulled from beneath the seat. The heat is oppressive, stifling. Beside me, Claire doesn’t seem bothered by it as she primps in the visor mirror.
A few stragglers dawdle on the steps and I squint, trying to see how they’re dressed, but we’re too far away to tell for sure. The last time I was at a wedding reception was a couple of years back—right before I started questioning my marriage—for one of Rick’s co-workers. The women wore fancy hats and high heels, the men vests and starched shirts. I wonder what we’ll do if there’s a doorman or a bouncer, someone who’ll take notice of our jeans and toss us on our ears.
Claire finishes applying her lip gloss and closes the visor with a sharp snap. “I’m going to tell Mr. Asshole a thing or two.” She cups her breasts and then pushes them together in the age-old cleavage-enhancing move. “Might let the new Mrs. Asshole in on a couple of secrets while I’m at it,” she adds. Her voice is clipped, her tone direct, buoyed, no doubt, by the whiskey skimming through her veins.
I decide a bouncer will be a good thing.
We cross the street and enter the building: it’s old but has a stately air about it as though it had once been grand. The marble floors are speckled with muted greens and gray. A wide staircase stands before us; long hallways stretch on either side. Based on the noise, the reception is upstairs. I grab Claire’s arm, thinking I might yet get her to reconsider, but she yanks it away and starts up the stairs.
There isn’t a guard waiting to greet us on the second floor, only an oversized set of wooden double doors. Claire takes a deep breath and pulls them open. The place is big. Round tables mix with oblong ones; some are covered with flimsy sheets of white paper, others are bare. Hung on three of the walls are “congratulations” banners—small and ineffectual, they look like someone taped individual pieces of printer paper together.
I glance to the right where a group of guys wearing cowboy boots and tennis shoes are gathered beneath one of the open windows. They’re loud, laughing and high-fiving one another. Straight ahead is another group, both men and women, standing in a loose circle. A girl dressed in a pearl-colored tank top and jeans says something and raises her glass. The others cheer and lift their glasses in response, smashing them together hard enough to dimple the plastic sides and send beer sloshing over the rims. I exhale and relax a little. This doesn’t seem like a reception so much as a big drinking party.
Spotting a makeshift bar in the corner, I motion to Claire, but she doesn’t notice. She stands, back straight, eyes fixed on the head table. I follow her stare and find the happy couple making eyes at each other. Silverware clinks on wine glasses and guys from the wedding party shout “kiss, kiss.” When I look back at Claire, her cheeks are bright red. Hooking my arm around hers, I tug her with me to the bar. If the rent-a-bartender thinks we’re out of place, he doesn’t say so. I grab our drinks and push Claire toward a small, empty table at the back of the room. My white zinfandel vanishes in three long gulps.
I turn to her. “What now?” When she doesn’t respond, I nudge her arm. She has a faraway look in her eyes.
“That should be me up there,” she says.
Claire and Tom had been engaged for eight months before he called it off. She must’ve forgotten the shitty way he’d treated her.
Abruptly, she excuses herself and goes off in search of the restroom. I sit, trying to look as though I belong while the laughter and raised voices bounce off the high ceilings and plaster walls. I begin imagining the lives of the party-goers: the bank teller with mousy brown hair and dated floral dress; the guy with the model face who works at the local gas station; the silver-haired grandmother who makes weekly batches of butterscotch cookies from scratch. I look from face to face, wondering who’s happy, who’s pretending. I roll the idea of happiness around, feel the plumpness of it and wonder at the courage it requires.
Claire returns and reclaims her drink. “I ran into a bridesmaid in the bathroom. Ugly dress, if you ask me.” She fishes an ice cube from her glass, plops it in her mouth. “Who does rainbow themes, anyway?”
Several minutes pass and I steal a look at Claire. She’s lost the fire I saw earlier. Maybe, I decide, all she needed was a reality check. I look at my watch: we can still catch the early movie. Leaning over, I touch her arm. “We can leave, no harm done.”
Claire’s shoulders twitch and her head snaps my way so hard and so fast, I’m amazed she doesn’t flinch. “Harm? Oh, yes, there will be harm,” she says, thrusting her chin out. She stands suddenly, pushing her metal chair back with a loud scrape. She scans the crowd, her eyes stopping at a point behind me. I turn to look and find Tom sprawled over two folding chairs three tables away. I reach for Claire’s hand, but she jerks it away. Her eyes are narrow, her lips pursed.
“C’mon, Claire,” I say, my voice low but firm. “Let’s go get a drink somewhere.” I lift her empty glass and shake it, rattling the ice cubes at her.
She steps around me and marches away.
I scramble after her, wishing for another huge slug of wine, and nearly collide with an older guy cradling a plate heaped with food. The smell of chicken and potatoes registers as I help steady him and his plate, apologize, and scoot around him. But I’m too late. Claire stands three feet in front of Tom, his mouth open, his eyes disbelieving. I step to Claire’s side. Her face is flushed, her shoulders rigid.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Tom asks. His eyebrows are pinched together.
Claire clenches and unclenches her hands. “I came to tell you that you’re an asshole.”
From the corner of my eye I see the new Mrs. Tom approaching. She has the huge boobs Claire described; she also has bottle blonde hair cut in an unflattering style. Her dress is pretty, though, and she has fistfuls of it in each hand, pulling it up off the floor as she hurries over. She looks from Tom to Claire and back again. “Tom? Is everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine,” Tom says.
Claire steps forward, her face strangely calm. She squares her shoulders at the new bride and says, “I wanted to make sure you knew what a jerk your husband is.”
Tom’s wife’s eyebrows rise a full inch. Her hands let go of the dress and slowly come to rest at her hips. “I don’t know who you think you are—”
Claire cuts her off. “I’ll tell you who I am! I’m the one who’s supposed to be wearing the white, satiny dress. I’m the one who was promised the happily ever after.” Her face has morphed from calm to purple-red, and a vein throbs in her neck.
Tom steps forward, his hand held out like a stop sign. “Claire, don’t.” He pauses; when he speaks again his voice is softer. “Don’t do this. Not here.”
Claire goes very still. “What’s wrong with here? Is it not convenient for you?” Her voice is tight, and her sentences pitch upward at the end. Tom opens his mouth to respond, but Claire doesn’t let him. “How about all the plans I made for our wedding? How about the inconvenience it cost me in time and money to cancel the announcements, the food, my dress?” At this she flicks her wrist at Tom’s bride and sweeps her gaze over the long train of her dress. She snaps her attention back to Tom but instead of continuing, she pauses, confusion mixing with anger in her eyes. “I don’t know how you do it,” she says finally. “How can you love someone one day and not the next?” This last bit comes out in a screechy gasp. Her lip twitches and before anyone can say anything, Claire turns and walks away, her sandals clapping against the floor in hard little bursts.
Behind us clumps of cleanup people wearing wrinkled black uniforms begin clearing the tables. Off to the right, a DJ stacks equipment onto a folding table. Tom and his wife exchange a look that says they aren’t sure what just happened. I watch as Tom drains his glass, and I think briefly about getting a drink myself. Instead, I turn and hurry after Claire.
The area immediately beyond the big double doors is empty, so I rush down the stairs and peer into the long hallways running right and left. Nothing. I run outside, scan the steps and sidewalk, and continue on to the parking lot. I spot her sitting on a set of concrete steps that lead to a side door. Hunched over, she appears tiny, fragile. I sit down next to her and put my arm around her. “You okay?”
She shakes her head and sits up. “I don’t know. I thought—” All at once Claire seems to deflate, like a pricked balloon. She slumps back down, eyes closed. “I loved him,” she says. “Why wasn’t that enough?”
There are a million things I want to say: because he’s a complete jerk; good riddance; you didn’t really love him. Instead, I squeeze her hand and admire the glittery pink polish on her toes.
After a minute, I scoot closer so that our knees are touching. Leaning in, I inhale her scent. “It’s okay to let go,” I say. I tuck a stray lock of hair behind her ear and then comb my fingers through her hair. The pearls she threw on as a joke rest on the swell of her breasts, shimmering in the fading sunlight. I lift the strand and finger a few of the pearls. They are smooth, like Claire’s skin. “I’m hungry,” I say. “Why don’t we go somewhere and get something to eat? Or there’s still time to catch a movie.”
She looks up at me, her face drawn. Her eyes are shiny-wet. “We were going to buy a house and have babies.”
I sigh. “This guy, Tom,” I say, cocking my head toward the building, “isn’t the guy you want to spend the rest of your life with.” The first music of the night drifts down to us through the open windows. It’s Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” and I pause as my skin pricks with goose bumps. I’d wanted this as my wedding song, but Rick dismissed it, said it was too girly. The music swells and I refocus. “Remember all the bad stuff?” I say. “How he always forgot your birthday? And how his idea of a night out was grabbing a hamburger at Hardee’s?” It probably isn’t fair to do this to her, but I keep on. “What about his burping rendition of Sweet Home Alabama?”
“You’re just picking out the not-so-good things,” Claire says. “Everyone has those.” She kicks a small stone off the step; it skitters to a stop three feet away. “But there were good times, too,” she says, lifting her chin. “Long motorcycle rides where he’d pull over just to kiss me; the way he looked in the mornings; the feel of his hands on my skin. And he loved my cooking, said my pies were better than his mother’s.” She laces her fingers together. “We were happy.”
I bite my lip to keep from stating the obvious. We sit, my leg resting against the gentle curve of her calf, while the last of Whitney’s song fills the space around us. Claire drops her head into her hands, and I watch her shoulders lift and fall with each breath. As I replay the list of grievances against Tom I’d just rattled off, I feel a spark, feel the shadows shift into place, and I straighten my shoulders. There’s a similar list for Rick: he’s out with his buddies four nights a week; he insists on sleeping with the TV tuned to the weather channel; the only vacations we take are to La Crosse to visit his mother. I fill my lungs, hold it, then exhale slowly as acknowledgement takes hold.
I study the expanse of dusky horizon. The air is still, heavy. I glance down at Claire, notice how shiny her hair is even in the dim light. I wonder what it’d be like to be with Claire, to throw a blanket on the beach and share a great bottle of wine, to spend a day hiking or biking. Maybe she can teach me to play chess.
Twilight blooms as the last light fades from the sky. I touch her shoulder and say, “Why don’t we go somewhere?”
She raises her head to look at me, and I experience the pleasant tingle I always do when I look into her eyes. They’re a shocking blue. She wears contacts, I know, but, still, they’re dazzling. “I’m tired,” she says. “I feel all used up.”
I slowly stand. Maybe she just needs to be by herself. The first few notes of Journey’s “Faithfully” floats down, and I melt. Journey songs remind me of everything that’s good in life: moonlit beaches; honeysuckle and sunshine; mashed potatoes. I look down at Claire, feel the swell of rightness bubbling up from my toes, and grab her hand. “C’mon. Let’s dance.”
She looks up at me like I’m crazy.
I shrug. “I know we’re in a parking lot, but who cares? No one will see us.” I pull on her hand, but she hesitates. “C’mon,” I say. “For old time’s sake.” It isn’t the best Journey song, given the situation, but I press on. “Remember when we saw them at Alpine Valley?”
She gives me a small smile. We had a blast at that concert. We got there early, spread our blanket out on the lawn and then proceeded to get ripped. When the music started, we swayed and danced, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip. The next day we were both hoarse from yelling and singing.
Relenting, she lets me pull her up. I tug her close, but she’s edgy and averts her eyes. I hum along with the music, not caring that I’m off key. I place my hands at her waist and lean into the music, letting it fill me. Her curves beneath my palms penetrate my awareness, and I think about how beautiful she is, about how she has so much to offer.
Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing” replaces Journey, and she pauses. I continue on as though dancing in the middle of a parking lot is the most natural thing in the world. After a few awkward seconds, she rejoins me, and we move in small, choppy circles. The wine and the music, combined with Claire’s scent and heat, press against me. The music swells, enveloping me, and I experience a tumbling sensation as though I’ve stepped from a cliff into a sweet, warm abyss. As the song winds down, I gather my courage. I lift my arms and rest them on Claire’s shoulders for half a beat, then place my hands on either side of her face. I pull her close, lean in and kiss her. She tenses, but I don’t let go.
Mitzi McMahon lives in Wisconsin, near Lake Michigan, in a city famous for its Danish kringle. Her stories have appeared in The Bitter Oleander, The Santa Fe Literary Review, The Evansville Review, Prime Number Magazine, and elsewhere. She blogs at mitzimcmahon-lifeinwisconsin.blogspot.com.