“I’m not living with my parents, I’m staying with them, moreover they aren’t even here, so really I’m house sitting, doing them a favor while they cruise around Scandinavia for two weeks. Also, Gus and I aren’t getting a divorce; we’re only taking a break. And I wasn’t fired from the stationery shop; I quit because I was sick of it. People are saying I don’t know what-all, but I’m telling you the real story.”
“I know you are,” my friend Madalyn says. She’s visiting from Connecticut. She comes back home every June for a few days to see her parents and her brother. Her husband Paul rarely comes with her, and I can’t say I blame him; Madalyn’s mother is a bitch from hell and her brother is missing a screw. Madalyn sips my secret recipe iced tea that I mix with a little Chardonnay, the Chardonnay being the secret, otherwise it’s just Lipton. She shakes her head and says, “I forget how small this town can be. Everyone gossips, but who cares what they say.”
The thing is, I do care. I wish I didn’t, but I do. I turn over onto my stomach to get some sun on my back, undo the clasp of my bikini top so there won’t be ghost marks on my skin from the straps. We’re lying on chaises by the edge of the pool, dappled by the changing reflections of the afternoon light off the water. Madalyn is wearing a floppy mauve hat and a pair of ginormous black plastic sunglasses that obscure the top half of her face. I’m almost positive she borrowed both items from her mother. She has zero style but she’s smart as a whip.
“You’re so lucky you got out of Richmond,” I say.
“Luck had nothing to do with it,” she says. “I wanted to get out, so I got out. You could have gotten out, too. Still can, if you want. You’re only thirty-one, Wendy! You have a long life ahead. You’re capable of doing more than selling invitations.” She speaks with a northern accent now, she says lyfe where I say lahf; I’m always startled by the difference at first. I sold custom invitations, I want to point out, which means knowing all about type fonts and different grades of paper, but I can see how some people might think the job is lame.
“I wonder what I should do next,” I say into the plastic slats of my chaise. I really haven’t a clue. I wait for Madalyn to suggest something. Finish my college degree would be the first thing she’d say, she’s always going on about that, but she just chews on a hangnail, she’s not thinking about me. I wave my hand in front of her face. “Earth to Madalyn. Hello.”
“I can’t get pregnant,” she says.
“What do you mean?” I say. “How do you know?”
“We’ve done four IUIs and six IVFs and none of them have taken.”
I turn over and sit up, holding my bikini top against my chest. I didn’t know she was trying to get pregnant. Instead of being concerned about her, my feelings are hurt that she didn’t tell me before.
“Paul checks out fine,” she says. “And there’s nothing wrong with me. The doctor doesn’t understand why it’s not happening. Jesus, even drug addicts can get pregnant.” She sighs. “Maybe if I became addicted to heroin I’d get knocked up right away.”
I don’t want children and can’t imagine why people do, but Gus has a half-baked vision of himself as a dad. Never mind that I’d have to take care of the kid the way I take care of everything else. Gus’s idea of “helping out” is spraying Roundup on the weeds in the yard. Not that I’m complaining, Gus suits me to a tee, but the addition of a baby would be one human being too many. I know I can get pregnant because I did in December. I had an abortion pronto, Gus none the wiser.
“Gosh, Madalyn, I’m sorry.” It’s all I’ve got. I’m not going to tell her everything will be all right because I’m gathering from what she says that it probably won’t. If Madalyn gave birth, it would be the first step toward the inevitable drifting apart that would end in the exchange of holiday cards and not a whole lot else. Give me a dime for every woman I wrongly thought would be my friend forever and I’d have a lot of dimes, but Madalyn and I have never lost sight of each other despite going our separate ways. She’s an architect, and I’m a junior college drop out, currently unemployed. If anyone were going to have babies, you’d think it would be me for lack of anything better to do. “But you have a career,” I say, as if this is urgent news.
“Yeah, so what?” she says.
“I don’t know. You’re important in the world.”
She laughs. “Hardly. Do you know how many architects there are in this country?”
“Fewer than there are mothers, I bet.” She stares at me, or appears to; I can’t see her eyes behind her sunglasses. “I’m just saying you’re special, is all. You don’t need to be anything more.”
“I don’t need to, I want to,” she says. It seems to me that up until now Madalyn has gotten pretty much everything she wanted. She wanted to go to college up north, and she wanted to marry Paul from the moment she met him. She wanted to become a lawyer, which she did, and then she changed her mind and went back to school to become an architect. Last year, she designed and built her own home. I haven’t been there, but I’ve seen pictures of it, and you would need quintuplets to fill it. I’m not saying I’m jealous, I’m saying her life has been charmed. It was only a matter of time before she hit a bump in the road, it happens to everyone, often more than once. For instance, when I was younger I planned on having a career in fashion, which obviously didn’t work out, and for a while my goal was to be a personal shopper, but I hardly had any clients. I assumed I’d be with Gus until death do we part, but he says he needs time to “think about our relationship,” so that assumption is temporarily on hold. My opinion is that our relationship is better than good precisely because we don’t have to think about it. I couldn’t stand the idea of being left alone in our house, just me in our king size bed, so I came over here and he stayed at home. I imagine he’s missing me by now not least because he doesn’t know how to do anything for himself. I don’t expect this break to last longer than a week. Today is only day three.
“You know what we should do? We should go out,” I say.
“Out where?” Madalyn says sullenly.
“Drinking, dancing! Come on, it’ll be fun. When was the last time you really let loose? Hey, remember the summer after senior year when we would drive to that bar out in the boonies?”
“Oh, that dump!” Madalyn says, but she’s smiling and I know I’ve got her.
For old time’s sake we begin our evening with a drink at the dump, which is even more run down than it was twelve years ago, when it was the only bar we knew of that didn’t card us. That Madalyn still likes rum and coke makes me laugh. She says she shouldn’t even be drinking at all because you never know, by some miracle she might be pregnant. I order a martini and we sit at the bar along with a trio of construction guys and an old man who smells like a kennel. There are about three women in the place not including us, and we attract our share of appraising glances. Madalyn is wearing a flowered dress with a full pleated skirt that might have been in fashion the last time we were here. I’m wearing tight suede pants despite the heat, and a silky sleeveless shirt. We are opposites in so many ways, the most obvious one being that I’m a blond and Madalyn’s hair is nearly black. I’ve always thought we compliment each other.
“Here’s to us,” I say, raising my glass.
“And to better times,” she says.
“Right,” I say. “But lets not think about bad stuff tonight, okay? Let’s just have fun.”
A middle-aged construction guy is looking at us, giving me the creeps. He’s bald on top and wearing a filthy coverall, and his face is as pocked as the moon. We’re not here to pick up men, but then how would he know that? I give him a discouraging frown and shake my head in a silent “forget it,” but he’s not paying attention to me, his eyes are on Madalyn.
“Madalyn?’ he says from across the bar. “Madalyn is that you?” Madalyn looks up from her rum and coke. He stands and comes over, sits one stool away. He gazes at Madalyn like she’s the eighth wonder of the world.
“Lance!” Madalyn says. “Oh my God!”
“I can’t believe my eyes,” he says. “Wow, you’re all grown up and gorgeous. I bet you’re famous or something now.”
Madalyn laughs. “Not at all.” She turns to me. “Lance taught me how to drive a stick shift right here in the parking lot.”
“I did!” he says. “You were a natural.”
They stare at each other, agog, saying what were the odds of meeting again and how have you been doing all these years, blah, blah, blah. I drink the last inch of my martini. I feel like I’m watching a movie about something that would never happen in real life.
“Madalyn, we need to go,” I say after a few minutes. My stomach is growling and I’m certainly not going to touch the bowl of beer nuts on the bar.
She looks at me. “That’s what you said the night Lance and I met! You wanted to go, and I wanted to stay. We had a fight about it in the bathroom, then you left, but Lance was a perfect gentleman and offered to drive me home.”
“Well, do you want to stay now?” I say.
“I’ll let you go,” Lance says. “It was great seeing you again.”
“I’m just amazed,” Madalyn says.
I take her arm and literally pull her away. It’s still light outside, and we are momentarily blinded as we leave the bar. My Corvette beeps when I unlock it.
“I would never abandon you in a bar,” I say as we buckle up. The car used to be Gus’s until I took it for myself when he traded up to a convertible last month. The lingering smell of his aftershave catches the back of my throat.
“Well, you did abandon me,” Madalyn says. “It doesn’t matter. We were brats back then. You thought Lance was old and gross.”
“So he is,” I say. “Not exactly our kind.”
“You’re such a snob. But he was nice to me when he could have taken advantage. I didn’t know anything about men.”
“I feel like I’ll never know about men,” I say.
“I wish I could be that age again,” she says. “Start over from scratch. That night, Lance said he’d like to meet me again in ten years, that he thought I’d be a formidable woman. I wonder what he’s thinking about me now. I’m not formidable at all.”
“You are too,” I say. I put the car into gear and drive toward the highway that will take us back into town. There’s a Mexican restaurant in the south end that serves killer margaritas, and a dance club nearby that I want to check out later on. “You’re a big deal architect, that’s pretty damned formidable.”
“I’m not a big deal,” she says. “I’m not even particularly successful. I work with a guy who has his own firm, but I’m his underling, not his partner. I should have stayed with the law, but I had a stupid idea that I was creative.” She looks out the window at an undulating vista of greens. The Corvette rumbles over the road as I speed past lesser vehicles.
“Now stop that,” I say. I have spent the better part of a decade admiring Madalyn; if she’s not a success, I don’t want to know it. “You’re just depressed about not getting pregnant.”
“I’m not just ‘not getting pregnant,’” she says in a terse voice. “I’ve endured scores of hormone injections over the course of two years. I’ve miscarried three times, Wendy. It’s been a nightmare. At this point I just want to get pregnant so I won’t have to try anymore.”
I have a fucked-up urge to tell her about my abortion, maybe so she’ll think I’ve suffered too. But I was in and out of the clinic in a matter of hours and haven’t thought about it since. The last thing I want her to know is that I discarded the chance for a baby when she’s so desperate to have one, yet it feels like the information is going to burst from my mouth. We ride in silence until we reach the wide stripe of the James River. Fair weather clouds appear to float on the water, moving surrealistically upriver.
“It’s beautiful isn’t it,” Madalyn says. “Majestic.”
“I don’t even notice it anymore,” I say. I remember crossing this bridge as a child and being thrilled and frightened by the rapid flow of the river. You would drown in a second if you fell into it, I thought, imagining disaster from the back seat of the car.
Gus always says I have a hollow leg, but he’s one to talk; let’s just say that between the two of us we can put away a lot of liquor. Rosita Mexicana has the best margaritas in Richmond, but Gus doesn’t like Mexican food so I hardly ever get to come here. It’s not a popular spot with anyone I know, I guess it’s considered déclassé, but that’s fine with me because I don’t want to run into any of Gus’s and my friends, Madalyn being the obvious exception. Though she was in our wedding party, and she’s known Gus for as long as I have, I’ve never heard her say she likes him, so after the waitress sets down my second drink, I get it into my head to ask, “What do you think about Gus, Madalyn?”
“What do I think?” she says. “You mean about what he’s doing now? I don’t like it, of course, I think he’s being self-indulgent. But he’s always been crazy about you. I think it’s a blip, an early mid-life crisis.” She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and sucks up the last of her first drink through a straw. “You’re right, this is delicious.” She signals the waitress that she’d like another. “But I thought we weren’t going to talk about bad stuff.”
“But what do you think about him?” I say. “Do you like him?”
She looks surprised. “You’ve been married eight years!” she says with a laugh. “And you dated for four years before that. If I didn’t like him I think you’d know it by now.”
“I didn’t ask if you don’t like him, I asked if you do like him,” I say impatiently. I thought I knew the answer, but now I’m not sure.
I’m startled by how fast the waitress brings another drink. Madalyn immediately takes a long draw. “Of course I do,” she says when she comes up for air. “I don’t know why you’re asking.”
“Because I’ve never heard you say anything nice about him.” The restaurant is crowded and we have to raise our voices to be heard. “Not once!” I say.
Madalyn frowns. “Well, so what. I’ve never heard you say anything nice about Paul.”
“I hardly know Paul,” I say.
“You know Paul enough,” she says. “He’s been down here a few times. You visited us in Connecticut.”
“Yeah, well,” I say. I think Paul is the epitome of the snotty Yankee and I’ve never felt comfortable around him. He’s a professor of something-or-other at Yale.
“It’s okay if you don’t like him,” Madalyn says. “I’m not that crazy about Gus, either. We don’t have to like each other’s husbands.” She’s looking at something invisible in the space between us, and I think, uh oh, she’s had too much to drink. “The thing is,” she goes on, “it’s weird that we’re still friends after all these years. We have nothing in common, really. Now that I think about it, we never did.” She takes a bite of her chicken quesadilla. I nibble on a chip. I didn’t order an entrée because I need to lose a pound. Madalyn is on the cusp of chubby; she’s never been really thin. Beautiful-looking women can afford not to count every calorie.
“Why did you say you like Gus if you don’t?”
“Oh, because I’m used to him, you know? It’s not that I actively dislike him or anything.”
“I actively dislike Paul,” I say. She nods as if this comes as no surprise. That she doesn’t care what I think makes me mad. I do care if she likes Gus; I care what everyone thinks when it comes to me and mine. “Gus does a really funny imitation of Paul, he tilts his head back and talks through his nose.”
“Huh,” Madalyn says. She forks chicken and cheese into her mouth, chews and swallows before she speaks. “Paul says I talk like a hillbilly after I’ve been down here for a visit.”
“God, how snotty is that,” I say. I’m not sober, but I’m not nearly as lit as Madalyn. I wonder how this conversation would have gone if we’d eliminated the margaritas.
“You’re the one who’s snotty,” Madalyn says. “‘Not exactly our kind,’” she says in an ultra drawling voice that’s supposed to sound like mine. “I never understood why you act so hoity-toity, it’s not as if you come from an old family. Your father owns a car dealership for heaven’s sake.” My mouth drops open and I feel my cheeks flush. My father owns several car dealerships and my family is much richer than Madalyn’s. But her mother is a Daughter of the Confederacy and a Colonial Dame and that beats all around here. I wouldn’t have credited Madalyn with giving that sort of thing any weight.
“You’re right,” I say. “We don’t have anything in common.” I’m sick to death of Madalyn with her graduate degrees and her northern accent, her urging me to go back to college and do better with my life. Maybe I don’t want to do better; maybe I can’t. I hail the waitress and indicate I want the check by pretending to write on my hand.
“Christ, Wendy, I’m sorry,” Madalyn says. “This is the stupidest conversation; I don’t mean a word of what I’m saying. I just got into a bad mood, I don’t know why. I’m taking my problems out on you.” She taps her fingernail on the edge of her half-empty glass. “No more margaritas for me.”
“I don’t really dislike Paul,” I say.
“Sometimes I do. I guess every woman feels that way about her husband now and then.” I nod, though I don’t agree. I have never disliked Gus. Sometimes we have spats, but we’re both easygoing. I can’t remember the last real fight we had, not counting the one we had three days ago, and I’m still not sure how that got started: it grew like a cactus out of nothing.
The waitress puts the check on the table and Madalyn takes out her wallet. “I’m getting this,” she says as she counts out bills.
“Thanks.” I don’t care who pays the check; I just want to get out of here. It’s later than I thought. I fish for my car keys in my purse. “I’ll drop you home,” I say.
“No, let’s go dancing!” she says, taking a final draw on her drink.
I want to blow away the weirdness that hovers between us. You can say you didn’t mean something, but the words don’t disappear, they’ll always be floating around like dust motes with no place to land.
“Fantastic!” I say with more enthusiasm than I feel.
The club we go to is so cool it doesn’t have a marked entrance. There’s a metal door in a featureless brick wall that a fat guy opens when you knock on it, then a long flight of stairs that takes you down to a large, very dark room. The only light comes from neon bars on the walls that flash different colors in sync with the music. Cubic sectional couches surround the crowded dance floor, and there are high round tables where you can stand with your drink. Everything is black, walls, couches, tables, bar, so we have to wait for our eyes to adjust before we can figure out where to go. The couches are all occupied, but there’s an empty table. Madalyn stakes it out while I get us a couple of Cosmos. I notice that almost everyone seems to be in their twenties.
“We’re too old for this place!” I yell over the music.
Madalyn shrugs and smiles. “Let’s pretend we’re not!” We sip our Cosmos and people watch. I’ve never seen so many tattoos. It’s too loud to talk much, but I’m content as the pounding music empties my mind. It’s like being stoned without the pot, I think. I’m glad we came, too old or not.
“You know I love you,” I yell at Madalyn. “No matter what. I’ll never not love you, do you understand?” I’m drunk, of course, but I mean it. Madalyn is even drunker. She gazes at me with half-open eyes.
“God, I know, right?” she says. I nod. We understand each other. I lean across the table and kiss her on the mouth. It’s not a gay thing, just an expression of love. People are pouring in, and a couple of multiply pierced kids ask to share our table.
“Let’s dance!” I say to Madalyn. We weave our way through the crowd and step onto the packed dance floor. I used to be crazy about dancing, but I haven’t done it in ages. I found out about this place from my next-door neighbor’s twenty-two year old son (“It’s the bomb,” he said) but we were just shooting the breeze, I never thought I’d actually come here.
I’m working up a sweat when yellow lights underneath the dance floor flash on, and everyone is brilliantly illuminated. There’s a giant rah of appreciation and then we’re all jumping up and down. Madalyn and I grab each other’s hands and hold our arms over our heads. She’s laughing and I’m laughing, the crowd around us is moving as one, then she abruptly stops laughing and her face turns to stone. She’s looking at something behind me. She grasps me by the shoulders.
“We need to go,” she says.
“But why?” I try to twist away.
“Because I feel faint.” I always know when she’s lying because she does this thing with her upper lip where she sucks it ever so slightly into her mouth. She’d make a horrible poker player.
“No you don’t,” I say, and shake loose from her grip. I turn around and see Gus not three yards away, dancing with a girl. She has spiky pink hair and six hoops in one ear and is almost as tall as he is. One whole arm, from shoulder to wrist, is covered with a tattoo of twining roses. For a moment I think they’re just dancing near each other, until Gus pulls her to him and buries his face in her neck. I tell myself he’s someone who looks like Gus – Gus wouldn’t be here! – a guy with brown hair and boyish freckles, a little thick around the middle. But he’s wearing a green and blue striped dress shirt and a pair of cobalt blue chinos, both of which I bought for him the way I buy all his clothes. The girl dances away from him and dances back, shimmying against his chest. Gus’s idea of dancing is shuffling from one foot to the other like a tone-deaf adolescent. Clearly she’s not serious about him, but I can see he’s into her. When he tries to kiss her, she dances just far enough away from him that he’s left standing with pooched-out lips. I feel the way I did at the dump, as if I’m watching a film. My eyes are throbbing and my chest empties out like water through a funnel. “Gus,” I say in a wisp of a voice because I can hardly breathe. I start to go over to him, but Madalyn pulls me back.
“Come on, we’re leaving,” she says and leads me out of the place. We run up the stairs as if we’re being pursued and bang out the door to the street.
“Was that Gus?” I say. I know it was, but I want Madalyn to contradict me.
“Asshole,” she hisses. I sink to the curb. For the past three days, I’ve been imagining Gus sitting with his head in his hands, “thinking about our relationship,” but I’m the one with my head in my hands, tears running down my cheeks. There was a rain shower while we were in the club. The air smells of wet pavement the way it does in the summer, and the curb is damp beneath me.
“What am I?” I say.
“What do you mean?” Madalyn says. She sits down on the curb next to me. “You’re Wendy, you’re my friend, you’re a human being.”
“But if Gus doesn’t want me anymore? What then? If I’m not Gus’s wife, I’m nobody.” Already I feel untethered by the idea of being single. Everyone I know is married. Single women are shunned, ignored, a threat to other women’s marriages. I realize I’d be six months pregnant now if I hadn’t had the abortion, and Gus wouldn’t think of leaving me.
“You’re being ridiculous,” Madalyn says. She’s slurring her words: ridicooluss.
“Imagine if you and Paul broke up and you lost your job,” I say. “How would you feel about yourself?” The truth is I was fired from my job at the stationery shop for offending a bride by saying her choice of invitation was tacky. Usually people want my opinion, but not in that case it turned out. My boss had additional complaints about infractions so small they’re not worth mentioning, never mind being fired over.
Madalyn claps her hand over her mouth, staggers to her feet, and vomits onto the street. Half-digested pieces of quesadilla float in a glistening guacamole soup, lit by the street lamp above. “Ugh,” she says. “I’m shitfaced.”
“We can’t stay here,” I say. I feel a little like vomiting myself.
We go to a little triangular park across the street, more of a traffic island planted with shrubbery. There’s a bench where we sit down. Madalyn leans her head back and falls asleep, exhaling vomity breaths. Though I quit smoking years ago, I want a cigarette. The door to the club opens and a group of people come out, laughing and talking as they walk down the street and turn at the end of the block. Again, the door opens, and two women emerge, followed by a single guy. No one notices us. The street is empty of traffic. The air is cool because of the rain; a small breeze dries my tears. I decide to wait here until Gus comes out. I don’t know what I’ll do after that.