You are reading Fiddleblack #15
The mailbox had pink balloons. Alice followed a line of cars up the driveway where teenaged boys were scurrying around the front yard, taking keys from drivers and parking cars in a large lot of grass. She rolled down the window as a young valet strode to her. He was freshly shaven, the top two buttons of his collared shirt unbuttoned. Alice remembered boys like him from high school—athletes, good boys, all white teeth and confidence. Alice smiled at him as he handed her a ticket, feeling suddenly self-conscious. “Just leave your keys in the ignition, ma’am.” She realized she was wearing her glasses, they were new and she only needed them for driving but that somehow made it worse. She fluffed her hair as she climbed out, picturing the few wiry white hairs she’d been examining in the bathroom mirror before bed.
Alice made her way to the front door as a cluster of women carrying enormous wrapped gifts and baskets teetered on the steps together. She wondered what they’d bought and suddenly felt self-conscious about her own gift choice—bath toys that the baby wouldn’t be able to play with for at least another year. It was the only gift under forty dollars on the numerous registries. She’d actually seen a request on one of the lists for a silver, engraved rattle. The women turned toward her after one of them rang the doorbell. Alice smiled tightly at them. “Hello there! Did you work with Heidi?” the youngest of the women chirped.
Alice wondered if she resembled a teacher, she’d never thought of herself as boring looking. “We were college roommates.”
“Oh, wonderful! Do you live around here or…” The door opened and Heidi smiled at them so widely she looked slightly deranged. Alice knew that smile—it was one Heidi felt she’d perfected their sophomore year, showing off her teeth without allowing her eyes to squint so that she arched her eyebrows menacingly. Age changes everything though, so now the wrinkles in the corners of her eyes were the only feature that were highlighted by the grimace. Heidi was wearing a tight, brightly printed dress that stretched across her pregnant stomach. The neckline of the dress was cutting in to her breasts causing them to spill over the top.
The women took their time entering the house, hugging Heidi awkwardly in the doorway then blocking the entrance as they complimented everything within eyesight. Alice had visited only once, two years prior at a housewarming party, and she and Mitch had stood together by the pool, barely able to hear each other over the Jimmy Buffett-inspired musician that had been hired to provide entertainment. It was just after an extended rendition of “Margaritaville” with a sing-along from the women seated around Heidi under a cabana began that Mitch and Alice dissolved into laughter and said their goodbyes. Alice remembered they’d be hungry as they drove home and they stopped for tacos and ate them in the fluorescent lit parking lot.
As Alice moved inside the home, Carolyn came towards her in almost an identical dress as Heidi’s and only slightly smaller stomach though she wasn’t pregnant. “So good to see you again,” she said, opening her arms for an embrace. Alice hugged her but felt her own body tightening. This always seemed to be her reflex with affection, as though she expected a hug to dissolve into a punch to the stomach. “I’ll just put this with the others,” Carolyn said, taking the gift from Alice’s hands. Carolyn moved with the ease of someone familiar with the house, someone who watched movies in the theater room, and cooked dinners with Heidi in the kitchen, giddy after a bottle of wine. She probably had her own guest room.
Alice hesitated in the foyer, she kicked off her scuffed clogs and seeing no other shoes around, she put them back on. Groups of women were standing in the kitchen and living room which had been decorated with pink flowers and tablecloths and more balloons. Servers in white collared shirts and black pants moved around the room with trays of appetizers.
“I’m glad you could make it.” Carolyn had appeared again just as Alice was pushing a piece of sushi in to her mouth. She’d put too much wasabi on it and her eyes watered as she swallowed.
“Oh, yes, me too,” Alice said though just an hour earlier she’d stood in the bathroom, telling Mitch she could not and would not go. Mitch had pulled her toward him and said into the top of her head, “It will be quick. You’re in, you’re out. Irish goodbye if you can’t bear it, okay?”
“I only ‘Irish goodbye’ when I’m drunk,” Alice said. “It’s rude.”
“Well, use it if you need it.” It was always their way to calm the other before social events. The promise that at any point they could leave unceremoniously, and retreat home to their one-bedroom apartment where they’d be greeted by their cat, Sharona, who would welcome them by flopping down, squirming around, and displaying her belly proudly whether they’d been gone fifteen minutes or five days. He pulled her shoulders away from him, smiled at her in the way that always made her feel that if she were someone who lived in the moment then this would be the very best, greatest moment. He kissed her on the forehead.
Carolyn shifted, palming her glass and glancing around the room as Alice searched for conversational topics. A server with red wine came by and Alice plucked a glass off the tray. “I don’t think I’ve seen you since the wedding,” Carolyn said, finally.
Alice nodded, knowing they’d seen each other at the housewarming party but had not spoken to one another. Carolyn had been Heidi’s maid-of-honor and Alice couldn’t help but think this was her way of reminding Alice of that. There had always been something a little sad about Carolyn’s desperation to be Heidi’s best friend, and Alice had surmised after she herself had not been chosen as a bridesmaid that whatever competition for Heidi’s affection they were in, Carolyn had clearly won.
“Still nursing?” Alice asked, setting down her empty glass. Carolyn looked puzzled, unsure if it was a joke or insult. Alice realized how it sounded in light of the party theme and corrected herself, “I mean, are you still a nurse?”
“Yeah, I’m doing pediatrics now which I like so much better. I was doing hospice before. I don’t know if Heidi told you.”
Carolyn knew Heidi hadn’t told her. Heidi and Alice had chatted through emails off and on for the past few years, but Alice always felt it was a chore replying, trying to sound enthused about Heidi’s new teaching job knowing she’d married into enough money that she’d be permanently retired as soon as she got pregnant.
At the housewarming party, Alice and Mitch had taken a tour of the six bedroom, seven bathroom house. Alice pinched Mitch discreetly on the thigh when Heidi had said, “I know it doesn’t seem like it, but running a household is a full-time job.” That night when they returned home, Alice and Mitch showered in the dark. Neither one of them turned on the fan and the bathroom was quiet and humid without it. They each lingered under the water until the other one complained or jokingly edged their way in. Sharona was waiting on the bath mat when they pulled back the curtain. “What do two people do with seven bathrooms?” Alice had asked, wrapping a towel around herself.
An older, well-dressed, stout woman, Alice remembered as Heidi’s mother-in-law, called out that everyone should make their way to the “sitting room” for gift opening. Alice grabbed another glass of wine and found a seat in the back. She hadn’t eaten all day and the first glass was making her feel warm and light-headed. Heidi took her seat in front of a marble fireplace as Carolyn surrounded her with gifts. All of the women vocalised their delight with every gift opened—blankets, clothes, designer diaper bags, one month free with a personal trainer. “And he’ll come right to your house!” one of the women that Alice recognized as standing on the front porch with her earlier said.
Alice’s wine glass was empty and she looked around for the servers, but they were busy cutting and serving a three-tiered cake. Just as another gift was opened—it was the silver rattle, from Carolyn, of course—Alice stood to make her way to the bathroom. The bar area was unattended and as Alice passed by she grabbed an open bottle of wine. She stood at the bathroom sink and examined her own face, now flushed, as she sipped the bottle. There was only a quarter of it left and she finished it within a few minutes. Her teeth had a filmy red coat on them and Alice opened a few drawers before she found a travel sized bottle of mouthwash. She stuck the empty wine bottle among cleaning items under the sink, and rummaged through a few more drawers and the closet where she found a basket of discarded make-up. Many of the items were still in boxes bearing designer labels and Alice sorted through them before pocketing an expensive looking blush and spraying herself with perfume.
Cake was passed out and Alice found herself repulsed by all of the women’s mouths chewing and talking and running their lips over forks or licking frosting from their fingers when they thought no one was watching. Alice stood on the outskirts of a circle Heidi was a part of, poised to smile brightly and give her congratulations and good-bye. Heidi turned, her breasts had shifted throughout the afternoon and a nipple was dangerously close to being exposed, Alice thought she could make out its faint outline.
Heidi rubbed her enormous stomach, “I can’t believe it’s another two months until I can have a glass of wine.” The other women snickered, not yet immersed in their own conversation though Heidi was no longer facing them.
Alice suddenly felt a warmness toward Heidi, the social anxiety soothed by the wine and she said, “Not drinking must be hard for you, Alabama Slammer.”
A flicker of recognition followed by a look of fear crossed Heidi’s face before she recovered herself, “Sorry, what was that?”
“Alabama Slammer. Remember that guy? What was his name? He always called you…”
Heidi pulled the corners of her lips back, exposing her teeth in a poised snarl, then turned back to the other women who were listening eagerly. “Alice and I used to call each other a lot of funny names.” Alice felt a sharp pang of embarrassment, and a vast emptiness came over her. Too much history, like too much truth, can prove a painful thing. “If you’ll excuse me, ladies, I have to use the restroom. This baby makes me go all day!”
Alice moved closer to the front door as Heidi walked to the bathroom. “I guess if you pee your pants, you’ll have an excuse now!” Alice said cheerily. Heidi and Carolyn exchanged looks. “You remember how you always used to pee your pants when you got drunk. She didn’t even try to make it to the bathroom,” Alice said to some of the women who were now looking at her as though it was the first time they’d noticed she was there. “I think the first time was when she did eighteen jello shots. ” Alice snickered at the thought even now of Heidi lying on their bathroom floor, laughing uncontrollably and then looking down to see her jeans soaked through and laughing even harder. There was a different woman facing her now, someone who clearly would not have approved of the former.
“Alice!” Heidi’s face had reddened and she was rubbing her stomach over and over like some sort of bloated good luck charm. Carolyn appeared at her side and murmured something to her.
“Well,” Alice said, and then she opened the front door and stepped in to the bright afternoon.
The valets were standing around, leaning on the cars, a few had rolled their sleeves up. Birds were chirping and the ground was still damp from a snowy winter. Alice stalked to her car as the boy from earlier came jogging up to her. “We can pull it right around for you.” Alice ignored him and continued walking, squinting without her glasses to find her car which was parked at the back of the property. The boy walked after her, “Really it’s no trouble.”
“It’s fine, it’s right here,” Alice said as the boy insisted on opening the door for her. “Sorry, I don’t have any cash.”
“Oh, that’s okay. We’re not allowed to accept tips at private parties.”
Alice climbed in and pulled the door shut at the same time as the boy closed it so that it slammed harshly. She found her keys on the floor and pulled out of the lot as the boy lifted his hand, “Have a nice day, ma’am.”
She drove slowly down the long driveway and when she saw the pink balloons, she turned the wheel ever so slightly towards the mailbox until the wooden beam folded then snapped under the car. Alice assumed the wood had splintered and the balloons were now lying shriveled in the mud, but she didn’t look back to find out.
She put the window down, but the air was cool and balmy and did nothing to sober her. The sun was just setting and Alice realized she was driving without her glasses. She pulled off into a subdivision and searched her purse, but they were nowhere to be found. Alice pushed back into the headrest and pulled the blush out of her pocket. It was a bright pink and she flipped down the mirror and rubbed some on to her cheeks. It made her look clownish, like a little girl wearing her mother’s make-up, and she rubbed it off with her palms. She shut the car off and walked around to the front. The license plate was badly dented and there was a white scuff mark on the bumper. She shoved her hands into her pockets and began to walk. She and Mitch often visited this neighborhood on summer evenings, but she never paid attention to where they parked or how they found their way back.
In the driveways of houses she passed were abandoned bikes and children’s toys, remnants from the first warm spring day. The sidewalks were wet, the trees still bare, and Alice hugged her arms to her body without a jacket. She could still smell the perfume on her, musky and sweet, and it made her feel like a different person. The subdivision was like a labyrinth, roads leading to more roads opening to dead ends and cul-de-sacs and more houses that looked the same. She walked quickly as lights inside the houses turned on, and when she finally found the car again she was out of breath. She was shaky and hungry and she turned the heat on to warm herself. She pictured Mitch in their kitchen, shifting pots and pans on the stove and tying the waist of the apron she’d given him their first Christmas together. Sharona would be weaving herself in and out of his ankles as he spoke to her. Alice turned the blinker on, though there wasn’t a car in sight, and made the last turn home.
Gillian Morrison is a native of New England now living in the Midwest with her two black cats.