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Winter 2001, Volume 18.2

Fiction

 

Robin Sterns

Cold Tributephoto of Robin Sterns.

 

Robin Sterns holds a Ph.D. in creative writing from Florida State University and teaches at Millikin University in Decatur, Il. She is a former Ogden resident, former employee of Utah State University, and former voice on KJQ radio. She has also lived in the Caribbean.

 

Balancing a large, tissue-wrapped bouquet of tulips, lavender and baby's breath and a bottle of Chivas, Jane pushed her hip against the front door of Barbara's house—of course it was unlocked—and burst in.

"Hello! Where is everyone?" she called.

Even though the party should have started already, according to the invitation, Barbara wasn't dressed yet. In fact she was still folding laundry on the living room sofa. Jane smiled; that's the way it always was. Barbara's long hair had been treated to an especially flaming magenta shade of henna and her cheeks were flaming, too. They hugged, best friends who had not seen each other for a year.

Barbara ran off to find a vase for the flowers, a tradition for this annual Robert Burns birthday party, held the last Saturday in January to honor the Scottish poet and (secretly) Barbara's husband Lee, who would never let her give a birthday party for him.

Jane shrugged out of her wool coat and slipped into the cluttered bathroom to brush her hair. Lee had installed a large oval mirror.

She had dressed very carefully. Long black dress, no makeup, a look she hoped she wasn't too old for. The focus tonight would be her rhinestone jewelry, her signature accessory. Tonight she was wearing, for the first time, her mother's flashing rhinestone bracelet, thick as a shirt cuff, and the matching brooch. Comma-shaped earrings of three-carat stones curled around half of each earlobe. At least the rhinestones—forty years old, but still brilliant—would hold up to inspection.

Jane was dressed up for a reason. Tonight she was in the same place as George for the first time since this party last year. Tonight she was single again. And George had just received a postcard from her suggesting he take advantage of the opportunity to find her between husbands.

She blushed at her audacity, amazed she could still dredge it up, and grinned at herself in the mirror. When she turned, she glittered. What a bathroom, though: hairs in the sink and tampons sprinkled all over the floor, just before a party. This family somehow lives more openly than other people.

In the kitchen, Barbara had arranged the flowers in a perfect careless display on the table already crammed with fragrant black bread, raspberry jam, butter, bottles of scotch and glasses. Some years there was a smoked salmon or a turkey.

"Remember the year you asked Tom the vegetarian to carve the turkey? I thought he was going to throw up," Jane blurted out.

"Oh, that poor man. He's supposed to play some sort of flute tonight. God, I'm so happy you're here!" Barbara's whole face was glowing and her rapid speech was as disorganized as her house. "Tell me everything while I get dressed, okay? Are you getting warm? Do you need a drink? Or coffee? I'm having a drink. Are you in love? Oh, I'm so glad you're here—you're so tan!"

Nothing like flying in from the Caribbean to create a stir. "Yes, I'm freezing. But I've practically got long johns on, these stockings are so thick. How do you Utahns wear so many clothes? Got any ice?" Jane responded. One drink's okay, but can't get drunk. Not tonight. Not `til George has been here.

Jane was getting ready to blurt out everything, that she'd taken Barbara up on her suggestion to write George now that he'd publicly announced he was ready for a mid-life crisis, meaning he was finally over Mary's leaving him the way she did—what? five years ago?—her car abandoned on the street in front of their house until the police finally towed it away. But Christine, Barbara's daughter, walked in. Or rather, floated in, as she at twenty had somehow become lithe and ephemeral, gawky just a year ago.

"Jane! You're here! You have to help me decide what to wear. God, you look killer, but you always do." Christine hugged her while clutching two hangers, each supporting a tiny, perfect dress, one black and satiny, and the other plum and gauzy. Apparently this year she wasn't going to do her typical ripped jeans and stretched out sweatshirt.

"This is spectacular," Jane said selfishly, fingering the plum material. Can't have her in black, too. I'd be her fatter, older shadow.

"You're right. That's what I was thinking, too." Christine whirled away and her bedroom door slammed.

"Now I've got to get ready," Barbara said, peering at the wall clock. "Could you slice this cheese? I think there's a clean knife somewhere."

"Don't worry. I'll find it. Get beautiful," Jane replied. A Violent Femmes tune started abruptly from behind Christine's door. "Where's Lee?"

"Oh, he's hiding in the basement. You know how he hates this party. He'll be up when everyone's here later. Make yourself at home. I'm so happy you came!" Barbara disappeared, too.

Jane washed a knife and the cutting board and started slicing the square of cheddar cheese. She'd been in this kitchen a thousand times, at this party maybe ten years in a row, and in that time her fortunes like almost everyone else's had fluctuated wildly: not happy alone, happy or not happy with someone else. Each of the group who attended this event might have walked into the house each year holding a placard summarizing his or her current state of mind. And that's how Jane thought of them. The year Bill was living with another woman. The year he was back with Claudia and they were adopting a baby. The year Bruce announced he was gay through his fragile poetry. The year Margaret's husband had just died of cancer. The year Jane had fallen asleep with her head on George's lap.

George. Famous at this party for bear hugs. Every woman lucky enough to be in attendance when he left would line up for her turn to be lifted off the ground and firmly squeezed until her spinal column realigned itself in some new and superior way. He was a physical presence. He had a degree in psychology, but he sold men's suits. He was a comfortable ten years older than Jane. And after tonight, he'd be hers. Her crush had been smoldering for years, through several relationships, because she liked to keep a few pots simmering just in case, and she'd been sending him cryptic postcards all that time, which he always displayed prominently, on the mantle or refrigerator door. Wonder where this last one is. Maybe I'll be invited later to see it. As she moved in the kitchen, the walls and ceiling were sprayed with dotted prismatic reflections from the rhinestone facets. Reflections of how happy I am.

An hour later the small house was packed. The party had started out as a series of recitations of Robert Burns' poetry. But over the years people got tired of "Me loov is lak a red red rose" in horrible Scottish accents and the evening had become more of a salon, where everyone performed somehow, reading an original poem or short story, playing the guitar, the kazoo, rudimental snare drum.

People in the living room had to behave, meaning they couldn't laugh loudly or make rude remarks. They had to sit quietly and nurture the person who was currently performing. And so the kitchen had gradually become designated as the hideout for the party outlaws, the culture haters, and those taking a breather from amateur poetry.

Someone was playing "Malagueña" on classical guitar out in the living room. Jane was in the kitchen chatting with Lee about the state of his latest oil painting, or rather, he was expounding on his theory of how art historians would eventually date his work by the layers of dryer lint settled into the surface of each one, the result of years of painting in laundry rooms.

Christine floated in and asked her dad for a cigarette. She pulled Jane outside to the back stoop.

"I'm so nervous," she told Jane as she lighted it. Her breath made little puffs: it had to be minus 200. Jane hugged herself and snorted. What could a young and beautiful woman have to be nervous about? A straight-A geology major? Was I nervous at that age? I can't even remember that age.

"No, I'm serious. I'm a wreck. Not like you. You're always so calm and on top of things. You always have so much to talk about, a million interesting stories," Christine insisted.

"How's What's-His-Face? Your archeology professor?" Jane asked.

"Oh, I guess you didn't hear," Christine replied. "He's in Jordan for a dig—near the place in Raiders of the Lost Ark where they supposedly found the Ark of the Covenant. He invited me to come along, but I just couldn't see that."

"I don't know why. You guys were so close," Jane said.

"Yeah, but it was tough, an older man. He was too serious about us. And I never knew what to talk about. But he's a wonderful guy."

"He sure is," Jane said. "Remember last year at this party? He and Tom the vegetarian started conversing in some Middle Eastern language I'd never even heard of before."

Just then there was a commotion inside. Jane and Christine followed the sound into the living room in time to see Jock MacIntosh, professor of philosophy at the local college, decked out in a kilt and knee socks with tassels, bursting into the room dragging a sled with a bottle of fine single malt whiskey strapped to it.

When she got back to the warm, crowded kitchen, Bill had arrived, another of Jane's long-bubbling pots. She marched right up to him.

"Next time return my call," she said.

"Your hair's getting long. It's pretty," he said. Their faces were very close.

"You're right. I didn't return your call. My grandfather died," he said. "And somehow your call got forgotten after that."

His dark blond hair was getting long, too; it was tied back. He had new tortoiseshell wire-rims and a thin gold wire earring.

"God, Bill. I'm sorry. When did he die?"

"Yesterday."

"Well, I did call Tuesday. You had days in there when you could have called back." His eyes were very light blue, an intense icy blue. She was glad she'd never had an affair with him, because he had affairs with everybody, but it was thrilling to have his full attention.

"I wouldn't take this kind of treatment from just anyone," he said to the room at large.

"Fine. Don't call. Just remember you're the one who said `I never stayin touch with friends who move out of town.' So I'm the one who always calls."

"So, okay, I'll stay in touch. I don't have to take this, you know. I wouldn't take this from just anybody."

"Right, Bill."

They smiled at each other and hugged lightly. She deflected his kiss to her cheek.

She stepped around the corner into the living room, where Margaret, a free-lance writer who kept her poor dead husband's ashes in the trunk of her battered car, was starting a poem. Margaret shifted her flowing patchwork skirts, gazed significantly at the man she had brought along tonight—a new one, Jane would have to get the story later—grabbed his hand tightly, and began reading in a pinched voice:

"A Poem to Howard

All-ee All-ee in come free!
I quit.
I'm going to take my ball and go home.
Your mama's calling you.
Your wife's calling you.
Your children are calling you.
And no matter how fast we ran
How high we jumped
How loud we laughed

They were calling.

Go find out what they want, Howard.
Or don't.

But I quit.
From now on I play Solitaire.
Or I play with boys who can keep their minds on the game."

Everyone applauded, of course, but that didn't seem to mean anything to Margaret. She crumpled up the piece of paper savagely and stuffed it into her pocket, smiling through tears. There was a momentary lull while people got up to refill drinks.

Vivaldi's Four Seasons drifted in from the hallway. Jane saw a light on under the door to Christine's room and knocked.

"Come in!" she heard over the music.

Christine was inside, along with her orchestra friends, smoking a joint. As Jane joined them for a brief, deep inhalation, her eyes strayed to the clutter on the dresser. Lipsticks, CDs, lavender satin panties wadded up, Jane's postcard. Perfect.

"I found it on George's dining room table. I love it. Isn't the picture cool, from some 30's movie? Blonde Bombshell. The woman looks just like you," Christine said.

Jane hoped there was a pleasant expression on her face as she left the room. No wonder George was staying away.

In the living room. Bruce had finished the series of poems on his bizarre experiences working as a late-night video rental store clerk. Jane pulled a folding chair into the center of the room to read her new short story. As she arranged the typed pages, she remembered reading her first story to this group, four years earlier. She was newly married then, to her own professor, and he sat right next to her as she read, taking each page from her hands as she finished it. He wasn't here tonight. Wherever he was, he was unsteadily clutching a bourbon on the rocks, disguised in a ceramic coffee cup.

This year's story was received with predictable wild applause: nothing like an audience of loved ones. Then Christine started setting up her `cello and music stands with two of her musician friends.

Barbara came up from behind Jane and whispered in her ear. "Isn't Christine cute? She's so concerned about playing this piece, because George isn't here yet." Jane must have shot her a look because Barbara added, "Didn't I tell you? They're in love. They've been seeing each other for a couple of months. She's his mid-life crisis!"

Jane couldn't respond. Her head swirled with how pathetic her self-confidence had been and how right it was that George would choose the younger woman. But how could Barbara support this thing between her old friend and her daughter? Isn't it a little too much like the hairs in the bathroom sink? And why hadn't anyone warned her?

Jane went back into the kitchen to refill her drink, heck with staying sober now, and stopped briefly to explain to Bruce how he was welcome to visit her in the Caribbean, but he was going to have to find a hotel, because it's just not possible to sleep on the beach without getting murdered.

The next hour was a painful blur. It wasn't like she could leave, although that's exactly what she would have liked to do, because she'd be sleeping on the living room couch when all these annoying people finally went home. So instead she read her short story for the second time, repeating at Bill's request the section where the main character contemplates plate tectonics—the continents drifting apart, America and even Utah sliding sideways at that very minute—and everyone in the room obligingly swayed as they applauded.

The quartet was finishing its third piece when George finally walked in. Christine thrust aside her instrument and rushed over to him, but his eyes were seeking out Jane, who saw now why Christine had been so nervous. She had youth and beauty, all right, but George was forty-seven years old, and Christine seemed afraid he might prefer something in Jane.

And maybe he did.

He got to the sofa as Jane was rising to her feet and gave her a Christmas-wrapped box.

"These belonged to my mother. She just died a couple of months ago, and I wanted you to have them. I know what they mean to you."

They were a pair of rhinestone earrings, square. Smaller than the ones she was wearing, but a gift from George. From his mother.

As she moved to the hall mirror to put them on, she saw naked jealousy on Christine's face. But then George grabbed her and gave her a huge bear hug. He whispered; she grabbed her coat, and they ran out the front door. He looked like a kid.

Jane contemplated her reflection in the mirror. There really were a number of lines around her eyes these days, and they were starting in the hollows of her cheeks, too. But at least she wasn't going to cry.

The rhinestones were cold in her hand, but they were sufficient.