by Joellen Kubiak-Woodall
It is the typical gathering of suburban couples, celebrating birthdays this time. We drive narrow roads that curve and twist, as if the streets themselves were secret. Finally, we arrive at a comfortable home with a beautiful view of the valley below. Inside is an enclave of mostly liberal creative types. After the initial greetings and exchanges of pleasantries, the all-too-familiar question comes up: Why don’t you (my husband and I) relocate to our community? Their voices implore, “But Mia, we’d see you more often! You and Ian are too far away, and Ian, don’t you like it here?” They don’t know that I would love to live here, just without my husband.
We are as good as the rest of them at hiding our problems, and tonight everyone is on their best behavior. No one wants to advertise that their own marriage is in trouble. It’s easy enough to figure out, though, especially if you‘re looking. And here, among friends, everyone is looking. I wonder what is it that we hope to find. We smile and scan the faces for that Aha moment, that moment of recognition, that moment when you know something is amiss. If the bitter eyes you spy belong to a woman, it won’t be long before she tells her story. After a few drinks and some girl talk, she will always confess. The women will listen, and offer advice and sympathy, while simultaneously assessing the value of this friendship, assigning fault, and then deciding which half of the couple to sever.
If it’s a man’s eye that I catch, well that’s something altogether different. If he believes his marriage has waned, then he is most likely looking for someone who is sympathetic, but in a different way. He is looking for someone else’s wife. Like Cole, the man looking at me tonight.
Here we are again, and there he is again. Frankly, I thought he would be hosting this time. Not that it matters, as I knew he would be here. He hadn’t planned to see me again, however he had hoped to. Ian and I are new to this group. We are the urban outsiders to those that live in this suburban neighborhood. My guess is that they see each other every week or so, but Ian and I are in the auditioning phase. Some of the group is still trying to decide if they like us or not. Presently I’m not expected to bring food, help with the set up, or clean up afterwards. It’s a game. I will offer to help, they will rebuff my offers, and it is the accepted dance. After all we are currently guests, but once the clique accepts us, all that changes. I will then be expected to know where everything goes, and exactly how the other woman likes the appetizers arranged, and on which tray. Once I’m in, my domestic compliance is expected.
Cole’s wife is absent from this party, which really is not a surprise. At the last party, their children were tired and fussy and so the family went home. A little later Cole returned, alone. Now there’s a red flag for you. He’d left our chat unfinished. Wanting something more, he returned. That night, Cole and I completed our conversation about something unimportant that we were pretending was. Lying, it’s part of the beginning. You lie to yourself and then once you’re convinced, the rest comes easily.
Interestingly, it was Cole’s birthday tonight and no wife attended. No one asked about her or commented on her absence, which is another sign of trouble: her absence was accepted. Because of the children, perhaps, but still no one asked. They assumed that was why, and felt safe in that assumption. Separation or divorce, don’t mention it, this is a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” society. We live with blinders on and pretend to be surprised when the moving van is out front and the husband has a new apartment. Then we gossip about all the times we suspected something. Childish, yes, but it happens all over suburbia all the time.
Everyone chats, introductions are issued all around, and once more in case we have forgotten someone. The host asks, “What you are working on?” I attempt to answer, Ian interrupts, tries to finish my sentences. He can’t because he’s doesn’t really know what I’m working on. He’s only truly interested in me at these parties, as for him it’s Show and Tell with the wife. I correct him on some points or facts he has misconstrued, and then he goes on to talk about something else. Cole redirects the conservation back to me. “Now what was it that you were saying that was interesting?” Bold move on his part, since the statement shows me he likes what I have to say, and he wants to listen. At the same time, he has very deftly made a point that my husband is both uninteresting and uninterested. I get to finish what I’m saying and add “I was almost done, anyway, and there wasn’t much more to the story than that.” This is a lie, of course, but it establishes the belief that I’m not mad at Ian. It’s my way of saying husbands do this from time to time, and it doesn’t really matter. They all recognize it as a fact of marriage, or they pretend that’s what they’ve just witnessed. Cole and I know differently. Our dance begins.
Small things continue to happen: we reach for drinks at the same time, our hands touch, we retract them quickly, and then exchange glances and a polite “after you.” The party moves outside. It rained earlier, so the humidity is now high and the air is hot and thick. The deck chairs are damp. Cole retreats inside for a towel. He returns and quickly wipes a chair dry for me, and then for another woman. The other men take his lead and perform similar operations for their spouses. A little late, the women jokingly comment. I simply say, “Thank you,” and Cole glances over at Ian as if to say I take better care of your wife. It’s a competition now, and Cole is leading in points. He knows this. Even the other men know it. Ian refuses to acknowledge the fact, for to do so would reaffirm his weaker position, and so the evening progresses.
The hostess shows me the music room. Before our arrival, some of the musicians had played. Cole comes down and joins us. Picking up his guitar, he asks if I sing or play.
“You do, or you did. I can tell by the look on your face.”
I think, Good, he’s assigning qualities to me, the ones he wants in a woman. I also know he’s fishing, but in this case he was right.
“Just some stupid garage band stuff,” I answer.
He throws out songs titles I must know, and begins to play. We sing together for a bit, but don’t linger too long because that would draw more attention. He’s thinking about fucking me now. We rejoin the party. Everyone is fairly loaded at this time. The party moves outside, then in, and back outside. Cole and I flop down on the couch, as it’s getting late.
“God, I have to get up early in the morning,” I say, “This scene I’m writing just isn’t working. Ugh!”
“Want some help? I’m a recovering writer, you know.”
We both laugh at his joke.
“What have you got so far? Anything solid written down? Any ideas?
“Yes and no.” I laugh and try to explain my writing process. He hops up from the couch and comes back with a large envelope and a pen.
“You need an outline,” he says. He returns to the sofa. We sit up, facing each other, almost touching.
I give him beats, establish my characters, he asks questions; we talk about motivations, where is the protagonist going. While he suggests, I explain, and he writes. He can help me, but do I need his help? I don’t think so, but I like it. I like the attention. I like the back and forth. We work well together. He’s showing me what it would be like, the fuck. Another man enters the room and sits in the chair adjacent to the sofa.
“What are you guys up to?” he asks. It sounds like an accusation.
“Working,” we answer.
“Writers have it easy,” he says.
It’s a clumsy, stupid comment, and I don’t let it pass.
Cole mirrors my question with, “Yeah. How so?”
The man trips over an answer. We don’t really listen, it doesn’t matter, he’s interrupting our time, and our responses make that clear. He becomes uncomfortable and lumbers back outside. I think, now we’ve done it. We’ve drawn even more attention to ourselves. Instinctively, Cole and I know our time is short. We’re rushing to finish our fuck with words, interrupted by someone who didn’t knock, discovered by someone who wasn’t supposed to see. How careless of us.
We are still passing the paper back and forth when we hear Ian’s voice.
“Mia,” he calls as he enters the house. I notice he feels obliged to announce himself, to give us time, to do what? To stop thinking about what we are thinking about? Does he recognize the other man’s dominance? Is he acquiescing? Cole and I stop and smile at each other. Then he continues to write for a moment. “Come on, honey,” Ian says, “It’s late, and we have a long drive ahead of us.”
I turn to Cole. “Thanks for your help. Sometimes I just need someone to bounce ideas off.”
“Sure anytime. It was fun,” he answers.
Ian isn’t listening. He’s just watching us. Looking for the clues that he’s going to pretend he doesn’t see and never plans to acknowledge. We say our goodbyes to the hostess. I fall asleep on the way home.
Today I sat down to write. I went to my purse and pulled out the envelope, thinking there was some good work there. I see a note scribbled at the bottom: Sorry we didn’t get to finish the scene. If you would like to work on it some more…. A phone number, with the word cell next to it, completes the sentence.
Not home. Not work. A cell. So it isn’t really an invitation to work. I wonder who they’ll blame.