I put on my makeup in a cracked mirror, and purse my lips: a web of rose-red lipstick against fair skin. Skinny jeans, cold shoulders, a pearl clip, and – a soupçon of Chanel No. 5. The last breath in Nana’s old bottle.
I set the perfume bottle down – amidst the salves and rolling change and the unfinished scarf I’ve been working on for what seems like forever – and flit fitfully about the room, looking for my ballet pumps. There! – I took them off when I remembered it had been three days since I’d watered my lilies, and their lugubrious scent was dissipating.
I’m sick of shadows.
Tonight, I’m going.
They’ll all be there. The old gang. Two by two. Andy and Jen, who will be holding court as always – Kit and Joseph and Hector, Morgan bringing along whichever one she’s recently bewitched – Benny and Rob, ambiguously – And he! Finally – finally – on Facebook, with a new photo – and still as bold and handsome and marvelous as a knight springing from the pages of a pop-up storybook.
Just like then.
What am I going to say?
I should cancel. There’s no going back again. There’s a storm due, one to turn the skies heavy and whiten the willows. And the evening will just be Senior Ball all over again…that dazzling Valentine’s farce. He asked Jen. She said, with pretty regret, that she was already going with Andy. So he agreed to go with me. Then fled the after-party, head in his hands…
No. No. I’m going, with my unfinished scarf around my neck. I’m going to have a night out. A glass of wine. Or three.
I’m definitely taking an Uber.
* * *
Jen chose the place: a retro-chic “hotspot” (here in the Midwest, that word always seems ironical) called Camelot.
And as I enter, there, indeed, she is, queenly, with a Burberry coat draped over the prime seat at the restaurant’s largest circular table. She is standing behind, chatting with Rob; Andy is listening, with his arm draped comfortably around her. I nearly turn around and go. I’ve lived in the echoes of this song for years.
Then: class president and vice-president, Homecoming King and Queen, and a glamorous Danny and Sandy in the senior production of Grease.
Now: they’re married (obviously). Andy’s in the state senate, dreaming of a larger political stage; she’s a top-flight lawyer. And I, strung out equally on Joni Mitchell and Amy Winehouse and Dido, have failed to launch. Or to get further than a gig with a squally guitar on a complaining stool at an East Side café.
I only played a Pink Lady, after all. Not Frenchy.
I don’t care to talk to Morgan or the boys or…Why did I ever come?
But he’s here.
“Leo,” I say. My voice is a dying swan.
“Hey, Elaine,” he says, cheerfully, unmoving.
Three weeks of failed self-lectures about reasonable expectations and minding my knitting…and so, a little of my soul turns to glass and promptly shatters.
“H-how are you?”
“I’m good,” he says, and, well-bred man that he is, gives me a politely fulsome answer, then asks how I am. I produce something. He expresses appropriate sympathy for my bereavement, and remembers not to ask about my parents. “It’s good that you came,” he adds, then turns back to the larger conversation. Jen is describing – with all the self-important drama of a roman-à-clef – Andy’s successful campaign. Her hair is up; two perfect tendrils frame her face. Then: “Elaine, glad you could make it. I saw in the paper that – I’m so sorry about your Nana.”
“Thanks,” I choke out.
The conversation meanders through rounds of beverages, barley and rye; then comes the inevitable announcement, from a rosy Jen: “Andy’s running for Congress!” – hurrahs, huzzahs, burnished words and pats on the back – “And…Leo’s going to be his campaign manager!”
More gratulation, both self- (in Jen’s case) and more general, ensue. He – Leo – is bright as a burning flame – proud, happy, slightly inebriated; he shakes Andy’s hand, hugs Jen, and beams.
“Can I talk to you for a minute?” I ask. Leo follows me to the ersatz jukebox, and its wild warbling about a rose in a fisted glove. Several breaths. “I’ve seen Adam.”
He cannot imagine what those three little words have cost me. College scholarships, legal fees, parental acknowledgement.
“Have you.” It is not a question. He exchanges a singularly wretched look with Jen, who winces sympathetically.
“Look!” I cry, calling his attention back, displaying the soccer-trophy picture on my phone. He has Leo’s dark curls.
Leo’s eyes widen, and darken. “I thought you…”
“It’s open. It’s allowed.” Right. Now. “We’re allowed…”
He closes his eyes, and grimaces. “I’m…still ashamed, Elaine.” His eyes find the center of his golden galaxy over there, in the sunlit center of the group. I feel stardust slipping through my fingers.
I cup my hands, to catch it: “Right, but you could –”
“I don’t think it’s fair to call myself father for one afternoon, when I know I’ll be gone from one day to the next,” he says, and the utter reasonableness of this statement chills me. The winds outside are straining, gone from breezes to gusts; they rattle the hotspot’s pallid windows.
“We could still go.” Together. We’d be all three of us together, for the first time…The once and – future? – family…
“Go where?” Rob interrupts, towing us back toward the group’s glittering mayhem. “We’ll all go!”
“Nowhere,” Leo says, reddening, and shifting toward the table where his glass stands, misty-sided, next to Jen’s. And then –
with all the inevitability of a boat borne forth on the current –
I see it–
Their fingertips, kissing.
“Leo and Jen are having an affair,” I note, serenely.
A great mushrooming cacophony of recrimination-accusation-refutation greets this observation, but I don’t stay to hear it. The charm has been broken, utterly. I don my coat, and sail forth into the coming storm –
To go home.
To write my song.
About the writer:
Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, and American diplomat, most often found in Africa or Asia, but currently on a domestic rotation in Washington, D.C. Her short stories are currently available on Burningword (“Aurora”), Typishly (“The Announcement“), and Panoply (“Flavia”); other pieces are forthcoming from Enzo Publications, Temptation Press, and Palaver.
Image: Photograph by Marie Dashkova, Moscow. @melodyphoto