Johnny America


The Shape of Destruction


Con­trib­u­tor Rob Burke calls piece a “long-wind­ed back sto­ry to two provoca­tive vi­gnettes writ­ten by Law­ton and Hol­ley.” Thank you for shar­ing this sto­ry and your kind words, Rob — we are hon­ored. Read the in­spi­ra­tion sto­ries here and here.

Delu­sion? Is this my prized pos­ses­sion? Is that all I’ve need­ed to con­vince my­self that he is a good hus­band? Oh, he want­ed to set­tle down and have kids and a yard to man­age, but he nev­er want­ed to be mar­ried the way I want­ed to be mar­ried. Blair was suc­cess­ful, re­source­ful, sol­id in body and char­ac­ter, but seem­ing­ly ig­no­rant of what a makes a woman tru­ly hap­py, of what keeps a wom­an’s heart em­bed­ded in her man, through mo­not­o­ny and cri­sis, in a mar­velous dra­ma of hu­man in­ter­de­pen­dence. The new year was ap­proach­ing, and we agreed to ded­i­cate this one to our ro­man­tic re­new­al by throw­ing a par­ty, bet­ter, a gala, a full scale so­cial event, to lure in the fu­ture with out­stretched arms. If there was one thing I could count on from Blair, it was ris­ing to the oc­ca­sion. I ad­mit­ted to my­self that the par­ty would prove to our friends, to our­selves, to every­one that we were not sim­ply still mar­ried, but still hap­pi­ly married.

Blair worked tire­less­ly and with gen­uine en­thu­si­asm on the house. He did­n’t balk when I ex­plained to him that every bed­room would need fresh flow­ers and iced cham­pagne. He winced, but said noth­ing, when I asked him to re­paint the gut­ters and down­spouts that had grown ug­ly with age. He did not moan or sigh at my in­sis­tence that the Japan­ese pachysan­dra had to be com­plete­ly re­moved from the front and re­placed with the Al­leghe­ny spurge I’d had my eye on. He on­ly laughed when I firm­ly sug­gest­ed that he park his blue work van, paint­ed with “Blair’s Air and Plumb­ing” in hot yel­low, down the street dur­ing the party.

For the in­vi­ta­tions, I paint­ed a card-size square with a sim­ple de­sign, bor­row­ing shame­less­ly from Rothko, us­ing red, green and gold. As they were print­ing I sat to ad­dress the en­velopes. Look­ing down the page, I could not help but re­flect on the strange paths of our loved ones. In the list I could see the frag­ment­ed ar­ray left by be­tray­al and lies and its ef­fect on our fam­i­ly and friends. I thought how strange it was that some con­sid­er love trans­fer­able like a car ti­tle or a gym mem­ber­ship while oth­ers would suf­fer a life­time with­out it just to feel safe. Missed op­por­tu­ni­ties and sec­ond chances, the sto­ries of the emo­tion­al­ly frail and those im­mune to all of­fense, set­tled in our Philadel­phia sub­urb al­most glued to the very streets they roam.

“Those the in­vi­ta­tions? Nice.” Blair drew out the “i” in nice like he does when study­ing a bux­om nude in a gallery.

“Do you think your broth­er will be un­com­fort­able meet­ing Glen? I asked. “To think Geor­gia mar­ried him af­ter on­ly two months. Sure he’s got mon­ey, and the firm and he works out and, do you know what? Re­bec­ca Win­ston told me he may run for City Coun­cil. But still, how well you can you get to know some­one in two months? How could you mar­ry some­one you hard­ly know?”

“Every­thing will be fine. Geor­gia is just be­ing Geor­gia, a lit­tle gar­ish and im­pul­sive, but al­ways ac­count­able. She’s star­tling, that’s what he liked about her any­way. God if he did­n’t drink him­self out of that mar­riage. He got Mom’s looks and Dad’s liv­er. Look hon­ey, Franklin should be hap­py to come. If it weren’t for you, he would have nev­er met Ju­lia and they look pret­ty damn hap­py to me. Plus, he’s not the type to be in­tim­i­dat­ed by any­one. He can han­dle it.”

He was right. Ju­lia and Frank had been mar­ried five years, and quite hap­pi­ly. I took a cer­tain pride in their re­la­tion­ship, though I had no such mo­tives when I in­vit­ed them both to din­ner. I’d first met Ju­lia in­side the Health Cen­ter at the Art In­sti­tute 22 years ago. She was thin, too thin, and her mat­ted blonde hair was past art-school hip; she looked down­right down­trod­den. I asked her why she was there. She said noth­ing. Feel­ing sor­ry for her, I shared that I was ner­vous too and that I was wait­ing for a preg­nan­cy test. She looked be­wil­dered and in her poor Eng­lish told me that she was an ex­change stu­dent from Ger­many and that she need­ed “the in­oc­u­la­tion.” I asked to see the forms clenched in her damp fist. I scru­ti­nized the pa­pers and in short time de­ter­mined that she had an ap­point­ment for Uni­ver­si­ty Ori­en­ta­tion. I ex­plained that the Ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing was next door and with­out a word she ex­it­ed. Though she was awk­ward, there was an un­usu­al en­er­gy to her move­ments that was captivating.

We had a few de­sign class­es to­geth­er in col­lege but it was­n’t un­til a few years ago, on an er­rand to the lo­cal frame shop, that our paths con­verged again. The shop was bare, ob­vi­ous­ly in the mid­dle of a re­mod­el­ing job. As I stepped in, I saw a fig­ure crouched near the floor, in­stalling lights in a dis­play case. I rec­og­nized her quick­ly and stopped short. She looked up.

“Raine? Is that you?” Her ac­cent per­sist­ed but her de­meanor was new. She sprung up and wrapped her arms around me.

“Ju­lia!” What are you do­ing here?”

“You like?” she asked, sweep­ing her arm around the room. “This… this is mine. My own shop …at long last. I’ve got in­ven­to­ry in the back, come, I will show you.”

I could hard­ly be­lieve that this was the same girl I’d known in school. She was bold and self-con­fi­dent and her gram­mar now sparkled like the chan­de­lier ear­rings she was hold­ing to my head. “Red” she breathed in­stinc­tive­ly, “yes,” nod­ding, “red is your col­or. They are East­er­ling and ru­by. You will have these. I made them my­self.” I blushed as I ac­cept­ed the gift, awed by her trans­for­ma­tion. Here was a woman whol­ly rein­vent­ed from her for­mer self, bran­dish­ing a deep pas­sion for art, col­or and life. We stood in the naked store and talked at length about her jew­el­ry, life af­ter art school, her re­cent gem ex­pe­di­tion to Africa and her ac­qui­si­tion of the frame shop. I in­vit­ed her for din­ner that week­end and that was when she met Franklin.

“Sor­ry, I am not fa­mil­iar with ‘cap-ri-fi?’ This is what?” asked Ju­lia. Franklin was used to this ques­tion, and had his re­sponse ready. “I’m a hor­ti­cul­tur­ist. More pre­cise­ly, I’m a fig capri­fi­er. My com­pa­ny works on hy­brids that can grow in ar­eas like this, Raine will tell you, but main­ly we pro­duce wild figs. Not the kind of figs that you can eat, but still in­dis­pens­able. See, these figs con­tain wasp lar­vae that help pol­li­nate the big boys, your Mis­sions, Cal­imyr­nas, and the like. We send the lit­tle worm-filled figs out west where they hang them on­to trees that do not bear fruit. Af­ter a cou­ple years, voila, your for­mer­ly bar­ren tree is loaded with the mag­i­cal, ed­i­ble, fig flower. I am a fer­til­i­ty spe­cial­ist, if you will.”

“Ha,” I said, “a fer­til­i­ty spe­cial­ist with no kids!”

Franklin smiled and Ju­lia asked “no kids, huh? I have kids. I keep them in a vault. They are very, very old. I res­cued them from caves. They are all quite bril­liant, so bril­liant in fact, they glow at night, in the dark.” Franklin’s at­ten­tion was on Ju­lia and noth­ing else. “They are like a drug,” she con­tin­ued, “yel­low and or­ange stir me and make me in­vin­ci­ble, the green ones calm and re­store my peace, blue gems are like mag­ic lit­tle fairies al­ways danc­ing, while the reds in­spire love, nat­u­ral­ly. There is no more pow­er­ful aphro­disi­ac than a blaz­ing red gem be it gar­net or spinel. And black, my new friend Franklin” she grasped his hand, “black, I hold black and feel like I am falling, and land right back on­to my­self. Onyx is a per­fect, hon­est mirror.”

Franklin was trans­fixed, but sens­ing an op­por­tu­ni­ty, replied, “well, as long as you pre­fer sap­phires to Sap­pho, maybe we could get an espres­so sometime?”

“Lana, din­ner is ready,” I yelled upstairs.

Blair sat down and be­gan dish­ing spaghet­ti on­to his plate.

“Can’t you wait for your daugh­ter to sit down be­fore you eat?” I asked.

“Sor­ry, but I’m starv­ing. I played 27 holes to­day. Plus she al­ways takes for­ev­er. How long should I have to wait?”

“You know I had my ap­point­ment to­day, are you even go­ing to ask?”

“Aww, sor­ry. How did it go? Did you sell anything?”

“No, they just dragged me along and in the end said they were look­ing for some­thing with more ‘rhythm’ and ‘opac­i­ty’… dilettantes.”

“Well, some­one has to buy some­thing soon. I’m sure of it.” He sighed and con­tin­ued eating.

Lana came in, with her mul­ti­col­ored hair shocked with mousse in a way that brought to mind the clumps of or­na­men­tal grass we grow in the back­yard. She was dif­fer­ent since she switched her ma­jor from art to writ­ing last se­mes­ter. More sullen and more pro­tec­tive of her thoughts. I hoped she did­n’t think I was dis­ap­point­ed. Tru­ly, I want­ed her on­ly to be hap­py, what­ev­er she de­cid­ed to study.

“Did we tell you Jef­frey Win­ston got mar­ried in October?”

“So what?” Lana pissed.

“Just thought you would be glad to hear that he mar­ried the tick­et-tak­er from the Cine­plex and now they live in his par­ents’ house — and his biggest claim to fame is that his band played in the Rathskeller of the very same com­mu­ni­ty col­lege that he flunked out of,” I said smug­ly. “It could have been you, huh?”

Lana’s bit­ter scowl soft­ened and she let out a small laugh and be­gan eat­ing, her mood scant­ly uplifted.

“You got a job lined up at The In­quir­er yet?” Blair smiled.

“It’s fun­ny you ask, Dad. I’ve ac­tu­al­ly got three po­ems un­der con­sid­er­a­tion for the Spring Bea­con. One is about my moth­er, one is about my fa­ther and the oth­er is about a young woman who as­phyx­i­ates her needling par­ents with gar­lic bread in a pre-men­stru­al rage.”

“Well be warned, Lana. The Win­stons will be here on New Years. Per­haps you can con­grat­u­late Jef­frey then. Please be on your worst be­hav­ior. And could you please take off your Boa? It’s sag­ging in your spaghetti.”

Lat­er, as we were clear­ing the ta­ble, my beloved Pomeran­ian Ro­man be­gan bark­ing wild­ly at the front door with no ap­par­ent provo­ca­tion. Lana glared at him.

“One of these days I’m go­ing to punt that mutt across the street,” she muttered.

“Please Lana. You think this is a mutt? He is more pure than you or I.” I knelt down and tried to calm the fran­tic dog.

Blair stood up from the ta­ble and stretched. “Come on, Lana, let’s go check the garage for fireworks.”

De­spite my pres­ence, Ro­man was at­tack­ing the door, his nails dig­ging mi­ni-trench­es in­to the Plex­i­glas. The high-pitched yaps were in­ter­rupt­ed in­ter­mit­tent­ly by a low growl that shook his whole body. His lips re­ced­ed re­veal­ing his healthy pink gums and sali­va gath­ered on his chin like a frothy beard. I picked him up and opened the door. Geor­gia stood there, hand poised to knock.

“Geor­gia! My good­ness come in! What brings you here? It’s been too long!” I em­braced her with one arm, hold­ing the wrig­gling Ro­man with the other.

She hand­ed me a box wrapped in red pa­per. “It’s a lit­tle late, but Mer­ry Christ­mas. I was in the neigh­bor­hood; I have a client over on Cattail”

“A client? What are you up to these days?” Geor­gia was al­ways in sales. She sold every­thing from ad­vice to vinyl sid­ing, from her home, in de­part­ment stores, over the tele­phone, she worked in trav­el and life in­sur­ance and in pub­lish­ing, sell­ing text­books on top­ics she knew noth­ing about. With her glam­orous good looks, am­ple build, and sin­cere af­fect she could al­ways find work when she need­ed it. Blair al­ways said she could sell oil to an Arab. She nev­er stayed too long in any one place.

“Can we sit down, Raine?”

“Of course, is every­thing al­right? You are still com­ing over for New Years, aren’t you?” We took a seat in the liv­ing room.

“Well, I want­ed to talk to you about that. I imag­ine Franklin’s coming?”

“Yes, he and Ju­lia are plan­ning to be here. Is there a prob­lem? We’re all grown up now, you know. I think he can han­dle the sight of you. He should not be the least bit sur­prised to see you are still look­ing so young and radiant.”

“Thank you for say­ing so, but it’s noth­ing like that. You see, I think he saw me work­ing a few weeks back… and…well… he’ll be meet­ing Glen for the first time…” she trailed off. Geor­gia’s head was slop­ing and to­ward the end of her sen­tence she was ac­tu­al­ly bit­ing her nail. This high­ly un­char­ac­ter­is­tic body lan­guage wor­ried me.

“Why Geor­gia, what could pos­si­bly be so bad about that? Where are you working?”

She erect­ed her­self in a cal­cu­lat­ed pose, but her eyes were veer­ing. “I’m danc­ing” she fi­nal­ly blurt­ed out, “down at the Sunset.…”

I gasped sharply, at the same time I saw her face relax.

“Oh, my…you…dear…oh…” I was at a loss. As dif­fi­cult as it was, with a lit­tle imag­i­na­tion I could pic­ture Franklin sip­ping whiskey at that club on the edge of town, but the thought of Geor­gia tak­ing mon­ey from strangers — nude, or near­ly so — at her age; it was sim­ply too much.

“Glen is think­ing of run­ning for City Coun­cil. He can nev­er find out.”

I laughed, in­cred­u­lous, “he does­n’t know?”

“I told him it was a book club. Last week a cou­ple of the girls left for the hol­i­days so now I’m in two book clubs. The oth­er night I saw a man that I thought was Franklin, but he left al­most im­me­di­ate­ly so I could­n’t be sure.”

As we talked it oc­curred to me that Geor­gia was ut­ter­ly un­re­pen­tant, hav­ing de­scribed her work with words like ‘thrilling’ and ‘in­vig­o­rat­ing’. De­spite what she called ‘oc­cu­pa­tion­al haz­ards’: the oc­ca­sion­al stalk­er, the undy­ing smell of smoke, the bruis­ing she got from strad­dling the rim of a gi­gan­tic cham­pagne glass, she had some­how man­aged to re­cap­ture her verve and spon­tane­ity, her face shone like a woman guilt­less­ly pur­su­ing youth­ful in­dul­gences. I told her not to wor­ry about Franklin but ad­vised her strong­ly to find new work be­fore it de­stroyed her untest­ed mar­riage. “East­er,” she said smil­ing, “I plan to stop by East­er. I should have enough for Madrid by then.”

It was an un­usu­al­ly mild De­cem­ber night. Low clouds from the south smoth­ered the win­ter sky, sug­gest­ing rain. The house was im­mac­u­late and smelled of nut­meg and ros­es. White lights glit­tered on the tree. The Win­stons were the first guests to ar­rive. I gave Re­bec­ca a hug and was then in­tro­duced to her son’s wife.

“This is the lucky girl I mar­ried, Tam­my, the First La­dy of Lake Av­enue” Jef­frey said, look­ing more di­sheveled than I re­mem­bered. “Hap­py New Year’s Miss Raine, where’s the libations?”

I took their coats and led them to the bar. The door­bell rang again. I stopped in front of the mir­ror and low­ered my blouse slight­ly be­fore re-open­ing the door. Over the top of our neigh­bors, the Utzes, I could see Geor­gia and Glen com­ing slow­ly up the side­walk, heads close to­geth­er. I dis­pensed with the neigh­bors quick­ly, and then wel­comed Geor­gia with a long hug, as if I had­n’t seen her for years. Glen was tall, his hair dark and his skin smooth. He was younger than I imag­ined. He smiled and hand­ed me a bot­tle of sparkling wine and then took my hand, giv­ing it a squeeze. “It is a plea­sure to make your ac­quain­tance, thank you for invit­ing us.”

“I’ve seen your ads in the news­pa­per. Black ink does you no jus­tice! You’re even bet­ter look­ing in per­son.” I could feel Blair be­hind me and was sud­den­ly em­bar­rassed. “Blair, hon­ey, this is Glen.”

“Hel­lo Georgie,” Blair said, pulling her in for a hug. “Nice to meet you, Glen.”

As they left for the liv­ing room I turned to Blair and pulled ei­ther side of his bow-tie, giv­ing him a light kiss on the mouth. “I hope you don’t spend all night with your friends; your wife needs some at­ten­tion too.”

“Of course, dear, and you de­serve it,” he said, star­ing at my chest.

“You’re dis­missed, Blair. Go”

The door­bell rang again. For the next thir­ty min­utes, the door re­mained open as mem­bers of our wide cir­cle of friends and fam­i­ly, ac­quain­tances and as­so­ciates, Blair’s golf gang, my art cir­cle, Lana’s high school Goth Squad, the dog breed­er and the pi­ano tuner, all con­verged on our warm home, cel­e­brat­ing a new year, fresh starts and hap­py end­ings. I was full of hope and calm and I went to get a glass of wine.

I grabbed a small plate of pâté and sweet pota­toes and ducked in­to the kitchen with my wine. I did­n’t see that I was followed.

“Ju­lia! I did­n’t see you come in!” I said still chew­ing. “How is the store com­ing along?”

“Raine, I see you are wear­ing my ear­rings! You look so beau­ti­ful, how does your hus­band let you out of his sight? The store is com­ing nice­ly. Franklin took time from work to in­stall the new light­ing, not cheap I tell you, but the place now, is ab­solute­ly bril­liant, like walk­ing in­to blind­ing heaven.”

“Where is Franklin?”

“I came in to get him a scotch, he said the good stuff was in the kitchen. He just chal­lenged his ex-wife’s new hus­band to a game of darts in the base­ment. A man with five thumbs, throw­ing darts. Ha! I left im­me­di­ate­ly. Said he needs a drink to steady his hand. Looks like I am dri­ving home tonight.”

“There is plen­ty of room here, no need to dri­ve any­where tonight!” I of­fered, grab­bing two glass­es from the cupboard.

Ju­li­a’s voice soft­ened. “She looks like his grand­moth­er. She is, you say, grave robber.”

“You mean Geor­gia? Uhm.. that’s cra­dle rob­ber, I think. Geor­gia pret­ty much does what­ev­er she wants to do. She is young at heart. Nev­er one to lis­ten to my ad­vice or any­one else’s. She seems hap­py now with Glen, and has nev­er ut­tered any­thing bad about Franklin.”

“I know, I know. It’s just that I’d pic­tured her in a more ma­tron­ly light, you know, I was hop­ing she would at least be wear­ing some sen­si­ble shoes in­stead of those wicked thigh highs, and that bright silk dress was a bold choice for new years, but damn if she did­n’t pull it off! Truth­ful­ly Raine,” she said com­ing clos­er, “when we first saw them at the bar, as I was in­tro­duc­ing my­self to Glen, I kept my eye on her, and I saw her give Franklin a lit­tle wink and she bowed her head a lit­tle. I am be­ing para­noid per­haps, but why the hell would she do that?”

“She broke his heart, twice. Their his­to­ry is a painful one, she was prob­a­bly try­ing to light­en the mood a bit. Ju­lia, look at you, you’re mag­nif­i­cent, such al­lure and style and all that en­er­gy. Don’t wor­ry about her, she’s no match for you.”

Ju­lia smiled and sighed, “Thanks Raine, and thank you for the drinks. I’d bet­ter go down and see if they need an ambulance.”

I took an­oth­er glass of wine in­to the liv­ing room. Since most of the guests had ar­rived I asked Lana to re­lease Ro­man from his hold­ing cell. I moved through the room ob­serv­ing the in­trigu­ing process of so­cial di­vi­sion, the some­times sub­tle but al­ways un­mis­tak­able hi­er­ar­chies of hu­man group­ing. The en­ter­tain­ers, the lis­ten­ers, in cir­cles and in lines, some stand­ing and oth­ers sit­ting, all arranged in a com­plete­ly pre­de­ter­mined, nat­ur­al or­der. There was Blair, stand­ing at the head of the din­ing room ta­ble while oth­ers stood lis­ten­ing to him re-tell an anec­dote about a lone­ly woman whose heat had bro­ken dur­ing a snow storm. Ac­cord­ing to Blair, she pre­sent­ed her­self to him hold­ing a can WD-40, wear­ing noth­ing but a pair of dish gloves, and re­leased a steady steam of the sweet-smelling oil on­to her vagi­na, say­ing, “You fixed my fur­nace, now I’ll fix your tool.” The group at the ta­ble howled and cringed as he be­gan an­oth­er of his fa­mous heat­ing-and-plumb­ing stories.

I found Lana in the den, sit­ting on the floor in front of the couch laugh­ing with her friends. On the oth­er side of the couch, Tam­my was squeez­ing Jef­frey tight­ly with one arm and with the oth­er had turned her beer bot­tle up­side-down in­to her mouth, gulped sev­er­al times, right­ed the bot­tle and, with a belch, shoved the emp­ty in­to Jef­frey’s face. “Get me an­oth­er,” she slurred with a se­duc­tive grin. “God I love you,” he said, re­turn­ing her amorous gaze, and rose to his feet. “All that glit­ters is gold” he an­nounced to the room.

I sus­pect­ed Lana was start­ing to see in Jef­frey what I al­ways saw in him. Over­look­ing his sur­face ap­peal was easy when you stopped to think about what de­fined this boy and where he was go­ing. Here is a guy who had every op­por­tu­ni­ty for suc­cess hand­ed to him. He was raised by good peo­ple in a good home, free of phys­i­cal, men­tal, and chem­i­cal abuse. He was sent to the best schools and was giv­en un­lim­it­ed aca­d­e­m­ic sup­port. From youth, his moth­er raised him with cre­ativ­i­ty and gen­eros­i­ty, his fa­ther an iron work eth­ic. And what did he do with it? Noth­ing. Fired from his pa­per route at 11 years old, sus­pend­ed from school in 9th grade, beat up the same year, in­car­cer­at­ed for van­dal­ism, now mar­ried, with­out a job, to Tam­my, who I dare say, even at this lev­el of ine­bri­a­tion, is his bet­ter half.

Of course, for some time Lana could eas­i­ly over­look these per­son­al­i­ty fail­ures and fo­cus on Jef­frey’s ruth­less good looks, his per­fect­ly messy hair, and his in­tre­pid at­ti­tude to­ward au­thor­i­ty. He was a pop­u­lar high school ath­lete and it wore off on Lana who took great pride in re­ject­ing it. He wrote con­fi­dent but obliv­i­ous po­et­ry, had his own car, and wore old jeans and sleeve­less t‑shirts de­spite his par­ents protests. Jef­frey was un-tucked and untouchable.

“Yes,” I caught the edge in Lana’s voice as she ad­dressed Tam­my, “be­ing a cheer­leader sounds pro­found­ly dif­fi­cult. I’d imag­ine you had bound­less sta­mi­na and it must take ex­tra­or­di­nary dis­ci­pline to prac­tice every day.” Lana con­trolled the room from the floor, adept­ly re­duc­ing Tam­my to a dull tro­phy weight­ed by her tat­tered pompoms.

I saw Blair in the hall­way mir­ror and left the den. “Hey stranger, haven’t for­got­ten about me, have you?”

“Of course not, but I have to get more ice, we’re run­ning low down­stairs.” With that he was off, with­out even a peck on the cheek. I checked the mir­ror, won­der­ing if I should un­do an­oth­er button.

I dipped in­to the base­ment. Ju­lia was stand­ing rather too close to Glen, while Geor­gia and Franklin were play­ing pool, on op­pos­ing teams. I cut through the crowd to Ju­lia and Glen. “Are you hav­ing a good time?”

“Oh my, I think every­body is hav­ing a good time!” she yelled through the puls­ing mu­sic. “Glen’s broth­er works for a plat­inum re­fin­ery in Cana­da. He’s go­ing to get me a great deal on some, aren’t you Glen?”

He turned to me and said, “well, ac­tu­al­ly my broth­er makes cat­alyt­ic con­vert­ers, but there is a di­vi­sion of his com­pa­ny that sells jew­el­ry grade plat­inum, so I am sure he has some con­nec­tions. Plus he owes me for the valu­able beat­ings I gave him while grow­ing up.” Turn­ing back to Ju­lia, “he re­quired a lot of dis­ci­pline dur­ing his for­ma­tive years.”

“I’m sure you find that ex­pe­ri­ence use­ful in deal­ing with Geor­gia, too,” I joked. They laughed, and I took my leave, call­ing, “see you at mid­night for the toast” as I hur­ried up the stairs.

Franklin’s game had end­ed, and with a youth­ful leap he flew up the first three stairs, fol­low­ing me up to the kitchen. “Did you get a nice crop this year?”

“In­deed, we got enough for jam and have three racks dry­ing in the garage.”

As a wed­ding gift, Franklin gave us ten fig trees which we plant­ed along the side of the ve­ran­da. Two died dur­ing the first win­ter but the oth­ers have done well: bear­ing fruit and, with their large, bright leaves rustling like sails in the breeze, pro­vid­ing a ro­man­tic back­drop for sum­mer evenings out­side, as if trans­port­ed to some re­mote Gre­cian isle.

“Great news, think I’ll take a look.” Franklin grabbed a bot­tle of cham­pagne and ex­it­ed through the slid­ing glass off the kitchen.

Af­ter con­vers­ing with sev­er­al guests in the liv­ing room, I checked my watch and saw that it was near­ly mid­night. I grabbed Ju­lia and asked her to help me with the cham­pagne. On the way to the kitchen, we saw Tam­my trudg­ing up stairs hold­ing on­to the rail for dear life. I was tempt­ed to stop and help her, but she man­aged to reach the sec­ond floor with­out spilling her­self or her beer.

“Geor­gia seems pret­ty nice af­ter all,” Ju­lia laughed. “Ac­tu­al­ly I think she and Glen com­pli­ment one an­oth­er nice­ly. She is like teak, and he is like mar­ble.” Ju­lia was ob­vi­ous­ly tip­sy. She turned her flushed cheeks close to me and shot me a thought­ful gaze say­ing, “red re­al­ly is your col­or, dar­ling.” I opened a sec­ond case of champagne.

“Thank you, I just love the ear­rings. And Ju­lia, have you lost weight? You’re re­mind­ing me of that del­i­cate waif I met so long ago in art school.”

Ju­lia laughed. “Who is that young man sit­ting with Lana?”

I looked through the kitchen door and saw that Jef­frey had tak­en a seat next to Lana. I scur­ried around with the clat­ter­ing glass­es and heavy bot­tles, but all the while kept a close eye on the sit­u­a­tion. I watched as Jef­frey touched her hair and then laid his arm on hers. Look­ing down I no­ticed that I over-poured a flute and wine pooled on the ta­ble and driz­zled off the edge. I was now star­ing in­tent­ly as Lana’s face cooled and she lift­ed her glass to him. At that, she got up, ut­tered some­thing, and walked away from him in­to the hall­way to­ward Ro­man. She knelt and rubbed his back, like­ly sur­mis­ing that she was bet­ter off with a new dog that she loathed than the old dog that aroused such indifference.

“That Lana, she is a smart girl, like her moth­er.” Ju­lia closed in on me. I put down the bot­tle I was hold­ing. “I owe you so much Raine.” Her sweet breath rest­ed on my lips. For as long as I have been in this coun­try, you have been my friend, sup­port­ing me, shar­ing every­thing, spend­ing time with me.” A sear­ing flame ran up my spine and I thought about Blair’s mar­i­tal en­nui. She put her arm around the small of my back and, like mag­nets, we drew to­geth­er. I was ab­sorbed in­to her ur­gent em­brace and drew her mouth in­to mine. I plunged my tongue past her swel­ter­ing lips as my hands dropped to her but­tocks. I grabbed large hand­fuls of her ass as deep moans es­caped our mouths. Our hips were gy­rat­ing wild­ly, like suf­fo­cat­ing fish, fight­ing to in­hab­it the same space: the gap be­tween the ex­act cen­ter of our bod­ies. My loins burned like white em­bers, fill­ing her em­brace with blis­ter­ing desire.

“Mom?” “Raine?”, the voic­es of those clos­est to me sound­ed al­most si­mul­ta­ne­ous­ly. I wrenched back­ward from Ju­lia as if she had pulled a trig­ger. I ran out of the kitchen cov­er­ing my face and through the liv­ing room, past Glen, who was loud­ly an­nounc­ing that on­ly five min­utes re­mained be­fore mid­night. His eyes fol­lowed me as I ran up the stairs to the bathroom.

Lean­ing heav­i­ly on the sink, I stared at my­self in the bath­room mir­ror, tears leav­ing trib­u­taries of mas­cara down my pow­dered face. “Hap­py new year” I sobbed soft­ly. Out­side, the fire­works whined and crack­led. Grab­bing a tis­sue, I wiped at the smeared lip­stick around my mouth, still stunned at my quiv­er­ing re­flec­tion. I opened the cab­i­net and grabbed the pills Blair nev­er used af­ter his va­sec­to­my. Adding to my de­spair, I tore a fin­ger­nail try­ing fran­ti­cal­ly to open the bot­tle. Fi­nal­ly, with the promise of un­con­scious­ness, I pa­tient­ly re­moved the cap and shook sev­er­al ob­long pills on­to my hand. I slapped them to my gap­ing mouth, and swal­lowed hard as I en­tered the bed­room. Col­laps­ing on­to the bed, I closed my eyes and wait­ed for tomorrow.

Filed under Fiction on April 19th, 2006

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