There’s no way to ignore the warmongering on Fox News, though Ava is trying. The screen takes up half the wall. Hours ago, it seems, she searched for the remote to lower the volume, but no luck. She went so far as to ask Murray to turn it off, but instead he began jabbering about our brave boys, keeping the country safe, on and on like he knew something no one else did. That sent her mind reeling back to the evening her son pulled her onto the couch to watch the invasion of Iraq. Shock and Awe, he said, repeating what he’d heard the newscasters call it. Then, too, she wanted to close her eyes. She told him the sights were frighten- ing, nothing to celebrate, but it didn’t dampen Bobby’s childish excitement. That scared her, too.
No one seems bothered by the TV. The party is in this room where the food table and bar are set up, where wraparound win- dows allow only blueberry darkness, where vaulted ceilings create echoes as people talk and gesture and take up space. If she could find a corner to be alone—to hide, actually—it would help, but no luck there either. She avoids parties, fears the expectations, the false gaiety, and worse, strangers’ idle curiosity.
Maybe another glass of wine, but her head feels spacey, her fin- gers tingle, and when she tries to breathe deep her body tenses. It’s been a while since anxiety dogged her, though it happened a lot after her husband was killed. Damn TV. It’s boring through her senses.
Wending her way to the bedroom, she switches on a lamp. A ghostly amber light slides across a bed larger than hers by far; piles of bulky winter coats cover the pale satiny spread. It will take for- ever to find her jacket.
She hurries out, finds her friends at the makeshift bar. “I need to leave. Right now. Could you get my jacket with yours?” From the way they look at her she hasn’t disguised the desperation.
“Absolutely,” Rosalyn says. “Wait in the foyer.” “We’ve been here long enough,” Mila agrees.
“Murray, I’m leaving. Early shift tomorrow,” her voice ridicu- lously high. Before he can say a word, she heads for the vestibule, but not fast enough. The eerie feeling of nothingness begins to sink her. She takes hold of the doorknob, something solid.
Picking her way over gravel, she glances back at the enormity of the house with its walls full of windows. Overwhelming. Murray insisted on a never-ending tour, room by room, pointing out each piece of furniture as if she didn’t know what a couch or a chair looked like. The décor was beautiful, it’s true, but cold; maybe if more people lived there. . . . But just Murray and Sylvie . . . How will they care for it? She beeps open the car doors. Home, she wants to be home.
Rosalyn slides into the passenger seat. Mila, in a puffy jacket as iridescent as pigeon feathers, climbs in back. The doors slam, the sound magnified by the ocean. She flicks on the high beams. Sand dunes loom up like headless figures. She turns the key and the igni- tion makes a dreadful sound. Praying to gods she doesn’t believe in, she counts to five, inserts the key again and turns it. Nothing. Her foot on the gas, she tries again and again and again.
“Ava, stop, don’t flood it. I’ll call Triple A.” Rosalyn pulls a slim phone from her velvet purse. They listen to her give directions for a tow truck. “At least half an hour, probably longer.”
“I’ll pay for it,” Ava promises, wondering which part of her budget to raid. She sees the neat pile of envelopes on her dresser labeled food, gas, telephone, utilities; there’s one for emergencies. Also one marked fun, in which she feels compelled by a force she doesn’t understand to add a dollar or two, depending on tips. It’s grown thick.
“Don’t worry, I’m a member,” Rosalyn counters generously. “I can’t wait back at Murray’s.” There’s alarm in her voice.
“God forbid,” Rosalyn’s large eyes examine her as if for the first time. “Let’s walk to the shore line, kill some time.”
“Are you drunk? It’s freezing out there,” Mila says. “What if I am? I’m going to be forty.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Mila mumbles.
“I know Murray’s watching us.” Ava peers into the darkness. He’ll insist they come inside.
“Who cares? The stars are beautiful and ours. Come on, we’ll hear the truck when it gets here.” Rosalyn is out the door, her shapely body hidden in a red wool coat that reaches her ankles.
Ava hesitates; the car feels safe.
“Rosalyn’s right, let’s kill some time,” Mila is out the door as well. Does she want to sit here alone? Reluctantly stepping into a vastness she can sense but not see, a faint shiver rides through her.
She breathes in the salty air. It’s a cold night of stars.
“Little ol’ Murray, can you believe it?” Mila’s shoes crunch the gravelly sand. “The house dwarfs him. Ava, did you see the height of those ceilings?”
“Who could miss it,” her tone too harsh. These are her friends.
Tell them she’s anxious. Yet how to describe nothingness? She tried once, didn’t she, to a military doctor who looked as young as her husband had been. What could he understand? In the end he said bad things happen to everyone as if she didn’t know that. It wearies her to correct and explain what feels beyond language. At home she’ll be alone. Bobby’s sleeping at Dina’s. She’ll undress, wrap herself in the old robe, maybe flip through a magazine or sit looking out the window. The anxiety will lift, her mood will change. It always has.
Slowly, they follow the dimming cone of headlight toward the wind-driven sound of breaking waves.
“Rosalyn, you do know how to needle Murray. Your warnings about keeping up such a big house . . .” Mila begins, her tone more joyful than critical.
“He expects Sylvie to be his maid, his cook, god knows what else. In Murray’s eyes, that’s what a wife’s for. Anyway, he kind of enjoys my defiance. I certainly do,” Rosalyn muses.
Ava steps gingerly over pockets of sand, careful not to trip. It must be nearly midnight. If the tow truck arrives here in thirty minutes it’ll be an hour getting home, another half-hour to drop off her friends. She’s due at the diner by five. She doesn’t mind leav- ing home before dawn, the houses still dark, no cars or people, the world silent, and she there to witness the morning.
“Nick and Bruce are stuck working the diner all night,” Rosalyn says, reading her thoughts as she often does. “Bruce isn’t going to be that helpful. There’s another man whose wife I wouldn’t want to be.”
“Shelly’s a strong woman. They’ll get through this,” Mila counters. Ava’s reminded of Shelly’s early morning calls to the diner. The flat, powerful voice tinged with irritation as if the person listening were at fault and not Bruce’s lateness.
“I’m sure Nick’s happy not to go to Murray’s housewarming. I could’ve done without it,” Rosalyn admits.
“Then why go?” Mila whips a hat from her pocket, tugging it low over her thick, reddish hair. Only her small, determined face peeks out, which doesn’t look much older than her daughter’s.
“Because we three rarely get a chance to play . . .”
“I wouldn’t call it a fun party,” Ava mumbles, watching Rosalyn trek easily over the sand in heeled boots.
“Ava, what’s going on with you?” Mila’s coal-dark eyes try to read her.
“The joyous occasion lasted too long, that monster TV running the same awful war video over and over. And the things people come out with would drive anyone crazy.” The words come quickly but suddenly have little meaning.
“The TV was a bit much, but after a while I didn’t notice.” Rosalyn can do that, shrug off what she considers unimportant, something she wishes she could do.
“Except for a few of Sylvie’s friends, we were the only ones Mur- ray knew to invite. How depressing is that?” Mila sounds gleeful.
“He’s a lousy host, lousy boss, and he’ll be a lousy husband, too,” Rosalyn declares as if she’d never said as much before.
“Are you maligning the man whose money helped buy your condo?” Mila teases.
“Not on Murray’s salary.”
“Then whose?” Mila asks.
Rosalyn hesitates. “Oh . . . previous, more lucrative jobs. Besides, I’m quite frugal.” She’s not, but neither of them says so.
“Murray has so much,” Mila says.
“Is there something you need?” Rosalyn wants to know.
“Cash. Not stocks, bonds, or plastic. Twenties and fifties, this thick.” Mila holds her fingers inches apart.
“Money for what?” Rosalyn asks.
“Know how much a pair of Darla’s boots cost?”
“What do you want for yourself ?” Rosalyn persists. “A lot of things.”
“Is this a quiz?”
“If I had lots of money, I wouldn’t waste it on a big house. I’d stop working.”
“And do what?” Ava asks, faintly alarmed.
“Oh, this and that,” Mila’s voice drifts off the way it does when questions become too specific.
Ava too frets about money; but such worries are personal. Shapely clouds move across the sky, obscuring the stars, darkening the space around them even more. It reminds her of another night at the beach. She and her husband-to-be wrapped in each other’s arms, the cold wind howling; how they laughed. Nothing could touch them, not wind, cold, or anything out there. It was years ago, when she assumed pleasure was her due.
“Ava?” Rosalyn tugs her arm. “I’m talking to you.”
“What?” her voice low. The wind whistles past her frozen ears, the thrashing water close too close.
“I said unlike Mila, I don’t mind being a waitress. Do you?” “I’m grateful for the work.” It’s the closest to the truth she can trust just now. Being busy, moving resolutely, hurrying to get a task done suits her, may even bring her somewhere better faster.
“Sylvie left her job, and why not? Murray isn’t as stingy with her as he is with us,” Mila says.
“Did you see how Murray sidled up to listen whenever I talked to Sylvie? It’s sort of sweet he’s afraid of my influence,” Rosalyn seems pleased. She, too, chatted briefly with Sylvie, who revealed tidbits about her decision to leave the theater, her decision to get an ordinary job, to let go of the familiar . . . to try new things . . . have new
experiences . . . Words that made her edgy, as if Sylvie was a pioneer whose risks paid off.
At the water’s edge, the horizon sucked into the black sky, she wonders . . . If she wades in, experiences the danger of sinking, faces the fear, would the sensation vanish? But what if she can’t find the shore again?
Rosalyn teases the water with the tip of her patent leather boot. “Murray was watching Sylvie everywhere she went tonight,”
Mila says definitively.
“I’d rather be alone than with a man who didn’t trust me,” Rosalyn’s tone serious.
So often her friends’ words provide sustenance, proof of what it means to go on. Tonight, their chatter is useless, something her cop father wouldn’t abide. To him conversation had to be useful. He believed usable truths could be shared. Anyway, usable would give her a method, a handle, something to grab on to.
“None of what you say is usable,” she says in a soft voice, surprising herself.
“What is it, Ava? You’re somewhere else tonight. It’s not like you,” Mila says impatiently.
Mila’s right, it isn’t like her, she’s generally as grounded as a flat road. She gets things done and rarely complains. “Let’s go back to the car,” her voice close to a whisper.
They trudge back, sandy wind in their faces. Walking ahead, her friends’ voices lost in the crash of waves, she focuses on tomor- row’s tasks. First thing, she’ll call a taxi to drive her to work. If it takes more than a day to fix her car she’ll have to rent one, won’t she? Pick up the rental after her morning shift, then stop at the hardware store for lightbulbs, an extension cord, soap pads, new broom, the list on the fridge etched in her head. She’ll have to visit the supermarket as well. Bobby wants those precooked pot- pie things for his school lunches, no doubt expensive, no doubt unhealthy.
Ordinary thoughts any mother would have. It’s where she needs to be now.
She slides into the car, Rosalyn beside her. Mila settles noisily in back. Doors slam. The dunes look pitifully like what they are, piles of sand. Glancing at the time, she calculates the tow truck should be there any minute. They’ll scrunch in beside the driver. Rosalyn will keep up a stream of chatter. Mila will ask a thousand ques- tions, answering none. She’ll sit there quietly.
“Call Triple A again, it’s been more than thirty minutes,” Mila says.
Rosalyn obediently pulls out her cell phone. They listen. Click- ing off, she tells them, “Busy night. The truck won’t be here for another half hour.”
She’s making her friends wait in the car when they could . . . but she can’t go back in there. “I appreciate your staying with—”
“We’re not doing it for you. We’re not that pure,” Rosalyn says.
“Isn’t that the truth? What now?” Mila asks. “Want to share fantasies?” A game they once played after a few drinks.
“I buy a lottery ticket every day and fantasize what’d I’d do with all that money.”
“Hmmm, well . . . heavens . . . mine is weirder. I fantasize the discovery of a pill to preserve my body . . .” Rosalyn’s tone subdued. “You’re quiet, Ava. Does that mean you won’t reveal your fantasy or that you refuse to have one?”
“Not sure.” Her plaintive tone saddens her. Her fantasies, if that’s what they are, seem stuck in the past, which makes no sense, nothing can change there, but everything’s known.
Rosalyn pats her arm comfortingly, then stares out the window. Mila sighs loudly.
It’s her fault, souring her friends’ mood. “Is there something else we can talk about?” she asks softly.
“How about a Bobby or Darla story we haven’t heard before?” Mila offers with little enthusiasm.
“No offense, but that’s duller than looking through a stranger’s photo album.” Rosalyn flicks open her cell phone to search her messages.
“Then you come up with an idea. Or we’ll sit here listening to our breathing,” Mila scolds.
“Fine.” Rosalyn shuts the phone, drums her fingers on the dash- board. “Let’s tell a story. One of us starts, another continues, and on it goes.”
“Like a once-upon-a-time thing?” Mila asks.
“No, no. Not a fairy tale. It has to be real, important, dramatic, revealing, something that’ll hold our attention,” Rosalyn tells her. What in her story would be revealing, important? A shameful event from her teen years? Everyone has one, but which is hers? Something dramatic? Stealing a lipstick? Lying to her mother? Who cares? What would hold their attention? Maybe something about her dead husband; or that she hasn’t had sex in years; or that she can’t feel much. Or how her . . . Searching the night sky wishing her story were scripted there because whatever’s ahead can only be imagined, yet wishing, too, she could scroll down dates
and events and discover what led to here.