“This is a woman who screams in art museums.”
Rafe was telling the story about Isabella’s breakdown at the Museum of Modern Art. She had panicked while walking through a Richard Serra sculpture.
The friends were into their sixth bottle and their voices barreled over the fences, scattering the gypsy moths. Dinner was finished, but the sky still hadn’t given in to darkness, suspended in planetary peach and lavender.
They were full and in the purgatory of unfinished desserts. Eyes around the table followed the tilt of Rafe’s wine glass to Isabella, who glared back at Rafe with her head rested in her hand. The alcohol soared her pulse. She had been waiting to make a point: in the age of the selfie, people have come to loathe sharing space.
Somewhere, children near open windows were pretending to sleep.
It was a neighborhood of loose cats, sprinklers that fitzed up at dawn. Motorbikes would tear by too fast, Sheri said. She and Will were settling in. Everyone was genuinely happy for them. The house was spacious and old and scary—four bedrooms, two fireplaces. It still echoed. Sheri and Will were young for homeowners; it would be fun to see them figure out their mistakes.
The patio complete, this was their first outdoor dinner with guests. Sheri was nervous, then she was sloppy, but the brisket came out nearly to perfection.
During the tour, Matthew and Abel gushed with suggestions: paint colors, which kind of turntable to get. They were projecting. Their own wedding was in three weeks and everything had to be intense. They adored the hobo clown figurine that Sheri’s grandmother had given her as a housewarming gift.
“It’s hideous,” Will said. “You agree with me on this.”
“But it’s old,” Abel said. “You wouldn’t talk about it if it weren’t old.”
Barney, on his haunches, surveyed the yard and determined it plenty level enough for a pétanque pit.
“It’s curved steel all around us,” Rafe said. “What happens when you talk below a tin ceiling? The metal won’t absorb the sound, right?”
Isabella had made the mistake of looking directly over her head. It disoriented her. Rafe had been explaining something about mountains and the collapse of civilizations when she backed into a child—“horsing around, doing this Spider-Man thing,” as Rafe put it.
“Because why not, it’s only a five-ton metal sculpture, let’s make sure our kids burn off the sugar before we haul back to Connecticut or wherever.” He made a brush with his hand to indicate wherever.
“Five tons?” said Genevieve. “Is that what they said?”
“I might be exaggerating.”
Isabella asked if there was any more wine. The table laughed, and the bottle was passed.
The perplexed, dark-jacketed guards moved into the atrium cautiously, murmuring into their shoulder radios. Rafe waved at them in apology, assuming they weren’t paid enough to handle crisis.
One guard said to Rafe, “She can’t keep doing that.” He was young and blond and smiled like it was a language he had learned in college. “It’s hostile.”
“Hostile to whom?” Rafe said.
And then one of the older guards, a tiny grandmother, volunteered to go in. She could fit through the curves. She had experience with crack-ups; they could tell by the uncondescending way she steadied her hand on Isabella’s shoulder blade.
“She told me it happens three or four times a year,” Isabella said.
The hosts stood up, and the guests followed, chairs scraping stone. They collected the dishes and looked around the unfamiliar kitchen for helpful places to stack them. Cognac and glasses were brought out to the table.
Bodies shifted, found new places, resettled. Isabella sank into Barney’s lap.
“I’m sure it was an elegant scream,” he said. She muzzled a laugh into his shoulder. Lovers a few times, they made a comfortable shape. “A New York scream.”
“It takes nerve for anything to occupy that much space,” she said into his chest.
“Sculpture, you mean.”
“Ha. Yes. And limousines, and airports.”
“All kitsch, then it decays.”
“Artists are a burden on society,” Isabella said. “They take up so much.”
“Energy,” she said.
They sipped cognac and puffed on cigars and grew tired. Matthew didn’t respond to Abel’s question about bed-and-breakfasts right away, and they got into a snip. Sheri, taking on every responsibility as host, followed them as they retreated to the street, the cats darting from the gutters.
Rafe was crashing. Isabella wondered if she should try to go home with Barney and Genevieve. Then Sheri returned and she was in tears, too. “They’re not serious,” she said. “How do people get away with being unserious?”
Isabella turned back to Barney. “Is pétanque like bocce?”
“Yes. But you don’t roll, you lob. So you can smoke cigarettes while you’re playing.”
“It sounds very cosmopolitan.”
They heard a motorcycle rocket up the street, then the smash of glass.
“Jesus Christ,” Barney said.
Either Matthew or Abel must have hurled his cognac at the rider, because the guy swung the bike around. They could hear him raging over the motor.
The chairs scraped. Isabella, then Barney, then the others wobbled out to the lawn, carrying their drinks and cigars. They were laughing through the smoke. They waited for someone to start the scene.
Neil Serven lives in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and works as a lexicographer. His stories have appeared in Atticus Review, Washington Square, Cobalt, Pine Hills Review, and elsewhere.