Almost everyone on the list was coming. Dishes clanged and the sun shone brightly on the grill as we raced to get the house ready. In the midst of it, I grabbed Roger’s salt and pepper hair and gave him a ferocious kiss; his hair felt dry against my moist, dishsoapy fingers. It wasn’t right, I thought. Something wasn’t right.
But I went on anyway, and the house was in waiting when the doorbell rang with the first guests. It was Marcia and Stephen, without children. We offered them wine and told them to relax. The sounds of Miles Davis streamed in from the living room. White lilies adorned our new bookcases along the wall. How could they not relax? It was all smiles but my skin felt tight, as if a balloon about to burst. They had just returned from Italy. They recounted the nightmare of carrying the stroller everywhere, and how little Nora had demanded gelato every hour. “You’re so lucky,” Marcia said. “You two should go to Italy, to get away.”
“We are away,” I recovered, and lay my hand on Roger’s shoulder. “We’re out in the woods now, in our own world. It’s lovely here.”
“You should see it in the morning,” Roger chimed in, getting up to go to the kitchen. “The light comes up over the lake, and now the mist is already there when we wake up. I get to work here and you suckers still have cubicles.”
A good laugh for all. Especially because Marcia and Stephen hadn’t seen cubicles in four or five years. They were in offices now. Roger brought the bottle in, thoroughly chilled and ready to be quickly consumed. It all looked so clean.
When the doorbell rang again, Marcia and Stephen stepped out onto the deck to check out the view.
We tried greeting every guest as a couple; that’s the way we had always done it. As they poured in, one couple after another, though, it got more difficult. Roger had to man the grill. I had bought him a new apron, black and white striped. He looked like the lord of the house.
His brothers Tommy and Mark were the last guests to arrive. First Tommy came with his fresh young face and obligatory bottle of red. I say young but he was thirty-four, nearly my age, and just out of law school. Hardly a man in my book. I was happy to see him.
Mark showed up only a few minutes later. He had Roger’s blue eyes and crisp smile. Sometimes I wondered when I saw Mark what I would have done if I had met him at the same time I met Roger. A phrase that leapt up every time I thought this was, “Could have gone either way.” I felt partly guilty for that, partly not.
Mark was thirty-eight and a continual drifter. Never married, always traveling, always free. He wrote books in his spare time, which was all the time, because this is how he valued the money from his parents’ death. Roger took the house, Tommy went to school, and Mark wrote books. He was a risk-taker and a drinker, but not thoughtless. For Roger’s fortieth, he showed up at our Manhattan apartment with a red and gold certificate that was a ticket for a hot-air balloon ride over the Hudson Valley—for both of us. “I wish it would take you over the city, but they said the Empire State would poke a hole in it.” I stood staring at him, at the outrageous gift that made me wonder about him, before wrapping my shawl more tightly around my shoulders and looking up at Roger, who was clearly overjoyed.
I set them up with cocktails; rum and coke for Tommy, a martini for Mark. I don’t know why I remembered that. I suppose because the others had all gone for wine or beer, it being the afternoon and also being parents, maybe they were used to being milder than the rest. Tommy and Mark were still happily single. I figured they wouldn’t stay long; no opportunities here. I was wrong.
The afternoon held such possibility. I could feel it as I looked out at the deck, full of friends, just as I had imagined in the morning, standing in cocktail dress toting little red plates. And beyond them the lake, shimmering, with swans. It was warm, and a light breeze made its way into the living room where I stood. There had never been this kind of busyness in our house; and yet it felt strangely calming. The house felt alive, charged, but moving in its own rhythm—the way Manhattan is incredibly loud but you can ride that loudness until you feel relaxed. Parents weren’t thinking of their children, they were talking and laughing like the adults they were.
I heard a rustling behind me and it was Mark, looking at me looking. “Lovely,” he said.
I didn’t know which he meant, me or the view, so I just said, “It’s good to have everyone.”
He asked if he could help clear up. I declined again and again but he insisted, and so we spent half an hour side by side at the kitchen sink; me washing, him putting away. I suddenly was aware of my stockings clinging to the back of my knees. My little white dress meant nothing; I was no girl.
Hostesses never eat, and so I drank and nibbled on some chips throughout the party. At one point, when I went to fetch a sweater from the bedroom, I felt a finger poke my back. It was my old friend Jenny following me up the stairs. “Hey, you,” she said, wine in hand. Jenny had just turned forty but talked with the energy of a teenager. She always seemed to be panting and just getting over a state of exhilaration. Dyed red hair, hoop earrings. She might have been single. I invited her to sit on the bed while I rummaged in the closet. I still had unopened bags of clothes I’d ordered when we moved here, as if everything needed to be replaced. “Okay, hon. Why don’t you take a seat,” she said as she patted the bed at a spot next to her.
She had this way of commanding you to do something or say something you wouldn’t do or say otherwise. Once, when we were younger and looking for men, she’d told me to dance on top of a table with her at this French restaurant. I did and that’s how I met Roger. She had a way.
That was a long time ago. After we were both married, and then after she had her kids, the connection thinned. But she could still command me. I sat next to her, mailer bags of sweaters in my hands.
“How are you?” she asked.
“Fine. Happy.” I tore open a bag to find four cashmere sweaters.
“No, but really. I know it’s been tough. I mean, you always said you wanted kids.” Then, in a whisper, “You won’t adopt?”
“No. I actually don’t want kids now. Funny.” Red or blue, pink or white?
“You know, I know you.” Jenny reached over grabbed my hand. “And I know what you went through in New York. Are you really going to give it up?” Her bracelets jangled against my wrist. Her perfume was rank.
I disengaged my hand to hold up the sweaters in front of us. “What do you think? I think the pink is rather sweet. It’s new.”
Jenny looked down at the plush rug.
“Oh, he’s a trooper. He’s very good to me.” Pink it is.
“Do you think he feels guilty that it’s his fault?”
By eight, couples started to depart. Phone calls were made to babysitters, checking the status. “How’s his sniffle? Which story did you read him? Oh, good, he likes that one.” I imagined the long, anxious ride home for them. I kissed everyone goodbye.
It was a cruel question. And in my mind when she asked it, I felt suspended, as if all of a sudden I flew high and could see my life below; as if I was on top of it instead of in it. I saw me, and I saw Roger. And I saw myself doing dishes with Mark.
By nine, the crowd had become a few couples, Tommy, and Mark. Everyone had had their fill, those brave couples who could spend a night apart from their kids dove into the martinis, the vodkas, and the brandy. I set up the chairs so we could all face the sunset on the lake out on the deck. Roger had showered; dishes were clean. I was drunk.
Conversation faltered when there were only a few of us, and so the loss of what Roger and I had never had rose up like a spectre as the sun went down. I kept trying to snuff it, with talk of movies and books. But how can you avoid the subject of children? They are everywhere; you only have to look. Finally, Tommy put his drink down and I heard him mention to Mark a party on the West side, women.
“Mark is staying with us,” I said. Proclaimed.
I was standing above Roger, who was not drunk, my hands on his shoulders. I remember squeezing Roger’s shoulders as I said it. A few seconds passed before Mark said, “No, I should go.”
I hadn’t expected it, but Roger demanded it. He said he wanted to have some “brotherly” time. “Let your brother chase women on his own for tonight.” Tommy laughed good-naturedly. Mark agreed.
And so by ten, lights were low and beds were made ready. We had had a long day, but it wasn’t over. We said goodbye to Tommy, who practically ran to his car. I didn’t blame him. There were no women for him here. I locked the door after he left, Roger joined Mark on the sofa, and I wandered back out to the deck. It was empty; the couples had all gone to bed. Roger must have seen them up. I had abandoned my role as hostess for the night. I invited Mark and Roger to join me outside, which they did, and I stood staring at the moon and the dark pines while Roger recounted a tale to Mark, one that their Nana used to tell them as children.
It involved a little boy who goes into the forest because his parents cannot afford to keep him. Before he leaves, he takes three stones from the house for protective spirit and to remember his home.
He goes out in search of riches in the city but has to get through the forest first, where there are all kinds of dark magic and trees that will eat him alive. He has to pass a series of tests before he can reach the city. Soon he encounters an ugly, gnarled tree that has a boy in it, a little older than him. The boy in the tree is stuck and asks the little boy for help. The little boy is afraid of getting caught up in the tree, too, but then remembers the stones. He takes one of them and hits the branch that is clutching the boy. The boy is released and thrown to the ground, but is otherwise safe. The first boy tells the older of his mission to earn riches for his family. The second boy says that is what he is trying to do, too, and now he is free to do it. They decide to journey together, and before long they reach another tree with another boy in it, older than the two of them. This time the tree is even more fierce-looking than the last. The oldest boy tells them that he’s been stuck up there for years and doesn’t even ask them to help because he knows it is useless. The two younger boys look at each other, and the youngest tells the other about his other stones. He says that they should each throw the last two in his pocket. Maybe two together will be stronger than just one alone. And so they throw the stones together, in one moment, and the branch releases the boy and he tumbles to the ground, incredulous. He tells them that he was on his way to the city in search of riches before the tree grabbed him. The three of them now get a good look at each other and realize that they look very much alike. The oldest, in his wisdom, says it’s the stones that brought them together. We should collect them and keep them on our journey for strength, he says. So they walk back away from the city after picking up the two from the ground that saved the oldest, and try to find the first tree. After some time they find it, and pick up the third stone. When they look up the path they see their home and start running. Their parents, for they were all brothers, greeted them with open arms. These are all the riches they need, they said.
“Wait a minute.” I turned around, for I was enchanted with the tale. “What about marriage? Don’t these boys get married at some point?”
“Sure they do, but I guess that’s later. I think Nana wanted us to feel like we’d always be together, no matter what.”
“I think she cut off the part about getting married. I bet it’s in there, in the real story.”
“That was Nana’s version. I don’t remember the original, if there was one.”
“Real fairy tales have weddings. You’re supposed to move beyond your family, not back into it. You’re not supposed to avoid the city.”
“But they didn’t avoid it; they didn’t need it. That’s the point.”
I turned back to the moon while Mark told Roger about these Italian folk tales he was reading. I felt disturbed, piqued, the liquor still working in me. My life was no fairy tale, neither was Roger’s. I turned around again and looked at him, listening. He had this habit of turning his wedding ring back and forth on his finger. He was doing that now, his head sunk in concentration. I thought again of when we first found out the problem was with him. The doctor told us that the sperm count was too low, that there were other options, of course. But Roger wouldn’t consider it. No adoption, no artificial. Nothing. He wanted the child to look like him or he wanted no child at all.
When you’re a woman of childbearing age, your body decides things before your mind has access to the choices. That’s what I tell myself. I told Roger I was tired and that we should go to bed. He finished his drink and agreed it had been a long day. Mark said he would stay out for a while on the deck, have a smoke.
Upstairs, I put on my slip dress and cleaned up. We talked about the day, Marcia and Stephen, the house, the success of the party. I kissed him passionately but not too, and turned over to go to sleep.
Within minutes he was dozing and I still had on my robe. I love Roger. I walked downstairs and greeted the cool of the deck with fervor. Mark was still there, of course. He looked at me as a woman, not as his brother’s wife. I said to him that I loved his brother. He said he knew that. I looked at Mark and saw our child’s eyes, Roger’s.
Upstairs in the bathroom off our bedroom, I made a soapy lather in my washcloth and wiped along my face, my hands, my inner thighs, between my legs, squeezing the remnants in slow, quiet twists. I slid into bed feeling clean, the moon shining on our sheets. Roger turned to face me, his eyes wide and gleaming, smiling. His mouth still wet from the water in the glass by his side of the bed fetched from downstairs.
Cheryl Pappas is a writer from Boston. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in 100 Word Story, The Bitter Oleander, Cleaver Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, and more. Her website is cherylpappas.net.