A Story by Sara Lippmann
Photo by JasonParis
THAT OCTOBER, AMY did not want to go to the party.
“What if we just said, screw it, and blow off the whole thing?” She shut the shower, curtain screeching, wet prints on the mat. Pulled a towel from the bar. “It’s not like the sky would fall.”
“Why would we do that?” Doug hollered over the TV. “It’s Halloween. Kelly and Tim throw the best party of the year, next to Christmas.”
She stood in the archway to their bedroom and watched him: sprawled on the duvet, post-shower, pre-coital, robe loose, thighs humid, waiting for her. He plucked a hair from his chest and examined the newfound gray. He muted the game. Beside him sat a bowl of chips, which he’d been tackling by the fistful, occasionally missing his mouth, crumbs scattering the sheets. “What would we say?”
“Tell them we’re sick. Food poisoning.”
“Babe, I had happy hour with the guys last night.”
When he called her babe she felt she could be anyone. “Blame it on me. Say I have The Curse.”
“The sitter canceled?”
“They’d tell us to bring Zach to theirs.”
“What if, what IF,” Amy was grasping, too little too late, “The sitter cancelled and Zach is sick?”
“Come here. Everyone’s going. It will be fun.”
Everything was fun for Doug. He possessed enough positivity in his pinky to last Amy a lifetime. Maybe everyone was a babe or bro but he knew who he was, which was more than Amy could say for herself. Companies paid good money for his “authenticity,” hard-earned through the heartbreak of his brother’s death. Even though Doug rarely invoked Ryan’s name during his speeches, the benefits he reaped were undeniable. It was a living. People who filled hotel conference centers in their discount suits clutching welcome packets, who inched to the edges of their seats when Doug graced the stage, microphone hinged to his face, were attracted to his motivational brand of empathy precisely because he had experienced loss, because he’d overcome tragedy through respect and self-care and six other simple steps. On stage, Doug radiated an unmatched magnetism. He also charged half the booking fee as Tony Robbins. More, he was a real person, “relatable,” lacking the tanned waxy finish of others in his field, their noses long and thin as a ball-peen hammer. Doug looked like a lacrosse player who’d put away a few too many pints: his jaw ruddy, his waist a finger too wide, an athlete who’d become a father, a lover not a thinker; for Amy, he was an oasis of uncomplicated relief.
Throw a party and Doug would be the first to get sweaty and drunk—but good drunk; the one to make fin eyes and dumb jokes and suck baby lamb chops off her plate. Amy was less festive. He looked out for her. Like a child safety device, Doug guarded her from harm, burners and objects and exposed sockets. Even though Ryan had been his younger brother, his flesh and blood, the improbable link between them, it was Doug—not Amy—whose grief gave way to bromides: Don’t look back. Keep the memories alive. Embrace life to its fullest.
Now all he wanted was to dress up and take the commuter train from their West Side walk-up to their hometown in New Jersey. These were his people. Was that so much to ask?
“Let’s stay in,” she tried again. “It’s cold outside.”
“I’ll warm you up.” The man never lacked a line. Doug opened his arms and reached. For all her social unease, there was a certain comfort in expecting the expected—sex, drugs, just enough to get through the night of Jersey mothers in their heels and leather. Tonight they’d be simply Halloween versions of their regular selves: go-go dancers and half-naked hippies, slutty cats and high-tailed bunnies. In high school these were the girls who’d played sports solely for the kilted uniforms, many of them marrying the same upperclassmen they’d humped in the parking lot during bonfires. She avoided them then and now, but they were harmless, really. Those whose looks had not held up attempted cleverness instead. Last year, Kelly Borden was a life-sized cupcake, sprinkled with chips and cherries. Because it was her house, her party, Kelly could afford both sexless and dumb.
Not that the men were much better. The men wore tits on battery, nipples that lit up like cop car sirens, paired with metallic grass skirts. The men, Wall Street traders and commercial real estate brokers by day, reveled in lipsticks and wigs, the cool kiss of nylon on hairy legs, swiveled hips and cupped their prosthetics as if they’d finally mastered a way to fuck themselves.
Doug lit a joint. Amy cracked a window. In the next building over she could discern shadows pouring drinks, setting tables, costumed couples in beaks and horns, pumpkin cutouts in the windows, ghosts and bats, black against their linen shades. She closed the blinds.
This was their weekend ritual. The babysitter arrived early to serve Zach his gluten-free pizza so that Amy and Doug could pre-game in peace. Snaking a towel along their bedroom door, Amy could hear the sitter, Valerie, laughing too loudly at every cartoon scrape and pratfall, which made Amy wonder if she wasn’t stoned, too. But Valerie was reliable and stayed late. She was not about to rock the boat.
As they smoked, she lowered herself onto Doug’s lap; his body still muscled in the manner of defensemen. Many of the fathers in Zach’s preschool had let themselves go—to baldness, beer guts—or else, they slouched like grandfathers, so it pleased her how Doug kept himself. He was human, but preserved.
Tonight, however, with Doug between her legs Amy couldn’t stop thinking about New Jersey. Would they really move out of the city? If so, what would become of them—of her? Amy had spent her whole life plotting her suburban escape; to end up back where she’d started felt like certain defeat, the death knell of her dreams. Which were what, anyway? She couldn’t blame the Hudson River for her lack of an answer. Already, she was a wife, a mother. She’d been swallowed by good fortune. She acquiesced. She hardly recognized herself.
“There are good people everywhere,” Doug loved to tell her, as if she were joining a book club or knitting class. Amy studied the ceiling as he grimaced triumphantly over her. A drop of his sweat landed on her like a third eye. Maybe he was right. What use was attachment? Their apartment was not special. Zach slept in an alcove. It was only a matter of time before her four-year-old would realize privacy meant nothing more than makeshift walls, no windows. The best part about their place was the second bathroom, en suite. She loved saying the word, as if she were French. How many bathrooms could they afford in New Jersey?
“That was great, babe.” Doug softened and slipped out of her. A pearly tear glistened on her thigh. She plugged herself with a tissue and crabbed off to deposit the rest of him into the toilet. When she returned to the bed he was cutting lines of coke.
Cocaine they reserved for special occasions, like tonight when they were expected to party past two in the morning. How else would she get through it? By coke standards their habit was tame. Recently, she declined an invitation—a proposition by a PTA mother—to some uptown blowout, with suits and strippers right out of the 80s, which just went to show that you can never know a person. The mother wore chinos and floral and squeezed Amy’s knee. Since then, mixed in with the usual playground chatter Amy had caught recaps from Vicodin-and-group-massage parties. Comparatively, she was missing out. Scandal was everywhere, not only in the suburbs, where people were too dulled out and bored by their crummy Italian restaurants with hand-painted tomato awnings; they’d do anything to alter their reality. Despite her sporadic involvement, Amy had become a prude.
She leaned over the mirror on her bedside table. Motherhood had aged her, her eyes thin bowls of flesh before the white dune smooth as sand she’d drag her heels through, carving lines. She hosed the powder up her nose. The bitter metallic drip, almost medicinal, slid down her throat. Doug wrestled her once more, shackling her wrists, and pinned her to the comforter. He was big. She was small.
“I vant to suck your blood.” He laughed, going for her neck. His suck would leave a mark but it was Halloween. She lay there. Eventually, he’d have enough.
With coke, there was always more. There was a constant need. Restlessness sprang from the desire to strive, Doug spewed on stage. Which was American. Dude. Normal. This is what set us apart from beasts. He passed her his rolled bill but she lacked the ambition so he snorted hers, then squeaked his finger along his gums. She didn’t want to stay up all night and pay for it tomorrow. She was no longer 21, though in the moment she felt petulant, childlike. She didn’t feel like it, any of it, celebrating this manufactured holiday in some store-bought getup. She didn’t feel like bobbing for apples, plunging her chin in a galvanized trough. Above all, she dreaded the inevitable wife swap part of the evening, where she’d wait around like a duster on a used car lot. It was the same year after year. Everyone wanted an upgrade.
“Why can’t it ever be just us?”
“Babe, it’s a time-honored tradition,” Doug said. “You know that.” His bare ass, pale in contrast to his leftover tan, partitioned his body like a Colorform she could peel off and paste in a Cubist rearrangement.
Carefully, he laid out paint tubes, makeup pencil, hunk of Styrofoam, switchblade. His plan: to glue an elaborate injury to his head and paint it porno red.
Doug waved a sheet of latex. “Want to touch it?” Amy shook her head. “It’s just like Silly Putty. Feel. They share the same properties.” She didn’t know what they shared, having long forgotten the periodic chart and the behavior of elements, what each one needs in order to stabilize.
In the mirror Doug traced his wound on his jaw, up over his ear, like a kidney slapped to his face. Amy watched him cut out the shape so the flat of it resembled the pasty flank of toy vomit sold in gag stores. Casino night, Happy Days, Totally 80s. There would be a new theme party each week in Essex County. Doug said it like anticipation was a good thing. Her inbox flooded with listings Doug found, open houses she had no interest in seeing. What did she want to see? She rolled another joint, licked it. Her slutty nurse costume sat stuffed in a bag on the bed, counterpoint to his trauma victim.
“Quick,” he said, “hand me the blood, would you, love?”
Now she was crying. Why colored corn syrup should make her cry was anyone’s guess. Love was beside the point. She was high. Crying, her breasts shook. Never large—once they’d been pert, proud handfuls—what more could one want, Doug had said—but now they stretched low and thin, small wrung-out titties diving for the floor like yo-yos off their string. It was silly to be this sensitive. She dried her eyes, twisting a corner of tissue and shoving the tornado up her nose. Side by side they stood, her eyes puffy and red, his face ravaged, together a naked and grotesque American Gothic. Amy consoled herself: Here was her life. This was her husband. As soon as she sobered up a little they’d have a reasonable time together.
There was nothing to do but get ready. Amy brushed her teeth, up down side to side, getting lost in the rhythm, deriving satisfaction from repetition until Doug said, “Are you okay in there?” At which point she spit. Returned to her face. Her skin felt gummy and cold. Two lines bracketed her mouth, as if whatever might come out of it would be better kept off stage. It astonished her, the extreme vanity she maintained. She was a time-lapse photo. Not yet 40 and already the process of applying makeup had become a strategic nightmare. Gone were the days of Noxzema skin, the commercial fresh promise of a simple wash and go glow. Her face now was hardened, demanding. Often she didn’t bother. Oils and creams and base foundation and concealer—and that was merely to arrive at the illusory state of tabula rasa—always seemed to crack, flake, smudge after a few hours anyway. Amy reached for her brushes. She drew her eyes big and black to balance crinkles. She flipped open her little lash box of drama: different lengths and colors and jewel sizes. There was something sad about all her falsies in a row, like a display of dead butterflies. She opted against a full lash and instead applied just a few individual sprays, to look natural. The glue made her nose twitch. The lashes stuck to each other. Delicately, she separated them with a doll-sized comb.
Next came the souped-up bra Doug bought her one Valentine’s Day. It was hot pink and rhinestone and clasped in a way that pressed her together like a panini. Her cleavage came up to her chin. She sprinkled it in sparkly powder. The nurse dress was white vinyl with plastic snaps, like a child’s raincoat. It barely covered her ass. It fanned around her hips like an umbrella. They’d ordered it online one night along with feather ticklers and whips and cups. Fishnets came next. Every Halloween she wore them, yet every year she was surprised to discover that the hosiery was made entirely of open netting. Tonight was no different. She kept poking her toe through the holes. When she bent down to zip her boots, Doug slapped her from behind. This would happen all night. She didn’t mind. Wouldn’t mind the hands of partygoers; in fact, she would feel worse if such a desperate outfit, Red Cross cap affixed to her crown, did not elicit a response.
“So?” Doug said, chin jutting, dripping in gore. “Do I look sufficiently fucked?”
“Hey, hands off. I’m still wet.”
When he grinned, the wound curled slightly. He dusted his hand. She sniffed his fist like a stray dog.
“A party is a party,” she said.
By the time they arrived in Essex County, New Jersey, the night was in full swing. The Borden house—five-bedroom stucco bound by an electric fence of hedges, with heated circular driveway and in ground pool—was aglow in holiday spirit. On Christmas, cars from neighboring towns would line up to gawk at their endless strands of candy canes and reindeer, lights to rival an IMAX theater. Tonight there would be multiple kegs, perhaps a party tent. An inflatable pumpkin wobbled in the wind from its pitch in the front lawn. Disembodied wails and boos seeped out from speakers disguised as gravestones in the grass.
A mummy opened the door. They followed him, half-clad, toilet paper unraveling, to Kelly and Tim, through the foyer of the center hall colonial, past the formal dining room, the stocked library (of uniform binding and spine, making Amy wonder if the books were real), toward the family room, where a DJ blasted playlists from his phone in dark shades and a Max Headron mask. Tim’s success came from shorting stocks, selling subprime mortgages, gambling with old ladies’ money. According to Doug, he and some other buddies had cut their teeth early on in a Linden chop shop. They were flush. Houses grew. It sounded, more or less, an extension of what they’d done in high school and college, shooting down the turnpike to gamble in Atlantic City, only with higher stakes and other people’s pensions, on the floor of the stock exchange instead of around felt tables. If Tim was a crook it was semantics. He was Doug’s best friend, with marble floors and a customized kitchen island designed for his wife Kelly’s budding cupcake business.
The hosts pounced with hugs and high-fives dressed like stars of reality TV. “Badabing!”
Within minutes Doug and Amy were swept apart. Amy knew the drill. Parties like these quickly became a segregated affair. Some of the women had been in the limo that fateful prom night with Amy and Ryan, only where they once shunned her they now surrounded with solicitous, dopey eyes. To them, Amy would forever be Ryan’s girl, a false label that made her feel sweaty, the nylon of her costume sticking to the back of her thighs. They stroked her arm. They formed a chorus. How have you been? They meant well, she knew. Doug told her. If she ever needed something, they would be there—these were mothers who chaired fundraisers and completed runs for leukemia in diamond studs the size of subway tiles. These were women who swapped paperbacks and hairdresser recommendations, who all but held hands in the bathroom. They’d never lived anywhere other than New Jersey. In New Jersey they made scrapbooks or became yoga instructors, they opened juice bars and chaired committees; the one with the deepest closet opened a retail clothing store where the rest of them shopped. These were women unlike her, and yet, how was she different? Amy eyed the huddle of men shouting at the flatscreen. It was typical to be groped by one who thought—or at least pretended to think—he was groping his own wife. And that was on regular nights.
She popped a pumpkin-shaped cheese ball. On the patio smokers of both sexes congregated, the real smokers and the smoke-and-drink smokers. Amy slipped outside and bummed one from a man dressed like Captain America. Cold shot through her. Her teeth clanged. The wind blew. Her whole body hummed. Amy held her elbows to contain herself. She smoked. She ashed. Her light kicked. The sky filled with tiny stars.
Hours passed. Amy wandered in and out of rooms and conversations. Everything was a blur. Eventually, the swap went into effect. Amy did not know when the custom began; it could’ve been rooted in the origin story of suburbia, happening for ages, happening at countless other parties Amy succeeded in dodging, or merely an annual occurrence, as she surmised, in the spirit of masquerade, like some Jersey twist on Eyes Wide Shut. Either way, Halloween marked open season. Doug and Amy made a yearly pact: When in Rome. Sometimes they got wasted and found it, if not appealing, then easy, not worth fighting, at least. There was always someone to fuck and forget. But other times, during this part of the night they slunk off to the basement together where Tim had installed a home movie theater and sat in plush chairs watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This was when she loved him the most.
Tonight, when Doug disappeared up the center staircase and down the grand hall with a glittery woman—dressed as a belly dancer? Gypsy? Slutty refugee?—Amy was relieved. He could go get his; Amy could be left alone. She drank punch from plastic crystal. She leaned against the seagrass wall and slid to the floor. Couples paired off in Biblical formation. Removed from it all, the scene washed over her in a comfort; warm, slightly stifling, like a syrupy liquor in the bottom of her childhood closet where she’d often crouched in the dark.
“Trick or treat.”
The voice familiar, but one she hadn’t heard in years. Amy looked up.
“Hey, stranger.” It was Matt Donovan, his shadow shining above her like a shield.
She rubbed her eyes. A lash came off in her hand. She considered getting up for a hug but that felt like too much effort. “Holy balls! What are you doing here?”
“Last people on earth, huh?” He joined her on the floor. He was dressed like Kurt Cobain, hair shaggy and pink. Amy was not sure it was a costume. “I lost my date.”
“She’s probably upstairs with my husband.”
She held up her cup to clink. He held up nothing.
“Nurse, you trying to kill me?”
In high school she and Matt hung out in the art room and mocked this very crowd. Matt had been a pimply kid with too much hair and too many expendable inches, like a plant flopped over a vase. He was angry and misunderstood, but for good reason. He’d been adopted, she’d heard. There was a situation at home. When he carved Amy’s initials into his wrist, tapping her shoulder in study hall to show off his handiwork, the rusted nail and blood bubbling to the surface, she threw up. They stopped talking. Matt had been sent away shortly after, military academy. She’d heard he’d gone to art school. Or maybe rehab.
“Sorry.” Amy removed the bobby pins from her Red Cross cap, her hair coarse and stiff. He pulled her soberly toward him, his touch flannel, his smell industrial, like a warehouse of forgotten goods. She leaned on his shoulder. She could lean there forever.
“Who is she?”
Kelly Borden’s stepsister. He’d met her on the train, Matt said. She was coming home to see her folks; he’d been installing one of his sculptures outside the station’s ticket office. He made art out of repurposed parts, machinery, wires, iron bases found in dumps. He handed her his card. There was charcoal in his nails. She was 23.
“I’ve never been so happy in my life,” he said. “Strange as it sounds. You read about it, but I didn’t think this kind of thing would ever be for me, you know?” His voice snagged. “Love. Messy, beautiful, complicated, corny, complete and total love.”
He patted Amy’s hair. Her whole body tingled, but it was meaningless. Amy felt suddenly responsible, like Doug was stealing Matt’s one special thing, taking a spin on his new bike only to crash it into a pole, this girlfriend of three months. Amy felt angry and protective and sad. He went on stroking her head, the motion lulling, a caress, working his fingers through her knots and tangles. He worked until her hair became even and smooth. Amy grew sleepy. When she woke people were leaving but Matt was still there beside her, their legs outstretched, heads slumped like unused props, the living room empty except for the two of them.
“Whatever happens,” she said. “Don’t let it get the best of you.”
Sara Lippmann‘s debut collection, DOLL PALACE (Dock Street Press), was long-listed for the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She was the recipient of an artist’s fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and her stories have appeared in Carve, Slice Magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, PANK, Joyland and elsewhere. For more, visit saralippmann.com.