The party was scheduled to start around three. Henry waited till four to begin getting ready, bracing himself with a Long Island Iced Tea that he mixed in a sports bottle and carried around with him as he put on his clothes. On his way out the door, he suddenly remembered a way Laurie had looked at him once after he’d said something rude, and the pain of those feelings seemed a sentence of sorts, a judgment for crimes that no amount of penance could ever undo. With fanfare, she was saying goodbye—not to return for a year, perhaps even longer—and this was to be the party that would make it official.
How should he behave at such an event? Even to be gracious seemed a deception, an insult in fact—but if he sulked the whole night, he would never forgive himself. The only solution was to get her alone—say the few things that needed to be said, make her aware of his feelings, and let the rest go where it would. She would curse him, no doubt, for holding back until now, but he had little choice. Little choice if he wanted her to remain a part of his life.
Laurie was waiting for him when he came up the drive. Reluctantly, Henry accepted her kiss.
“Sorry I’m late.”
“Were you held up?”
“There was an accident on Dufresne. I couldn’t move. I was helpless.”
“Come inside. I’ll get you something to drink.”
Henry followed her into the house. He was feeling tired from the drive, and was anxious to sit. “Where is everyone else?” he asked, wedging his shoulder into the wall.
Laurie had already ducked inside the refrigerator. The gravity of leaning forward deposited a lock of brown hair on her cheek, which she replaced with a flick of her finger when she stood up. “Miller all right?”
“Miller is fine.”
Henry shifted his stance to afford himself a view of the porch. He saw Laurie’s husband out next to the picnic table, apparently describing one of his many adventures (a true outdoorsman, unlike Henry, whose favorite pastime was reading) to a group of tanned faces while a banner of smoke trailed away from the barbeque, mingling with the smoke of lilac blooms against the back fence. Already he knew that he’d made a mistake, showing up at this party, and he wondered if Laurie would sense his misgivings. Part of him wanted her to acknowledge the damage she’d done with this decision to leave, but he also knew at some level that he too was responsible. Somehow, he thought, I must have driven her to it. He was thinking about this when Laurie said to him:
“I didn’t know if you’d come.” She looked at him, as if she were considering a diagnosis.
“I didn’t know if I’d make it. On the other hand, knowing I’d never see you again—.” He smiled, a childish admission. Henry cleared his throat.
“You know I’ll be back.” She moved a little bit closer to him, holding the beer at eye level.
“What are you drinking?”
“At this point, straight vodka. ‘Wodka,’ as the Soviets say. Laurie nodded her head.
“I’ve heard that.”
“You want some?”
“Why not?” Henry shifted his weight so that their bodies were touching. Laurie did not back away. She looked past him out towards the street where people from the office were making their way up the drive. When her eyes returned to his face, they did not move, but seemed fixed on his position, like a dancer spotting for a turn. “Duty calls,” he observed, indicating the door with his head.
“Duty.” Laurie reached for his hand. “Vodka’s on the patio. I’ll be out in a minute. Then we can talk.”
Henry stepped out onto the patio. Working his way carefully through the motionless crowd, he could not help but wonder who they all were—and why not a one of them seemed to notice or care who he was. He felt like a first grader coming late to his first day of school, far too conspicuous to ever feel part of a group that depended so much on conformity. Laurie’s husband stuck out his hand as he walked by, rescuing him from additional misery. “Henry, isn’t it?”
Several people turned to see who he was, but without genuine interest. “Yes, Henry. How are you Michael?”
Michael scanned the yard with its collection of guests. “I’m great. I’m just great. You got something to drink? Food’s over here—we got tons. Help yourself.”
“I heard there was vodka.”
“Really?” A quick look around.
“That’s all right,” Henry assured him as he moved to the lawn. Sitting beneath a flowering crabapple were several people he knew—he sat down beside them, content to serve out the remainder of his sentence while sipping his beer. He looked up at the back of the house, at its windows and its unusual roof—almost flat in some parts, like the roof on a Hollywood bungalow—and wondered which of the rooms was the one where they slept and where they made love.
Laurie came out onto the porch just then—with her glass held aloft, toasting his arrival again, or the occasion in general, it was hard to tell which with the sun in his eyes. Henry raised up his glass.
The need to rationalize what is ordinary in our own everyday lives—dreams we invent to create a certain impression when the evidence might suggest otherwise—these are all impulses that seize even the humblest of individuals, and for Laurie and Michael, the notion of living abroad had always served this very function, not just for each of them separately, but for their marriage as well. Thus, when Laurie told Henry that Michael had actually been given an offer to live in Berlin, he hadn’t known what to say, fearful of crossing a line even he must have known not to transgress—but couldn’t help wondering how something of such consequence to their relationship could have come to pass without Laurie even having seen fit to mention it.
And when their plans began to take shape—finding someone to rent the house, applying for passports—his sense of betrayal grew, a feeling he found hard to contain in light of the trials they had been through together.
For it was Laurie who had been there for Henry throughout his divorce—Laurie who’d helped him maintain some semblance of normalcy, who’d answered his needs for affection in the absence of a live-in partner and mate. The two had never been sexually intimate. And yet, is not sexual intimacy merely a reflection of something already felt at a subconscious level, that thing which is, in fact, the foundation on which it eventually becomes necessary? Exchanges such as those just now in the kitchen were a daily occurrence, the touching, the locking of gazes. Had he been wrong to take all those moments so seriously, to assume they would lead to something more lasting? How could she be so ready to throw something away he could never imagine doing without?
In the weeks leading up to the party, as the plans and the thorny arrangements came to fruition, he hoped that she had begun to consider all she was losing, and come to her senses—but of course by that point, he’d already started to drift, nursing the hurt he so desperately needed her to acknowledge, and mend.
After today, he would be lucky to ever see her again. Of only this fact was he certain. As for the rest…all that remained was the party.
“Lift up that end. There, that’s it. We’ll carry it out to the lawn.”
The barbeque was heavy—two men had tried, until the side containing the tank began to tip to one side, and one or two others had jumped on to help.
“Watch the fingers there now.” When they reached the grass, they tried to let the barbeque down gently, but it came down with a crash.
“Michael!” Laurie turned abruptly away. She put down her vodka and began to walk toward the men—until Michael held up his hand, and stopped her before she could come out to the lawn.
Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
Centerpiece by John Martin