“The barbeque is fine, babe—go back to your party. Let me handle the barbeque.”
Henry saw Laurie turn, so that her expression was hidden from everyone but him—an expression of annoyed exasperation and something else—surrender. When she went back into the house, Henry followed her in.
“Really the take-charge type, isn’t he?”
“Always got to be running the Goddamn show.” Laurie aggressively sipped at her vodka.
“So why is he moving the barbeque? Wasn’t it fine right where it was?”
Acknowledging the conspiratorial tone in his voice, Laurie said in a whisper, “He wants to toast marshmallows.”
Hearing the click of her tongue, Henry offered a smile.
“He builds a little fire—you know, a bit of tinder, a few sticks from the yard. Can’t have a barbeque without marshmallows,” she mimicked, touching Henry’s arm but stealing a look at her husband through the patio window at the same time. “Look at him, would you? Goddamn Alexander the Great is what he reminds me of. I don’t know, Henry,” she turned to him now, her expression softening into a smile. “A whole year in Germany with no one but Michael—if I decide to come back, can I stay with you, Henry?”
Henry took hold of her wrist. He was about to say something comforting when she violently started, “Look at him now! That fire is too big! Michael!”
It was true, the fire that he’d started was already at least a head taller than Michael himself—but nearly impossible to see from the position where Michael was standing, with the lowering afternoon sun as a backdrop. “Who’s ready for marshmallows?” Michael was calling out to the crowd, having turned by this time back to the table to thread marshmallows onto skewers. Glancing over his shoulder, he made a gesture of offering what was the first to his wife, until she’d looked back in horror and he’d given the skewer to somebody else, a perky brunette wearing cartoon dark glasses.
“Where did she come from?” Henry thought he heard Laurie mutter under her breath. She put down her vodka. “Get us a refill,” she commanded, perhaps a little too forcefully for Henry’s sensitive state. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
Feeling stupid, Henry stood with her glass while Laurie conversed with her husband. He saw Laurie turn and lift up her hand as introductions were made to the perky brunette, and continued to watch as the two shared a super-charged moment once the brunette had departed. Clearly, Henry had been all but forgotten. He put Laurie’s glass down on the counter, helped himself to another beer from the refrigerator, and snuck out the front door on a pretense of seeing the rest of the neighborhood. He wondered if he should leave.
As he stood in the yard, enjoying the warmth of the day, he was overcome by an overwhelming feeling of sadness. He thought of the days out ahead of him now, passed in solitude, in isolation from the undercurrent of emotion that made his own life worthwhile, and wondered what he would do with himself. And the hopelessness of his present condition deepened his sadness, like a deep pool of water from which all the light has been taken. When he returned to the house to say his goodbyes, he heard shouting coming from somewhere out back. Curious, he moved to the patio door and thrust out his head.
“Fire on the roof!” people were shouting, some of them looking and shielding their eyes, others just backing away to allow the more capable access. Henry heard Laurie say, “Michael, my God!” but as he began to step out the door, he ran into Laurie coming back in. “I’ll get on the roof,” she was calling over her shoulder. She pushed him aside as she went by.
When Henry next saw her, she was up on the roof, calling to Michael to hand her the hose. Joining the group who had moved off the patio, Henry stood on the lawn, safely apart from the turmoil, as Laurie and Michael battled the fire. He wondered of course if he should offer to help, but even if he managed to be useful to them, his participation was bound to stand out and be noticed by others. Such are the dilemmas of inappropriate involvements—even the most sensible of ideas can turn into conflicts.
Water was now shooting in every direction. The screams of surprise that it caused contrasted sharply with the voices of Laurie and Michael on the roof, which were sober, and deep with emotion. The fire was not big—well within the means of two people working in concert together—yet, even as Laurie and Michael were getting it under control, the frivolity out on the lawn seemed to gather in strength, reaching a pitch that became harder and harder not to acknowledge. When Laurie came down from the roof to meet with the crowd, her soft, flowing hair reduced to damp tendrils that clung to her face, shirt stuck to her breasts like wet tissue, she was not in the mood for stories or even for questions. Michael came in behind her then, placing his hand on her shoulder.
“Someone could have helped us,” she whispered, her voice on the verge of tears. “We could have lost everything.”
“You were doing so well on your own,” someone retorted, drawing laughter here and there from the crowd. “Really, you guys were great.”
“Thanks for coming, everyone.” Laurie moved her eyes over the guests, her gaze resting briefly on Henry. “I think Michael and I have had enough partying for one day.”
Eyes moved to the gift table, bottles of wine, thoughtful items purchased for travel abroad—apparently, they were not to be opened or even acknowledged, at least not today.
People began to gather their things, drawing back into themselves or the groups they had come with, people to discuss the party with later, saying what a shame it had been that Laurie and Michael couldn’t have been better sports about the whole thing. We were just having fun is what they would say, shaking their heads.
When most of the people had left, Henry went up to Laurie and Michael to offer his help cleaning up. Though he was still feeling slighted, still looking long past this day to his own days of solitude, it seemed only right he should offer this gesture, if only for appearance’s sake.
“Don’t worry about it,” Laurie said in a voice that sounded distant and hollow, as if she already had left. “Michael and I can take care of it. Are you on your way out?”
Laurie walked him around to the front yard and his car, parked out of view of the house. His feelings seemed to have become very complicated in just those few minutes of walking, and hard to sort out. “I’m sorry about your house, really,” he said, taking her hand. “You know, I was hoping to—.” She didn’t let him finish.
“We can get through this,” she said, looking back towards the house, as if she were thinking of someone inside it, what they were doing, the way you might think of a favorite getaway spot you long to get back to. “These things happen I guess. Just when you think everything’s set and done with, something comes along to knock it off track.”
By the time Henry reached his own home, it was already dark. Pouring himself a glass of sparkling water, he went out to his patio to sit, and look at the stars. His eyes found Orion’s belt first, just as they always did, and then the Big Dipper.
What did he want? One possibility was over. He would now have to decide on the next. He’d avoided the change as long as he could.
Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
Centerpiece by John Martin