“Isn’t that right, Jonathan, honey?” Jonathan was her son. Four years old now, and asleep on her shoulder. It was this last part that was, as they say, the coup de grace.
She didn’t know why she’d said it. It really wasn’t very like her at all. And they meant well. They were all very sweet, really, even Ken, in his way, though his way whatever it was exactly most certainly involved her naked in some fashion or another, which wasn’t perhaps so sweet after all—although it wasn’t really so not-sweet either, everything else considered.
He was crap as an escort, though. Useless. Which she supposed was only to be expected after a half-dozen or so Jack-and-Cokes.
The surprise had come off fine. Melissa had had no idea; or, at any rate, she’d pretended she’d had no idea, though it wouldn’t have been like her to pretend, at least not so well. Alex had almost blown it by arriving late—they’d been turning into the subdivision when Melissa’s mother had called Greg and told him to play for time, that Alex had called to tell them he was running behind, was just then getting onto Pleasantdale up by the mall.
“Your Mom wants us to pick up some eggs,” Greg told Melissa, and he’d U-turned and gone back out to the road and the store where in addition to buying the eggs he’d stalled for a minute or two more in the wine aisle—“just a bottle for dinner”—while figuring in his head how much longer Alex would need.
“Do you know him? Is he a friend of Greg’s?” Linda had asked her while they waited. “I can’t believe he’s late. He knew what time it started, right?”
She, on the other hand, had been there for hours. “Come early,” Mrs. Brubaker had told her when she’d called with the invitation. (Mrs. Brubaker had called to invite each of them personally.) “You and Jenny can help us get ready.” Dale and Linda would be there with their kids as well, she’d said, so Jonathan would have someone to play with. It was somewhat more involvement than she had planned on, particularly given her appropriate place at the periphery of things, but there was about Mrs. Brubaker a certain “all hands on deck” ethos, something in the voice at the other end of the line that insinuated obligation. She had felt fairly certain it was expected that she would arrive in time to help out. So she had. She had sliced carrots into sticks for dipping and washed out the ice chest the beers would go into. Linda had handled the lasagnas.
They had eaten in the living room, sitting scooted onto the edges of the furniture—a pair of couches, an easy chair, an ottoman, a quartet of wooden chairs that Greg had carried in from the dining room. They had eaten off paper plates balanced delicately on their knees, rested their plastic cups atop the thick gray carpet. Melissa’s father had kicked over a cup of soda getting up for seconds. Just ginger-ale, thank goodness. It could have been worse; she and Jenny were both drinking red wine. After they’d finished Ken and Alex had taken their chairs into the kitchen to teach Jonathan and Caleb to play blackjack and seven-card stud. Mr. Brubaker had gotten a set of poker chips down from the attic in case anyone wanted to play cards. “Kids,” Ken had said after they had played a couple of hands, “it’s now time for me to instruct you in the dark art of no-limit Texas hold ‘em.”
“It’s so nice having Linda and Mel so close by,” Mrs. Brubaker had said as they put away the leftovers from dinner. “For them, too, you know, with the kids and all. There’s always someone there to help watch them if they need it.”
“How about your parents?” Mrs. Brubaker had asked her. “I’m sure they just love it when you and Jonathan come visit.”
After they had finished cleaning up she and Jenny and Linda had stuck thirty candles into the cake which Linda then carried into the dining room where Melissa blew them out in the dark with the customary single breath. Mr. Brubaker and Greg stood on either side of the table catching it all with their digital cameras. Mrs. Brubaker stood in the doorway with her hand on the switch, waiting until the candles were out to flip the lights back on.
“Shall we give her our gift?” Jenny had asked.
“Oh, that reminds me,” Alex had said, and excused himself while he went out to his car.
“Mel, why don’t you show everyone Greg’s present,” Mrs. Brubaker had said. “I’m sure they would love to see them.”
Greg had bought Melissa a pair of pearl earrings which he had given to her that morning.
“He made her breakfast in bed!” Mrs. Brubaker said.
“French toast,” Melissa said. “It was very nice, honey.”
Then she had passed around the earrings, which everyone agreed were, without question, very, very beautiful, and Greg sat at the end of the table eating cake and looking relieved.
She and Jenny had gotten Melissa a gift certificate to a spa. “We can all go together!” Jenny had said. Alex had gotten her what looked like a basket of soaps he had found at a drug store. “Nice gift, jackass,” Ken had muttered. “Hey, at least I tried,” Alex said.
They had started a movie for the kids in the living room. Linda had gone in to see how they were doing. “Jonathan is asleep,” she told her when she came back to the table. She had whispered it, holding an index finger over her lips as she spoke—like a librarian, or a kindergarten teacher. “Honey,” she said to Dale, “Caleb looks like he might be getting sleepy, too.” She had their other son—eight months old she had said—cradled in the crook of her arm. “Maybe we had better get ready to go.”
And this then was how it had happened.
They had gathered in the entryway beneath the Christmas wreaths and the construction-paper cut-outs (H-A-P-P-Y B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y hung in alternating purple and pink) to put on their coats and say their goodbyes before heading out to their cars and off on their own separate ways, when the matter came up of directions.
Mrs. Brubaker started it.
“Now how is Amy getting home?” she had asked no one in particular. “Didn’t she follow Jenny here?”
She had, and Jenny was going now not home but to spend the night at her mother’s house which, in fact, she had known would be the case all along.
“Does she know her way back? Where does she need to go?”
“Vinings,” she had said.
“Vinings? That’s far.”
Linda pursed her lips and shifted Cody from one shoulder to the other.
“This time of night? That is far.”
“What time is it?”
“What’s that drive, about an hour?”
In the corner by the stairs Greg had stopped putting on his coat. Alex stepped back into the room from the door.
“Amy,” Mrs. Brubaker said, “why don’t you and Jonathan just sleep here tonight. We’ve got plenty of space. I can make you a bed in the spare room. You don’t need to be out on those roads in the dark trying to find your way home.”
She had demurred. Mrs. Brubaker cocked her head and gave her a worried look.
“Well let us get you out to the highway, at least.” They’d all opened their bodies to face her.
“You could just go straight down Collins Mill,” Alex suggested. Dale had turned to Linda and asked if she thought they should ride with her to 285. “Look,” Ken said, “she can just follow me. I’m going that way anyway.” Mr. Brubaker had run upstairs to see if he could print out some directions from the Internet.
“You’re good to drive, right?” Melissa asked her.
She meant the wine. She was fine, she said.
“Amy? You were drinking wine? Really? When? Are you sure you’re okay?” Mrs. Brubaker redoubled her look of concern.
“Why don’t you just stay?” she said.
“You really should stay,” Linda said.
“We can fix a bed. It’s no problem. It won’t take a minute. Really.”
It was a pincer movement of sorts. Mother and daughter contriving to cut off her retreat. She stood in the hallway, the center of attention, toeing the seam at the edge of the foyer where the carpet met the hardwood.
Mr. Brubaker returned from upstairs. “I don’t know,” he said. “I couldn’t get it to work for me.”
“I don’t think she should leave tonight, anyway,” Mrs. Brubaker told him.
She was fine, she said.
“Really? With the wine?”
That had been hours ago.
“I don’t know,” Mrs. Brubaker said. “I think I would just feel so much better if the two of you stayed here tonight. It’s late. It’s dark. You’ve been drinking.”
Again, hours ago.
Linda looked towards Jonathan. She widened her eyes.
“It’s not just you, you know, that we’re concerned about.”
She smiled. She couldn’t help it. And then she had said it. A terrible thing to say. And to them of all people. Such a nice, lovely family. Such a generous, loving family. But there was a greediness to their kindness. She felt that she’d given them quite enough.
“No, really, I’m fine,” she had said. “Really. I actually drive better when I’m a little bit drunk.”
“Isn’t that right, Jonathan, honey?” He didn’t stir, asleep on her shoulder. “Ken, are you ready? I’m following you to the highway.”
Of course, it hadn’t been quite that easy. “Amy!” Mrs. Brubaker had gasped, watching her with shocked disapproval. “That isn’t funny,” Linda had said. “It isn’t cute, and it isn’t funny.” She had thanked them, though, and left. Apologized and thanked them and left, drawing a deep breath as she stepped out of the house into the cold—a crisp, clear night, the stars glimmering like knife points. Ken smiled lewdly. “I’ll drive slow,” he said, “to make sure you can keep up.”
They’d wound their way quietly through the dark curling streets, past flood-lit driveways and frost-bitten lawns out to the neighborhood’s entrance where Ken grazed the corner of the subdivision’s squat brick nameplate turning left onto the main road. He pulled off on the shoulder after the turn, craning his head out his rolled-down window to check his rear panel for damage. Satisfied, he flashed the thumbs-up sign, and they carried on their way.
He had been a concession. An absurd but briefly necessary concession. Signaling too early, forgetting to signal, sliding across lanes on even the mildest of curves; she nearly laughed aloud as he braked for a turn only to swerve back into the middle of the road as he realized it was the wrong direction. They were back there and she was here and he was useless. Entirely useless.
And unneeded besides. Up ahead the road widened briefly—a turning lane on the right running up to a traffic light, still red as Ken approached it. He slowed. The light turned green. She slipped into the turning lane and whipped past him into the intersection, cutting in front, tapping her horn in a friendly farewell before accelerating around a bend and out of sight. She hit the highway a minute later. Down the ramp, around the retaining wall, and up the rise onto the smooth, broad, black, empty ribbon of road.