Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2018  Vol. 17 No. 2
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Serenity Prayer

“Paint It Black” comes on the radio and John turns it up. Every time it plays, he turns it up like he’s never heard it before, so I hold my eyes closed for an extended blink and then look out the passenger window to help myself suffer through. He bops his thumb on the steering wheel at the red light.

We turn into the subdivision and the Inmans’ driveway is already packed. The house is huge and, as I know from previous visits, too sparsely furnished. Harry and Beth bought as much house as they could afford after they moved here, planning on furnishing it properly later. Then Beth discovered she doesn’t know the first thing about decorating so she called Ethan Allen and they threw some rugs and couches and a pool table in there, but she’s discovered nothing can fill all that space and, besides, she’d much rather be out in the garden. That’s what she told me in the self-deprecating way she mistakes for humility.

Tom will be there tonight with his wife. He’s told me that whatever he does tonight is a way of communicating with me, so if he puts his hand on the small of his wife’s back, it is because he wants it on my mine. If he clears a hair off her forehead, it is because I have one on my forehead. It is wrong for him to use his wife that way, exploitive, but it is delicious too. Yes, the word is delicious.

John carries the bottle of wine in a shiny bag, and as it swings in his gloved hand I feel pity for him. He’s so good to remember to buy the bag; he always does that wifely stuff because it never occurs to me. That is exactly how John is: thoughtful, good. He points out ice on the front steps. He takes my hand to make sure I don’t slip.

No one answers the doorbell so we walk in and follow the noise. The kitchen is filled with chatter and the smell of roasting meat. John walks in front of me and gives respectful half-hugs to the women, handshakes to the men. I know what that handshake feels like. It’s a good one, pushing satisfyingly into the fleshy web between thumb and forefinger.

Beth comes up and hugs me quickly, and I try not to stiffen in the embrace. I hate this ritual here of hugging upon every arrival or departure. All the women in this town do it.

“Merry Christmas, Lily,” Beth says, her cheeks already rosy. “Let me take your coat.”

Beth, wrapped in a polka-dotted apron, lifts the fur off my shoulders to reveal my low-cut dress. My breasts are natural, boosted, accentuated by my slim waist. I know that because I choose to show them off, make a display; it separates me from the women in the room.

I see Tom watching me and like how hungry he looks. I enjoy not making eye contact with him.

After Harry gives me a glass of champagne, I join a group of women talking about preschools. I know Sarah in the group best and stand beside her. Sarah is a biology professor at the community college. I teach physics there, but the school is so small it’s like we’re in the same department. She and I could be teaching at bigger schools, but our husbands make very good money here. She squeezes my hand in a silent hello as I walk up, so as not to interrupt the conversation.

“I watch the video monitors so much I might as well have them at home with me,” says a woman named Bridget.

“It’s addictive,” Tom’s wife agrees. “Sometimes I just watch Carlie napping.”

The preschool we all bring our kids to has video monitors set up around the rooms. Parents can hook up to them online during the day and see what their kids are doing. When the preschool teacher mentioned the technology as a selling feature of the facility, I’d had to fake interest.

“I never knew guilt was such an essential part of motherhood,” I told Sarah once.

She had laughed, but I could tell she couldn’t relate.

I drink my champagne quickly. It makes me feel like all the frayed ends are tying neatly together and forming a curl.


Beth corrals everyone into the dining room. The table is laid out with reindeer-themed linens and there is a framed poster of Klimt’s The Kiss on the wall. I notice the bookcases in the living room don’t showcase any books, just flowerless vases, decorative wicker balls in bowls, an oversized hourglass.

There is the usual hesitance to sit down as everyone forms new circles around the table. Knowing we’ll soon be locked down in our seats, new conversations hastily erupt like time is running out: what happened with . . . how did that . . . when are you . . . ? Finally, Beth stops being polite and tells us to sit down. The place cards show I am seated across from Tom at the table and facing Klimt.

We sit and soon Beth comes in with plates stacked up her arm. It is her small way of showing off, but no one seems to mind. Everyone likes Beth. She and Harry host dinners a lot because Beth likes to cook but also because they can’t get pregnant so they don’t have any kids. Maybe the reason Beth always wears aprons is to look more motherly.

I still have not acknowledged Tom and it has upped the tension, which I like. Because there are sixteen of us, Beth has seated the women at one end of the long table and the men at the other to help guide conversation. John is tucked near the head beside Harry as usual: the favorite spot. But Tom and I are stuck in no man’s land in the middle. The women talk about Vitamix blenders and smoothies, and the men talk about a new car one of them has bought.

“Hello,” I say to Tom so quietly the only way he could have heard was if he’d been looking at me.


We met at a fundraiser a year ago. I was looking at one of the silent auction items, a bottle of expensive bourbon.

“Are you bidding?” I’d asked him as he leaned over the bid sheet. “It seems like a popular thing to do.”

He whistled at the highest bid.

“It’s not worth half that,” he said.

“Seems like a game for the boys at this point.”

“Do you want it?” he asked, looking at my mouth.

I laughed. “I couldn’t care less.”

“You’ve been looking at that bid sheet for five minutes.”

“I don’t even drink bourbon.”

“That’s not the point.”

I looked down at the amber liquid. The bottle had a bucking gold horse etched into it. I looked up and suddenly smiled.

“It’s nice to win, isn’t it?” I said.

He leaned over and doubled the highest bid.

“That’s unnecessary,” I said.

“Almost everything is.”

It wasn’t about the money or the splash. If he’d said anything else after he placed his bid, I wouldn’t have thought of him again. It was because he didn’t care either.

After the first time we fucked, he made me drink a shot as he fried up bacon in a cast-iron skillet.


The beef has arrived and Beth has served it nice and bloody. The volume at the table has increased now that everyone has been drinking wine. Harry is good at that. He’s always circling around like an airplane filling up your glass so you never know how much you’ve had. That’s how to host a good dinner party—get everyone unwittingly drunk.

John is talking about how he won’t eat Subway anymore because the last time he did, he didn’t realize until halfway through the sandwich that he was eating the paper wrapper too.

“That’s how much the damn things taste like cardboard.”

It’s funny, the way he’s telling it, and people are laughing.

I cut into my meat and watch Tom’s wife rise from her seat to go over to him. She leans into his ear to whisper something, giggles, and he kisses her cheek. I can tell she’s already had too much to drink.

Not for the first time, I wonder if I know him at all, if all of this is his construction. It’s easy to feel that way when you’re having an affair. You can spend hours together, everything solid as stone. But one sentence, one missed phone call, this kiss in front of me, and things are dismantled. In a flash, you see an alternate reality in which all along you were the mouse for the cat.

To punish Tom, I make no eye contact and clear the dishes. Beth tells me not to load the dishwasher in an overly friendly way she probably reserves for people she wants out of her kitchen. But I’m not leaving; absence breeds hunger. Besides, compared to the rest of the house, the kitchen is nice. There are African violets on the windowsill by the sink, a pretty painting of heirloom tomatoes on the wall. It suddenly occurs to me that maybe it’s honest that the rest of her house is so thoughtlessly furnished. Her heart is in here.

“Do you mind helping me serve the sorbet?” She tries to scoop it, but it’s frozen solid. “I’ll get a man,” she says.

“Let me try,” I say, and dig out a perfect curl. For some reason, I’ve always been unusually strong.

On cue, Tom comes into the kitchen offering to help.

Beth hands him two tiny ramekins filled with orange mounds. He returns while she is handing out more.

“You know I didn’t have a choice, right?” he says of the kiss, leaning into me. “Remember what I said.”

Suddenly, this all feels juvenile and pointless.

“Every minute is a choice,” I say.


I didn’t used to be this way. His name was Anderson, and we met in college in Philadelphia. There was a blizzard one night and we were both on campus in the same corner of the library. Then the electricity went out and everything was dark except the white swirling in the windows. Everyone felt that feeling that comes when something big happens. The blizzard was bad. That the lights went out, that was bad. But it was exciting too.

Anderson asked me to get hot chocolate with him. I could see his plaid jacket and gray scarf in the dark, and they looked warm, and I said yes.

When you taste something new, like artichokes or gelato or star fruit, and you love it immediately and realize that all this time you did but you didn’t know it, that’s how I felt about Anderson. It was the beginning and ending of everything else.

Three months later, he got sick.

We thought it was maybe just appendicitis or diverticulitis. Crohn’s? But no: liver cancer. I moved him into my apartment, and I washed and dusted everything. I bought vegetarian cookbooks and made meals from them. I felt like if I tried hard enough I could scrub the illness away or cure it with kale.

After his chemo treatments, we would walk through Chinatown. We liked to look at all the mysterious gnarled roots and spiky fruit in the baskets outside the little markets, their prices written in Chinese on white signs with black marker. We’d usually end up at our favorite restaurant. Inside, the room warbled with people speaking Chinese and we didn’t talk much because our English sounded ungainly. I’d watch Anderson sip on his broth, knowing he wouldn’t be able to keep anything down for the next week.

He made it less than a year before the cancer ate him up. Obituaries always say the person “bravely fought” in their “battle” with cancer and I hate that. As if you’re in charge and you can soldier through if you try hard enough. But you’re not in charge. You can’t fight. All you can do is wait and see if fate is going to serve you pudding or shit.

After Anderson died, I stood beside his brother at the end of the receiving line. His parents called me his “special friend” in the obit. When you’re that young and you die, almost everyone at the funeral is young too. Anderson had a lot of friends and they came in their burgundy button-downs (cuffs rolled up) and slim-leg pants. The girls wore high heels that were too high because they were meant for clubbing.

Everyone thought I was good to have stayed with him, though we’d only been together a short time before he got sick. They all said, my mother said, I was still young enough to have a fresh start.

What they didn’t understand, and what I did not yet know, is that I would never recover from losing him. Maybe if we’d been together for longer, some shine would have worn off and its absence would have unlocked me. But everything was still perfect when he became sick. Then when someone is dying, you treasure every second and you hope every second so everything becomes intensely clear in a way that it never is again.


So now I don’t care when Tom looks hurt after I let him know this is all silly. He goes back to the table after Beth comes back in for more ramekins of sorbet.

By the time I take my seat, everyone is talking as a group about this summer at the lake. It’s a pretty enough lake, though it’s only there because of a dam; it didn’t naturally occur. But I thought when we moved here it was at least something. Of course, that was when I thought we’d only be in Kentucky for a few years, that John would want to move on to a bigger company after getting experience here. Now he keeps telling me it’s the perfect place to raise children. People always say that about places where there isn’t anything to do.

As the chatter gets louder and chocolate cake arrives, I realize suddenly everyone is drunk. It turned on like a switch. The women are taking small bites of cake and big sips of wine, and Beth turns up the music. They have speakers in the living room, which extends from where we are seated. The women get up and dance.

I finish my glass of wine quickly. I don’t want to be at the table anymore either, but for a few minutes I watch the other women laugh and flail. I’ve always loved to dance. Anderson told me once I look like ribbon unwinding on the dance floor. John tells me I look like sex on a stick.

But I stay still. As the women dance, you can see what they looked like young. Some dance with each other in couples, performing botched versions of ballroom dances, before breaking apart and resuming their faintly sexual swaying.

All the husbands glance up at the women every once in a while as they continue their conversation about the bankruptcy of the local golf course. Except for Tom. He sits there in his white shirt and black blazer only appearing to listen to the guys. Always apart. His wife has been in the bathroom for too long and I have a feeling she’s sick.

I can feel the power of the wine resurfacing. Sarah waves me over and I feel a surge. I want to be part of them, I want to have fun, but I know I’ll only become envious of their effortless happiness.

I do have one thing now that I didn’t used to have though, I remind myself. I have Tom and he makes me feel better.

He excuses himself from the table and heads down the hallway, and I announce I need to use the restroom.

Tom is carefully closing a bedroom door when I reach him.

“Is she in there?”

“She’ll sleep it off. She can’t handle more than a few glasses.”

I pull him into the bathroom nearby. It has horses on the shower curtain and a brass towel rack in the shape of a stirrup.

I kiss him and it’s good.


Back in the living room, Harry lines up shot glasses on the coffee table, moving a picture book about the world’s prettiest waterfalls. He fills them with ouzo and Beth hands him the barbecue lighter. He lights them on fire and we all ooh and aah at the blue flames. Because I’m closest, he hands me a glass first and I throw it back immediately before it occurs to me I might burn myself.

We dance, almost everyone now, and I know I’m drinking more than I should. But Tom is watching, his wife is gone, and how many more opportunities will there be for this secret that is so big and invisible?


I head outside to the back deck to cool off. It’s a clear, cold night and the air feels excellent on my sweaty neck. Yes, the word is excellent.

I walk toward the railing and watch the lights of a megahouse in the distance. It snowed earlier tonight and everything is blue. Nothing has touched it yet, no footprints or sun, so it’s smooth and perfect. Even the snow on the tarp wrapping up the deck chairs and table for the winter looks poetic.

I feel the buzz in my chest. I am having fun, aren’t I? John is surprised by how much, I can tell. It seems possible I can go home and kiss Layla and not wish she weren’t here. Or maybe Tom and I could start fresh, a fresh start like this snow. He’s told me again and again he’s never been in love like this.

If I could just shed, molt.

But how do you forget that wracking and moaning? That gray face, the blue fingernails and yellow hands, the black breathing. How do you forgive the unfairness of that?

I place my hand on the snow on the railing, let it sink in so that it looks like a child’s handprint captured in clay. It’s cold but I don’t lift it. I stare down and notice all the thousands of diamonds hidden in the snow.

Maybe you forgive by finding someone else who understands. I still don’t know what happened to Tom and he doesn’t know what happened to me. But it’s there. I saw him pick up his daughter from preschool a few weeks ago, a surprise since her mother usually does. The girl ran up to him with her arms up and two apple-red spots on her cheeks. He picked her up and his face was blank.

It didn’t work to try to get John’s goodness to rub off on me. But Tom is just like me. Together we could inject each other with life. Two numb, blank pages we’d slowly color in.


I’m looking for Tom when Harry asks me to go downstairs to the laundry room to get more champagne. They have a fridge down there packed with wine and beer, which makes me wonder sometimes whether Harry and Beth are alcoholics.

There are delicates hanging from a rod and there is a sign hanging on the wall that says, “Grant me the serenity to accept the stains I cannot get out, the courage to bleach the ones I can, and the wisdom to remove that one red sock from the load of whites.”

I open the fridge and hear the noise from upstairs. Things have become messy and loose, the time of night where the high heels are not just kicked off but lost.

I have three bottles in my arms when Tom finds me.

“There you are,” he says.

“I was looking for you too.”

Another button of his white shirt is undone and I can see the hair on his chest.

“I need to talk to you,” he says.

He puts his warm hands on my upper arms.

“Lily, you’re cold.”

“I was outside.”

He looks at me oddly. “It’s freezing out there.”

“I was thinking,” I say.

He scans my face, touches my hair. I feel a bursting, an emergence. Something light and delicate.

“I know what you’re going to say,” I tell him.

He looks like he wants to hug me. For the first time, I see feeling in his face. He looks tired, weathered, but alive. I think I do too.

“We have to stop,” he says.

I’m aware that my lips part and I close them.

“It’s not fair to anyone. You have a young child, so do I. Not to mention John and Maggie.”

The noise of the party has become a squeal. He starts talking about obligation and home wrecking, promises and fatherhood. He’s speaking faster than I’ve ever seen him speak. He’s not looking at me anymore. I think he might be looking at the laundry serenity prayer.

“I agree,” I say to stop him. “It’s not helping anyone.”

He is finally quiet and looks sad and pathetic.

“It was a good try,” I say.


I pass him, holding the cold bottles against me like a shield.  

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