blackbirdonline journalSpring 2009  Vol. 8  No. 1
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We’re at a Party

The trumpet player is plain but I’m sure he’s thrilling in bed. Doubled at the knees with his face panting red, he tongues the silver mouthpiece of his trumpet, runs his fingers up and down its body. The noise he makes shotguns across the night where the couples, wearing pearls and pastels for the summer heat, spin halfheartedly on the dance floor. They’re aware of everyone around them, aware they’re seen, as though without the flashing cameras they would cease to exist. Below the music their garbled gossip pours like a stream over pebbles.

My grandmother and grandfather are on the dance floor and they’ve twined their hands together. My grandmother’s mouth moves a mile a minute. She’s wearing a steel gray polka-dot dress which floats out around the widening hips she insists on denying, tucking herself beneath layers of hosiery.

I’m at the bar. Because it’s free, I’m drinking heavily. My uncle is drinking heavily too.

“They dance good,” I say.

My uncle talks something into his scotch.

“What?” I ask.

“Proud they’re not poor and still have their teeth,” he says. His words are slippery. “A real bash. Bash in their heads,” he says.

“I don’t know,” I say.

He smiles a sad drunk smile. He has corn husk eyes.

On the dance floor, my grandfather, a woman’s clothing salesman wearing white linen and a foppish grin, winks and taps a crazy beat with his two-toned shoes.

“He’s a show-stopper,” I say.

My uncle watches the dance floor and the dancing while he sips his scotch. His lip is curled and he looks like he wants to punch somebody. I think about lying alone in bed with him at night. The wind pawing the curtains. I would be terrified.

I stare out at the dance floor and drink without tasting and don’t say these things.

“Wonder who’ll scream first,” he says. He laughs like a rooster. He doesn’t look to see who is watching, but I do, and they all seem to be, out the corners of their eyes.

“He’s the first guy who ever held her hand,” I offer. It feels like a scarf too thin for the cold.

“Look at them go,” my uncle grunts. He finishes his scotch and orders another drink with a wink at the busty bartender. He grins as she hands him a new glass filled to the brim.

“I’m not sloshed enough for this kind of thing unless you want to hit the floor for old-times’ sake,” he says. When he smiles he looks young and hopeful.

I say, “I’m gonna take a stroll.”

I want to smoke a pack of cigarettes and see if any of my cousins brought weed. Something about my uncle’s swagger scares me. There were no old times and I don’t want his hands to touch me. I’ve known him for ten years, half my life, and we’ve only touched once.

Cold for June, clouds tip the night. The couples move with light, bored steps. No one’s yet made a fool of themselves, but they are waiting.

They dance across my uncle’s spare acre, decked out in thousands of dollars’ worth of my mom’s guilt. What stars there are shine dull against the lights hung across the trees, my mother on a step ladder, precariously lifting her arms and nearly falling with her effort to be praised, finally, for something she could do for them. But they’d entered like a queen and king, my grandmother weighted down by a diamond cacophony round her neck, and they’d nodded at the decorations like someone had asked them if the weather in Florida was nice, and of course it was.

They wanted this party to be at a Country Club. They thought it was in bad taste—i.e., looked poor—if you had a party at your house, which is what they told my mother. She’s in the upstairs bathroom crying her mascara.

I shiver at the air and pull my sweater closer over my shoulders, making sure my cleavage is still showing. My mother upstairs crying is a typical thing. She tries too hard and she’s always surprised. The couples move in succession.

As I pass the dancing I smile at my sister and her husband, trying to convey entirely nothing. My sister’s husband nods and accepts it, but my sister’s got her arms on me real quick and she spins me dizzy towards the dance floor, leaving her husband standing behind us, waiting lonely and patiently.

“I’ve been looking all over for you,” she says, as though we’re inseparable. She does not look at her husband but she doesn’t look at me either. She looks everywhere but at our eyes. “God I’m just so bored,” she says, flinging her arms out. “Can you imagine? If I was planning this party I probably would have saved money because why spend it if it doesn’t look like it’s even been spent? And then, oh! I could have gone on a tremendous trip over in Europe but you don’t even know what I’ve done for you.” Her words fling me in the face like overspray.

Her husband shrugs his shoulders and makes his way over to the tables.

“I made Rob bring his friend,” my sister whispers, holding me close now, her lips touching my ear. “You know who, don’t you? It’s Josh Mumjin.” Her voice is bouncy and light and her lips are wet. My sister is gorgeous. She’s got the most perfect nose I’ve ever seen.

“Remember him? Do you?” she asks, nudging me in the side so it hurts.

I remember him. Jewish attorney, much older than me, boring anecdotes and a Doberman Pincher he couldn’t stop talking about, said it was the smartest animal he’d ever met.

“He was asking about you,” says my sister. Her husband has disappeared into the throngs of people. He doesn’t talk much, and my sister can’t shut up.

“Well?” says my sister, puckering her lips. “I told Rob to go get him the first time we saw you, and hello there, that’s quite an outfit.” She pauses to breathe and stare at me.

“Too short?”

She slaps me on the butt. “Well, yeah. It’s a good thing Mom’s sobbing, or she’d be having a fit.” My sister throws her head back seductively when she laughs, and I am the only one looking. She has perfect teeth.

“He’s a really good guy, and he’s ready to settle down now, I think,” she says, putting her white arms around me and beginning to move her hips to the music.

“Josh Mumjin,” she says. “You need more good guys in your life. I spend a lot of time thinking about how lucky I am because I’m in love and it’s really wonderful to have someone who always thinks you’re the best. But what about you?” She shrugs then, and looks sad in the way that aspiring actresses look sad on test shots. In a second her smile is back. “He’s sitting at our table. Come on, you want me to dance you over?” She bumps my side again and winks.

I don’t respond, and I doubt she expects me to. I make my way off the dance floor.

“Come on!” she says, calling after me, and shaking her perfectly proportioned hips. “You’re such a sourpuss!”

I pass my grandparents; my grandmother’s smile is the same one I’ve noticed on her face when she dries the last piece of china over the sudded sink. Fifty years dancing with the same man, my grandmother looks at peace.

I sink down next to my aunt at a wide empty table. She’s seven years older than me and looks like she’s at a funeral. She bounces her orange-haired baby on her knee. The baby’s face is splotchy, his mouth is open and his eyes stare wide and nowhere. Like her, he will not graduate from college. He’ll be a southern playboy, swinging a golf club. By the time he is twenty-five he’ll be bored.

“So,” I say.

My aunt nods at me, and stares the dance floor down, rubbing her high heels through the grass. The baby brings his fist up to his eye. She brings her drink up to her red lips. It’s a breeze of a second, as long as it takes between when the light turns green and the asshole behind you hits the horn, before she’s done her drink and eyeing the bar.

The baby’s hair is matted damply to his face, and I want desperately, in the moment, to bathe him in a soapy kitchen sink. His mother, already newly pregnant, is bloated and her eyes are glazed like my grandfather’s at the dinner table when he cuts the roasted chicken with a long, sharp knife.

“Want mine?” I ask her.

She takes my wine and drinks lustfully. The baby kicks its fat legs, and I worry for an instant that he will fall. And then I realize it doesn’t matter.

“Fetal Alcohol Syndrome,” I say. “Makes your baby real ugly.”

“I know all about that,” she says. She puts my empty glass down. “It’s hard,” she says. “I feel under the world.”

“People go to jail for beating up their kids,” I say.

She smiles. It’s hard to remember my aunt before she married my uncle. I remember their wedding where I had met my aunt unexpectedly in the bathroom. She was staring at herself in the long mirror. She had a radiant, youthful, unmarred face. With her long neck and an elaborate lace dress draped modestly over the small lump in her belly, she looked like a swan, absurd and lovely.

“This is right, isn’t it?” my aunt had asked me through the mirror.

I would have danced tap for her, or walked a trapeze to keep her quiet. “You look beautiful,” I said, staring at my reflection staring at hers.

My parents are now dancing at the far side, near the trumpet player and his comrades, a hearty slap-dashing drummer wearing sunglasses in the gray twilight, and the tenor sax mewing his long, old notes. My mother’s eyes are red, and my dad talks softly to her. It looks like a portrait they don’t want taken, but still it would be a nice picture, him softly whispering in her ear while she nods and looks away and lets him hold her.

My aunt and I watch, and the baby kicks its fat legs wildly. If my child was mottled, orange haired, and dull, I would make him bring me champagne on the terrace, snapping my fingers and winking obscenely at his friends, those pale, freckled, sultry-eyed boys he brings home for playdates after school.

My aunt inclines her head toward me and the electrical lights are maybe too harsh, making her face shine.

I light a cigarette.

“May I have one?” she asks.

“Really?” I say, inclining the pack towards her.

She balances her son with one hand and he snorts while she takes a cigarette. We are going to get confessional, I can tell. I wait in silence for her to be pathetic.

My aunt perches the cigarette on her lip. I light the tip and she breathes so deeply I can feel the smoke hitting the back of her throat with a force she hadn’t counted on, but she doesn’t cringe, doesn’t cough, doesn’t make a single noise. She lets the smoke swirl out of her open mouth like a prostitute. I am immediately impressed, then watch her bring the cigarette away from her lips like a movie star. I light one for myself and watch the night and the dancing.

“Son of a bitch,” my aunt says to me because we are the only two here together for this moment and she has long since given up talking to the baby. I turn and look at her eyes. She says, “You know, he did love me, at first. I’m sure of it.”

I scan the dance floor then the bar for my uncle but he’s nowhere, and she is breathing hard and hitting her cigarette like a pro.

“It never lasts long, does it, Sharon?” she asks. “You never think you’ll end up here,” she says. “Where I am. Here.” She jiggles the baby on her knee. He moves his mouth like maybe he’s going to smile, but he doesn’t. He jostles himself, thumps on her lap, goes still. I picture her smothering the baby with a pillow.

“He’s cheating on me,” my aunt says. She drags on her cigarette which has a perfect red ring from her lipstick.

“I’m sure he’s not,” I say.

“Fuck you,” she says, and it looks like she might cry. Right here, right now, at my grandparents’ anniversary party it looks like she’s going to let it all hang out in very poor taste.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” I say, watching her lips to see them twitch or shake, to see her hand flutter to her chest, to watch her fall, writhing, hysterical, to the grass. I eye the table, and the dancing and musicians sweating in the night. I want to slap her.

“He barely touches me anymore,” my aunt says. “Last week he didn’t come home for three days.”

I misjudged her. She’s not going to cry. Her voice is monotone and soft but she enunciates each word with precision. Bringing the cigarette to her mouth, she does not sputter. She flicks it. I wonder at her expertise. I want to know the mazes of her hidden life. I want to see her basement.

“He doesn’t love me any more,” says my aunt. “I don’t blame him. I’m bloated, dull. I’m nothing,” she says, “now.”

If we were somewhere else or I were someone else, I think I would have taken her into my arms. She waits for me to respond and she waits and we listen to the music.

“I think we’re going to do the cake soon,” I say. I can’t look at her as I say it.

“I have to help with the cake,” I say, and I walk away from the table slowly in heels that pinch my feet over the grass, which has perfect little places for twisting an ankle.

The music from the trumpet is changing from romantic swirling eddies to that catchy, rise-to-your-feet music that feels like drinking a bottle of champagne in one go. The night is getting dark and the fireflies are everywhere— bright, fierce, quicksilver bursts of light.

Josh Mumjin, the attorney with the dog, is at the bar.

“Can I get you a drink?” he asks and he smiles all toothy, the look guys get when you’ve already slept with them and they see you as part of their furniture.

“Open bar,” I say, taking a bottle of vodka from the line and unscrewing it. And then I say, “It looks like you’re balding.”

He grimaces. “You’re really something,” he says and he doesn’t mean it. “I thought I’d come see you. That’s why I’m here.”

I look away, and he smiles that same rag-seller smile. “Well, listen,” he says, “I’m sorry I never called you back.”

The band was told that by no means was my grandfather to be given a microphone, but the music winds down for him to speak, and he’s grasping one in his meaty palm. I can tell his voice anywhere: hoarse and dreamy, the kind of voice that starts guffing midway through his own joke. Everyone quiets down to hear my grandfather’s exclamation mark sentences.

“Thank you all for this wonderful night!” my grandfather says. His linen suit is creased at every corner and he is winking at anyone he can see through the glare.

The trumpet player has straightened himself and looks oddly angular, terribly tall, a giant with tree-trunk shoulders, but still lethargic. He wipes his swollen upper lip with the back of his hand and the drummer lights a cigarette.

“What a beautiful night!” my grandfather says into the microphone. There aren’t enough people here to justify him having a microphone, but he’s proud of himself. “You know I love you all!” he belts, and my little five-year-old cousin runs for her mom. “Tell me you’re having fun!” he screams into the microphone and my head begins to ache.

The overachievers hoot and whistle, the drunks cheer.

“And you know why we’re all here! It’s for this lady!” says my grandfather, motioning to one of the waitresses with a killer rack who is serving quiche. Everyone laughs because we’re supposed to. “The woman I was supposed to marry!” says my grandfather to the hoots and whistles of his adoring fans. My mother’s cousin Jerry drops his bottle with a loud crash, and the servers rush to clean it up.

“For our fiftieth anniversary, I bought my wife a dozen roses!” My grandfather laughs. “One for each happy year of marriage,” he says huffing hoarse into the microphone while my grandmother claps her hands and giggles like a schoolgirl. Maybe she didn’t like the joke about him cheating on her, but she loves the joke about her being a bad wife.

“Enjoy the dancing!” says my grandfather, as though he has paid for everything.

The speech is over before the drummer has finished his cigarette, and he looks sad when he stamps it out and hits the bass and lets loose again.

My grandfather takes my grandmother’s hand in his and leads her out onto the dance floor, to the dance they have grown so accustomed to.

“Fifty years,” says Josh Mumjin.

“You could really learn to hate somebody,” I say.

Josh frowns, “I was going to, you know, but things came up.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I say, taking a swig from my bottle. “I didn’t like you that much. You’re like a pedophile.”

I thought this would have gotten him angry but he laughs out loud and it reminds me of my uncle’s laugh. It’s a laugh that means, I don’t really care, and it also means, I don’t have to care. “You’re something else,” he says, and he walks away.

I drink again and again, until I can feel the vodka cleaving down in my stomach, and also until the bartender stands in front of me with her arm extended. I give her the bottle back and stumble off to the house, and either I have to pee or I have to puke. My grandmother sets the table the same way every night. She makes my grandfather two slices of bacon every morning. I picture bacon piled to the ceiling. And I know he would never get up to make himself oatmeal. Fifty years of sitting there at the kitchen table, waiting for bacon.

I get to my uncle’s house, and it’s cool and quiet inside. As I cross the hall to the bathroom I hear noises, like someone is crying. I don’t want to see it and I keep walking. But my uncle comes out of the room and closes the door behind him. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and smiles.

“What’s up chickling?” he says to me, all cool groove and no cares.

“Why aren’t you out there?” I ask.

“Couldn’t stand the chatter.”

“Were you crying?”


“You don’t know how much I hate this,” I tell him. “Your wife is a mess. Going to slit her wrists probably. If the baby doesn’t have two heads. And you think you have it hard now. You don’t understand anything even though you’re such a genius,” I say.

“You’re drunk,” he says.

“You’re drunker.”

“I can hold my liquor,” he says.

“There’s this guy out there, one of Rob’s stupid friends from the law firm. He disgusts me. And I disgust him.”

“Why don’t we take a walk, get some air?” my uncle asks.

“Would you cheat on your wife?” I ask. His lips turn.

“What are you doing here?” I say.

“I told you,” he says, moving towards me. He touches my cheek with his fingers and it makes me shiver. “Chatter chatter,” he says, kissing me. I don’t move as he kisses me and runs his hand along my back. There’s silence until I hear my sister’s voice coming from the other room, from behind the closed door.

She says, “Who’s there?” softly but her voice is my voice only better and it’s coming from the room my uncle just left.

My uncle smiles at me. His husk eyes stare at me but I remain silent.

“I’ll see you out there,” he says, and walks past me and leaves. The door closes behind him.

Inside the room, because I look, my sister is sitting on the bed holding a compact mirror. She is still beautiful. She snaps the compact shut loudly and looks toward me.

“Can you zip me?” she asks, turning her back.

I zip her dress. It goes smoothly up her spine.

“It’s not like I’m a bad person, or anyone is,” she says as she stares out the window, watching her reflection and then beyond it, inside it, the dancing. “We’re all just trying to find happy.” She pauses and looks at me. “Smile,” she says, “we’re at a party.”  end

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