Sam always had the best parties all through college. They were the best because I don’t remember half of what went down at most of them. While I’m sure things have changed since college, I knew that he likely invited everybody he knew to his place for the BBQ. Five years as a shut-in has given me a measure of anxiety going into these kinds of situations that is not easily explained or validated. The very thought of being around people fills me with a stomach knotting nausea that makes every step towards his front door feel like I’m walking to my own execution.
Then there’s Elanor. If I was was walking to my own execution, she would be the executioner. She never forgave me for Mara’s suicide because she ‘always knew’ I was ‘like that.’ She did know. She and I had dated briefly in high school our senior year and I had cheated on her too. She found out of course but rather than being distraught, she was vengeful. The summer of my graduation was spent saving up money to repaint the 1970 Dodge Challenger she had keyed. Needless to say, she and I have never gotten along since, but since Mara’s death I’ve accepted Elanor’s ire like a yoke of guilt I’ll probably pull to my grave.
I stared at the front door of her and Sam’s home with the same trepidation I image a cat looks at the door of a cat carrier. If it wasn’t for the fact that Sam was standing right next to me, fiddling with his house keys, I probably would have just walked off and went down to the bar down the street. Losing myself in liquid acceptance was far more appealing than what I was about to face when that door opened.
“Sam, does she know I’m coming?”
“Sam! Are you insane?”
“Look. I know Mara was her cousin, but like you, she needs to get over it.”
“People don’t just get over things, Sam. It takes t—“
“She’s had enough time, so have you. Quit with the simpering.”
“I’m not simpering, you jackass. I’ve got a legitimate concern here.”
“And I have legitimately great baby back ribs waiting for me to grill them.”
Before I could offer a retort, the front door opened with a clack of the lock and the creek of a hinge. There, bathed in a halo of the foyer’s overhead light was Elanor. She looked like a Valkyrie with the luminance shining behind and above her like it was and the stern expression painted on her hawk-like features didn’t help. She must have been standing behind the door listening to our conversation.
“Why is he here?”
“I invited him, Elle.”
“You heard me. Time for you two to deal with your shit.”
I didn’t say anything because there was no point in me saying anything. To speak would be to invite an onslaught of anger, bitterness and spite that I’ve heard all before and I’m really not interested in hearing again. The look she gives and the one Sam (in true form) utterly ignores feels like it’s going to make my brain stem boil and pop if it stand in its line of sight for too long.
Elanor stormed off without further commentary. That was never a good sign but Sam never seems to worry too much about her temper. He has this strange alpha male power over her that I could never manage with her and I never needed with Mara. He looked back at me with a shit-eaten grin and shrugged before leading me through the house to the patio door where everybody was all ready gathered.
“Look, don’t worry about her. You two will never get along, but she’ll have to learn to co-exist.”
“If she doesn’t murder me first, right?”
“C’mon! Elle can’t bring herself to kill spiders, let alone a mopey jerk like you.”
“Thanks. I’d like to think I offer a certain panache to being a mopey jerk.”
“Go mingle. I have ribs to cook and a wife to avoid!”
I laughed, not because Sam was funny, but because the nerves choked up in my throat had to come out somehow. Screaming in panic was probably not the best way to socially introduce myself to what looked like easily twenty people wandering out on the patio and the nearby pool, so I settled with laughter. Rather than immersing myself in the deep end of social doom, I took to the safer recourse of following Sam to the grill and helped him there. It was easier to speak to people that were speaking to Sam, because Sam would have to break the ice instead of me. His good looks and charisma made him both a natural leader and the perfect buoy in this churning mass of people.
Several faces came and went, some of which I knew from college but most were complete strangers to me. Of the people I knew, there were the typical ‘catch up’ conversations, to which I had very little to offer. I didn’t have children and my job as a software engineer went over the heads of most. Most of the people whom I didn’t know were Sam’s friends from the gym he works out at, or the construction company he owns. It was quickly becoming apparent that my emergence from the shadows of the world was perhaps ill-timed. None of these people even remotely held my interest with their trivial conversations about what their children were doing and how great their lives were. I had a moment when Sam was busy talking about the fascinating world of cement with one of his masons, so I slipped off with the intent on just quietly leaving. I managed to wander over to the side gate, that I knew would lead me to the exodus of my comfortable, punished life, but I was stopped by a hand lightly squeezing my bicep.
“Hi. Do you know where the changing room is?”
“The what? Oh! For the pool?”
“Yes! Except I’m not going swimming. Had a small accident with the veggie dip.”
The gentle touch on my arm was the most pleasant feeling shackle I could have imagined. I didn’t want to look at this woman because I knew I’d like what I’d see if I regarded her fully. Between the very light scent of her perfume and the happy, pleasant sound of her voice, I didn’t dare turn to face her. But I couldn’t stop myself. I turned and looked upon the source of the gentle voice and found myself froze in place in a bizarre mixture of fear and want.
“Oh. See where those bushes are? Right next to them you’ll find the changing room.”
“Okay, thanks! My name Veronica.”
“Hi, I’m Patrick.”
Her grip was gentle when we shook hands and when she withdrew, I could feel the purposeful, flirtatious glide of fingertips across my palm. While she did have a nearly microscopic bit of dip on the cuff of her blouse, it wasn’t anything she needed to change her clothes for, so it was intentional. My body reacted to her touch before my brain could stop it with a crooked smile and I could feel myself blushing just a little bit. My man card, wherever it’s kept, likely went up in flames in that moment, but it was worth it because Veronica’s smile was much like mine.
The moment was shattered however, when I looked up and saw Elanor standing by one of the second story windows of the house, looking down at Veronica and I with that same chiseled in stone expression she had for Sam and I when she intercepted us at the door. It was like having a vulture circling over your head and not being dead yet.
“Nice to meet you Patrick! You weren’t leaving were you?”
“I…uh. Yes, I was actually. Feel like the piece of the jigsaw puzzle nobody can fit into place.”
“That makes two of us.”
“Yes. I’m Sam’s secretary. Elanor, his wife has it out for me I think.”
“Huh. That makes two of us.”
“Then let’s go! I know a cozy pub in the city. I can’t stand her watching me.”
I could feel Elanor watching us leave. It was like she was a spider crawling on the base of my neck, but for the first time I had somebody that could relate to her Cruella de Vil-like posturing. Despite the yoke of guilt still tugging at me that somehow I was dishonoring Mara by attempting to move on, I nodded my consent and motioned for Veronica to lead the way. Sam, for all his block-headed ways of addressing things was right. I needed to rejoin the world. I wanted to rejoin it.
The only question was, would Mara’s memory allow me to rejoin the world?