WHITE
August Tarrier


We could go on like this forever. I talk; JC doesn’t. I work; JC doesn’t. I sleep; JC doesn’t. Anyone observing us would say that we had lived like this always, but these are new rules. JC and I don’t fight. What’s between us is silence. I rehearse arguments with him in my head; sometimes I even write them down. What’s between us started as a tiny fissure, a thin spidery vein snaking along the base of things. Now that fissure is a chasm, and I don’t know how to close it. I’m not even sure I want to.

When I come home from work at six o’clock, JC is in the living room with a student. The boy sits at the piano with his back to me and JC is in the chair by the window, the sun filtering in behind him. His skin looks chalky in the light. He looks up and brushes his dark hair out of his eyes. I smile at him and go into the kitchen. This is his last lesson for the day. As I rummage in the freezer, the student begins plunking out a hesitant, tuneless “Fairie Queene Waltz” and I find myself humming along. It is the only music in our house.

Lately I sleep alone. JC spends nights in his study, hunched over the table with a single light burning. The table is dark, gleaming mahogany and he lays the score across it. He walks the length of the table a hundred, maybe two hundred times a night. As he moves between his computer and the table, he mutters to himself, he hums, he whines. Sometimes he explodes in the silence. I’ve seen him throw a score across the room. I’ve seen him with his eyes closed, running his fingers over the notes on the page. He looks like a crazy blind man, but I know what he’s doing. He is caressing the notes, coaxing them to align themselves with his touch.

JC played the piano almost every evening when we were first married. He’d give command performances just for me, playing so beautifully that I would forget to breathe. I would sit in a chair and watch his hands. That’s how I fell in love with him—watching his clean, beautiful hands—but he doesn’t play anymore. It’s his way of punishing me.

 

When I come down to breakfast in the morning, JC is sitting, rumpled and unshaven, at the kitchen table. He has made a pot of coffee, but he isn’t drinking it. He’s just sitting there. “I can’t get the oboe line right,” he says. This is an announcement, not conversation, so I ignore it. I pour myself coffee and get a bowl of cereal and some fruit. I sit down at the table and begin to eat.

“I dreamt that I ended it all last night,” he says.

“All what,” I say, biting into a banana.

JC had a scholarship to Eastman-Rochester. That’s why we moved here. He studied for a year and then dropped out. Now he has a part-time adjunct position teaching basic music composition courses, and he has this idea that society should be punished because he can’t make a living from his art. Paying taxes, grocery shopping, commuter trains—these are the things that hold him back.

He gets up, pours himself a cup of coffee, and leans against the counter. “Schubert died at 32,” he says.

“He was syphilitic,” I say. I keep my head down, shoveling in my cereal. “Try cancer,” I say, looking up. “It’s much more realistic.”

He raises his eyebrows at me. “Yeah, but with syphilis you get to go mad.”

 

I am sitting with Odette drinking coffee in her kitchen while she prepares dinner for her daughter, Kenya. Odette is wearing a green, floaty skirt and a tight sweater and she just got off her cell phone—the babysitter is due to arrive in a few minutes. Odette’s house is just two blocks over from ours, and even though it’s Saturday night I took a chance and picked my way through the hedges. My excuse was that I wanted to show her my new highlights, but the truth is that I couldn't stand another moment of silence at home.

“I don’t need a babysitter,” Kenya says. “I’m five.” She is making calculated spins on a stool at the kitchen counter, flinging her dark braids as she twirls. Her skin is exactly the same color as her mother’s—a warm, honey brown.

Odette puts a sandwich and some applesauce on a plate. “Eat your supper,” she tells Kenya.

“You know, I was thinking that maybe we should start carpooling,” I say.

She narrows her eyes at me and I immediately regret the suggestion. “I know this isn’t about you think I can’t manage.”

“No, of course not,” I say. Odette is my former cube-mate at GlobalTech, where I work in the Documents Management unit, making copies and filing huge stacks of paper. Sometimes when I get home I can still see the blinding flash of light from the copy machine—behind my eyes and even in my dreams. Odette has been promoted to project manager in Employee Benefits, and she was the GlobalTech spokesperson when they made a “worldwide” training video last year. Besides being beautiful—her hair is cut short, in dark squiggly coils, and her caramel eyes are just a shade lighter than her skin—she is the most capable person I know, and the most levelheaded. Just being in her kitchen helps me feel like I can go back home and spend the night with my husband.

“I’m not hungry,” Kenya announces.

“Yes you are,” Odette says, and then stops. “Honey,” she says, “you can take your plate and go in and watch your shows.” Kenya immediately jumps up and Odette adds, “as long as you eat your dinner.

Kenya steps back and props her small hand against her chin; it is a delicate gesture but also an extravagant one, and it is pure Odette. Kenya looks at the plate and then carries it into the living room. Odette looks at me and we both laugh. She has enrolled Kenya in every dance class and swimming lesson in Rochester and has made sure she attends the top-rated preschool and kindergarten. Her love for Kenya is fierce and uncompromising and it hits me sometimes—how I wish I could be that certain about anything.

“How’s the custody battle going?” I ask.

Odette shakes her head slowly. “Only reason he wants that child is so he can take her away from me.”

Odette’s husband, Rodney, left her after he discovered she was having an affair with a woman named Natalie. Odette is loading the dishwasher, but she suddenly stops and stares at me. “So,” she says. She has cleared the decks for me and is giving me her full attention.

“So his brother is coming up for a visit and JC’s planning a party for him,” I tell her. “I just don’t even know if I can stand to be in the same room with him.”

“Who? JC?”

“No. The brother.”

“So tell him it’s not okay with you.”

Odette’s advice is so practical, so sensible, but I don’t know how to tell her that I can’t say these things. The widening crack in our marriage seems to get bigger on its own, and I can’t bring myself to hasten it along, pounding the surface, splitting things wide open.

“You can’t,” she says, and begins loading dishes again.

“It’s not that,” I say, knowing that it is precisely that. I try to make my voice sound bright and even, the way hers does, but I can feel it going all whiny, in a way that I hate. “I really don’t mind having the party,” I say. “Maybe it’ll give us something to look forward to.”

Odette turns to me and smiles. I can feel her deciding to give me a break. “Why don’t you come out with us tonight?” she asks. She and Natalie are going to a women’s bar across town.

“Maybe,” I say, in my brightest voice.

She gives me a look. “Don’t tell me you have to ask permission,” she says.

“No, no,” I say, and get up. “I’m just going to run home and change.”

 

What’s between JC and me started with Shreve. He was born only eleven months after JC and the bond between them excludes all others, even me, maybe now especially me. Shreve is a musician in a rock band. Unlike JC, he is blond, with a sneer that looks like it’s been cultivated since infancy. He’s beautiful, like his brother, beautiful in an unmanly way. He has full cupid lips and JC’s delicate hands, but Shreve’s are truant lips and truant hands. In women, he provokes shudders and sighs—I’ve seen him on stage, his hands on his guitar, his mouth open, his eyes shut.

Shreve was best man at our wedding. At the rehearsal dinner, I had to rush out to the parking lot because I had forgotten the shoes I had dyed for my cousin Sheila. As I rummaged in the trunk of my car, he was there, his hands empty, no drink, no cigarette.

He smiled his cupid’s smile. “You want me, don’t you?” he said.

“Doesn’t everyone?” I said. Shreve’s been married three times.

He reached out and took the shoes from me, gently grasping a fuchsia velveteen heel in each delicate hand. He stroked them gently and then looked up at me.

“He’s conflicted, you know.”

I stared at him. He gave me a gracious smile.

“Whatever your little head trip,” I told him, “it’s not working. It’s too late. License, blood tests, it’s done.” I started to walk away. He followed me and then stopped, leaning up against an orange Malibu, his legs spread, his arms crossed.

“That’s your hook? A blood test?”

“And what’s your hook?”

He laughed. “I’m just sayin’. You want to be sure.” He moved toward me and stood close, a florid, stained pump in each hand, as he slowly backed me up against a minivan. He pressed his body against mine and then dropped the shoes to the pavement. I turned away from him, knelt down and grabbed the shoes, and he sank to his knees and straddled me between the Malibu and the minivan. He kissed me then, and it was nothing like I thought it would be. It was achingly slow and gentle, the kiss of a yearning, trembling, breathless boy.

That was four years ago and I can still bring back that kiss in an instant—lying awake at night, alone, with JC pacing and drinking below me; at work, with a document pressed to the glass, I keep my eyes open and I feel the kiss zap through me, like a blinding flash.

The night of our wedding the only way you could tell the two brothers apart was that one was dark and the other blond. They were the same height, same size, wearing the same tux, speaking in the same voice, gesturing with the same gentle hands. As the night wore on, I began to see blondness everywhere in the crowd. Shreve was wearing a black tux and his fine blond head above it seemed chiseled, a work of art. Late in the evening, I spotted the two brothers standing side-by-side, and I approached them, reaching toward JC to draw him out onto the dance floor. But it was Shreve who took my hand, who pulled me onto the floor. I knew JC was watching us. Shreve held me so gently that I could barely feel his touch. I leaned toward him, close to his perfect head, and whispered in his ear, “Tighter.”

 

When I get home, JC is sitting in the middle of our bed, wearing only blue jeans. He is reading my copy of Vogue.

“Check this out,” he says, shoving the magazine in my face. “They’ve got naked tits in here.”

“So what.”

“So when women do it, it’s okay, but when men put it in Playboy it’s pornography. Horseshit.”

I am standing over him, spinning a little from the daiquiris I drank with Odette and Natalie. He’s looking up at me, squinting in the light. It’s the second day of my highlights, my new shimmery, strawberry hair, and he hasn’t noticed, or has pretended not to notice. “Do you like my hair?” I ask. He doesn’t answer and I go into the bathroom. I brush my teeth, wash my face and put on my nightgown. Then I join JC in bed. He is lying full length on his back, his arms folded behind his head. His chest is golden in the light from the reading lamp.

“How are the sistuhs?” he asks.

“Fine.” I turn off the light on my side, but JC leaves his on. I want to shut my eyes and rest in the darkness, to feel pleasantly drunk and smoky and maybe free of him, of his kind, but when I close my eyes I see a blinding flash.

“Don’t tell me. You shot a few games of pool.”

“Since when do I shoot pool?”

He turns on his side to face me, hand propped under his chin. “Isn’t that what they do in those dyke bars?”

He is smiling at me, something he almost never does anymore. “So, what?” he asks, moving closer, “You shake your booty with the bulldaggers?”

“Christ, JC.” I turn away from him and curl up with my head on the pillow.

“What?” he says loudly. “Wet T-shirt contests? An orgy?”

“You’re insane.”

“Okay, I got a joke for you.” Slowly I turn back toward him. He sits up cross-legged and faces me. “This guy goes into a bar. Right? And there’s a dyke and an elephant playing pool in the back. The bartender asks the guy, 'How do you tell the difference between an elephant and a dyke?'”

JC looks at me, waiting. I shrug.

“The dyke’s the one in the flannel shirt.”

I roll my eyes, but then I start to smile and he knows he’s got me. “That’s not funny,” I say, grinning.

“C’mon. Yes it is.”

He grabs me and rolls over on top of me. I can smell his skin. The chasm between us narrows for a moment and I close my eyes against the light.

 

On Sundays JC’s mother, Camille, calls from the Big House. That’s what JC calls his parents’ home in Louisiana. The phone rings at eleven a.m. and I know it’s her, but I answer it anyway.

“Well, good mornin’, sweetheart,” she says.

There’s a certain music in Camille’s voice, something that both her boys inherited—and something else. Something that’s hard to resist.

“Is Cal round there, darlin’?” she asks. That’s what she calls JC.

“Sure thing,” I say. I resist the urge to call her ma’am.

Camille’s voice on the phone is like clover honey dripping through the receiver. My ear gets sticky just talking to her. I go into the living room and study the photograph of the brothers that sits on the fireplace mantle. In the picture three boys are playing in the yard. A sneering Shreve, the middle brother, his pants hiked up too high, is roughhousing with Bayard, the youngest, on the front lawn of the well-appointed Louisiana home where Camille still lives. It looks like Bayard is fiercely trying to defend himself. John Calvin, already aware of the weight of his great-grandfather’s name, doesn’t enter into the fray. He sits quietly watching the other two, his dark hair hanging in his eyes. As I study the photograph, I imagine all the golden afternoons of JC’s boyhood, the rough and tumble on fresh green lawns. Even now, when the family is all together, Camille will sometimes call out “Boys!” when she is serving dinner, and I can feel her sons straining toward the music of that word.

When he’s finished talking to Camille, JC comes into the living room to inform me that Shreve is on his way up from New Orleans.

“When?” I ask. He glances at me and then looks away. I wonder if he can feel me trembling here in this doorway, straining toward those golden afternoons, toward blondness and boyhood.

“Day after tomorrow,” he says. “He’ll probably stay a few days, then join the rest of the band in New York City.”

 

Odette and I are sitting on the rim of the William H. Simmons fountain at GlobalTech; it seems to be malfunctioning and everyone who passes comments, as if the Seventh Wonder of the World had been decimated in front of our eyes. The three tiers of the fountain are graduated in size, and the water is supposed to spill from the smallest to the largest. We’re on break, and Odette is drinking sarsaparilla tea that she brought from home in a thermos. “So he’s arriving tomorrow,” I say with a shrug.

“Uh huh.” She says this without opening her mouth; it’s a long throaty hum. I think of JC’s elusive oboe. “So why you hate him so much?”

“Who? JC?”

“No. The brother.”

I grasp the rim beneath me; it’s smooth and porous at the same time. I want to tell Odette the whole story, how JC seems so far away and Shreve seems too close, and how there is no room for me between the two brothers.

The fountain comes to life then and we both jump up. The jets begin spurting and the water overflows each of its bowls, just as it’s designed to do. Until this moment Odette has been sort of dreamy, but now she looks at me sharply. It’s her Mommy look.

“It’s back,” I say, and Odette nods. She gets up and starts toward the building, and I chase her down. People are looking in our direction; my voice is the loudest thing in the plaza now. “Odette,” I call after her. “Odette.”

I’m embarrassing her. She stops and turns to me.

“I don’t hate him,” I tell her. I lower my voice because I can feel the plaintive notes, the trembling.

“Uh huh,” she says, nodding. It’s the oboe again, deep and throaty.

 

“You eating dinner?” I ask. It’s a formality. I am standing in the doorway of JC’s study. He is hunched over his computer, his back to me. Both his desktop and laptop screens are filled with notation, and a bottle of Tanqueray is perched at the edge of his desk.

“Listen,” he says, and turns toward me. He closes his eyes, inclines his head to one side and nods to the music coming from the computer. “Socrate. That’s the piece. It’s a dialogue. Can you hear it?”

I shake my head no. “It’s just one note repeated over and over.”

“No, it isn’t. You have to listen.”

“I’m listening to one note.”

“That’s the beauty of it, Kate. The simplicity, the singular economy— that’s Satie’s genius.” He holds out the liner notes to me, but I don’t take them. “You know what he said about this piece? That it should be ‘white and pure like antiquity.’”

“It’s still one note.”

“Look.” He picks up a Satie score from the table and walks over to me. “See all this white space?” he asks, tracing the paper lightly with his fingers.

I nod. JC’s latest obsession is Erik Satie. He was a French composer who died in 1925 of cirrhosis of the liver. He lived in a single room for thirty years and admitted no one—not even the concierge. After he died, his brother went in and found a bed, a chair, an empty cupboard and drawers and drawers of unopened letters. Neatly stacked on top of the cupboard were twelve identical gray velvet suits that he'd had made for himself.

JC loves to tell that story. Sometimes I think he longs for that room—the bare cupboard, the seclusion. He could work all day and all night on his scores, and when he got bored he could take out the identical suits and try them on, one by one.

JC walks back toward the stereo with the score in his hand.

“What do we need for the party?” I ask.

“Everything.”

I lean against the doorjamb and cross my arms. “You’re going to plan this, right? He’s your brother.”

“Right.”

I walk out to the kitchen and sit at the table. JC comes out and sits across from me. He looks disheveled and hollow-eyed. He looks like someone who lives alone.

“The idea…is to orchestrate the party…like a Satie score. All that white space!” JC gets up and begins to pace around the kitchen. He is barefoot and is wearing his favorite jeans. I can smell his sweat. “The room will be white, all the guests will wear white, even the food will be white.”

“White food?”

He goes over to the refrigerator, opens it and begins listing the contents. “Cauliflower…Swiss cheese…onions…milk.”

“That’s a recipe for quiche.”

“See? It’s easy. We already have our main dish.”

 

My prom dress—the only white dress I own—is all ruffles. Standing there in the mirror I realize that I look like a girl who would do anything to get her husband back. In a few minutes the Erik Satie party will begin. JC is downstairs “orchestrating” the living room. I check the mirror again. The dress is weird—it’s too long to be short and too short to be long. I hike it up and tie a sash at my hips. JC comes in and stands behind me in the mirror, jockeying for position. He’s wearing an old white tux; the jacket’s too big and the pants are too short. He’s got on high-top sneakers and his prized white silk scarf, which once belonged to his father.

“How do I look?” I ask. With my white dress and shimmery hair, I feel like maybe I could be prom queen.

JC surveys the dress. “You look like your name should be Bubbles.”

“Thanks,” I say.

“C’mon and see the room—it’s amazing.”

We go downstairs. The living room is another world; everything, even the piano, is draped in white. There are sheets covering the floor, too, and I can’t tell where anything begins or ends. It feels like maybe somebody died here, like we’re in some long unused and hallowed space. JC walks over to me, reaches under my hair and puts his hand on my neck.

“You look beautiful,” he says. “Really.”

I start to feel dizzy. “Shouldn’t we—”

“What? It’s all ready. Look.”

I go over to the table. JC has placed a large bowl of popcorn at either end of the table and in the center there is a cauliflower quiche, sour cream dip, sushi rice, cocktail onions, feta cheese and his last-minute inspiration—tofu tapioca with shaved coconut. There are seven cartons of Haagen Daz Vanilla in the freezer, which JC says we will serve at midnight. Guests begin to arrive. I look over at JC: I know he won’t be able to relax until Shreve gets here. Each time the doorbell rings I think it’s him and I try to prepare myself.

He finally walks through the door, accompanied by a skinny, stacked blonde in a wedding dress. He is wearing what looks like a uniform: a long white jacket and trousers with brocade along the side. He has on a wide-brimmed hat and there is a neatly folded handkerchief in his breast pocket—it’s a replica of the Confederate flag. He’s holding a box of Saltines and two fifths of Tanqueray.

“JC, my man!” Shreve yells, dumping the crackers and gin on the floor. They slap a high five and then hug.

“Kate,” Shreve says to me. I nod at him.

“And this is the babe du jour,” Shreve says, smiling at the blonde.

“Hi. I’m Jill.” She smiles at JC and then notices me staring at her dress. “I wanted to get some wear out of it,” she says. She has a deep Southern accent; it is the rich music of Camille’s voice. I ask her how long she was married. “Three hundred and eighty-nine days,” she tells me. “Never again,” she says, smiling at Shreve. He picks up the crackers and the gin and carries them over to the table. Then he turns and models his suit.

“Whaddya think?” he says to JC.

“Very nice.”

Shreve laughs. “It’s Granddad’s. Check out the watch.” He removes a silver pocket watch from his suit and opens it to reveal the face. “Nice, huh?”

“You little thief,” JC says.

“Hey, it’s all in the family,” Shreve says, snapping the watch shut.

 

I find that I can’t stay in the white room for very long. Angela and Renee, my Doc Mgt co-workers, show up on their way to meet their boyfriends, and they distract me for a while. Some of JC’s students arrive and proceed to eat everything in sight, so I run around replenishing white food. All evening I invent excuses to spend time in the kitchen, where I concoct a mixture of Tanqueray and Haagen Daz. It’s a creamy cold moat of vanilla laced with an icy burn. I make little batches of “gin cream” throughout the evening and I find it helps me to spend brief periods standing at JC’s elbow, smiling at everyone except Shreve. He and JC end up talking about music, as they always do, and as the party winds down, JC is attempting to educate Shreve on Satie. He holds a score in one hand and gestures with the other.

“Look at this, man. Can you believe it? Look at all this white space. It’s like…absence…negation…”

“Cut the shit, man,” Shreve says. “White is about…lace panties.” He slings an arm around Jill. “You wearin’ white ones, babe?”

“Fuck off,” Jill says. She ducks out from under his arm and walks away.

“If you are, then you got a chance with me tonight!” he shouts after her.

JC laughs and Shreve does his rebel yell, a raspy yodel that brings all conversation to a halt.

 

By midnight there are only two guests remaining: Shreve is sitting on the couch with his arm around Jill. She is leaning against him with her eyes closed. JC putters around by the stereo. He is wearing Jill’s veil, which looks ridiculous pinned to his dark hair. I go out to the kitchen, take out a spoon and begin to eat straight from the carton of Haagen Daz. I can barely feel it in my mouth, it’s just cold and white, like sweet air. I go back into the room. JC is sitting on the couch talking to Jill. Shreve kneels in front of the stereo, staring at me. In his rumpled Confederate costume he could be a defeated General summoning the courage to address his troops. I smile at him and he gets unsteadily to his feet and ambles over to the table where I am standing. He smells a reversal of fortune—perhaps he won’t have to admit defeat, after all. He sits on the table, his legs open, and I begin spooning up ice cream, feeding him plush white mounds.

“It’s so cold,” he says, swaying a little. His eyes are narrow slits. He doesn’t even know it’s me, I think, he has no memory of pressing his trembling body against mine, he doesn’t remember the longest, slowest kiss of my life.

“More,” he says, his eyes all the way closed now.

I know JC is watching us. I hold out the spoon to Shreve, marveling at how gently he takes each pure, melting scoop of vanilla into his mouth. I spoon up another mound and he moves toward it. Some of the ice cream drips onto his chin and he opens his eyes. He smiles at me and it is a smile so endearing that I feel I could cry right there. It's JC’s smile.

There is a knock at the back door. I go out to the kitchen and look out—it’s Odette and Kenya.

“Hi,” says Odette as she walks in the door. She is wearing a short black evening dress and heels. Her hair is a gleaming, glossy black.

“Hi!” I say. “You look gorgeous.”

Kenya runs into the living room. “Mommy, can I have some ice cream?”

“Kenya, come here,” Odette says, and then to me, “I just picked her up from the sitter.” She glances around the kitchen and then lowers her voice. “You okay? You surviving this party thing?”

I nod at her, smiling.

Odette peers into the living room. “Where’s Kenya?”

“We’re having an Erik Satie party,” I say brightly as we enter the white room.

“Erik who?” Odette eyes the sheets draped everywhere. “Looks more like a KKK party to me,” she says.

“Why don’t you go home and change?” Shreve says from the couch. He’s smiling, but his narrow eyes are fixed on Odette.

“Shut up, Shreve,” I snap, and then turn to Odette. “He’s wasted.”

“In vino veritas, babe,” he says, grinning. As he gets up from the couch, Jill slumps over toward the armrest. He walks over and extends his hand to Odette. “Hi. I’m Shreve. JC’s brother.”

“Charmed, I’m sure.” She doesn’t take his hand.

I take Odette by the arm and lead her over to where JC and Jill are sitting on the couch. “Odette, this is Jill.”

Jill gives a little wave.

JC gets up from the couch. “Hey, there’s my girl!” JC says to Kenya. He tries to scoop her up but she wriggles away from him. “I don’t need a babysitter!” she says, giggling, as she runs across the room.

I look over my shoulder at Shreve. Kenya is standing at his feet and looking straight up at him. “Hi,” she says. “Wanna see what I learned in dance class today?”

“Sure,” he says.

Kenya begins tap dancing on the wood floor, counting loudly to herself. “One, two, three. One. Two. Three.” We all stop to watch her.

“Very good, honey,” Odette says as we edge nearer.

Shreve begins dancing beside her, following her steps and counting with her. “Look at this,” he says when he sees us watching. “We got our own minstrel show goin’ on over here.”

A funny thing happens then. I hit him. I hit him, hard, on the side of the face with my open hand. Shreve steps backward. His face turns a deep red and his chin starts to quiver. He starts to reach toward JC, but then stops. JC is frozen, wide-eyed. Shreve sticks two plump fingers into his mouth and gently prods his back teeth. “Bridgework,” he says softly.

“Mommy, she hit him,” Kenya says loudly.

JC makes a gulping sound and I look over at him. He is trying desperately not to cry. He kneels down in front of Kenya and begins gently unwinding the silk scarf from around his neck. He wraps it in Kenya’s hair.

Kenya giggles. “That tickles.”

“You keep that,” he says.

“Wow! Can I really? It’s beautiful.”

JC nods at her. “That’s your beautiful white scarf, Kenya baby.”

“Mommy, look,” Kenya says, turning to Odette.

Odette nods and holds out her hand to Kenya. “C’mon now, let’s go.”

I follow them out to the kitchen to say goodbye at the back door. As I pass the table, I see the sticky spoon lying there, the one I had been feeding Shreve with, and I pick it up. When we reach the door I just stand there. I want to tell Odette how much her friendship means to me, how I couldn’t have gotten through this without her. I hug her, clasping her shoulders, clinging to her elegant black jersey knit. “Thanks,” I say.

“That’s one sorry white boy,” she says, as she steers Kenya out the door and toward the car. I know that Odette has restrained herself and that she has done it mainly for her daughter, but also for me.

I nod my head slowly, gravely, but I don’t trust myself to speak. I stand on the back step, watching while Odette buckles Kenya into her car seat. I want to apologize to her, to somehow make it right, but I don’t even know where to begin.

I walk down to the car. “Odette,” I say, but my voice is creamy and thick and burning with gin. She comes back toward me and I start crying. I know how I must look standing there in my white ruffles and grasping a sticky spoon. “Do you believe this dress?” I ask, and she smiles. “I had a white dress when I was sixteen,” I say, and I know I’m not making any sense. “There was this boy…at church camp.”

My right hand is grasping the spoon and still tingling a bit from the mighty slap I just delivered. It’s as if all the gin is coursing in me, pooling into a bracing, antiseptic knowledge that has made me darker and stronger than I’ve ever been. “It was JC,” I say. “I mean, that was my first time. All I knew was that there was something the girl gives up, something that is gone forever.”

“Mommy, I’m sleepy,” Kenya says.

Odette gives me a quick hug. “I’ve got to go,” she says, and gets into her car.

In the white room, Shreve is sitting at the end of the couch with his hands in his lap and Jill is at his feet with her knees crossed, her arms around them. They are both staring across the room and I follow their gaze.

John Calvin is at the piano. His back is to us and the lamplight casts a glow around him. He is still wearing Jill’s veil and it flows from his dark head to the floor. As I walk toward him, I can see his face tilted, his eyes closed, his lips parted—he could be a bride waiting to be kissed. I realize then that JC has been saving himself, just as I have. I move toward him. As I step closer, I see his long, gentle fingers poised over the keys and just as I reach him he brings them down to touch first the black keys, then the white ones.

 

August Tarrier is completing a novel entitled Va La. Three stories from her short story collection Are You Decent? have won national prizes, including the Zoetrope Fiction Prize for “I Hold You Harmless” (2005).

 

© 2007 Swink, Inc.