2007 First Prize in Prose
SUSAN AND DON AND THE TAXI
AND THE LIGHTS OF THE CITY BEHIND THEM
It was a nice neighborhood party, with catered food and bottles of wine sticking out of the rack like flies. The air was warmed by familiar and unfamiliar bodies. It settled into my skin, beaded into drops under my arms. I stared at the men, confident and drunk. A group of stout women, stuffed into their hot red sweaters, congregated in the corner furthest from the food. Six women hovered over the bowl of eggnog, proudly ranting about their children's accomplishments. With every boast they took another gulp, drinking themselves sick.
I took a seat next to the piano and watched Don play the carols, watched his fingers bump from key to key, watched him watch his wife across the room. His mouth opened throughout "Holy Night" and I saw spit gathering in his bottom lip, saw it seep into the creases of his oxford without him noticing. Mary Margolis was sitting next to me. I knew Mary casually; she walked her beagle, Patricia, every afternoon at the same time I took my daily runs. When I passed her I always gave her an excited wave and she would politely nod back. One day I found myself jogging slowly behind her, so close I was stepping on the dirt right after it left the bottom of her shoe. She never noticed me, so I followed her, careful not to let my breath grace the back of her neck. As we turned the corner she saw Amy, a mother who lived nearby walking her dog. Mary stopped walking so the dogs could sniff each other. I slowed down, separating myself from the two of them, and stopped around the corner from them. Their voices carried loudly through the street and I didn't have to come any closer to hear them.
"I feel so bad for her," said Amy.
"I don't understand how a person refuses to pick themselves up. Doesn't somebody realize when they've got a dead-end job, no husband, no kids, that it's time to start living on your own and creating a life?"
"And she used to be so pretty," said Amy.
"Oh, I know! What a waste," said Mary.
Now I looked closely at Mary sitting next me. She had crossed her legs and her skirt was exposing the cellulite on her thighs. She caught me staring at it and I said,
"It's such a nice party."
"Oh, yes. It's very lovely," she said, and pulled down her skirt. A few minutes later, she got up and walked away and I knew she didn't like me very much.
I sat there for a while longer, but the sweat from all the bodies began to make me feel sick, so I leaned over and whispered to Don, asked him if I could use the bathroom and he said sure. I didn't want to go downstairs because I don't like it when people stand outside the door waiting for me. It's invading my privacy. So I went upstairs looking for Don and Susan's bathroom.
Their bathroom smelled like mold, and Susan's long strands of hair were creating patterns on the sides of their sink. The strands changed color midway through, blonde to gray. Water had splashed over the hairs repeatedly, and the strands clung together under soap foam. When I dug through the garbage, I found a used condom there. I picked it up and held it close to my face, but I didn't really want to imagine them having sex, because Susan has a body like pudding, and I don't like to associate sex with people like that. So I put the condom back, and stopped looking at their garbage because everything else seemed to be just tissues and dental floss.
After I went to the bathroom, I was planning on just leaving. But when I was walking across that big bedroom of theirs, I saw the picture. It was on their bedside table, next to a pile of books and pills, in a big glass frame. They were waving from a taxi, probably after their wedding, when Don's entire face wasn't all forehead and Susan was a natural blonde. They weren't looking at each other, but smiling at me, both of their faces searching my eyes as if they wanted to be with me. I took the picture out of the big frame and unbuttoned the front of my dress. I tucked in into my underwear so low down, and it rested flat against my skin. I buttoned myself back up and patted myself where the picture lay safely. It was stiff, the top of the picture's edges cut into my hipbones. I remembered to leave the frame as it had been before, and went back downstairs, joining in the singing of "White Christmas" as I went.
At the bottom of the stairs a group of teen-agers sipped eggnog out of plastic cups that had a cartoon of a very idiotic looking Santa on it. It was late now and people were beginning to pretend they were tired, yawning as if it had been a very exhausting and wild party and they really must be on their way.
I found Susan in the kitchen putting away cookies.
"Susan," I said. "I had a great time, and I just wanted to thank you for putting this party together."
"Of course! It makes my holiday, it's so much fun," she said. The she added, "How are you doing?"
"So well," I said. I wanted to compliment her on the food but I hadn't eaten any of it, so I just smiled at her and walked away. And under my skirt, the rim of the picture kept scrapping the outline of my hipbone.
When I got home my mother and father were still in the living room. There is never a fire going but they always sit, waiting in front of the fireplace with their books as if it's going to ignite itself. My mother had lipstick on and was rubbing her lips with tissues smeared with Vaseline.
"Did anyone say anything, Irene? 'Bout us not being there?" my father asked. He adjusted his reading glasses and looked at me closely. I briefly told them no one said anything to me. I didn't go into detail because I wanted to get to my own room.
As I undressed in my room the picture slid down gracefully off my body. I looked at Don and Susan on the floor for a moment and from my angle now their faces looked distorted and too young, too pleased. I just kept looking at the picture from above, because there was a small comfort in seeing them looking awry. And the more I looked at Susan and Don and the taxi and the lights of the city behind them, the more haunting their faces became. I put the picture on my bedside table, and it looked right resting against the brass stem of my lamp.
I know they will go into their bedroom tonight after they clean up. I hope they'll look to the beside table to touch the picture, hope they'll feel the cold glass surface with nothing underneath. I hope they hold each other confused, and maybe Susan will even cry because I bet that picture's all they had.