Every now and then, the two women went to tea and she came home offended by something silly. He’d say, “Why do you do this to yourself?” He wanted to save her the pain. He also wanted his wife and her friend to drift apart so that he never had to sit through another dinner party with the friend and her husband. But after some time any rift would inevitably heal and the friendship would return to good standing. He couldn’t blame her. They went back a long way. You only get so many old friends.
He glimpsed a future four hours from that moment. He thought on the evening in future retrospect, recalling every gesticulation, every word. Walking back to the kitchen he stood with a new drink in front of the fridge. “I can’t do it.”
“Can’t do what?” she asked.
Water boiled on the hob, seasoned meat sat plated up on the butcher block. She stood dicing an onion beside the sink. Other vegetables waited alongside, bright and doomed. She stopped cutting and lifted her arm to her eyes in a tragic pose before continuing tearfully. She wasn’t drinking her wine.
“I can predict everything this evening will throw at us, from the moment they arrive to the goodbye peck on the cheek. I just can’t do it.”
“You could say goodbye by sticking your tongue down her throat instead,” she offered casually, continuing to dice. She was game, his wife. She spoke to him in bad taste freely. He considered it one of her better attributes. “But then, I guess, that would surprise her, not you.”
“They arrive,” he said, “we take their coats. Everyone talks in a big hurry as if we didn’t have four long hours ahead of us. We self-medicate with booze. Things are discussed, different issues. There’s laughter, but later no one will be able to say what was so witty. Compliments on the food. Some monologues. They start to yawn, we start to yawn. They say, ‘We should think about leaving, huh?,’ and we politely look away, like they’ve just taken a piss in our drinks. We all stand, coats are collected and goodbyes exchanged. “Lovely evening.” “Let’s do it again soon.” Yadda, yadda, yadda. And then they leave and we talk about them and they hit the streets and talk about us.”
“What would cheer you up?” she asked.
“Let’s wait until they get here for that.”
She slid her finger along the knife freeing the clinging onion. “Drink your wine,” he said as he handed her her glass. She sipped and he left the kitchen.
Sitting on the sofa and he continued reading an article. Then he got up, returned to the kitchen and poured himself a fresh drink.
“And another thing,” he said. “Their big surprise. Even their surprises are predictable.”
“Act surprised for their sake,” she said.
“Wait for an opening,” he said, “a little silence, and then he’ll say, all coy, he’ll say, ‘Why don’t you tell them?’ She’ll say, ‘No, you,’ and he’ll say, ‘No, you,’ and then she’ll say, ‘O.K., O.K., I’ll tell them.’ And we’ll digest the news with genuine surprise—like, holy shit, can you believe she’s knocked up, someone run down for a Lotto ticket, someone tell Veuve Clicquot, that bastard will want to know! And that’s just the worst, how predictable our response to their so-called news will be.”
“When that happens, why don’t you suggest they have an abortion?”
He nodded, chewing his ice. “That would shake things up.”
“Tell them we can do it right here with a little Veuve Clicquot and a coat hanger.”
“I’m in,” he said.
The kitchen was only little. He would have done better staying on the sofa but he wanted to be in her company. She was sautéing the garlic and onion.
“He’s O.K.,” he said. “They’re both O.K. I’m just being a dick.”
“We do this, what—once? Twice a year? I think you can handle it. And when they have the baby—”
“When they have the baby, we’ll see even less of them.”
“Holiday cards. Here’s our little sun-chine. See our little sun-chine? Christ.”
“You aren’t the one who’s going to have to go to the baby shower,” she said.
“How much you wanna bet they buy a stroller?”
“A stroller,” she said. “To cart the baby around.”
He put cheese on a cracker. “For to cart the baby around in, yes,” he said.
“And you, if you had a baby, there’d be no stroller, right, because it would be oh so predictable? Absolutely no stroller?”
“I was thinking we could duct-tape the child,” he said. “It would be cheaper.”
“Like a BabyBjörn, but duct tape.”
“Would the baby face in or out?”
“If it was sleeping, in. Not sleeping, kind of kicking its feet, wanting to see the world, duct-tape it out, so it has a view.”
“Allowing the child to be curious,” she said. “Feeding its desire to marvel at this new experience called life.”
“Something like that.”
“The child must be so relieved that I’m barren,” she said.
He left the kitchen. Standing in the living room, drinking, he listened to the sounds of her cooking.
They invited Ben and Lauren, like last time. They were more his friends. With Ben and Lauren time didn’t move as it did in hospital waiting rooms. But she had wanted it to be just the four of them, probably so they could revel in their news more freely. There was a limit to how many times he could ask, “Hey, should we invite Ben and Lauren?” In truth he was doing them a favour.
He returned to the kitchen. “When they come in,” he said, “let’s make them do a shot, both of them.”
“Both of them.”
“To sort of . . . fortify the baby.”
“We’ll force them somehow,” he said. “I’ll figure it out.”
“Better hurry,” she said.
“All this talk of folic acid and prenatal vitamins. Give me a break. Do they think Attila the Hun got his daily dose of folic acid when he was in the womb? Napoleon?” She was moving back and forth across the kitchen. He kept his drink close. “I could go on.”
“George Washington,” she said, “a Founding Father.”
“I don’t think she’s up for doing a shot,” she said.
“We’ll trick her. Tell her it’s full of prenatal vitamins. She’ll neck it then.”
“Because she’s that stupid,” she said.
“I’ll think of something.”
He left the kitchen again. “I’ve got it,” he said as he stepped back in.
The room was empty. Her wedding ring was on the counter. She always put it there before starting to cook. Dishes lined the sink. On the stove, pots released steam into the cooker hood where the vent rattled. A cupboard door under the sink hung open. He checked the loo off the kitchen. He returned the way he came, through the flat, in the unlikely event he’d passed her without him noticing. He returned to the kitchen, to the appliances and stewing food. She stepped in through the front door.
“Where’d you go?”
“Took the rubbish down.”
“I would have done that.”
He had concocted a good plan, but he was no longer in the mood to share. Instead, he went over to her at the stove. Threading his arms around her waist she continued to stir one of the pots. They had a name for this hug but he couldn’t remember what it was. He kissed her neck and the back of her hair. It smelled of steam, shampoo, silk and wildflowers. “What can I do?” he said.
“Set the table?”
He set the table. “So I’ve figured it out,” he said standing in front fridge with a fresh drink. “They bring the wine, right? We thank them and hide it in the kitchen. It’s never see again. We start the evening. We don’t ask them what they want to drink. Like it’s just an oversight on our part. Because I know him. Even if she’s not drinking because of the big news, he’ll want a drink. I tell him we ran out. I tell him we’ll open their wine at dinner. But then we don’t. We just have water for the table. Then, in the middle of dinner—”
“You should work for Al Qaeda,” she said.
“—in the middle of the dinner, I go to the kitchen and I get myself a beer. I open it at the table and take a long sip. Thoughts?”
“He says, ‘Hey, got another one of those?,’ and I’m, like, ‘Oh, actually, this is the last one.’ Do you think they would leave?”
“Really? They wouldn’t leave after that? Where the hell are they, anyway?”
“They might never come back, but no. They would not leave.”
“You know, they’re good people,” he said. “Ultimately.”
“She’s my oldest friend,” she said. “And he can be very funny.”
“You’re right, he can be very funny.”
Later, he came out of the bathroom as the toilet roar. She was no longer in the kitchen. He took another cracker and some. He walked to the living room passing the table he set earlier. She sat on the sofa reading the same magazine he had been reading. Standing in the middle of the room he raised his hands. “Where are they?”
“If there’s one thing that’s predictable,” she said.
“But it’s almost forty-five minutes.”
“They’ll be eating a very cold starter.”
“Have you cooked the meat?”
Casually she flipped through the magazine. There was no outrage or impatience. She seemed resigned to waiting as long as it took.
“You should call her,” he said.
“Isn’t this what you wanted?” she asked. “Something unpredictable?”
She was on the phone, calling hospitals. It was ten o’clock, and then it was ten-thirty. She had tried to reach them a dozen times. She’d sent texts and e-mails. They hadn’t picked up and they hadn’t replied.
“Not if it interfered with dinner,” he said.
“Nice,” she said. “How magnanimous of you.”
“They’ve probably fallen asleep watching ‘Friends’ on DVD.”
“Yes?” she said. She was speaking into the phone now. “O.K., thank you. Can you take my number just in case one of them comes in? Thank you.” Leaving her name and number she hung up.
“Is it really possible,” she said, dialling the next number. “Is it really possible that you care about no one but yourself?”
“I’m trying to help.”
“Your help isn’t worth anything now,” she said.
He didn’t like to be reminded. He left the room. “Sure,” she said to the phone. “I love to hold.”
“Is this meat going bad?” he called from the kitchen. He’d finished the cheese and crackers, the mini Caprese salad she’d made with grape tomatoes, and the figs wrapped in bacon caramelised with a homemade glaze. Now he was sitting on a barstool eating a saucer of the mushroom risotto that was meant to go with the lamb, while staring at the meat on the butcher block. He had opened another bottle of wine. “Hey, babe, this meat? Should we do something with this meat?”
“Stick it up your ass,” she said.
He stopped chewing. He looked with raised eyebrows at the two mustard-seasoned racks of lamb and thought how unpleasant it would be to insert one of their bony ribs into his butthole, but how much fun to walk out into the next room and moon her with a rack of lamb between his cheeks. “Stick it up my ass, huh,” he said. “You know who should stick it up . . . whose asses . . . up whose asses it should be stuck up is, are your two friends of yours, their asses. They should stick it up their asses,” he said.
Another hospital had no record, either, and again she left her name and number. She walked into the kitchen. “What are you muttering?”
“There are two racks there, one for each of their asses.”
She put her fingertip on his forehead. “This isn’t like them,” she said, pushing his head back, “and you know it’s not like them, and you’re not being helpful.” She released him, and he sprang back on the stool to an upright position.
“I’m sorry, am I supposed to be helpful?” he said. “Because I thought my help wasn’t worth anything now.”
She left the room.
“Wait,” he said. He dropped the saucer to the counter and got off the stool. “Hold on.” He followed her through the dining room. “Obviously, I’m not saying—will you listen to me please?—that I don’t want to be helpful. Will you please turn around and listen?” She stopped and turned. “They just got their dates wrong, is all,” he said, “and tomorrow, when they call, they’ll tell you how sorry they are. They had to turn their phones off during the late showing of ‘Shrek 4’ or something.”
“So they went to see ‘Shrek 4’ tonight,” she said.
“Or something like it.”
“And they turned their phones off so they wouldn’t ring during ‘Shrek 4.’ ”
“Or,” he said. “Or.” He put his finger up. They were standing near the bedroom doorway. There was dim light coming from the dark room and he was suddenly irrationally afraid, as he had been as a child, that if anyone stepped inside, if she stepped inside, she would plummet to the centre of the earth. He lowered his finger. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t think they went to see ‘Shrek 4.’ ”
“You do not think, period,” she said.
She stepped inside the bedroom. She did not plummet down but floated across the murk into the bathroom. She waited until the door was shut before switching on the light.
He sat on the kitchen floor for thirty minutes. Then he said, “Hey!” He got no response. He stood and went into the bedroom.
He found her in bed. She was in her pajamas. She was propped up against the headboard, flipping through another magazine in the light coming from the lamp on the nightstand. “What are you doing?”
“Going to bed.”
“The meat is still on the counter,” he said. “There’s food everywhere. Are we just going to let it go to waste? And aren’t you worried about your friends?” he asked.
“I’m not hungry,” she said.
“Should you really be fingering your way through a magazine right now?”
“What else would you suggest I do?”
“I don’t know. Go over to their apartment? See if they’re there?”
“I need to wait here in case I get a call from a hospital, or in case they show up.”
He sat down on the bed. He put his head in his hands. He heard the glossy toss of one magazine page after another, and then, deeper in the ears, the squishy beat of his sobering heart.
“Well,” he said, looking up. “Would you like me to go over there?”
“What are you going to do about it, big man? Man of steel? Gonna get inside the Batmobile and go find the big danger?”
He stared at her.
“It’s too bad we can’t have one,” she said. “If it was ever abducted, what better daddy to save her?”
“Her? Is that right? Her?”
“I guess it would be important for you to have a boy, wouldn’t it? So you could pass along all these accumulated masculinity skills. All your big-man powers.”
He stood up from the bed.
“Do you want me to go over there or not?” he asked.
Part II to follow soon...