Authors: Claire Lombardo
Maybe normalcy skipped a generation, like baldness. Violet, her second-born, a striking brunette in silk chiffon, had uncharacteristically reeked of booze since breakfast. Wendy was always cause for concern, despite seeming less beleaguered today, owing either to the fact that she’d just married a man who had bank accounts in the Caymans or to the fact that this man was, as she vocally professed, “the love of her life.” And Grace and Liza, nine years apart but both maladjusted, the former a shy, stunted soon-to-be second-grader and the latter about to friendlessly finish her sophomore year of high school. How could you grow people inside your own body, sprout them from your own extant materials, and suddenly be unable to recognize them?
Normalcy: it bore a second look, sociologically speaking.
Gracie had found her beneath the ginkgo. Her youngest was almost seven, an insufferable age, aeons from leaving the household, still childish enough that she’d tried to slip into their bed in the middle of the previous night, which wouldn’t have been
big of a deal had her parents been clothed at the time. Anxiety did something to Marilyn, always had, drew her magnetically to the animal comfort of her husband.
“Sweetheart, why don’t you go find—” She hesitated. The only other children at the wedding were toddlers and she didn’t specifically want to encourage Grace’s already-burgeoning antisocial love of dogs by suggesting that she go play with Goethe, but she wanted a moment to herself, just a few seconds to breathe in the cooling air of early evening. “Go find Daddy, love.”
find him,” Grace said, the hint of a baby voice blunting her vowels.
“Well, look harder.” She bent to kiss her daughter’s hair. “I need a minute, Goose.”
race moved off. She’d already checked on Wendy. Already swung on the porch swing with Liza until her sister had been distracted by a boy wearing sneakers with his wedding suit; already convinced Violet to share four sips of champagne from her fancy glass flute. She was out of people to check on.
It was strange to have to share her parents with others this weekend, to have her sisters back around the house on Fair Oaks. Her father sometimes called her the “only only-child in the world who has three sisters.” She resented, slightly, her sisters homing in on her territory. She soothed herself as she always did, with the company of Goethe, curling up with him beneath the purple flower bushes and running her hand through his bristly fur, the part of his butt that looked like it had been permed.
iza felt a little bad, seeing her younger sister finding solace in the dog while she herself was finding solace inside a stranger’s mouth, but the groomsman emanated a smoky vapor of whiskey and arugula and he was doing something with his fingers to the inside of her thigh that made her turn her head away, deciding that Grace could fend for herself, that it wasn’t possible to learn that skill too early.
“Tell me about you,” the groomsman said, his knuckles grazing the lacy insignificance of the thong she’d worn in the hopes of exactly such an occasion.
“What do you want to know?” she asked. It came out sounding kind of hostile. She’d not quite mastered being flirtatious.
“There’s four of you?” he asked. “What’s that like?”
“It’s a vast hormonal hellscape. A marathon of instability and hair products.”
He smiled, confused, and she leaned forward boldly and kissed him.
iolet had never been quite so drunk, sitting slumped, alone, at one of the tables, from which she supposed she’d driven the other guests. The previous night came to her in fizzy episodic sunbursts: the bar that used to be a bowling alley; her blue-eyed companion with his double-jointed elbows, the athletic clasp of his thighs, the back of his mother’s station wagon; how she’d made sounds she did not recognize at first as coming from her own throat, porn star sounds, primal groans. How he came first—she’d later felt him dripping out of her, when they climbed back into the front seat—and then made her, with a deft attention to detail, come as well, for the first time in her life. And how she’d made him drop her a block away from her parents’ house lest Wendy be still awake.
She watched Wendy, wearing sweetheart-neck Gucci at her backyard wedding to an old-money academic, being spun in circles by her new husband to “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Her sister had, for the first time, surpassed her, success-wise. She was blithe and beautiful and twirling in circles while Violet was drunk past the point of physical comfort, gnawing at a full loaf of catered focaccia, rubbing the oil on the underside of her skirt. But she felt herself smiling a little at Wendy, at oblivious Wendy getting grass stains on her satin train. Imagined going over to her sister and whispering in her ear,
You’d die if you knew where I was last night
endy watched as Miles, throwing an apologetic smile at her over his shoulder, was pulled away from her by his toddler cousin, their ringbearer, who had solicited his accompaniment to the cake table.
“There’s some good daddy training happening over there,” someone said, taking her by the elbow. It was a guest from Miles’s side, possibly someone’s real estate broker, a silicone goblin of a woman. The people on the lawn at present were probably collectively worth more than the GDP of a midsize country. “It’s good you’re so young. Plenty of time to flesh out the family tree.”
It seemed a crass thing to say for a variety of reasons, so Wendy responded in kind: “Who says I want to split up my share among a bunch of kids?”
The woman looked horrified, but Wendy and Miles lived for these jokes, were allowed to
these jokes because neither of them gave a fuck if people thought Wendy was a gold digger; all that mattered was what they knew to be true, which was that she’d never loved another person as fiercely as she did Miles Eisenberg, and he, by some grand cosmic miracle, loved her back. She was an
now. In the top thirty, at least, of the wealthiest families in Chicago. She could fuck with whomever she wanted.
“It’s my plan to outlive everyone and spend my days reveling in a disgusting level of opulence,” she said. And she rose from her seat and went to straighten her new husband’s tie.
he trees, David noted, were burgeoning that day, big prodigious leaves making dancing shadows across the grass, which they’d tried to keep the dog off of for the sake of aesthetic preservation, David and Marilyn rising early in the mornings and pulling on raincoats over their pajamas to walk him instead of just opening the back door like they normally did. He watched as the rented tables and chairs wore their grooves into the pristine lawn, legs melon-balling the expensively fertilized sod in a way that made his gut churn. Goethe was now roaming around the yard like a recently released convict, traversing the verdant grounds with the proprietary confidence of a horticulturist. David took a breath of damp air—was rain coming? It might make the guests leave sooner—and marveled over the sheer number of people that could accumulate in a lifetime, the number of faces in his yard that he didn’t recognize. He thought of Wendy as a toddler, when they lived in Iowa, creeping onto the porch where he and Marilyn rocked together in the rickety cedar swing, fitting herself neatly between them and murmuring, already drifting back to sleep,
You’re my friends.
He was nearly overcome, standing there, feeling as out-of-place as he had a quarter of a century ago, before they’d married, a chilly December night when Marilyn had lain against his chest beneath the ginkgo. He did a visual sweep, eyes blurring the sea of pale spring colors until he found his wife, a tiny ballast of forest green: hiding beneath that very same ginkgo. He slipped along the fence until he came to her, and reached out an imploring hand to the small of her back. She leaned instinctively into it.
“Come with me,” he said, and led her around the trunk, into the shade, where he pulled her to him and buried his face in her hair.
“Sweetheart,” she said, worried. “What is it?”
He pressed his face into the crook of her neck, breathing in the faint dry warmth of her scent, lilacs and Irish Spring. “I missed you,” he said into her clavicle.
“Oh, love.” She tightened her embrace, tilted his chin until he met her eyes. He kissed her mouth, and then her cheekbone and her forehead and the inlet of her jaw where he could feel her pulse, and then her mouth again. She was smiling, lips a flushed feverish plum, and then she was kissing him back, the periphery blurring away. The thing that would always mean more than everything else: the goldish warmth of his wife, the heat of their mutual desperation; two bodies finding solace in the only way they knew how, through the language of lips, his hands along her spine, her spine against the tree trunk, the resultant quiet that occurred when they came together, until she pulled away, smiled up at him and said, “Just don’t let the girls catch us,” before she buried herself once again against him.
ut of course they saw. All four of the girls watched their parents from disparate vantage points across the lawn, each alerted initially to their absence from the reception by that pull, a vestigial holdover from childhood, seeking the cognitive comfort that came from the knowing, the geolocation, the proximity of those who’d created you, those who would always feel beholden to you, no matter what; each of their four daughters paused what she was doing in order to watch them, the shining unfathomable orb of their parents, two people who emanated more love than it seemed like the universe would sanction.
Violet made a habit of avoiding Wendy. Though they’d been inseparable for a time, unbidden contact was now unheard of, and she assumed her sister’s most recent lunch invitation pertained either to a favor or to some newly harvested existential crisis that Wendy would want to discuss, at length, regardless of the fact that some people had busy lives that prevented them from taking frivolous weekday meals in the West Loop.
The restaurant was trendy and inconveniently located, and she’d had to valet even though it was 2:00 p.m. on a Wednesday. Wyatt had to be picked up from preschool at 3:30. That was her out, and she planned to present it smoothly to her sister:
There are two children whose lives and pre-K commutes depend on me.
Of course this was ungenerous; of course Wendy found comfort in drama, in midday alcohol, because of all that she didn’t have, because she’d never finished college, because of Miles, because she would always win, trauma-wise.
Violet pinched the bridge of her nose, fending off a headache. She was considering a glass of wine. Wendy would have undoubtedly already ordered a bottle, and her sister—despite other shortcomings—had excellent taste in wine, a refined palate for tannins and acidity. Her flats were digging into the backs of her heels. She always felt the impetus to present herself lavishly to Wendy; though most days she was content to ferry the kids around in pricey athletic garb, today she’d opted for a graceful silk butterfly-sleeve blouse and skinny jeans that had fit her better before Eli was born.
She tried to remember the last time she’d seen her sister, and decided that it must have been on Second Thanksgiving, the annual and infuriatingly quirky powwow at her parents’ house, over four months ago, and this struck her as absolutely ludicrous, because she and Wendy lived twenty minutes from each other; because they’d shared a bedroom for almost a decade; because Violet, during the darkest time in her life, had moved in with Wendy and Miles; because they were practically
after all, separated by less than a year.
“Ma’am? Is there something I can help you find?” It was the valet.
“Just getting my bearings,” she said, and he smiled.
“If you need a lifeline, just wave and I’ll come in and say someone’s stolen your car.” Was he flirting with her? He was her savior.
“I’ll keep that in mind.” She fished another ten from her wallet and pressed it toward him. Somehow she’d become one of those people who punctuated everything with a monetary transaction. He took it without missing a beat. “Wish me luck,” she breathed, and he winked—
!—and she imagined, perhaps, that he checked out her ass as she walked into the restaurant. She hoped he wouldn’t judge too harshly. The hostess ushered her onto the patio in the back and she wished at once she’d brought a sweater then banished the thought as tragically maternal. Wendy was at a table in the far corner, surely so she could smoke without bothering the other patrons, though there
no other patrons, because it was early spring in Chicago and barely sixty degrees.