Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Carol and David were last to arrive for the dinner party. The looks they received from the other guests, already drinking martinis on the rickety porch, were not subtle.
“What’s a dinner party without a bit of schadenfreude?” Carol whispered into David’s ear, her lips pricked by the coarse hairs that grew there like weeds.
Carol made light of being late, but she was still embarrassed. She blamed David for not taking the empty parking space she’d pointed out to him. As they drove in circles, David insisted there would be an even better spot closer to the party at Sharon and Ray’s. But there wasn’t, and when they drove back around, that space was no longer empty. Carol would address this and other matters later with David, after getting stoned, when the stakes of addressing matters were significantly muddled, when her hair was down and detangled, her legs lathered in soothing lotion, and their kids were fast asleep.
“Look around,” David said of the perky Boston neighborhood and handing Carol a dry martini. “Note all the people going about their everyday lives.”
“Have you ever noticed the closer a monkey looks like a man the sadder the monkey looks?” Carol asked. David was not amused.
The neighborhood was sensing a final balmy summer night. American flags waved on lawns, barbeques were blowing up, and children were falling off skateboards. The police were out in force, which was often the case when the weather was good, and the rules went out the window. A bunch of cops loitered around Spokes, the rowdy and popular biker bar on the corner. The last time Carol went to Sharon and Ray’s for dinner she came alone and parked near Spokes. She stuck her head inside the bar just to see what the fuss was about. A tall, handsome man wearing black leather chaps and a blue bandana offered to buy her a shot, any juice Carol wanted, and she found herself wondering if her hosts had a first aid kit in their austere home.
Sharon and Ray hosted dinners regularly. Carol didn’t know Ray well, but there was a lot she admired about Sharon, her gritty co-worker at the County Supervisor’s office. Sharon was Sharon on her own terms. And grit was an asset in this world where getting by seemed to be getting harder and more strained. Several years ago, Sharon had returned to Boston, the place of her birth, to care for her mother. This detail struck Carol; Carol would never return to where she grew up. The place didn’t bear naming, and Carol’s mother was insane. Her mother’s inquisitive mind long lost to the domestic, too often misconstrued as the home. Her enfeebled body was the result of cleaning houses, running errands, and caring for other children belonging to wealthy families. Carol’s mother went through her entire life without anyone stopping to ask her what she wanted.
“It’s time to party,” Sharon said, motioning for their guests to take their seats around the table.
Sharon and Ray’s Victorian was a fixer. Sharon said she thought the old house was a complete and total failure in judgment, a fucking marriage disaster, both structurally and psychologically. It was like they didn’t know what to do with the place. Stacks of books, magazines, bills, clothing, and piles of their baby’s “water colorings” snaked throughout. Carol was in awe of the disorder; she ran a tight ship. She kept their house spotless. Carol disliked piles. She disliked leftovers. Carol’s mother made food in order to have leftovers. She kept track of when supermarkets offered samples, and when she saw the samples, she stuffed her pockets and purses sideways. The food decomposed on counter tops, even spoiled in the fridge. Vermin took over the apartment until Carol showed up to get rid of the detritus.
At the table, Sharon and Ray’s one-year-old spoke her first word. The baby pronounced “ass” with exceptional clarity. It could not be confused. Sharon shot Ray the hold down the fort look and excused herself, taking their baby out of the room. Carol knew that look well. She’d shot David that same look across many tables, in many rooms, many times over the years. Carol could draw that look in the dark.
“My nephew’s first word was why,” one guest said to the table. “Can you imagine?”
Carol knew Sharon’s husband edited paparazzi videos for a living. In his line of work obscenities were ordinary. Their baby might have heard something. On numerous occasions, Sharon showed Ray’s work to Carol: videos of underage starlets waving, playfully flashing their faultless titties, but then without warning the starlets might scream and spit cucumber ginger elixirs onto intruding photographers. Sharon said that for years Ray talked himself out of blame for the ethical lines that were crossed. Ray wasn’t the one snapping the photos! Or taking the footage! He was just a loner editing the material in a stuffy office space. And since their move back to Boston, Sharon had said to Carol, Ray was just himself, a political centrist with a protruding gut.
The scene at the table was lackluster. Sharon was the light of the party and was off putting the baby to bed. This left a vacuum for others to indulge in, or develop, bad habits like complaining about how late it was getting and distracting themselves with handheld devices. David texted Carol, It seems everyone might as well go home and give themselves enemas. One guest, who’d introduced himself as a financial advisor, started talking about how he’d once led a cult in Arizona called The Banshees. Apparently, they licked dirt and rubbed their bodies on cactuses.
“We were seeking to mimic the behaviors of indigenous Amazonians. We drank hallucinogenic concoctions to cleanse our bodies, to rid our bodies of toxins, and in great ecstasy we shat and vomited all over each other,” he said.
David texted Carol, Wow, this guy’s a real nutjob.
The cult-leader-turned-financial-advisor should have known better than to establish a cult camp in the desert where there were limited resources. Carol was certain that this guy, a white guy from Massachusetts, had and never would live like an indigenous anybody.
Carol texted David, Let’s hope this guy doesn’t have a gun. I’m starved.
Ray got up to open windows. Guests mingled. Carol was ready for Sharon to return and pull out the good weed she kept tucked away in her underpants. Sharon’s go-to strain was called Girl Scout Cookies. She preferred that strain to others because she’d once been a Girl Scout, a terrible one. Sharon had been slow to learn new skills. She couldn’t sell the popular cookies. She was fat. She barely fit into her slender Girl Scout uniform. Her skin showed through the gape of her shirt front. The other girls never let her forget. Carol admired that about Sharon, the way Sharon subverted her torment, rolled it and smoked it. She published a guide on surviving aspirationalism, and when celebrity crotch shots became a thing she wore military surplus briefs. Sharon glided toward the underworld but never sank.
It started to pour. Ray went to get some rags to put down beneath the open windows. Another guest piped up to tell the group that he wasn’t much of a baseball fan. He just never got into baseball.
“It’s not like I don’t go to games,” he recklessly went on, ignoring Boston’s general mandate to avoid subjects like baseball. Fights broke out over allegiances to players, umpire calls, and curses.
“I do. I go to Red Sox games like any other loyal Massachusetts resident, but unlike other Bostonians I’m just not that into the crowd. Plus, the beer’s not all that great. It’s sort of watery and flat-out expensive.”
Carol watched as the cult-leader-turned-financial-advisor seethed, adjusting his Red Sox cap, and rolling up his shirtsleeves. His jaw clenched. His chest puffed up. He had the look of a man about to punch another man. Sort of thrilling.
David was about to text Carol when Carol texted David, Stop texting me, David.
“Settle down and be a sport,” said the cult-leader-turned-financial-advisor’s wife. To which the former cult-leader said, “I am a fucking goddamn sport. You of all people know that.”
Sharon and Ray had marital arrangements. Sharon had said as much to Carol over work breaks. One such arrangement included a swapping and owning of time. 2017 was slated to be Sharon’s year. A solid year would be hers to do with what she liked. She might take a road trip, leave the baby with Ray and his videos, go someplace in the middle of the country, someplace she knew nothing about. Sharon spoke about time like time was simply a matter of when one would get it back, like buying a round of cocktails for friends at a bar. Sharon conceded that compartmentalizing time into your year and my year was a stalling tactic. Time wasn’t static, Sharon knew that, but the arrangement provided a way forward in her marriage. If she accepted that the day of repayment would never come, she might as well vanish, and that was too much to ask of anyone.
“Let’s go ahead with dinner,” Ray said.
The rain smacked the roof. Carol wondered if David had closed the car windows, and even though he sat next to her, she was too lazy to text him or ask. The car was parked six blocks away. Parking was such a scene in Boston that at one point Carol and David considered moving out of the city to Braintree, Massachusetts. But after Carol read a line in a small poetry book breaking down the words, where a brain gets snagged in a tree, she never read poetry again and gave up the idea of moving out of the city.
Sharon came back to the table just as Ray was serving the dumplings and herb salad. Sharon passed around crumpled cloth napkins and settled into her chair. She lit a joint.
“There’s a theory,” Sharon said, “that all species have the same number of heartbeats. The difference between how long they live depends on how fast or slow their heart beats. Hummingbirds have short lives and whales have long lives.” A saucy dumpling landed on Sharon’s thin, pale green blouse. She didn’t notice.
David had sex dreams about Sharon. He’d told Carol about them. What could be wrong with fantasizing if it presented a way around the limitations they’d set? He dreamed of sex with Sharon on pristine Hawaiian beaches. Another variation involved having sex while snorkeling. And then there was the occasional jumping out of helicopters. When Carol dreamed, she dreamed of her childhood bedroom, which was not sexy. The bedroom was full of boxes and ghosts. The same ghosts every time.
The light above the table flickered. It was an Ikea bulb. Nobody kept Ikea replacements around. The cult-leader-turned-financial-advisor asked the table if they had ever lived without electricity.
“In the cult we lived in teepee-like structures in the Arizona desert. We didn’t have electricity. No internet, hairdryer, or Vitamix,” he said. “We were out there in the Arizona desert shitting in plastic buckets.”
Carol offered to serve Sharon’s mother’s famous peach dessert and left for the kitchen. The kitchen counter was stacked high with dirty dishes, smudged glassware, and empty bottles, indicators of an evening going well. Carol also spotted nipple shields, dying aloe plants, and half-checked grocery lists. Items checked: calm tea, sleepy tea, sponge?, sammich stuff. Toilet paper and frozen waffles were also accounted for. The two items left unchecked were a log of goat cheese and onions.
Carol returned to the table with dessert. The guests were in the same arrangement, like they were waiting for a director. The room was growing darker, outside stormier; the plates before the guests were empty. It was like a Brechtian play, bare and estranged. The best kind of theater. Carol snatched the next joint from Sharon’s fingers and smoked on it, hard. She spooled out the gooey peach crumble and found herself in a Western. She was Clint Eastwood. She was a Western. Lawless and in open skies. Peach goo attached to her fingers. She would leave it there to dry out. Save it for later. Jesus, that sounded like her mother.
Settling back into her seat, stoned and comfortable, Carol wondered what David looked like copulating underwater with Sharon. How did that fantasy work with the snorkeling gear, David? Carol understood irony and social protocol. When their kids were tucked in bed, she’d masturbate to the BBC like Regan gave her body to Satan in The Exorcist. In England, manners and conversational protocol were indistinguishable, a constant. So much betraying in reasonable voices made Carol envious of the synchronicity, of having it both ways. In America, socializing was called mingling, or hanging out or flirting, depending on the company. It was messy.
A guest who’d remained quiet up until that point suggested they play a game.
“A kinky sort of game, if you’re up for it,” she said.
The men twisted in their chairs. Their sense of self was being put on the spot. They were often blamed for spoiling the mood, and here they were again presented with another challenge. If they said no, what would become of them? If they agreed, what would become of them? The uncertain, concerned look on their faces, like Catholic schoolboys waiting to be scolded by the headmaster.
The women were amused, excited by prospects involving the unknown.
“I’m down,” Sharon said, leading the way. 2017 was Sharon’s year.
Carol too was curious. She was also curious about this woman, who’d said nothing until then. What had made her speak up now? Carol looked down at her palm. She thought about the dirty twenty-five-year-old she let touch her at Costco. A few days ago, she’d gone there for alone time. Instead, she met a kid that reeked of kerosene standing in front of a row of flat screen TVs. He said news was bad for the brain and with his dry hands started touching her face. She didn’t stop him. The touching continued: eyelids, throat, collarbone. Her stomach turned. She lost track of where his hands were and of the time. He was nothing like her. He believed 9/11 was a government conspiracy and tried showing Carol videos to prove it, but YouTube had started limiting borderline content. Just his luck, he’d lamented, writing his phone number with a permanent marker on the palm of her hand. Carol went for her cell. It wasn’t there. Where was her phone? She didn’t know or care. She was at Sharon’s, high on Girl Scout Cookies, and savoring every thought kernel like a burst of sour lemon. Looking at Sharon’s blouse, Carol made a joke about the greasy splotch left by the fallen dumpling. Sharon said she wasn’t going to bother trying to get the stain out, not by washing it now, or soaking it later, or by using her “any time instant remover” Tide stain stick. In fact, Sharon wasn’t going to get up from her chair unless it was a life or death situation, and even then, she wasn’t sure.
Everyone devoured the peach crumble. The quiet woman explained she’d overheard people talking about the game on public transit. She hadn’t seen the people, but she’d heard them say it was liberating. She wrote the name down in her notebook, where she kept her observations. David also kept a pad of paper. He listed the instances when Carol was right and when he was wrong and stored it on his side of the bed.
“We need a volunteer to download a questionable app on their phone,” the woman said.
The former cult-leader handed over his Blackberry.
“For the team.”
The game worked like spin the bottle, except that the stakes were more extreme. The rules would become more obvious once they got going. And the group would be using a cel phone instead of a bottle.
Sharon snatched the joint back from Carol. It was a nub. She pulled out tweezers to smoke on it and called Carol a bitch.
“If we’re doing this, let’s do it. It’s time,” Ray said, opening a bottle of beer with a lighter and dropping the cap to the floor.
Carol looked at David, and David looked at his watch. Her phone had fallen under her chair. She picked it up and texted David, There’s plenty of time. They had six hours before tomorrow’s alarm would go off, unless their kids got them up beforehand. But even then, they were accommodating children. Their children knew when times were tense. They did more around the house: taking the trash out, watering the plants, cleaning their rooms, staying out of it and out of the way. They did all this without being asked. But they were still children, and children shouldn’t be expected to be adults. Carol and David were the adults.
Earlier at the park their seven-year-old had fallen, slicing her knee open on a rock. Carol and David had expected their daughter to sob when she noticed her bloody knee; and when she didn’t sob, they definitely thought she would sob when she noticed how distraught they were at the sight of her in pain. Instead, she took one look at her bloody knee, then at Carol and David’s faces, and went back to playing.
Can we start this evening over? David texted Carol.
“Begin,” Sharon said, blowing smoke out of her nose like a snail leaves a slimy trail.
Sharon spun the Blackberry with a quick twist of her wrist. It didn’t circle as a bottle of Mickey’s had back in the day, but it whirled around, stopping in front of David. Carol noticed that David shot up from the table like he did when his legs went numb and tingly on airplanes.
In a block of forest green, the phone blinked Fuck. It was like a siren. The table was alert, like finally, after years of waiting patiently, the authorities had given the adults permission to pee in the community pool.
“On second thought,” Sharon said, sliding a saltine into her mouth. “It’s my year and my party and I’m spinning again.”
The phone spun and landed on Carol. Again, the forest green Fuck. Carol gently folded her napkin before standing up. Sharon launched her soiled napkin across the room. Charmed creatures, the two of them left the table and, whispering, closed the bedroom door, taking the air out of the room with them. Who would run the show?
David took it upon himself to pour himself a finger of gin before pouring one out for Ray, one for the financial advisor, and one for the baseball hater. The men were second-guessing the game idea but collectively knew they couldn’t and wouldn’t back out. They drank.
The financial advisor pointed to Ray, “Come on. Your turn, man. Do you need someone to sing you a song?”
Ray wanted something. It wasn’t a saltine or a glass of water. He gave the Blackberry a spin. He was determined to play by the rules, not to be a pussy. He was fucking hosting this dinner party too.
The phone landed on the financial advisor.
It flashed Choke in bright orange block letters.
“Let me offer an explanation,” said the woman whose idea the game was in the first place. “You get choked until you cum. It’s relatively straightforward. You can read more about the technique on dangerandplay.com. The site is full of a bunch of crap, but it does provide some useful instructions.”
David was about to text Carol: You’re missing the real show now.
“It could have been much worse,” said the woman. “You could have been stuck with bind, blind, and tease, which would have been a lot more involved.”
The financial advisor’s wife wanted to ask about bind, blind, and tease, but took one look at her husband and gave up. He was seething and turning whiter with rage. He told Ray to meet him in his black Audi, parked outside in front of the fire hydrant, impossible to miss. It was black with tinted windows and custom detailing. He got up from his chair and left.
As much as Ray would have liked to fasten his hooks around that guy’s neck, Ray didn’t want to see him jackoff. But he wasn’t about to play the role of the downer. Ray readied himself. He opened another window, letting in more of the night’s air, which moved through the room like the dead. Sharon liked when the air circulated, the more frigid the better. She preferred the air when it pierced. Ray drank the last of his gin and realized he’d need some props or at least a hand towel. He avoided making eye-contact as he left the table. In the bathroom, he took from the cupboard a freshly folded cotton towel depicting glittery unicorns and green elves atop mountains and castles. He smothered his face in the fabric.
The remaining guests were relieved to see Ray reemerge and then exit the house. It was someone else’s turn to spin, but without their hosts around to enforce cooperation they felt liberated, like children covering their eyes with cupped hands.
“What did Jesus say? Carpe diem?” David said, his voice breaking. He instantaneously felt foolish he hadn’t listened more to Carol about self-editing. The cult leader wouldn’t have been so easy to read.
“Nah,” said the guest who knew about sex games. “I need to dash.”
“I’m going to call a Lyft,” the wife of the former cult leader said. “I’m wiped and I have early Barre tomorrow.”
“That shit’s tough.”
Baseball hater agreed. He said he was tired and prone to migraines, the aura kind, flashing lights and so forth. Nothing helped. Plus, he was trying to lose weight, trying to get his heart rate up; winter was around the corner and they wouldn’t see light for days on end.
David texted Carol for the sake of texting Carol, The guests are fleeing, even nutjob guy is gone. You can come out now. I’m here.
Carol’s cell vibrated on her empty chair. David picked up her phone and unlocked it.
It was easy, their first child’s birth year and two of Carol’s favorite numbers back-to-back. From her phone, he texted: I love you, David. Now, go fuck yourself.
Nora Lange’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Believer, American Short Fiction, Denver Quarterly, Joyland, the Fairy Tale Review, Hobart, LIT, HTMLGIANT, and elsewhere. Lange received her MFA from Brown University where she was a Kaplan Fellow. She recently completed her first novel, US FOOLS. You can learn more about her at noralange.com
Originally published in
Our summer issue includes interviews with Amoako Boafo, Nicolas Party, Brenda Goodman, Odili Donald Odita, Jenny Offill, Craig Taborn, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, and Jibz Cameron; poetry by Safia Elhillo and Nathaniel Mackey; prose by Lydia Davis, Marie-Helene Bertino, and Saidiya Hartman; and more.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.