Desperate Illusions

I smiled at myself in the mirror hung over the table in the entrance hall to make sure no lipstick appeared on my teeth before I ran my hands over my pants, took a deep breath, fixed a smile to my face, and opened the door.

“Julie, you’re early.” I stood aside so Julie could breeze past me, the floral perfume she’d obviously just spritzed on herself didn’t disguise the scent of cigarette smoke. I wrinkled my nose as I closed the door behind her.

Julie’s wild red curls were usually the first thing I noticed, but when Julie turned around to face me, I saw her red eyes, and smudged mascara. “I know, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

I put my arm around her shoulders and led her to the kitchen. “It’s okay, no problem. Come on in, we’ll have a glass of wine while we wait for the others. You can tell me what’s got you so upset.”

“Oh God, is it that obvious?” Julie’s green eyes widened in horror and filled with tears.

I guided her along the hall, my heels clicking on the hardwood, Julie’s Nikes barely making a sound. “No, of course not. It’s just because we’ve been friends for so long, I can tell something’s up.”

Julie hopped onto one of the stools at the island, her feet wrapping around the legs. “Just the usual crap, you know.”

I took a wineglass from the glass display case and filled it with white wine. When I’d set the glass in front of her, I picked up the glass I’d already poured for myself earlier and sipped, waiting for Julie to gather her thoughts.

Julie shook her head as if in silent argument, heaved out a deep breath, and picked up her glass. “You know what? Screw it. Tonight’s supposed to be girls night, fun time. No BS allowed.”

The feeling of relief led to feelings of guilt. “Are you sure? Deb and Laurie won’t be here for awhile yet.”

Julie shook her head, her red curls bouncing. “Tomorrow or Sunday, okay? We’ve been planning this for weeks, the first time the four of us have had a free night at the same time in months. I’m not ruining it.”

I set my glass down and moved to the stove just as the timer buzzed. I’d just opened the oven door when the doorbell chimed again.

“I’ll get that. Smells delicious, whatever you’re busy with.” Julie left the kitchen as I took the tray out of the oven. Setting the cookies on the stovetop, I quickly hung the oven mitts up and turned the oven off.

“Well shit, there goes my diet.” Deb hip checked me as she peered at the fresh cookies. “What kind?”

“If they’re not triple chocolate macadamia you better start over.” Laurie went into the cupboard and grabbed two glasses, while Deb grabbed the bottle of wine and got ready to pour.

“These are for Julie, the cinnamon oatmeal apple ones she prefers. Yours are already out in the dining room.” I grabbed the cooling rack from under the counter. “And before you get all offended and butt-hurt, your honey cashew chews are out there, too.”

Deb flipped me the bird as she sipped her wine. “I wouldn’t have cared. I love all cookies.”

Julie snorted. “Right. This from the woman who threw a tantrum because Pam forgot to put out the pumpkin pie last time we got together.”

“It was pecan, dummy.”

I arranged the cookies on a small tray, smiling as I listened to the banter of my best friends. When the cookies were arranged properly, I hefted them and led the way into the dining room. I set the cookies on the sideboard, moving the bowl of fruit to the table.

“Pam, you’re disgusting.” Deb dropped into her usual spot, drumming her fingers on the tabletop.

I slapped Julie’s hand when she reached for a cookie; I didn’t want her to burn herself. “What’s wrong?”

“You’ve outdone yourself again, I think that’s what Deb was going for.” Laurie popped a cantaloupe chunk into her mouth and chewed, her brown eyes closing as she savoured the fruit.

My gaze swept over the table as I sat down next to the pad of paper and pen. “You know me, bored housewife. Andy’s forever springing surprise guests on me, I’ve got the pull a miracle off thing mastered.”

Deb picked up the velvet bag and shook it. “Come on, A.”

Deb showed us her N and passed the bag over to Laurie. Laurie pulled out an M and stuck her tongue out at Deb. Julie drew a D. I took the bag, pulled out my tile, an X. I passed the bag back to Julie.

“So, what’s new?” Deb picked up her wine and sipped, looking around the table while Julie selected the rest of her tiles.

“Sweet FA, unless you count the new contract Billy got last week. Big money there in Oak Heights. Snow and landscaping. Whoop-de-doo.” Laurie waved her finger in a sarcastic circle. “Like I care. I already don’t see him except to sleep.”

I took the bag from Julie and counted out six more tiles. We all ignored Laurie’s show – we knew she was proud of her husband, and she worked as hard as he did keeping the books for him. “Deb, what about you?”

Deb grabbed the bag and shook it vigorously again. “Same old same old. Unlike Laurie, who never gets to see her man, I see entirely too much of mine.”

“Dave still not working?” I asked, arranging my tiles so I could play excite if Julie put down a word with a T.

“Nope. Keeps asking the doctor to extend his leave. Says he’s too stressed out to go back yet. I’m gonna have to start walking around naked and dropping shit so he’ll get grossed out enough to go back to the office.”

We all laughed even though we knew Dave adored Deb and would walk over hot coals for her – and to get to her if she wore anything remotely provocative, like any clothes at all. “Perks of being the boss, he can play hooky.”

Deb leaned forward, all competitive since I’d scored high with a strategically placed X beneath Julie’s Daze.

“How are you, Pam?” Laurie asked as she popped a grape in her mouth.

My tummy clenched and my hand shook as I wrote Deb’s score. “Oh, you know.”

“That’s Pam-speak for everything is freaking perfect, incredible, magical. If I didn’t love you so much, I’d scratch you with my nails so that you wouldn’t be so damned perfect.” Deb tossed the bag to Laurie as she got up to get the cheese and cracker tray. “Although I do see one flaw. There’s no cherries in the fruit bowl.”

I tucked my hair behind my ears as I sat back in my chair. “That would be your fault. Don’t you remember what happened last time?”

“Choke on one pit, just once in your life, and it’s held against you forever.” Deb pouted as she popped a cube of cheddar in her mouth.

The game, and the evening, progressed with affectionate banter, and I felt warm inside. Some of that was the wine (I’d had two glasses), but mostly because I was with the people I liked best in the world.

“The twins are at their friend’s double digit slumber party. Can you believe they’re going to be ten next month? Billy says he’ll take the day off so we can take them to Wonderland with a couple of their friends.” Laurie shook her head in disbelief, her brown hair coming loose from her ponytail.

“Julie, why are you so quiet?” Deb, blue eyes narrowed, leaned into the table as if to crowd Julie across from her.

Julie sniffed, picked up her wine, and drained the glass. “I love you guys.”

“Oh shit. Is that a drunken I love you, or a prelude to a shitshow I love you?”

“Ben and I are separating.” Julie sniffed as I got up to grab the bottle of wine from the kitchen. An announcement like that called for easy access to booze. I caught Deb and Laurie exchanging uncomfortable looks when I came back into the room.

“Aw, hon, I’m sorry.” Deb cast a glance at Laurie that clearly said she wasn’t sorry.

“You know the deal. We wanted to stay together ’til the kids were grown, but…” Julie refilled her glass and drank half of it. “The kids are furious. Daphne’s threatening to drop out of school, and Zach took off for three days.”

My heart hurt for Julie. Ben was a jerk, none of us liked him, but Julie had fallen in love with him, so we’d accepted him. “I’m so sorry.”

Julie squeezed my hand after I patted her arm. “He’s talking about dividing assets, support payments for the kids, and I’m sitting there thinking ‘I’m not ready to be a 47-year-old divorcee’. I want to scream, hit him.”

Deb huffed out a breath. “Jules, I wanted to talk to you about this, later. Like sober, and maybe tomorrow. But.”

We all waited, Laurie gesturing for Deb to carry on. When Deb didn’t, Julie squeezed my hand harder. “What do you know?”

“Nothing really, not much, anyhow.” Deb’s face was pink, and I suspected it wasn’t from the wine. “Dave was golfing with Ed the other day. Ed, uh, let slip – more like intentionally dropped the bomb – that Ben’s hiding a whack of assets somewhere. Ed knows Dave tells me everything, and that I tell you everything, and he thinks Ben’s a royal ass, so he kinda suggested that you take a long hard look at where the money is. Actually, to quote him? ‘I hope Julie hires a vampire instead of a lawyer to suck Ben dry’.”

Julie set her glass down, shaking her head. “Nobody likes Ben, so of course they’re going to –”

“Julie, honey?” Laurie put her hand on Julie’s. “You’re right, about no one liking Ben. But you have to ask yourself why. I mean, you knew how we felt about him when you married him, right? Didn’t you wonder? Have doubts? You said so yourself – the marriage has been on the rocks for a long time, and you were biding your time until the kids were older.”

“Yeah, but –”

“No buts. The man’s a piece of shit, through and through. He makes the mob look like a gentleman’s club.” Deb popped another cube of cheese in her mouth.

I cleared my throat. “Julie, honey, Ben’s not a nice guy. You know that. You’ve said so yourself. You’re just scared.”

Julie nodded, taking the wad of napkins Deb handed her and wiping her eyes. “I’m terrified.”

“Ed’s single.” Deb put the empty tray and bowl on the sideboard and started putting the cookies on the table. “Dave seems to think that Ed told him all that because Ed’s been getting tired of watching Ben walk all over you.”

I smiled to myself – one hunch confirmed. I also knew for fact that Julie had been noticing Ed for years. Julie shifted in her seat before sighing. “He’s nice looking and all that, but not rebound material. Not after Maureen.”

We all took a second to think sad thoughts. Except for Deb. “Pfft. Maureen’s been dead eight years, Jules. Ed’s been dating for five. Dave says he’s never seen Ed so excited since Ben announced he was getting a divorce. And the only one who hasn’t noticed you watching Ed is Ben, and that’s because he’s a narcissistic bastard, and would never believe that you would look at another man.”

Julie’s red-headed temper turned red-hot. “You think it’s so easy, don’t you? To be in a loveless marriage, to just part with him and move on? What do you know about it? You’ve got Dave. Laurie’s got her hardworking man who’s built his business from the ground up. The only one who’s got it better than the two of you is Pam.”

I stilled, staring over Laurie’s head at the painting hanging on the wall behind her. “I’m far from perfect, Julie, neither is my life.”

Julie snorted. Even Deb made a sound. “Look at the flowers, in the middle of the sideboard. Has a week ever passed that Andy has forgotten to send you flowers?”

I glanced behind Deb, at the arrangement in a crystal vase. Only I knew they were flowers sent automatically because Andy had cheated again. Only I knew that my daughter had found out that her amazing daddy was a cheater and now blamed me for not being enough for him. Only I knew that my son hated me even more than my daughter because I’d called him a disgrace for getting a girl pregnant – and then called him a bastard because he forced her to get an abortion when she didn’t want to. Only I knew that my father hit my mother – never in the face, where someone might see. Only I knew that my father now had Alzheimer’s and I battled every day with feelings of hate warring with guilt because he can’t remember being the evil SOB only I knew he was. Only I knew that the illusions I created were created to save my sanity, because they were the only things in life I could control.

“Nobody’s perfect, Julie. None of us. Our lives aren’t perfect, our husbands aren’t perfect, we aren’t perfect. But we’re content, happy with the imperfections. We want you to be happy, for once. You’ve been married for twenty-two years to a man who never made you happy after you said I do. The four of us have been best friends for thirty-five years, so I feel confident speaking for the rest. Stop comparing our lives and feeling sad that yours doesn’t compete and start living your life to get in the game. None of us knows what tomorrow will bring, or if there will be a tomorrow, so do something now. Get a vampire, suck Ben dry, then go off with Ed and be happy.” I got to my feet and left the room, intending to get another bottle of wine. I put the two empty bottles in the recycling bin under the sink and leaned against the counter, counting to ten over and over again. Tonight was supposed to be fun, laughs and happy memories. That was the plan, and Julie’s news had hijacked them, waylaid my plans. I went to the fridge, carried it to the counter and fumbled with the corkscrew. If there was one thing I was good at, it was rolling with whatever came my way. Plans changed, but the end goal was still the same.

“Sorry I took so long, the cork wasn’t cooperating.” I set the bottle down in front of Julie. Someone had packed up the game, and I was glad. I couldn’t focus on making words now that I was tipsy.

“I’m sorry, Pam. I didn’t mean to ruin everyone’s night.” Julie, eyes red, leaned over to brush her shoulder to mine. “And I still think you’re perfect, even when you’re telling me off for saying it.”

I crossed my right leg over my left, hooked my left arm over the back of my chair, and nodded coolly. “Just to be clear, I’m almost perfect. But my left boob is still smaller than the right one. You get divorced, hook up with Ed and live happily ever after? You and your symmetrical tits will be perfect.”

By the end of the night, the food was gone, the wine bottles empty, and my three best friends left in a taxi, drunk and happy. I put my house to rights, no sign that there’d been anyone but me there at all. I thought of the three letters I’d put in the mail an hour before Julie had arrived. I hoped they’d understand some day.

I poured vodka into the only wineglass I hadn’t washed and put away. I took down the bottle of pills I’d stashed above the sink two hours before my friends had arrived. A cocktail of pills – some I’d stolen from my parent’s house, some I’d stolen from my daughter’s room, the rest the pills my doctor had been prescribing me for years. Nothing worked, nothing helped. Tranquilizers, antidepressants, pain meds for residual pain from childhood accidents my dad could no longer remember inflicting. I swallowed two and three pills with every sip of vodka until the glass was almost empty, then I dropped the last of the handful of pills and swallowed them dry. I quickly washed and dried the glass, put it back in the cupboard where it belonged, and ran the cloth over the spotless counters just to be sure.

I crawled up the stairs, my vision doubling and greying as I went. I’d already pulled back the blankets on my side of the marital bed. With enormous effort, I climbed up into the king-sized bed, tucked myself in, and lay back on the plumped pillows. I thought of Billy and Laurie, who worked together to create a beautiful exterior for others while finding a balance to make them work as a couple. I thought of Julie, who would finally know what happy was if she stayed the course we’d set her on tonight. Deb and Dave, they were the closest to perfect, I decided, my insides cramping. I willed myself not to throw up, not to be forced to find another, messier way. My lips lifted in a smile as I remembered the final glimpse I’d had of my three friends, my true family, the only people who truly loved me despite my perfection. Their laughter carrying on the night breeze as the taxi backed out of the drive, the three of them waving madly and blowing kisses. I lifted my hand, touched my lips, and blew them a final kiss.

 

 


 

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