Sunday, April 29, 2007

We Should Make A Toast

Here's the third and final section!

Things That Lead To The Other World

It had been so long since I’d set the table, I couldn’t remember what went there, which side to put the knife on and whatnot. I know that I’d learned the rules from my mother, but what you don’t practice, you forget.
The grocery store took about twice as long as it might for anyone else, what with me stoned out of my mind, having to hit most of the aisles two or three times to make sure I had everything. There was so much to remember! I don’t know how people manage to do this every single night. I hold open the cookbook with a geode and do my best to layer everything like it says. Anyone can follow a recipe, my mother used to say. My father liked to laugh and wink at Josh about never having to endure the horrors of cooking. Josh had other horrors to endure from my father.
I’m glad the lasagna only takes one dish. That simplifies things. By the time everything is in the oven, Josh walks in the door.
“How’d it go?” I ask.
“Like it does every year. Boring,” he says, grabbing the television remote and throwing down his book bag.
Somehow I doubt the students reacted to him the way they did last year or the years before, back when his face wasn’t messed up in such a particular way. If it was bad, he’s not saying. I don’t blame him. What’s to tell? He teaches at the kind of school where the students are too polite to ask what happened or yell, Hey, Mr. Anderson, you’re fucked up. He works in the suburbs; I work in the city. I help manage peoples’ most private matters -- questions of pregnancy, disease, money, desperation. He grades junior year term themes on e.e. cummings and Saul Bellow. And yet, we’re both together every night, the perfect couple if perfection means understanding the past and avoiding a future.
As for the lasagna, the bottom is soggy and the top brittle. I forgot to put tinfoil over it Josh informs me when it becomes clear that neither of us has the ability to choke it down. The pasta had been cooked too much and not enough, and that there was nothing to salvage because the layers could not be separated. I had watched it cook and didn’t think anything was wrong.
“Should we go out?” I ask. I play with my napkin that I had shaped into a perfect triangle before dinner started.
“Where would we go?” Josh looks tired, especially around his eyes which are red-rimmed. He’s consented to a nice dinner and like any man dragged along in a woman’s plan, the charm of it has hit a limit.
“I’m sick of everything we know.” I cannot think of one place that Josh would find agreeable so I try a new tactic. “There’s lots of stuff we haven’t tried.”
“I don’t have the energy for something new,” Josh says. He goes to the fridge for another beer.
This debate could go on for way too long. Exhaustion from my day wash over me, both from
getting the pills and taking them. The grease had congealed around the edges of my plate, the lettuce swam in vinegar. Nothing turned out right except for the dessert I bought at the Cheesecake Shoppe, a place that specializes in cheesecakes that taste like other desserts -- key lime pie, tiramisu, German chocolate cake. I am in sway to the miniatures, getting a tiny bit of everything, perfect pieces of what served whole would seem too rich. Josh puts his knife across his plate and walks to the television with one of the cakes in a napkin. It reminds me of party food so I bring out a bottle of cheap champagne and pour a glass. I offer Josh some, thinking he’ll stick to what he always drinks, but he surprises me by putting out his juice glass and accepting what I have to offer.
“We should make a toast,” I say. I sit on the chair adjacent to the couch and hold out my glass. Josh clinks it and swallows hard.
“You didn’t say anything,” I say.
“It’s a silent toast. You can do that.” He turns his attention to the television, a show where a man gives out roses to woman vying for his affection. All that need unpacked in front of millions of viewers, those girls squeezed into tight black dresses, not one seeming any different than another, generic in their want, hoping to be picked by someone they don’t even know makes me want to take another pill. Josh and I sit in silence, not comfortable or uncomfortable, just the way he wants things tonight. I can give him that kindness.
We always like to imagine we have decisions, usually when things have gone wrong and the only real choice is to walk away, no matter how much energy and time we have spent, no matter how badly we want it to be otherwise. Why did I still want Kevin? He had been married nearly as long as I had been alive. I wanted to know if he and his wife spoke about me or if I was buried in their marriage, a stone they visited every now and then to remind them of what we have to give up to keep order. When I think of them, I imagine them having dinner, everything set out on the table within easy reach, no one going hungry enough to consider devouring each other to stay alive.
For years, I had served what my mother had spent hours making, perfect in every way, all the mistakes given to me and Josh to eat before whatever party she was throwing. We’d make ourselves sick on her mistakes, not because she made so many, but because there were so few things acceptable to her for public presentation. She had a recipe that I loved, sandwich meat cut so that it was transparent, spread with a layer of cream cheese and rolled layer by layer until it was a log. Then she’d cut up the tiny log into perfect circles called burning bushes. She’d perform the first step long before there was a party and freeze them. Before they thawed entirely, she’d cut them up so they’d stay intact. The timing was not as easy as it sounds but she paid attention to the details she could control. There’s something to admire if I could bring myself to it.
While Josh stole sips off drinks people had set down or abandoned entirely for newer concoctions, I’d go around offering everyone a burning bush, people taking them out of hunger or kindness until each last one was gone, the empty tray only important for what it once held and what it might hold again after it had been scoured of the remnants anyone had been careless enough to leave behind. The reflective tray mirrored my face back to me. Distorted and smeared as that reflection was, I’d inevitably look, thinking, that’s me, before disappearing back into the kitchen for more treats to offer whoever was still there.

Michelle's Spell of the Day
"I've found that I can't do serious writing without stirring up a mild depression." Norman Mailer
Cocktail Hour
Drinking essay collection suggestion: The Bitch in the House edited by Cathi Hanauer
Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Sunday! Happy The Sopranos night!


Susan Miller said...


You are brilliant, and I consider myself most fortunate to have come here when I could read it all in one sitting.

Damn, that was good.

Charles Gramlich said...

Powerful writing. I got a great feel for the people here. And this shows how wonderfully conflict can be worked into a piece simply on the basis of human interactions. Well done.

serenity's prayer said...

Yes, this is very good. You have done a superior job parring down lots of hard work. You had so much material before and now its only what it needs to be, nothing more or less. But there are "senstions" of the missing parts (yeah, there's an irony of the morn), and I kept going back sometimes to see if I missed something.
Like susan, I love getting here before the rush so I can read you in peace.
Take care

Love the expresion in the pic, and the pic too.

Mick Jagger said...

I'm the burning bush, I'm the burning fire, I'm the bleeding volcano....

Rodney Dangerfield said...

If you know what I mean, what happened to your rubber knee pads?

D. Letterman said...

Was it something I said?

Tony Soprano said...

I enjoyed your story and thanks for your support of the Sopranos!

Paul said...


the walking man said...

Not bad, of course not one to throw heaps of praise on a great story, I will say I enjoyed every word of this. Especially how you ended it by explaining the loathing of the children for the parents and a clearer picture of why they felt, what they felt about themselves.

Taught from childhood that they would never measure up to the standards the parents had achieved or set.

Knowing you, and knowing how YOU felt about your own parents makes this all the better because it all, every word had to come from the creative process.

Thank You for the entertainment through your written words.


Robin said...

I read the whole story, too, having waited until you posted the third installment. Well worth the wait!

xycwa said...

"I am nursing a viper for the Roman people."

The parents definitely play their part in 90% below the surface.

Like a freaking iceberg.

You practice what you teach and its always the sweetest pleasure to read it that way and learn from it.

Caligula said...

this situation ain't that bad.

capn'scokeandcoldcappuccino said...

"i got friends in low places"

then there's my writer friend(s). Good job with your characters, cards facing down except when needed to be played.

Sheila said...

great piece of writing and I absolutely ADORE the picture! I think it is one of my favorites! I just love that look on your face hehehe

celticshaman said...

Very good story, Michelle. Josette and Josh reminded me a little of Brenda and her nutty brother (Billy?) in "Six Feet Under" -- the suggestion of incest, their dysfunctional lives and how they're trapped in those lives together.

Josette is a powerfully-written character, very well-developed,very sympathetic. Josh is less developed. I kept wondering what their lives looked like from his pov.

The ending nearly broke my heart. Josette wanted so much to fix a nice dinner for them,and it's a failure. Strong writing throughout,especially in the conclusion. Thank you.