The centerpieces were adorable. Cassie had stayed up late printing black-and-white baby pictures of Ben onto vellum and then gluing them into frames placed before votives. Ben, wise and cherubic, a buttery sage of a baby, glowed at each table. The setting was perfect, lighting optimal, Ménage à Trois played just loud enough to make it feel as if the party were a happening, food stations were dotted throughout Ben’s photography studio, both upstairs and down, same with the liquor, so people mingled. Check, check, check. It was all good.
Real-life Ben looked adorable too. After the tattooing (yes, it proved to be the perfect distraction), Ethan had convinced Ben to stop by his studio to document the experience. When Ben stepped in and threw on the lights, Cassie saw confusion, then recognition, and then glee. Ben adored all eyes on him, and here was his party, in his space, on his fiftieth birthday, with all his friends and neighbors singing “Happy Birthday” and applauding. Egged on to unveil their tattoos, Ethan hugged his dad loosely from behind and whispered in Ben’s ear. They were nearly the same height, with the same avid smiles, same toast-colored hair; they hung together easily. Cassie, standing in the midst of the clustered guests, looked around for her daughter. Edith kept her promise and didn’t bring Flood, but as her mini act of spite she’d brought Pammy and René-René, a pale, sullen-sullen boy from her school with a thick-linked chain looping from his ear to his lip piercing, who piled his plate high and then sat on the floor, picking his teeth with the sharp ends of lamb bones. Cassie in her own mini act of spite suppressed her displeasure and told René-René the way he’d slit his T-shirt with great gaping holes was off the hook.
“My dad says hold tight on the tatt unveiling,” Ethan said, and a collective groan rose from the crowd. “Maybe if we get him drunk enough,” Ethan added. “Beer pong?”
“Son, remember, I’m fifty.”
Good-natured, comfortable laughter rolled like a wave through the room. Cassie stepped forward with two beers for her men. She was both in the moment and not. She knew that this was what she should be doing, stepping into her family, looking too-too in her black dress, adoring smile, only her smile was slightly ironic. In her mind she was the self-mocking party thrower.
“Termite,” Ethan called out, extending the circle of magnanimity, “get up here.”
Edith emerged from the guests and hugged Ben. Her bluish hair worked perfectly with the color palette of the Rothko dress. Cinched with a black studded belt to show off Edith’s waist and personality, the dress looked great. She stood with them, holding Cassie’s hand. Her smile had a hint of mockery as well, only unlike Cassie’s, Edith’s was other directed. She leaned forward for what Cassie thought would be a peck on the cheek and fiercely whispered into Cassie’s ear she was def getting her nose pierced tomorrow. “It’s my time to shine.”
* * *
The tattoos ended up being the theme of the night. Ben and Ethan relished denying everyone the pleasure of seeing what they’d committed to.
“You pulled it off.” Ben nuzzled Cassie, his hand sliding along the plunge of silk on her cut-low-in-back dress.
“I guess I’m amazing.”
“If you’re lucky, I might show you my skin ink.”
Cassie said, “Broccoli with fermented black beans.” When Ben pulled slightly away, squinting at her, she added, “That’s my favorite dish.”
* * *
“Cassie, you’re amazing.” Blythe Cooper stopped her on the stairs, enveloping Cassie in her exotic cinnamon-and-bourbon perfume. “I don’t know how you kept this fabulous party a secret from your husband.”
Cassie maintained her serene, good wife expression.
“Ethan’s band is Wonderful, your Edith looks perfect in the dress. And you, you look just like Rita Hayworth with a pixie. Bradley, doesn’t Cassie look like Rita Hayworth with a pixie? Wonderful? And after what she’s been through this week.”
“How did that lucky husband of yours convince you?” Bradley’s hand on Cassie’s arm was so soft and warm it felt as if he’d kept it in the pocket of his cashmere blazer for the last twenty years. Cassie waited for Bradley to continue his inquiry but he seemed to have nothing more to say. Of what had Cassie needed convincing? What had she been through? The conversation was a confusing mishmash of half revelations. Cassie gulped more wine, waiting for Bradley to explain.
“They’re permanent, you know.”
Well, of course. Cassie hoped for just a second that when finally unveiled, the tattoos would be ridiculous: vaginas, marijuana leaves, or marijuana leaves growing out of vaginas.
* * *
The bartender had no rum, and Mike and Carol let Cassie know they were disappointed. She apologized and motioned for them to follow her. Apparently drinking was also an empty-nest passion of her neighbors. “Ben keeps a supply of booze to relax people, you know, when family portraits aren’t going well.”
“Does he give it to the babies?” Carol placed her damp hand on Cassie. Why was everyone touching her?
“He’s been known to soak the corner of a blanket in Manischewitz.” She winked and stepped sideways, ditching Carol’s hand. “You’re having a good time?”
“What a party,” Mike boomed. “Ben is a lucky, lucky man.”
“I made him a flag, a camera with a big lens.”
“Yep, a lucky, wasteful man.”
Cassie turned to look at Mike but he wasn’t looking at her. He was staring at the ceiling, his hands thrust deep into his pockets.
“Leave it, Mike,” Carol warned. And then to Cassie in a loud whisper, “Now you see why I need a drink.”
“Just that I saw the new weather stripping around the doors…good first step.”
“Who goes to a party to look at weather stripping?”
“If Ben’d switch out all these incandescent bulbs, he’d save a bundle on electricity.”
Cassie opened the cabinet: whiskey, gin, vodka, and a gap where Ben normally kept the rum. “Will whiskey do?” She gave them the bottle. “The bartender is wonderful. He’ll fix you right up.”
From the balcony, Cassie scanned the room for blue hair. Ethan’s trio played “Song for My Father,” the cue that Ethan’s toast would be up next, and then Edith had something prepared as well. Where was Edith? No doubt with the rum.
“Excuse me,” Cassie murmured two, three times, placing a hand on a shoulder, offering a mild smile. Striding through the room, purposeful and casual, she felt the sway in her hips, the air against her back. Cassie fit inside her body.
* * *
The weatherman had predicted the first frost. The end of the marigolds, he’d said. Hurrying down the driveway, Cassie wrapped her arms across her chest against the chill. The moon, a giant cocktail onion in the inky sky, lit the street. She peered between houses, inside cars, and heard them before she spotted them sprawled on a lawn, the bottle, their teeth, and the whites of their eyes gleaming in the moonlight. They were singing the Barney love song between spasms of laughter. Cassie paused. It seemed innocent, friends lingering on one of the last nights before winter. She stepped behind the Coopers’ Escalade listening to the kids’ voices make a round out of the smarmy song, Edith’s raspy voice cutting below René-René’s tenor and Pammy’s reedy soprano. Even when Edith was in preschool, her sweet voice seemed to harbor repressed desires: “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” had sounded vaguely smutty, as if Lil’ Courtney Love was in the classroom. Pammy lay flat on her back, singing up to the sky. Edith propped herself up on her elbows, and René-René stood smoothing down his dress. Yes, René-René was now in the Rothko dress, and Edith had on his red pants and dangerously slit T-shirt.
Cassie stepped out from behind the car and Edith caught sight of her.
“Mayday, mayday. Shitstorm approaching.”
“Edith.” Cassie closed her eyes and the name came out a discouraged lament. Default mode would be to yell, to grab the bottle and hiss at them about brain development and stupidity and grounding, but in her clearest moment of the night so far, she simply held out her hand for the bottle and told the three of them to go inside and get some coffee. All that other stuff could come tomorrow.
“Doesn’t your dress look sick on R.R.?”
He did a pirouette in his yellow Converse high-tops, which set them staggering with laughter. Cassie followed behind, wondering if there was a right thing she should be doing. Pammy, near to tears, turned around to face her and said how sorry she was. She held a finger to her little bow of a mouth and slurred, Shhh. If Cassie were Pammy’s mom, she wouldn’t let her hang out with Edith.
“Straight to the coffee and eat some cupcakes.”
“Cupcakes are comfort food…” Edith’s voice swelled, she waggled a finger and heaved herself at her mother. Cassie bent her knees, braced for her daughter’s clumsy force. Holding Edith-gone-limp in her arms was like flipping a mattress. Damp warmth radiated from her skin to Cassie’s bare shoulder, only now, unlike those long-ago nights in their San Francisco living room, her daughter smelled of rum, and Cassie’s fingers felt like claws, ready to tear. “I can smell what kind of a girl you’re becoming.”
Edith pulled back and stared sloppily into her mother’s eyes. “Well…you don’t smell like anything.”
The door opened; laughter spilled out. Cassie felt the sting, sharp, in the center of her chest, behind her eyes, and she gripped Edith’s tender arms so hard it was nearly the same as pushing her away. “Don’t. Don’t ruin your father’s party. I mean it. Don’t.” Before she followed the kids inside, she took a long pull from the rum bottle.
Everyone was listening to Ethan, who was pleased with himself, telling a story about his dad. Cassie smoothed her hair, took a glass of wine from a tray that went past. Edith politely maneuvered toward the front of the room. This story of Ben’s childhood was Ethan’s favorite. He held up his hand and made flicking gestures with his thumb and index finger. “It was a piece of inside-out Scotch tape stuck to the end of his” — now he wriggled his pinkie in front of his fly— “and it was all linty and schmutzy. My grandparents freaked; they thought it was a tumor.”
Someone called out, “How old was he?”
“Sixteen!” Ethan’s grin was wide, wide, wide.
“Two! I was two.” Ben fake slugged him, pretending embarrassment, but he glowed.
Then, as if they’d choreographed it, Cassie’s two men unbuttoned their cuffs and rolled up their sleeves. On the pale skin of their forearms they each had a mud-flap girl, one of those nude, big-busted, big-bummed, flippy-haired silhouettes you see on sixteen-wheelers rolling down the highway. Ben’s girl sported a pixie haircut and was reading a book. A whoop went up. Cassie could feel all eyeballs turn to her as if magnetized. What would the wife say? Everyone was caught up in the delicious spectacle. What happened to the state of California? Truth be told, she didn’t really care about Ben’s tattoo; it was Ethan’s that made her bristle. What kind of woman would marry a man with a mud-flap tattoo? There went her grandchildren.
“Mine is an homage to my smart, lovely wife.” Ben opened his non-tattooed arm, called Cassie’s name. The gathered guests parted so she could step toward his embrace.
“I hope she’s reading Divorce for Dummies,” Cassie deadpanned.
Ben leaned down and whispered in her ear, “You’re so sexy.”
Cassie whispered back, “What were you thinking?” before she bit his ear hard enough for tears to spring to his eyes. The party sang the birthday song again, then Edith jumped onto the band platform and Ethan settled himself behind the drums.
Launching into “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” Edith sang like a cat licking herself, languid and intent, the microphone pressed against her lips, her eyes closed. Cassie could feel Ben’s rising vigilance as he watched Edith. Whether he was nervous for her, singing in front of sixty people, or could sense that she was drunk, or was just now noticing Edith’s twin-edged power and vulnerability, Cassie wasn’t certain, but she was grateful for his tensing muscles. Yes, it would take two of them to see Edith through. In the tight red jeans and boots, blue hair and pale skin, she looked like a modern-day Norma Jean. Cassie ached.
“‘And though you’re perfectly swell…’” Edith, coquettish and confident, let the words hang in the air. Then she turned to Ethan, her eyes now open and bold, and the music suddenly thrashed. Ethan swept into a raging drum solo. That the two of them had practiced this, found something to do together, for their father, increased Cassie’s pleasure and guilt. I can smell what kind of girl you’re becoming. Ben unwound his arm and fist-pumped the air. Edith nodded vigorously, the rhythm jolting her body until she was jumping, a crazy pogo worthy of Patti Smith. She let out a throaty, ragged scream that was met by René-René hooting from the back of the room while all the adults in the middle seemed trapped in amber. Blythe would be there, looking at Cassie, ready to offer up smug concern. Cassie forbade herself to take her eyes from her children.
Her skin luminescent, Edith shouted, “‘My heart belongs to my daddy…’” She moved with the confidence of a jungle cat, wild and fierce with rage and love. “Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-dad.”
Cassie’s hand covered her mouth. Her ribs could barely contain the huge beating within. Her daughter caught her eye and for a moment the tightrope appeared, the two women stepping onto it, knowing everything about each other. Cassie’s swelling heart split wide and Edith mouthed something: I love you or fuck you, or both. All Cassie knew for certain was that Edith was everything.