The sitter arrived with a Ziploc bag of brightly colored string. “For friendship bracelets,” she said, one eye veering off.
“Yes,” Bette said. The sitter’s eye was particularly lazy today;
Bette had never gotten used to it, although she herself, when extra tired, had an eye prone to drifting. Bette was aware that she could be, in a multitude of ways, a perfect hypocrite.
She was named after Bette Midler, which had always embarrassed her, so she told people she was named after Bette Davis. “So it’s ‘Betty’?” people would ask, and then she’d have to correct them, and they’d be confused, wondering why anyone would name someone after the spelling of one person’s name and the pronunciation of another’s. That’s their problem, Bette would think to herself.
A large Domino’s pizza was on the kitchen table. Bette pulled paper plates down from the pantry.
“Try for an eight o’clock bedtime. Liesl can stay up and read if she wants.” Liesl was named after Liesl von Trapp, obviously. “Don’t let George have any candy. He’ll beg you for it and tell you that I said it was okay. It’s not okay. I’ll be upset if he has any, and I’ll be able to tell. I can always tell.”
George was named after any George except George Bush. Bette had always liked the name, the round squish of it in her mouth.
She called the kids upstairs to say goodbye. Liesl was twelve and resented having a babysitter, in very much the same way that Liesl von Trapp pouted about being too old to have a governess. One day, Bette told her, you are going to get locked out of the house in the rain after dancing in a gazebo with your Hitler Youth boyfriend and after you shimmy up the drain pipe and get changed into dry clothes you will be so happy that a babysitter was here to cover for you.
Whatever, Liesl had said. We don’t even have a gazebo.
“Be good. Be helpful. George—no candy.” She kissed them near their ears, whispering I love you ferociously into them.
¦ ¬ µ
On the floor of the backseat of the minivan were deviled eggs and pineapple casserole. The reason she drove a minivan was because she always assumed that she and Andrew would have three kids, and all the stuff and friends that three kids would accumulate. But she’d had three pregnancies and only two kids. Math was cruel to her as a child and continued to be cruel, she felt, staring in her rearview mirror at the rows of empty seats as she pulled out of the driveway.
But she didn’t mind throwing people off. Where were the rest of her children? Or, for that matter, more recently, where was Andrew? “I love having extra space,” she would say. “For groceries, or if I see a coffee table on the side of the road.” She would never pick up someone’s cast-off furniture, but not everyone knew this about her. She seemed like the type of person who might. Often she imagined the bouncing and rattling of the unfilled car as the echo of her empty womb, and it comforted her, even as it pained her.
Gold with leather seats, seat warmers, lane-merge sensors, a generous back-up camera—it was one of few material possessions that she really, truly loved. She went for all the extras, the deluxe package.
Generally extras when it came to cars depressed her, because something that cost $1,000 more would, in next year’s model, be included in the base price. But the extravagance had felt necessary, urgent, even.
She’d bought the car after securing a big client at work. Technically the money went into a shared bank account and was both of theirs, but she made more than Andrew, and it was her name on the bill of sale. Prior to the minivan she’d driven a Honda Civic, which could just barely fit the two car seats in the back, and definitely wouldn’t have room for a third, which was a longstanding part of the plan.
What about an SUV, Andrew, who drove a Yaris, had suggested.
Always get the last word.
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But Bette hated SUVs. She felt they were for people who didn’t know what kind of people they were.
I’m very comfortable driving a minivan, she’d said.
It’s kind of cool, Andrew had said. Sort of low-key ironic. But you can make anything cool.
Thank you, she’d said, but I have come to loathe irony.
Still, she’d been flattered by the compliment, and thinking about it now, she wished she’d told him that at the time, instead of trampling it, which was her instinct, and one she rarely suppressed.
Bette drove out of the neighborhood just as the streetlights turned on. Late February had been warm, but now it was early March and chilly. She’d forgotten to bring the plants on the porch inside before the cold snap, and when she remembered it probably would not have been too late, but by that point she felt she’d sealed their fate, and had accepted their deaths, and felt more than a tinge of relief. She disliked watering them; she disliked how she was constantly forgetting and then re-remembering them. She didn’t like to admit that she was the kind of person who’d willingly let plants die, but in the scheme of things, over the course of a life, of all the many truths people were obliged to admit about themselves, she figured it wasn’t the worst.
¦ ¬ µ
The funeral party had been Walter’s idea. Walter was a half-friend, one of those Bette could forget about when he wasn’t immediately in front of her, but never an unwelcome face in a crowd. She’d started to treasure those ones more than the full-friends, with their demands and constant exhortations to get together, to keep in touch. Exhausting. Walter had a vision: to convene a group of people, each of whom would have signed up to bring one to two Southern funeral dishes from the cult favorite cookbook Being Dead Is No Excuse, with the result being an odd assemblage that might mimic an actual funeral. Guests would be encouraged to share stories of loss, casual eulogies, cooking tips, whatever the chemistry of the evening moved them to disclose. Both of Walter’s parents were dead and he missed them with a child’s missing, fondly and frequently referring to them as Mama and Daddy. It was for them that he conceived of the whole thing. I’ve wanted to do this for a long time, the emailed invitation read, with a link to Sign Up Genius where guests were to submit what they would be contributing. By the time Bette had clicked on it, only the eggs (sweet stuffed, also known in some Mississippi circles as peckerwood) and the pineapple casserole were left.
Walter answered the door in a dark suit. His tie seemed extra wide. Andrew always favored skinny ties; of course he did. For the briefest moment Bette forgot where she was. The feeling washed over her—nooo make it stop, no, no—her life a thing utterly alien and dismal—then passed just as quickly.
“Well, don’t you look beautiful. Let me take those from you.” He reached for the foil-wrapped Pyrex dishes.
A woman sat at the upright piano playing jazz standards. Walter handed Bette a coupe of champagne and introduced her to a man who looked exactly, disconcertingly, like a perfect combination of Chuck
Norris and Vincent van Gogh, as he would be drawn by Chuck Close.
His pores were prominent enough to make Bette suddenly self-conscious about her own.
“Bette, this is Blake, an artist. Blake, this is Bette, a—wonderful woman of many talents.”
“I’m a copywriter,” Bette said, slurping from her overly full glass.
Some champagne had already, first thing, trickled down her hand. “Copywriting, that does takes a nimble mind”—oh God, he was British. Now it didn’t matter what he looked like or what kind of horrible person he was.
Bette wiped her hand furtively on her skirt. “You think so? I definitely don’t think so. I one hundred percent do it for the money.”
Blake squinted in that way of British artists.
“What kind of art do you, um, do?” Bette asked. The woman at the piano had finished a piece and the room was quiet.
“Photography, mostly. Bit of acrylic when commissioned.”
Walter pressed his hands together, not quite wringing them. He was such a soft, clever, genteel lady of a man; tenderness surged through Bette. “Blake lost his mother some years ago. And Bette, you’ve also experienced loss,” he looked at her meaningfully, as though he wanted her to pick up the thread. When she didn’t, he seemed flustered. “Excuse me, I need to check the nuts.”
Bette wanted to ask Blake how he wound up in Birmingham, Alabama, and how he’d lost his mother, but she knew the answer to both questions could be summed up with the same answer—life is weird—and she realized, knowing this, that she didn’t much care for the details. There was a time when she did care, and used questions to convey her interest. Now she just waited as patiently as she could for things to be over.
Wandering into the TV room, she was startled to find a large boy. He was staring down intently at the gaming device in his hands, but when he glanced up, Bette was alarmed by the magnitude of each of his features. His bottom lip looked as though it could crush her. His feet were like two toboggans. Bette edged out of the room, thankful for her petite children. The stress of having to keep such a person fed and clothed—that would be what sent her over the edge. Not everything else. And then, all at once, she felt that maybe she’d had it all backward, maybe if she had a giant child such as this one, he could flatten the rest of her worries into nothing. “Bye,” she said weakly, and although his ears were enormous, he appeared not to hear her.
Walter’s furniture and tableware were beautiful, heavy, old—everything in his house felt inherited, like it belonged to someone now dead. The table was covered in lace and shone in the slick brown and jewel tones of Southern fare—blood red tomato aspic, marigold eggs, the Ritz cracker-covered casserole, pork tenderloin, bourbon custard, pickled shrimp. Bette drained her glass and refilled it—coupes were elegant but held such a miserly amount—and then heaped her plate with a little of everything. She was surprised by the pride she felt when she saw how quickly her eggs and casserole disappeared, overheard several people say how good they were. She’d made them mostly while crying.
She sat on the end of the couch and perched her plate on her knees. She hated eating this way in public; hated eating in public in general. She set her champagne on the coffee table, which was too far away to be of any use. Blake sat on the piano bench opposite. Bette had an image of herself holding up her plate and doing like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, crossing and uncrossing her legs with languid extravagance. She stifled a giggle. The plate would really change the moment.
A couple asked if they could share the sofa.
“I’m Stephanie,” the woman said. “How do you know Walter?”
Bette took her time chewing and swallowing. She would not be rushed for this person. “I think we met through a friend of my husband’s. A couple of years ago maybe.”
Stephanie was the type who put food on the very end of the fork tines, mouse bites she’d learned from an overbearing mother. There was a whiff of ketones about her, the overall haunt of an old anorexia not fully shaken.
“Is he here? Your husband?”
Bette filled her fork, overfilled it. “No.”
“This is Greg,” she said, shifting to make him more visible. “Greg, this is—”
“Cool name,” he said. “Bette, like Midler?”
“No, like Davis,” she corrected. “But it’s Bette, not Betty.” The crease of puzzlement on their brows was satisfying.
Walter came over to refill glasses. “Oh good, I see you’ve met Greg and Stephanie. Greg’s grandma died—last year, was it? She was a fine lady—Advent congregation, was it? And Stephanie—who have you lost, dear?”
“Um, both my grandfathers. And an aunt.”
“Bless your heart,” Walter said, moving to the next huddle. His steps were light as air; Bette had never seen him so happy.
Stephanie, seemingly from nowhere, was saying something about having lived in New York in her twenties. People who’d lived in New York in their twenties and people who’d gone to Harvard suffered under the same compulsion: to share these facts, no matter the context or the conversation. Bette, too, had lived in New York in her twenties, but she was the exception. She never talked about those years. Those years were a black stupid hole of nothing.
“…so tiny. I don’t miss that. But the energy, the culture. But, you know. Greg doesn’t even like going to Atlanta, so a bigger city was out of the question.”
Bette nodded politely, picturing this woman’s setup, the meager thrills for which she’d brewed, in the dull years that had elapsed, such a pungent tincture of nostalgia: two or three roommates, the skim milk in the dingy refrigerator, the framed Klimt poster, the pastel-colored razors in the never dry shower. A Broadway show. A make-out session in Times Square. Then she stood, carried her plate and glass to the kitchen, and found Walter.
“I’m leaving now.”
“Bored already?” He’d been talking to Blake and a bald guy. “Sorry. It did seem to happen pretty quick.”
“I was just fixing to play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. You’ll miss Aunt Hebe’s coconut cake.”
Bette kissed his sweet, slightly stubbled cheek. “Next time, okay? Thank you for everything.”
Kristen Iskandrian is the author of the novel Motherest (Twelve). Her story “Good With Boys,” which appeared in Issue No. 109, was included in Best American Short Stories 2018. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama, and is co-owner of Thank You Books, a new independent bookstore.