MEANINGFUL DEPARTURES by Eric Rasmussen
by Eric Rasmussen
McKenzie sees it coming. The party’s host is drunk: she’s laughing loud, touching everyone nearby, gesturing with the knife she’s using to cut whole pickles into spears for bloody marys. McKenzie should say something or take the knife, but this woman is the boss of the guy she came with. By the time the host raises the blade again, it’s too late. Her pinky is in the exact wrong place. McKenzie tries to yell, but her synapses can’t work that fast. The woman slams the knife down and cuts off most of her finger. Besides the thunk, McKenzie’s gasp is the loudest sound in the room.
Within moments the kitchen enters full meltdown. The host’s husband wraps his wife’s hand in a white cloth napkin, asking “What happened?” over and over. A semi-circle of partygoers around the island pulls out their phones to call ambulances or Google “how to treat a severed finger,” and a woman in too-tall high heels barrels towards McKenzie and the freezer behind her. “I’ll get ice,” the woman says as she busts through the other guests. “For the pinky. To keep it cold.”
As McKenzie sneaks out of the kitchen, she imagines what will happen when she tells this story tomorrow, to a friend or her sister, probably her mom. Whoever it is won’t even care about the finger. “Who were you there with?” they’ll ask instead.
“You’ve never mentioned a Tim.”
“I met him at the clinic.”
“You work in a urology office,” she (friend or sister, hopefully not mom) will point out. “That’s not weird?”
“We saw each other later, at a sandwich shop. What’s weird about that?”
By this point the commotion has drawn most of the partygoers to the kitchen, but McKenzie finds Tim where she left him in the piano room.
“Is there punch left?” he asks.
“I didn’t make it that far.” She turns as a shout reverberates through the condo. “Your boss just cut off most of her finger.”
Tim overacts his shock by jerking forward with eyes open wide, as if she were joking. Back in the exam room at the clinic, he was understandably quiet and timid, and these were the same traits he exhibited in line at the deli. But since then he has opened up like a comedian getting comfortable on stage, and this is what McKenzie likes most about him.
This time, as the seriousness sets in, she can tell he has no idea what to do. It’s date three, a pivotal one either way, and she had been hesitant about accompanying him to a work thing. But he insisted.
“Is there anything you need to do?” Tim asks.
“What do you mean?”
“Like, medically? Are you obligated to help?”
“I don’t know what I would accomplish.”
“Should I go help?”
McKenzie watches Tim consider his options. In a way, he’s like the woman staring at her recently detached digit. The action he takes now will determine much about the connections he hopes to maintain in the future.
“I think it’s best if we excuse ourselves.” Tim stands up. “Right?”
“I have no idea what party etiquette is when the host maims herself.”
“If I’m wrong, we’ll send a card.” Tim gestures her towards the door with one hand outstretched and the other on the small of her back, and that, as far as McKenzie is concerned, is the exact right choice.
“Finger reattachment surgery is way more successful than you’d think,” she says as they find their coats on the hooks behind the door.
“Seventy percent success rate.”
Tim has been to worse parties, except his fishnets are killing him. The waistband digs in under his hip bones and the netting cuts into the skin between his toes.
“Nice legs, dude,” says the Tarzan guy seated at the rec room bar next to him. The flurry of introductions when Tim and McKenzie arrived overwhelmed him, but he thinks this is Tarzan’s house. No idea what the dude’s real name is.
The costumes were McKenzie’s idea—early 2000’s goth kids, with black boots, cutoff jeans, and the aforementioned hosiery, black hair covering their eyes and faces caked with black makeup. She can pull off the look. Tim cannot.
“My girlfriend wanted me to shave them,” says Tim. “I almost did.”
Tarzan smirks as if Tim just revealed his bank account number or his porn fetishes. Most of McKenzie’s nursing school classmates married men who sell real estate or own their own landscaping companies, and they all have enormous basements that smell of paint and new carpet, like this one. Tim has no idea how to talk to them.
Tarzan’s wife is wearing a Jane costume, and she stands in a circle with McKenzie and the other nurses. McKenzie had explained the set-up on the thirty-minute drive out to the suburbs. “Everyone’s having kids, so they’re desperate to prove they’re not old and lame.”
“Do you feel left out?” Tim had asked.
“No. Why would I?”
So far, the nurse moms are succeeding. Most of their costumes would look more appropriate at a college house party, and they’ve paused for shots three times in the hour since Tim and McKenzie arrived.
Tarzan holds up his beer. “Fucking beauty routines.”
“Amen,” says Tim. “Although, I understand it feels pretty good. Smooth legs on cool sheets. Might be worth it.”
The King of the Jungle shakes his head, then excuses himself, and Tim follows the perimeter of the room to the table with the snacks. If he never stops moving, he won’t have to talk to anyone else. Every few minutes McKenzie turns from her group to offer him gratitude with eye contact and a smile. This attention is the only thing making the party bearable.
A couple hours later, someone turns the music down, the nurses shed their wigs and shoes, and most of the gathering opts to sit. Tim’s phone buzzes in his pocket. It’s his mom. I promise I wouldn’t be texting if it wasn’t important…
McKenzie is perched on the arm of couch next to him, and he waits until she finishes her conversation with a lingerie-clad devil about the difficulties of cleaning breast pump tubing. When McKenzie turns back, Tim whispers, “My dog just died.”
“You don’t have a dog.”
“My childhood pet, from back home.”
“Was he old?”
“She was thirteen.” Tim squeezes his eyes shut as his shoulders slump. “But she got hit by a car.”
“Oh my god.” McKenzie brushes the hair away from her eyes and rests her hand on his shoulder.
“I need to go.” Tim shakes his head as he leans forward on the couch. “I’m sorry. Can I drop you off?”
McKenzie stands. “I’m coming with you.”
“You haven’t met my parents yet.”
Tim tugs at the ragged hem of her cutoffs. “And you’re wearing this.”
“You said I look hot.”
“How much have you had to drink?”
“Enough that accompanying you sounds like a good idea, not enough that I can’t give full consent.”
Tim can’t bring himself to react to the joke. “You really don’t have to,” he says.
“Let’s go meet your parents.” McKenzie pulls Tim up, then leans in to whisper in his ear, “They can’t be any older and lamer than these people.”
The box has been sitting in the middle of Tim’s boss’s coffee table since they arrived, which means it’s inevitable. Before the evening is over, they will be playing Overshare: The Hilarious Couples Party Game That Will Have Everyone in Stitches! McKenzie has come to detest Tim’s work gatherings. He expects her to act like she’s having a blast and laugh off every lame comment. His coworkers expect her to share every detail of their relationship and play terrible games. Still, she keeps focused on the lid’s yellow bubble lettering because it distracts her from Tim’s boss’s pinky. A year after the pickle incident, it’s still discolored and swollen. And a little crooked.
“I’m so happy we can gather like this.” Tim’s boss remains elegant despite the finger, in a draping blouse and showy jewelry. “We have so much to celebrate.”
Their company manages civic fundraising campaigns, and they recently nailed a big one, twenty-one million dollars for an aquarium in North Carolina. Parties accompany all such victories, but this one is the smallest yet, with only employees and their romantic partners. No one will need stitches tonight, no matter what Overshare promises.
Tim leans over and asks McKenzie, “Are you comfortable?” She sits on a distended ottoman. At least Tim is on the floor.
“I guess,” she says.
Tim rests his hand on her knee. The awkward angle makes it an unnatural gesture. “Are you okay?”
“Super fucking okay. Okay?”
Tim retracts, and McKenzie considers apologizing. Instead she goes back to staring at the game box.
The group talks about nothing: favorite shoe brands, some office snafu that the romantic partners don’t understand, how long it’s been since everyone’s been to the dentist. Soon Tim’s boss directs the group to the kitchen for food, and McKenzie eats off the relish tray because everything else spread out on the kitchen island contains seafood. While they stand there, one of Tim’s coworkers asks McKenzie when she plans on getting engaged. McKenzie nearly chokes on her olive.
Finally they reconvene in the living room and Tim’s boss lifts the lid off of Overshare, which makes a farting noise. “Goodness, excuse me,” she says. Then she reads the directions, in their entirety, out loud. Overshare is basically Truth or Dare geared for church social groups. Which piece of your partner’s clothing do you find most alluring? Perform a PG-rated strip tease for your partner.
Tim must be able to sense McKenzie’s dread, because he whispers a preemptive, “Can you please try to have fun?” in her ear.
The action progresses around the living room. Butts are squeezed, sex acts are alluded to, and the accompanying laughs are gentle and polite. When it’s McKenzie and Tim’s turn, he gestures her towards the pile of cards in the middle of the coffee table. It’s a truth one. What was your first thought about your partner when you first met them?
“We first met when I was at work.” McKenzie can feel Tim wincing from the floor next to her. He hates this story, but he’s making her play Overshare and if Overshare wants the gritty details, she has no choice but to comply. “I’m a nurse in a urology office, and Tim came in for a procedure, so my first thought was… he’s really hairy.”
“Wait,” says one of Tim’s coworkers, a tall guy with slick hair. “That means you saw his…” The guy gestures a circle around his crotch. “…his ‘area’ right away?”
“Nice.” The guy nods and leans back. “And I assume you were so impressed that you had no choice but to ask him out?”
McKenzie rolls her eyes. “Exactly. I was mesmerized.”
This time the chuckles sound more genuine. “Alright Tim, now I’m curious,” says the woman who handles social media. “He really is the whole package,” says the wife of the company’s vice president as she taps McKenzie on the shoulder. “Get it? Package?”
Tim waves them off. He isn’t smiling. “That’s enough. Whose turn is it?”
Later in the kitchen, Tim pulls McKenzie into the corner. “Why did you have to tell everyone?”
“It’s funny. They liked it.”
“I work with these people.” Red splotches creep up his neck towards his ears.
The last time she shared the story was at a dinner where two of her nursing school friends managed to guess Tim’s specific procedure, then referred to him as “The Strangler” for the rest of the night. After that incident, McKenzie promised never to bring it up again. “Can we fight about this some other time?” she asks.
McKenzie returns to the living room, and ten minutes later, when she tries to find Tim, he’s gone. No one saw him leave. Tim’s boss completes a quick search of the condo but comes up empty-handed. “That’s so odd,” the woman says. “Did he say something and maybe you didn’t hear? Could something serious have happened?”
McKenzie leads Tim into the back room of the restaurant, and no one gathered there shouts “surprise.” This is fine, because people jumping out of the dark is a bit cliché, and anyway, Tim had noticed a few text alerts on her phone that indicated she was planning something. Still, as he stands in front of his coworkers, his parents, and the handful of McKenzie’s nursing school friends who have become his friends too, he imagines how he would have reacted if he had gotten the full surprise party routine. Eyes wide, big smile, hands crossed over his heart in gratitude. Maybe he would have bowed.
“Thanks for this,” Tim says to McKenzie before they separate to greet their guests.
She kisses his cheek. “I told you I’d make it special.”
Tim finds his mom first. “What a nice party. That McKenzie is so thoughtful.” She drinks a bright red concoction out of a martini glass. “This seems like a big step.”
“Yep, she’s great.” Tim looks past her to check the line at the bar. “What are you drinking?”
“I have no idea.”
Next Tim finds Tarzan, whose real name is Jason, at the bar. He holds his beer with his pointer finger and thumb circled around the neck and gestures by waggling the bottle. “I heard a rumor you’re going to propose tonight.”
“Who told you that?”
“Or maybe my wife just thinks you will.”
Tim snaps around with a force that startles them both. “Does McKenzie think that, too?”
Jason holds up his hands and takes a step back. “I have no idea. I’m only repeating what Gina said.”
Six months ago, Tim had finally happened upon what he and Jason have in common: whiskey. They joined a bourbon club that meets once a month at a bar downtown. But their relationship is still tenuous, so Tim says, “Sorry. No surprise proposals tonight. Hopefully someday soon.”
Jason claps Tim on the shoulder. “You’ll get there.”
By the time Tim finds his boss, other guests have started to leave. He’s only had two drinks, and he’s barely touched the food.
“When you first brought McKenzie to our place,” she says, her stack of bracelets clinking as they slide down her arm, “I knew you two were going to work out. I could see the electricity between you. How long ago was that?”
“Almost two years.”
“That’s right.” She holds up her hand with the infamous yet surprisingly normal-looking pinky, and the bracelets sound again as they slide back towards her elbow. “Thanks to that little blunder, I’ll always know exactly how long you two have been together.”
Three hours after the start of his party, Tim locates McKenzie in the restaurant foyer.
“Gina and Jason just left,” she says. “I said goodbye for you.”
“Can we leave too?”
“Isn’t it lame to be the last person at your own birthday?”
McKenzie shrugs. “I’m still having fun. What about your friends?”
“I don’t care about them. I’d rather be with you.”
The ringing of pots and pans from the kitchen and the throb of conversation from the dining room fill the foyer, yet the absence of a response from McKenzie surrounds them like the vacuum of outer space.
“Is this a sex thing?” she asks after a moment. “We can still do it, even if it’s late.”
“No.” Tim runs his hand through his hair. “I don’t understand. Why did you throw me a party if you’re not ready to get more serious? That doesn’t make any sense.”
McKenzie interlaces her fingers into his, and Tim believes she would give him what he wanted, if only she could. But all she can muster instead is a gathering in the back of a steakhouse. “Tonight was a lot of work. Can we focus on that for now?”
“And if you want to leave, we can leave.” She glances at her watch, then twists to see who remains in the backroom. “Twenty minutes. We need to say goodbye and wrap everything up.”
“Sure,” says Tim. “What’s twenty more minutes?”
McKenzie crouches in the boulevard next to her car and prepares for the onslaught of three-year-olds.
“Tenzie!” shouts Gina’s daughter as she dives in for a hug.
“Y’all are getting huge,” McKenzie says when she stands again.
Gina approaches across the lawn in a red, white, and blue sundress. “Get away from the road,” she instructs the kids, who scatter towards the backyard.
“Is he here?” McKenzie asks.
Gina crosses her arms. “Jason invited him. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s inevitable, I suppose.” McKenzie follows her friend, who walks slowly, almost as if she’s offering McKenzie a chance to bolster herself before seeing Tim for the first time since the break-up.
“The landscaping looks great,” says McKenzie. Gina and Jason have redone their entire yard since her last visit. Instead of evergreen shrubs and broad swaths of grass, stone paths crisscross the property, leading to juvenile trees extending upwards from bursts of hostas.
“We’re not sure the lindens are going to take,” says Gina. “The soil’s pretty sandy.”
“They look like they’re doing okay.”
In Gina’s backyard McKenzie finds the type of party she’s grown accustomed to. Some drinking, some talking, mostly chasing kids. Tim stands by the grill with Jason, and McKenzie avoids looking at him until she’s certain he notices her not noticing him. Then she pours herself a glass of wine from a folding table and joins the circle of her nursing school classmates. They used to talk about weird patient stories. Not anymore.
“They just raised our deductible,” says one of her friends. “We couldn’t afford to have another kid if we wanted to.”
“Are you trying?” asks another friend.
“We’re talking about thinking about it.”
Jason summons Gina over to the grill to whisper in her ear. Gina returns to the circle and gestures for McKenzie to lean in. “Tim wants to know if you want him to leave.”
“Are you kidding me?” McKenzie responds.
She crosses the stamped concrete patio to Jason, Tim, and the plume of greasy hamburger smoke. Tim is not a bad guy. He’s a great guy. Kind, funny, always able to make her feel special, and even some muscle definition across his shoulders. But if McKenzie has to pick one human to hang out with daily for the rest of her life, would she pick him? And that’s not even the question she’s been asking herself for more than two years. The real question is, would she pick anyone?
“We need to talk,” says McKenzie, hands on her hips, facing Tim as Jason backs away with his metal spatula up like a samurai sword.
Tim gestures her towards a boulder surrounded by fresh mulch, this time without his hand on the small of her back.
“We need to fix this,” she says. “I don’t want to make the whole party weird.”
“Good. So it’s easy, right?”
Tim overacts his shock with an open-mouth double take. “Of course it’s not easy. It’s anything but easy. But I’ll try.”
He puts his hands in his pockets. “You’re welcome.”
Then, they party. Wine, burgers, a new yard game with frisbees and beer bottles. No conversation is so deep that it can’t be interrupted by a beverage refill or a handful of potato chips. When McKenzie tires of listening to toilet-training war stories, she leaves the patio and enters the yard to find Tim chasing a group of three-year-olds in between decorative rocks and tufts of waist-high grass. With his arms out he looks like a zombie trying to catch enough kids for a modest lunch. It’s obvious to everyone that this is what he wants: the yard, the kids, close friends standing around, debating whether to have one more beer.
McKenzie sits on a boulder as a thought occurs to her. For the next barbecue, if Gina and Jason only choose to invite one of them, they’ll most certainly choose Tim.
For another moment she watches the chase and listens to the screams. Then, in an instant, Tim falls to the ground and grabs his ankle. The kids stop, then return to stand over him with their fingers in their mouths.
“Are you okay?” Gina’s daughter asks. “What happened?”
The party relocates around Tim as he grimaces and inhales through clenched teeth. McKenzie keeps to the periphery. “I’m so sorry,” Gina says to him. “They needed to replace some of the in-ground sprinkler heads, but they didn’t have enough on the truck, so they left holes everywhere.” She hits her husband on the arm. “I told you someone was going to break their leg.”
“It’s not broken,” says Jason.
“I don’t know,” says one of the nurses, and the rest chime in with their opinions. “He could have fractured his talus.” “I’m sure it’s just a sprain.” “Look at the swelling. That’s an anterior tibialis tear for sure.” Before they reach a consensus, the excuses start. “I’d drive you to the hospital, man, but I’ve had too many beers.” “I just put Gwen down for a nap.” “How’s your insurance? Do you have ambulance coverage?”
And just as quickly as the injury earned everyone’s attention, Tim loses it again. A kid grabs a handful of cake, another spills his juice. A girl screams at some terrifying bug she finds on the ground. Gina leaves to find a bandage, the rest of the group drips away. Except McKenzie. She steps towards her ex-boyfriend and crouches on the brick path near his head.
“What’s your diagnosis?” he asks.
“They’ll probably have to amputate.”
“Seriously, though. I should probably take you to the hospital.”
When McKenzie tells this story (to a friend or sister, probably her mom), she’ll say that she picked him up and carried him to her car like a fireman rescuing someone from a burning building. In reality, the trek across the yard is much more awkward, with his arm around her shoulder, her trying to lift him with one arm around his ribs, and him hopping in between gasps and winces. When they reach her car, he says, “Are you sure you don’t mind leaving?”
“Not at all.” She leans forward to pour him into the passenger seat. “I hate parties.”
He relaxes, leaning back on the headrest like he’s finally arrived home. “I didn’t know that.”
“I thought you did.” She grabs the seatbelt and hands it to him. “You do now.”