by Rachel Hochhauser
Aaron and Irene married in a public park with a large green lawn, though the ceremony was in the shaded woody part, where small acorns covered the ground and caught in guests’ shoes. It was a late marriage for Aaron, and a second for Irene. Her first husband, an architect, wasn’t invited. In the crowd there were familiar faces. Aaron’s college friends, bearded, stood together.
They’d all known each other at Penn and trickled out west, following one by one like senior citizens to early retirement. They met for bagels on Saturdays. At the reception, they sat at one table, alternating with their wives.
The celebration wasn’t ostentatious—simple. The groom sold magazine ad space and the bride was a painter. Irene used oils to recreate local landscapes and sold canvasses to tourists. She’d done the planning herself. Tables and cloths rented from a party supplier, champagne and a middlebrow merlot. There was no bridal party or best man, but Stuart, who had been Aaron’s college roommate, gave the toast.
He faced the crowd as he spoke, and though he had not planned the speech, the words found themselves. They reflected the convivial warmth their group felt toward one another, and the history and integrity of their happiness. Stuart enjoyed knowing that he could evoke those feelings and that he was viewed as good. As he finished, the lowering sun warmed the audience’s faces and foreheads so that they reflected his goodness back toward him. After the party, his wife, Diane, took one of the homemade centerpieces.
A year later, there was a small anniversary party. Aaron and Irene would defrost the top tier of the wedding cake, their email said. It would be casual: at their home.
Stuart and Diane drove over, Stuart in the driver’s seat. He asked: “Why were they fighting?” When they’d left, their children—a boy and a girl—had been arguing.
“Sam read her diary again. He picked the lock.” Diane, balancing a covered bowl across her knees, inspected herself in the mirror on the back of the visor.
“She should have hidden it.”
“Or maybe,” Diane turned to face her husband. “Sam shouldn’t read someone else’s journal.”
“Or maybe,” Stuart paused for effect, “he should find a way to do it without getting caught.”
“What does a seven-year-old have to say that’s so secret?”
“It’s wrong. He’s your son.” Diane had a way of saying this that implied Sam belonged more to him than her—divided by sex, or something deeper. But Stuart had watched his wife grow with child for all those months, and seen the way the boy looked for his mother. Their son was theirs if not hers.
Diane added, “Kay caught him because she put a strand of hair inside the page.”
Stuart felt a surge of pride. A streak of something bright—Kay’s face, round and sweet and fiercely intelligent—amongst all the other things he was thinking. “She’s so smart. How do you know all of this?”
“I was listening.”
“You were eavesdropping? How is that so different from reading a journal?”
He grabbed his wife’s hand. “I’m teasing.”
Diane sighed. “You missed the turn.”
They found a parking spot two houses down from Aaron and Irene’s. Stuart reflected, as he normally did, on how unusual it was for a painter to live in that kind of place: modern and breathtaking. Expensive. You don’t fund palaces of steel and glass, heated floors and succulent gardens, with canvass and color. You couldn’t.
Irene’s previous husband had built it. The roof deck with the fireplace and the tiled Jacuzzi out back and the long strip of dirt intended for vegetables. Irene had a studio downstairs, with tall blank walls. Her own gallery.
She was in the open kitchen, in high, tight pants and a loose top, waving her arms as she told a story to Joy, one of the wives. “Come in, come in,” she called, though Stuart and Diane were already inside. They went through the living room, saying hello, and when they got to Irene the two women pressed their cheeks against one another.
“We’re here!” Diane said. “So nice you guys are doing this.” She put her bowl down on the counter, next to a bouquet no one had put into water.
“Hummus,” she explained.
Irene lifted the foil. “I love your hummus.”
“Oh, yes,” Joy agreed. “The perfect texture!”
Stuart looked past the women, outside. Through the window, he could see Aaron and Toby and David around the barbecue. Diane began to describe a recipe—soaking and food processors and tahini—and Stuart excused himself.
His wife liked to talk about her high school friends. The fab five—the name they had given themselves. Women who hardly kept in touch except for the occasional Christmas card. (“Happy Holidays,” they wrote, because she had married a Jew.) But there was never a label for Stuart’s group. They were just a group.
In college, there were four of them: Stuart and Aaron had been one another’s first roommate. David had come to the group rich and soft until their competition and banter formed him into something more. Toby liked to tell stories, and always had; he’d grown up outside of Boston, where bravado and not giving a fuck was currency. Every fight Stuart had ever been in was because of Toby. They kept their circle tight.
Not that there weren’t outliers—Howard MacPherson had let them copy his homework and then gone on to make millions with a shoe company that sold sneaker-sandal hybrids. And it was Howard that, for the wedding, had gifted Aaron and Irene the three hundred dollar bottle of saké that now sat on the patio table beside the barbecue.
“Brought out the good stuff, huh?” Stuart slid the door shut behind him.
“Tallboy,” Toby said. Stuart’s nickname.
“Is Howie here?” Stuart had never really liked Howard, but tried not to make a point of it. Howie’d come to the group late, a little bit younger and a little bit uglier than the rest of them. Now, he lived in Nashville, though he’d flown into town for the wedding a year before. Stuart already knew the answer to his question.
“Nah.” Aaron stood in front of the closed grill, and pointed to the saké with the tongs he held. “Just thought it was an appropriate time to crack it open.”
“He’s playing golf somewhere,” David said, and the group chuckled. Toby pointed to the tub of beer, their glass necks extending from ice water, and Stuart went over and took one.
“We were just saying,” David leaned against the wall as he spoke, “remember—remember how we drove to that concert upstate and there was so much traffic that those girls that came with us—”
“Nancy,” Toby interrupted Aaron.
“No. Martha.” David shook his head. There were so many things they had done—it was easy to forget.
“Those girls!” Toby rapped his knuckles against the edge of the planter he was leaning against.
“Suntanning on the hood of the car!” Stuart did remember—brown, flat nipples on one and asymmetrical breasts on the other. He’d been enthralled by their indifference. “Yeah,” he added.
“Yeah,” Aaron repeated.
“They didn’t come back with us.”
“They figured it out, I’m sure.”
The door slid sideways and Irene came outside, putting a hand on Aaron’s neck. “How’s the meat looking?” she asked.
Aaron opened the grill. The sausages had grown fat and were beginning to spit.
“I want to put on the veggie burgers.” Irene turned to look at her husband’s friends. “How are your kids, Stu?”
“They’re good. Great. Good,” he said, and took another swig of beer.
It seemed to Stuart that this was more than half of what the group did when they were together: remembered things that had already happened, as if the past tense could increase something’s worth. But there was so much to remember. The group had driven across the country together and all gotten lice. Another time, Toby had stolen a case of lobsters, thinking he could sell them, but they’d escaped and crawled along the hallways of the dorm. When Aaron’s college girlfriend had died—a freak accident, a blow-dryer falling into the tub—they took him straight out of Philadelphia for the weekend. They’d packed David’s station wagon and headed into the woods, where they attempted to talk about things far beyond their understanding and ate canned hot dogs for three days.
Over that weekend, when Aaron had seemed as dark as they would ever see him, they had made one another a promise: to look out for each other always. Simple and trite, but also pure and true, and they’d stuck to it. Or said they had. For Stuart, he felt that might have been a lie. But it was easier now, with the beers and the swollen bellies and the years between them, to forget what was real and what wasn’t, and most of the time Stuart let his decisions go unexamined.
When most of the food was ready, Irene arranged it buffet-style in the kitchen. Stuart took his paper plate and went to Aaron, who was finishing up the last of the burgers on the grill.
“A year in,” he clamped a hand onto his friend’s shoulder.
“A year,” Aaron nodded. “You’re how many?”
“Nine.” He’d met Diane after college.
Aaron looked down at the grill. “What’s the secret?”
“The secret,” Stuart removed his hand. “Is to enjoy the first year.”
Aaron turned one of the green patties and made a jerking gesture with his head, back toward the party. “We have scheduled sex.”
“Hey,” Stuart shrugged, then grinned. “If it’s frequent.” He felt uncomfortable.
“It works better that way. Because we’re busy.” Aaron began to move the burgers onto a plate.
Stuart told him: “Your secret’s safe with me.”
He couldn’t remember how Aaron had first met his wife. The details of the encounter hadn’t been important—Irene only gained significance as more time went on. Before her, there had been no steady or easy presence of women in Aaron’s life. It was, the guys said, psychological, linking back to what had happened to Claire.
After she’d died, Aaron went inwards. Not that he didn’t deserve grief, if grief were ever a thing to be deserved. He and Claire had subsisted off of one another. There’d been a frenzied madness to the way they had dated—from thereon, though Aaron had still been a part of the group, there was a piece of him that was always separate, even when the guys were together.
So, naturally, he’d taken the loss hard. Naturally, it would take effort to get through days and weeks and months without the presence of a thing you’d come to depend on. But while the rest of Aaron’s life had gone forward—graduation to work, studio to house—Stuart was convinced that his friend had moved on in every way except the most important way, and probably still jacked off to the idea of Claire’s long, freckled legs.
By the time he’d finished eating, Stuart had downed another pilsner. He didn’t feel drunk—he wasn’t drunk—but when his wife came over to lead him away from the guests, he felt a small lick of intention. Diane had taken his hand and was pulling him down the staircase, two steps below, and he could see the top of her head, the way her brown hair split at the part and her white scalp showed through, and then lower, her skirt and her hips. A skirt!
“A steal,” she said.
“Come on, I’ll show you.”
They’d reached the bottom of the steps, and she opened the frosted-glass door into the studio, where Irene’s paintings hung on the tall, white walls.
“There, that one.” Diane pointed, and led him across the paint-covered floor to a smaller canvass on an easel. A stream and rocks and a fish, jumping from the water.
“It’s nice,” he said, uncertain.
“I think it would be great in the dining room.”
Stuart put a hand on Diane’s hip and moved his fingers downward, along the harder part of her outer leg. “Mmm,” he said.
“It would be great to support her.”
“Imagine it in a contemporary frame. Something white, maybe. It’s acrylic. What do you think?”
What he thought was that Irene’s paintings weren’t so great, and felt commercial in a way that belonged to sentimentalists. He’d never say that to his wife, though, because the two women were friendly, and Diane had already purchased a smaller piece—a depiction of the northern bluffs—that hung in their guest bathroom. His supportive role in these details sometimes felt like the thing that held them together.
“What do you think, Stuart?” Diane repeated. “What do you really think? Be honest.”
“I think…” He looked back at the painting—rainbow bellies of trout glistened in sunlight reflecting off the water.
“It’s okay,” she said, looking generous. “We can talk about it later. I just wanted to show you, you know, when Irene wasn’t here, so you could have a reaction.”
“Right,” he said, and went to put his other hand on his wife’s body. She stepped away from him.
“We should get back upstairs before anyone notices.”
“Right,” he said again.
Diane went to the door, adding, “But I really want to know what you think.”
Stuart looked back over at the ugly painting, wondering at the shifting equation of keeping information. There wasn’t that much that he hid from his wife—or people at all. In high school, he had told his parents that he had quit when he’d been fired from his weekend job, and lied occasionally when he snuck out with his friends. During college, he’d cheated on tests and given an RA fifty bucks not to turn him in. But he kept all sorts of things from his kids—protecting them, first from life, and then from the realities of life, preserving a perspective that was precious and short-lived. And he’d never told Diane about the time he had nearly backed over the dog, or the female client who liked to sit too close, or his crippling self-doubt, his desire at times to run away from everything, from the need to support and provide and stand tall and be good and do the right thing.
He’d also never told her about what had happened between him and Claire in the weeks before the tub. More questionably, he’d never told Aaron.
Back upstairs, the party had changed stages. Toby was passing his pipe around, and everyone had moved toward the living area, leaving dirty paper plates on counters and tables, gathering in an informal circle surrounding the coffee table. Diane had already taken her shoes off, and was sitting cross-legged on the ground.
“We’re going to have the cake,” she told Stuart, who went beside her.
“The wedding cake,” Joy said. “Oh, Stu, give another speech. Yours was so great last time.”
“You speak with such poignancy,” Toby said, not serious.
Diane smiled and rubbed Stuart’s leg. “He just loves you guys. We love you guys.” Stuart wondered if she had drunk as much as he had.
“A speech?” he repeated.
“We have to wait for Irene,” Joy said.
Aaron looked around. “Where is Irene?”
Stuart imagined then—he couldn’t help himself—Aaron’s wife, beneath him, just as he had seen Claire, her hair spread out, a lock of it across her throat, looking up from that elemental angle.
“I don’t want to give a speech,” he said.
“Oh, come on, you’re so good at them.” Joy swiped a hand through the air in his direction. “You’re so good!”
“I’m not good,” he said.
“He’s always been. He used to walk every girl home,” David said, and then added, “Sorry, Diane.”
“Why do you think I married him?” Diane’s voice took on affectation.
“I’m not giving a speech.” He left his wife out there on that little spring of a joke she’d loaded, the spring meant for and in need of partnership. The group looked at him in surprise. Joy held her drink in midair, unmoving.
“I’ll go find Irene,” Stuart added. “So we can eat the fucking cake.”
She was on the roof deck, leaning against the wall that went around the perimeter. She’d brought the saké, which she’d set on top of the ledge beside her, and held a cigarette.
“They’re waiting for you,” Stuart said, and Irene turned around.
She held up the small roll of tobacco as if to say: you caught me.
Stuart went over to her side and, together, they tilted to look down the smooth side of the house to the carport below. He was sweating a bit, from the sun and from the stairs.
“I don’t come up here very often,” she told him.
He picked up the bottle of saké and looked at the hieroglyphic label—all in Japanese, far from his understanding. “It could just be table wine in here, and I wouldn’t know the difference.”
“That would be something.” Irene stubbed out her cigarette.
“Did you try it?” Irene and Aaron had saved the bottle for all that time, as if the saving itself would give more value to the contents, and Stuart suddenly wanted to taste the drink, to see if all of the waiting—the aging of the liquid and the weeks that had passed since it had come into their hands—would coagulate into something of meaning.
“You go ahead.”
Stuart took the bottle in his hands and undid the top. The wine tasted sweet and silky, and not what he wanted to have inside of his mouth after so much beer.
“Not your thing, then,” Irene said, watching his face. She reached down into a flowerpot and took out a glass tumbler, full of butts. She added another and hid the cup again.
Stuart set the bottle back on the ledge, and looked at his friend’s wife. He knew so little about her. She collected fetishes. Native American rock carvings of animals, decorated with feathers and semi-precious stones—they were on a shelf in the living room. “Does he talk to you ever? About Claire?” he asked.
“She died. Aaron’s college girlfriend.” Stuart pressed against the ledge with his forearms. “It’s like the chicken and the egg. Does the pedestal come first, or do you assign it?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.” Irene’s voice went sharp—a honed sting that came from insecurity.
“Perhaps what it is, is that she was lucky, because she died before the rest of us got a chance to see the worst in her.” He bit his cuticle, a habit he had started in college. “I never knew if you knew about Claire.”
“Of course I know about Claire.”
“Right,” he said, seeing then that Claire was just as much a presence in Irene’s life as his own. He looked at the saké: the swoops and swaying sashay of the lettering and the neck that thinned into round lips. Reaching out, he nudged the glass with the back of his hand, so that the bottle fell from the ledge and crashed to the ground two stories below.
Irene let out a sharp rush of air and they both peered over, looking down at the shattered pieces.
“Stuart!” she said.
He thought about telling her about Claire and the things he and Claire had done.
“What did you do that for?” Irene exclaimed, but without the force of anger.
He drew back his shoulders and turned to face her. He would give Irene that dark, glistening piece of information, a shard, and wait to see what she would do with it.
It was possible that Stuart could do for Aaron’s wife what he had never done for Aaron.
“Claire and I…” he began. He couldn’t know without trying.
Rachel Hochhauser is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her stories have appeared in Per Contra, Clapboard House, and Connu. The recipient of the Pillsbury Foundation Creative Writing Award and an alumna of NYU, Rachel also holds a master’s in professional writing from the University of Southern California, where she served as fiction editor of The Southern California Review. You can find her non-fiction in the likes of Daily Beast, The Date Report, and Inc. Magazine. Recently, she finished her first novel. Find out more at rachelhochhauser.com.
Image credit: J. Jeremiah on Flickr