Friday 30 September 2022

Tom’s Homework by David Gower, sloe gin toddy

‘How was your class? First day back with familiar faces or new people?’

The enquiry was genuine but sounded strange to Tom as an adult. It was a long time since anyone had asked him a similar question. A very long time. It came from Sam – his mate - as they sat in the garden enjoying a beer in the last of the summer sunshine. Tom made no reply to his friend. He seemed lost in thoughts of his own.

Class was, of course, session number one of the new writing season. Tom had waited all summer for the booking season to open, then the scramble to register in time to make sure of a place – last year had been very near the wire. After all that came the wait to hear if the reward of membership would result.

There were some familiar faces and a few new ones but the character of the group – friendly and encouraging seemed to have survived the summer break. At the end of the session Miss had set the group their homework – write something about your own experience.

It was always the same question for him. Write about what? There had been the usual mulling over of ideas, discarding some, kicking others about within the grey matter but reaching no satisfactory conclusion. Like there were the rich and the poor – so there was another equal and opposite pairing. This was the group who when given a blank sheet would launch into a flight of creativity bounded only by a word limit versus those who craved an air traffic controller of the written word able to guide the writer through the fog of part formed ideas with clear instructions for a safe landing.

Last night Tom had an old nightmare again. Always the same type linked to anxiety, like an unwelcome school bully whenever there was homework due. Sometimes, he saw himself as a child holding lots of balloons. Each one had a story title printed on the surface. There were so many, and they lifted him into the atmosphere drifting over the landscape far below. Always upward and ever closer to the sea. No one heard his cries for help. He told himself that he must let go of some balloons and save himself before being lost at sea.

Which balloons to let loose? They all had potential for a story. The longer he held on the less time he had to save himself from disaster. He had to let something so he could arrive in class with his homework. He knew that he had to choose but how could he decide?

Some people had the same nightmare every time. Not Tom. His grey matter devised twists in the torture of his bad dreams. Not for him the dread of a looming fate and waking moments before inevitable doom. His nightmares had variations. In one version he saw himself sitting in his usual place in class. Miss would smile and look in his direction. His stomach would tighten as the others in the group gazed benevolently towards him. He would hear himself say

‘The dog ate my homework, Miss.’ Laughter would erupt while Miss would smile kindly and say, ‘Never mind, my dog is a hungry beast too! They will eat anything not nailed down.’

In another version he would blame technology - always a sure-fire winner to direct enmity towards machinery. Worst of all was another balloon fantasy. However, many balloons he tried to blow up no amount of puff would inflate them. Their empty skins remained limp in his hands providing an unhappy metaphor for his lack of creative ideas. In the still hours of the night, he was sure that Jung or Freud would explain them as related to earlier life experiences, probably sexual. Those psychiatrists had more issues than him!

Last night’s dream was the one where none of the balloons would inflate. Worse still as he began to wake from his slumber, he felt a heavy weight on his chest. A heavy weight on the chest could only mean a heart attack. Terrified he opened his eyes. There, only inches away were two eyes, a nose and whiskers. The cat was signalling that any caring owner should feed her no matter time it was.

‘Hello. Anyone at home? Tom. Are you all right mate?’ Sam’s voice brought Tom back from thinking about his dreams and heart thumping awakening.

‘Me? What? Oh, er, yes, I was miles away thinking about what to write for class next time.’

Sam also had an interest in writing and always wanted to be helpful. Even if he could not help then at least he could give his opinion on any subject whether it was invited or not.

His suggestions came uninvited ‘Look around a room for ideas. You know, the books on shelves – why did the person buy them? Have they ever read them or are they just for show like economics books. Who ever reads those? Or those little paragraphs in newspapers that never give you the end of the story. Did you see the one where the escaped python slithered across a roof into the people next door? What happened to the owner? Did they face any consequences? Why would anyone, anyone at all keep a python in a terraced house? How can it be legal? You know me, mate, I never judge anybody but what is the world coming to?’

‘I know Sam. Sometimes I have a no inspiration at all and then at other times I write lists of thing but never seem able to decide what to keep or throw out. It is all interesting so how to decide?’

‘Tom, it might all be interesting to you, but you must make decisions. It doe not really matter how you do it. Even tossing a coin – a random method that lends to a story reliant upon whether it lands heads or tails. Make your list and then toss a coin for what stays and goes till you get to one remaining. Your story can be about how you chose the topic!’

The sound of car tyres on gravel at the front of the house carried into the garden. The slamming of car doors, the sound of high pitches voices and a harassed adult gave an audible account of event otherwise out of sight.

‘That will be Jane bringing the grandchildren to play but stay and finish your beer, Tom.’

‘I’ll drink up and be off. Never leave a glass with beer in it. You know I always obey the slogan on the detergent adverts, Sam.’

‘Slogan? What slogan?’

Tom smiled with the confidence that his reply would appeal to his own sense of humour and said, ‘Always keep away from children.’

The gate into the garden from the driveway opened and through it came a child holding a huge bunch of balloons each jostling its neighbour in the breeze. On the table was a half full glass of beer glinting in the sunshine and Tom was already through the gate.

About the auhtor 

David has been a contributor of several stories to Cafelit following his introduction to his local creative writing group. Back after a long break struggling with technology! Did you enjoy the story? Would you like to shout us a coffee? Half of what you pay goes to the writers and half towards supporting the project (web site maintenance, preparing the next Best of book etc.)

Thursday 29 September 2022

The Closet by Imani Felder, Cinnamon Dolce

 

Iliana’s knees bounced against the fluffy carpet of Marcus’ living room. Surrounded by classmates and acquaintances she more often than not just avoided in the halls at school. Yet, here she was, shoulder to shoulder as the empty coke bottle that she spun, turning in the center of the circle. As it slowed, it landed on Kennie Doheny dance prodigy and the princess of the school. It was already a surprise she even showed up, normally she was preparing for a performance or being pranced around by her mother to potential schools.

The slow and hesitant smile on her powdery pink lips only prompted a few ‘oohs’ and ‘ahh’s’ from the group however, Iliana, was frowning. Her dark eyes followed as Kennie stood up and swayed her hips to the closet. As the group was whooping and cheering, Iliana brushed her thick, black hair behind her ear roughly before stomping her way to the closet.

Marcus, as the host of the party, came up to the door right behind them with a wide smile. “You’ve got seven minutes ladies, please enjoy yourselves.” Then the door was shut, and the click of the lock had Iliana sinking into the wall of coats with a harsh blow of air.

Even in the darkness of the room, the silhouettes could be seen of each other from the light streaming in under the door. “This is truly the last place I want to be,” Kennie said suddenly, her solemn voice cutting through the stale air.

Iliana rolled her eyes and sunk to the ground, “Then please leave, I might be able to enjoy myself if you weren’t here.” 

“Iliana, you know that’s not what I meant. Must you always be so difficult and defensive?” Kennie exclaimed, her sharp voice making Iliana cover her ears with a huff.

“Please, Kennie, spare me the lecture. You don’t even know me. We had one stupid group project and now you’re the professor on my personality?”

“It wasn’t just a stupid group project but if you want to be a bitch about the whole thing, then fine! It’s not my fault you are some self-absorbed freak.”

Iliana looked over at the girl hard. Her eyes pierced through the darkness at her figure as if it would make her image clearer. How could she say that? How could she -

“Oh, I’m the freak now?” Iliana said through gritted teeth. “You were the one afraid someone would see us and yet I still let you kiss me like a lab project. But I’m the freak, right?

Kennie crossed her arms across her chest and Iliana watched as the girl shifted her weight from foot to foot. When Kennie didn’t speak, Iliana chuckled under her breath, scratching her chin.

“If this is truly the last place you want to be, why are you still here? Why tell me it wasn’t a stupid group project but act like I don’t exist?” Question after question tumbled out of Iliana’s mouth before she could even think about it. But it could be also due to what had been bothering her since that day. She had never even kissed a girl before, or well anyone for that fact. But Kennie suggested it and she allowed it, and now tonight is the first time she even spoke to her again. The feelings in Iliana’s gut made her wrap her arms around her stomach.

“Iliana, I just – “But the door was opening, cutting Kennie off mid-sentence, and blinding the two girls with the now bright lights of the living room. Biting her lip, Iliana stood swiftly and pushed past Marcus, her boots stomping all the way to the kitchen.

She didn’t even know where she was going, she just knew anywhere but that suffocating closet and that suffocating girl with her flowery perfume and soft pink lips. Hands pressed against the counter, Iliana closed her eyes for a moment and let out a shaky breath.

But the clicking of heels made her snap her head up and just as she was turning, soft pink lips pressed against hers. Iliana’s eyes looked down at Kennie in shock who stared up at her with a look she couldn’t quite place.

“It was truly the last place I wanted to be because every time I’m too close to you now, I want to kiss you. Is that bad?”

Iliana swallowed hard, shaking her head, “I don’t know, but I also wouldn’t mind if you did it again.”

Kennie smiled, this time wide and with a scrunch of her nose before she was leaning up again and kissed her, this time holding her close as she did so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday 28 September 2022

Poor Charlie by David Gower, hot tea milk but no sugar

 Condensation ran down the steamy windows of the café. Behind the Formica covered counter what had once been a gleaming coffee machine hissed and bubbled. Long established stains ran down the sides towards a discoloured drip tray, it was evident to any eye – trained or untrained – that this   greasy spoon was greasier than most. Nevertheless, it provided Inspector Rivers with somewhere away from the station and his never ending pile of forms and cases to process. It had the benefit of being close enough in case he was needed but too far for colleagues to drop by casually. They had the station canteen and cheap grub available. Here offered a haven for thinking things through.

He sat alone toying with the half-drunk cup of tea in front of him. Had he been at home or in his office he would have poured the liquid into the saucer and blown across the surface to cool it. People frowned upon that sort of thing nowadays even in a place as down market as the Sunbeam Café. It was the kind of thing that betrayed his origins now he had a position to uphold. Reluctantly, he conformed and sipped from the cup whilst watching his cigarette burn between his fingers. Strange stuff smoke. It rose into the air, becoming the plaything of any passing draught until vanishing into nothingness. Eventually all that smoke would, somehow, join the smoke deposited over the years adding to the overall sepia tone of the café’s painted surfaces

Not even the sunniest of summer bank holiday in Brighton would make the Sunbeam look welcoming but it offered a place to reflect upon the discovery of the body earlier in the day. He had always been very fond of the victim and the level of violence seemed senseless, almost spiteful. Poor old Charlie, lying beside the pond with only one clue to the identity of the killer immediately available.

That clue lay in front of the Inspector on the Formica covered table. He put down his cup and stubbed out his cigarette. Now both his hands were free he could examine the item again. For all the world it was a charm, the kind that a woman would wear on one of those bracelets bedecked with tiny sewing machines, ten bob notes in a lantern and heart shaped fobs. This was just a simple letter of the alphabet. No hallmark just a yellow metal letter left beside Charlie’s mangled body. No witnesses to the event and any footprints of the killer already burnt away by the summer sun. Turning this over time and again told him no more that it had earlier. How many times had he fingered this trinket since Charlie had been found but no solution offered itself? The Inspector smiled to himself, any self-respecting detective in literature would experience a moment of clarity at such a point. That was the difference between real life and fiction. Life was a mix of random events whilst an author could lead the reader along a winding road and solve the mystery at a stroke. They should live in his world.

Time for the Inspector to get back to the station. Doreen was behind the counter of the Sunbeam Café today. Someone less able to project a sunbeam would be hard to find. An ever-present cigarette hung from her lips, her beehive hair set rock hard by hairspray and a voice flat and emotionless from years of the daily grind. Behind her on the wall was a framed picture of her terrier on the Brighton beach. She took his money for tea, a packet of fags and some matches. As he reached the café door, she called him ‘Inspector, don’t forget your hat love.’

Emerging into the sunshine he almost bumped into a smartly dressed woman. In her hand she had several sheets of paper. She seemed to be trying to pin one to a telegraph pole with little success. Always one to help a lady the Inspector smiled, took the sheet and between the two of them completed the task. Smiles were exchanged and the Inspector walked off in the direction of the station. What an overwhelming scent she wore. No time to chat to strange women, the mystery of Charlie still topped his thoughts. Senseless and probably never to be solved with just one clue.

Back at the station life had returned to what passed as normal. Charlie’s body removed and no sign of anything amiss where the corpse had been discovered. It seemed to the Inspector that no one was bothered about poor Charlie other than himself.

Constable Martin greeted the Inspector with a cheery grin. ‘Something fishy about all this, guvnor.’

The Inspector ignored the poor taste of his junior’s words.

‘Fishy indeed, Constable Martin. Nothing to do except show your limited wit to the world?’

Martin continued undeterred ‘A large scale crime wave about to begin if you ask me.’

‘Enough, have you no work to do?’

‘No need to be coy about it, boss,’ was Martin’s final barb.

There was an uncomfortable silence in the office as Inspector Rivers returned to his paperwork. The little yellow metal letter taunted him still. How had Charlie met his end?

Time in the office dragged. The shadows moved relentlessly across the Inspector’s desk indicating the approach of his shift. To break the monotony the Inspector went to light a cigarette beside the ornamental fish pool. Often he had sat here with Charlie and his mates. Now Charlie was no more. The emptiness seemed to be magnified whilst an uncaring world continued.

Back into the stuffy office and the hands of the clock, at last, indicated the end of the Inspector’s working day. His route to the street took him via the reception area. A strong perfume hung in the air which the Inspector recognised from earlier in the day. Strong perfume, smart woman and there on the notice board was a familiar sheet of paper.

It was a lost animal poster. A grey, short hair blue cat. Lost in the area recently and a reward available to anyone finding Kitty. The animal sported a jewelled collar with a yellow metal initial K clearly visible.

The Inspector’s prize Koi carp Charlie had been fished from the pond by Kitty during the previous night on the Brighton railway station platform outside the railway police office. Poor Charlie.

About the author

David has been a contributor of several stories to Cafelit following his introduction to his local creative writing group. Back after a long break struggling with technology! 

Did you enjoy the story? Would you like to shout us a coffee? Half of what you pay goes to the writers and half towards supporting the project (web site maintenance, preparing the next Best of book etc.)

Tuesday 27 September 2022

Inna Gadda Da Vida, A Fractured Fairy Tale by Curtis A. Bass, a tall iced green tea, sweetened.

 

In the beginning… oh hell, forget that. There was no beginning. Gods are eternal beings. We always were. At least that’s what I think. The Big Guy says he created me, but he says a lot of things that ain’t necessarily so. Anyway, after an eternity of sitting in darkness doing squat, he got the idea of creating a universe. I don’t know why it took him so long to come up with it. Being all-wise and so forth, but refer back to the disclaimer above. My memory of fourteen billion years ago is a bit hazy, but we were all here then; me, Michael, Gabriel, YHWH and the rest. Yeah, he calls himself YHWH. As the lord of all creation, you’d think he could buy a vowel. But he’s so touchy about things like that.

***

So, his followers have a book that says he made the entire universe in six days. Nope. In usual YHWH fashion he dicked around for five days and then pulled an all-nighter. That’s why he did such a shitty job. I mean platypuses and penguins? Give me a break. This universe has amateur night written all over it. And if you’re a cosmologist, yes this is the first iteration. It definitely could use a reset. His followers say there was a reset a few thousand years ago with a big flood, but no, that was a local thing. It was just a big oops on YHWH’s part, anyway. He’s like a bull in a china shop. No finesse. But I digress.

***

            Anyway, he created everything. And as his book says, he created man, ‘male and female created he them.’ Basically, they were golems. Look it up. He called them Adam and Lilith. Then he created a ton of animals and told Adam he could name them. So Adam named them Harry, Joe, Eugene and so on until YHWH stopped him and explained that’s not what he meant. Adam wasn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. So he started over, ‘dog, cat, fly’… No one seemed to care what Lilith wanted to call them. Her job was to tidy up the garden and sweep out the elephant shit. ‘Emu, lion, blue-tailed skink’…

***

            YHWH liked to come to the garden and sit with them in the evening's cool. He’s always had a problem with the heat. Fortunately, it never bothered me. He liked things as they were. He’d sit, Lilith would fawn over him and Adam was still naming animals… ‘mosquito, mouse, wombat’.

***

            Things were slow in the ether one day, so I decided to drop by Eden to see how things were going. I caught up with Lilith carrying a huge load of elephant shit down to the river.

‘Let me help with that,’ I said.

‘Thanks.’ In the background I heard… ‘monkey, cobra, antelope’…

‘You know, it would be easier if you wove some of those grasses into a basket, or we could take some poles and make a travois. Something like that would work better.’ She just looked at me blankly. Seeing as she was buck naked, I figured out they hadn’t gotten around to inventing things yet. So, I went more basic.

‘How about fire to cook your food, or for warmth?’

‘It is always warm here. What is cook? Our food is the fruit, berries and nuts all around us.’

‘How about tools to help you do your work?’

‘We do no work. Adam names the animals and I clean up. That is how it has always been.’

This was worse than I’d thought. YHWH was keeping them ignorant. Buck naked, no tools, no art, totally vegan, not a lean steak in sight. It was just wrong. These talking animals had so much potential. It was just a waste.

‘Hey, Lilith,’ Adam interrupted us. ‘I gotta go to the beach. YHWH wants me to name all the animals in the ocean. I’ll be back in a few days. By the way, I just named gorilla and he shit all over the place. Be sure to clean it up.’

Okay, I thought. This is just ridiculous.

‘Lilith, girl. I need to show you something,’ I said. ‘Let’s go to the center of the garden.’

When we got there, Lilith shouted, ‘Shit! That freaking gorilla got crap on everything. It will take me all day to clean this up.’

‘Not to worry,’ I said. I pulled a little power from my center, waved my hands and the gorilla crap all faded away.              

‘You can do that?’ she cried incredulously.

‘No prob,’ I bragged.

‘Show me how.’

‘Uh, I can’t. I can do it, you can’t.’

‘Oh.’

‘But come with me over here. We have these two trees. The tree of knowledge and the tree of life,’ I showed her.

‘Yeah, YHWH said not to mess with them. They’re deadly.’

‘If YHWH said you could eat whatever you wanted, then why would he put something deadly right here in the middle of the garden?’

‘I don’t know. YHWH moves in mysterious ways?’

I walked up to the tree of knowledge and picked off a piece of knowledge fruit. It was golden, luscious and ripe. ‘Here, taste this. I think you’ll see things differently.’

She took a bite, golden juice dribbling down her chin. She giggled and wiped it off. In a few more bites it was all gone. She looked around with her eyes wide. ‘What a fool I’ve been. I’ve been working like a slave here while Adam sits around on his fat ass and does nothing but call out stupid words like kangaroo or boomslang or tell me to fetch him a bunch of grapes. And YHWH just watches and laughs. I’ve been so stupid.’

‘Not stupid. Just ignorant. There is a difference.’

‘Just wait till that jerk gets back. He’s going to get a piece of my mind.’

Not so good for Adam, but maybe Lilith could kick start humanity toward its destiny.

***

            When Adam got back, Lilith was waiting for him. She uttered for the first time the four words that have forever struck fear in the heart of every man — ‘we need to talk.’ It didn’t begin well, never got better and ended worse. ‘Fuck this shit. I’ve had it with you, YHWH and the whole garden thing. I’m packing my fig leaf and leaving. The Nephilim are having a rave over in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Gabriel’s my ride. I’m outta here!’ was how she left.

‘Fig leaf?’ Adam asked.

***

            Sometime later, I came upon YHWH wandering around Heaven glowering. He’s always had a hairtrigger temper and is generally cranky, but today he looked quite perturbed about something in particular, not just his general unpleasantness.

‘What up, Big Guy?’ I asked.

‘I’ve told you don’t call me that. And I’m pissed at Lilith. That shameless hussy has gone and left Adam. He’s been moaning that he has too much work without Lilith to help him. He said she took off with Gabriel. Said she called him a sadistic son of a bitch and a dickless man. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she’s been eating off the tree of knowledge. I probably made a mistake making them out of equal mud. I’ll fix it though. I’ll make Adam a new helper and I’ll make sure she knows her place.’

So he did and called her Eve.

***

            Adam finally finished naming all the animals. YHWH let him skip the big lizard looking things because they weren’t going to survive anyhow. Now he could devote more of his time to laying about the garden and directing Eve in what needed doing.

***

            Lilith eventually heard that Adam had a new maid, so she sneaked back to Eden for a look-see. She was not surprised. Adam was lying on a bed of leaves, hand in his lap, fondling his balls. He was getting a little thick around the waist. Eve was looking a little worse for wear, fetching him food and keeping the animal shit in the garden cleared. When Eve was out of sight of Adam, Lilith grabbed her arm and said, ‘Girlfriend, we need a heart to heart.’

It didn’t take her long to get Eve to the tree of knowledge and have her eat a piece. Eve, now a smart cookie in her own right, decided to bring Adam into the fold so she took him a piece of the fruit.

‘What’s this?’ he asked.

‘It’s knowledge.’

‘Isn’t a little knowledge a dangerous thing?’

‘Don’t be cute. Just eat the damn thing.’

Once both their eyes were opened they realized how empty their lives had been. They’d had no purpose, no dreams, nothing to look forward to. Now they did. Especially the sex which they explored enthusiastically. Eve remembered how Lilith had worn a grass skirt. She realized that a little near nudity was more erotic than total nudity. It’s all about the tease. So, she fashioned leaf skirts for both of them. Adam was dubious, but when Eve threatened to cut off the sex, he immediately complied.

***

All this time, YHWH had been dealing with a black hole situation over in the Andromeda galaxy. Remember this was his first shot at universe making. He wasn’t a physicist; didn’t know dark matter from Darth Vader and the galaxy was in a mess. He finally got everything back in order. He came back and just wanted a quiet evening in the garden. When he got there, no one was around.

‘Where is everyone?’ he wondered. Usually they ran to meet him. He wandered around until he heard giggling coming from some bushes.

‘Adam, Eve. That you?’ he called. There was hurried whispering and then the two crept out of the bushes, blushing and their hair in disarray. The little leaf skirt did not hide Adam’s rapidly dwindling erection.

‘What’s going on here? What were you doing in there?’ YHWH demanded.

‘Uh, nothing,’ Adam said.

‘And what’s with the skirts?’

‘Well, it was kinda drafty here in the garden and…’

‘Bullshit!’ roared the Almighty. ‘You’ve been eating from the tree of knowledge, haven’t you!’ he accused.

Then came the first ever case of someone being thrown under the bus.

‘It’s all Eve’s fault. She made me eat it,’ Adam babbled. Eve’s eyes flew open wide.

‘What?’ she screeched. ‘You blame me? You’ve been happy enough to fuck all day long. I think you get a little responsibility here, too, Bucko.’

‘Eve, who told you to eat from the tree of knowledge?’ YHWH demanded.

For about a nanosecond she thought of ratting on Lilith but she decided she was better than Adam. There is such a thing as female solidarity. She cast about for ideas and noticed a snake walking by.

‘It was the snake. Yeah, the snake. He told me to do it,’ she exclaimed, pointing at the snake. YHWH whipped around and pointed his finger at the snake. Lightning came from his fingertip and suddenly the snake was on the ground, his legs turned to ash.

‘What the fuck did I do?’ whined the snake. YHWH pointed again, yelling ‘Silence!’ and the snake’s tongue split in half and all he could say was ‘Ssssshit.’

YHWH was having an old-fashioned hissy fit.

‘From this day forward the three of you will be enemies. The snake will be poison and seek to bite you wherever he finds you. Man and woman will fear him and beat his head in with clubs. Men will no longer understand women, nor women, men. I will make their minds think differently. And since you like sex so much there will be consequences. You will do it to create more people to be slaves to my whims. And you will bear them in intense pain.’ He was on a roll.

‘What’s Adam’s punishment?’ Eve asked.

‘Um, I don’t know. I’ll think of something. Maybe he has to cut off a piece of his dick and if you kick him in the balls, it’ll hurt real bad. Yeah, and he can only come once a day. Now get the hell out of my garden!’

***

            So, there you have it. That’s how I helped man escape the slavery of the garden. YHWH has bumbled along a few millennia since then, fucking up one thing after another. Couldn’t even keep his son from being killed, although that was an idiotic plan from the get go. He spends a lot of time slandering me. And my name? Oh, I’ve had many names. Morning Star, Light Bringer, Prometheus. But my favorite is Lucifer. 

About the author

 
 
Curtis A. Bass (CurtisStories.blog) writes short stories from the American south in a variety of genres including science fiction, horror, mystery, and young adult. He’s had stories published in online and print journals such as Youth Imagination, Fabula Argentea, Page & Spine, and inclusion in a best of 2020 anthology. 
 
Did you enjoy the story? Would you like to shout us a coffee? Half of what you pay goes to the writers and half towards supporting the project (web site maintenance, preparing the next Best of book etc.)

Monday 26 September 2022

Redacted

 This story was judged to be too politically sensitive so has been redacted. It will be published at a future date.

The Baby Shower by Anna Braverman, strawberry milk

  Kat’s high-waited skirt was making driving unpleasant. It was cutting into her ribs and making her strain when she breathed. Damn these fancy clothes! They looked good on her, but didn’t make her feel good. Or rather, they made her feel good about how she looked, but caused a constriction of spirit. She was not by nature a fancy skirt kind of person. Well, she felt she had no alternative but to dress up today. She was on her way to a fancy baby shower and she knew people would be drssed up. There was no way she wanted to spend the whole party worrying whether she was underdressed, especially since she knew that she was destined to stand out anyways and she was actively trying to minimize the surface area to which scrutiny could attach itself, like perfume to a knitted scarf. In reality, it was pretty damn certain that no one was going to be inclined to scrutinize her at the party, but reality was not going to be her “plus one,” so its point of view was wholly irrelevant.

 Speaking of a plus one, what was she gonna do with her two friends over there, in the back seat? In the faraway land where Kat was born a fancy baby shower was simply not something anyone would ever think to do. None of Kat’s ancestors ever had the resources for such a thing anyway. In short, Kat had no personal experience of baby showers and had never been to a proper one in her entire life, but she knew enough to understand that if the invitation clearly said she could bring a “plus one,” she was definitely not welcome to bring “plus two.” And yet, she had two passengers in her car. They sat in the back seat widening the tiny middle-seat chasm between them with their obvious hostility. The passenger seat was empty. It was reserved for the one who will emerge victorious and be chosen to accompany her. It could only be occupied by one of them once the other was kicked out.

Directly behind her sat Contempt, who looked imperiously out the window, her angular, tan face a picture of forlorn detachment. Her hair and eyes were dark and shiny. Her body was long and hard, like a tall tower that was not built for living in. She was dressed all in black. Good God! It’s a baby shower! Who shows up to a baby shower dressed like this, as though she were planning to end up on the runway or among the cast of a spy movie? But you couldn’t deny it. She looked sharp. She also looked like someone who is likely to cause others to feel self-conscious. This was her special skill. Contempt was willing to suffer a baby shower out of her love and loyalty to Kat, but she was certainly not going to succumb to the logic behind it.

 

She wasn’t going to be swayed from her position that fancy baby showers were for privileged people who can afford to burn money and energy on empty pomp and then expect other people to be understanding of how absolutely overwhelmed they are, having to plan this entirely optional party. “Just you wait,” she said acidly. “Just you wait! I bet they have table runners! I bet they matched their napkins to their table runners! And later they’ll complain that having babies is so hard that you have to wait till you are thirty-five and established to have them!”

Envy, who sat behind the passenger seat, was of a much milder disposition. Yes, they were more than likely to go a bit overboard with this party, but there was something irresistibly sweet about it, and she wished she had had one herself. Also, she thought that if Contempt took such a dim view of all of this, she need not have come. She could have ceded her spot to Envy a long time ago if the whole affair was so distasteful to her.

Compared to Contempt, Envy was much milder in general, in her features, her mannerisms, her style of dress. She was not a belligerent type of person, more like obsequious. She had lovely blond hair, but it was slightly disheveled. Her skin was milk and strawberries. She was not plump, but gave the impression of plumpness. She was dressed in a colorful, flowing dress that was clearly much more appropriate for the occasion than Contempt’s black ensemble, but there was something about it that made her look a little sad. Maybe it was that her dress, her entire presentation, in fact, gave the sense that it was one peg lower than what she was reaching for.

“It’s really nice though,” offered Envy, “to get all those gifts. It makes those things more special to know that your family and friends got them for you. Also, what’s wrong with having a party? Why should you be practical all the time? Just because we grew up with this terrible fucking idea that you shouldn’t do nice things for yourself doesn’t mean that it’s the right way to live.” Envy, not entirely toothless, was offering this observation to Contempt, but it was really meant for Kat. Envy was hoping that her more favorable view of baby showers would win her a spot in this one.

“Oh please!” retorted Contempt. “Please. ‘Your family and friends getting you gifts.’ Come on. They had a baby registry. They picked all of their own damn gifts and then asked their friends to pay for them. Isn’t that basically the idea? And now they are having a party because their friends won’t pay for their stuff unless they get a party out of it. That’s basically what’s going on, isn’t it? If they wanted to feel close to their loved ones, they could have had them over to their own house. And God knows they certainly would not have wanted us there, by the way. If you need anything more fancy than your own living room and you are okay with some total strangers being there, then it is not really about the connection, is it? Also, what if you want to do the nice thing for yourself of not having a fancy party? What about that? I bet they couldn’t do that. It would offend everyone’s sensibilities.” Contempt had the skill of talking in a loud, commanding voice and getting noticed. Envy always left a better impression with people, simply because she was nicer, but there was something about her that caused her to be treated with a permissive sort of detachment. She was always a candidate for being overlooked."

Now Envy was a bit flustered and flattened by the sheer force of Contempt’s diatribe, but she still managed a small rejoinder that pinched Kat’s heart.

“You are just saying this because no one offered to throw a baby shower for you!” This took the wind right out of Contempt’s sails and she sank slightly into her seat.

Emboldened by this effect, Envy continued, a little louder. “Wouldn’t it be nice to just feel like it’s okay to celebrate things? Milestones? Without all this goddamn cynicism we grew up with? The problem with us is that we don’t know how to celebrate things and just be happy and grateful. Hell, I think our parents still think that if you get something nice in life you have to wrap it in burlap and hide it in the closet lest it be taken away from you. Personally, I’m tired of living this way.”

“Well, it’s not like you know how to celebrate,” interjected Kat.

“Yes! Exactly! It drives me crazy, this emptiness where a celebratory spirit was supposed to have been! It’s like I pick a day for celebration. I set the stage for it. And then there is this nothingness. A void.” Everyone was quiet for a spell. Then Envy continued, sounding almost like Contempt now.

“And what kills me is that if I told my parents … if I told them that I wanted a party, they would say ‘Sure! I’ll cook something,’ or ‘Let’s get takeout.’ I mean, I wouldn’t dare ask them for a proper party. They would think I am a selfish bitch. And them thinking of doing something like that on their own? Forget it! Shouldn’t this make me a little sad? So let them have their ridiculous little frills, their color-coded napkins and silly party favors …”

            “Don’t forget the thank you notes!” inserted Contempt.

            “And the thank you notes …”

            This almost felt like a moment of communion, of conjoined hilarity.

            Contempt continued: “Do you have to send a thank you note for the thank you note? Like ‘I am deeply touched that you were grateful to me for coming to your party. Your thoughtful thank you note made my day.’ Then the other person could reply back: ‘I am so overjoyed that you liked my thank you note! I thank you for your thank you note for my thank you note!’ This could go on indefinitely.”

            Envy thought this little joke was very funny, but she suddenly remembered that in this particular arena she and Contempt were opponents, not teammates, so she chose to suppress her giggle. In the big picture though, she could tell that the things she had said before had the desired effect. Kat’s countenance, changing imperceptibly, became pensive and a little sad, like a very soft form of longing, which Envy believed was just a form of regret. Envy knew that both Kat and Contempt knew exactly what she meant about not being capable of celebration.

            “Well, at least we know why women here are only now starting to work!” said Contempt finally, with more than a hint of pettiness. (She herself was an aspiring career woman.) “I mean, where we come from women have worked outside the home for three generations, and women here are only now starting to emerge from their turtle shells tentatively, and even then, they are terrified that their kids will grow up savage if they even work part time! 'Cuz who is gonna plan their parties and tie their ribbons and write their thank you notes and match their socks to their underwear, and … I mean, the men don’t seem to do that. It’s the women! It’s what keeps them servile and weak! Hell no! My mom worked, her mom worked, I got no goddamn party for graduating middle school, and my kids won’t, and we will all do just fine! In fact, we will kick their asses by using all this time to get ahead in life!”

            Envy rolled her eyes. “That’s ridiculous! Are you listening to yourself? I mean, you have to calm down!”

 

Kat could feel her hand trembling on the stirring wheel a little and knew that she had to stop this conversation before her driving became unsafe. “Whom do I pick,” she thought. “Whom do I pick...”

It didn’t escape Kat’s notice that Envy was a far more reasonable choice. First of all, she actually wanted to be at the party. Maybe this should have been enough. But also, Envy was nicer, milder, more polite, and was going to give people compliments. Kat knew that her compliments were almost always veiled self-criticism, but she was pretty sure that this was hard to pick up if you didn’t know her. Hell, even just the fact that she was dressed appropriately … Honestly, why was Contempt even here? But then … then … there was something about Envy that made Kat feel—she tried to search for the right word to describe it—made her feel like a chipped dish. Her positivity felt like a zero-sum game. The more of it she put out the less was left on the inside. Contempt, with her abrasiveness, pettiness, and tone deafness, was somehow more vital. She made Kat feel strong. She made her feel … important, maybe. That’s why she was along for the ride. “So, did I make my choice then?” Kat wondered. “Is it to be Contempt?” But then she replayed the last few minutes in her mind. Contempt’s ridiculous diatribe and the unpleasant current through her fingers on the wheel. Contempt made her feel like a water bottle that was snuck onto an airplane, like she was ready to burst.

And then it hit her. She didn’t want to go to this party at all!

“Both of you can go,” she said suddenly. This was just the bomb needed to interrupt the squabbling. “Both of you can go,” she repeated as she pulled into an office building parking lot, which was entirely empty since it was the weekend.

“Well, that will show them!” A perfectly formed sardonic smile spread across Contempt’s face.

“No. You don’t understand,” interrupted Kat. Part of her wanted to take sadistic pleasure in hearing Envy’s reaction, but she decided to quell her cruelty.

“You two can go together. Contempt, you basically look like me. You can be me. Envy, you are the plus one. That way both of you can go. Only, let’s see here … No offense, Contempt, but you can’t go in this suit. It’s ridiculous.” The obvious thing to do would have been for Kat and Contempt to switch clothes, but for some reason Kat just couldn’t bring herself to suggest that. There was a boundary there that she really didn’t want to blend. Then it hit her. Contempt’s black suit would look much more appropriate tempered by Envy’s natural, obsequious softness.

“You have to switch clothes!” she announced. “If you switch it’ll be perfect! You just have to remember to respond to my name, Contempt, and no one will know the difference. And I bet the black suit will not look so … hostile on you, Envy. I think it will actually look festive on you! I’ll drop you off and then pick you up whenever you want. It’s a win-win.”

Kat held her breath for a moment, waiting to see whether Contempt would balk at this. After all, didn’t she say she hated these parties and was only willing to go to support Kat? Well, if Kat wasn’t going, and worse, if Contempt had to go with Envy and wearing Envy’s clothes, one might say that describing the situation as a win-win was an obvious stretch. But Contempt said nothing and started silently shaking her long arms out of the sleeves of her black blazer. “Well—figures,” thought Kat. Figures.

Fifteen minutes later Kat watched from the car as her friends’ backs disappeared into the lobby of a fancy hotel. Now that they were wearing each other’s clothes, they had to have a little more empathy for each other, she thought, even though there was no clear logic behind this supposition. Anyway, she found that it suited both of them to wear a bit of the other. As she drove away, she thought happily that she definitely made the right decision. There was no choosing between them, and then … whomever she chose, the other would have been bitter. “These parties are too much stress for people like me,” she thought. She was looking forward to taking off this annoying skirt, putting on some yoga pants and watching a movie.

 About the author 

Anna Braverman is a clinical psychologist from Princeton, New Jersey. She works at Princeton University, where she provides therapy to graduate and undergraduate students and enjoys working with international students, having been an immigrant herself—repeatedly. Anna lives with her husband and is a very proud mother of two children. 

 

Did you enjoy the story? Would you like to shout us a coffee? Half of what you pay goes to the writers and half towards supporting the project (web site maintenance, preparing the next Best of book etc.)