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.
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