When the mist cleared from the antique rectangular mirror, which Mary had hung horizontally, to give her only a shoulders-up view while leaving out the rest, she drew in a deep breath and gazed at the ruddy glow she gave off. She thought she was still beautiful, no matter her size. Her hair, her cheekbones were exquisite, all Irish, and served to enhance her cheerful green eyes. Her mother had always said that Mary had the eyes of her grandmother, who had been born, had lived, and had died in Dublin, never leaving a thirty mile radius of her birthplace. Mary had only seen her in pictures. She was already gone by the time Mary was born. A large, beautiful woman, her grandmother had only left behind faded sepia snapshots of herself working in the family's plot of land, shoulder to the plow.
The phone on her nightstand rang, startling her. She nearly tripped over Toby as he ran around the room, barking wildly at the ringing phone.
She cleared her throat before lifting the receiver. "Hello?"
It was only her sister.
"Sorry, Kath', but James is on the other line," she lied.
With a promise to return her call, Mary hung up. Even with her sister, she could not be completely honest. Hope had turned her into a liar.
She made the bed before dressing herself in an emerald silk blouse and black slacks, ran a lint brush over the whole thing to erase any strands of Toby's hair. Everything was nearly ready. She was ready, if only he would call. This night had to be perfect.
Unable to wait any longer, she picked up the receiver again and dialed James' number. After four rings, his voice mail picked up. She lingered, just to hear his voice.
"I guess he's on his way," she said to Toby as she disconnected.
Moving back to her kitchen, she took the cake from the refrigerator and lifted it out of the white box. Was it sad that she had to buy her own cake, she wondered as she placed it between the candles on the dining table. Should she have let Katherine make it instead? Some people, she knew, would say she had no business eating cake in the first place. Those people imagined that all women of her size sat in their houses eating cake and ice cream, force-feeding themselves until they passed out in a stupor. But Mary had always been large, even as a toddler, and from the looks of her mother and grandmother, it was born into her. Katherine took after their father, long and lean, athletic. She ran marathons, yet she never made Mary's weight an issue. She was kind to her sister.
Mary returned to the kitchen to make hors'doerves. She cubed a block of cheddar and a block of Edam, drained a jar of olives, and stuck decorative toothpicks through stacks of them. She heaped pineapple chunks into a mound in the middle of the platter, rounding it out with sliced ham and whole grain crackers. The table was ready with red candles, polished silverware, and fine china plates. The cake waited in the middle.
Mary began to worry. She peered out between the new, pleated curtains at the weather, happily noting that the snow had stopped. Running through the received calls on the cordless phone, she saw that no one had called while she showered. She tried James again. She got voice mail once more.
He had never stood her up.
Katherine had once asked her, "Does James love you? I mean, do you have a relationship with him?"
Never one to lie to Katherine under normal circumstances, she always found herself lying about James.
Mary had assured her, "James is special. He treats me like a lady should be treated, holding doors for me, making sure I'm seated before he sits. We don't need a physical relationship to know how we feel."
"So you've never—"
"Not yet," Mary said. "We have kissed."
Even now she could feel the one kiss they had shared.
James, who was a carpenter and was handy in all manner of household repair, had offered to come over to help her hang the mirror and the chandelier she had purchased. While he worked, Mary cooked him a meal of roast lamb, winter squash, and potato cakes. She topped it off with a thick slice of chocolate cake and strong coffee with real cream. James ate every crumb and leaned back in his chair in consummate pleasure. He stayed late that night, and they shared a game of backgammon and hushed stories by the fire. When he rose to leave, he hesitated. Mary stood near him, closer than ever before.
He lifted her chin gently and kissed her, just the once, before leaving without another word.
It was her favorite memory, her favorite moment of all of the moments in her life. Tonight she wanted to feel that way again, for her birthday. Surely it would happen, and this time she would not stand in stunned silence, would not hesitate to let James know her deepest feelings. She would not silently watch him walk out the door.
She caught the phone on the first ring.
"No, this isn't James. Who is this?" A woman demanded.
Mary looked at the handset again. The number calling was James' cell phone.
"This is Mary, and with whom am I speaking?"
The woman laughed. "Mary? The Mary? You mean the Mary that everyone talks about?"
"With whom am I speaking," Mary asked again, keeping her voice steady.
"Well, fatso, this is Tracy, and I'm James' girlfriend," she said. "You got that?"
Mary's face fell. Tears stung her eyes even as indignation rose in her throat. But she could not speak.
"Do you understand the word girlfriend? He's with me, so stop calling!"
Mary heard the line disconnect. Her face burned. She knew about Tracy, but why would James let her call—and from his phone?
She sat down at the table and stared at the unlit candles. Two candles, she thought, when I should have thirty-one.
She picked up a toothpick of cheese and olives and took it all in one smooth motion. She picked up another toothpick and another. She sampled the ham. It was delicious, smoky, and thinly sliced. The pineapple was still cold.
Again the phone rang.
Mary braced herself.
"Mary, I'm so sorry. I was in the store – I didn't know she had my phone."
"Do you know what today is, James?"
"It's – ah – it's Friday."
"Right," Mary said. "It is Friday."
"You called, but Tracy was sitting right there. I couldn't –"
"It's alright, James. I was just sitting down to eat."
"There's something I should tell you – Tracy and I –"
"Oh, I'd rather you didn't."
"But Mary –"
"I have dinner waiting on the stove, James. We'll talk later."
She disconnected before he could answer her.
It just doesn't matter anymore, she thought, that he never forgot my birthday in the five years we have known each other.
Mary put down the phone and reached for the cake. She sliced off a corner, thick with icing, and dropped it onto her plate. Between bites of the intensely sweet cake, she took nibbles of ham, bits of crackers, and skewers of olives and cheese – sweet, salty, sweet, salty. She poured herself a glass of whole milk and drank it down in a single swallow. The hors'doerves began to dwindle. Toby begged at her feet for a bite.
"Not now, Toby," she pushed him aside.
Never had she attacked food with such remorselessness, such lust. Why should she not? Why not do what everyone already believed that she did?
The phone began ringing again. She let it go.
"Let's go up to bed, Toby," Mary said. She grabbed the half cake that remained and trudged up the stairs, one at a time, ignoring the shortness of breath, not feeling the aching of her joints.
Flipping on the television, she settled onto the clean sheets, the fresh pillows, dripping pink icing and crumbs all around her. Mouth smeared with sticky pink, she took another scoop and another, eating with her fingers. While CNN prattled on about stock markets and real estate, Mary finished off the cake and licked each finger. She ignored the insistent ringing of the phone.
The overpowering sweetness of the cake hurt her teeth. She blinked and looked around her at the damage. Her fresh sheets were sticky and stained. She let out a long, shuddering sob.
"It's not fair, Toby," she cried.
Toby wagged his short tail and watched for crumbs to fall.
Mary cried harder and shouted, "Maybe I'll just give them what they all want – a really fat woman who doesn't care anymore!"
The tears ran in rivers of black mascara, heavy blue eyeliner, bisque face powder, and buttercream frosting, down her flushed cheeks, over the swell of her neck, into the valley of her bosom. Her chest heaved with each renewed sob until she thought her heart would burst.
But as she knew from so many disappointments, so many years of buried anguish, so many forgotten birthdays, her sadness and bitterness would not be fatal. She would live through it and would still get up tomorrow with the first rays of the sunrise. She would repair the damage to her room, carefully scrubbing the stains from the sheets, using tricks her mother taught her that were learned from her grandmother, a little soda on the stain and a little elbow grease would do it. Her heart was another matter. Each fresh wound left a place in its flesh that would darken and flicker out, motionless within the remaining smooth walls that pulsed and lived. Each new slight levied a tax on her soul that when paid set her further behind and drained her of a little more of what she was saving for the dream of her future.
She rose from the bed and wiped the backs of her hands across her face.
"Come on, Toby," she said, "let's put on some fresh sheets now."
Monday, March 3, 2008
Short Story Series: Part Two (Conclusion of "Late Night Games"
Thanks for reading part one of "Late Night Games," a short story I wrote a year-and-a-half ago. It is one of my favorites. We left off when Mary was showering, preparing for her birthday party and waiting to hear from James, the love of her life.