Crouching in the ugly paisley armchair in the Littlebrooks’ den, facing the front door, Trish seethes. Her job is to stand guard. If Mrs. Littlebrook comes back from wherever she is (book club? Crochet group? Gin was vague, typically dismissive), Trish is supposed to give a signal. “Oh hi, Mrs. Littlebrook!” Inflate her voice to a golden bubble that will float across the den and pop against the door of Gin’s bedroom, where Gin and Freddy are fucking. She is supposed to signal, and of course to stall.
Gin has presented this as some fun task, and Trish understands Gin’s self-concept: Gin the queen is getting banged in her royal bed, and once King Freddy dismounts to do something regal—hunt a white stag, heckle a court jester—Trish the handmaiden will demurely slink in. She will hand Queen Gin, stretching on her silk coverlet, a scented handkerchief to delicately sop up—what? Sweat, semen? The bed, in Trish’s fantasy of Gin’s fantasy, is draped in gold velvet. Handmaiden Trish dabs the queen with lavender water. Maybe she fans her with peacock feathers, or halves her a fig.
But handmaiden is not Trish’s mental image of herself, as she crouches on this hideous chair, arms wrapped around her knees. No, she pictures herself as a gargoyle, perched on a rampart. Her hands are gnarled talons, her nose a beak, sharp enough to scoop out an intruder’s heart.
And this is no fun Trish-and-Gin conspiracy, like when Trish kept Mrs. Littlebrook distracted by demonstrations of dance steps (“This is an arabesque!”) while Gin, age twelve, hastily scrubbed off make-up. That was fun, something they were in together. In this current scenario, Gin and Freddy are in it together—more precisely, Freddy is in Gin—and Trish has nothing to do but watch the damn door and brood over Gin’s many injuries and slights, to examine each inflicted humiliation like a gold ball on her add-a-bead necklace.
Sometimes when Trish is really pissed at Gin, a condition which occurs more frequently since they started eleventh grade and Freddy Noble became a fixture, she talks herself off the ledge of irradiating rage by recalling some incident of Gin’s vulnerability.
For instance, that time when they were at Skylake Camp, the summer after seventh grade, and the other girls in their cabin, who went to the same fancy middle school, so they were a tight, enclosed loop, as impenetrable as a knot, started what their ringleader Paula Hoberman called a titty fight. Gin cowered behind one of the bunk beds, refusing to take off her tank top. “Because you have no tits!” Paula jeered, her voice sharp and elongated like a crow’s.
At sixteen, Gin still barely has any tits, but she has turned this into her Twiggy aesthetic. Certainly Gin’s recent trajectory has been to reduce: first her name, Virginia, to lop off its bookend syllables and present herself as only the core. Furthermore to persuade Trish to do the same, to stop being Patricia. When Trish thinks of their middle school selves, Virginia and Patricia, best friends since age eight, now morphed into Gin who assigns Trish degrading tasks, she feels sad for those girls. She wants to warn them not to shed the soft and rounded sides of themselves.
When Gin was twelve, when she was Virginia, she had been so full of promise: smart and polite, beloved by adults, to whom she always remembered to say “Please.” While Trish still can imagine a path for Gin to things that once seemed inevitable givens (U Penn, and down the road, becoming a famous cardiovascular surgeon, or an epidemiologist), that course seems increasingly beset by obstacles. It’s a labyrinth with monsters behind the hedges. Yes, Gin might still get to medical school, but now there’s unplanned pregnancy to worry about, or addiction, or hospitalization if Gin keeps using laxatives. Gin sees herself as powerful and free—“We’re so liberated!” she cawed an hour ago, handing Trish the bong—but Trish sees her as imperiled.
It’s like Trish is a clairvoyant from one of the King Arthur fantasy novels she and Virginia used to share, and she can see what no one else can: invisible black birds, beaks hooked and strong as pliers, circling Gin. Sometimes she feels like grabbing one of Gin’s sharp elbows and pointing out the birds. But she knows Gin will roll her eyes and say. “Stop being crazy.” Or, “Stop being a pussy,” a word prudish Virginia (not just flat-chested but so modest in the old days. Even at Patricia’s house, she’d always change into her nightgown in the bathroom. That titty fight had been real torture for her) would never have used.
Trish appeases herself by thinking about the coming weekend. When Gin will be away with her mother and brother on a camping trip, because Mrs. Littlebrook wants family time, and though Gin complains about how uncomfortable and corny camping is, Trish knows some suppressed piece of her (Virginia, Trish names this softer, discarded self) wants to be licking sticky s’mores off her fingers. Gin will be away, and Trish will put into action the plan she’s been hatching for the past month, ever since she slept over at Gin’s house in April. She was washing her face when Freddy walked in behind her. They looked at each other in the steamy mirror, and Freddy put his hands over her breasts—she was wearing her crew team tee-shirt but no bra—and softly squeezed.
Because Trish and Freddy have this in common, though Gin is too wrapped up in her own self-evolution to notice: they are the two main recipients of Gin’s endless shit. Because Freddy is sexy. Because Trish is sick of being a virgin, it’s like everyone else has taken rocket ships to colonize the Sex Planet except for her. Because Freddy said to her earlier tonight, when Gin was in her bedroom looking for her bong, “Can you come over this weekend?” and she could tell by the hushed way he said it exactly what he was proposing. It’s the clairvoyance again, except instead of invisible black birds it’s bobbing, disembodied breasts with nipples like red gumdrops. Because fuck this handmaiden-slash-gargoyle shit.
“What are you drinking?”
“Bourbon. Maker’s Mark, one cube of ice.”
Freddy heads to the bar to order drinks, while Gin takes in his retreating form. He’s not as handsome as he was. Men who age well have good bones, and Freddy’s looks were always about the surface. There is something blurry about him at thirty-one. It’s another reminder, one Gin has frequently experienced since moving back to Harrisburg nine months ago, that the past is only recoverable in diminished form.
Still, if she doesn’t study him closely, Freddy is good-looking, and his attention as warming as coming into the heated bar from the wintry air. Harrisburg in November takes getting used to; Pennsylvania is inhospitable to women with no insulating fat.
“So how’s the family?” she asks, when Freddy sits back down and they clink glasses. She notes he’s copied her, gotten bourbon too. This is also warming, a reminder of how in high school Gin led the way and Freddy trailed after her, carrying her brocaded train.
“Okay. Patricia is getting pretty sick of her job. Gus loves third grade, Lydia…”
Gin tunes out, though she dutifully inclines her head to look at the picture Freddy shows her. Trish, she notes, is plump—she always gained weight in her face. Gin avoids looking at the two kids. They are too tangible a reminder of the inexorable way time, that boulder, rolls on, and what little Gin has to show for it.
“And how’s…” Freddy trails off.
“Kevin,” Gin says, and plucks out her own picture, of her fiancé, arm around his amphibious daughter. It’s like her prior scrutiny of Freddy: if you don’t look too closely, Marie registers as a pretty, blonde six-year-old. A sharper glance exposes her oddities—skin so pale you can see blue threads of veins, bulbous eyes, sticking-out ears. Gin has no reason to be vain about Marie, who is Kevin’s daughter, not hers, but her fingers itch to retrieve the picture.
Of course Freddy is more interested in studying Kevin than his near-albino daughter. “How old is he again?”
“Thirty-eight,” Gin says. She’s calculating how long they need to small talk. Before she dropped out of college, she took a linguistics class, and she remembers Roman Jakobson’s term for this category of conversation: phatic speech. Not insignificant after all, Jakobson claimed, because it was “channel checking,” maintaining social niceties. “Think of how unsettling it is when you say ‘Have a nice day’ to a cashier, to have them not respond,” her professor said. Joseph Keppler: Gin gave him a blow job in his office.
Gin will not be able to transport Freddy to her apartment until they go through at least half an hour of catch-up talk, and there is after all information to be gleaned. About Trish, for instance—Gin registers that she has reverted to Patricia—and why she doesn’t like her job. Plus she could use another bourbon, to loosen and relax before she takes Freddy home and gets him to fuck her in that old way she still conjures up when she masturbates: Freddy standing at the edge of the bed, holding her hips.
Gin feels no guilt about Trish. Why should she? Trish stole Freddy the summer before senior year, when Gin was in California visiting her father. She returned to find her best friend and boyfriend a couple; she spent the first half of senior year lonely and furious, trying to present herself as indifferent. Once she said “Trish is welcome to Freddy and his tiny, tiny dick,” and someone—Colleen, she thinks—said, “I thought you said he had a huge dick.” Gin was aware then of a kind of electric current travelling through the girls, and the impossibility of recovering her dignity and gravitas. No, she’s not the least bit guilty about plump, sneaky Trish.
As for Kevin, it’s hard to know what he’d be more aggrieved about: her sleeping with another guy, or her drinking with him. Gin met Kevin a week after moving back to Harrisburg at AA, and he’s a zealot. He made her quit bartending (“How can an alcoholic bartend?”), though that was better money than waiting tables; he made her readopt Virginia (“How can an alcoholic call herself Gin?”). At this juncture it’s too late to explain that AA was just a persona Gin was trying on, in her endless adoption of different identities (vegan, Buddhist, punk). It was her latest carnival mask.
Fiancée and stepmother are personas as well, and they hold a certain allure: having an instant six-year-old for whom to heat up chicken nuggets makes the last dozen years seem less of a wash. She likes being in Kevin’s neat, pretty kitchen, sponging the soapstone countertops. Kevin makes her feel secure, if overregulated. And clearly, Kevin is attracted to fucked up women. His ex is a basket case, not just a drinker but an Oxy addict, and inflicted lasting damage on their strange daughter (Gin Googled “fetal alcohol syndrome” the other day).
Why risk things by arranging this drink with Freddy? Why hold the furled paper to the flame? Gin reflects briefly, then bats the question out of her mind. She rests her hand on the table top for Freddy to pick up if he wants—she will leave the advance up to him.
Patricia is running late, as usual; she thinks of the White Rabbit consulting his pocket watch. She forgot until lunch that she had promised Lydia’s teacher she would help supervise the ornament project. Patricia hates this sort of activity—q-tipping glue onto blank CDs, helping kids stick on sequins and class pictures of themselves—but Lydia is a pro guilt-tripper. “You never do art projects or reading tables. All the other moms do.”
“Sorry, sorry,” she tells the teacher, Ms. Applebaum. Patricia hangs her parka in the coat room, feeling more cumbersome than ever in that closet scaled to six-year-olds, Gandalf among the hobbits. Lydia has spotted her and looks both aggrieved that Patricia is late and thrilled that she showed. Patricia feels similarly twofold—resentful, needed.
And fuck, Gin is here, sitting one table over next to that weird stepdaughter of hers: Marie, with eyes like a fish. Patricia hasn’t gotten used to Gin being back in town, never mind the strangeness of them having kids in the same class. Of course Marie isn’t really Gin’s kid—Gin and the father are not married. What’s-his-name: Kevin. Sanctimonious, hairy. Gin used to hate body hair on guys.
Unlike Patricia, the unwieldy, hefty human in this classroom scaled for elves, Gin looks elegant in her tiny chair at the too-low table. Her knees are hitched up, but she looks (typical Gin) whimsical. She waves to Patricia.
Funny how seeing Gin makes Patricia feel more loving towards Freddy. Just yesterday, Patricia found herself thinking about her marriage, “Well, it could be worse,” and all day this thought followed her around like Pig Pen’s dust cloud: it could be worse! What a way to think about one’s marriage! Not the life to which her sixteen-year-old self had aspired. Back then, Freddy was a gem-encrusted chalice to be stolen from careless, full-of-herself Gin. Patricia still remembers that August fourteen years ago, lying on Freddy’s bed, her fingers on his moist cock, saying, “What are we going to tell Gin when she comes back from California?” And registering, in Freddy’s blank face, that he had not intended to tell Gin anything at all.
Patricia unscrews the cap from the Elmer’s glue. If the kids handle the glue, chaos will ensue: glue in hair, sequins everywhere. Across the room she sees Gin hand an uncapped glue bottle to Stevie, a freckled, anarchic child. Gin doesn’t realize you can’t let a six-year-old alone with glue. Trish opens her mouth to warn her, then decides it’s not her problem. This is what happens when a woman thinks motherhood is something you just put on like a coat.
And there’s something wrong with that kid Marie. Patricia has seen Marie stick her hair in her mouth and suck it. She doesn’t envy Gin her situation (isn’t she waiting tables? Wasn’t that what Colleen McKibbons told her? “You won’t believe who waited on us at Diaggio’s”? So much for being a famous doctor).
It’s funny, because before Gin reappeared last year, Patricia thought of her often, sometimes warmly—the paper doll beauty contests they used to have, they spent hours drawing with markers on card paper and then cutting out tiny bikinis, off-the-shoulder evening gowns—sometimes bitterly: the way Gin would make her stand guard while she fucked Freddy. Even when they were eleven, Gin’s paper dolls always won those beauty contests.
Yet it’s intrusive to have the real Gin come back into her life. Gin belongs in the past, not Patricia’s thirty-one-year old, harried, it-could-be-worse present. What’s she doing here? She doesn’t fit, any more than Patricia fits in this ridiculous plastic chair.
Patricia looks back at Gin and sees Ms. Applebaum hurrying over with a washcloth. Sure enough, glue is smeared on the table, and Stevie (onerous child, at Lydia’s birthday party he deliberately trod chocolate frosting onto the carpet) has glue on his cheek. Patricia feels (again, a double feeling) both guilty and gratified. And then surprised: Gin isn’t blushing and wretched like the kid cowering behind the bunkbed at Skylake Camp. She smiles at Patricia, a wry, what can-you-do smile.
“Playdate?” Gin mouths.
About the Author: Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the English Department at Mills College. Her fiction has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, The Best Small Fictions 2017, and Best of the Net 2016 and long-listed for Wigleaf‘s Top 50. Her story ‘Why We Are With the Men We Are With’ was recently republished by The Literary Review as part of the TLR Share project. Her fiction has been published, or is forthcoming, in Arroyo Literary Review, Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Breakwater Review, Broad!, Cleaver, Corium Magazine, Crack the Spine, descant, Fiction Southeast, 580 Split, The Gettysburg Review, Gravel, Hobart, Hotel Amerika, Indiana Review, Jellyfish Review, JMWW, Literary Orphans, Moon City Review, New South, Oakland Review, Parcel, Sixfold, SNReview, Squalorly, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Word Riot.