By Emma Sloley
Four Weeks Out
The egg peeled away smoothly from its shell without tearing or shattering or leaving behind fragments of calcium carbonate to catch on the teeth. This small but rare achievement pleased him and he chose to view it as a sign that the day would be a good one. He didn't think of himself as a superstitious man but he secretly relied on these small harbingers to determine the state of things. Later he'd blame the giddy optimism generated by the perfect boiled egg on what came next, namely the suggestion he made to his wife that they throw a party soon. As soon as these words were out she looked up at him in alarm. She was sitting drinking coffee at their kitchen table, her upper body sheathed in a rhombus of sunlight. Panic flitted across her eyes.
"A party? Why on earth?"
Already he regretted suggesting it. All he wanted to do was stay home with her always, safe in their mutually-assured solitude. What perversity drove him to this proposal he couldn't imagine.
"I suppose it has been a long time," she added with a little depressed dip in her voice, as if hoping to be contradicted. The day had shifted off its axis now that this future obligation had been introduced. The party had already become a malign entity, completely divorced from their own desires.
"We don't have to," he said a trifle desperately but they both knew it was too late now. He came to her, kissed her warm shoulder. The same sensualist impulse that pleased him with the egg also drove his feelings for his wife. He took an almost proprietorial pleasure in her quick intelligence and physical beauty—not in the blunt, tiresome male ownership sense, but a more nuanced wonder at whatever force permitted their orbits to overlap. Their relationship felt like a great work of art to which they had both contributed.
"I've got that job today," she reminded him. "The photo-shoot out in Queens for the sunglasses company?"
"But maybe tonight we can start working on a list of who we'll invite. The details."
"OK," he said, sunk in misery that was no one's fault but his own. "Maybe we can have the party next month?"
This suggestion brought with it all the relief of a cold front on a baking summer's day. The party didn't even share a month with the one they were currently in. Its anxieties belonged to some distant time. On the other hand, one of his strategies had always been to get unpleasant things over with quickly—a short, sharp shock kind of thing. That way he could look forward to life resuming. This delaying of the party, while ostensibly welcome, had its disadvantages.
He saw her off at the front door as if he were a host and she a cherished visitor. He worked from home and she worked outside as a photographer's assistant, but the jobs were irregular, so she never knew when she'd be needed. Usually the call would come with only a few days notice, or occasionally even the day before. They hugged and kissed and she walked out to the waiting town car and disappeared inside its black shell.
The place they jokingly called his "office" was really just the kitchen table, one of those wooden numbers designed for small spaces, with hinged leafs that folded out to create a larger table. He worked as a freelance editor, making corrections and suggestions on everything from autobiographical manuscripts by famous politicians to articles about getting rid of bedbugs or finding the best airfares to Europe. The work was sometimes exhilarating, sometimes dreary. He loved the quiet satisfaction to be had in tweaking a phrase or rearranging a story—elevating a buried lede to its rightful place in the opening paragraph, say, or suggesting a kicker selected from elsewhere in the manuscript so that the author felt as though it had been there all along, just buried.
He was putting off his work on this day though, because there was something in his inbox he was dreading. It was a message from his current editor, who worked for a big and important publishing house. The message was innocuous enough to the untrained eye: it simply mentioned that the editor from the publishing house would love to talk with him, the freelance editor, about some suggested changes to the manuscript. The book in question was a memoir about a coal miner who survived a horrifying mine collapse in Chile and became something of a folk hero when it was revealed that he buoyed the other survivors trapped below the earth by reciting entire Shakespearean plays from memory. Conjuring up Cordelia and Horatio out of nothingness to populate the darkness. The problem wasn't the manuscript itself, which he loved, nor the potential changes the editor might want to discuss, but the prospect of the discussion itself. What horrors a phone call evoked. It made him twitchy just thinking about it. It wouldn't be so bad if he could be assured that both parties would just plunge into it without preamble, but of course civil decorum demanded they first engage in small talk, which he found excruciating, not to mention the more haunting prospect of saying something gauche, or confusing. Any attempt to be amusing or witty was sure to backfire horribly.
The message had been sitting there, accusing him every time he opened his mail program, for three unacceptable days. It would have been unforgivably rude and unprofessional to continue the impasse into a fourth day. Lunchtime had ticked around by the time he conceived of the plan. He would explain to his editor that he had been called away on a trip, a last-minute trip to some place where phone communications were difficult if not impossible, and would it be OK if they conducted the conversation over email instead? All that was left was to come up with a plausible destination. As soon as he hatched the scheme his entire body was flooded with a relief as keen as orgasm.
The sunglasses company had a big budget and there would be all the little luxuries on this shoot—town cars with drivers; catering; per diems. She had been a photographer's assistant for fifteen years now, always with the same photographer, a taciturn but kind man called Tim, and in the early days there was a lot more money, back when all the publishing houses and the clients were flush. These days when she was hired for jobs there were often apologetic briefings about the need to keep costs down: would she mind ever so much taking the subway to the location; ducking out and getting coffee for the crew (she used her own money at the cafe and this was rarely if ever paid back); working overtime without extra pay? She didn't mind any of this, not really, she just wanted to do her work and get back home to him.
Sometimes people in the industry would ask her whether she wanted to be a photographer herself one day and she always answered that she preferred helping out. Other women especially tended to regard this as a weakness, a meek self-deprecation that was an affront to their own ambitions. But it wasn't because she didn't feel worthy. She just didn't want the spotlight that came with being the photographer. On lifestyle shoots, where the client wanted a casual, snapshot-y feel, Tim often had to approach strangers and ask if it was OK to shoot their photo. She sincerely felt she would rather die than do this. Instead she hovered in the background, changing lenses, assembling tripods and scrims, handling spare batteries, and she was usually in charge of getting the gear back to studio or the rental place. These tasks she relished. The gear was inanimate and didn't demand her attention. She was free to think about anything she wanted.
Three Weeks Out
She got called away on a big job. Tim had been enlisted to shoot the home of a successful and very famous fashion designer on the island of St. Barts for an architectural magazine and he had requested that she accompany him. He had other assistants but she was the most reliable and the least likely to cause him any headaches, and on big jobs like this one, where the stakes were high and the subject had the potential to be difficult, he didn't take any chances. They didn't discuss it, she and Tim, but they were both nervous as their rakish pilot approached the island, swooped the passenger plane in daredevil fashion through a gap between two lush hills, then glided to the airstrip, skimming a beach that looked utterly unreal. Like a child's idea of a beach: broad brushstrokes of psychedelic blue sky, white sand, palm trees. Beautiful gleaming bodies stretched out below like prime produce laid out in a market.
The designer turned out to be very nice and down-to-earth, and she almost forgot to be self-conscious when he invited the crew to have cocktails with him beside the pool after the shoot had wrapped. Looking down into her sticky drink and the perspiring glass, she felt the shadow of the party cross overhead. The dread of it finding her even here. She was fascinated by the designer's life and how little resemblance it bore to most other lives. He had a man who raked his stretch of beach every morning. Someone else seemed to be solely employed, as far as she could tell, to shoo away the noisy grackles who lived to steal the sugar sachets.
When the designer had retired to his mansion for the night to be with his family, the designer's assistants and publicist, who had spent the day displaying unimpeachable professionalism, got uproariously drunk on tequila and vodka and ended up stripping and running naked and shrieking with glee into the ocean for a midnight swim. She demurred, opting to sit on the beach fully clothed, sandy knees drawn to her chest, listening to the thrum of the waves and the screeching of her companions as they frolicked in the black water. She knew even as it was happening that she would always regret that she hadn't joined them. It wasn't even a big moment: they were soon back on shore and shivering in towels, exhilarated and giggling, with bedraggled hair and damp skin humming with salt. But the scene made her painfully aware of how much larger the lives were that extroverts led. They swallowed the world, gulping down experiences.
When she got home she told her husband about it and his face screwed up in pained recognition of how difficult it must have been for her. But she had failed to convey her wistfulness, her feeling that for once she hadn't been glad to be on the outside. She didn't know how to explain. He thought the night swimmers frivolous and embarrassing. He would have gone back to his room.
Two Weeks Out
Almost everyone they had invited was coming. Over thirty people, and some of those were sure to bring uninvited friends. They were of the shared opinion that this was tantamount to disaster.
"I thought it was one of those rules of hosting," she complained. "That you invite twice as many people as you want to turn up, and the law of averages does the rest?"
"In for a penny, in for a pound, I guess," he said glumly, then wondered where he dredged up that expression.
"Where did that come from?" she laughed, squeezing his neck. "When did you turn into some English housewife?"
They had been fortunate enough to mold the world around them into a satisfactory shape. Conveniently the shape accommodated only two people. He wondered sometimes if they were psychically linked, as it was not uncommon for them to share thoughts and worries, for one to voice the exact thing the other had just been thinking. These were shameful or at least embarrassing qualities in a couple—they both knew that. So they tried to act as discrete entities when in the presence of others. That was another thing to dread about the party.
One Week Out
They had different, although connected, ways of preparing. She tended to her appearance and the appearance of their apartment; he worried over the details of the food and beverages. In this way their anxieties were channeled into surface concerns that possessed empirical markers of success. For instance, it would be possible to determine her outward beauty by the amount of compliments she received during the night; similarly the tasteful style of the apartment by the envious remarks, and the deliciousness of the food by the speed and gusto with which it would be consumed. The interior terrain was less easy to control.
Here was how they diverged regarding the solidity of their respective selves: he felt puffy and insubstantial, as if he might come untethered at any moment. She felt heavy, an awkward burden whose leaving would lighten the rest of the room. A provisional presence.
A conversation they once had in the early days of dating:
Her: What do you think strangers think of you when you walk into a room?
Him: I assume they don't notice me.
Him: What do you think strangers think of you when you walk into a room?
Her: I assume they hate me.
She went to the salon, where she encountered people in various states of compromise and vulnerability. Although she had known her hairdresser for many years, this felt like an unsafe space to her, something to be borne in the necessary pursuit of grooming. There was so much small talk to be endured, so many banalities to be exchanged. If André was busy with another client she might even be approached by an eager apprentice bouncing like a puppy dog and possessing the kind of haircut only the very young can get away with (and even then only just), who would inevitably ask her what plans she had for the weekend. How would she bear it? Minutes crept by like hours.
She marveled at the specific bleakness of this human experience: staring at your own image in the mirror with your hair slicked back and pinned at weird angles on your head as the color sets, your own face gradually becoming unfamiliar and hideous as you stared into the reflection. Had she always been this ugly? Then she was saved by the very apprentice she had disdained earlier, who steered her to the basin, washed the dye off and shampooed her, then aimed an industrial-strength hairdryer at her head until what emerged was her old known self, the features of her face restored to their attractive and youthful configurations.
While he was waiting for her to return home he dug into his cellar of rare wines. They had been collecting these bottles for a decade now, exchanging new ones as gifts on every special occasion. He kept them in a special temperature-controlled wine fridge and maintained a complicated spreadsheet listing their qualities, aging potential, and star rating from the reputable wine critics. He had insisted on serving the most expensive bottles at the party. She objected at first but she soon retreated, seeing that it meant something to him. He fussed over the selection, although he knew none of the guests would know or care. He may as well serve punch bowls of sangria. Most people would probably prefer that.
One Day Out
A miserable breakfast, each staring moodily out the window over steaming cups. They lived on the second floor, where the fire escape ended. If there were a fire, theirs was the escape from which people would drop to the street. The prison of expectations had become a stint in solitary. The only way through it was to imagine the day following the party, when it would all be over. Scrubbing all the surfaces to a shine, ridding bodies of unwanted hair, straightening the spines in the bookshelf. These were tasks with which they distracted themselves. They rehearsed conversations in their heads, as if the future could be set down like the lines in a play.
The Day Of
The bottles were lined up on the sideboard. White peonies nodded in their vases like tired children.
"This is the worst part, isn't it?" he said. "Waiting for them to arrive."
They were seated together on the sofa, hands folded in laps, the fog of her perfume lacing their heads. Her high heels were beside the sofa, waiting to be slipped on at the first whine of the buzzer. She jumped up, padded to the fridge in her bare feet, and pulled out a bottle of champagne. She popped the cork expertly and poured them each a glass.
"May as well be drunk as the way we are," she declared. "A friend of my parents used to always say that."
They clinked glasses, toasting their own heroism.
The party had reached the slightly messy stage that some hosts find cathartic. Once a certain drunken, noisy level had been achieved and the most excruciating units of small talk had been dispensed with, the potential for awkward interactions diminished exponentially. They both felt this moment arrive and they smiled at one another. Anxiety remained in the specter of smashed glasses, annoyed neighbors, ruined furniture et al., but at least the time for hurt feelings and torturous conversational silences had passed. Hyena-like laughter drifted out from their bedroom.
He crossed the room to her, slipped his arm around her waist, and mouthed into her ear, "I think it's safe to join ourselves at the hip again. What do you think?"
"Of course. What a stupid rule, that you can't stand with the person you love at a party."
"Is it a rule though?"
"It's one of the rules."
He laughed, delighted by her.
A friend, an acquaintance really, called Sean lurched over, someone her husband used to work with. She always remembered this man as being blonde even though he actually had dark hair. Every time she saw him she was surprised at this discrepancy.
"Hey Sean." In one voice.
"You guys are the greatest hosts," Sean said, stuffing a puff pastry hors d'oeuvres into his mouth with extravagant appreciation. Crumbs flew. He chased it with a slug of red wine, wiped his mouth with his sleeve and wandered off. Someone she was sure they didn't invite came over to say goodbye, thanking them effusively. They watched someone else slip an expensive bottle from the sideboard into the pocket of their coat as they left. She went to say something and her husband shushed her.
"It doesn't matter," he said, and it really didn't.
For every person leaving, two more arrived, and soon the small apartment was a shoulder-to-shoulder situation like a Tokyo subway car. The two of them pushed their way to the kitchen and pulled the emergency snacks out of the freezer, piled them onto trays and slid them into the oven. While waiting for the food to heat up they squished themselves into a corner together, backs partially turned to the room so that anyone who was looking for the hosts wouldn't necessarily identify them. No one seemed to be looking for the hosts though, so they were able to carve out a half hour in which they only talked to one another.
When the snacks were ready they piled them onto plates and dumped them in the lounge room—the first few rounds had been passed around the room, commented on and balanced on paper napkins, but the time has clearly passed for such niceties. Guests grabbed at the food like ravenous animals. She watched in only mild dismay as one of the pastries got ground into the rug beneath someone's oblivious heel.
She turned to him. "Shall we go?"
She shrugged. "Anywhere."
"OK." He knew just what she wanted, was instantly all business. "Let me get a traveler."
He returned with a thermos of wine, shook it at her with a grin. They wedged their way through the crowd and out into the corridor. She closed the front door behind them and the noise died down right away to a muffled roar.
"I think they're having a good time," he remarked, and she nodded.
"I think we can leave them to it."
They didn't go far, just to the park across the road, which was less a park than a jail for delinquent trees, but it had a fountain that burbled modestly and it looked pretty under the streetlights. They sat on a bench and passed the thermos between them, glancing back occasionally at their apartment window to make sure there were no projectiles issuing from it or other catastrophes that might necessitate returning.
"We'll go back soon," he promised, as if she sought reassurance on this point.
"Of course." She took a swig of the wine.
"I think it's a success in spite of everything."
"Absolutely. Let's never do it again."
He laughed and then they kissed like teenagers beneath the prying moon.
Emma Sloley is a travel journalist and fiction writer whose work has appeared in Catapult, the Tishman Review, Lunch Ticket, Travel + Leisure and New York Magazine, among many others. She is a MacDowell fellow and has just completed her debut novel, Disaster's Children. You can find her on Twitter @Emma_Sloley.