His eyes fixed on his car a hundred yards away, Marcus held the beer close to his chest, condensation from the bottle wetting his blue and white gingham shirt. That morning he had ironed the shirt and badgered Carrol as to whether she really wanted to attend this outing.
“Why does your family hold these things in the summer?” he had asked.
“Because my family is a bunch of dumb asses,” she had retorted.
He chuckled to himself as he watched for his wife to emerge from the car. But she didn’t. She remained in the passenger seat of their car, right where he had left her, while he stood a by the lake, in the company of his in-laws. He wiped his forehead and flicked the sweat off to the side, toward the lake, the motion causing his wrists to throb again.
Carroll wiggled in her seat, pulling her blouse away from her damp back. The car was muggy. It was June in Arizona, and sweat ran down her back, causing her white floral print tank top to stick to her skin. She had sat at the vanity in their bathroom, half dressed, hair combed, face clean and ready for make-up, but frozen: she couldn’t bring herself to complete the job. Her black eyes narrowed as she glared at her reflection and noticed every wrinkle and bump and blemish that appeared on her face and neck and arms and chest.
“We don’t have to go,” he had said from the other room.
But they had to go. And now she was frozen again, this time in the car, sweat dripping into her underwear.
Susan wandered the party, pretending. Susan pretended that she didn’t see Carrol in the car, crying. She pretended that Marcus wasn’t a few feet away from her even though she could smell the cologne she had bought for him. She kept herself distracted by strolling her newborn son around the folding tables, tables covered in white lace table clothes, plastic plates and utensils, pitchers of ice tea and lemonade. She walked and nodded to her relatives. Skinny relatives and fat relatives. Women and men. Most of them, she hadn’t seen in years and would never see again. And when they would stop and say how cute her little Jack was, she would smile and say, “Thank you”. All the while, Susan asked herself why she had curled her hair, donned her new summer dress – the chocolate and blue swirl patterned one, the one Marcus said he loved – and put on her favorite pair of high heels. She kept asking why she had done it for him.
Marcus didn’t look directly at Susan. He could see out of his peripheral vision that she was meandering between the tables. But he didn’t want to think about her anymore. He was through with her. So he locked his gaze on Carrol.
They had to come, Carrol decided. He made up her mind when he came to the bathroom and stood in the door. He slid his shirt on slowly (he hadn’t wrapped his wrists yet, so he was careful — he didn’t want to snag the stitches – and they still hurt like hell) and said absentmindedly, “Susan will be there.”
A jolt of anger shot through Carrol. She sat upright. She adjusted her camisole and, with purpose and clarity, assembled her face. She’d go to the event. She’d make sure her sister didn’t get the upper hand.
The loud rush of water startled Marcus. He turned and watched the fountain in the middle of the lake shoot water straight up into the air, a hundred feet or so. Oddly enough, it reminded him of Carrol and the anger he had seen in her eyes that morning, the morning he had told her the truth. And thinking about her anger and pain caused the lacerations on his wrist to pound under the gauze and tape. For a fleeting moment, he wished she hadn’t found him.
But Carrol had found him, on his back, behind the large rock water slide that fed their enormous swimming pool in their landscaped suburban backyard. She had found him on his back, a jagged piece of metal in his hand, blood pooling around him, filling the gravel with red, his wrists shredded. She found him only because she had a sick feeling come over her, like the time her father had died and no one had heard from him for a month and she just knew, knew, that he was dead. She found Marcus and after making sure he was still breathing, calmly went back to the house, called 9-1-1, grabbed some towels and then returned to his side, wrapping his wrists with the blue and chocolate colored towels. She didn’t realize it until later, but seeing him bleed, a feeling of relief had come over her. She had pulled a butcher’s knife on him earlier that day after he had told her about he and Susan. She had grabbed the large knife and threatened him amidst her cursing and screaming.
The news had almost devastated her. She had raised her sister, Susan, on her own when their mother had been institutionalized. And now Susan had stabbed Carrol in the back. Stolen her husband for a time. And her husband of ten years, her best friend, had broken his commitment to her. And Carrol wanted them to pay. So when he tried to take his life, Carrol felt assuaged.
The fountain turned off and the water fell into the middle of the lake. Marcus looked at his watch: 12:15. Right on time. The fountain came on every fifteen minutes.
Carroll saw the radio clock: 12:15. She’d sat in the car for twenty minutes. The air coming out of the vents was hot now. She leaned over and turned the car key all the way, shutting the car off. She pulled the keys out and flipped down the visor to fix her makeup.
Marcus made his way to the car and tapped on his wife’s window. She was fixing her mascara and flipped him the bird. He smiled and went to the front of the car, taking a seat on the hood. He sipped his beer and observed the gathering.
Carroll’s family members moved in and out of the tables smoothly, eating, drinking. Someone lay down under the willow tree that provided shade. None of them knew about the affair, the butcher knife, and Marcus’s attempt at ending it all. And none of them would ever know – not today, and not ever. They were the kind of family that didn’t like confrontation or scandals or problems. Carroll’s father had been a drunk for years, but no one spoke of it, not even after he drowned in his own swimming pool. They never spoke of the mother’s institutionalization. No one stepped in when it was obvious that Susan’s husband, Jack, was beating her. They never asked for help, because they were never any problems.
The car door opened and shut. Carroll walked, in a controlled, deliberate pace, to the front of the car. Her sandals crunched the gravel. Marcus slid off the hood and they walked hand in hand to the party. Carroll smiled, nodded, said hello. She hugged her mother, dressed in her typical white and yellow moo-moo, her big glasses teetering on the end of her nose, her hair a bird’s nest. Once the formalities were over, Marcus and Carrol grabbed a plate of fried chicken, potato salad, tossed salad and glasses of iced tea. They chose a table near the lake and ate in silence, facing the party and enduring the heat.
Susan gave up. Her little one was hot and tired and crying and his diaper smelled like a sewage plant. Sweat dripped from the side of her head as she struggled to get the stroller to the van through the gravel. Carroll watched her baby sister load her mini-van up and drive away. Carroll wondered if Jack knew about the affair. She wondered if Jack cared. Probably not. Her mother had told Carrol that Jack was gone. Carroll finished off the potato salad and thought that it was best for Susan.
Marcus tossed back the rest of a glass of lemonade. His wrist ached. Unexpectedly the fountain erupted behind them, the wind kicked up and water rained down on their table. Marcus grabbed his plate and stood with a yelp, backing away.
But Carroll sat still.
Sure the water had startled her, but as it fell, on her head and arms and neck and new blouse, she didn’t want to move. The wind blew, the water fell, filling her plate and glass.
“Carroll?” Marcus glanced around to see if anyone was watching them.
“Shh,” she responded.
She turned her face up and the drops splashed on her cheeks and mouth, her make-up washing away. She cried and smiled and laughed. She closed her eyes, her tears and the lake water mixing, streaming down her neck, soaking her outfit. Marcus stood to the side, plastic cup in one hand, Styrofoam plate in the other, and watched. He didn’t notice that the throbbing in his wrists had stopped.