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Saving Instructions

Margaret McMullan






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THIS PARTY WAS LIKE ALL THE OTHERS. She saw the Coles, the Browns, the Lindberghs and the McCarthys, and all those older faces she recognized but couldn’t name, the ones who looked right past her, to that point just behind the top of her head, towards some other person, some better person, imaginary or real, it didn’t matter.
______She sidled up to a group of women she knew from when she played tennis, always as a guest. She had quit all that. She smiled, listening.
______One woman, the eldest and wisest was saying that it all gets a little dull sometimes. Then a party comes along, or an affair, or a raise, or a disease. Something happens and changes everything.
______“Until it gets dull again,” another said.
______Linda laughed along with the others.
______“I went out with a writer once,” she said. They all looked at her, waiting. Her timing was off. She wasn’t drunk enough yet. Something was missing, she wasn’t sure what. But wasn’t this what so many of them did now? She and other women her age? They dug deep back into their past for noteworthy anecdotes. They all waited to hear about the writer, but Linda forgot that it wasn’t amusing at all, that it was a story with a bad ending. The writer had given her crabs. Thankfully, another woman – what’s her name – picked up the slack and told about how she too had gone out with a writer, a real writer who lived in Chicago and wrote that self-help column for the Trib, and she went on with her own, better story.
______Linda held up her glass to a passing server and waited patiently for another drink. She felt so much older then everybody else even though she wasn’t. She was forty-eight and she heard her age shouting at her everywhere she went. You’re done, Forty-Eight screamed just then. Might as well have another drink.

______After the cocktails and the stuffed endives, after the salmon and the fruited cous cous, they all sat at the dining room table and listened to the hostess go on and on about Paris. She talked about the food and the furniture. She talked about the beautiful clothes there and how easy it was to get on.
______“You hated Paris,” her husband said at the other end of the table. It came out loud, loud enough to stop all other minor discussions.
______The hostess laughed. She was covering for him, Linda could tell. “Of course I didn’t hate Paris, Stanly. I loved Paris. You know that.” Then she turned to Linda’s husband who had been given the privilege to sit next to her. “He’s had too much to drink. He always drinks too much when the weather turns like this.”
______“Who doesn’t?” Bob shrugged, pouring the hostess more wine.
______Her husband Bob could handle anything. Mr. Crisis Management. It was not what he did at work but someone had called him that at the office. When had that happened?
______He was not the husband she had in mind and she knew too, deep down, she was not the wife he had in mind either. When had that happened?
______After the accident, Forty-Eight reminded her.
______She and her husband were young and attractive and well-to-do and yet they had everything going against them in this town. They did not have that vast supply of money coming in from significant dying relatives. They had not come from this place or from Chicago. They had not grown up here, had no relatives who had founded a bank, an industry or a department store, nobody who had invented an elevator, a refrigerated box car, or a mimeograph machine, nobody who had come over to America early enough or on one of the named boats. Bob was from Indiana of all places and he had an MBA from IU. Linda was from Orange County, California and hadn’t even finished college.
______She and Bob and their daughter Vanessa had simply moved here to this suburb thirty-five miles north of Chicago. They had come because Bob had talent and he had been hired. Period. They had moved to a good address. Linda had learned early in life how to anticipate, how to pick up on fashion, decorating, and where to live. When Linda said “Everyone’s doing Michigan,” they’d gotten a small, charming A-frame on a private lake in Michigan. A second home to go during the summers, she said.
______Despite all their drawbacks, they were fitting in. Linda was playing tennis. Her doubles partner said she would sponsor her, if they wanted to join Onwensia.
______And then? Then one summer day, Linda made a left hand turn, ramming into a woman who happened to be the mayor’s wife who was no mere municipal administrator but the ancestor of a senator who had something to do with the Civil War and the founding fathers and the East Coast combined. They were both on their way to play tennis. Vanessa had taken off her seat belt to reach for something in the backseat. Her head hit the windshield, face first.
______Vanessa. Their only daughter. Her beautiful face ruined. For now. She told herself over and over, just for now. The doctor had advised against any “scar revision” for one year after the injury. To allow her body time to heal fully. Those were his words. No cosmetic surgery. Not yet. He had nothing, not for the scar on her right cheek, not even for the thick, raised scars he called Keloid scars on Vanessa’s forehead.
______Linda had been 100% in the wrong; she made a left hand turn when the light was red. It was her fault, she couldn’t deny it. She made a mistake, one tremendous mistake that altered her daughter’s face probably forever. And since then, since last summer, since the accident that changed everything, her husband Bob could barely look at Linda.  Linda could barely look at herself.
______Over dessert, someone at the table asked what ever happened to Monica Lewinsky. Someone else said she was making purses. Another made a crude joke. Someone said, “That’s awesome.” Another said, “It sucks.” Another crude joke followed.
______Awesome wasn’t so bad. She noticed so many women her age saying awesome, as though they could talk their way back into being 18. But It sucks? When had that word become so much a part of their lives? She thought of her daughter, Vanessa saying sucked. Dinner sucked, Bush sucked, Cheney sucked, the weather sucked, TV sucked. Her daughter would say these things, loudly. If she had muttered them, perhaps they would not have sounded so offensive. But when she heard them, she wanted to slap her daughter’s face. Slap the “suck” right out of her.
______When had she grown to hate what her daughter said? And when had she stopped reprimanding her daughter?
______After the accident, Forty-Eight whispered.
______That week, Vanessa had come home frantic after videotaping someone for her class project. She thought she had forgotten how to save the recording and she worried that it wasn’t there and that she would have to call the lady back up and do the whole interview all over again. Linda didn’t know why her daughter was more concerned about this project than she was about getting her college applications completed. Vanessa was no good with electronics, and Linda couldn’t figure out why she even took the film class she didn’t need. Linda could barely look at her daughter then, sitting there at the kitchen counter, reading through the thick saving section in the instruction manual. She was wearing that t-shirt from the Hospital Resale shop, her hair hanging in her face, her cap pulled low to cover the scars on her forehead.
______Linda had said the wrong thing, she knew that now. Something about Vanessa’s looks maybe, or something about college. She couldn’t remember. But she could remember what Vanessa had done and said. Linda could remember because afterwards it felt like her life was over. Vanessa had slammed down the saving instructions, gotten up, called the dog to come with her, and then before she left to go to her room, she turned to her mother and quietly, experimentally said, “Bitch.”

______When they all stood to go to the living room for coffee, Linda took the opportunity to find a powder room. She closed the door. Maybe she could stay there for as long as she could, maybe even until it was time to go. At the sink, she lingered, reading all the labels on all the jars: tangerine, brown sugar and cranberry. She could make chutney out of all these salt scrubs.
______The house was an Adler done up by a decorator who had a history of wait-listing her clients. Wings and levels went on and on. It was easy for Linda to wander off down a hall. This house made her angry. These people, their hosts, he was a partner with her husband and he barely lifted the phone, too lazy to ever be accused of even churning accounts. He was so much less a man than Bob, and yet he wanted, always wanted a bigger cut at the end of the fiscal year. He came in maybe three days a week, took off early for golf. All his money was inherited. Somebody a while ago made a bundle in box cars, then somebody else designed a Coke bottle – or was it RC? – and after that the generations stopped working, stopped trying, stopped caring and just took.
______She was drunk enough to open a closed door, and there stood a young man, a boy really, the son, smiling like he knew her, smoking a joint next to a large glass tank full of turtles. In a friendly, almost confidential way, he shook his shaggy brown bangs from his eyes and said hey. It felt as though they knew each other, old friends seeing each other just when they needed to see each other.
______“You’re Vanessa’s Mom, right?”
______He offered her the joint on his roach clip.
______Barely hesitating, Linda stepped forward, closed the door, took the joint, inhaled, held her breath, avoided coughing, then exhaled. She hadn’t smoked a joint in, what, twenty years?  She’d forgotten about the burning, but Oh Lord it was good.
______“Don’t turtles give you salmonella?”
______“That’s why I wear these.” He snapped the latex covering his other hand, the one she hadn’t seen.
______“Whoa,” she laughed, stepping back. She had not laughed in a while. “Latex gloves are never a turn-on.” Why had she said that?
______“I’m Brett.”
______“I’m Linda.” She smiled and so did Brett. He was a guy, not a boy. He had crossed over.
______Why had she worn flats? Why hadn’t she worn her newer black shoes or the tan boots she could now see leaning, exhausted in her closet? Things happened differently when you wore heels. She wished she had on heels.
______Why are you thinking of this child? Forty-Eight said. He’s jailbait.
______He had the long hair. She hadn’t liked it the first time round, when SHE had been his age. But this generation of men seemed to know what to do with hair. His was clean and even shiny. It hung right, like in some Prell commercial from her youth.
______His movie posters were not of his generation and they were all framed in black. Citizen Kane, The Misfits. On the Waterfront. All black, grey, and red.  The van der Rohe chair in the corner next to a tripod and a video camera, then there was the $800 office chair at his desk to do, what, Algebra?
______“You have a nice room. Very well appointed.”
______Get out now and don’t look in the mirror, for God’s sake! Forty-Eight bellowed.
______“Yeah. I like it.” He was looking her up and down. In that way. She wanted to say, look, this might be your room, your house, but I’m the authority here.
______“Boring party?”
______“No. it’s nice. Everyone’s nice.”
______“But you’re here.”
______“You’re nice too.” Had she actually said that? How old was he anyway? Eighteen? Nineteen? With one hit from the joint, she had traveled outside herself and up to the ceiling, observing, judging. That, my dear, married woman, was a come-on thing to say.
______He took another drag from the joint, then put it out inside a black plastic film container. Some things stayed the same. He took a few steps toward her. “I can be nicer too.”
______“Whoa, cowboy,” she laughed.
______He was cut and tight. She had forgotten how young skin can actually be tight. He worked out with weights, she could tell. Nice veins going on his neck and forearms, solid abs. Oh, but he was nice. She was inclined to make him turn around, to say, turn please, then walk just to watch him walk away. Did hormones do that? No, hormones are what she would be on soon enough. His was the steroids. Then why did people say such bad things about steroids when they looked so good on?
______She had left their house that evening yawning, regretting that they had to go out to another partner’s dinner. She could never remember anyone’s name. She didn’t have anything to say. She was tired of keeping up, tired of trying to impress. And why did the men always end up talking to the other men, leaving the women completely out of it? She kept thinking of that Thanksgiving scene from that sixties movie, “Diary of a Mad House Wife.” Or was that from the seventies?
______She had never been really cool when she was younger, maybe she was now, standing here, sharing a joint alone with this boy, this cool guy. Why had he put it out so soon? Why hadn’t he offered her another hit? She would have taken it. Maybe she could redeem herself in the land of cool, show him the what’s what, show him what real women, not girls, were all about. And take something here for herself.
______But really, this was getting ridiculous. Any minute, she expected her husband to walk in, or better yet, the boy’s mother, the hostess who may or may not still be in the living room arguing with her husband about Paris.
 ______Go to your husband, pretend he’s a young Warren Beatty or Jack Nicholson. Better yet, pretend he’s the kid, Forty-Eight said, reasonably. It’s the only way to get on with the sex. That would be a start.
______She stepped back, lost her balance, grabbed hold of the steel table by the door, then knocked a wooden figurine over. He caught her arm and righted the figure, a tall thing, was it a wooden penis? Art? A lamp? She put her hand on the table to readjust her shoe. Her hand fit around something cool – a box? Yes, there it was, a little porcelain box fitting neatly in her palm.
______“It’s a bonbonnière,” he said. “Made for breath freshners or sweet-meats.”  In less then a second, he held her arm and she was a teenager again, giggling.
______“I picked it up at the Prado Museum in Madrid last summer.”
______“Really.” She couldn’t help herself. Who was this kid? “Were you there studying?”
______“No. Just a vacation. Where did you go to college?”
______It was always an assumption in this town. College. “I went to Cal State.” She had gone one year, then quit, but she didn’t feel like she was lying. “So you know French?” She shook her head, then asked, flirting, “Are you gay?”
______He smiled, shook his head. “No. Are you?”
______“I’m married.” She could hear Forty-Eight screaming Marriage has nothing to do with it, woman. You’re old! Too old.
______She waited. I am married, she thought. But I’m not done yet. It’s not over yet for me or my body.
______“So? Are you gay?” he said, grinning.
______“I’ve slept with women, if that’s what you want to know.” She was showing off now, she knew.
______The box was painted with a detail from something that looked to be old and Spanish. Two nude figures, a brown man holding onto the light, blond female, his hand on her stomach, her hand on his thigh, they looked to be floating inside a bubble.
______“It’s a detail from a painting called ‘The Garden of the Delights.’ Isn’t it cool? It’s like they’re inside an onion skin. Lots going on there. I think Bosco was defending nudity. This is after The Fall. It looks to me like they’re just blowing it all off, you know? Doing what they want.”
______She nodded. “I should go.”
______He closed her hand back around the box. “Keep it,” he said. Then he leaned in and kissed her cheek. He kissed her. And it was nice. He smelled nice and musty. And she wanted him to do it again. Her face was burning. Was this a hot flash?
______She meant to say, Oh, I couldn’t accept this. I shouldn’t. But she didn’t. She wanted the box. She wanted something tangible from him, from this room, from this house, from this moment. And she didn’t want to have to steal.
______“Thank you.”
______“I told you. I’m nice.” He leaned in again, kissed her again, aiming for her cheek, but then turning his head and kissing her softly on the lips. And then his tongue, small and wet, was there, inside her mouth. Where did he learn this at his age?
______She did everything she could to stay calm, but she knew her face was red. He was smiling his good teeth smile, her lipstick on his lips. He had stolen that kiss. It was the first time she understood that arcane expression.
______“Bye,” she said.
______“See you.”
______As she left his room, she didn’t put the box in her purse. She kept it in her fist – it fit so nicely there in the palm of her hand.
______Even when her husband helped her with her coat, even on the drive back home, she kept the tiny box in her hand, uncurling her fingers every now and then to look at the naked figures inside the gauzy bubble.
______She had done nothing wrong. She had committed no crime, no sin. And yet, why wasn’t she telling her husband about the encounter with the boy named Brett, just leaving out that last part with the kiss? Why wasn’t she joking about his room, mocking the expensive décor? It was just the sort of fodder they used to enjoy after a party such as this one. Her husband might even laugh about the kiss. Kisses. Or would he?
______She touched her cheek. He’d had just a hint of stubble and that good, musty smell.
______“Wasn’t the salmon good?” he said.
______“It was over-done,” she said.
______“I just doused it in the sauce.” He sighed. “You don’t have to be so negative all the time.” 
______The drive home. There was always The Drive Home. Was this really her life, their life? Driving home only to flee it again? The fact was, she did used to wear an ankle bracelet and she did smoke dope and she had done coke (to lose weight, mostly) and there had been that one girl from Berkeley. What was her name? They had kissed. At the time, Linda had expected something soft and vaguely erotic, but the girl’s lips had been so chapped by the sun, it was just salty and gross. Still, she took risks. Linda always took risks. So did all risk-taking seize after marriage?
______They drove a Volvo now because it was considered safer. Safer then the SUV she had wrecked and tipped over. The Volvo would never tip over. She often thought back to the wreck. What if she had just died? Would anything really be different?
______Outside, snow spit against the windshield and their silence was interrupted only by the turn signal and the garage door opener. She could remember when they first met, how little they said. There were no words. They held hands when they walked and whenever they faced each other, they looked at each other. A lot. She couldn’t kiss him enough. He was solid and muscular and he had great hair. He had one crooked front tooth which he tried to hide by not smiling too much. She wanted to eat him, consume him. His smell was like nothing else, papaya and mango and pine. Back then, she liked their silences.
______Once, after the accident, she had actually complained. “Have you noticed?” she said. She really said this. “All we talk about is our schedule, gas prices and groceries. What happened to our conversation?”
______“We used to talk about movies and books,” he said.
______“I know. But I’m through with those.” She wanted to say, because there’s too  much pain in books, but she didn’t.
______And that was the end of it. She saw now that she was the one who had put an end to their talk.
______In the car he gave her his wallet.
______She laughed. “What’s this for, services rendered?”
______“Honey. We haven’t used a baby sitter in over four years.”
______“Oh Jesus, I don’t know what I was thinking.”
______She gave him his wallet.
______“My mind,” he started. “I guess I’m preoccupied.”
______She knew it was work. She should ask him about work, but then she would have to hear about work. He was successful but hardly proud of what he did. He made money. Period. In college, he had wanted to be a doctor. Then an architect, and finally a research scientist. But always, he saw other people in these fields who wanted it more. They were passionate about it, while he was not. So he landed up with an MBA and a natural gift to find the right companies and invest well.
______Couldn’t he just say he was drunk and then they could go at it, right there in the front seat of the car? They had had so much sex through the years. She had done it with him when she was crazy in love with him, and she had done it with him when she hated him. But always, the sex was good to fantastic. Toe-curling, earthquake stuff. Never a problem. But that was before the accident. Before they stopped talking.
______They didn’t need to talk about anything anyway. They just needed to wind themselves around each other again. When exactly had they become so careful with each other? So polite? Right afterwards? At the hospital? Standing across from each other, their beautiful, bloodied Vanessa bandaged in the bed between them?
______“Sleep in tomorrow,” she said. What she wanted to say was: Why can’t you just forgive me?
______“Yeah,” he said. “I think I’ll do that.”
______She unclenched her fist and looked at the naked figures on the porcelain box. She hadn’t stolen it; he had given it to her as a gift. The boy named Brett. Sweet-meat. She hadn’t done anything wrong. She went to the partner’s dinner. She ate the food. She had thanked the host and hostess. She would write a note. She had driven home with her husband who was now getting out of the car to climb into the house they were able to afford. They had gotten back home and they were safe. She would take another pain killer if she felt like it. She had lots of pills left over from the accident. She would put the pills inside her bonbonnière.
______There they were, going into their house, first to let the dog out, then maybe to make another drink to take with them to bed. Their daughter would be in her own pretty, green room asleep. Their sleeping scarred daughter who had called her a bitch.
______They lived in a new house in one of the older subdivisions where they got a lot of morning light. She was having everything repainted. And after that? She would have everything re-covered. Re-done. The lawn would be next. But that would be in the spring. Now? Now it was still winter in the Midwest. And there he was. Her husband: The man who would pay for everything. The man with whom she sometimes slept.
______Sleep sounded good. Sleep always sounded good, especially in the middle of winter in the Midwest. And when had that happened? When had sleep taken precedence over everything? For a moment, watching her husband’s figure standing there in the lit kitchen window, Linda stood alone in the cold, gripping the outside banister, listening for Forty-Eight, waiting for instructions.



Margaret McMullan at OSMargaret McMullan

Margaret McMullan is the author of six award-winning novels including In My Mother's House (2003), How I Found the Strong (2004), When I Crossed No-Bob (2006), Cashay (2009), and Sources of Light (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2010). Her work has appeared in Glamour, the Chicago Tribune, Southern Accents, TriQuarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, Boulevard, Ploughshares, The Sun, National Geographic for Kids, Christmas Stories from the South?s Best Writers, Christmas Essays from the South?s Best Writers, and elsewhere. She received a Special Mention in the 2005 Pushcart Prize collection and twice she received Individual Artist Fellowships from the Indiana Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts. She was the 2007 Eudora Welty Visiting Writer at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, and she is currently a professor of English at the University of Evansville, in Evansville, Indiana. For more information visit her website: www.margaretmcmullan.com

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