Fiction

Excerpt from ‘The Couples’ by Nicole Callihan

MostWonderfulTimeofTheYearCourtneyBernardo

Warm the stick of butter in your hands. Unpeel its paper sheaf. Rub the stick along the shaft of the corncob. Repeat and repeat until all the shafts are buttery.

Find the largest pot you have. Send your husband to find an even bigger pot. Fill two-thirds of the way with the hottest water you can get from the spigot. Salt. Salt more. Boil. When you throw in the lobsters, you’ll hear them screaming.

Tell yourself it doesn’t hurt them.

It doesn’t hurt them.

Take a big knife. Cut the spine out of the kale. Douse with olive oil. Massage, massage. Rub out all the rough places. You want the kale to be as tender as you.

Slice the mango, another mango. Remember how the mango lady in Brooklyn does it. Suck on the core. Tear it into shreds with your teeth.

More olive oil and lemon juice and honey. Whisk until creamy.

A bottle of white while you prepare. A bottle of bubbly to toast. A bottle of Rosé to dine. The table is perfect. The candles are long and elegant. The kids, in the far room, toast with their seltzers. Gargle their seltzers. Laugh so hard they blow seltzer out their noses.

Boy, girl, boy, girl.

And never a wife next to her husband.

And never a husband next to his wife.

“To us,” someone says. “Always to us.”

Let someone bang her champagne glass with the pretty cutlery your in-laws gifted you. Or bang your own.

“Gentlefolks, in the little moment that remains to us between the crisis and the catastrophe, we may as well drink our champagne.”

Feel the legs beneath the table, all the legs beneath the table, wooden and fleshy.

There will be dancing.

You are wearing a navy satin slip dress which grazes your skin.

Eat, drink, be wildly merry. Laugh too loud. Toast too much.

“Here’s to you, and here’s to me, and if we ever disagree, well, fuck you, here’s to me.”

Feel your husband’s eyes on you. Just hours ago you felt his hands on you. How different now in this room. This long table surrounded by these hungry guests. The hydrangeas you brought in because bugs be damned.

This hand on your knee.

This hand moving up your thigh.

Leave it all on the table to clean tomorrow.

Send the children into the yard, into tents. Take the couples into the living room. Put something slow and silky on the record player. Watch Duke dance too close to Jenny. Feel Christopher move too close to you. Let Isla and Frank laugh in the corner. Leave Dev and Diane to play gin in the kitchen.

Are you in an Updike novel?

You don’t care.

Dance.

Is this some sort of post-deconstructionist foxtrot?

You don’t care.

Dance.

Say yes when the children come crashing in for popcorn. Say yes when they come crashing in for chocolate.

Dance more.

Let Isla come to Christopher. Let her have him. Stare at the blue star tattoo on his forearm as she pulls him away from you. He’s her husband, after all. Follow them. Put your arms around her waist and dance with her. Say, I’ve never danced with a rich girl before.

Tell her she smells like coconut.

She smells like coconut.

These are the bodies. Strange aging bodies. Aching bodies. Wanting bodies. What to do with the body when the body wants so much?

Let Frank woo you away from Isla. Let him breathe on your neck a little. Let him say, We should write songs together. Be the song.

It’s okay when your husband says you’re flirting. He’s flirting too. There are berries in the fridge to put out, to drop into your bottomless glass, to drop into the bottomless you.

Someone will get weepy in the corner.

Someone will break something.

Someone will cut her hand while picking up the broken thing.

Tell the children it’s lights out, or you’ll force them inside.

You are such an empty threat. Such a dancing, blinding empty threat.

Pour more wine. Just a splash. A few cubes of ice because you’ve gone through all the bottles you chilled.

Sit on the couch and let someone rub your feet. Tell them how good it feels.

Tell them again.

Fall asleep and dream first of the sparkling water. The tiny bobbing boats. But things turn. Now, your legs are broken. You can’t move. You’ve lost yourself. Jerk up in the night. Let a voice comfort you. Just a dream. Take a sip of your wine grown warm. Watch the couples dance in the distance.

Watch your husband’s body move. Remember all the times your body has moved with his. Now, think of stars until you fall asleep again. Your high school love is walking away from you. Call for him. Malachi, Malachi. Let him turn to you. His face is blown off with a shotgun. Malachi, you say again.

How can you kiss a man with his face blown off? But how can you not?

I want your tongue in my mouth, he says. Or Frank says. Or Christopher.

And all is shimmery again. Those bobbing boats. The red and white checked table cloth. The children finally asleep. Are they asleep? Or carried off by wolves? So quiet. The world is so quiet and crooked.

Finally, someone will come to you, lean over you, whisper that it’s time for bed. Let them hold you. Feel the weight of yourself in their arms. Is it your almost lover? Your husband? Or is it years ago? Lou has found you on the steps, bleeding a little and dirty, all red earth and shame. Or maybe you’re even younger. Yes, you’re even younger, and it’s your mother, your pretty mother with her hoop earrings and her blue jean skirt, smelling like diner pie.

“Here, baby,” the voice says. Listen to the creak of the floorboards as you are carried to your bed with its freshly pressed sheets.

 

Nicole Callihan writes poems and stories. Her poetry books include SuperLoop (2014) and Translucence (with Samar Abdel Jaber, 2018), and the chapbooks A Study in Spring (with Zoë Ryder White, 2015), The Deeply Flawed Human (2016), Downtown (2017), and Aging (2018). Her novella, The Couples, will be published by Mason Jar Press in summer 2019. Find out more at nicolecallihan.com.


Photo: “The Most Wonderful Time” by Courtney Bernardo