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Fuzzy with darkness, the closet feels like a glove.
The woman smells like brie and gin. From what I can see, she’s older but even with her hair in neon Scrunchie. As we crouch together, her elbow touches mine, so I pull at hair poking through a hole in my jeans. She connects invisible dots on her leggings while we to the din of forced conversation beyond the door.
“I’ve never been to a surprise party before,” she says, her voice like leather.
“I’ve never been to this type of surprise party before,” I answer.
“Kind of ingenious though, isn’t it?”
I’m not so sure.
The invitation arrived in crimson script from a friend of a friend that reminded me of my mother’s handwriting when she pretended to write as Santa.
The surprise was to do something unexpected. Someone had originally posted the idea online as a joke. #manufactureasurprise exploded with everything from strangers receiving bags of cash to grandparents announcing at Thanksgiving how often they still have sex to my CEO announcing our companies layoffs were greater than expected.
“I thought I was done with surprises in this life,” the woman says, speaking past me.
“I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to start.”
“How old are you?”
“How old are you?”
“You aren’t supposed to ask that to a woman,” she answers before clicking her tongue against her teeth in reprimand.
The invitation said there would be a theme but didn’t reveal what it was. People arrived dressed like flappers and gangsters and royal knights and ancient Egyptians and one man as John F. Kennedy with half his head blown off.
In his mother’s letters from Santa, there were always specific instructions regarding what he shouldn’t do in order to land on the nice list:
– Don’t wake your mother before sunrise.
– Don’t make faces when introduced to her new friends
– Don’t ask questions that you aren’t ready to hear answers to
The woman wore purple leggings, a white cutoff sweatshirt over a spandex top, and a dayglo pink scrunchie in her hair that barely glowed in the dark. I wore my best polo shirt and ripped jeans.
“What’s your surprise?” she asks.
“If I told you, then it wouldn’t be a surprise.”
She forces a phlegmy laugh that reminds of my therapist’s advice to date more age-appropriate women.
My eyes adjust to the dark, and I notice the Virginia Slim tucked behind her ear. I can smell the swirling smoke as she sliced carrots under the ugly yellow glow of the kitchen lights, drinking because my father wasn’t home.
“What if we tell each other something that no one knows about us and then never speak about it again?” she finally asks.
The theme turned out to be awkward seventh grade.
She speaks again before I can respond.
“I once lied to my little sister and told her I had an abortion to scare her out of fucking her piece-of-shit boyfriend when she was fourteen.”
She feels for my hand, taking it in hers, paper wrapped bones and cracking skin.
“I never told her about the real one I had after fucking her piece-of-shit boyfriend years later.”
I remember all the Christmases that I asked for a sister I knew would never come.
“You go. Unless you don’t have anything that surprises,” she says.
It appears instantly: the wormlike scar burrowed into her breast where a nipple should have been as she changed between shifts, the Christmas gift I wasn’t supposed to be holding, buried in the back of her closet, the way she sighed, the way I couldn’t.
“I never told her that I already knew what was hidden inside.”
The woman puts her head on my shoulder. I thought I was done with crying.
“They always know,” she coos. “Always.”
When the door flings open, the light stings like the slap I deserve.