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We had dinner at your house in Chatham, in the formal dining room that your decorator said you’d cheapened with too casual a chandelier. When you hired her, you purchased a three-hundred-dollar serving tray as compensation for the shoddy fixture. Every summer birthday and barbecue after, you hauled that damn wooden rectangle around the backyard – laden with chips and packet dips and napkins – to justify the expense to your husband. Then you replaced the chandelier too.
We’d met in Hoboken the year prior when our stroller laps near the pier kept intersecting. The friendship caught on in an instant. Our husbands both worked in finance. Our daughters were close in age. I’d recently had a second baby and yours was nearly due.
You moved from Hoboken to Chatham a few months later and begged me to visit. You were lonely, stuck in that big house with small children all summer, waiting for preschool and your new suburban life to start. For nearly a year, I drove the 20 miles out to see you a few times a week, and you fed and entertained the lot of us in return. I had a third baby during that time, and you came to the hospital to exclaim what a doll she was.
When our get-togethers lasted through dinner, my husband rode back from New York City with yours, their business casual wear limp from the press of skyscrapers. My spouse had a big job, and yours had a bigger one. Mine was our age, and yours 10 years older. Sometimes our men aimed these differences at each other like they were boys with BB guns. They desired not to kill but to maim, because who really could say which counted for less: success already acquired or youth with upward potential?
You and I had our own versions of BB guns. For pellets, we used our children’s looks and genders, their intelligence and potential talents, our own appearances and desirability, and what the other possessed or didn’t yet.
Your parents were visiting the night we fought. They drove in from Ohio and joined our happy assortment around the table, our preschoolers and toddlers intermittently plunked along its edges like icing flowers on a cake. I vibrated the baby on my lap as we pretended to be more grown-up than we felt. We drank wine and forked noodles into waiting mouths. We demanded three bites more, two bites, one.
My husband mentioned life insurance to me in passing, murmuring over the baby’s head. His improved policy, which we upped after the birth of each new dependent, had finally taken hold. When overheard and queried, he spoke the number across the table and I imagined all its zeroes stringing themselves along the metal bars of the new light fixture, so we might better scrutinise their empty middles. I glared at my husband as heat crept into my cheeks.
You scoffed at the realisation that our husbands’ numbers matched; the wet catch in your throat holding back everything unsaid but lashing beneath.
Surely, you deserved more. Your husband’s life should be worthier than mine.
Your mother laid down her silverware, said quietly, “Sarah, I raised you better,” as the children gurgled and squirmed, oblivious to the minutiae of adults and their made-up skirmishes.
A few months from that moment, our friendship will end. I’ll despise your new friends with tiny whales stitched onto their polo shirts and their older husbands wearing shiny loafers without socks. You’ll be dismayed when we don’t choose Chatham for our new home, opting for more square footage in a lesser town nearby. We’ll both be miffed when I don’t RSVP to your birthday celebration thrown by your new pals, and then I’ll be forever unsure an invitation even existed after checking my phone bill. I’ll make a new friend in my new town, and you’ll phone the moment I arrive at her home, demanding that I come watch your children, but I’ll refuse.
In the end, you’ll send an email detailing my lack of appreciation for the feeding and entertaining, the toddler bed we borrowed, and the childcare while we shopped for houses. My husband will read the email and summarise it to extract the sting. You’ll get pregnant again despite your husband’s worsening back pain because he still needs a son. We’ll settle into our new home in a town that lacks all of Chatham’s gleam, while I tell myself that I never wanted Chatham at all. For a year, my oldest child will cry for yours until she mercifully forgets.
But that night at the table, to remedy the quiet, we reached for our wineglasses and slurped. I laughed in a horrid way and wondered if my face appeared witchy when I did. Then, whatever force that was holding all of us loosened, and I envisioned the zeroes overhead dropping from the light with a plink, plink, plink. I leaned forward to replace my glass and the baby’s face banged against the table.
Cora Waring lives in Ada, MI, with her husband, three children, two dogs, and one hamster. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in River Teeth's "Beautiful Things," Santa Clara Review, Train River, and Catapult, among other publications. She also has an essay featured in the upcoming anthology, "The Pandemic Midlife Crisis: Gen X Women on the Brink." In her spare time, Cora teaches indoor cycling and tells stories on stages. Occasionally, she does both at the same time. Read and listen at www.corawaring.com.