Editors' Pick

What If

“If you were going to date a kitchen appliance, which would it be?” Zach is reading from a book of “what-ifs”—a gift from his little sister—as I drive us eighty miles east to his best friend Bobby’s house. We’re all having dinner with Bobby’s fiancée, Marguerite—his “girl,” as he calls her.

“A toaster,” I say. “No contest.” It really is no contest. The toaster is an honest machine: you see what it’s doing, you monitor your toast, there’s no mystery there, and nothing violent as there is with a blender or—the worst and scariest, in my book—a garbage disposal. “It’s jaunty,” I continue. “It’s got je ne sais quois. It’s trustworthy, but not boring. It’s peppy. None of that coffee-grinder arrogance.” A can-do appliance, I reason to myself, and a humble one, too. All it asks is that you empty the crumb tray every blue moon or two. If that. Personally, I’ve never emptied mine.

“What about you?” I ask Zach, whose gaze has wandered from the book to a billboard that screams: “CRAZY ED’S FIREWORKS, EXIT 12B!!!” It is early January, not fireworks season at all, and I can’t imagine these stores stay open year-round. Even at 31, four years into his PhD, Zach is drawn to things that pop and bang and flare at the possible cost of fingers and toes.

“Zach,” I say. “What kitchen appliance would you date?”

“A toaster,” he says, “so that we could have a threesome.

“Cute,” I say. Je ne sais quois, ménage a trois. I get it. It’s the kind of guy he is—sweet and raunchy at once, a combination that has kept me here in the seat beside him for going-on five years.

“You want exit 12B,” he tells me.

“No thank you,” I say. “No fireworks for you and Bobby.”

“Exit 12B,” he says. “You can’t deny me my primal manhood.”

Indeed. This is a common retort these days, for everything from steak to sex to refusing to use a map. Zach is writing his dissertation on the Green Wolf in summer ceremonies in Normandy, a man whose friends chased him and pretended to fling him into a bonfire. Something like that. I remain confused about why it’s manly to dress up in a wolf suit and get chased all over France. But men and their Vulcan rites are as inevitable as women and lies. I’m studying psychology now, a master’s degree—or I’m going to soon—and could talk until I’m blue in the face about men’s absurd need for fire in all its forms, how it’s ruined marriages and started wars. But I don’t feel like a lecture from either one of us, so yes, we’ll get off at exit 12B.

“Gotcha,” I say.

Crazy Ed’s is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s painted red and built like a barn, but inside it’s more like an airplane hanger, cavernous and bright. There are giant bins of fireworks, things I didn’t know I remembered from childhood and things with magical names. Pop Rockets, Whistling Moons, Wild Geese, Paradise Missiles, Lucky Space Bombs. Zach is lost to the aisles and I drift over to the sparklers, which is all I could ever stand. I pick up four, for old times’ sake, and tuck them into my coat, along with a matchbook. There are so many fireworks here, and I feel like Robin Hood: take from the rich, give to the poor. From Crazy Ed, to me.

“Babe,” I say, when he appears from behind a display of Fierce Soaring Tigers, “were we supposed to bring dessert?”

“Not sure.” I can tell he’s trying to hide his basket, though I’m reconciled to having a pyromaniacal boyfriend. “Should we get some candy?”

“Maybe,” I say. Zach grabs M&Ms and Skittles and tosses them into his basket, which, I see now, is overflowing with cones and little boxes in bright paper.

“You’re the best,” he says. “You’re Miss Thoughtful.” He is easy to please. And I am, too: I love the idea of showing up to Bobby and Marguerite’s with a bag of discount candy in lieu of apple cobbler or tiramisu.

There are at least ten checkout stands, all lined up, though we’re the only customers in the store, as far as I can tell. The one clerk who’s working is a heavyset man with a red vest—and a nametag reading “Ed.” His moustache is silver, and I would guess he’s 48. “You get a discount?” Zach asks.

“He’s not asking for one,” I say. “He’s just curious.”

Zach tugs on my hair, which is long these days. I haven’t cut it in three years. I’m hoping to do Locks for Love, and give it away to make wigs for kids with cancer. I have told Zach this, and he thinks it’s weird. “I just don’t get it,” he’s said. “All those kids walking around with my girlfriend’s hair on their heads? It’s like organ donation—people seeing out of my eyeballs. No thank you.”

“You kids came at the right time,” the clerk says. “Just restocked last weekend after the New Year’s run. End of December’s a crazy time.”

“I bet,” I say. “All those parties.”

“I don’t shoot ‘em off no more myself.” He keeps passing the fireworks over the scanner and dropping them into a plastic bag. Beep. Rustle. Beep. “Heard of too many accidents.” Because only his moustache moves, it seems like the silver bristles actually talk.

“Your name is Ed!” Zach says, and I can tell by his voice that he’s only now noticed his nametag. “Are you crazy? Are you really Crazy Ed?”

“Not so crazy after all,” he says, and the moustache rises slightly, as if he’s smiling underneath. “I’m not that Ed. Though a lot of folks think I am, and sometimes I let ’em.”

“I would, too,” I say. At this, Zach reaches his arm around my waist and squeezes. I can feel the sparklers digging into my ribs and hope my coat is thick enough to disguise them. I’m eager to leave, and when one side of Ed’s moustache rises as he adds up the total, I worry that he’s found me out. “Well,” I say, as Ed tears our sheet from a pad of carbon-copy bills, “we’d better be off.” I unwind Zach’s arm from my waist and he hands over $17 and change.

In the car, we laugh at the clerk and his talking moustache. It’s getting dark, and Zach leans over to kiss me before I start the engine. His nose is cold against my cheek.

There are reasons we don’t get married. Like the fact that we are poor and the fact that we are just fine living together and the fact that neither one of us wants kids any time soon. But Zach would marry me if I asked. I have cheated on him once or twice, and it’s possible—though I have no reason to suspect this—that he’s cheated on me. But that’s not what keeps us from getting engaged. There’s something missing, another je ne sais quois. And yet we keep surviving, and there’s something to that, too. When Zach’s parents split up two years ago, it only brought us closer, and I’ve seen at least three of his little sister’s boyfriends come and go. It’s not a bad feeling to be the one who keeps showing up at family dinners, as Meg brings different men through and then tells us, a few months later, why each of them didn’t work out. Zach says that I’m his rock, and although we’ve had our troubles, it’s partly true. People just forget that you trip over rocks more often than you cling to them.

But this isn’t a night for the larger meditations. Things always get a little weird when we visit Bobby. I dated him through half of college, and Zach was our sidekick back then. A trace of that dynamic has lingered, and I know that when the three or the four of us are together, Zach has his concerns. Not that I would ever go for Bobby now, I tell Zach, and not that I’ve had the opportunity. I do an imitation of Bobby in lawyer mode at work, often in my bra and panties, and I’ve never seen Zach laugh so hard. I straighten an imaginary bowtie, tug on my bra straps in place of suspenders, and hook my thumbs into my underwear as I pace the bedroom floor invoking innocence and guilt, or put the Green Wolf on trial for disorderly conduct. Those are our good nights, and when Zach throws popcorn at me, I open my mouth to catch it like the dolphins at Sea World.

By the time we turn off the highway, Zach has eaten almost half of the giant bag of M&Ms., tossing them into his mouth five and ten at a time.

“Relax, Sadie,” he says. “It’s only half. And I don’t think they wanted us to bring anything anyway.”

“I am relaxed,” I say. Actually, I love the half-eaten bag. “It’s been a long time since I saw Marguerite. Where does Bobby hide her?”

“Oh, in a dungeon,” says Bobby, chewing. “Who knows? You saw her over Labor Day—that’s only, what, four months?”

This is true. The four of us went water-skiing with college friends, not long after I had cheated on Zach with a man I’d met at the coffee shop a few blocks from home. That weekend, I was trying us on again as a couple, imagining what life would be like if Zach and I were close and faithful and convincing myself that I wanted to stay. Zach swam after me across the lake and I tried to envision how we looked from shore, our limbs connected by invisible threads. I leaned against him by the bonfire at night and closed my eyes, imagining our bodies as one lovely beast, heads and shoulders merging into one strange shape against the night.

Marguerite wasn’t particularly smart or beautiful or witty that weekend: cellulite covered the backs of her thighs; her Scrabble words were monosyllables and she was losing until Bobby drew her into his lap and onto his team; she was on the outside of nearly every joke and college memory. Bobby explained everything to her about our college life—how the campus was laid out, why this bar was better than that one, why it was so damn funny to catch Dan Oliver and Jessy Lane in bed. He explained things he didn’t need to. And though my focus was mostly on Zach, and how he’d never know I’d failed him—which was a failing in itself—I glimpsed Marguerite’s appeal: she was someone with whom Bobby could make his life new, while I and my dull little world had always been there for him, plodding right along.

“I really think Bobby could do better,” I say. “Don’t you?”

At this, Zach reaches back into his bag, and I suppose he thinks the rustle makes me mad. “No accounting for taste,” says Zach. “And besides, she’s sweet. Makes him happy. They can’t all be Miz Sadie.” He laughs at this, because he thinks I believe Bobby can’t do better than me. But it’s not that, I want to tell him. It’s that I’ll never do better than Zach’s best friend.

By the time we turn down Bobby’s driveway and pull up to his house, I’m boiling hot—never took my coat off when we got in the car after Crazy Ed’s, for obvious reasons—and can hardly breathe. I want to stay outside and just soak in the cold air, grab low-hanging tree branches and shake them free of snow, but this is a crazy thing to say, so I follow Zach to the door.

“Hey,” he says when Bobby answers, and he holds out a bright red bag. “We brought you Skittles.” He was embarrassed to offer the half-bag of M&Ms, and I’m disappointed he didn’t.

“Thanks, man,” says Bobby. “Come on in.”

I hug Bobby. “Congratulations,” I say, at which point Zach remembers to shake his hand and slap him on the back.

“Nice work,” he says. “You got the girl.”

That Zach would say this surprises me—that he would look upon an engagement as some accomplishment. I thought we didn’t care about such things. Apparently we do. It hits me that Zach hasn’t chosen me in precisely the same way I haven’t chosen him, and I wonder if, instead of not caring about marriage, he’s decided to not care if he marries me, an entirely different thing.

We follow Bobby down the hall to the kitchen, where Marguerite has a red dishtowel tossed across her shoulder and is the picture of domesticity. A regular angel in the house. She’s boiling water for pasta and steam rises around her face, curling the blond baby hair above her ears.

“Spaghetti,” I say. “I make a fantastic sauce.”

Bobby pours a tumbler of whiskey for Zach and drops in a few ice cubes. He is a good Alabama boy, and I like to imagine him sipping whiskey or mint juleps on his parents’ porch—more of a plantation, I’ve always imagined, no matter how much he protests—as he paces and intones about good vs. evil, innocence vs. guilt, and the need to free the slaves.

Marguerite is sipping white wine, and Bobby points to the bottle beside her and looks at me questioningly. “Of course,” I say, and wonder if he opened the Sauvignon Blanc with me in mind. Marguerite is the one to pour it, and she smiles as she hands it over. I smile back, but a little more faintly, summoning all the authority of an ex-girlfriend to intimidate the one who comes later, who will never have known Bobby first.

I confess I’m not absolutely over Bobby. I am and I’m not. It’s been nine years, sure, and he’s gotten a belly and wears bow ties on occasion, but I’ve always been fond of the Southern Einstein types, and who can resist a young man in suspenders? Bobby, on the other hand, is more than over me; in my darker moods, I think he was over me from the start. It was the type of relationship everyone has once, my friends have said—a tug-of-war where I just kept tugging and fell down flat when he dropped his end and walked away. But for me, it’s kept on going all this time: I’ve walked around dragging that rope behind me for almost a decade. We do these get-togethers—Bobby and his girl, whoever she happens to be, and Zach and me—twice a year or so, and it’s always the same subterranean ache. Bobby looks handsome, Zach goes on and on about his research if we so much as light a candle, and I go home and strip for him, try to convert all my longing into ridicule—of Bobby or of me, I’m never sure—and enter the body of the man I love to make fun of with all my shaking heart.

“So,” I say, swirling my wine like they do on cooking shows, “when’s the lucky date?”

Marguerite laughs, turns back to the pasta, and then, when Bobby just raises his glass to Zach, she turns again to me.

“May 23rd,” she says.

I nod and picture all of us on the wide lawn of that plantation in 19th-century dress. Bobby scoops up Marguerite and carries her across the threshold. She laughs, we laugh, rice fills the air and lemonade sloshes as the crowd raises goblets to the sky.

“Zach,” says Bobby, “I want you there. I want you to be my best man.”

Zach reaches out to shake Bobby’s hand. “I’m touched,” he says.

“Obviously, we want you to come, too,” says Marguerite, a statement that seems entirely unnecessary. Of course they want me there. I’d like to think the only question is whether I’ll be a groomsman, too.

“Well,” says Zach, “I’m honored to be best dude. Consider it done.”

Consider it done. I’ll be that girl, I’m thinking now, the one in the audience wearing black at an afternoon wedding—not to be elegant, but because I’m in mourning. I’ll be the one crying into a dirty tissue, explaining my lack of composure by way of my general emotionality at weddings.

Soon enough, the four of us are sitting in the living room, letting the alcohol seep through our systems as we reach for crackers and a lump of cheese. Marguerite is graceful, and this is what I envy most. She pulls back her long hair and, with the other hand, raises a cracker to her mouth as if both arms are in the same ballet, Baryshnikov in Hair and Cheese. Her face is long in an enviable way, like all her features need their own little playgrounds on which to squint and furrow and smile and shine. She’s not beautiful, but she’s something better. She’s thoughtful.  I am, too, but my features are small and quick, and to look at me, you’re more likely to think of a spry little elf than of arm ballets and Virginia Woolf.

This is a joke, of course, because Marguerite’s days have nothing to do with ballet and books. She draws and writes greetings cards—and not the artistic type, with pressed flowers and watercolors or Japanese calligraphy. Hers are inane consolations about getting another year older (“At least you’re not a cat who has to lick its own butt”) or having a bad day (“At least it’s not the last day of your life … OR IS IT?”). Her drawings are dry and ironic: a happy face on a stick-figure body with a knife thrust through where the heart should be, a line drawing of a feline twisting back to lick herself, her whiskers drooping with the indignity of it all.

“So how’s work going, Marguerite?” I ask. “Any new designs?”

“Oh, you know Christmas,” she says, and we all nod. “I did a lot with trees this year. And snowmen are in vogue.”

Snowmen are always in vogue at Christmas, I want to point out.

“She draws the coolest trees,” says Bobby, “does all kinds of facial expressions with the lights. I tried to get her to do some of the musical cards, so they could sing.”

“It’s just too eighties,” Marguerite says, nudging Bobby with her knee. “And not in a good way.”

If I made my own cards, I’d draw the trees when they’re used and abandoned, after they’ve been hacked off from their roots in the forest, dragged into living rooms to be dressed up in silly ornaments and lights, then thrown out on the curb, where they lose their pine needles out of sheer grief. And maybe a card with Santa exchanging his costume for a devil suit at an after-Christmas sale, one coat of red for another. Maybe I should forget about graduate school.

Zach and Bobby talk about the guys we went to college with and what our basketball team’s chances are in the NCAA. Marguerite asks about my plans for graduate school, and I tell her I’m on my way to a PhD. “A degree like that is nothing to mess around with,” I say. “You have to be sure going in. And I am.”

“You’d be a great therapist,” she says, and though I suspect she would say this even if I were wearing Santa’s devil suit, I’m flattered.

“I hope so,” I say. “People are so fascinating. I really care about the field.” I imagine melting snowmen and Christmas trees sitting across from me. They tremble a little, and I tell them not to worry, that the holidays are hard for everyone.

“What are you planning to study?” Marguerite asks, and her arms do another balletic move. “Kids? Adults? Mood or thought disorders?”

“Oh, I’ll learn about everything,” I say. “I want to keep my options open until, you know, I specialize. But I’d like to help adults, I think. Help people make sense of their messed-up lives and change the world in whatever small way I can.” I look towards Bobby then, remembering how he used to talk about the law—“our last great hope,” he’d say—but now he’s watching Zach imitate some basketball player at the free-throw line, and he gives him a high five when he’s through. I remember football seasons when these guys barreled through Bobby’s house like it was a two-story, eight-room football field, and I’d find them in the living room mid-tackle like dogs at play. I am just about to tell Marguerite—to show her that there was a life before her—but I can’t stand Bobby’s efforts to explain, I can’t stand the way he makes her feel at home.

“You know, I’ve always loved the psychoses most,” says Marguerite. I remember now—too late—that she studied psychology in college. “Paranoia, manic depression, Borderline Personality Disorder—all of it is just so fascinating. I envy your exposure.”

“Sure,” I say. “I’ll tell you all about it.”

Finally we sit down to dinner, and I resist making another comment about my special pasta sauce. I had wanted Bobby to talk it up—how could he have forgotten those nights I made it in the dorm kitchenette?—and barring that, I’d like Zach to say something nice. But they both fail to, which leaves me wondering if the sauce isn’t so great after all. Fine, I think, I’ll never make it again. They can have their noodles raw and dry for all I care. I’m sitting opposite the big window, and the house across the street is still strung with Christmas lights, the big colored kind that blink. On, off. On, off. I try blinking in tune with them, long, slow blinks. Zach sits down across from me and asks what I’m doing.

“I’m Christmas lights,” I say.

“Of course you are.” He could say that I’m creative, or that I look angelic with my eyes closed, but instead he passes the bread.

“So,” says Bobby, “what were everyone’s New Year’s resolutions?” I remember how into this he always was in college, how he’d have us write down our top three resolutions on tiny strips of paper, and we’d drop them in our plastic cups of champagne and let them soak as we sipped. When we finished, we tucked the wet strips in our mouths, sucked out the champagne, and swallowed them. “So we take them to heart,” he said, and I didn’t point out that those papers were headed straight for our stomachs and dirtier places.

“The usual,” says Zach. “I resolved to finish my dissertation.” He shakes his head so his brown curls fall into his eyes.

“We resolved to cook more and eat out less,” says Marguerite, and I wonder if this is something all going-to-be-married couples do: joint resolutions.

“I’m going to work out every morning,” I say, “Back from the gym and showered by 7.” I like to set impossible goals. “7 a.m.,” I say for emphasis. Marguerite is a little soft around the middle and I suspect this will get to her. Good.

“What do you do so early in the morning, that you need to be home by 7?” asks Marguerite. Nothing, is the answer, which is exactly why I will never work out at 6.

“I’ve been freelancing some music reviews,” I say, because this would be cool indeed, and Bobby has never been confident in his musical tastes.

“You didn’t tell me that, Babe,” says Zach, and he, too, looks impressed.

“Oh, I just started,” I say. “Some Web stuff at first and then, you know, I’m hoping for more opportunity. And the grad school research, of course. You can’t start on applications too early.” This is about as far as I can go down that line of conversation, so I take a few lines from Zach’s conversational games book, another gift from Meg. It’s a series of questions that goes like this:

“Hey, Bobby,” I say, “let’s play a game. What’s your favorite animal?”

“Easy,” he says. “An eagle.”

“Tell us why.”

“He can see everything on the ground and gets to swoop down and zap mice and shit, carry them off in his beak. And he gets to represent America all over the place.”

“Good one,” I say. “And your second favorite?”

“Probably a rattle snake. Treacherous and sly.” He makes a slithering motion with his hand and winks at his girl.

“Okay. Marguerite?” I ask.

For her favorite, she chooses a rabbit; for her second favorite, a gazelle.

“Well,” I say, and I imagine myself in front of a courtroom like Bobby, preaching to the crowd. “Your favorite animal represents the way you see yourself. Your second favorite is what you want in a mate.” I don’t point out that they’re incompatible. This seems obvious enough.

“Hm,” says Bobby. “Interesting. Kind of.”

“You used to love that stuff,” I say.

“Not really,” he replies.

“We did that all the time.” I remember spending whole post-coital days on games like that, talking in bed, and I want to remind him of this. What about our Last Wills? What about Would You Rather?

“Bobby,” I say, “what about Would You Rather?”

“Would you rather what?” He’s looking at me blankly.

I try to mimic his expression, but mine feels more like dumb foundry than blankness. “Would you rather remember playing Would You Rather or would you rather deny it?”

Would you rather have a threesome with Bucky or Alison, I want to ask. Would you rather spend eternity as an old you or a little you? Would you rather be murdered by a weapon or a human hand? Which of your ex-girlfriends would you kill if you had to choose one? Which of your parents? Which of your friends?

“I’m not denying anything,” he says. “I’ve always hated those games.”

“You love Walrus,” I say. “Lamp or laptop?”

“What?” he asks.

“Lamp beats laptop,” I say. “One noun always beats another. Lamp beats laptop, boa beats lamp, coat beats boa. Or whatever you can think of. Table beats chair. Chair beats window shade. Window shade beats something else.” I have gone on too long. “Or something else beats window shade. Giraffe beats window shade.”

“Huh,” he says. “I really don’t get the logic.”

“Bobby,” I say, “we did this all the time.”

“Sadie.” He tosses the last of his whiskey down his throat and fills his tumbler halfway. “I really don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I wait for Zach to step forward; I invite him to be my knight in shining armor in my mind and say that, yes, Sadie and Bobby were very in love, and it is quite likely that they played such games for hours on end, quite likely that no one else in this room will ever know such joy. But I can’t count on him for this, because not even Zach, or especially not Zach, knows who we were. Apparently, neither does Bobby.

Instead, Zach is looking at me strangely—perhaps because I’ve never played Walrus with him. But he has always hated awkward moments, and he comes forward in his way. “Sadie’s always been a little crazy with the games,” he says to Marguerite. He raises a fork with spaghetti twirled around the tines and holds it toward her, a pasta toast. I twist my napkin in my lap and look beyond him to the blinking lights. Zach sees that he’s annoyed me, and he reaches for his glass. His mouth still crammed with pasta, he tries to say, “To Sadie’s games.” Marguerite laughs and clinks her glass against his; Bobby raises his whiskey halfway. Zach swallows his pasta and pushes his plate away.

“Man time?” he asks Bobby, and nods toward the window. I imagine them out by a tree sneaking moonshine and cigars, but I know Zach’s thinking of those fireworks from Crazy Ed’s.

“Always up for that,” says Bobby. “Want to shoot a few hoops?”

Too drunk, I think.

“Too dark,” says Zach. “But I have something better.”

“We can handle the dishes,” I say. I am pulling myself together, and I wink at Marguerite. “Me and your lovely bride.”

The boys get up and take their plates to the sink, then head out the back door. Marguerite posts herself at the sink and pulls on a pair of rubber gloves. I leave the stack of dirty dishes beside her and begin scooping pasta into Tupperware.

“It’s not a big deal to me that you guys dated,” she says when I’ve turned away. “That was a long time ago. He wants to protect me from it, but I keep telling him it’s absolutely fine.”

I pack the pasta in—it’s too much to fit—and squeeze the lid on top. Noodles ooze out the sides. “We were pretty serious,” I say.

“Really?” she asks. “I guess I didn’t quite get that sense. But he’s processed it. It’s not an issue for us. And he really values Zach’s friendship.”

“Nothing’s ever processed completely,” I say. “That’s what I’m going to help people with. There’s always more work to do.”

She dries her hands. “I’m sure you’ll do a lot of good once you get that degree,” she says. “But in the meantime, I think Bobby and I are doing fine without your counsel.”

Marguerite turns and leans against the counter now, with her long arms crossed and her flyaway hair pushed behind her shoulders, that damn dishtowel tossed over her shoulder again, just like she owns this house. It’s a challenge, and I stand up straighter, too. She’s a can-doer, an on-her-owner, an I-can-handle-anything-er. But she can’t.

We’re quiet as she finishes rinsing and loads the dishwasher. I take over the sink and put the pans in to soak.

“You know what those guys are doing?” I ask. I want to tell her it’s hard drugs or a gay love affair, something to crush her.

“Making meth,” she says. “A cottage industry.”

“No,” I say. “Zach and I stopped for fireworks.”

“Cool! Let’s go sit in the living room and watch.”

On the couch, I put my head back and stare at the ceiling, which shifts and spins just slightly as I watch. The candles on the table cast shadows above, trembling little things.

“Another glass of wine?” offers Marguerite.

“I should stop,” I say, knowing that I’m too drunk to drive, but Marguerite tells me the couch is all mine—all Zach’s and mine—and she wouldn’t dream of letting us go home. She refills my glass.

“You know,” I say, accepting the glass as a little wine sloshes out, “they’re only boys. I sometimes think it’s all they’ll ever be.”

She shifts away and tucks her legs under her. “Oh, he’s not so bad,” she says. “I like the boyishness, you know? So many guys are just dull, they have no life to them, but Bobby’s got that in spades.”

“Oh, Zach, too,” I say. “That’s why our boyfriends are out there sending Jupiter Missiles into the sky.”

“Jupiter missiles?” she asks, and I think now that her blond hair is too thin, and she’s not as pretty as I am after all.

“One of the fireworks,” I say. “I was reading the labels in the store.”

“The thing about Bobby is he’s decent.” She raises her glass. “To decency,” and she begins to drink before I can raise mine to toast.

“To decency,” I say, “and more of it.”

Outside, pink and white lights shoot into the sky, followed by pops. I remember the explanation for this: that light travels faster than sound. It has never convinced me, though—this idea that two things happening simultaneously before you would have an invisible space between. The boys hoot, and I see more lights, hear the fireworks’ soft shriek as they rise. These must be the Whistling Moons.

“I have sparklers,” I say, and right then the vision comes: we will have our own fireworks show, Marguerite and I, inside, in the dark, right here. “All we need to do is wet down the carpet.”

Marguerite agrees. “The hose?” she asks, “or just some water from the sink?”

“The sink will do.” I rise with her and fill a bucket. “Grab a sponge,” I say, and I do the same. On our knees, we soak the carpet, dipping our sponges and squeezing them out, going through one bucket, then another, until the rug is wet.

I blow out the candles.

“You know,” I say, “We’re some sort of sisters, from both having slept with the same man.”

“Do you have any sisters?” she asks, then pauses. “Anyway, he’s good in bed.”

“He’s fine,” I say. He’s better than Zach—or was in college—but I will be loyal in this small way.

“Bobby got me pregnant,” I say. A patent lie. “But I never told him.”

I can’t see her face in the dark, but I can hear her mouth move—the softest sound—and her eyebrows furrow.

“And you’re telling me?” she asks. “You’re telling me? Now?” Her voice has gone lower. I thought it would rise, like mine.

“I guess I am,” I say. “Should I have told you in September? Would it have made you not want to marry him?”

“Of course not,” she says. “He can’t help his own sperm. Did you get an abortion?”

“I miscarried,” I say, and for a moment, I believe I did: I see myself in the dorm bathroom, hunched over, the cramps something awful as blood passes out of me and my boyfriend seems miles away. I try to sound calmer than Marguerite, but it’s hard. “I miscarried in the dorm bathroom, spring of junior year. But I’d rather you didn’t tell him. I’d rather have it be our secret—you know, like sisters.”

I know this is impossible, and I want it to be. Marguerite will tell Bobby, and Bobby will be afraid that I’ll tell Zach, and he will know that if I do tell Zach, Zach will never forgive him. It is enough that Bobby slept with his girl, let alone planted a seed inside her. Bobby will not want to see us for a while. He will be mad at Marguerite for shaking things up by talking to me, and he will wonder, a little, what would have happened if I didn’t miscarry that baby who never was. It only takes one lie to make the world spin a different way.

I feel for my coat in the dark. It’s lying limp on the sofa, as if the person who was sitting there inside it has simply disappeared. I reach for the sparklers, distribute them between us—two each—and strike a match. I have always loved the smell of a newly lit match, and as I light my sparklers, I breathe it in. I hold the match out to Marguerite, who lights hers. In the sparklers’ light, her face has changed. She knows that things are different, though in the greater scheme of what could happen, a few ounces of bloody tissue isn’t much.

“You know,” I say, “it wasn’t a baby. It’s not a big deal.”

These are four-minute sparklers, and I’m realizing this could seem like a long, long time. Her eyes are watery, as they should be. I have stolen something from her, from him.

“I know,” she says.

“Maybe we should dance with the sparklers,” I say. I stand up and weave around the room, but Marguerite is still sitting on the wet rug. I worry for her hair, but let my sparkler glide through the air above it anyway: these things are so beautiful, and life is short. I’m glad we stopped at Crazy Ed’s, after all. It was the right thing. I suppose I should listen to Zach more often.

I wave my sparkler back and forth before the window, like one of those people guiding airplanes on the tarmac. The boys are shooting off the big ones now, and they can’t be bothered with our tiny lights. A small white circle shoots up and up, then explodes into red, white, and yellow. Ah, I think, the Wild Goose: there are its feathers, its blood, its shattered beak.

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