by Natalie Swanson
It was December the ninth and the foliage on the trees, limp and decaying, laid beneath the potential of a brilliant layer of snow. Five days elapsed since the last snowfall, leaving it a Frankenstein of mud and whatever decomposing matter allowed it to survive. It encompassed more durability than Mallory suspected.
Gaping windows served the role of kitchen walls, offering an exorbitant and isolating view into the woods that Mallory and her husband, Tristan, called home. Twinkling lights glimmered along the white cabinets; this remained Mallory’s only say on the design. The granite center island occupied a small fraction of the space, yet it required begging from family members in order to receive it on account of cost. A crucial enhancement for their reputation, according to Tristan. The island was “extravagant” and “marvelous”, according to their friends. Truthfully Mallory found it obnoxiously pretentious and wholly wasteful, but she remained civil and silent.
She worked from home as a paralegal, and she was on maternity leave. Mallory’s past week consisted of tidying up the house in preparation for a work celebration of Tristan’s new position. Breathless and sleepless, she fixed a cup of chamomile. The baby monitor stayed soundless, permitting her to a guaranteed ten minutes of silence. Her heavy lids fluttered as she sank into the leather loveseat, savoring her tea. The air grew still, foreboding the rift in peace.
Tristan’s weighty stomps suddenly echoed throughout the first floor. Subtle crying stirred through the monitor. Mallory drew a shallow breath. “I`m home, love!” he boasted, hoisting a meaty paw on Mallory’s emaciated shoulder.
“Hello darling.” She stood and twirled to face him, offering her lips upwards. He tasted of bacon, inducing nausea upon her. She crinkled her nose. His odor stung with prickly hints of pickled herring and brie cheese. Tristan divulged on his successful day as a newly promoted partner, but Mallory’s sprightly fingers drummed her knee, already bobbing from the up and down of her bony heel. She became steadfastly fixated on the trail of mud his shoes garnered on the granite flooring. He kicked them off in the same way a three-year- old tosses their shoes after being told it was time to leave. The scattered slush left tiny ink prints all throughout the entrance of the kitchen. Her heart commenced into a ferocious pounding. But she remained silent.
After their evening dinner, consisting of Mallory watching Tristan eat, and struggling to feed Baby Lilith on account of her own malnutrition, Tristan departed for bed. Mallory gazed downwards at the floor. The mud crusted over, permitting the grime to colonize. She scuffed the tile with the chamois mop and Clorox, but it refused to peak her satisfaction. Her lithe frame dropped to the floor, fiercely scraping the grit, her hands erupting in burning heat. They were sure to be cracked tomorrow. This was not of her concern. If the floors remained unclean, then what did she have to show for her housework? She polished until her dark brown locks were visible. Her issue with the cleanliness ceased to disappear.
. . . . .
It was December the tenth and Baby Lilith’s sobs ricocheted off every wall in the house. Tristan had left for work already. The sludge on the ground shrunk half an inch; the exposed earth began to show its true colors. In these early hours of dawn, Mallory found she enjoyed her habit best.
She gracefully genuflected before the pristine toilet. Using her index and ring fingers on her right hand, she gently opened her mouth and pushed her spindly digits to her uvula. Her red, almond-shaped acrylics scratched the roof of her mouth ever-so slightly, but she relished in the small bit of pain. The sensation meant an indubitable sign of success. Her intestines convulsed, and a fluorescent citrine puddle of bile splattered the water, tiny droplets hitting her face. Throwing up recently became increasingly arduous on account that she had not eaten more than an apple and rice cake each day the past week. Regardless, her stomach had been emptied. She viewed this cleansing ritual crucial in maintaining her immaculate appeal. Being beautiful was especially important for tonight.
. . . . .
The gathering initiated. After hours of preparation from caterers and designers, the first level of the grand residence was transformed into an elegant showroom, accentuating the open areas of the home. Everything was white. The ivory peonies and bone lace trimming on the tables created the aura of her wedding. Mallory gnawed on the skin surrounding her acrylic while her plum lipstick smudged on her index. She slumped in the velvet chaise lounge. Her gaunt physique fit awkwardly in the close-fitting black dress Tristan purchased for her. Caging her were her four absolutely exquisite, downright air-headed companions.
“Mallory, did you even listen to what I just said? We think that Georgina Fuller’s purse is a fake Birken, do you agree or not?” Vivian sneered, sipping her wine. The other women followed suit. Mallory guzzled glass number three. She scanned the room, not seeking anything in particular. A majority of the females owned the same snake-skin or leather purse in various colors and sizes anyways.
“You may be right. The stitching seems a bit off, Birken’s are of higher quality. I do remember she went to Italy a few weeks ago, perhaps she bought it from a street vender.”
Her friends grew elated with her response as it fueled their insubstantial conversation for the next twenty minutes. Mallory snorted and found herself further encapsulated in the couch.
Vivian, Laura, Megan, and Paulina were the most glamorous people Mallory had ever laid eyes upon. Each wore a practical boulder for a wedding ring. Although twelve years her senior, their glossy hair reflected each glint of light, and their lash extensions brushed their fake brows. Not one of them had a pore, an ounce of fat in sight, or any imperfections in general. They resembled the customers at the restaurant she worked at in high school. Frankly, all the women here did.
It made her stomach lurch, this party occupied with seemingly lobotomized women. There was no escape from them and their upper-middle class cars and purses, caring about the brand of their sunglasses but still avidly seeking grocery store coupons. These coupons would presumably be given to the nanny, while they themselves found solace in one thing only, alcohol. Perhaps they loved their husbands and their children, but in their desolate eyes, Mallory couldn`t believe this would be the truth.
To wed a gentleman with a strong financial lineage had always been the dream of her mother, as well as her mother’s mother, and so on and so forth. None experienced success in their attempts, rendering Mallory a victim to a shallow upbringing. Seemingly straight from ancient Rome with his statuesque figure looming over Mallory’s slight frame, Tristan secured the role of perfect candidate. Whether her family adored him, or his trust fund, they eagerly pushed the couple into marriage. Mallory restrained her questioning of love. Besides, security was all that really mattered anyways.
She frequently flirted with the notion that the other women were raised with the same ideals as her. Their affluent husbands swung them round like prized pigs at a carnival. They were discarded the second they became unsightly – Georgina was Maxwell Fuller’s third wife. Their only options were off to the slaughterhouse or off to the plastic surgeon; either way they underwent sharp blades. Stripping them of their age, the fountain of youth leveled them to the likes of Mallory, who was only twenty-three. How this lifestyle could possibly bring them joy bewildered her. She paused, awaiting the opportunity to present her question to the ladies. “Do you ever feel like you chose the wrong life? As if maybe you shouldn`t have married who you did, or you should’ve followed a certain path? Does life ever feel,” she contemplated her word choice, “unsatisfactory?”
The four craned their graceful necks to face Mallory. Their glossy eyes and ruddy cheeks broke into a fit of guffaws.
“I don`t think I really, understand your question. Do we seem unhappy?” Megan slurred. The others murmured and checked their appearances in petite handheld mirrors.
Mallory ran her fingers through her thick hair and bit her lip. “Not at all. I was simply,” she hesitated, “wondering if you ever had any lifelong dreams.”
Another swirl of cackles. Mallory internally groaned and hoped for the gaggle of witches to smite her already. Megan spoke up. “I guess I wanted to be a secretary? Isn`t that similar to your job?”
Garbled babble between the women occurred while Mallory stared, perplexed, at her feet. A secretary? Is that all she was?
“Sweetie, don`t get so wrapped up in that sort of nonsense. Enjoy your life and just be happy things are payed for. You have the capacity to live as relaxed as you want. No need to worry about those things. It`s bad for your health and skin,” assured Laura, placing an icy hand on Mallory’s shoulder. The others nodded in agreement.
Mallory’s chest grew tense and hot tears sprung onto her cheeks. She mustered the falsest smile she could, and excused herself. The sea of people only intensified the heart-clenching sensation within her. With each step she brushed another dress, another tuxedo, all haute couture.
Finally reaching the winding staircase, Mallory climbed a single step in an attempt to peer over the crowd. Her pale blue eyes darted across and through each head, searching for Tristan’s. The task was problematic on account that he wore the same cropped hairstyle as the rest of the men here. Her skittish inspection abruptly came to a halt. A familiar face at the bar. Actually, a familiar face that remained a stranger for some years until now. She paced over, heart in throat.
“Ezra?” She croaked. The bartender glanced up from his kneeling position under the mahogany booth. He ogled at Mallory, losing his balance and falling back. He landed on his derriere, eyes unmoving. Mallory sauntered behind the table and kneeled beside him. “Hi,” she bashfully twinkled.
A beam erupted and he shrouded her in his lean arms. Tentative at first, she melted in his sincere embrace. They removed themselves from their entanglement.
“I didn`t know you would be at one of these things,” he uttered. His wintergreen breath lightly shrouded the underlying scent of stale cigarettes. It overwhelmed Mallory – he remained exactly the way she remembered. His tawny curls folded in the crinkles of his brilliant multi-colored eyes, one aquamarine and one jade.
Embarrassed, she blushed. “I`m actually the owner of one of these things.”
“This is your house?”
Mallory coyly agreed. Ezra gathered himself and stood up, aiding her as well. She suggested they relocate to a quieter area. After some coaxing with the other bartender and snatching up a bottle of champagne, the couple escaped to the patio, like two teens evading their curfew and heading into the dim night.
Ezra popped the bottle and Mallory coquettishly giggled. Her stomach churned with anticipation. Unabashed grazing of the hands. Always such a soft and innocent touch. His were the texture her brain had been yearning for her whole life. His blocky palms were painted in an array of lines and callouses. Years of manual labor with his father on the construction site gave him a unique feel she would have never encountered at her university. He had short and jagged nails, a result of his nervous habit. They sat gracefully on the ends of his nimble fingers, extending much longer than hers.
It had been 5 years since their last encounter. He was a past manager of hers. The duo caught up as best as they could, sharing a quilt to protect against the frigid air.
“So, you got married to this guy right out of college, huh? Is he a lot older than you?” Ezra drank from the bottle, passing it back to her.
“He’s thirty, only a year younger than you.” Mallory’s heart sank, because of course she was aware of this. He had been her hyper-fixation of what her perfect reality should have been. The confession had just never been vocalized. They continued to converse, marveling at the intricate paths their lives followed in a short span of time. “Can I ask you something?”
His rose lips curled softly. “The floor is yours.”
She gulped. Her stomach fluttered while she dug her acrylics into her palm, moving them up and down. Mallory had been rehearsing this dialogue since the day she wed Tristan. Her truths dripped from her lips like the champagne they drank: of how she didn`t think she loved Tristan, she wished she didn`t attend college, she was miserable, and how she had no real reason to feel this way because she wasn`t deprived of any material goods. “Life feels unmoving and I am completely unfulfilled. I am a total coward and a shallow fraud. This is not the life I wanted to live,” Mallory sputtered her last sentence. She licked the salty tears off her lips before completely breaking down. Her heaving breaths caused her ears to ring.
Ezra held her while she clumsily regained herself. The mucus from her nostrils dribbled down her chin. Humiliated, she wiped it off with the quilt. She stared outwards. The forest yielded a light coat of snow. The moon glimmered, flaunting how full it was. Mallory snorted, acknowledging her jealousy of the moon. It never had to marry or have children or go to college or figure out a life to lead. It just had to exist.
A few minutes went by, and the deafening silence grew intolerable. The wind whipped through the trees, rustling the snow.
Ezra opened his mouth, but no sound escaped. His bushy brows furrowed, puzzled with how to respond. Mallory didn`t expect him to say anything, but he collected his thoughts. “You`re not wrong. I know you know about my shitty past, I mean, why the hell else would I be bartending some rich bitch party, no offense,” he stopped, simpering, and went on “but I think everyone is just as confused as you. I know your family had a big influence on fucking you up, but you`re still young and still have time to change your life in the way you want to live or whatever.”
The way she wanted to live.
She is 18 again. She has skipped college. Last minute she buys a ticket to Spain with Ezra, two backpacks and no idea what is next. They work small jobs in each country, earning enough to rent a snug hostel in the next. They work their way into Japan. Their fingernails are layered with grime from one odd-job. Mallory’s hair is cropped to her ears. Exquisite scents flood their nostrils; an array of cumin in India. She keeps all her food down. Starry nights are warm with sake or gin. Melodic guitar hums from one of the guys in their travel group. They share stories of their hometowns and their plans, their dreams for the future. Swarming her is culture, ambiance, and a standard of living completely unlike her own. She and Ezra brave the unknown territories, palm in palm.
Mallory ended her daydream, and let out a conclusive sigh. Ezra cradled Mallory’s face in his great hands. He rested his head against hers, shielding her from the harsh winds. She craved to remove the space between them and brush his plump lips with hers. But her daydream would never be her reality. He too had a family and children.
Minutes felt like an eternity. However selfish it might have been, Mallory wished the stars would come crashing down, stapling them to the patio. Their crimson blood would flow onto the patio, hearts finally connected.
She checked her phone, and noticed it had been about two hours that they spent. She thanked Ezra for his time, and the two reemerged themselves into their proper places at the party. Some part of her felt as though the last chapter of her youth had been written.
As it was nearly ending, Mallory set out to find Tristan once more. The door leading to the bathroom swung wide open. Boisterous retches emitted from Tristan. He released a guttural cough.
“How are you doing crazy cat? Enough to drink?” Mallory massaged his shoulders, running her hands through his hair.
He grinned at her, emerald eyes drooping and glossy. They bulged as he bobbed his head back into the toilet, vomiting straight whiskey. The scent glided past Mallory; she did this every day. An unexpected force overcame her to ask Tristan what she had been meaning to the entire night.
Answering in slurs with a hiccup between each two words, he murmured, “Maybe join a hobby, you seem miserable all the time. I think we should start doing fun things. You used to be so fun,” He expelled into the commode, grasped her hand, and beamed once more. His perfect teeth were stained with wine, his hair completely disarrayed. It occurred to Mallory that he had never been this honest or open with her before either. Perhaps he faked just as well as she. She pardoned herself to retrieve him a pair of fresh clothes.
The guests proceeded out the door. They put on their airs as they glided past Mallory, thanking her for a lovely night and to be sure to tell Tristan to drink plenty of water, winking. In the moonlight, the nips and tucks were clearly visible. The ladies with their turkey necks and caked foundation could not hide. Mallory snickered, wishing them a safe return. To the underworld she thought.
Once the final stranger exited, she glanced around the no longer pristine white kitchen. Tristan’s spewing continued. She grabbed Tristan some water from kitchen and glanced at the small pools of wine left on the counter. The used plates not properly thrown away. The mud that caked the white ground. The mud. She shrugged her shoulders, instead grabbing some popcorn from the pantry. Perhaps she could stay up to watch a movie with Tristan. Turning off the lights, she walked upstairs.