The only snack on the coffee table was a shrimp ring. Alyson hated shrimp. She hated the both hard and gelatinous texture and its sharp pungent smell, it slimy shell, its grainy pink flesh… yet, she was continuously eating shrimp, hungry and anxious and sad. She suddenly felt awkward and gluttonous, crossed her legs and sat on her hands so as not to steal anymore shrimp before the other guests arrived.
“It’s cold out,” said a man she didn’t know sitting across from her. They had been introduced but she had already forgotten his name. It was something simple like Chris or Matthew. It was just the two of them that had arrived early. “I was expecting it to warm up. It’s April for God’s sakes.”
“Tell me about it,” replied a friend of hers, Amanda, a pretty Chinese girl with an elegant, thick curtain of black hair that she permed into a luscious wave. Amanda was always holding parties, and always inviting Alyson to meet her cool and sophisticated friends, like this man who had swarthy Jewish features, thick curly hair and an intellectual, bookish smile. “Global warming is bullshit.” She was joking of course, tossing out a topical reference like a candy wrapper and laughing it off. Amanda was not only classically beautiful but also charming and intelligent.
Alyson wanted another shrimp. She snuck another and dipped it into the spicy sauce.
“I’d die for another wine,” Amanda giggled. “Anyone else like a drink since I’m up?”
“I’d love a glass of white,” Alyson replied.
“Nothing for me thanks,” the man replied. Amanda rushed to the kitchen, shuffling daintily in patent leather pumps.
“So what do you do, Alyson?” The man asked. It was a question she hated. Clearly, this man, whatever his name was, was a patron of the arts, some kind of professor or critic, perhaps he wrote books. Alyson would tell him that she worked at a daycare and surely he would think she was a prissy spinster with a love for children that weren’t hers. And then when Amanda came back the two of them would exchange conversation on Foucault as though feeding each other decadent desserts.
“I manage a daycare,” she told him, in between bites of shrimp.
“A daycare! That’s admirable. I’ve heard it’s difficult to love other people’s children.” When she first met him, his voice sounded haughty and arrogant but when he said this, he sounded soft and normal, as though genuinely interested.
“It’s not that hard,” Alyson replied slowly, reaching for another shrimp. “You just have to know how to say no, and always keep consistent rules.”
“Do you want children of your own then?” he asked.
“No I don’t,” she said. People always asked this question. She was so used to it she usually rehearsed an answer: ‘as long as someone pays me as much as the daycare does to have them.’ This time, she didn’t see the need in her textbook reply.
“That’s interesting,” he said.
Amanda came back holding a glass of red in one hand and a glass of white in the other. She had beautiful crystal glasses with finely polished stems and Alyson clasped it with two fingers and took a sip. Amanda knew the difference between good and cheap wine and always purchased the best. Alyson felt that it tasted the same as the boxed kind that she took camping with her ex-husband and price made no difference to her. She drank and let out a gentle, satisfied sigh.
“Regaling Matt with your daycare adventures?” Amanda mused giving a glazed-over sexy-eyed look at him. Matthew. She was right about the name.
“Not really. Just telling him what I do for a living, that’s all. What do you do, Matthew?”
“He’s a writer,” Amanda replied. “And a damn good one.”
“Oh please,” he sighed.
“No, really!” Amanda squealed. Her cheeks were flushed a natural blue-red and looked like robin’s breasts, full and soft. Alyson just noticed the music, Nina Simone, playing softly behind them. She was still nervous. She hated parties and dreaded a knock at the door.
“M’dear, I write for a newspaper.”
“What he does, Ali, is write the travel column.” Alyson was legitimately impressed and suddenly felt the urge to tell both of them how great it was to work at a daycare; how meaningful; how spectacularly full her life felt, watching these children grow, watching miracles and learning and friendships being formed every single day of her life. But she couldn’t bring herself to do it, perhaps because it was a lie or perhaps because she could never sell such an elaborate story to these two slick intellectuals. Instead she remained in awe of both of them, daring, flashy Amanda, handsome intelligent, soft-spoken Matt. Dowdy, pathetic Alyson…
“I wonder where everyone else is,” Amanda said, looking towards the window. It was just past 7 and growing darker, seemingly by the minute, as if someone was delicately dimming the lights.
“Maybe everyone was sick of your pretentious parties,” Matt said. Amanda laughed too, but there was a hurt behind her deep chocolatey eyes. Alyson found herself surprisingly, revelling in this hurt; it was fleeting, but the only time she had seen it.
Amanda cleared her throat then replied easily, “or maybe they heard you were coming.”
Snow began falling in small soft piles that slowly gathered into thick, cloud-like banks. Soon, it had filled the driveway. The clock struck 8, and it was still just the three of them at Amanda’s party, sitting in the living room in their shoes. Conversation was hard to balance and was dropped so easily, like hand weights.
“Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?” Alyson asked Matt.
“I think I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was finished university, and I was shit-poor and working a job I hated, but I didn’t care.”
“Well, you’re good at it too.”
“Being good at something doesn’t really matter, Amanda, if you love it.”
“Well, I should…” Alyson mumbled slightly, but as she shifted in her tan-tweed armchair, she knocked over the half-empty glass of wine sitting beside her foot, and it spilled on the carpet.
“Fuck!” she yelled. “Amanda, I’m… I’m so sorry. God, I’m an idiot.”
Amanda’s mouth was tight, as though she were trying to contain something foul between her lips. The carpet was a tight mixture of cranberry and beige Berber and freshly vacuumed otherwise, except for the red blotch now bleeding across the carpet. All three of them stared at it, and Amanda got up wordlessly and went to the kitchen.
“Why are you friends with her?” Matt asked her quietly.
Alyson looked between them to the thick, darkly mottled glass of theTV screen. There she was, stranded in the house with her beautiful friend and a handsome man who asked her an honest question, and she was able to look at neither of them.
Matt reached over and touched her hand, and she pulled away while still looking at his handsome face, tinted in the honey-coloured lamps.
“I have to go,” she mumbled. She got up and her foot crushed the lovely crystal stem of Amanda’s wine glass. On her way from the living room, she grabbed another shrimp.
Alyson hurriedly rushed over to the coat rack, took her black felt pea coat and one last quick look at the stain she’d left on the carpet, then left Amanda’s party.