By M. Sweeney -
They arrived all at once, tipsy with tales of dangerous Uber drivers and drug store deviants in the mini mart next door. Hugs and the exuberant small talk filled with questions that never got full answers were exchanged. We were so excited they were here, we yelled over the commotion. The women shed jackets and purses on the unused dining room table while their husbands asked about leaving their shoes at the door.
The royal we. No longer just me--not to them anyway. “Where’s your future husband?” they’d ask every time I showed up to an event solo. He was the focal point of my existence. From a walk-on role years before to lead, he carried the series of my life punctuated by double dates, cookouts, and ball games. The same conversations picked up and carried on weekly.
We women were never particularly close; brought together by circumstance rather than interests, we were stuck with one another like an urban family I could only escape at the holidays--and the trade off for my actual family wasn’t much better. I didn’t particularly dislike any of these women.
Not really anyway.
The women were collected somewhere between freshman year of college and the year after graduation by boys masquerading as men. Of course, they were the girls back then. Ready for whatever shenanigans the boys got into. Happenstance put the boys on the same floor; a burgeoning alcoholism kept them together.
When I announced my engagement on Instagram, the women, now the wives, were the first to comment with hearts and a ridiculous amount of exclamation points, eager to welcome me into their new ranks of married ladies. They slipped into their new married identities as easily as they slipped into a pair of skinny jeans, with just as much fanfare and exaggeration.
Sliding into new personas, holding up the mantle of their new names like a trophy they worked hard to achieve, they delved into new interests. Leah became a wine expert; Elaine a fitness instructor; Sam became the woman behind the man. Speculation about who I would become whorled around me that night in the stiflingly hot apartment on the outskirts of D.C.
Image mattered. They knew that best of all.
They were the wives, the women who sat at the edges of the room clutching their wine, whispering about futures full of children and family identity, about their husbands and their husband’s jobs; but the men were their hobby long before the marriage vows were exchanged.
“He did an amazing job on a work presentation, so now we’re waiting to see if…” Leah’s voice floated through the room, almost immediately drowned out by the boys stampeding to the balcony.
It was a seven beer kind of Saturday I determined, assessing the drunken foolishness of my soon-to-be husband and his bros shotgunning Nattie Bo’s on the balcony. Elaine cheered them on timing them on her Apple watch. Sam’s husband, already a wobbly drunk, aimed to prove his manliness by having the best time. His slurred words were audible to the entire apartment complex. An excellent moment to refill the snacks picked through on the coffee table.
Leah and Sam’s conversation continued on in a predictable pattern. It was Sam’s turn to show how much she cared about her man. “You know he works so hard; he’s earned it,” she said emphatically, taking a sip of wine.
I took stock of the drink situation and brought a new bottle of wine out. The women seized it, refilling their glasses without pausing their conversation. Ruby red liquid brimming to excess in their glasses precariously balanced in unsteady hands. Like children playing at being grown, I thought through the fog of my own inebriation.
“He really does,” Sam continued, though we offered no protest. “I can’t believe he was up for twenty-one hours yesterday.” She trailed on, reiterating the highlights of her husband’s week. “I can’t sleep when he’s not around.”
I plopped on the couch, a gift from the future in-laws. “God, that’s never my problem. Pop an Ambien or smoke some pot—it’s real easy.”
Both women clutched their pearl necklaces as if I were proposing an insurrection. Sam clutched hers so hard she left an indent on the bead. Leah and I pretended not to notice. The pearl-clutching affectation was part of their new identities. They were respectable now. Marijuana had not passed the respectability threshold it seemed.
“Come on,” I whined, surprising myself. There was a time when I wanted them to like me; that feeling was brushing against the surface of my new identity. “It’s not like you guys never smoked pot in college. We got crossfaded like six times that I can remember,” I said, one last attempt to unearth the girls they buried. “Sam, didn’t you steal some dude’s bong?”
Sam sat up straighter. “It was a vape—and I gave it back to him the next morning.” I tried to suppress the urge to gloat but gave way to a broad smile that hurt my cheeks. The alcohol was taking over.
“Riiiight,” I drawled, waiting for something, anything to snap them out of their matrimonial staunch ways.
Unbudging, I was met with icy stares over long sips from the TJ Maxx crystal glasses I picked up for tonight. I was an outsider again.
We sipped in silence, pretending our phones held more urgent matters than the conversation at hand. Finally, Sam brought the conversation back around to its original trajectory.
“But they seem to like him there, so that’s good.” She was perpetually surprised at the regularity an ER nurse was needed in the operating room.
“That’s good,” Leah and I echoed on cue while I scrolled through Twitter, watching the world unfold deeper into chaos, bloodshed, and disaster.
“I would be so worried about my husband coming home at all odd hours of the night,” Leah chirped away. “I’d just want to make sure he knows someone is always there for him…you know? In case he needs it.”
Wine threatened to spill from Sam’s glass as she nodded. “Exactly.”
I took another sip of beer, resisting the urge to slide a napkin her way, just in case. Things were getting out of control.
“Doesn’t he have triple A?” I asked.
Sam nodded, unsure of where my question was going.
“Then go to bed. He’s literally paying for someone to be there for him.” I chugged my beer hoping more alcohol would make this conversation more interesting.
“Well--” Leah started as the boys came in from the balcony hooting and hollering about the minimal physics behind shotgunning a beer. Elaine passed around the video to show us the greatness we’d missed. The wives congratulated their men on their beer-drinking prowess.
“Yeah baby, just like back in the day. Del State always great,” shouted Leah’s husband.
As if on cue, all four men high-fived. The men continued an inebriated conversation that was full of remember-whens and whatever-happened-to’s that eventually devolved into a chorus of “shots, shots, shots, everybody”--horrifically timed and incredibly loud, sounding nothing like the LFMAO song, not that the boys noticed. Shot glasses materialized as the husbands stood in line, ready to defend their manhood. I grabbed another shot glass from above the fridge and set it down in the line.
“Ohh hooo. Brie is throwing down tonight,” Leah’s husband announced, his hands guarding his mouth in mock surprise.
I gave him my best care free shrug, “When in Rome?” I nudged my glass below the waterfall of amber liquor.
We drank to friendship and other nebulous bullshit people felt compelled to say when trying to inspire a competitive camaraderie. The shot was warm and prickly going down. Whiskey always tasted like regret.
The boys hooted and hollered some more, yelling “damn that’s nice,” praising the gentleman of Kentucky. We’d upgrade to better booze one of these years.
The edges of the room softened. A pleasant warmth that felt like home began in my stomach and radiated outward, leaving my cheeks toasty to the touch. I pulled another beer from the fridge and made my way back to the women’s camp.
Sam held court in the living room, showing the wives her college roommate’s newest baby. The wives cooed and awed. It always came back to babies. Children were the crux of the conversation, as if they couldn’t wait to erase themselves.
“...and she’s just the cutest thing…” Sam trailed on.
I remembered hearing about Aileen’s baby last year at Leah’s wedding. Aileen, smug and newly pregnant, let it slip that the pregnancy was the result of too many margaritas.
Sam flipped forward on her phone, “Oh, here’s Aileen again.” She zoomed in. “Already pregnant with number two.”
“Really doubling down,” I said, hunched over the phone trying to remember what Aileen looked like pre-babies. Sam scowled.
Elaine theatrically cleared her throat and straightened her shoulders. “We were going to start having kids now, but we decided we weren’t ready. I wanted to work on my career.”
I almost snorted the beer out of my nose. The idea of Elaine having kids now was asinine. She was a Soul Cycle instructor on Saturday mornings and a pirate bartender on Thursday nights, occasionally picking up an extra shift to work a kids’ party on the pirate ship docked in Georgetown.
We knew perfectly well that Elaine and her husband weren’t delaying children for her career, but his. He needed to get promoted a few more times in order to bring home enough money to support a growing family. He told us as much last week when we met for happy hour at Sign of the Whale. Elaine had a Target problem, and her two jobs cobbled together barely paid the cable and water bills. Her husband doled out monthly gift cards of $500 to keep her Target spending in check. A tip Sam’s husband experimented with months earlier.
Sam stretched out on the couch, sipping her wine and unable to be outdone by Elaine’s show of mature femininity. “I think 31 is a great age to have kids,” she declared. “Think about it, we’ll still be young, but we’ll be old.”
The logic didn’t quite land. Leah wrinkled her nose trying to solve the world problem. “Wait, what?”
Sam rolled her eyes, “We won’t be in our 20’s any more. We’ll be done with all this.” She waved her hand around the room.
“Apartment living?” I ventured. Rent was high, but home prices were higher. Apartment living was inescapable.
“No, this…” she struggled to find the words, “kids stuff.”
Elaine nodded sagely. “The boys will grow up eventually.”
I glanced over at the kitchen where the boys were pouring themselves another round of shots and discussing the tasting notes in their finest southern accents. Five years didn’t seem like enough time to outgrow this life.
But the women nodded in agreement. “That’s smart,” Leah said.
“2022 will be the year of the baby.” Sam held up her glass to cheer on their collective fertility.
“To the year of the baby,” Elaine cheered.
“The year of the baby,” Leah said with wide-eyed astonishment.
“Come on Brie, get in on this,” Sam waved me over. Dutifully, I moved from my perch on the couch and joined the wives with raised glasses.
Thirty-one was the year of the baby.
Strong arms engulfed me. “Whatchya doing?” Frank asked, the smell of Kentucky Gentleman floating through the air with each exhale.
I could feel the warm pudge of his beer gut against my back. I’d watched it grow from its infancy, developing into a pronounced middle-aged beer gut. In another hour or so, he’d be asleep, passed out. Until then, I would endure the drunken pawing and clawing, wanting me to fuck him.
“Girl stuff,” I responded coyly, taking another sip of beer, buying time in a conversation I did not want to have.
Around me, the room erupted with laughter. I missed the joke but offered a weak, closed lip smile smile. Sam met my eyes and grinned, her lips split and stained with the blood red liquid of choice. I matched her smile, forcing my Cheshire cat grin. I could feel my lips crack as a wider smile broke across my face. Not that anyone cared if I smiled or laughed. No one was really looking at me.
I was background noise, a three-year-old playlist that everyone knew by heart and no one cared to listen to anymore. I was the gray couch my soon-to-be in-laws gifted us when they worried there’d be no place for them to sit. A photo frame hung slightly askew that no amount of adjusting could straighten, but whose straightness was inconsequential to the overall aesthetic of the room.
The expectations were simple: refill the chips, keep the wine flowing, coordinate the outings, exclaim what a lovely time at the end of the night, and thank everyone for coming all the way out to our apartment in the unfashionable outskirts of the city.
Sobered by the thought, I took another swig of my beer.
M. Sweeney writes by night. She currently lives in Baltimore with her two dogs and spouse. You can find her @Msweeneywrites on Twitter.