Authors: Jennifer Weiner
A few minutes later, the lights flickered, then went out. The girls clapped and cheered, while Jo put another log on the fire and tried to think of what she had in her freezer that might go bad. She was weighing the risks of letting the girls roast hot dogs in the fireplace when someone knocked at the door. She opened it to find Nonie Scotto, her two-doors-down neighbor. In her bulky winter coat, with her frosted blond hair tucked under her hood, Nonie looked like a plump bear cub. Snowflakes were melting on her eyelashes, and her face was flushed pink from the cold. She had baby Amy against her chest, tucked in a kind of zippered, fur-lined sack, and she was pulling Drew, dressed in boots and a snowsuit, on a wooden sled behind her.
“Whew!” she said, stomping her snowy feet on the welcome mat. “It is really comin’ down!” Nonie had grown up in a small
town in Alabama—“I’m a southern belle,” she’d say—and she had the honeyed accent and disdain for winter to prove it. “Is your power out, too?”
Jo looked down the street, trying to see if anyone had their lights on. “I think the whole neighborhood lost power.”
“We’re having a snow day dinner party,” Nonie said. “At Judy’s house. Come on, get your coat.”
“A dinner party?”
“All the men are stuck over the mountain. We’ve got to fend for ourselves. Just bring the kids and whatever you’ve got to eat. You know, Judy’s got that big fireplace, so at least we’ll all be warm.”
“My sister’s visiting. Okay if she comes?”
“No,” said Nonie. “Leave her here all by herself in the dark. Of course she can come! You should all pack your jammies. It might turn into a slumber party. The radio said it’s not supposed to stop until tomorrow night, and Lord knows when they’ll get the power back on.”
Jo told her daughters to find pajamas and toothbrushes, and to gather the flashlights, the candles, and the extra batteries, and to pile some firewood on their own sled. She took a flashlight into the dim kitchen and loaded a brown paper shopping bag with sandwich fixings, plus a jar of olives, a tub of sour cream and a packet of onion-soup mix, a box of Triscuits, a bag of pretzels, a kosher salami, and two bottles of white wine. “Excellent!” Nonie said, nodding her approval as Jo got Kim into her boots and coat and helped Missy zip up her snowsuit, and plopped both delighted girls onto the sled behind Drew. “Hold on tight!” she called. Together, the ladies ferried the kids and the food and the firewood across the street, bending their heads as thick, wet flakes tumbled down from the sky. In the Pressman house, a roaring fire was burning in the fieldstone-lined fireplace that opened onto the kitchen from one side and the family room from the other. Candles had been lit and set on every available surface, filling the house with a chancy, flickering light. Jo got her girls out of their snowsuits,
while Bethie perched on the bricked ledge of the fieldstone fireplace and sat watching the women with a Cheshire-cat smile.
“Go on, just put the food on the dining-room table and lay your wet stuff in front of the fire.” Judy had met them at the door dressed in tweed slacks, a black wool sweater, and a pair of wool socks, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, her expression animated as she called out instructions. There were at least twenty people in the house, four or five women with their children, and there were dozens of pairs of boots drying by the fire. Big kids raced through the living room, playing hide-and-seek; little kids toddled after them or clung to their mothers’ legs or hid under Judy’s new coffee table, pearlescent Lucite in the shape of a shallow upside-down
. Faces glowed in the firelight, and the house was deliciously warm, smelling of woodsmoke and garlic and ginger, anise and cinnamon and cloves. Even without the power to force warm air up from the furnace through the house, it felt warm.
“Hot mulled wine,” Judy said, zipping past with two mugs in each hand. “That’s what you’re smelling. It’s in the kitchen, next to the stove. Help yourself.”
“Don’t have to ask me twice!” Nonie said, her voice merry. Jo stripped off her winter coat, unlaced her boots, and sent the girls on their way. “Judy, Steph, this is my sister, Bethie,” Jo said, and Judy Pressman and Stephanie Zelcheck both said how pleased they were to meet her, and how much they were looking forward to their group.
Bethie had helped Jo carry her shopping bag into the dining room, where a feast had been laid out: wedges of cheese and bowls of crackers and nuts and olives, salami and pepperoni, cut-up cucumbers and peppers and carrots, bowls of chips and dips, and a steaming pot of some kind of chicken stew, bubbling over tins of Sterno. Beside the chicken was another pot of rice and a dish of mango chutney, and farther down the table, Jo saw cookies and brownies and a raspberry pie.
“Everyone just brought whatever they had,” Nonie said, handing Jo and Bethie mugs of mulled wine. “I was making chicken
in my slow cooker when the power died, but I’m pretty sure it’s cooked through.” She smiled at Jo. “Almost positive.”
“It smells delicious.”
Nonie waved her hand. “Easiest thing in the world.”
“Well, it’s certainly better than what we had planned.” Jo found a bowl and a spoon in the kitchen, dumped her soup mix into the sour cream, stirred, and set the finished product next to an open bag of potato chips.
“Oh my goodness, is that onion dip? My downfall,” said Arlene Dubin. Arlene, or Poor Arlene, as the other ladies called her, had two sets of Irish twins, a boy and a girl who were five and six, then two boys, three and four, and a husband who worked as an airline pilot and was almost never home. Arlene swiped a chip through the dip, popping it into her mouth and sighing with pleasure. Nonie finished her mulled wine and reached for the bottle of Chardonnay that stood open on the sideboard. “Here’s to snow days,” she said, filling her cup just as Judy came hurrying over.
“Perfect,” said Jo.
“How’d you have all of this stuff lying around?” Nonie asked, nodding at the plastic glasses, the paper plates, the Sterno underneath the chafing dishes.
“Residents,” said Judy. “Every year we host a bash for all the new surgical residents, and the caterers leave extras.” She reached over to straighten a stack of crackers and readjust a cucumber circle that had dared to get out of line. Jo sipped her wine, which was rich and warm and tasted of cinnamon and cloves, and prayed her sister wouldn’t give one of her soliloquies about non-recyclable plastic. “Drink up,” said Judy. “We’ve got hot buttered rum for dessert.”
Jo was careful to sip her wine slowly. She rarely allowed herself more than a single drink at parties. Alcohol made her joints feel loose and her body warm and elastic. It also lowered her inhibitions, and the last thing she wanted was to do anything
that would arouse the suspicions of the ladies of Apple Blossom Court.
She was always so careful. Careful not to evince any special interest when the Stonewall riots were in the news. Careful not to pay too much attention to news reports about the Gay Pride marches and parades that were popping up in New York and Philadelphia. Careful not to look too long at any of the neighborhood ladies, even though those ladies were permitted to cheerfully leer at their friends’ husbands, as well as Mark Shanley, the muscular teenager with long, frosted-blond hair who mowed all of their lawns, shirtless, in a pair of cut-off jean shorts. She was careful not to ever be the first to volunteer to rub sunscreen on someone’s back in case anyone should notice and think that her eyes, or even worse, her hands, were lingering longer than normal. She did not let herself daydream about a night like this one, with snow falling outside and a fire burning inside and Nonie Scotto a little tipsy and no husbands in sight.
The kids were fed. The babies were diapered and put to bed in Judy’s playpen. The dirty plates were cleared away. More bottles of wine were opened. At nine o’clock, when Kim started to rub her eyes, Jo led her up to Jenny Pressman’s bedroom and made her a nest of pillows and blankets on the floor. Missy had insisted that she wasn’t tired, but twenty minutes after her sister went up, she fell and banged her head on the arm of the couch and came running to Jo in tears. Bethie pulled her into her arms to kiss it better. “See, isn’t the fire pretty?” she asked. Missy nodded, with her head resting against Bethie’s shoulder. Jo reached out her arms. Bethie handed Missy over, and Jo stroked her daughter’s wavy hair, feeling the exact moment when Missy’s body went boneless with sleep. She gave her daughter a kiss on her temple, feeling emotion sweeping through her, almost bringing tears to her eyes. Had she ever loved anyone as much as she loved her girls? “What’s that big brain thinking about?” she would ask Kim at breakfast, or at night, tucking her in, and Kim would say, “the person who figured out that horses could pull things,” or “why do we cook food?” or “do
you think dolphins can talk to each other?” And Missy was so fearless, flinging herself at the soccer ball or the hockey puck, barreling toward the goal, with her legs and arms permanently scraped and bruised. Jo felt so connected to them. When they cried, she cried; when Missy scored the winning goal or Kim won first prize in her age group in the statewide science fair, she was as proud as she’d ever been of any of her own accomplishments. She loved them. More than that, she admired them. They would be better than she was: stronger and smarter, more capable and less afraid, and if the world displeased them, they would change it, cracking it open, reshaping it, instead of bending themselves to its demands.
Jo got Missy upstairs and settled next to her sister. Judy had a battery-powered radio in the kitchen, and every half-hour she’d turn it on to hear the latest news, then come out and stand in front of the fireplace to make reports. The governor had declared a state of emergency and ordered nonessential personnel to stay off the roads. The snow was still falling fast, with forecasters predicting that the region might get up to thirty-six inches. “I think we’re all in for the night,” Judy said.
When the last of the children had fallen asleep, the women arranged blankets and pillows for themselves on the floor. They spoke ruefully about the diets they were breaking as they nibbled brownies and drank Judy’s hot buttered rum. Every once in a while one of them would say something about checking on her house. “I should at least get the walkway shoveled,” Stephanie said. “What if Mike comes back?”
“He c’n shovel it himself, can’t he?” Nonie asked. Her accent had become more pronounced with each glass of wine she’d enjoyed. She lay on her side on the carpet, basking like a cat in the fire’s warmth.
“I guess,” Stephanie said. Lucas, her baby, was asleep in her arms, scooched up with his head in the crook of her shoulder and his bottom sticking out. He gave a little whistle each time he exhaled, and Stephanie jiggled him up and down in a movement that Jo remembered becoming as natural as breathing when her own girls were small.
“Everything was delicious,” said Jo, when Judy finally sat down. “Delicious,” Bethie agreed, in her breathy murmur, as she drifted in from the kitchen. Her sister never walked anywhere these days, Jo thought. Bethie drifted, like she was a puff of milkweed, blown this way and that by the wind.
“Good food, plenty of drinks, the kids are all sleeping, and no ‘Honey, can you grab me a beer?’ ” Judy said.
“Amen, sister,” Nonie drawled.
“Think of it,” Judy said, stifling a hiccup against the back of her hand. “All those men out there, realizing, on the same night, for the first time in their adult lives, that they can survive without someone fetching their beer and asking how their days went.”
Jo turned her face away. For the early years of their marriage, she had asked Dave about his day, and she’d genuinely cared about his answers. In those early years, she and Dave got along; they enjoyed each other’s company, and the sex, while not fantastic, was at least okay. After he’d decreed that they were financially secure enough to start trying for babies (the babies that he had assumed, without asking, that Jo wanted), she’d thrown away her diaphragm. She’d worried that she would hate being pregnant, that she would despise such a physical, visible confirmation of heterosexuality, and the way that her body would literally become a vessel, in service to the baby she was growing. To her surprise, she’d loved it. She’d barely had a moment’s sickness, and had woken up every day feeling well rested, with her heart pumping strongly, ready to bound out of bed and accomplish everything on her list. Her hair grew thick and glossy, the whites of her eyes were so white that they shone, her skin glowed, just like the books said it would, and she never experienced swollen feet or heartburn or any of the common aches and pains she’d heard other pregnant women complain about. During her first pregnancy, with Kim, at some point every day she’d find a few minutes to lie in bed, one hand on her belly, feeling the skin thinning and stretching drum-tight, noticing her breasts getting bigger and the dark line of pigmentation stretching from her belly
button to her pubic bone. She felt like a piece of fruit, something exotic and delicious, ripening in the sun, and she’d been certain, both times, that the baby would be a girl.
All through her pregnancies, Dave had been loving, thoughtful, and solicitous. At night, Jo would lie on the couch, legs stretched out in her husband’s lap, and Dave would rub her feet with castor oil—something Bethie had recommended, after some homeopathic healer she’d met had told her about it—and he’d tell her about his day, doing his expert imitations of his manager at the bar where he was working, a fat, wheezing, balding man named George Toddhunter, or the bartender, Gus, a preening college boy with feathered hair and John Lennon glasses who’d published a pair of book reviews in the local newspaper and fancied himself a novelist. They’d watch the news, sitting close on the plaid couch that they’d bought secondhand, and eventually, Jo would heave herself erect—“I am heaving myself erect,” she’d announce—and fix dinner, which would typically be one of her mother’s recipes, or some one-pot or one-pan dish from a recipe she’d found in one of the women’s magazines to which she now unironically subscribed. Dave would set the table, Jo would clear it, he would wash the dishes and she’d dry, and she’d usually be snoozing on the couch before prime time, waking up only long enough to brush her teeth, splash water on her face, and get herself to bed. She’d sleep for long, luscious, uninterrupted hours, and wake up in the morning, stretching her arms over her head, feeling gravid, and heavy, and perfectly content.