Flash by Leah Browning
Six months before he left, Andrew gave me a diamond tennis bracelet, and I wore that thing everywhere. I wore it when we went to the opera, I flashed it at that bitch Lisa Bramsky at the PTA meeting, I wore it to the goddamn dry cleaner’s when I went to pick up Andrew’s suits. I wanted everybody to know that the rumors weren’t true.
“You sound angry,” Lisa Bramsky finally said. I’d been calling her every morning after I dropped Andrew Junior at school and drove home.
“I’m not angry,” I said. “I just think we need more time to fill out the book orders, that’s all. How can we possibly turn them in by the deadline? There’s not enough time to decide.”
Lisa Bramsky was silent. Slowly, she said, “Enough time to decide which books to buy?”
“Listen, I don’t have to take this from you,” I snapped, and hung up on her. There was just nothing Lisa Bramsky wouldn’t do to prove that she was better than I was. Every afternoon, the nanny picked her daughter up from school, and I could imagine Lisa Bramsky meeting little Sydney Ann at the front door of the house, a checkbook and a pen in one hand and a plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies in the other. It galled me, really it did.
So that afternoon, before I drove to school to pick up Andrew Junior, I scrubbed every surface and made a batch of cookies so that the whole house would smell good when he got home. All the curtains were open, and the wood gleamed in the sunlight.
I went shopping and bought myself a new pink blouse. I bought myself a pair of boots with two-inch heels and zippers up the sides. I bought myself a new tube of lipstick. I carried home all the bags and laid them on the bed and looked around the room at all of the beautiful things that I had collected over the years. I lay on the bed and became part of the collection. One of the many beautiful things.
Andrew brought home a pizza in a cardboard box.
I said, “I don’t like anchovies.”
Andrew said, “It doesn’t have anchovies.”
But the mushrooms reminded me of anchovies, so I refused to eat it anyway.
Andrew rolled his eyes. I sat at the table silently as he and Andrew Junior ate. Andrew Junior drank a glass of cold milk and took small bites of his pizza. Andrew drank a beer and made small talk about which teams were doing well, which teams he thought might make it to the playoffs.
When they were finished and had left the kitchen, I ate the other half of the pizza and then went to the bathroom and made myself throw up. Then I had to wipe down the bathroom. I had to brush my teeth and fix my hair and put on fresh lipstick.
“Andrew,” I called. I didn’t even know which one I was calling. I just wanted to hear someone else’s voice.
At the next meeting of the PTA, Lisa Bramsky said she thought we needed to have a fundraiser to replace the jungle gym on the lower grade playground. Paint was flaking off the damn thing while the kids were playing on it.
Genevieve Adams said, “We just had a fundraiser.”
And Lisa Bramsky said, “I know. The problem is that we need it now, and the school doesn’t have the money.”
I said, “The problem is that you don’t care about the children. You don’t care if they have a safe place to play or not.”
Looking incredulous, Lisa Bramsky said, “That’s not true.”
“You voted to give them Jell-O instead of fruit.”
“It was one day a week!” Lisa Bramsky said. “We were trying to improve the budget. Fresh fruit costs a fortune.”
“You obviously don’t care if they get a nutritious lunch.” I pointed to Lisa Bramsky. “Did you know that she doesn’t even buy fruit for Sydney Ann?”
Lisa Bramsky said, “What are you talking about?” She shook her head. “Of course I buy fruit! I have no idea what she’s talking about.”
I said, “I’ve seen you. You were at the grocery store on Tuesday morning and all you bought was Pizza Pockets and a bottle of wine.”
“It was sparkling apple cider,” Lisa Bramsky said. She looked around the table at all of the other parents. “It was apple cider.” She looked back at me. “Christ. What are you doing, following me around?”
I didn’t dignify that with a response. The other members of the group had been silent up to that point, but all at once they were murmuring.
Suddenly, I couldn’t remember the last time Andrew had kissed me. Really kissed me, I mean. Not a disinterested peck that landed somewhere in the vicinity of my ear, but a kiss on the mouth, the kind that used to bring blood to the surface of my skin.
I was still thinking about this when Genevieve Adams said, “Maybe we should pick this up another time.”
Everyone looked at me warily, and I tried to smile, but the muscles of my face felt strained. I could barely remember what we’d been talking about. My head was full of Andrew, Andrew this and Andrew that, all the times he’d kissed me when we met, a big swarm of kisses, and I thought that if you graphed them in a certain way, the graph would pucker abruptly into a small point at the top like a chocolate Hershey’s Kiss. And this thought made me laugh, which made Genevieve Adams and Lisa Bramsky jump, which only made me laugh harder.
“Why don’t you ever kiss me anymore?” I asked Andrew. I had pulled a big armchair into the entryway, and I was sitting there when he opened the front door, briefcase in hand.
Andrew looked exasperated. “What happened this afternoon?” he asked. Andrew went to high school with Lisa Bramsky, and I should have known she would run tattling off to him as soon as the meeting was over.
“You didn’t answer my question,” I said.
“Mrs. Mullins called me at work,” he said, and I sighed. The principal, with her iron-gray curls and the reading glasses that she wore on a chain around her neck. I imagined Andrew kissing her, then, on her pinched little mouth.
“Well?” Andrew said.
“It doesn’t matter,” I told him. “I’m done with their precious little PTA meetings.”
“You don’t have to drop out,” Andrew said. But he sounded relieved.
“I don’t need them,” I said. “I don’t need anyone.”
I was trying not to cry. I didn’t even understand it, because I was sick of their club anyway. I knew they were talking about me behind my back, every chance they got, so I might as well skip the meetings and let them get on with it.
Andrew Junior managed to tear himself away from the television in the other room long enough to poke his head into the entryway and say, “Is dinner almost ready?”
“No,” I snapped.
“Fine. Sheesh.” He disappeared back into the family room. He hadn’t turned on the lights, and from where I was sitting, it looked like a cave.
One time, when we first met, Andrew called me his flower. “You’re exquisite,” he’d said.
Now he stood near the door in his coat and hat, still holding his briefcase in his hand.
He was so careful. Even the private investigator had found nothing. But still, I knew. Everyone knew. When I wasn’t around, I was sure it was all they could talk about.
“Who’s your flower now?” I asked, and he frowned, uncomprehending, and shook his head.
* * *
All the next week, I stayed home. I drank glass after glass of wine. I made a roasted rack of lamb and coq au vin and salmon en croute. Andrew Junior pushed the food around on his plate, but Andrew’s face began to relax again. The gourmet cooking lessons were really paying off.
But then, after I’d scraped Andrew Junior’s salmon into the sink and loaded the dishwasher and wiped down the counters, I saw flecks of mud on the carpet. He must have worn his shoes in the house again.
I looked closer. There was a gray rim of dust along the baseboards. There were cobwebs on the lamps, and spanning the distance between the glossy green leaves of the plants.
I stopped cooking. For days, I vacuumed and dusted and wiped down the mirrors. In Andrew Junior’s bathroom, I found dried blue worms of toothpaste on the countertop. Empty toilet paper rolls and wet towels littered the floor.
At night, I lay in bed and watched Andrew sleep. When his breaths were deep and even, his hands completely limp at his sides, I went downstairs. In the basement, we had a treadmill and an exercise bike set up in front of a big-screen.
I didn’t turn on the television. I didn’t want to wake them. Alone in the dark, I exercised until I felt weak from fatigue. Some nights, when I stopped running and stepped off the treadmill, my knees buckled and I had to reach out for something solid to keep me from falling.
Andrew was very clever. He’d managed to fool the private investigator—or, it occurred to me now, had he befriended the man and paid him to tell me that he’d found nothing? Was that possible?
It was. I knew it was. Everybody loved Andrew.
Well, I wasn’t fooled. I checked his messages and opened his mail. Even the simplest memorandum—staff meeting at 4 p.m.—could be elaborately coded, if you just knew how to read it.
When I had time, I followed Lisa Bramsky as she ran errands. It just made me seethe, I admit, seeing her duck in and out of those little shops, seeing her push a cart through the aisles of the supermarket with her precious little list in her hand. I had sat near her at a million PTA meetings. She took notes in a spiral-bound notebook. She used a pen with little wisps of pink fur at the end of it. She had loopy, girlish handwriting, and she dotted each i and j with a miniature circle. I mean, past the age of fourteen, who did that?
I called the police.
I was panting, crying. “I’ve been attacked,” I said. “My arms are covered in bruises.”
“It was Lisa Bramsky,” I said. I spelled her name.
Andrew left work early and met me at the station. The deep groove in his forehead was back.
He followed the officer into a glass-walled office and closed the door. I could hear them talking, the low burr of the officer’s voice. “But there were no signs of any injury?” Andrew kept repeating.
He turned away from the desk and looked out at me. I was sitting on a bench in the hallway. I studied my fingernails.
There was a lot of mumbling. I heard the officer say “PTA meeting” and “phone calls.”
“Well, I’m sure she didn’t mean any harm,” Andrew said. “It must have been a misunderstanding.”
The door opened. “Thanks again,” Andrew said. The two men shook hands. It was scary to see how fast he could win them over.
We picked up Andrew Junior at school, and when we got home, Andrew led me to the bedroom. He closed the door and sat me on the bed, and then he knelt in front of me and took both my hands in his.
“I’m getting my period,” I said, and he gave me a puzzled look.
“I think you might need to see a doctor,” he said.
I wanted to crack a joke. I wanted to say, “But it’s normal for a woman to get her period.” I didn’t feel much like laughing, though. Instead, I began to cry quietly, mashing my hands against my eyes and smearing my makeup. “I’m fine,” I said. “I don’t need to see anyone.”
He sat down on the bed next to me. “Maybe you’d be happier if you took something,” he suggested, but I shook my head. My nose was running.
“Maybe we should move,” I said. “I’m tired of being picked on.”
Faintly, I could hear the sound of the television in another room.
“It’s okay, honey,” he said, putting his arm around me. “It’ll be all right.”
As a surprise, Andrew bought three plane tickets to Florida. Until the night we arrived in Orlando, though, I didn’t know that he’d booked us a three-bedroom villa at one of the Disney resorts. I could just imagine Lisa Bramsky’s face when she heard about that.
The next morning, Andrew and I got up early and took Andrew Junior to Disney World. I took him on the rides and watched the parades and stage shows and bought him a chocolate-covered ice cream bar shaped like a Mickey Mouse head. I ran from ride to ride as the sun went down. I didn’t want to miss a single thing.
“Let’s go back to the room,” Andrew said. He was frowning again.
“We can’t leave before the fireworks!”
He rubbed his temple.
“You go,” I said. “We’ll come back on our own.” I smiled at Andrew Junior. There was a smudge of chocolate near his mouth.
“No,” Andrew said. “I don’t think it’s safe to leave you alone with him.”
He put his hand on my arm, but I shook him off. “They’re starting.” In the distance I heard the pop, and a bright plume of color appeared over Cinderella’s castle.
I could feel Andrew’s eyes on me, and I turned to look at him. There was so much sadness in his face. Surprised, I reached up to touch his hair. Between my fingers, it felt as soft as down. My eyes met his. Something welled up in me then, some sense of how much we were losing. But then there was an explosion of color behind me, and I turned away again, forgetting everything but the shower of sparks against the night sky.
Leah Browning is the author of three nonfiction books for teens and pre-teens (Capstone Press) and a chapbook, Making Love to the Same Man for Fifteen Years (Big Table Publishing, 2009). Her second chapbook, Picking Cherries in the Española Valley, is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Browning’s fiction, poetry, essays, and articles have previously appeared in a variety of publications including Queen’s Quarterly, 42opus, The Saint Ann’s Review, Blood Orange Review, Brink Magazine, and Pequin, as well as on a broadside from Broadsided Press, on postcards from the program Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf, and in several anthologies. In addition to writing, Browning serves as editor of the Apple Valley Review.