Susan Sommer thought to lower her skirt just as she heard the doorknob twist. She remembered that the cuts on the inside of her left thigh were lower than usual because she fumbled the box cutter after leaving just a little too much lotion on her hand. Typically, she used a single razor blade and held it between two steady fingers like a normal person, but she wasn’t thinking clearly tonight because she was in a rush. It was game night at Jerry and Donna’s, the first one she promised to attend in almost a year, and she didn’t want to be late. And just as she was applying moisturizer and trying to remember where she even kept her razors, that’s when the toolbox caught the corner of her eye. The building supervisor left it behind when he re-caulked her bathtub earlier that day. She opened it and saw the boxcutter staring back at her. It looked freshly loaded with an unused blade, and to be fair — could she feel even lower about herself as it was?
As it turned out — yes, she could. Jerry Munson, Donna’s new husband, stared directly into her cleavage after opening the front door. Susan pretended not to notice and put on her best smile.
“Hi, Jerry!” She said cheerfully, without quite knowing why, and immediately regretting it.
Jerry’s bushy hair tilted up ever so slightly as he leaned in for a hug. “Hey, Susan. It feels like years since we last saw you.”
Whatever the length of time, Jerry’s hard-on against her thigh didn’t miss a beat. She knew his length before Donna ever mentioned it.
“What have you been up to?” he asked, stretching his arm across the doorframe as if blocking the two of them in case it opened, no doubt showing off his biceps too. He was wearing one of his white, slim fitting polo shirts. His face was cleanly shaven. His hair was in a perfect pompadour. James Spader would play him in a movie if it was the 1980’s.
Susan bit her lip and looked away. “The usual,” she said.
“Ah,” he said as he looked up at nothing. “Wonderful.”
Wonderful. Susan laughed.
“What?” Jerry asked.
Susan shook her head and remained silent. He still wasn’t familiar with her work. Donna wouldn’t dare bring him to any of her gallery openings. Wonderful wasn’t a word of choice for either her critics or her fans. Abstract sculptures made from birds and mice bones demanded a different set of adjectives.
Jerry leaned in close with his bedroom eyes and put a hand on her arm. “Donna and I are very happy you came tonight,” he said softly. “You’re like family to us no matter how much time passes.”
Susan’s jaw was becoming tired from making her face smile. She gave it every ounce of strength she had left until he finally turned around to re-open the door.
Susan now remembered why she stopped attending game nights. She felt stupid for even coming now. Jerry wasn’t any less creepy just because he and Donna were married. Nor a small piece of Susan stopped secretly enjoying the attention.
It made her sick.
Jerry had been flirty with all of Donna’s friends since the two started dating, and Susan suspected they all secretly enjoyed it a bit too. He was handsome and charismatic, but Susan seemed alone in thinking his head was too far up his own ass. She didn’t quite know how to share this sentiment when every topic of discussion amongst her fellow bridesmaids the year before was how lovely a couple he and Donna made, and how nice it was that Jerry was a provider that took control of situations. It turned Susan off from wanting to hang much with any of them after that year of awkward bridal events. Maybe the timing was kind of perfect, actually. Susan was feeling she had less in common with this whole particular clique from college anyway. They all seemed to follow Donna in their desires to settle down into lives of greater security. Lives with husbands that took care of things. Susan couldn’t relate.
She could hear the women chatting and laughing in the dining room at the end of the darkened hallway. The house looked different than Susan last remembered. Donna’s collection of vintage film posters that once adorned the walls were gone, as were her framed certificates and awards of recognition. The hall was completely barren.
“Look who I found wandering alone at night,” Jerry cheerfully announced as they rounded the bend.
Donna, Christine, Kelly, and Jill became silent at once and swiveled their heads. They greeted Susan with solemn stares. There was no table in the room, only a collection of metal folding chairs that the women arranged to sit in a semi-circle facing away from the entrance. One empty chair sat facing Susan at the far side of the room.
Susan jumped when she felt Jerry’s hands on her shoulders. “Have a seat,” he whispered into her ear.
Donna sat closest to her at the entrance. “Please,” she said.
Susan shook her head, disbelieving what she saw to the right and left of her as she approached the chair. They were all wearing white — Donna and Kelly in plain dresses, Jill in white jeans and a t-shirt, and Christine in chinos and a polo like Jerry’s.
“So, who wants to tell me what’s going on?” Susan asked.
“I’m sorry we had to lie about game night,” Donna said. “But surprising you on your birthday didn’t seem as fair.”
As Susan sat down, she wondered if running out the door would be crazier than the sight in front of her. But she was intrigued by the whole situation. She almost wanted to laugh as she crossed her legs and relaxed in the chair.
“An intervention?” Susan asked. “Are you sure this isn’t the game?”
Susan watched as Jerry bowed to the other women before walking to the kitchen across the hall.
Jill looked as if she was about to unload the biggest secret she ever kept in her life. “Susan, we love you, and we’re scared you’re on a spiral of negativity that’s hurting you.”
The slices on Susan’s inner thigh suddenly radiated. She pulled her skirt down further, careful not to uncross her legs.
Kelly cleared her throat. “We’ve noticed that you’ve become more withdrawn in recent months. And your, uh, art has gotten kind of scary, frankly.”
Susan laughed. “Ladies, you’re overthinking this. I’m fine. I’m just concentrating really hard on my career right now. I’m finally getting interest from the bigger galleries.”
“You didn’t even congratulate me when my son was born last summer,” Christine said.
Susan raised a finger. “Okay, Christine, for that I apologize, but we’ve barely said a word to each other in two years. And I don’t check Facebook.”
Donna winced. “I’ve gotten the vibe — we all have — that we’re not as important to you now because we’re not as…” Donna trailed off and looked up into the air to find the word. She finally did. “Driven.”
The other women exchanged nods of agreement. Someone else mumbled faintly, “Career-minded.”
Susan pulled at her face. “Look, I’m here. I’ve always been here. I don’t know where you’ve all been, but I never went anywhere.”
That’s when Susan noticed the clinking of glass coming from the kitchen. She could see Jerry walking to and from the refrigerator through the entranceway, appearing to be placing ice cubes into glasses.
Donna snapped her finger to call Susan’s attention. “We did go somewhere without you, Susan,” she said. “None of us thought you’d be up for it unless you understood the urgency. If you were pushed.”
Susan was feeling her breaths become shorter. “What are any of you even talking about?”
Jill coughed. “Donna, if I may?”
Donna’s tight-lipped face relaxed somewhat as she sat back in her chair. She nodded.
Jill spoke in her usual low voice, but which now carried some rare weight. “What would you say if I told you you could never be alone again?”
Susan exploded with laughter. She couldn’t contain it. “What?”
Christine leaned forward. “We know you have a bit of a cynical outlook on things like yoga, crystal healing, meditation—"
“—But while you were busy hating me for being happy with Jerry,” Donna spat, bringing all eyes on her, “and further turning your back on all your friends who didn’t aspire to be avant-garde artists like you, we’ve been busy consciously realizing our potential for a brighter future we can actually manifest through our will.”
Susan never felt more awkward, and so she continued to laugh. “Ladies, it’s been real. Real weird. So, I’m out this bitch, as they say, alright?"
Jill stood up in front of her. “It’s perfectly normal for this situation to feel insane. This is abnormal from — I guess, how we’ve all related to you in the past. But none of us want to feel like we’re excluding you anymore. And we don’t want to be shunned by you. We want to take you on a trip.”
Susan heard more glass and metal clinking from the kitchen. She saw Jerry, indeed, mixing cocktails. She licked her lips.
“A trip?” Susan asked, keeping her eyes on the kitchen.
Donna stood up and gently touched Jill’s shoulder. Jill sat down. Donna was now holding a pamphlet in the other hand. She dropped it in Susan’s lap. “This is the retreat Jerry took us on. It’s been life changing for all of us.”
“If you can imagine what fear and anxiety would look like as it melts off your body,” Christine said, “It’s about as close as you can get to actually seeing that with your own eyes.”
Susan looked at the pamphlet. The words “Yoh-Grah-Lah Shrine and Peoples Center” were printed above a photo of a mountain.
The metal rings of a bell suddenly called everyone’s attention.
Jerry was holding the bell in one hand, and a tray of martini glasses in the other.
He smirked. “It’s not an intervention for drug abuse, so I think Manhattans are allowed, right?”
All of the women laughed, some gentler than others as they reclaimed their seats. Susan practically lunged forward to grab one of the drinks.
Jerry backed away with the tray. “Hold on, Susan, I want us to make a toast together because I know this hasn’t been easy to listen to.”
Susan looked up to see Jerry wink at her before shooting a hard glance at her thighs.
“I’d probably have the urge to grab a knife and open a few veins if my closest friends shocked me with such new information,” he said.
Susan shrank into her chair. All the women were looking at her now.
“But let’s break it down,” Jerry continued. “The bottom line here is four very lovely, incredible friends care about you deeply. They want you to live a happy and healthy life. That’s all this is — friends loving other friends who want to ensure they all stay friends!”
All but Susan laughed.
“But, of course, friendship means nothing without respect,” Jerry continued. “And while I’m proud Donna, Jill, Christine, and Kelly have retained a lot of the words from spiritual lessons taught at the Yo-grah-lah Shrine, it’s all for naught if they ignored your feelings about all of this.”
Susan swallowed. “I just want to be a self-sustaining person.”
“Nobody wants to change you or even ask you to do anything that’s against your will,” Jerry said as he distributed the drinks. “Just hold these for a minute, ladies.”
He winked at Susan again as he handed her one of the martinis. She held it against her knee and stared at him, fascinated, hypnotized.
Jerry continued to speak. “We all took the time to bring you here to share what’s important to us, and so we ask you to consider this: a fearless life lived in communion and devoid of desire for material belongings.”
Susan looked around again at the lack of furniture, and her friends’ white outfits.
Donna leaned forward with glassy eyes. “Just come to a session with us, Susan, and see how you like it. We really think it will help your outlook on everything this beautiful world has to offer. You don’t have to suffer in darkness anymore.”
Jerry raised his glass, as did the other women.
Susan exhaled, and then finally raised her glass from her knee. She looked around the room and into each of her friends eyes. And when she met Jerry’s gaze last, she poured the martini onto the carpet.
All of the women gasped.
“He put something in the drinks,” Susan said.
Donna, Jill, and Kelly all began to frantically exchange glances at one another.
“What?!” Jerry yelled.
“If he didn’t poison them, he roofied them. Or something. I watched him in the kitchen cracking pills into the glasses.”
The women all turned their heads to Jerry.
Jerry began to make sounds croaking sounds with his mouth. “This is patently absurd! She’s fucking with us!”
Susan feigned shock. Bringing her hand up to her mouth. “Fucking with you? My.”
She looked at her friends. “You all tell me.”
None of the other women in the room seemed capable of forming a coherent word.
“No, you’re lying,” Donna said. “What would Jerry have to gain by doing that?”
“Drink up then,” Susan replied.
Donna’s eyes became saucers.
Kelly made a short, loud yelp. “I don’t know what’s going on!”
“I’ll tell you what’s going on!” Jerry yelled. “The most mean-spirited, sickest joke I’ve ever witnessed in my life!”
Susan stood up, relishing the sight of Jerry’s eyes trailing her. She then looked at each of her friends again. “Drink up then. If any of you wake up tomorrow, I’ll be around for brunch.”
The women continued to sit frozen in place.
Jill brought her glass almost close enough to her nose.
“Careful,” Susan said.
Jill stopped and lowered the drink again.
The last thing Susan heard before leaving Donna and Jerry’s empty house was the faint sound of more liquid drizzling on carpet. She smiled and rubbed the cuts on the inside of her thigh. They were scabbing nicely.