Three words caught her eye: scented toilet paper.
Anne Marie flattened out the plastic of the package against the goods themselves and pulled back in disbelief to read it again.
Just to be sure, she drew the plied layers to her face from the roll attached to the counter and sniffed a giant breath. She tsked and shook her head.
Yep, scented. Amazing.
She replaced the package beneath the sink before tapping her nails against the porcelain countertop and staring into her face in the mirror. She sucked at her teeth and checked her breath against her palm.
Okay, but this is the same man who scoffed at 8-year-old me when I brought back the canned beans instead of grabbing the two-pound bag of dry ones, right? Hmm. Anne Marie rolled her eyes and grinned. Scented toilet paper.
Memories of the practical man whose bathroom this was flooded Anne Marie’s mind’s eye for a moment: a mocking “naw” at an inquiry for an innocent box of crackers, the condition after condition to structure agreements for manual labor in exchange for AP test fees and school trip permissions, the bright Saturdays spent inside over a color-coded spreadsheet, documenting “where you spend your time.”
Anne Marie blinked quickly, returning to the moment as she washed her hands, making an auditory show for any curious interlopers. She unlocked and opened the bathroom door to the small living room.
If spartan would ever coincide with native style, the result would be this living room. The couch and recliner were of a dark, sensible leather, offset by a wood-and-glass coffee table and an end table that didn’t fit the space off the front of it. The visible kitchen surfaces were bare but for the utensils in use and a small speaker that sat upon the bar top, the front perimeter to the singular aisle of kitchen. The floor was uncovered tile, a motif broken only in the corner next to the front door by a desert landscape-painted river rock. A second rock could be seen up the landing to the second floor—the only interesting thing at eye-level around the room beside the wall-mounted television which was plugged into a naked outlet box at the ceiling of the room. The box sat in a cut in the ceiling that was unfinished, a piece of drywall hanging down. Anne Marie wasn’t entirely certain an attempt at an artistic covering of the television cord hadn’t been made, as the drywall hung in a way that it covered the topmost part of the cord from multiple perspectives around the room.
Anne Marie focused on the man behind the bar top as he side-stepped and raised a gigantic bottle of tequila—which he palmed for no other reason than he could.
“Mexican Mule?” He grinned at his weak wordplay before pouring a drink for himself.
“Sure. Will you make one for Ian, too?” Anne Marie looked out the back door, logging her husband’s location before she sidled to the counter to watch Chris—Dad—pour a double into a red Solo cup.
He bobbed his head, the feathered, early-90s-Joe-Pesci hair bouncing with the movement. “We’re waiting for your sister. Brody called—said he was at a volleyball tournament, but he’ll be here later. That kid.”
Dad didn’t wait for an answer, and Anne Marie didn’t worry about giving one. She took the drinks with a “thanks” and took the few steps to the back screen.
Dad’s voice sounded behind her, “There you are, Nora. Is your friend coming? Who was here last year? Rian?”
“Destiny, Dad.” Nora locked eyes with Anne Marie and rolled them pointedly as Anne Marie backed out of the screen door and handed Ian his Mexican Mule. “Trinity is here tonight.”
Anne Marie watched as Nora floated to the front screen door and swung it open theatrically, revealing her friend. Anne Marie slowed the back door’s fall against the springs and noted the two college students fit their caste spectacularly. Nora wore an obscure band T, only identifiable because of a late-night coffee run the year before. She paired her dark T with a crocheted short-sleeve shrug and high-waisted jeans, proudly thrifted. Her hair was parted down the center, corkscrew curls wrangled into two high buns. The effect was impressive, really—a respectable Indie fangirl, though ‘fangirl’ was definitely not the right term. Trinity wore a Led Zepplin t-shirt over a black skirt that ran to her toes, leaving her fashionably shapeless. Her hair was dyed a faded red and hung like curtains next to kohl-rimmed eyes and dark lips. Both of them sported huge Doc Martens.
“Hi, Trinity.” Dad rounded the island bar and extended his hand. “I’m Nora’s dad, Chris.”
Anne Marie choked on her mule. No comments on anything from the peanut gallery?
Trinity smiled in return—to her credit, only a hint of ‘we’ve met before’ in her eyes—and glanced at the kitchen table, already piled with corn husks and a large bowl Anne Marie knew from experience contained pulled meat.
Dad followed her gaze, “Yes! It’s time! Nora, will you get us organized?”
Anne Marie inadvertently held her breath. This was it. Through years of frustration and multiple wives, it was a universally acknowledged and loathed fact of life at Chateau Chris: the guy can’t communicate worth a damn. As much as Anne Marie realized this indicated that life was still interpretive trails in this neck of the woods… well, the scented toilet paper was promising.
“Organized? What do you mean organized?” The scripted, say-what-you-damn-well-mean-so-that-you-get-what-you-want-and-i-don’t-have-to-do-it-again response rolled off of Nora’s tongue this time.
Anne Marie surprised herself by responding, “You know… organize the husks just so, get the meat going over there, open the olives and pour them into this container…” She mimed placing each item next to the other in the air and emphasized the ridiculousness of all that she knew was expected with the simple suggestion. Anne Marie willed her thoughts toward her sister, you won’t be here forever, kid. I hear you, but let’s do good…! She smiled in relief as Nora picked up on her diffusion and melted, her arms unfolding. Anne Marie started gathering, and Nora followed.
“Hey Ian, you wanna bust out this camera over here? I want Paige to grab some pictures!” Dad hollered toward the back door, pulverizing a massive store-bought masa ball with a hand mixer.
Anne Marie paused a moment to watch Ian usher their 10-year-old, Paige, and 4-year-old, Martin, inside to look at the mini sport-capture camera and the box of Legos.
“I missed some big birthdays this year,” Dad said to no one in particular. “Ah, these are for them, too.” He picked up two colored envelopes and handed them to Anne Marie before he added more stock to the reddish-yellow mixture. Anne Marie handed the one to her daughter, tousling her hair as she passed, then slid a finger beneath the sealed section of the second envelope.
“Mom, I need to get this open.” Paige held the blister pack with the camera out in front of her.
“Well, how do you go about that, Paige-y? What are your options?” Anne Marie said, eyes on the envelope in her hands. Paige thought a moment, then silently sought out scissors.
Why cards, Dad? Anne Marie shook her head thinking about the last birthday party she’d taken the kids to—the recipient had ripped through the envelopes, read the messages out loud without any indication of understanding the sentiments, then had dropped them unceremoniously back on the picnic table—after she had grabbed the next gift.
Ian and Martin had the box of Legos open, the little picture booklet already in Martin’s small hands. Ian pointed to two pictures, asking Martin to find the difference in order to place the next piece. Anne Marie stood beside them, smiling at the two, and slid the card from its envelope—Winnie the Pooh and Piglet. Her brow furrowed slightly as she opened the card; The date was written in the neat, at-once loopy and stringy hand Anne Marie had seen on her birthday, Valentine’s Day, and Christmas cards for the last twenty-five years since she could read. She placed the card with its handwritten message back into the envelope and slipped it into her bag, shaking her head. The kids would see these again… and understand the sentiment.
“Who’s gonna start it up? You got a spreader?” Dad’s voice rose over the murmurs of conversation between the two pillars of current musical culture. His searching eyes locked with Anne Marie’s first. She shook her head, and he crossed the kitchen proudly, spatula raised, resplendent with spreader power. He demonstrated the appropriate technique, marking out the corn husk with an extended knobby finger before using the spreader to place and thin a ping pong ball-sized bit of masa onto the husk. ”And that is how it’s done. Got it?” He placed the rubber spatula into a bowl before he turned his attention to a bag of halved jalapenos.
“Thanks, Dad.” Anne Marie’s mouth lifted infinitesimally. There was a time she would have hated everything about that interaction. She copied the motions exactly before passing the masa-spread husk to Nora to be filled. Anne Marie noted with another small smile that the setup optimized the time efficiently, and it had been crafted by her and her sister’s well-taught hands.