It’s Jasey’s turn to host book club. The sangria in the pitcher grows warm as the curated landscape of candles thickens the air with the scents of spearmint and watered roses. Her friends sit in the living room and chat around the coffee table. There are eight of them and it’s likely none of them read the book. Sandra chose it and she always picks books featuring infidelity to make herself feel better about being a divorcée.
Jasey hesitates to call them her friends, really. She had friends in college and even made some at her first job, at a now-defunct startup. They had bonded over Blur, flat beers, broken hearts, and bitter rants about power dynamics and ineffectual managers. These women in her living room, she’d met them through colleagues and fussy aunts and friends of friends. The only passion they share is a desire not to spend Friday nights alone.
“Your home is just lovely, Jase,” Raechel says now. She called Sandra’s house “darling” last time and Faye’s loft “chic” before that. Jasey wonders where “lovely” falls in the ranking.
“Oh, right,” Jasey replies with a modest roll of her eyes. She straightens a brass bookend shaped like a dolphin. “You know, I keep meaning to adopt the whole Marie Kondo tidying-up thing. I don’t know where all these knickknacks came from.”
Faye groans. She told the group that she was once an up-and-coming actress, and now Jasey notices every one of her hair tosses, her sound effects, her precise eyebrow-pinching. “God, I know what you mean. If my mother-in-law gives me one more vase I might whack her with it.” The other women chuckle and delve into tales of their own nightmare in-laws and the worst things their partners have gifted them.
“I’ll just arrange the platter and we can start,” Jasey says. A squat candle on the mantel flickers, illuminating the framed face of her older sister before it passes into shadow again. Jasey meanders into the kitchen, slices the cheese, washes the grapes. None of the women offer to help her. She sprinkles thyme leaves across the food. They all do this at Sandra’s insistence, because she is convinced her ex-wife stalks her Instagram page, and she must regularly upload aesthetic photos to remind her of the exhilarating life she could have had with Sandra. Jasey hates thyme. Sandra’s ex-wife is probably better off.
Jasey threads her fingers through the charcuterie board’s silver handles and carries it into the living room. Faye gasps and calls it gorgeous. Sandra snaps her photos.
Tara piles some Camembert on a cracker. “This is almost as good as the cheese I had in France last summer,” she declares.
“Uh-uh, uh-uh.” Drew shakes her head. “You know who actually has the best cheese is Hungary.”
“You’re kidding!” Faye says. “I would have never guessed!”
“We should all have lunch at that new Hungarian café on Main. The décor is quite tasteful,” Raechel remarks.
“If the cheese is tasteful, count me in,” Tara says. She doesn’t notice the crumbs that spray from her mouth. Sandra takes a photo of the sweating pitcher of sangria but accidentally leaves the flash on.
Jasey feels an inexplicable urge to throw the glass pitcher and the cheese board against the wall and walk barefoot in the splinters. Instead she gives the group a placid smile and excuses herself to the bathroom.
She stares at her flaky mauve lipstick in the mirror. Most days, she does not feel 39. And not only because she can run a seven-minute mile and is single and childless; she also enjoys crowded concerts and daydreams about anarchist rebellions at her 9-to-5. But sometimes she wonders how she came to be a person who sits around with divorced women having hollow chats about cheese and an unbearable anguish clouds her mind.
It’s not so much the physical aspects of aging that ail her. The bags under her eyes and her smile lines are simply evidence of experiences, after all. It’s more so the mentality, the idea that as the number on her birthday cards creeps up she must relegate herself to tame company and passive pastimes. Her mother always said her 30s was where she found herself, but over the past decade Jasey has instead felt herself disappearing, fading like ink on a yellowed page. The people and places and things she had been happy to define herself by have long slipped away, but nothing had come to replace them. She woke up one morning and realized that nearly every day of the past few years had looked the same, that she was adhering to a strict schedule she hadn’t been aware of making.
The rare moments Jasey carves out to sit and contemplate who she is, she thinks of the numerous voices that have fallen from her throat over the years. The voice authorizing payments and mediating conflicts between clients and vendors. The voice dripping over an acoustic guitar like honey over bread on the tiny stage at Latte House on Thursday nights after Econ 201. The voice flirting and arguing with Phil in the kitchen over coffee and bagels. The voice at her sister’s hospital bedside cooing reassurances, just barely succeeding at concealing a layer of resentment. She’s not sure she knows what her real voice sounds like. The one unfiltered by circumstance or expectation.
Even standing here alone in front of the bathroom mirror, repeating the positivity-affirming mantras from the list Dr. Rivera gave her, she sounds like a politician behind a podium promising renaissance to a fragmented country. The ceiling fan swallows up her words. Not that it matters. Her friends in the living room are squealing about Tara’s daughter’s engagement, so they don’t hear her anyway.
It doesn’t feel like very long ago that she was bringing lyrics from her notebook pages to life and hanging out with the band in her cramped dorm room until 3 a.m. It shouldn’t feel like that long ago. The moments since then have built up into years, but the moments have still molded her into the person she is today. It all must be inside her somewhere. She just needs to find it.
The door is to her right and the window is to her left. She opts for the window, detaching the screen and carefully laying it on top of the paperback book on the vanity counter. Her skirt snags on the frame as she climbs out. It really is a ridiculous concept, dressing up to sit in her own living room.
It’s a humid night. Fireflies and stars twinkle above her, lighting her way as she walks down the block to the beer hall. They have open mics on Friday nights; sometimes she can hear the particularly rowdy singers from her front porch. Nobody asks for her ID as she walks in and orders a sour ale.
Girls with nose rings and dyed hair sit at sticky tables with guys who have patchy beards covering their baby faces. Jasey catches snippets of conversations.
“She said she can’t come to the beach this weekend because she’s going to a wedding, which is a total lie.”
“I made out with Bobby at the Sigma Chi party last week but he hasn’t texted me since.”
“I just sit around thinking about, like, death sometimes, but not in a morbid way.”
“It’s supposed to be 12 pages but I haven’t even written the intro yet.”
It’s been nearly 15 years since Jasey was last at an open mic. But the atmosphere and the drinks and the drama are the same. Everything is the same, except this time she is wearing a skirt and heels instead of Docs and an *NSYNC shirt that was supposed to be ironic. This time she is alone and sitting at the bar instead of across the room, flocked by her bandmates as she strums a guitar.
At that last show, her voice cracked as she croaked the words of the Todd Rundgren song they had been covering for months. "Hello, It's Me." She went out to the parking lot as the next band set up, breathing lungfuls of January air to temper the heat of humiliation. Phil — beautiful Phil with his autumn-leaf eyes, who held hands with elderly strangers at the nursing home on Tuesday afternoons, who spent an entire day baking a pie from scratch for Jasey’s birthday — found her a moment later and she told him everything.
“You can’t quit,” he stammered. “We’re right on the cusp of something. You know how hard it is to get a label like Franklin interested in you?”
“It’s not like I want to quit,” Jasey replied, frustrated at the tears swimming before she had even thought of the words she’d form next. “I have to. I’m sure you’ll find another singer.”
“You’re the singer! You’re the center. This whole thing doesn’t work without you.” Phil slumped his shoulders. His eyes searched her face and his hands encased hers. His voice softened, almost a whisper. “Jasey. You are so, so talented. You’re so special. Nobody sounds like you, nobody writes like you. You can’t throw it away.”
Jasey looked away. “She’s my sister. I can’t throw her away.”
“It’s not an either/or thing.”
“It is, though! What, we’ll write, record, perform, tour? That all takes time and all that time builds up and it’s all time that I won’t be by her side. I can’t be there and here at the same time.”
“You seriously wanna spend the next year or whatever in a folding chair at the hospital instead of chasing this? You are 25 years old, Jase. It’s now or never.”
“I thought you said it wasn’t either/or.”
Phil opened his mouth, shut it. Looked at the khaki-colored van parked near the bar’s entrance, a purchase he and Jasey had made only about six months prior from their gig money. They drove it halfway home, honking the horn and waving out the window, cackling as they sped past pedestrians who gave them the finger. Then they pulled over in the Target parking lot and clambered into the back and christened the ripped leather.
“What about me?” Phil asked quietly. He let go of her hands.
Jasey felt like her veins had turned to lead. “What? What about you?”
“Well, if you’ll be here and I’ll be there. Where does that leave us?”
And that was how it ended. Phil moved out, took the band on tour as they always dreamed they would, started dating the new lead singer. Like Jasey had been a placeholder, keeping the van’s passenger seat warm for someone else’s road trip.
Jasey watched Project Runway with her sister on the tiny television in the hospital room and argued with her mother and bought a house but never had a man over. She got a job and then another one and then got promoted. She organized the funeral and kept her sister’s dolphin-figurine collection and donated everything else. The guitar lay in its casket in the attic. She texted Phil “happy birthday” on the years she remembered. She went for a run every morning and joined a book club.
For a few years after it all, she poked around the band’s website, bought their first album, even went to their show in their old college town. But she felt like a ghost, weightless and transparent, sipping her beer in the back corner of the bar and watching this pretty girl joke around onstage with all the people Jasey had shared the most formative years of her life with. Jasey wondered if Phil had meant it or could even remember when he said she was special, that nobody could replace her. Then she hated herself for ruminating on it because he and the band were no longer hers and it’s not like the new girl was untalented. She left before the encore and ignored Phil’s calls.
Jasey checks her watch now. She’s been at the beer hall’s open mic for 10 minutes. A tattooed girl is reciting slam poetry but seems to place emphasis on the wrong words.
She tries to see herself through the other patrons’ eyes. Do they think she’s an out-of-towner, a cougar, somebody’s mother? If one looked closer, could they see beyond the lipstick and flat-ironed hair and catch a glimpse of the girl she used to be? Because as the days go by she worries she won’t be able to find her way back. She knows she’s become a bitter, brutal woman, blindsided by a near-constant critical inner monologue. But she used to console crying strangers in bar bathrooms, used to throw her head back and laugh like the world was her court jester.
A guy sitting to Jasey’s left grins and beckons with both arms. He looks too young, practically cherubic, and Jasey doesn’t usually go for blondes. She lifts her hand and waves anyway. Then she hears a female voice behind her shriek in delight, turns her head and watches a ponytailed girl run over to the blonde guy and wrap him in a hug.
Jasey stands, catching the back of her chair before it falls over. She leaves cash on the counter for her half-finished beer and walks home. She creeps around the back and climbs through the bathroom window and replaces the screen. Her heels are dusted with dirt, so she leaves them in the bathtub.
She flushes the toilet and runs the sink for a few seconds. She shuts the faucet, swipes her copy of the book from the vanity counter, and opens the door. The perfume from the sangria and the candles and the other women wallops her.
“All right!” she calls as she turns the corner into the living room, cold hardwood floor turning into woven wool beneath her manicured toes. “Who wants to share their favorite quote first?”
They turn to face her, their scattered exclamations dying down. They rummage in purses and flip through pages. Tara pours the sangria. The glasses clink as they say cheers. They didn’t notice she was gone.