It was a bad idea, smoking up in the parking lot before going in, but it was too late now so Laura took another hit. Women were such suckers. In Laura’s next life, she’d invent Bath & Body Works and be a zillionaire. The monotony of women and their bodies, women working on their bodies and rubbing stuff on their bodies and trying to shape them into shapes they didn’t wanna go into and now gathering at night in a rec center—a rec center—to save a body of water that didn’t wanna be saved. What a waste. Laura had no beauty régime. No exercise routine either. She did not like regimes. And it wasn’t just because she had good genes. She thought if she was one of these gals, at this age, she would let her thighs spread if they wanted to. She wouldn’t go to Curves or Zumba and fight. Life changes you. Shit looks different. Look at these wedding rings. How ridiculous they look now on those swollen fingers, sparkling like the wedding was yesterday, like the past 20 years lived up to the expectations. He went to Jarred. Love went out the window.
Baked now. Laura fucked up. She had never wanted to be one of these moms with nothing better to do than show up at the rec center at night to meet with other moms. She had never been drawn to the sisterhoods that formed around birthdays and slumber parties, the bonds woven now through causes, cancers and school boards. Laura preferred men. You could respect a man. Men didn’t try so hard to make the world a better place. If they did, they did it on their own. Would a group of men gather to feast on burnt coffee and munchkins under the pretense of saving the planet? Would a man print out a flyer that screamed SAVE THE SOUND? Hell no. Nonetheless, Laura had to do this, cross the lot, which was a sheet of black ice. No rock salt? Really, Ladies? She fell twice. Both times she wanted to say fuck it and get back in her car. But, when you’re fucking your best friend’s husband, you have to do things. You have to go where your best friend wants to go. Your best friend thinks a bunch of ladies can save the sound in a rec room with a pot of coffee? You have to think so too. She was stoned. But she was here.
The room was ripe with sweat. Women were sweating under their wool and on their shiny cheeks and the sweat of their sons lingered from earlier that day, basketballs coasted in sweat were gathered in a corner. Sweaty balls, Laura thought, and she laughed. She found two chairs. Relief. She laid her coat on the empty chair and patted it, a chair for Angela. She was a bad person and she vowed to change. No more cheating. She would become the woman she was pretending to be right now, the one volunteering to SAVE THE SOUND as she SAVES a seat for her best friend.
“Hello, Laura,” someone was saying. Was it Anne Something? Amanda? How did anyone remember anyone’s name? Whoever this woman was, she was built for this, for talking to women she hated while pretending she liked them. She had thin everything, lips, legs, eyebrows. You had to wonder if it was from meth but then if she were a meth head would she have come to the rec center to save the world? Also, her jeans were ironed. Her fisherman’s sweater wasn’t pilled. The evidence that she was just another housewife was abundant and Laura had a flash of being nineteen and on her bed and dreaming of living in New York City, away from wool sweaters and thin, Spartan lips.
“Laura, I’m surprised to see you here. You never get involved.”
“Well, Angela made this out to be life or death. I just want to help.”
Thin lips smirked “So, how’s Ray?”
“Ray’s Ray. He’s good.”
It was Laura’s turn to ask about Mr. Thin Lips. But who knew what his name was? And why wasn’t it good manners to be honest? What Laura wanted to say: “I have no idea who you are, I don’t care about your husband and I really wish you’d stop talking to me.”
Laura watched Thin Lips move on to another woman in another folding chair. How’s Ray? The worst question. It wasn’t fair what marriage could do. She was sewn into him. It didn’t matter how many times she made love to Ted. Even if they divorced, she would hear that question forever, How’s Ray? She took a bottle of Coke from her purse. You don’t drink Coke around women like this. Social code dictates that Diet Coke would be the right thing. You want to act like you’re at war against your body too. But Laura liked her sugar and she opened the bottle and drank her calories. Women were looking at her. Let them.
One time, Angela told Laura to write a memoir and call it The Revenge of the Highly Metabolic Woman. Laura didn’t know what to say. It was so sad, the idea of Angela brainstorming names for Laura’s unwritten memoir. And Angela was no wordsmith, didn’t use words like “metabolic”. Laura had chuckled, “Angela, you finally opened up a dictionary.” Angela hadn’t laughed. It was not long after that conversation that Laura started fucking Ted. Somehow, Angela had given permission that day in a way that could never be explained exactly. But she had. She had calculated an inadequate insult, revealing that she was jealous of Laura, everything Laura. And once Laura had that cloak of jealousy laid on her shoulders, she could do anything she wanted because Angela had essentially announced that she no longer considered herself a woman, in the metabolic, hot ass having physical way.
“What are you, blowing the bottle?”
Laura spit up Coke. “Angela. You’re here.”
No kiss on the cheek hello tonight. Did she know?
“I just had a little to smoke.”
“Are you kidding?”
“I was thirsty. You know what I mean.”
“You’re wearing fur.”
“This scarf is raccoon. Who cares about a little raccoon?”
“We’re here for the environment, Laura.”
“Well I’ll take it off. But really, Angela it’s a scarf.”
“It’s an animal who feeds and thrives in the very estuaries we are trying to save.”
Laura shoved her scarf in her purse even though it didn’t really fit. “I didn’t wear an estuary.”
“Do you even know what an estuary is?”
“Donna Kendrick drove here in an SUV. Why don’t you go egg it if we’re all supposed to be such heroes?”
Ugh. Getting high with Angela was the greatest, but being high near sober Angela was the worst. Angela could leave you without getting up. She’d always been good at that. Second grade. Angela and Laura in class, their tables facing each other. Give me that tape, Laura. Laura had gone mute. Angela said it again Give me that tape. And Laura obeyed; she gave Angela the tape. A real friend would ask for the tape, but Angela hadn’t asked; she’d commanded. A minute later, Laura asked for the tape. Can I have it back? But Angela ignored Laura’s attempts to get the tape back. She doled out one insufficient piece at a time. She could make stealing seem like a justified act of redistribution. Maybe that’s why Laura was fucking Angela’s husband, because of the tape, because she was owed some damn tape.
“I wish we’d just get started already. We could be an underwater ghost town in fifty years if we don’t change our ways. This meeting needs to start.”
“Oh, come on. That’s a little dramatic.”
“These are facts.”
“Angela, nobody knows the future. And if we’re meant to be underwater, we’ll be underwater.”
“Are you kidding right now?” Angela was huffing and puffing. “Laura, this is serious. If we keep using rock salt we might not have any water to drink. Have to import Poland Fucking Springs and spend an arm and a leg and have no beach to go to in the summer.
“Oh, come on. You don’t know that.”
“I do know that. It says so. Did you even read the reading material?”
Laura simmered at the redundancy. Read the reading material. Why hadn’t she moved away long ago when she could have, before kids and wrinkles? “Yep.”
“Laura, rock salt throws off the balance of every natural…bacteria and all the, the stuff, the natural stuff. And over time the rock salt’s gonna dry us out.”
“Tell me this. When I got here tonight, I fell, coulda died. You know why? No rock salt.”
“The littlest bit.”
Angela looked down at Laura’s boots, the two-inch heels. “You ever think about getting duck boots?”
“That’s not the point.”
“You fell because you smoked up in heels.”
“I fell because there’s no damn rock salt. Save the sound? What about the fucking humans?”
“That rock salt could kill your daughter some day.”
Laura tingled. Kill your daughter. Did she know? Did she?
“Laura, why don’t you just go? I know you hate this. I don’t know why I told you to come.”
On the way to her car, Laura took her time. She was careful to stare at the pavement before stepping. She was like a kid on a pond that’s not quite frozen. It took a long time getting to the car. She pretended she was a solider, navigating a minefield. She wobbled. What a waste of her time, a waste of her life. If there were rock salt in the bed of one of these trucks, she would have dumped it. Her phone buzzed, Ray.
“You done saving the world? Jesus what a waste of time.”
“Everything I do isn’t a waste of time.”
“Whoa, whoa. I didn’t say that.”
“Yes you did.”
She was down, hard. Foul mood. She could have cried. She could have yelled.
“I was trying to have a laugh, you’re the one thought it was funny, hens saving the world.”
“Well, at least they’re trying. You don’t know the right from the wrong in all this.”
She stumbled. She wasn’t paying close enough attention. Why did Ray call at the wrong time? All time with Ray was wrong time.
“Ray, we could be underwater in fifty years if we keep this up.”
“Oh, come on. That’s a load of bullshit.”
“Do you understand what happens if we lose our estuaries?”
“The fuck’s an estuary?”
She hated the question. She didn’t know the answer. She hated him for not being an intellectual, for not being the kind of man who pushed, who played. He didn’t say, see, Laura you don’t even know what the fuck an estuary is. He didn’t like to catch her in a jam. He just sighed and he was over it. And she supposed this was why she was having an affair.
The fuck’s an estuary? Laura was still thinking about that question a few days later. It had killed her buzz. It had sent her into the motel to meet Ted because Ted didn’t ask dumb questions. But she didn’t love Ted. Why then? Why was she doing Ted? Indeed, what the fuck was an estuary? She tried to center herself the way Zen types do. She muttered aloud.
"I am Laura Winger. I am in the laundry room. I am washing my husband’s things. My husband is Ray. My daughter is Ella. They are together upstairs. They don’t mind each other.
She opened her eyes. She could hear a little more clearly now, Ray changing channels, Ella lobbying for her crap, Ray tolerating it a minute, then seizing power. The two of them would go on like this all day on a Sunday. There was nothing for Laura to do in there and she decided right then that they would have a different kind of day today.
At the top of the stairs, she slammed the door shut. “Come on, you two. We’re going to Ted and Angela’s.”
Ella rolled her eyes and looked at Ray. They all know it would be Ray’s call.
But Ray hit the mute button. “Laura, ten minutes ago you said you were tired and didn’t feel like it. I already called ‘em and said forget it.”
“So call ‘em back.”
Laura was sitting in the backseat trying to remember when this happened. When did she give up the front seat to Ella? Was that normal? Did Angela sit in the back? No, definitely not. It was too cold out. There was no cold sun conniving with the world today, drawing you out here only to make you freeze. It was weird of them to get into this car and go somewhere. Laura could have bawled right now. She was overwhelmed by the urge to cry. What the fuck’s an estuary? She used to know things, how to be a mom, a friend. Had she unlearned these things the way only a few Spanish words remained from her middle school vocabulary or had she forgotten them all at once, the way a memory leaves you and you don’t know it until someone else brings it up.
It would be good to kiss Ted. They’d find a way. He’d see how in need she was today, a cold Sunday, a laundry day. He would find a way to be alone with her and kiss her. She looked forward to the physical things, the feel of his hair in her hands, his tongue, more direct than Ray’s, scratchier somehow, and his hands on her ass. And then they’d leave the bathroom. They didn’t want to get caught. They didn’t want to run away together. They were just trying to find out what an estuary was, she supposed.
When had Ella gotten into the car? She was here now. She had brushed her hair back, low and tight. Her eyes were Ray’s, her hair too. She was nothing like Laura. Laura used to think maybe there’d been a switch at the hospital. Or maybe she’d been on some drug and had never even been pregnant. It was easy to imagine an outraged, indignant mother showing up and saying YOU STOLE MY BABY.
Laura would have happily let Ella go and be with her real mom. Maybe Ella knew that. Maybe that’s why she wasn’t all that nice to her mama.
“Honey, I like it when you wear your hair down.”
“You’re such a weirdo, Mom.”
“Why am I a weirdo?”
“Every other mom sits in the front seat. Who wants to sit in back? It’s like calling reverse shotgun.”
“I like it back here.”
Ray got into the front, set the case of beer on the middle partition. Ella reached for it. Teamwork. “Don’t knock your mother, kiddo. She can’t help the way she is.”
“It’s embarrassing. She should sit in front.”
“Well it’s eighteen degrees on a Sunday morning so fortunately for you, I think you won’t be shamed today.”
He popped the clutch and they were on their way.
It would always seem like something that could have just as easily not happened. When they got to Ted and Angela’s, the child protection lock was on in the backseat. Laura banged on the window. Ella opened the door. That was the only trouble with the backseat; sometimes you were too much of a child, dependent on others. And Laura didn’t like feeling trapped so she stepped out of the car too quickly. Her heel clicked onto the ice. Shit. Ouch. Fast it happened. She grabbed at the car door, but her mittens were soft, uncharacteristically soft, not like the leather gloves she usually wore.
WHY WAS SHE WEARING MITTENS?
The fall was fast and brittle. Sensation stopped, all sensations fled. Everything left her. It was over now. She learned later what she was now, what life for her was. She was paralyzed. No more walking for Laura, but, as the doctor said, she was very lucky to be alive, very lucky that furry scarf had cushioned her head against the ice, so lucky, so very, very lucky.
THANK GOD FOR THOSE MITTENS.
Maybe if she hadn’t been doing laundry down in the cold basement she wouldn’t have reached for large soft mittens. Maybe if Ella had made plans with friends and hadn’t been home, maybe if Ray hadn’t been on that couch, maybe if he’d pushed to go to Ted and Angela’s when they were supposed to go instead of being a pushover. Maybe if the backseat door had been locked and she’d sat up front for a change, or maybe if the child protection lock hadn’t been on and she could have gone where she wanted, when she wanted. Maybe if she had had a second child years ago, maybe if she hadn’t tried to save the sound, maybe if she’d never kissed Ted, that first hot kiss, dark snowy night, maybe if she hadn’t become the kind of asshole who wanted to be kissed in the snow in the dark by a man who wasn’t meant to kiss her. Maybe if Ella had been an Ellis, a boy, and she didn’t share the house with a girl who was difficult, impish, certainly not on her side. Maybe if she’d never been born in the first place.
HA. TELL THAT TO THE MITTENS THAT SAVED YOUR LIFE.
Maybe if she’d never kissed Ray in that basement, Bryan Adams singing about a good summer a long time ago. She’d known she was settling. She’d known what she was doing. Those had not been the best days of her life but she had played them like they were. Maybe if Angela hadn’t been late to the meeting at the rec center. Maybe if there was no sound in the first place, maybe if the land had never eroded. Maybe.
MAYBE IF NOBODY EVER INVENTED MITTENS.
Maybe one of those women, maybe all of those women, maybe they had all wished this sort of fate on her. Maybe they had gathered to save the sound, to destroy the Laura. Maybe they had more power than she knew. Hell, maybe they would even save the sound the way they had destroyed her. Maybe if they hadn’t convinced Angela to forgo rock salt. Maybe.
Long days not moving and still, Laura did not know what the fuck an estuary was.
People grew shy of her and their faces around her were sweet. People looked younger, less confident, the ones who came by anyway. They were polite. They asked how she was feeling; she knew they wanted to know if she hated the world. They asked if they could bring her anything; she knew they wanted to know if she thought of offing herself with pills. She had Nan now, a widow, a PCA, which stood for personal care assistant. Nan helped around the house, lied and told callers that Laura was napping so she wouldn’t have to talk on the phone to people she’d never liked then, didn’t like now. She had Nan and so it was never possible to be alone with Ted. She couldn’t ask Nan to go for groceries so she could see Ted. But he hadn’t tried all that hard to see her. And why would he? They hadn’t been in love. Paralysis of her body didn’t break his heart let alone his marriage.
Now she sat in the backseat for a reason. She had to, what with the difficulty of getting her in and out. Every day she and Nan tried to think of somewhere to go. She liked to get in the car early, sit in the backseat in the driveway, no heat on, cold as fuck, no music, just looking at nothing, maybe a kid walking home from school, maybe a guy walking his dog. Nan didn’t ask why. Nobody asked why. People did not ask the questions they really had.
Kids in the neighborhood stared at her, cripple in a car, how could you not? Two little girls with scooters, one chubbier than the other, stared the most. Their blank curious faces hanging there like balloons tied down. Whisper stare whisper stare.
Angela came by once a week. Coffee, gossip, crap like that. Those girls in the neighborhood seemed more at ease when Laura was sitting with Angela, like they were less afraid of Laura, because she had a friend.
“I think they think I’m crazy,” Laura said. “But they like you.”
“They’re just girls. Kids. Someday they’ll get it.”
“Get what, Angie?”
“Why you’re here.”
“What’s to get?”
Angela crossed her legs. She covered the smile taking over her face. Laura looked instead at the two girls. Of all best friends in the world, one was always brighter, one would always come out a little higher. One would get to call the tape her own tape and one would do try to make the most of what tape she got. There was nothing that unique about Laura, after all, or Angela, or anyone.
“Angela, how are those estuaries?”
“The save the sound stuff. Are you still doing that?”
“No,” she said. “We finished that.”
“Finished saving the world.”
Angela smiled but she didn’t laugh and she didn’t say anything else. In another second she’d start talking about something else, because she didn’t owe Laura anything, never had, never would.
Caroline Kepnes has been splitting her time between Los Angeles, CA and Cape Cod, MA. Her fiction has been published in The Barcelona Review, Calliope, Dogzplot, Eclectica, Metazen and Word Riot. She wrote and directed a short film, Miles Away. In her spare time she enjoys reading about meth lab busts, Floridian criminal activity and wild animals.