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Something to Celebrate

Mary Beth stews over her problems until they fall apart like overcooked stringy meat. While she is stewing she tends to be cranky, and ragging wouldn't help her case one bit. So rather than wait for Sturge to call her, she decides to phone him. Besides, he'll be at work, and she can't be making too much of a mistake by calling him there unless his doings are common knowledge at the garage. If so it will be as awkward for him as for her, and she’ll hear it in his voice. So she calls, and asks just as smooth and sweet as chocolate milk, "Suppose I cook dinner at your place tonight? I can have it ready by the time you get home since you're working this afternoon and I'm not."

"What's the rush? I can pick you up on my way home."

He used to be more than happy to have her use her key to get into his house and meet him there. She figures he has something going on he doesn't want her to know. She doesn't miss a beat. "No rush, Sweet Love, I just thought I'd do something special nice for tonight. On account of it being..." Mary Beth lets her voice trail off like a willow leaf floating downstream. He'll try to figure out "account of what?" and he'll be certain it was one of those anniversaries she was always celebrating with him, anniversaries he couldn't keep track of, like their first movie date or the first time he'd cooked barbecue, or the first night they'd slept together all night--he'd gotten into trouble missing that one.

Mary Beth has many monthly anniversaries, celebrating some one month some another. She believes these little celebrations never grow stale, and with the exception of The Big One, as they call it, she never gives Sturge trouble if he doesn't quite know what they were celebrating unless she tells him, maybe because, just as he suspects, often as not, she makes them up. This is the first time she'd makes one up because she wants something.

"Oh," he says. "Right." He pauses, his tone non-committal. It doesn't sound as though he is trying to figure out what anniversary, and he doesn't ask, but that isn't unusual. "Well, then I guess I'll see you at my place around six. I'll call before I leave to see if you want me to pick up anything on the way home."

"Thanks, Sturge. Great." Mary Beth keeps the treacle in her voice, just as if she were she planning one of the celebrations. He is so considerate; how could he be running with other women? And why Thule, when he knew it would get back to her, even from Thule herself.

But she knows why Thule. Besides her good-looks, she has ways about her, the way she swings her hair, or looks over a coffee cup, or takes the straw out of the Dairy Queen vanilla shake and licks the ice cream off. Mary Beth and her other friends read articles in Cosmo to learn tricks like that, but for Thule, they aren't meant to be tricks at all.

Mary Beth's little celebrations are supposed to keep up the romance that is otherwise sure to fade. Right. Big help they've been if Sturge was on the move in spite of all the candlelight. "Anything particular you want for supper?" She always tries to remember to ask, and most often he is content to let her decide; bless him, he'll never fail to comment on how good the dinner is or how pretty she's fixed the table. She's lost count of the number of times he's said the soup she'd made that night was "the best he'd ever eaten." She has to remind herself not to be jealous of her own cooking.

"Dealer's choice."

"You sure?"


" OK. I'll surprise you," Mary Beth just catches herself from repeating "Whatever?" which would irritate Sturge, just as his "whatever" has irritated her.

"You always do, Mary Beth, you always do." There was no missing the tone as his voice softens. "Later."

She feels the back of her throat tighten. "Later." She'll miss him. No doubt of that.

* * * *

In the rain it takes two trips from the car to bring in the groceries, and for the first time in months, Mary Beth has trouble unlocking Sturge's door, so that when she gets the groceries into the kitchen and the phone rings she answers it with a sharp edge to her voice, and whoever was on the other end hangs up.

It is nothing for her to answer his phone when he isn't home, just as he answers hers. The phone rings again, and this time Mary Beth lets it go until the machine picks up. She hears the tape click into the greeting message and she turns down the volume so that it is inaudible. She checks the blinking red light; he got two messages before, neither from her. Whoever is on the line goes on and on. She could turn up the volume--after all she turned it down herself--but she believes she'll be better off not hearing. She won't have to play innocent, she will be innocent. Almost.

It is far too soon for Sturge to be on his way home, but just in case she makes a quick call to say she's arrived and is just about to start dinner, but doesn't tell him what happened with the phone.

"You must have got soaked in the rain."

"I'm fine," she lies. "It'll be toasty warm here with the oven on." In her mind she counts to three, then lowers her voice and says, "and I'll be warmer yet when you get home."

"I'm counting on that," he says in a tone so matter of fact that she knows he has a customer.

* * * *

By six, the phone has rung five more times; each time the caller has hung up leaving no message for Sturge. But for Mary Beth, the message is clear. Some woman, is damn eager to reach him, and directly at that.

And by six, Mary Beth has set the table with candles and an African violet brought from her own kitchen window, and put candles on all the tables in the living room. Dinner is about ready, one of Sturge's favorites: chicken baked with apricot jam, green beans and rice-a-roni. There is iceberg lettuce salad with thousand island dressing, lots of garlic bread and a frozen home-baked apple pie for dessert. The garlic bread is loaded with garlic, a menu choice aimed at keeping Sturge to herself for a while.

Mary Beth figures the phone situation will take care of itself, that the calls will keep coming in, regular, at fifteen-minute intervals until Sturge answers. She is right.

The first call comes as Sturge is hanging up his jacket. Mary Beth makes no move to get the phone, which, were he thinking about it would have struck Sturge as odd. When the machine clicks on, once more the caller hangs up.

"I guess somebody doesn't want to talk to the machine. It can't be real important."

Mary Beth doesn't comment, but busies herself with setting the food out on the table and lighting the candles. When Sturge comes back from washing up he checks the answering machine, noting the messages, but says nothing.

"Don't you want to listen to your messages? I turned the volume down before, so you'll have to turn it back up."

"Why'd you do that?"

"I felt like it. Someone called and hung up when I answered and called right back, and I wasn't up to listening to a message that follows an if-a-woman-answers-hang-up-kind of call."

He lets the accusation pass, "Well, suppose it was an emergency or something? Jesus. What's the matter with you?"

Mary Beth smiles and answers, "I suppose if it was an emergency whoever it was would have called back." She isn't about to tell him about the obsessive phoning, or, for that matter, about her lunch with Thule. At least not yet. And the living-room and meal meet the standards she's set for their little anniversaries.

"And if you're concerned with an emergency, you could check your messages." She tries hard to keep her voice buttered.

"And ruin this good meal you've worked so hard over? Not a chance."

Just why, if it isn't an emergency would it ruin the meal, Mary Beth wonders. It would take all of four minutes to check the messages, not enough time to spoil the meal. But time enough to ruin everything. But the next phone call would take care of that if he chose to answer, and even if he didn't.

When the next call comes, he does pick up the phone. He does a lot more listening than talking. His end of the conversation is pretty much a lot of unhnhs and okays, When he comes back to the table, Mary Beth busies her mouth with her food and asks no questions.

"Good dinner, Mary Beth."

"I was hoping you'd like it. I tried to make something you'd like, considering..."

"Considering what?"

"Well, you know...." What she is thinking is, " By tradition last meals are always good."

"Based on all these candles, I'd say we were supposed to be celebrating something special--you've fixed this up pretty. You always were one for romance."


"You know what I mean. Why are you putting words in my mouth, Honey?"

"Sorry. I didn't mean to. How was your day? I had lunch with Thule at The Girls' Luncheonette today."

"Yeah, she told me."

"When?" Not like Thule, Mary Beth thinks.

"She stopped in at work after you two had lunch, right before you set up tonight's little so-called celebration."

"Why didn't you say something?"

"What was I supposed to say? That I know Thule told you that I took her out. That I expect it to hit the fan because you found out that I kissed her a while."

"A while?...she didn't tell me that."

"Well, I'm telling you. Come on, Mary Beth. It's not as though we're in love or anything."

"Was that Thule calling before?

" "I'm not saying anything about that call either."

"And what do you mean, not in love. Who's not in love? You and Thule--or you and me? What about what you say to me in bed?"

"What am I supposed to say in bed? That I'll love you until I change my mind? That I love you more than I love anybody else, but then say that I don't love anybody at all?"


"Come on. There are certain things a man says. That he has to say. A woman has expectations. And besides, give me a break. It's not as if you love me either."

"What?" The dinner lies on the table between them, the glaze on the chicken congealing like plastic display food.

"Mary Beth. We grew up in this town together. I've known you and your boyfriends from junior high on. George worked with me before he moved, remember? I've seen you in love, and this, my dear, and as special as you try to make things, is just not it. You haven't heard me complaining, mind you, but who are you trying to kid?"

Mary Beth shifts in her chair. Sturge is right, so much of what she has to think about with him had just happened with George. But with George, the timing had been wrong. For George. At the end they were slow dancing to different tunes. "I'm not trying to kid anybody, Sturge. Just what are you accusing me of anyway."

"I'm not accusing. I'm just saying that you don't in your heart of hearts love me. No more than I love you."

"I thought.."

He interrupts. "Yeah. I'm sure. But these candles, the flowers, they're all for....for what? Atmosphere? A great setting?"

"I thought you liked them."

"Well, sure, Mary Beth. And so do you. But face it. You're not in love with me."

"What are you saying, that I'm just playing house. I'm a little too old to be doing that."

"Right on," he says, "What are you doing?"

"I thought I was doing what you wanted."

"You were. And what you wanted too. But it was like, I don't know, a kind of play--not playing house, but putting on a show of playing house."

"A show...how can you say ..."

"Almost as if you pretended enough, got your lines down right, the feelings would follow. Light enough candles, cook the right meals, ...."

"Make the right moves in bed." Mary Beth's fists are clenched, her nails digging into her palms. Her hands are on either side of her plate.

"That, too. Especially that."

"Well, thanks a lot, so now you're trashing everything. It didn't mean anything. Nothing at all. Now that you've decided you don't want me anymore, it makes it easier for you just to say that I never loved you."

"No. I'm saying we didn't, that we don't, love each other."

"Well, fine. That gets you off the hook, doesn't it."

"I don't have to get off a hook. I'm not on one."

"Oh, please. Now you get righteous."

"It beats the hell out of being self-righteous."

"Thank you. Thank you very much." She pushes her chair back from the table and stands up. She looks down at him. He sits while she walks around the room, turning on the lamps and blowing out the candles. Soot-filled swirls of smoke rise from the glowing wicks.

"Mary Beth. I'm sorry. I didn't intend to get into a nasty fight. I wanted to have a quiet talk about the way things were going..." He turns in his chair to watch her as she stalks around the room.

"The way they were going, I thought 'things' were going just fine, that we were happy together. Was I wrong?" She waits holding her breath, but Sturge is silent. "You were happy, I know you were. I could tell. I was happy. I wouldn't have been so happy unless things were good for you tell. You say you know me. Well, I know you, too...."

"Thule warned me that you wouldn't take this very well."

"Thule....Thule...I...you told Thule you were going to dump me before you told me. You're leaving me for Thule. What else did she say to you? I thought she was my friend."

"She...and I never said I was going to dump you. Those are your words."

"Stupid me, I thought she was my friend. But what do I know. After all, foolish me, I thought you and I were...."

"We were what? Name it. You can't. That's just my point."

"What? Do you mean that if it doesn't have a name, it isn't real. That it, whatever it is, isn't important? That I'm not important to you, that you aren't my life?"

She walks over to where he sits. She doesn't touch him. He reaches out and touches her arm, and she pulls it away. He stands and grabs her wrists, gripping them, her fists still clenched, at her side.

"OK. Things don't need names to be real or important. And you were--still are--important to me. But no. I am not your life."

"Sturge... Fish..."

"I am not your life. I don't want to be. I can't be. No one should."

"But all this time ..."

"All this time, all this time, as you put it, is just that-- time. Time, a part of your life --and mine. And that's all. It's enough."


"For now. For me there's no more."

Mary Beth looks around. The candles, the violets, her clothes are in drawers and closets, the kitchen is full of her odd plates, serving pieces. "I think I should go home now."

"This isn't about Thule, you know."

"Maybe I'll understand better tomorrow. I'll get my stuff some other time. Let me know when I can pick it up. You have a lot at my place, too."

"We'll work it out."

"It sounds almost as though you were jealous of my past."

"If you believe that, you've missed my whole point."

"The timer's set for the apple pie in the oven. Don't let it burn."

"Mary Beth. you know I'm not just saying to get a life."

"Walk me to my car, OK. Let's pretend for a few more minutes."

"You have a life . . . And we don't have to pretend. Things don't have to be one way or the other. We can be together. I'm not inviting you to leave my life to make room for Thule or anyone else."

"I'll just take this violet plant. It'll die here before I get it. Don't forget the pie."

"Fuck the pie."

"Fine, you feel that way. Fuck the pie." She crosses to the kitchen, swings open the doors under the sink, grabs the mitts and opens the oven in almost one continuous movement, and reaches in for the pie. She glances at the browning crust as she dumps it into the trash can under the sink. The hiss and sizzle fill the momentary silence between them. The scent of cinnamon and apple mingles with the garbage that the hot pie scorched.

"You didn't have to do that."

"Don't you tell me what I do or don't have to do. First you cheat on me and then try to justify yourself and try to tell me how to live and then you complain about what I do with a pie that I brought here anyway."

She pulls the trash can out from under the sink. "Here. You want this after all?" She holds the crushed pie out towards him at arms length, walking towards him. She is still wearing the oven mitts she had given him, so that he faces two green grinning crocodiles gripping the aluminum pie pan dripping coffee grounds. "Nothing says lovin' like somethin' from the oven."

"Give me a break."

"Did you give me a break when you were doing it with Thule or when you were preaching at me before?"

"I never 'did it ' with Thule, I kissed her that's all. And I wasn't trying to NOT give you a break. I was trying to be honest about what I felt."

"Honest? Wouldn't it have been more honest not to go with another woman and hide it? And you made your point about what you say in bed. You won't have to worry about that anymore--with me at least."

"Mary Beth, I meant it about not wanting to dump you. I did lie about where I was on Monday. I'm sorry for that. I guess I didn't know what to say. I would've told you the truth about it, but I thought you'd be upset . ."

"Upset? Just because you were doing it with one of my so-called friends --OK--'kissing a while'. Come on. Sturge? Or may I call you Fish, too, the way you let her? I thought you didn't like to be called Fish, that it reminded you of high school. Speaking of which, you still wear that old baseball jacket, you know."

"I do want for us to see each other, but not for us to pretend that it's something that ..."

"No way in hell I can sleep with you on Saturday and know you slept with someone else on Friday. Or maybe worse--sleep with you Friday knowing you'll be in somebody else's bed the next night."

"Can't or won't?"

"Does it matter? If you say you want to be with me, but you don't want to be my life, then you still have to take into account...." The oven mitts and the remnants of the pie tilt the platter of chicken, a sticky mess all over the cloth.

"I don't have to do anything."

"You don't have to. Right. But...

"Mary Beth, you wanted me to walk you to your car. You said you wanted me to pretend."

"No. Not you. I said I wanted us to pretend."

"Me. Us. What's the difference?"

"How can you ask that and not say you love me?"

"I know the difference. And I'm happy to hear that you do, too. But I'm not saying that I don't love you while you love me. I'm saying, I said, that we-- you and I--don't love each other. That's all. No more, no less."

"What do you mean when you say "love"?

"I'm not going to try to explain that. You're not being fair..." "Fair? I'm not being fair after what you've done..." "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Is that what you want to hear." "It isn't what I want to hear that matters to me right now. It's what you mean that matters." She looks at the mess of what is left of the dinner. "You want to clean this up?"

"Might as well. We won't be eating it now. No sense letting what can be saved go to waste."

"Waste not, want not. You're full of wisdom, Sturge." Even as she speaks she is sorry. She hadn't intended to let things go so far. Those phone calls had gotten to her. "I don't mean to sound like this. I'm still upset is all."

"I understand. You would be." She flashes him a look as though the pie might fly through the air like a toaster. "I didn't mean it like that." Neither of them makes a move to clear the table.

"How did you mean it then?"

"In your eyes I cheated on you."

"In my eyes-- how would you feel if I hooked up with one of your friends?"

"There's no sense worrying about it is there?"

"If you don't understand ..."

"I said I did. I said I was sorry. I said I didn't want to end our...whatever you want to call it. You're right about my being jealous; George called the garage the end of last week and I got to thinking, too much I guess, about what'll happen when he moves back."

"George is moving back?"

"When he asked after you, I was worried I'd lose you. I guess my date with Thule was a preemptive strike. I'm not proud. It wasn't right to use her for that either."


"And what?"

"Can you promise that I won't be hearing any more stories from Thule or anyone else? Well, can you?"

"Thule is your friend. She stopped me from..."

"Wait. She stopped you. And that's supposed to make me feel better?"

"I didn't say it would make you feel better. It's just the way it happened, is all."

"And it won't happen again, right?"

"I already said that."

"No. You didn't. What you said was you don't want to dump me and you're sorry I was hurt, but you haven't committed to anything."

"Ah, the c-word. I promise I won't do anything I wouldn't want you to do. That's the best I can. What about you? Would you go back to George if he asked?"

"But what if you wouldn't care about my being with somebody else?" She isn't answering his question. She has no desire to wander down that path now. "Would that mean that you'd consider yourself free to screw around?"

"Mary Beth, you're looking for trouble. I can't say let's forget this, but can we at least leave it alone for now?"

" For now. But I've still got to go--at least for tonight."

"If you change your mind, come back. I won't be going anywhere. I'll walk you to the car."

"Don't trouble yourself. I'll be fine."

"Of course you will, but one pie has already gone into the garbage. That's enough waste for one night."

"You're right. But like you said. Let's leave it alone for a while." She looks around at the mess she is leaving. Her African violet is a sad attempt surrounded by the plates of uneaten food and the smashed pie.

"Are you going straight home or are you going to Thule's?"

Mary Beth sighs, surprised at herself when his question elicits neither suspicion or irony. "I'm not going to Thule's, but I don't want you to call me tonight."

"Well, OK. But don't forget tomorrow night."

"Tomorrow? What's tomorrow?"

Sturge smiles, his voice honeyed over, "Don't tell me you don't remember--it's our anniversary."

Mary Beth sees he is pleased at his invention, playing her line back to her. "Oh, Sugar..." she murmurs in voice that sounds as though she means it.

But she knows, even before she looks in her rear view mirror through the rain-spotted back windshield at the empty driveway, that in ways having little to do with Thule or with George, she has nothing here that she will choose to celebrate.

She takes the corner turn. She knows what she is doing. She doesn't switch on the radio, but she sings to herself all the way home.

(c) 2005 Miriam N. Kotzin. "Something to Celebrate" was published in Fiction Warehouse," August 31, 2005.