Audrey Tate stood somewhat fixated on her own reflection in the long smudgy mirror. It took up the entire front of the closet door in the spacious master bedroom, always there as a constant reminder that her life was heavier than usual. That day was different, though. That day she felt different, and it wasn’t just what she was wearing. The low-cut white top hadn’t seen the light of day since her second date with Caleb, over nineteen years earlier. She found it at the very end of the closet, the outfit farthest away from all his remaining suits and tacky ties. She hadn’t found the time yet to discard of them, or take the long and arduous black garbage bag trip to Goodwill.
From the very instant Audrey saw the white relic, hanging passively on the wire hanger she knew it would be the right fit for that day. Even in its initial spotting, the garment spoke louder than everyone else in the small suburban outpost of North Shade, Illinois had. It was a call to the past, to the way things once were, before Caleb sucked the life completely out of her. She had bought it cheaply at Macy’s, while shopping with her college roommate Diana on one of the last days of the semester. That second date wasn’t supposed to be the rest of her life, and yet by some strange variation of circumstance and diminished will power, that’s what it had turned into.
Audrey was slowly but surely on the path to rediscovery at that point, and surprisingly enough it had only taken her the previous six months to get over the last nineteen years of her life with him. It almost sounded like a standard interval of time to mourn while still contemplating the remains of those days spent not thinking about the complications, those days when remembering to forget was the only solid rock to fall back on.
However, no matter what had happened in the past, the shocking occurrences of faults and mistakes, the reflection contently smiling back at Audrey was enough of a testament to the not so absurd concept that possibly everything did happen for a reason. Perhaps it was a cliché, but nonetheless one she had patiently waited for, those nineteen years, one that she could always depend on. And even Audrey knew before that wide-eyed truly satisfied familiar stranger gazed back at her, that such a cliché was much more dependable than all the others were. It alluded to something nobody could quite put their finger on.
An unknown all-encompassing aspect of life’s uniquely unmistakable manner, because sometimes it was confusing, and full of tears, and phone calls from foreign scratchy voices, that didn’t ring nearly as true as some of the other sounds would have. The way his voice would resonate when the two were lying in bed together on Saturday mornings, or out exploring the vastness of their dead-end settlement. The way the wedding gift coffeemaker gracefully dripped each drop into the steamy pot every morning. The way he would sip it lightly, before eventually opening the garage door, and heading out for another day at the races, educating those who supposedly needed it the most.
The sound of silence was even better than that of the exhausted police officer’s voice late on that Thursday night in January. She had worried endlessly, despite her son Benji’s less than informative explanation. Caleb had told his one and only heir that he was staying in the school late, grading papers and working out lesson plans for the following week. Benji, who was only fourteen at the time, thought nothing of it. He was used to taking the bus, zoning out the loud shrill noises that other degenerates such as himself would make with each spin and turn of the wheel.
At the same time, though, he noticed the difference in his father that afternoon, or more so than not, the indifference. Caleb had given his son a look that wasn’t as normal or casual as the others before it. It was a look interlaced with as much fear as defiance. It was a deceitful look, and one that both Benji and later Audrey would dwell upon for as long as they possibly could, before the book read like all the others. By that warm Sunday in June, it was a look that Audrey was more or less over, while all the hired help would claim that Benji’s problems were just beginning.
She tried her best not to think too much about what everyone else had said before and after. All the bullshit scribbled on the front pages of the press, the loyal reader finding strange variations of pleasure and pain from reading the article about that cold Thursday. Local High School Teacher Runs Away with Student before Eventual Suicide. It was water-cooler garbage, Sunday morning living room banter, bridge and book club discussion. It was something she wouldn’t necessarily live down, at least from some of the long-term residents and regular clientele requiring another filling for a newly discovered cavity.
Audrey was sick of thinking about herself as that woman who’s husband ran off with a minor before he took the long and painful leap from the eighth floor of the seventeenth street Motel 6 in Cleveland. She was tired of thinking of herself as Doctor Williams’ assistant. The dental hygienist who’s past delicately floated above the patients head, nearing the white fluorescent office lights. Audrey was fed up with thinking of herself as a mother to the slightly defective Benji, the son who had stopped speaking for awhile, who was a regular to the pull of psychoanalysis, who on numerous occasions had been caught spying on Lorene Connel, the beautifully confused girl next door. Audrey was disinterested with thinking of herself as the victim to an unknown circumstance and situation to which she knew nothing about until it was far too late. She was discontent with thinking of herself as the poor widow, trying to get by and keep on keeping on.
Audrey Tate was all those things and many more that Sunday afternoon, as she tried her best not to buy into their gossip-filled titles and looks, while mystically starring at the women she forgot she once was. She was no longer the old and lonely single once dependent wife of English teacher Caleb Tate, but rather, at forty-one-year-old, Audrey was ready for a change of pace, an obstructive view of the land seeping with opportunity. She was ready to hit the town and hope for a wave of clarity. She was ready for the better version of herself, and despite all that had occurred before in the previous nineteen and even forty-one years, Audrey Tate knew one very clear and concise thing that Sunday afternoon. She looked good.
The town wasn’t necessarily the town that day, but rather simply the backyard of Audrey’s next-door-neighbors, the Connels. Their oldest son, Brady, had recently graduated from North Shade High School, and would soon be leaving for a summer spent occupying the dirty dorms and cracked windows of Clearview College, across the state. It was a program meant to stimulate brain activity in the sunny and often lazy days of the season. Brady was getting good at putting up the common man’s façade. He was beyond psyched to start his future education early, to get ahead of all those youthful idiots who were wasting their time at minimum wage holes and hidden teenage wastelands for the summer months. The party was meant to celebrate not only his accomplishment of graduating within the top ten of his class, ahead of all the other stragglers, but also to allow those who would remain in North Shade, to bid their favorite scholar a fond farewell.
For Audrey, it would be a change of pace. A way to make some of the hopefully single friends and family members of the Connels, see the new side of her. The side that still, without much of a struggle fit into the white get-up from almost two decades earlier. She nodded her head, the same highly satisfied smirk lining her face, before walking away from the mirror, out of her room and into the upstairs hallway.
The loud rumble of Iggy and Stooges’ Raw Power poured out of Benji’s room and black stereo speakers. He was sitting, comfortably numbed to a tee, in the tacky brown La-Z-Boy recliner, stolen a few lawns down, from an unknown resident of Derby Street, on trash pick-up day, a few years earlier. It was a testament to his life being the kind that would inevitably get good at picking up the pieces, and also alluded to the fact that somebody in a close enough vicinity didn’t know what they had until it was long gone.
Audrey let out a less than audible sigh upon entering the hallway, and was soon regrettably knocking on her son’s bedroom door, wondering what his particular course of action would be for the day.
“Yeah, come in, I guess…” Benji muttered in-between the loud and abrasive stocked gunshots jumping out of the television set with each rounded corner and level-up.
“Are you coming over there with me?” Audrey asked, standing in the doorway.
“What?” Benji replied, before turning the music down with one of the many remotes lining the small end table he fashioned in shop class the previous school year.
“Are you coming over to Brady’s graduation party with me?”
“Um…Yeah, I suppose. I mean, I’m kind of hungry, and I guess you’re not cooking today, huh?”
“Not when it’s catered next door, Benji.”
“Okay, well are you going over right now, like this second?”
“I was planning on it.”
Benji exhaled lightly, before putting the game and CD on pause. It was one of the few conveniences of his generation. Every dependable vice and clever escape would remain on, cautiously waiting for the disappointed return of its cultivator. Yet, this reliable trait wasn’t necessarily the best of outlets for Benji’s supposedly displaced fifteen-year-old aggression. He had been zoning out even before Caleb’s big leap, though, finding solace in screens, and every so often from the upstairs bedroom window of Lorene Connel. Benji was under the heaviest of impressions that he was in love with her, making the inclination of her older brother’s graduation party, a blessing and a curse all rolled into one.
However, his mind quickly slipped away from the awkward notion of seeing his number one masturbatory fantasy dressed to impress that Sunday afternoon, the very instant Benji looked at his mother. He wasn’t used to seeing Audrey, first in any kind of outfit that highlighted her most feminine of qualities, and furthermore with such an enlightened expression on her face. Benji had become more or less used to the idea that his mother, like him, was going to be conveniently stuck in a shell for awhile, and even later, after reality set in, he wasn’t sure if he could ever see her as a social person, somebody who still had a life ahead of her. Maybe it was the crippling effect that North Shade seemed to have on every one of its residents, but in any case, that Sunday afternoon would prove to be more than a little troublesome for the both of them because of it.
The mother and son walked out their front door, one beyond ready for a change of pace, her appearance a further example of such, the other looking like sunlight was the most foreign of nature’s offerings. Benji had very rarely left the yellow house on Derby Street since school let out three weeks earlier, with the exception of the weekly visit to Dr. Dana Statler’s offices near the Central Heights Mall, for psychoanalysis and techno-babble 101. Needless to say, following the Tate’s timely entrance into the Connel’s spacious backyard barbecue, Benji would have plenty of things to talk about with Dana on Monday morning
Eyes darted towards the new and improved Audrey Tate, all the seemingly shocked faces trying their best to remember to close their mouths. The only problem with at least the initial reemergence of Audrey into the wild was the fact that the majority of those eyes belonged to Brady and his underage testosterone-fueled gang of recent high school graduates. They had begun drinking an hour earlier, Victor Connel, the nerdy yet supportive fatherly systems analysts, having struggled with the keg in his red death wagon earlier that morning.
Despite his best efforts at common gentlemanly procedure, Brady Connel went right for Audrey’s cleavage the second she walked over in front of him, holding the blue envelope and typical congratulatory card, stuffed with a crisp twenty-dollar bill inside. Brady’s best friend Will Leidy did almost the exact same, although he was far enough away not to be noticed. Frank Parks and Bill Hewitt, two more fellow upper level graduates, dodged the unexpected glares from their respective girlfriends Carrie Johnson and Jean Logue, sitting at the cherry splintered picnic table next to them. Luckily for Brady, the clever object of his affection, Halle Gibson, was helping his mother Joni inside with the remaining vegetable platters, unaware that there was anything to make a fuss about yet.
“Hi Brady, congratulations,” Audrey said as she handed her neighbor the card, and tried her best to hide the smirk that began to line her face the instant she noticed his lingering eyes.
“Thanks Mrs. Tate.”
“Yeah, congratulations…” Benji said, dull and half-heartedly to his neighbor, having also noticed the contagious effect of his mother’s new appearance.
“Thanks Benji…” Brady hesitated, trying not to stare again, but unable to help himself. “So, there’s food on that table and um…”
“Is your mother inside Brady?” Audrey asked.
“Uh yeah, she is.”
“Okay, thank you.”
She walked off towards the back door of the house, as Brady blinked twice and tried to find some vague sense of what would soon be consider collegiate composure. It was a struggle to say the least, and one that Benji quickly picked up. However, neither on ever had much ground to walk on, as even the separation of roughly three years didn’t necessarily change the fact that both Brady and Benji were still reliably little boys.
“So where’s Lorene?” Benji asked his somewhat dazed neighbor.
“She’s inside, and uh… Well…” Brady stuttered again like it was his evolved routine all of a sudden. “Actually nevermind.”
“What were you gonna say?”
“Nothing. Go get some food man, or beer… There’s beer in the keg in the garage.”
Benji walked away from his confused neighbor and towards the plentiful table of white Styrofoam plates, crock-pots and covered dishes. It was one of the two reasons he had decided to stand up from the recliner, the other having gotten good at taking her time, building up the anticipation.
Audrey walked in through the backdoor of the Connel’s clean and abundantly humble abode, through the white-tiled laundry room and into the spacious kitchen. Joni stood with her son’s girlfriend Halle, both putting the finishing touches on yet another round end table masterpiece. Audrey delicately cleared her throat like a lady, before both lifted up their heads from the Tupperware party staple and repeated roughly the same look that was rapidly becoming popular amongst the residents of Derby Street and soon all of North Shade.
“Hello Joni,” Audrey said, leaning against one of the remaining empty spots on the kitchen counter.
“Audrey! Hey, you look… great.”
“Sure,” Joni paused, before turning to Halle. “So I think we’re good on this hon if you wanna take it on out there.”
“Alright,” the slightly flabbergasted teen said before taking her leave from the kitchen, carrying the platter with her.
Joni then let out a large and all-encompassing sigh of relief, before directing her attention back to the neighbor she barely recognized.
“So do you need help with anything in here?”
“No, I think we’re good, finally. It’s been a long enough day already.”
“Do you want something to drink? We have wine, or beer, which is mostly for the kids and my husband, but uh... yeah.”
“Wine would be good.”
Joni opened the top right cabinet of her kitchen, taking out one of the clear glasses that were a gift for a special occasion to which she could hardly recall. She then precisely poured her neighbor a glass of the white purchased at North Shade Wine and Spirits the previous evening. Audrey took the glass, thanking her hostess before the sip.
The two then stood leaning on various walls and fixtures of the kitchen, unwinding with modest portions from the bottle, and discussing the dreaded Monday on the horizon. Brady’s college plans came up, as well as varying gossip about prestigious members of North Shade Country Club. Joni, the most seasoned of housewives, was a fire on the tennis court, and looking forward to showing off poolside for the summer.
The loose-lipped slightly tipsy neighbors soon ventured out into the garage, where the majority of the alcoholic nine-to-five adults were enjoying their individual drinks and conversations centered around the boring and expected normalcy that went hand and hand with suburban life. The stares continued throughout the afternoon, some grandparents and great aunts not sure what to make of the scantily clad Audrey. She heard whispers of scandal, and yet refrained from dwelling upon any of their words. They just seemed like jealous, fickle, highly depressed individuals to her, and Audrey was past the point in her life where much of it mattered.
However, the prospective understanding single male type she was strangely and almost desperately trying to attract didn’t necessarily catch onto her illustrious allure that afternoon. Most of the guests were married, their wives begging them not to stare, and cowardly bringing up the newspaper headline over and over again in the back of their heads. Others weren’t in any kind of condition to even make the shallow pass at Audrey Tate for fear that she may be far too much baggage to handle, so to speak.
One man, just drunk enough from the keg, did manage to aspire for hypothetical greatness, and yet Kirk Palmer, the reliably obtuse and unfortunately familiar bald lawyer from the billboards, wasn’t exactly what Audrey had hoped for. He looked down at the crevice first, before gazing back up and trying for eye contact. Kirk’s drunkenly dull topics of conversation didn’t come close to scratching the surface of what Audrey was at least tenderly hoping for that afternoon, and even with the slow drag of the wine starting to take effect, she couldn’t necessarily place herself as that kind of women who would go there.
Audrey figured that there had to be more to life than just the winded garage conversation with some blood-sucking asshole that was looking for a cheap thrill. She remained consciously observant to his every detestable quality, and couldn’t suppress any of her thoughts on the way Kirk almost instantly and awkwardly made her feel like his sleazy secretary. He wasn’t complimentary, but rather simply talked for his own enjoyment, to remind himself how great he felt his own voice sounded.
Audrey thought that perhaps the well of North Shade was dry, and that there weren’t any available men anywhere, or at least not any that were up to par with the quality that she had expected after such a rough landing and return to the proverbial fish tank. Possibly it was just the location, the day, the company, everything and everyone rolling around in their own egotistical selves to the point where it wasn’t necessarily possible for anything to change where she was. She had been the number one news story and now there was no denying the fact that its impact was unfortunately permanent.
As Audrey stared at the building perspiration on Kirk Palmer’s large round forehead, his lips moving faster with the words than they ever could if he had pressed them firmly to hers, she came to the abundantly clear realization that possibly Brady Connel’s high school graduation party wasn’t the best of prospective places to find a new man. She then considered the alternative, which made her stomach sink just a little more than the wine ever could. Audrey would have faired better in the backyard with Brady’s friends. The only problem was that such an act reminded her too much of her dead husband.