“This Bloody Mary kicks like a mule.” Terry rattled his glass. “They must add extra hot sauce.”
Linnette watched the celery stalk spin in an awkward pirouette.
Jillian had loved ballet.
Linnette closed her eyes and saw dainty pink shoes with matching tights, a delicate ring of tulle, and a slim black leotard. She gulped down the rest of her screwdriver and signaled for another.
“Wait. I think it’s horseradish.” Terry sniffed and coughed. “Whatever it is, it’ll clear out the sinuses. That’s for sure.” He picked up a roll from the basket, broke off a piece, and popped it into his mouth, dry.
Jillian had never liked butter on her bread either. It was olive oil or nothing. They’d praised her for her palate, and had bragged to their friends about raising a gourmet.
Linnette suppressed a sigh. “You’re looking well,” she said. He’d lost weight, was tanned, and his teeth gleamed when he smiled. The last time she’d seen him had been over the attorney’s table. They’d agreed the divorce was for the best, but there’d been no smiling. Maintaining a stoic front had been easy — they’d had practice keeping their public faces set, their thoughts private.
No one had been surprised — so many marriages fall apart after tragedy, after all. It didn’t take long before everyone looked away.
“You too.” His eyes flicked up and down, lingering at the vee of her sweater. “You look fantastic. I like what you’ve done to your hair.”
Linette resisted the impulse to touch it. She’d chosen a coppery red that shone like a new penny dipped in wine.
Jillian had hair like that when she was a toddler.
They’d called her Ginger Snap back then. They’d had dreams of her being Homecoming Queen, valedictorian, and the lead in the school play. Her hair had dazzled in imagined spotlights.
In reality, Jillian’s hair had started to dull by the time she’d turned twelve, already fading into unassuming brown.
Her refill arrived. Linnette ignored the server. She prided herself on her ability to tune out the superfluous.
Terry said, “I hear the crab omelet is the house specialty.”
The bland statement irritated her. They’d spin in circles all day if neither pushed forward. “Oh, screw the omelet, Terry.”
He flinched. “Can’t we be civil?” Terry drained his glass and pulled out the celery. He crunched on it and eyed her.
He knew how much she loathed the sound of chewing.
“Sure. Just stop pussyfooting around. What’s going on here? Why ask to meet? Why today, of all days?”
“It seemed like the thing to do. It’s her day and time to face it.” He offered his hand. “We owe it to ourselves, don’t we?”
“Like hell. Are you out of your mind?” She stared at his hand like it was something a cat coughed up on the carpet in front of company. “We’re not doing this. We promised.”
Terry straightened. “I’ve been seeing a therapist and he said — ”
“Jesus. Well, that explains it. Whatever for?”
“Hear me out, please.”
She crossed her arms but remained silent.
Jillian. From the moment she’d arrived she’d been the center of their world — their legacy.
“The short version? This is the first step to getting back together.” He flushed. “We were great and I miss those days. I’ve been wondering why we should have to keep suffering.” He searched Linnette’s face for signs of encouragement. “Would reconciliation be out of the question? If anyone asks — we’ll be prepared. People love a good story. We know that. Now we can give them another: an estranged couple meets to mourn their daughter on her birthday, and the flame reignites. It’s poetry.”
Jillian had left behind notebooks filled with looping scrawls of poor rhyme and burgeoning adolescent angst. So pedestrian and predictable. Unworthy.
Linnette went still. Necessary or not, they’d sacrificed their marriage — for what? They’d danced for the media, for the investigation, for everyone but themselves.
Jillian had changed almost overnight. That bright and pretty child had become something lumpy and sullen. Her skin dulled and sprouted spots. Her teeth went crooked and her attitude soured.
They’d seen where it was going to go. Jillian would probably get pregnant and drop out. She’d work at some factory if they were lucky — if not, they’d get stuck with her snot-covered spawn.
Jillian had wasted their investment by turning out to be such a disappointment. Her demands never ceased. It was always me, me, me.
They deserved better.
She smiled and twisted a lock of her hair between her fingertips. “I like that story. It’s got panache.”
Their plan had been simple and elegant. It had style.
Terry nodded. “My therapist thinks it’s healthy to confront past mistakes before embracing the future.”
Maybe they could take another try at perfection. Linnette waved at the server. “A bottle of champagne, please.”
The couple sat holding hands until it arrived.
“To Jillian,” they said.
Wendy Hammer lives in Indiana with her husband and teaches at a community college. She can be found haunting her favorite local bookstore and scribbling away in coffee shops. Her stories can be found in Plasma Frequency, Liquid Imagination, and the forthcoming Gaia anthology from Pantheon magazine.