THE GATHERING

Your fake boyfriend isn’t really your type. He’s endearing, you suppose, with his one crooked tooth and wire frame glasses, but you’ve always been more partial to built blondes than shaggy haired brunettes.

 

You and your fake boyfriend took a birthday trip to Prague. Or, at least, that’s what you tell him when you hire him from the library, waving a Franklin in his face. You paid for the whole trip, flight and everything. You don’t care that his birthday is in December. It’s in April now.

 

You prep him with questions. So what if he’s studying for the GRE? This is more important. Do you want the money or not? Your favorite color is lavender. You’re terrified of guppy fish. When you were a kid, you kicked a boy who called you ugly and broke your ankle. Yes, that’s why you walk with a limp. No, you can’t get it fixed. Don’t you think I’ve tried?

 

You make a mental note to get a better fake boyfriend next time.

 

Too late now. Can’t expect much from a pothead you found in the book stacks last minute. Didn't they tell you not to procrastinate? Have you learned nothing?

 

As you pull up to all 20,000 square feet of your Pasadena home, you hope three hundred dollars and a bottle of bourbon was enough. The bourbon, of course, was for you. There’s no way you’d be able to stand this hell of a gathering without it.

 

The house itself is just as you remember it, with its mile-long driveway and naked marble statues. The Greek columns and balcony rails glisten with a fresh coat of white paint, and the only color you can see is from the four palm trees that line either side of the stone deck stairs. Your fake boyfriend stares in awe, but you are underwhelmed. Upset even. The house only serves as a reminder of what awaits you inside.

 

Sighing, you tuck your long blonde hair behind your ears and the rest of the bourbon into your Goyard, and prepare yourself to face the all-knowing eyes of your father.

 

“What do you do if they offer you a drink?” you ask your fake boyfriend. He stares blankly at you for a second, perhaps trying to relate the desperate college student he knows with the heiress the house suggests you are. You raise an impatient eyebrow at him, and he blinks before snapping out of it.

 

“Say no,” he says. “And… ask for water?”

 

“Orange juice. Pulp free.” Idiot. He was barely worth two hundred, let alone three. “Dad owns an orange farm in Tallahassee. Let him go on about it, and you won’t have to open your mouth.” And risk ruining your entire life. What did you get yourself into? “If they ask about Prague, you…”

“Tell them it was the time of my life. I’m so lucky to have a girlfriend who gives such great presents.”

 

“Details?”

 

He winked. “What happens in Prague, stays in Prague.”

 

You roll your eyes. It was ridiculous and indecent, but you’d rather your family think you a whore than know what you really did with the money.

 

“Where did we meet?”

 

“The debate competition.”

 

“And what were we debating?”

 

“Uh… economics?”

 

You resist the urge to slam your head into the steering wheel. “The ethics of torturing suspected terrorists in the event of an imminent international crisis. For the love of God, write it down if you can’t remember it. You’re supposed to be from Harvard. Jesus.”

 

“I’m just nervous. If you let me have a little bit of weed -”

 

“No weed, Roger. I said, no weed.”

 

“My name -”

 

“I don’t care what your name is, Pothead Jones. My family thinks you’re Roger, so today, you are Roger. You fuck this up, and you can kiss those 300 weed bucks goodbye.” You sigh. This is hopeless. “Let’s just go, ok?”

 

You hear him mutter bitch under his breath, but you don't even deign him a glare. You’re too focused on your father staring at you from the window. He’s seen you. Too late to turn back now. You force a smile at him, and he nods his head before turning away. Good old Dad, always such a charmer.

 

The second you walk through the door, you’re greeted by your cousin Polly. Her real name is Edith Anne Winstead, but she changed it the day she got her first nose job. A new name for a new face, she argued, but you still call her Edith when she pisses you off, which, as usual, she manages to accomplish within the first three seconds you’re with her.

 

“Vicky, dear, how sensational!” Her smile accents every one of her thousand-dollar porcelain veneers, and her accent, overwhelmingly British, hints at the boarding school her parents were more than happy to ship her off to. “You’ve brought a guest!” She titters. Titters.

 

“This is Roger, my boyfriend,” you introduce them. “Roger, my cousin, Edith.”

 

Polly gives you a tight smile. “Please, call me Polly. Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Roger. I’m so glad our Vicky has finally found somebody who can tolerate her attitude… and her excessive flatulence.” She chuckles and Roger glances at you smugly. You realize you might have to raise his salary to four hundred. “Has she told you about the day at Grandpapi’s ranch? No? Why, you must hear it! It’s absolutely foul.”

 

“Thanks, Ed,” you say, and grab the cuff of your fake boyfriend’s blazer. “But we have to get going.”

 

“Of course. You have fun, cousin. We’ll catch up later. After all, we have all day.” She smirks before prancing out of the foyer and into the living room.

 

“So, Grandpapi’s ranch, huh?”

 

“Shut it, Jones.”

 

The smile doesn't leave his face, but you ignore it as you scour the house for your father. The sooner he can make sure you haven't gone off the deep end, the sooner you can make up some ridiculous excuse and get out.

 

You find him in the gardens talking to your grandmother about figs. You assume this is his next investment. You're tempted to recommend kale, but your father would never go for it. Dad likes sweet things - perhaps to make up for what he lacks in personality.

 

“Victoria,” he says once he sees you. His eyes, the same light brown as yours, darken as you approach.

 

“You’re here.”

 

“Where else would I be, Dad?” You peck him on the cheek, and try not to take offense when he flinches. Nothing you aren’t used to, after all. “Hello, Nana.” You greet her with a hug, and she, unlike your father, is happy to return it.

 

“Darling, you look so thin! Do they not feed you in college? Maurice, don’t tell me you're being stingy with the girl’s money.”

 

Your father shrugs. “I give her what I always have. It is up to her to decide how to budget it. Some people prioritize Prague over nutrition.” He gives you a stern look, and then seems to notice that you are not alone. “Ah, I see you’ve brought the culprit. Roger, is it?”

 

“Yes, sir,” your fake boyfriend says and extends his hand. Your father shakes it, but doesn't try to hide his attempts at cleaning his own hand afterwards.

 

“You the Harvard boy?”

 

Your grandma’s eyes widen. “Harvard?”

 

“That’s me, sir. Roger from Harvard.”

 

You can feel your stomach start to churn. Your fake boyfriend is going to blow his cover. You know it just like you knew the doctors lied when they said your mother was in remission. Stupid doctors. Stupid Roger from Harvard.

 

“So, Dad, how’s Aidan doing? Have you heard from him?” Better to distract him with your brother. He likes him better than you anyway.

 

“I’ve got a close friend from Harvard,” your father says, ignoring you. “Pierce Milling, Class of ‘86. You heard of him?”

 

“No, sir.”

 

“He’s a fine fellow. Works in Real Estate in Manhattan now. Goes up to Boston to visit the old Alma Mater sometimes. I can put you in contact with him, if you’d like.”

 

“Oh, no,” Roger shakes his head, “that’s not necessary.”

 

Your father cocks an eyebrow. “I insist,” he says. “In fact, I’d be rather disappointed if you turned me down.”

 

Your fake boyfriend gives you a panicked look. This was not part of the plan. “Dad, I really don't think Roger needs his number. He’s an English -”

 

“You don’t know what Roger needs, Victoria. Roger here is a smart man, a Harvard man. He could use some guidance, whatever field he chooses to pursue.” You watch as your father turns back to your fake boyfriend, who, in all of three minutes, he already likes more than you. “What will it be?”

 

Roger gulps. “I’ll take his number, sir, thank you.”

 

Your father smiles. “Smart boy. I’ll go get it for you.”

 

“He’s been very stressed lately,” your grandmother says once he’s gone, as if that explains anything. As if this isn’t how he’s treated you for years now. Why did you think dating a boy from Harvard would make him treat you any better? It’s not like you’re the one that got in.

 

“Yeah,” you mumble, “stress.”

 

“Aidan’s doing well though.” She’s trying, poor Nana. She wants to make up for it. For him. For her. “He called last week. He’s in Uganda now. They finished the houses early, so they’re getting a head start on the schools. He’s thinking of staying a while as a teacher. Imagine that!” Her smile is soft, comforting, but it does nothing to comfort you. Golden boy Aidan is out building schools for the poor, and you’re paying a pothead to hide your secrets. It’s really no wonder you’re the least favorite child.

 

“That’s great, Nan. Tell him I said hello next time he calls.”

 

There’s an awkward silence before your grandmother bids you and your fake boyfriend goodbye and heads into the house. You don't want to wait for your father to come out, so you ask Roger if he wants to take a walk around the gardens with you. He obliges. You wonder if it's because he pities you.

 

The gardens are huge, Marie-Antoinette-like, and you remember getting lost in them as a child. There is a fountain you used to sit by and throw pennies into, making wishes you knew wouldn't come true because you were there the moment her heart stopped beating.

 

Still, it didn’t stop you from hoping.

 

You take your fake boyfriend there now. The fountain has long stopped working, and your pennies were cleaned out years ago, but the magic is still there. You see it in the way the hedges tower over you, dropping wilted pink petals like snow on a mountain. You see it in the weeds that grow stubbornly between the bricks of the walkway, fighting with every breath to not just live, but to thrive. Even when you turn to Roger, and think for a moment that it is Aidan, before you lost him like everyone else, you feel it in your veins, in your blood, that there is more here than just a few leaves and an ancient fountain.

 

You sigh because you don’t like to imagine it. Imagination is for those who are not bright enough to see the truth. The truth. Like that was ever a thing this family honored.

You take a seat on the edge of the fountain like you used to when you were seven, and you pull out the bottle of bourbon, because, though you wish it, you are no longer seven.

 

“Have some,” you say, pushing the bottle into your fake boyfriend’s stomach.

 

“I thought I wasn’t allowed to drink.”

 

You narrow your eyes. “Have some before I regret offering.” He takes no time reaching for the bottle and taking a long, hard swig of it.

 

Sitting beside you, he passes the bottle. “Your dad’s a real cunt.”

 

Usually, you would have protested, but today, you find no point in defending him. “Yeah, I know.”

 

“Is that why you brought me here?”

 

“Yes and no.” You wonder if you should tell him what you did. It’s been eating at you since April, and you’re sick of holding it inside. “I screwed up. I spent his money. A lot of it.”

 

He considers this. “Can you earn it back?”

 

You shake your head. “It’s not the money he cares about. It’s the reason why. He thinks it’s a waste of time.”

 

“What’d you do? Blow it on drugs?”

 

You scoff. “Not everyone is a goddamn addict, Jones.”

 

“Gambling?”

 

“No, none of that.”

 

“Are you gonna tell me?”

 

“Probably not.”

 

“Fine.” He grabs the bottle from your hand. “I may be an addict, Victoria, but at least I’m not a misanthropic bitch.”

 

“Nice word. Where’d you learn that? An AA meeting?”

 

“Go to hell.” He’s halfway to the house when you call his name. “Yes?” he says. His face is expectant. He wants an apology. Maybe more, you realize. Poor kid.

 

“You took my bourbon.”

 

His smile doesn’t meet his eyes. “Ok, Victoria. Here. Take your bourbon and keep your money. I’m done. You’re not worth the trouble.”

 

“Fine. Have a nice life, Roger.”

 

“My name,” he yells, as he finally leaves the gardens, “is Daniel!”

 

You don’t care. You don’t care about anything except for the fact that your bourbon is on the floor and not down your throat. You take it, not bothering to hide it in your tote, and head straight for your car.

 

Your dad is nowhere in sight, and you wonder if you should let him know you’re leaving. You decide not to. He doesn’t care anyways. You do, however, run into Polly on the driveway.

“Oh, sweetie,” she says, “I just saw Roger run out! I do hope he’s ok. Did you two have a fight? Really, cousin, it’s not that hard to keep a man.”

 

“Ok, Edith.” You try ignoring her as you walk towards your car, but she follows you like a mutt.

 

“My name is Polly.” She’s smiling - because when is she ever not? - but the words come out through gritted teeth.

 

“Right,” you say, “and I’m Mother fuckin’ Teresa.”

 

She frowns. “Just because your mother is dead doesn’t mean you can go around treating everyone like shite, Vicky. It was fine for the first year or so, but it’s been thirteen years, and you’re still the same spoiled brat. Move on.”

 

You say nothing because there is nothing to say. Does she think you are who you are because your mother died? An airhead, inside and out, that one. You reach your car and climb inside, giving her one last finger before you settle into the red leather seat.

 

You are calm. Eerily calm, like an eagle in flight. It’s the bourbon, probably. You turn on your car and revel in the sweet purr of the engine, the soft roar of escape. You’re so lost in it you barely hear it when your phone chimes.

 

It’s the message you’ve been waiting for since April.

 

Today, of all days.

 

You’re not quite sure if you’re ready to read it.

 

You have to, you tell yourself. You have to know if all of this was worth it.

 

Slowly, you bring the screen up to your face.

 

Lina’s chemo failed. She passed away this morning. Just want to thank you for all of your help. We’re holding a service for her tomorrow night, if you would like to come. - Mrs. Sutter.

 

You turn back to the house. Your father is watching. You take a sip of bourbon, start your car, and watch as the needle steadily makes its way towards 100.

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© 2017 by BEATRIZ JACOB.