Burnt by Alison Bullock
by Alison Bullock
When the silver-embossed envelope arrives in the mail, Eleanor’s husband Gerald is practically giddy. It’s from the chief of thoracic surgery over at the hospital where he works as a cardiologist. An invitation to a house-warming party. “This is it,” Gerald says, rising up on his toes. “It’s happening.” The invitation isn’t personal—everyone in the department has been invited, even the nurses, but this doesn’t register with Gerald, who keeps mentioning what an honor it is. “All of the other wives are going,” he tells her. Eleanor sighs in resignation. She hates parties. People always stare at her face.
On the day of the event, Gerald hovers. He chooses Eleanor’s purse—the ridiculously expensive Hermès that he got her for Christmas—and stands nearby while she does her makeup. “Use concealer,” he tells her, like there’s ever been a time when she hasn’t.
While Gerald is in the bedroom selecting cufflinks, Eleanor sneaks into the bathroom and tucks a bottle of Percocet into her bag. She’s glad he picked the Hermès, with all of its secret compartments. She jams nips of Jack Daniels into each one. Just in case.
The house is on Jerusalem Road in Cohasset, right on the water. There’s no parking allowed on that road; it’s too narrow and winding, and the neighbors wouldn’t like all that clutter anyway, so a shuttle has been arranged for the guests. They leave their cars at Old Colony Square and ride the bus in together. The atmosphere onboard is friendly and boisterous. The younger staff members sit together near the back. Someone’s brought a bottle of champagne, and they’re passing it around, spilling it, laughing loudly.
“Billy, don’t!” somebody squeals.
Eleanor sits silently in the front next to Gerald. In her black cashmere sweater and tan slacks, she looks practically perfect from the neck down. Gerald starts making small talk with the man sitting across from them. He’s bragging about the research he’s recently published, overstating his accomplishment, and going on about things, the way he does. The man is nodding distractedly with a dim smile plastered to his face. Eleanor leans forward and rubs her temples. She’s trying to get her head on straight before the curtain goes up. “You’re missing a cufflink,” she whispers to Gerald, knowing that the other one is lying in the gravel, back at the Old Colony Square parking lot. Gerald begins twisting and turning, searching the crack of the seat, bending over to look on the ground. It’s a mean thing to do and she knows it. She often hurts the people around her, sometimes on purpose, sometimes by accident. She doesn’t get any pleasure from it, isn’t even sure why she does it exactly. It’s something that just happens, like a car with a bent axle, always veering left.
Eleanor settles back into her seat and stares out the window as the shuttle snakes along Jerusalem Road. One waterfront mansion after the next rolls by, each with its own massive stone wall and elaborate portico. Beyond them, the surf is dark and choppy.
They enter the house through the garage, which has a pungent smell of chemicals and dirt. Eleanor finds it fascinating—the way garages have such distinct smells. Like pheromones. They have to take their shoes off—something about foyer floors still drying. Eleanor wishes she’d known. She would have worn different socks.
The house is modern with a lot of clean lines, steel, and glass. So much glass. Expansive windows overlook a backyard of nothing but sheer rock and ocean. Eleanor finds the place elaborate but cold. Not her taste at all. The wall art seems to be Kandinsky-style, but when she gets close, she realizes, No, not Kandinsky-style, actual Kandinsky. The host, Skip, and his wife Mimi greet them with big smiles. Skip knows her name even though they’ve never met before. Eleanor imagines he must have spent some time studying the guest list beforehand. Maybe Mimi made him flashcards. Eleanor can’t decide how to feel about that. It’s not unusual for Eleanor to be confused about her feelings.
Mimi leads the first arrivals on a house tour, and they travel through room after room, the guests commenting on the good light and marveling at the ocean views. Mimi is a sculptor and some of her own work is on display upstairs, in a glass cabinet. The shelves are lined with her creations—a series of women with enlarged heads, breasts, and hips.
“I like to play with proportionality,” she says, “challenge the concept of beauty.” The sentiment is well-received, especially coming from someone like Mimi who is gorgeous by conventional standards. She looks like a young Jackie Kennedy, and her rejection of the very thing she possesses intrigues all of them, including Eleanor. The visitors gush. Eleanor’s eyes fall to the sculpture on the middle shelf. It’s larger than the rest. It’s a woman on her knees with her head thrown back in anguish, her arms outstretched towards the sky. It’s striking that a piece of clay can capture that much pain. Is it in the furrowed brow, or the distant gaze of the eyes? Eleanor’s not sure. She stays to examine the piece while some of the others drift to the other side of the room. “Incredible,” she murmurs, and she means it. Mimi gives her a small nod of appreciation.
“That’s my favorite too,” she admits. “I call her Kisa, from the Buddhist parable.” Eleanor nods. She knows the story, remembers part of it—something about a mustard seed and the nature of suffering.
She and Mimi walk into the next room, side by side. Eleanor had been looking forward to finding fault with this woman, but now reluctantly decides that she cannot. She likes Mimi.
After the tour, Gerald wanders off somewhere and Eleanor goes to the bar for a drink. The onyx countertop shimmers below her. The bartender is a human whirligig, shaking concoctions and adding garnishes to drinks with a wild flurry. Eleanor waits her turn, standing next to a young resident. Out of her peripheral vision, she can see him staring.
“A burn, I’m guessing?” he finally says, pointing at the left side of her face. His idea of a friendly icebreaker, she supposes. Believe it or not, he’s not the first doctor to do this to her at a social event. Some of them just can’t resist offering clinical advice in non-clinical settings.
Eleanor doesn’t answer, just grabs her vodka martini and escapes before he can start recommending innovative laser techniques.
Two hours and four vodka martinis later, Eleanor is still at the party, listening to Gerald tell a story that nobody cares about, wishing she could be home watching Survivor. It’s the season finale tonight, with the wrap-up interviews that follow, and she’s missing the whole thing. She’s already run through her options and found no easy escape plan. She can’t fake a headache like she normally does. The first shuttle won’t return for another hour. She briefly considers faking something more substantial like a heart attack or seizure, and riding out in an ambulance, but with all these doctors around, it seems ill-advised.
“And so that’s when I told him . . .” Gerald drones on. He’s missing all of the signals around him—his audience’s averted eyes, their attempts to wrest the conversational gavel away from him. As usual, Gerald doesn’t pick up on any of the cues. He tells his stories long, embraces the meaningless tangent, and when one anecdote ends, somehow finds a way to launch into another without so much as taking a breath.
When Eleanor first started dating Gerald, back when he was in medical school, she asked her sister Lucy about him. “Do you think, maybe, he could be on the spectrum or something?” Lucy was a special education teacher and had experience with these sorts of things.
“You don’t want to know what I think, Eleanor,” she said. “Believe me.” But Eleanor pushed. She had to remind herself of that, lest she judge her sister too harshly. It was Eleanor who made her tell.
“He’s not on any spectrum that I know of,” Lucy finally said. “Unless you count the asshole spectrum. That one he’s on. For sure.”
Lucy didn’t understand what it was like to have limited options. She’d never had to make do. “Why are you always settling for less?” she liked to ask Eleanor. “You shouldn’t let your looks define you,” she’d say, as though Eleanor was the one doing the defining.
“We should say hello to the Munsons,” Eleanor whispers to Gerald now, saving him from himself.
Gerald loves this—the idea that there are others waiting for his attention. He bids his goodbyes to the circle of colleagues, and as they turn to leave, Eleanor notices their exchanged looks of relief. She’s not sure if it has to do with Gerald’s stories or her face, but she suspects it’s a little of both. Gerald has no idea how uncomfortable he makes people feel.
They move on to the Munsons. “I waved to you on the shuttle bus, but you didn’t see,” Sally Munson says when they arrive. Sally’s actually pretty decent. She and Eleanor have a connection outside of the hospital. Both of their daughters attend the same preschool. Sally’s the only mother who doesn’t arrive at drop-off with her hair blown out perfectly. Once, Eleanor saw her drive out of the preschool parking lot with a mug of coffee still on the roof of her car.
“What’d you think of that garage?” she asks now.
“Ridiculously large,” Eleanor says.
Sally laughs. “Not an oil spill in sight.”
For ten minutes, Eleanor experiences the briefest of respites, but Gerald doesn’t want to stay put. He wants to mingle and network, so Eleanor has to say goodbye to Sally and move on. When they join the next circle and Gerald starts up again with another boring story, Eleanor excuses herself to use the bathroom.
Behind the locked door, she can finally breathe. She digs into her purse for the Percocet, pounds a tablet into powder on the marble vanity top, and snorts it through a rolled-up dollar bill. Soon, a soft glow will radiate through her body. It will feel like soaking in a warm bath, but better. Just the promise of this feeling on its way, knowing that it is about to kick in, is a comfort.
When Eleanor leaves the bathroom, she finds two children waiting on the other side of the door. A little blonde boy, maybe four years old, with a white collared shirt that he’s already spilled something on, is standing next to an older girl, also blonde, with a matching shirt. The boy’s eyes go wide when he sees Eleanor. “Eww,” he says, wrinkling his nose. “What’s wrong with your face?” His older sister yanks his arm. Eleanor averts her eyes and slides past both of them without a word. She can hear the sister hissing a reproach, but the little boy only laughs and starts pulling on one side of his mouth, imitating the way Eleanor’s lip droops on one side. She has to admit: it’s a pretty good impression.
From across the room, she can see Gerald passing his phone around. She knows without looking that he’s showing them pictures of their daughter Gwynn. Gwynn is five and looks like something out of a Talbots Kids catalogue. It’s important to Gerald for people to know that they can create perfect spawn. She slips into the group as they dutifully admire the photo.
“Aww, she looks just like you,” a woman with curly red hair says. Well, Eleanor thinks. Not exactly.
“We’re lucky Gwynn didn’t take after me,” Gerald says. False modesty since Gerald is fairly good looking. Eleanor gives Gerald a grateful smile anyway. This is what he wants from her. The others chuckle. For real this time.
Eleanor knows perfectly well that people are always sizing up their marriage. She imagines their conversations on the ride home from the party. They’ll wonder two things; whether Gerald asked Eleanor out before or after her accident. The answer to that first question is after; he knew what he was getting into. Then they’ll debate which one of the two of them got the worse end of the deal. Eleanor doesn’t know the answer to the second question.
While Gerald rambles on, Eleanor thinks about the night they first met. Her sister Lucy had been with her. They’d been out for drinks at a bar near the medical school when they spotted Gerald across the room. Lucy couldn’t believe that Gerald was wearing his stethoscope out to a bar, like a piece of jewelry.
“Maybe, he forgot he was wearing it,” Eleanor tried, but Lucy wouldn’t have it.
“Eleanor, no. He didn’t forget.”
“What an asshole,” Lucy said under her breath, but Eleanor had a different interpretation. What Eleanor saw was vulnerability. A need to be admired which she understood.
The bar was dimly lit. When Gerald approached her good side and offered to buy her a drink, Eleanor surprised even herself by accepting. And when she turned on her bar stool to face him, allowing him to see the whole of her, Gerald didn’t make an excuse to leave as she’d expected but stayed to finish the drink. That was when Eleanor knew that she would say yes to whatever it was that he asked of her.
The truth is Gerald fulfills many of her needs—children, for one. He was a devoted father, even Lucy couldn’t deny that. And he was an excellent provider, as old-fashioned as that sounds. Eleanor had never been very career-oriented. If it weren’t for Gerald, she’d probably still be working as a telemarketer somewhere, siphoning sludge from a Mr. Coffee. Somehow, he still seems genuinely attracted to her, which she finds curious but not unpleasant. Yes, he cares what others think about her appearance, but she can’t really blame him for that. After all, so does she. The arrangement was not without its benefits.
But people made judgments about her decision to marry Gerald all the time and she knew it. People with a multitude of choices often judged those with limited ones.
Eleanor glances at her cell phone now. Only fifteen more minutes until the first shuttle arrives to take the first batch of guests home. Silently, she congratulates herself. She’s made it through without any kind of a scene. She’s about to whisper in Gerald’s ear that they should think about saying their goodbyes, when one of the young residents comes over and announces that there’s a badminton competition on the front lawn. The next thing she knows Gerald is throwing off his jacket, charging outside without giving her a second glance.
Eleanor goes back to the bar to get another vodka martini. The second shuttle will be back in twenty minutes and, by then, the badminton game will surely be over. She’s going to be okay. Just needs to manage twenty more minutes. At the bar, she sees the same resident from before approaching. Clearly, they both like to drink.
“I wanted to apologize,” he says, “about earlier.”
Oh God. No. Talking about the blunder is even worse. “Friends?” his ridiculously arched eyebrows seem to be asking her. He’s thrusting a hand in her direction, forcing some sort of truce. “Fuck off,” Eleanor says, and walks away without getting a drink.
The Percocet has kicked in now. She slips upstairs where it’s quiet and safe. She takes out a nip of Jack Daniels and pours it down her throat, dropping the empty into a spotless trash bin. There’s a large window upstairs, overlooking the front lawn, and she’ll be able to watch the badminton from up there in private. She’ll just make sure to dash down when it draws to a conclusion and pull Gerald away before he gets involved in croquet, or lawn darts, or whatever the fuck else they have going on out there. She sits in a chair by the window and puts her stocking feet up on a nearby coffee table and unbuckles the top button on her slacks, not that she’s stuffed herself today. She barely eats at these things. In her purse, she’s stashed a hamburger slider in a napkin, which she stuffs in her mouth now. She takes the whole thing down in two bites, swallowing big mouthfuls without chewing them thoroughly, ketchup collecting in the corners of her mouth. She can feel the Percocet coursing through her veins. Another Jack Daniels will put her right where she needs to be. She empties it into her mouth and feels the gentle burn. Then she has another, knowing that she probably shouldn’t.
It’s a good thirty minutes before the next shuttle arrives. When Eleanor sees it pull into the driveway, she jumps up. She realizes, too late, that this sudden movement is a mistake. Her ankle turns and she wobbles and falls sideways, collapsing into the glass cabinet with all of Mimi’s sculptures. The cabinet tips forward and the sculptures rock back and forth. Eleanor is scrambling on her knees now, reaching her arms outward to block the sculptures from falling, lifting her leg too. She’s somehow able to right the cabinet using the weight of her body, and most of the sculptures fall back into place, but the large one in the middle, Mimi’s favorite, tips off its glass ledge and falls, as if in slow motion, to the tile floor below. The crash is loud. Eleanor holds her breath, waiting for someone to come running upstairs, or for some alarm to go off, but the din from the crowd below covers the noise. Eleanor examines the damage. The woman’s head has cracked in two and her outstretched arms have both snapped off—her cry of pain silenced, snuffed out. Snatching a magazine from a nearby coffee table, Eleanor sweeps the wreckage onto it with her bare hand. A shard of pottery stabs her palm, but Eleanor disregards the pain and staggers away, searching for a place to hide the evidence.
The children’s rooms are on this level. She passes the girl’s room with its pink organza canopy and goes to the boy’s room instead. He seems like the type to break things and deny it. She pours the sculpture’s remains into a shoebox she finds and shoves it under his bed. Just as she’s about to make her escape, Eleanor hears footsteps coming up the stairs. Quickly, and without a sound, she takes a few steps back into the boy’s adjoining bathroom. She climbs into the tub and crouches behind the shower curtain, hugging her knees to her chest. The footsteps are Mimi’s. There’s a brisk confidence that Eleanor recognizes. They get closer and closer, and then the bathroom door closes with a click. The unthinkable has happened. Mimi is in the room with her. Eleanor wonders if it’s possible to have a fear-induced heart attack. What the hell is she doing up here? Maybe trying to keep the downstairs bathroom free for the guests? From behind the shower curtain, Eleanor can hear Mimi urinating. Her own flow escapes in response—a stain blooming on the back of her tan slacks. Eleanor’s mind races. If she were to get caught here, like this, was the situation irreparable? Was there anything at all to be done? Multiple options flash before her. Pretending to be unconscious, for example, or faking an anxiety attack. Whatever the next lie needs to be, Eleanor is willing to tell it.
The medicine cabinet opens and Eleanor hears the rattling of pills. Mimi’s taking something for herself. Eleanor wants to peek out, but maintains a modicum of self-restraint. She stays glued to her spot, knees tucked close to chest.
“M-o-o-m,” the little girl whines from somewhere in the distance. “Peter’s drawing on my dolls with permanent marker.”
Mimi sighs in that bone-tired way that Eleanor knows well. “Jesus Christ,” she says under her breath, and finally, mercifully, she’s gone—pulled away to some distant part of the house.
Noiselessly, Eleanor climbs out of the tub and waits a few seconds longer for the coast to be clear. She peeks into the medicine cabinet and finds the pills. Kisa and the Buddhist parable come to mind—the lesson about the universal nature of pain. Not much of a comfort, Eleanor decides. She pockets Mimi’s Valium and slips down a back staircase without anyone seeing her.
On the porch landing out front, Eleanor finally exhales. She strategically ties her jacket around her waist, hiding the stain on her pants, and slips on her slingback heels, which she’s already retrieved from the garage. She straightens her spine, and without even holding onto the railing, walks down the porch steps with perfect balance, covering her drunkenness beautifully. She’s good at faking things and covering her tracks. She’s got that survivor mentality. She walks to the front lawn where Gerald is just finishing up his badminton game. She can feel the splinter from the sculpture biting the flesh of her palm. She smiles her lopsided smile and closes her fist to hide the bleeding. He’s walking towards her now, smiling in return.
“Ready to go, sweetheart?” Gerald asks. He calls her sweetheart at parties.
“Oh,” Eleanor says, lifting her other hand to the good side of her face. “Is it time already?”
Alison Bullock’s short fiction has appeared in The Writing Disorder, Halfway Down the Stairs, Anti-Heroin Chic, Every Day Fiction, Boston Literary Magazine, Mississippi Crow, and the Momaya Annual Review. She lives in Massachusetts.