Annual company parties could be awkward enough without the wild card of the potentially drunk table top dancer or the karaoke wanna-be who, uninvited, takes over the vocalist’s microphone. This party was no different.
Most just paid their quiet respects out of loyalty to job retention and went home before the final tome sounded. Others just didn’t know any better. Morale in this company of refrigerated food services was something bandied about for newbies and junior hires, long since dead to the front line working stiffs who kept the upstairs office suits in style.
Barbecuing salmon and prime rib over open fire pits fragranced the entry way and the Christmas music roared full volume, a classic rock band hired to rev up festivities in the room overlooking the softly lit golf course.
One couple really stood out when they came through the doors of the Arbutus Ball Room at the Palisades Inn. But it wasn’t their flashiness. It was more that they appeared to want to hide, curving toward one another like infants seeking familiarity, safety and shelter from the world.
Dean approached the pair, his hand extended toward Marvin despite Bernadette’s pug nose risen to indignance before it was even necessary. Marvin seemed grateful and extracted his arm from Bernadette’s grasp to reach out with both hands to his long time co-worker.
“Hey, man, how’s it going?” Dean asked.
He nodded Bernadette’s way but that was enough for that short woman. Dean’s wife Amy knew Marvin’s wife Leta very well. In fact, she, Bernadette and Leta had attended a few concerts together, their musical interests aligned but their morals clearly not.
“Good, good. Good to see you, buddy,” Marvin meant it though he was panicked already, perspiration shining from the permanent furrows in his forehead.
Bernadette had insisted they attend. Everyone saw for themselves her control just in the brutal way Martin had treated Leta after Bernadette inserted herself in the mix. Everyone knew why the couple clung together, the lies they protected and told one another, their mutual agreement an invisible glue long cracked transparently in the eyes of all concerned.
Leta and Marvin were separated nearly five years when Leta’s best friend Bernadette, the very friend she had confided all the vile reasons why she had to leave her marriage in, this was the only glue holding Bernadette and Marvin together. It was how they made themselves feel it was okay to do what they were doing, that Leta was the crazy one. All while pressing her parts where Leta’s had once been and, if she had her way, Bernadette would be keeping them pressed there, no matter who it destroyed.
Marvin looked grey, thinner than ever and you could see he was paying a toll for something alright.
“Looks like a good party going on. Where’s the bar?” Marvin asked this while patting the flask of vodka inside his navy blue jacket, his constant reassurance policy right where it always was.
“Follow me, “ Dean said as he turned on his heel to lead them . Dean was young looking for his age but the past few years had not been kind to Marvin and they looked at least a decade apart although they were the exact same age.
Bernadette’s ash washed skin spoke of women in candlelit rooms, voodoo halls and dolls in the dead of winter, hidden away from sight until business picked up when tourist season started in spring. Her unevenly tattooed eye brows underlined the gypsy apparel, the entourage of cheap glittery necklaces and gawdy earrings. All she needed was a scarf tied around her head to complete the look.
Leta was a classy lady who dressed with an easy elegance that only seemed to heighten Marvin’s presence just as Bernadette’s presence cheapened him. It wasn’t only Bernadette’s disloyal choices and appearance that set her apart from any good taste in the room. It was the secrets she had to agree to keep, the secrets she wore as brazenly as though Leta was a crazy woman who made everything up out of thin air about her husband. Bernadette should have known Leta better than that, the thirty years Marvin had to make things right were wasted, Marvin was full of promises and that was about all is what Leta had told Amy.
Amy was at the bar getting herself another ginger ale when Dean slipped an arm around her shoulders. The flashing Christmas lights cast a fleeting pall over everyone, an inexpensive mockery of true disco ball days.
“Look who’s here, sweetie,” Dean said.
Strains of Heart’s Barracuda were keeping the dance floor full and the band promised to do any song requested so Amy had just requested they do Elton John’s “Your Song” – the song Dean dedicated to her at their wedding.
She turned expecting to greet someone gladly so that her smile froze awkwardly, half expressed while she uttered a curt, “Hello.”
“Amy,” Marvin said, “Hi, uh, It’s nice to see you.”
“I’m sure it is,” Amy said, her eyes fastened on Bernadette who seemed oblivious to her own ill chosen appearance.
“Well, what a night this has been so far! Let’s get a beverage and sit down, Marvin, the air in here is so dry.”
Bernadette grabbed the moment to laugh it all off – laugh, laugh, laugh it off she liked to say- with the type of forced laugh people give when thinking themselves funny. No one else laughed but she didn’t seem to notice. Stubbornness was one of her most prideful traits. She pulled Marvin’s sleeve but he seemed distracted, not really present with her or anyone else. Suddenly he just followed along like a good little doggy and Amy turned to Dean.
“I hope you didn’t invite them to sit with us.”
“ I knew better than that, “ Dean said this smiling at Amy, glad for her pluck. It had never left her from the time they were high school sweethearts through raising their three twenty- something children. At forty eight Amy could still cut a swath across a room in her stylish dresses and heels even though her favorite clothes were soft blue jeans with pilly old sweaters. Amy was a confident woman and it was her goodness that struck people ahead of her presence. Somehow you just knew this was one good woman who wouldn’t entertain anything unseemly.
Including Bernadette McGratten.
Bernadette was already chatting up the company president, a beefy man with a Santa paunch and the charm of thirty snakes, already drunk as a lord and clapping Marvin on the back like they were long lost pals. In some way, they were.
Later in the night, when the band started playing softer music, slower dance songs, Dean said to Amy, “I feel sorry for the guy, believe it or not. Everyone is avoiding them. He looks lost.”
“He looks lost because he is roary-eyed drunk! He’s not lost. He is just trying to escape himself.”
Amy knew she was right about this.
Leta had shared that Marvin’s self loathing was the hatred between them. He hated himself for all the harm he had caused her and the children, for hurting them all so irrevocably. He treated Laura terribly and apologized only when she left, “I am so sorry I treated you so inhumanely. I know I treated you like an animal. Like a piece of dog shit on my shoe. I am so sorry. I was never a good husband but it wasn’t your fault. You were such a good wife. You are the purest person I have ever known. “ He’d also said he would always love Leta and she knew it was true but, as she told Amy, that just isn’t enough anymore, I don’t want to die here in this sham of a marriage.
“Speaking of escapes,” Amy said aloud, “I need to make one to the ladies room and I wouldn’t mind leaving anytime after that. Just let me know when you are ready to go.”
The band hadn’t played her request yet but she was tired and it was an hour’s drive home for them.
The washroom was rife with colognes and perfumes and as Amy exited the stall she was in, there stood Bernadette at the sink, her back reflected in the mirror as she leaned against the counter.
“Why does everyone hate me?” she asked.
“Don’t play cute with me,” Amy said. “You know why.”
“Leta left Marvin long before I got involved. I didn’t take him from her.”
“No, you could never do that, you never stood a chance there,” April said. “But you know as well as I do why she had to leave. Then you call her crazy and make crazy motions at her right in her own home before you haul off and kick her when she is helpless. Why didn’t you just leave, leave, leave as both of them repeatedly asked you to? You’re a nurse for God’s sake, you’re supposed to know when someone is distraught. And you were the reason for Leta’s distress and you knew it! Does it feel good to be you inside there? I can’t imagine being a soulless person like you who spouts religion and God, God, God as if you actually know him. The only God you know has a pitchfork.”
“You don’t understand…” Bernadette started.
“No! You don’t understand. You crossed a line of love and loyalty of friendship for a person who thinks nothing of committing crimes. How could you bring your own children into a situation where you know he is reformatting his hard drives weekly to cover visits to underage porn and other unimaginables that destroyed their marriage? If I didn’t despise the evil you have done to Leta, I might even feel sorry for you. First her marriage is a sham and then her friendship with you is all false, too. Karma is a bitch, Bernadette, and when you meet her, give her my regards.”
Amy grabbed the door handle, the cool brushed steel welcome against her clenching fingers.
“ Please…you don’t understand… let me tell my side… you don’t understand,” Bernadette plead.
“Your side??! I don’t want to hear your side of anything! I don’t want to ever understand the kind of evil person who could do what you have done to Leta. You don’t even know the meaning of “friend”. You have no idea what virtue and conscience even are or you could never do what you have done. To anyone. But especially Leta. She really loved you and you abused her love. How dare you write to her telling her ‘she’ is of no character value – turn around and look in that mirror if you want to see what soullessness looks like!”
Amy was shaking when she stepped back into the ball room where Dean was smiling her way. “Take me home, my man, I need out of this place right now.”
Bernadette watched them leaving.
She watched everyone leaving.
They always left.
They never looked back.
She looked over at Marvin sitting with the company president who was asleep, his head on the table. Bernadette felt calm again, took a deep breath and started for the table where Martin sat, too drunk to talk to, too drunk to drive himself home, too broken for any glue to hold him together ever again.
Marvin was different from the rest of the men in her life. She could feel it. Everything was different this time.
Once, after a two month relationship she deemed so intense it warranted a ten year depression along with a revolving door of men who routinely dumped her before they even opened the gate let alone got out of it, she thought she would never feel this intensity again but here it was with Marvin.
Bernadette knew Marvin would never love her the way he loved Leta because he couldn’t after what she had done to Leta. He knew she knew what he was and what he had done, too. He even told her that Leta was the purest person he ever knew. She would rather he was able to say that of herself but she could settle with that the same way she settled with everything else she knew was not good or right about this whole situation.
Bernadette knew he really needed her because he had nobody else left who wanted him. Not even Leta.
Marvin really, really needed her now.
And that was enough for her.
She hummed the final bars of the Elton John song to herself …
How wonderful life is…
© Aurora Morealist