Commensal

Good people are remembered long after they are gone, but the wicked are soon forgotten.

  • Proverbs 10:7

Iabella threw her car keys onto the wall magnet and stepped out of her shoes. In tripping over a pair of pink and purple pumps, she determined that her sister was home from Athens.

It was hard to tell, but she thought she smelled brownies. Walking into the kitchen, she found out why. Relatives. Ugh. She started to back out, but unfortunately, she had been spotted. Meaningless chatter ceased and a woman – she looked like she was probably related to Isabella’s father – made a dramatic exclamation and bustled to her feet.

“Isabella, this is your aunt Cari,” Isabella’s mother Zoe announced. “Why don’t you go get changed and join us for dinner?”

“Oh, Isabella!” Cari cried, pulling her into a cramped hug. “It’s so great to finally see you!” Holding Isabella at arm’s length, she continued, “oh, sweetie, look at you. You’ve got your mother’s eyes.”

Isabella nodded solemnly. “Yea, she wouldn’t stay still long enough for me to get the rest of her face, though.”

“Isabella!” Zoe snapped. The man beside her – huggy Cari’s husband, Isabella assumed – tried not to laugh, to his credit.

“Fine, mom. Sygnomi, Aunt Cari. I’ll go change.”

The Colberts were not allowed to be barefoot when company was around, so Isabella decided to make up for her flippancy by wearing the new strappy sandals her father had brought her last week. They would have almost been prom material if they hadn’t been black.

She rolled her hair into a tight bun, leaving only one tendril hanging from her temple. Last year’s winter formal dress slid over her body like an awkward hug. It looked like a maroon paper towel roll pulled apart into a coil, wrapped around her and hanging past her knees. The spaces where her bare skin showed were strung with sparkling black shells. She completed her costume with a black diamond necklace inlaid with gold flowers.

Zoe rolled her eyes to the heavens when she saw her daughter’s sarcastically sophisticated ensemble. Isabella accepted everyone’s reactions demurely, and took a place at the dining room table. Everyone else wore running shoes and the simplest jewellery.

“Oh, Isabella, don’t you look lovely!” Aunt Cari breathed, reaching out to touch the necklace. “I have a piece just like this! Mine is real gold, of course, but the style is just the same.”

Isabella smiled sweetly. “Efcharisto, auntie. So, how was your trip?” Truly, she didn’t know who these people were or where they had come from, but her parents didn’t seem forthcoming with any sort of explanation. So she played along: Aunt Cari and Uncle Calvin, about whom her parents spoke all the time.

It was the wrong question, apparently.

“Oh, paidi,” Cari laughed. “I would hardly call Daratsos a trip!”

Seriously? Isabella thought. These people lived an hour away and she had never met them?

“Of course, I was only speaking relatively,” Isabella explained without missing a beat. “The farthest I ever go is school.” This earned her a few chuckles. “And with aerotram passage suspended, it would seem this will hold true for quite some time.”

Uncle Calvin looked concerned. “Suspended? When? We just got off a couple hours ago.”

They had taken the tram for an hour drive. It was getting harder and harder to avoid exposing her incredulity. She shifted her expression into a mask of solemnity. “Only for travel between states. I was supposed to go to Italy this weekend, and I found out today that flying has been restricted.”

A bell went off. Standing, Zoe took dinner out of the oven: cherry chocolate rolls – not brownies – lamb stew with caramelized apples, and potatoes whipped with east Pacific salmon.

“Rhoda,” Zoe called into the intercom. “Dinner!”

“But I can’t!” Rhoda replied from her room. Though Isabella couldn’t see her through the intercom, which was set to private mode, she knew Rhoda probably had three different homework assignments going at once, one hand on the intercom button, one hand holding a quadruple espresso. “I’ve got to finish my documentary.”  

“Rhoda – ”

“Mom, please, it’s due in three weeks.”

Zoe sniffed. “But sweetheart, we’ve got company.”

There was a dramatic sigh. “Fine, I’ll be down in twenty.”

Isabella could tell her mother wanted to rest her forehead on the fridge and die. But she smiled tightly at her in-laws and twirled her hair. “Of course, honey. We won’t wait for you.” She gave Isabella a pleading look. With a tight smile that matched her mother’s, Isabella rose from the table.

“Hey, Rhoda,” she strode into her sister’s room without knocking and flopped onto one of the beds. Rhoda had five different screens running from two desks, and overhead, a microphone and a video camera blinked in pause mode. Rhoda had finished half a latte and was nursing a cappuccino, a boat of spilled milk by her feet. The rest of the room was in spotless order, though, as if it hadn’t been lived in for the past few weeks.

Rhoda stared at her sister. “What are you wearing? What kind of company do we have?”

Isabella shrugged. “I don’t know. Some relatives from Daratsos.”

“Oh, Aunt Cari and Uncle Calvin?”

“You know them?”

“They’re our family. Of course I know them.”

Pulling herself up, Isabella smoothed the sheets. “Okay, whatever. You need to go down there and have dinner. I’m going out tonight, and I need mom and dad in a good mood.”

With a sigh, Rhoda snapped her fingers, and all the screens winked out at once. “Fine. But remember that tomorrow I’ve got a frat party and you promised to cover for me.”

“Right! I did forget. You only reminded me eight times this week.”

They left the room, and the door rolled down to cover the semi-chaos in Rhoda’s room. “So when did they get here?” Rhoda asked quietly as they crept down the stairs.

Stopping Rhoda, Isabella pulled her sister’s messy hair into a ponytail. Instantly, Rhoda looked radiant, and Isabella wanted to rip the hair tie back out. For all her dressing up, she could never achieve her sister’s natural elegance. “I don’t know, they were here when I got home.”

“Oh, Rhoda!” Aunt Cari exclaimed. Isabella settled back into her chair and held her plate while Cari fawned over her sister. Zoe graced everyone with piles of stew and potatoes.

“Okay, time to pray. Isabella, it’s your turn.”

She felt she was getting a little old for this, but she rose from her seat and retrieved the statue of the Allsaint from its shrine on the counter. The statue had always scared her since her parents got it when she was six. It was like a cross between an elephant, a monkey, and a person, among other things. It wore a robe decorated with one of every religious symbol in the world, with a crown of thorns on its head. Its webbed hands and cows feet were nailed to a cross, which was mounted on a circle. Standing at the head of the table, beside her father, she held it up, as far away from her as politely possible. “In the name of life, love and happiness,” she started.

“May we never cease these pursuits,” her family answered, folding their hands in front of them and bowing their heads six times.

“Let us remember the value in every person, no matter their race, sexual orientation, occupation, or religion. Let our focus be on what unites us more than what divides us. Let our thoughts bend toward acceptance, peace, and the value of individual choice. Let us turn away from all forms of discrimination, judgement, and assimilation. We offer our lives and hearts to each other in this way. May we never cease these pursuits.” She kissed its head and bowed low while keeping her arms parallel to the floor. “Amen,” she said.

“Amen,” said her family. She put the Allsaint in its shrine above the stove, where it was meant to keep watch while they slept. She was always glad she didn’t have one in her room, like her parents did. Trying to shake its image out of her head, she sat down to dinner.

Thankful that Rhoda was there to shoulder the conversation, Isabella secretly checked her phone. She had a message from Timothy, making sure she was still coming to the beach. She decided to ignore him. It was good to keep a know-it-all guessing.

Finally, dinner was consumed, and the adults retired to the salon with their sherry. Isabella escaped upstairs to change.

“Mom, I’m heading out!” she called as she grabbed her purse from the living room. Her parents came out, their fake smiles clinging to their faces.

“But, honey, we’ve got company.” Her mother appraised Isabella’s brown, short-sleeved wetsuit and thong shoes. “I thought that with your concert thing canceled, you’d stay home.”

“Jesus, mom, it’s Friday night. We’re just going to the beach. Stop treating me like I’m ten.”

“I remember when Kyle was a kid,” Aunt Cari cut in. “He was allergic to the beach!”

Zoe cringed, and so did Isabella’s father. Rhoda stepped in. “Hey mom? Dad? While Isabella’s out would you mind helping me with my documentary? It’s about families.”

“Then Isabella needs to stay, too,” her father reasoned.

“I most certainly do not.”

Rhoda waved her hands. “Oh, no, no. We did her segment last week. She’s my favorite family member, so her part took the longest.” Isabella snuck out while her parents stood blinded by her sister’s dazzling smile. She hoped they never watched the documentary, otherwise they would wonder why they hadn’t shown up in all the footage of twentieth-century corporate dictators.

She was about to get into her car when she heard someone pull up outside her house. Peering out the garage window, she saw Timothy, in a green Mazda. “Hey, what are you doing?” she asked. “I thought we were going to Baker’s.” He had gotten a haircut. And a new shirt. She smiled at him and leaned in the window.

“Yeah, I thought I would drive this time. You do so much for me.” She rolled her eyes, running her fingers through his hair and pulling him in for a kiss. “Hop in,” he invited. He told the car where to go, and it complied. They took off.

Could he possibly be coming out of his juvenile phase? Had his whacked-out aunt actually reached him? Driving, caring about his appearance? But she knew she couldn’t hope too much.

“So who’s all going to be there tonight?”

“Oh, you know, everyone,” he answered, draping an arm over her shoulder. “It sure is good to be back behind the wheel. I’ve missed you, car.”

“Thank you, Timothy. Praise accepted.”

“What made you finally decide to stop getting me to pony you around?”

“Watch for that man in the road, car.” The car gently changed into the empty lane, avoiding the old man sitting in the street, picking through the gutter grill garbage. “It was nothing really, I just realized that I should start practicing if I’m going to drive you to prom.” He smiled at her. That smile. The I-see-you-lighting-up-my-future smile. She avoided his eyes, staring out the window as the buildings faded into trees, and finally, empty, rocky beach. The school was down below, nested in its little valley like a sleeping kitten. Ahead, several campfires lit the night with their welcoming smiles. Timothy told the car to slow down, though, and activated total autopilot.

“Think about it.” He whispered, carrying on their conversation from the ride to school. “Isabella Kearne. It’s got quite a ring to it, I think.”

Isabella snorted and let her hair fall over her shoulder as a shield. Timothy had gotten a weird idea in his head that they should get married. She was quite certain he made the same proposition to every girl he had dated in the past year, but this certainly was not the root of her refusal. Her plan was to be a single mother, like her mother had been before marrying her dad. No man, no matter how good-looking or sweet, would divert her.

For now, though, she was happy to live in the moment. Soon she wouldn’t have to worry about Timothy and his bogus ideas. Right now she didn’t feel like being a loser like she had been at the beginning of high school. He was like her social safety rope, keeping her from oblivion. Except that every single day there was a party to go to, or a prank to pull. She never, ever got a rest.

“Look, Flavius is already drunk!” she pointed out, sitting up so that his hand slid from her shoulder. Flavius was, indeed, nearly naked and running barefoot through the fire.

With Timothy’s laugh, the solemnity of the conversation flew out the window. “Pick it up, car. Let’s get this party started!”

On arrival they were instantly surrounded by sweaty, alcohol-fragranced bodies bearing gifts of more alcohol. And stories of who had been doing what with whom after how many beers. Stories of who had snuck out early, and what clothing items had come off when. Isabella smiled and declined the drinks, going to one of the change rooms. She stripped off the stupid wetsuit and pulled on the bikini she had picked up at the mall when Timothy wasn’t looking. She didn’t need a mirror to know she would attract every set of eyes within a five-mile radius. She fluffed her hair and joined the party.  

William and Jason played Frisbee in the surf, and they both stopped when they saw her. “Good evening, Isabella,” William intoned in a grand, deep voice, lifting his beer can to her. She made a face at him and kept walking, willing her face not to go red. For crying out loud, it was just William. He had spilled apple juice on her chair in third grade and told everyone she had wet herself.

“Isabella!” someone called from a picnic table that wrapped around one of the fire pits. Violet and her gaggle of gossips. Isabella smiled and waved, picking through the empty bottles, cans, and food containers that dotted the sand. She sat down at the table. Someone handed her a bottle of whisky, which had once been her favorite drink.

“So, how’s the hunt for the prom dress going?” Sulai asked, putting her feet in Isabella’s lap. There was something sticky on them, but Isabella pretended not to notice.

“We went again today. Timothy was no help, of course.” They laughed empathetically. “But now with the trams down, I’m stuck with getting one from around here.” she sighed theatrically.

“I started looking last year,” Jodie said. “I found one and it still fits, so I’m going with that one.”

The girls weren’t sure whether to be impressed. “I’m getting mine made in France,” Chloe offered. “I was supposed to go for my fitting next week but, you know.”

“That war is totally a bummer,” Constance complained. “How are we supposed to get anything done with everything closed off? I wish somebody would just surrender already so we could get on with things. I was supposed to have my hair done in Lebanon. Now I’ll probably have to go to Athens.” They all shuddered in horror at the thought. Isabella didn’t mention that her mother had offered to fix her hair. And that she was planning on accepting the offer.

“And we’re missing the concert,” Arlie put in. They were silent, for a moment, grieving their lost freedom.

“Well, hey, this is a chance to show some ingenuity,” Isabella said absentmindedly. They stared at her, and she remembered that they probably couldn’t even spell “ingenuity.” “That’s what Maddie Hert said, anyway. Did you know she couldn’t find a date to the prom, even though she asked pretty much every guy in the school?” Isabella confided, trying to get the attention away from her. “She even tried to bribe them with private rides on her uncle’s submarine!”

They ate up the lie like Egyptian chocolates. “As if anyone would want to be alone with that ugly cow under water,” Chloe cackled.

Suddenly, a group of guys roared up on ATVs, led by Timothy. They sprayed sand on the table as they skidded to a stop, whooping like cavemen. Most of them were driving with one hand, beers in the other. She could smell the weed on them even from here.

“Timothy!” Isabella shrieked, shaking sand out of her hair. “Are you drunk?”

“Not sure!” he called, revving the engine. “Too high to tell! Come on, let’s go to the cliffs!” The girls ducked under the table to avoid the spray as the guys rumbled away.

“They are so immature!” Chloe complained. “Did you hear what Matthew did last week? He was totally dating Tanis, but I saw him with Molly and they were…”

The girls dissected every possible scandal and rumour that had come up in the last few days, both perceived and fabricated. Soon the conversation turned once again to the prom, and after enduring about half an hour of the “pumps or wedges” debate, Isabella excused herself to take a walk along the shore. The wind was picking up, blowing trash and abandoned clothing across the beach.

What was her problem lately? she wondered. She had been on the outside of this group a few years ago, listening to them talk about all the parties, and wished she could be a part of it. She wished she could emit the same aura of carefree confidence. And most of all, she had wished for Timothy, the most outgoing of the group. He went from composing stories in English class that made her cry to pulling some illegal prank in the drama room. The array of his personality intrigued her. He was the polar opposite of boring, and she had wanted a part of that.

But the endless parties! The endless worry that something she said might be taken the wrong way and cast her into exile! The worry that this mask she wore would solidify on her face, and she would end up like her mother, marrying a man she didn’t love to keep up appearances.

Isabella paused, taking a breath. Where was this coming from? It must be the whisky whispering such things. This was just high school. There would be time later to worry about who she was. Right now, she wanted to enjoy herself. Didn’t she?

The night sky drew her eye. It was the only good thing about this beach, she thought secretly. The view was unobstructed by buildings or city lights or even trees. It was just her and the water and blinking satellites in their endlessly shifting constellations. Timothy had told her once that there were fainter lights in the sky, stars like the sun, eons away. Isabella only half-believed him. They had taken a school fieldtrip to the European Space Station a few years ago, and Isabella had seen those fainter lights. But who was to say that they weren’t the communication and navigation satellites of people on other planets? These “stars” were too easily obscured for her liking.

She wished she could be high above the earth. Downing the rest of her whisky, she tried to chase down her doubts and worries. Adjusting her bikini, she returned to the party.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s