She refuses to ring the doorbell, and so she stands there, scalloped-potato offering balanced awkward against her hip like an uncooperative toddler as she digs in her purse for her phone, on which she plans to text apologies from the front door and then walk away. She is scrolling through her messages, looking for the correct number, when he steps up from behind her and pushes the button, announcing their arrival. She glares at him, and as the door opens, he is speaking; the hostess smiles welcome into his profiled look of feigned puzzlement as he says, “It’s just a housewarming party. Why are you always so weird and hopeless out in public?”
He segues into introductions as though he hasn’t already summed her up. She extends the hand which still holds the phone as he says, “This is my wife Ehrin.” The hostess’ name is Jessica, and she reaches for the potatoes as Ehrin says, “With an h,” which she always says, because she likes people to know, but Jessica is confused and stares down at the potatoes as though h is the name of an ingredient worthy of particular mention, and so then Ehrin has to say, “My name … there’s an h … after the E,” and then her husband says, “I’m Bob … with an h as well … after the B.”
Sometimes marriage is white-hot hatred, but Ehrin smiles.
Jessica laughs and steps aside to usher them into the house. “You’re the first to arrive. Let me just let Adrian know you’re here.”
Ehrin regrets everything in her life that has led her to this moment in which she is first to arrive at this party. Bob swoops a ridiculous gallant arm as he turns to her to say, “Ladies first,” and she almost takes advantage of the positioning to kick him in the balls. “Welcome to the neighborhood,” she imagines herself saying pleasantly as she steps over her husband’s writhing body.
He peers into the oven. “You made scalloped potatoes? Like from scratch?”
“You said we were supposed to bring a side-dish.”
He looks at her doubtfully. “Yeah, but not from 1972. I was thinking a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine.”
“You should have said. Anyway, 1972 is oddly specific.”
He opens kitchen cupboards two at a time, flinging them wide as she stares. He sighs. “We don’t have any wine?” He pulls open the cupboard doors above the refrigerator and moves aside a rarely used waffle-iron to get a better view of the jumble of small appliances stored beyond. They don’t have wine … neither of them enjoy wine enough to have it on hand at home. She watches him; he cannot honestly be expecting to find wine. He opens a few more drawers … shoves his hands to the bottom of their stash of Tupperware lids. He sifts his fingers through the silverware drawer. “Do we seriously not have any wine?”
She walks around the kitchen closing cupboards and shutting drawers. “Check in the oven … or maybe the dishwasher.” He squats to peer into the cupboard beneath the sink. She stares at him in exasperation. “What is wrong with you?” The timer on the oven goes off, and she carefully removes the scalloped potatoes, resting them on the stove-top so they can cool and thicken a bit. She is pleased — the dish has turned out well.
He stands and waves a helpless hand. “It’s just that we’re going to be the couple who brings homemade scalloped potatoes.”
“It’s just so … hearty.”
“How is that an insult?”
“It’s just so …”
“1972?” she guesses.
“Yes. Is that who you want them to think we are?”
“If I say yes, can I jingle my keys as we arrive and ask where the bowl is?”
“Don’t you care what people think?”
“Why are you doing this?”
He slumps against the counter. “Why am I doing what?”
She is annoyed. “You know I hate parties. You know I hate these things. I’m going because you want me to go, because you promised I would go, and so why are you trying to make me feel stupid?”
“It’s just that you never get things quite right.”
“Well, isn’t this going to be a fun evening.” She pulls on the oven mitts again and carefully places the hot dish inside the casserole tote she purchased …
His eyes widen. “Wait, what is that?”
She is defensive, and she smooths the clear vinyl window with her fingertips, presses the flower-patterned fabric shut along its Velcro closure as she says, “It keeps the food warm during transport. I bought it at the grocery store this afternoon.”
He shakes his head and says nothing, and so she walks to where she left her sweater draped across the back of a chair and shrugs it on. “Are you ready?”
“Is that what you’re wearing?” he asks in a tone which makes clear that it is definitely not what she should be wearing.
The house is set into the hill, just as their own house is, and the views of the forests and mountains beyond are spectacular, just as they are from their house. Ehrin walks to stare out the living-room window, remembering how many months it took her to stop feeling as though the responsibility for spotting the first smoky whispers of a forest fire was hers alone. The vigilance had been exhausting and stressful; her heart still occasionally lurches when she considers the enormity of the vulnerability. She wonders if either of this new couple is the sort to stare out into the darkness, breath held against devastation’s spark. She turns to survey the room, surprised at how done everything is. Nothing in their own house is ever quite done; Ehrin and Bob have lived in their house for eight years, renovating in seeming slow-motion for the entirety of those years. Jessica and Adrian have apparently arrived after some other unknown someone has done all the work, and their house is perfect. There are boxes yet to be unpacked, and pictures to be hung, but the house itself … it’s perfect.
Weirdly perfect, Ehrin realizes as she stares up at the crown moldings along the ceilings; every seam and joining is flawless. She and Bob put up crown moldings in their living room a few years ago, and their moldings throw shadows where the wood doesn’t meet the ceiling, buckle and swoop over the quirks in the walls, and there are gaps at the seams into which they finger-smoothed gobs of plaster, hoping no one ever looked too closely. All this time later, Ehrin averts her eyes from the imperfections every time she enters that room.
Jessica emerges from the kitchen, and Ehrin senses she is gearing up to give a house tour; Ehrin holds up her phone apologetically and turns back to the view, pretending to attend to urgent texts before the other guests arrive and the party starts in earnest.
It’s less than a five-minute walk to the party, and for the first minute, they walk in silence. Ehrin doesn’t appreciate how well that minute has gone until he breaks the silence, reaching sideways to poke at her flowered bundle. “It’s like you bought clothing for the food.”
She says nothing.
He pokes again. “Swaddling – that’s what they call it. Like you’re carrying a baby.”
She stops short and turns to stare at him. “Are you kidding me right now?”
“I see what you’re doing.”
She takes a deep breath and holds out the potatoes. Nods. “Yes. That’s exactly what I’ve done. I’ve bought clothing for the potato-baby. Unable to start a meaningful conversation with you, I’ve gone the incredibly subtle route of dressing our food in infant-outfits so as to weaken your resolve.”
“I’m just saying.”
“Are you, though? You’re the one who didn’t want to talk about it.” She starts walking again, the swaddled dish hugged tightly against her chest. She can feel the heat of it against her angry heartbeat.
“You’re difficult to talk to. You make demands. And no one asked you to make potatoes.”
She keeps walking. “I don’t want to fight. You’re scaring Darlene.”
“Like I’m going to consult you on the scalloped-baby name.”
There is another moment of silent walking, and then he says, “Try to hold it together.”
“Yeah … like that. That’s the exact energy I’m hoping you’ll be able to sustain for the entire evening.”
“No worries, then.”
The doorbell rings, and then again, and then again, and then the door is just left open as the house fills with guests. Ehrin tries to imagine if this many people would come to her funeral, much less her housewarming party. She watches Bob (who is avoiding her) and several other people laugh too hard at a story Adrian is telling. She walks into the kitchen, where her potato dish, still dressed in flowers, sits amidst a sea of uncut loaves of French bread and bottles of wine. Ehrin decides to drink a lot.
There are green balloons tethered to the mailbox, and he reaches to bat at them — a strangely playful gesture as he says, “You’ll like Adrian. He skis. Wrote a book about business culture. Got his MBA at Berkeley. He collects wine. He likes to tell stories, so laugh in the right places. Can’t remember what his wife’s name is, but …”
She cocks her head. “Did you just say, ‘laugh in the right places’?”
“You want to tell me what I’m missing?”
He sighs. “There’s been a little restructuring at work, and Adrian is new.”
“Restructuring? You never said. New at what, exactly?”
“New at … ummm … being my boss.”
“I am going to kill you.”
“So now do you see why I didn’t want you to wear that outfit?”
“Oh for fuck’s sake.” She reaches into her purse. “I am not doing this. I am going to text them and explain there’s been an emergency, and we can’t make it.”
“We’re already here.”
She scrabbles around in her purse. “Even so.”
“Just ring the doorbell.”
“I will not.”
Several glasses of wine later, Ehrin has wandered the house several times and has returned again to the kitchen, where she is running her fingers along the perfect checkerboard pattern of the tiled kitchen back-splash. She cannot get over how tightly this house is put together. How all of the angles are square. How every surface is level. Some part of her disbelief she speaks aloud, because Jessica appears before her, accepting the compliment and explaining that the house was built by an architect … built it with his own two hands … every inch to his exact specifications. “We knew when we walked into this house,” Jessica says, addressing the entire room as though she’s a docent at a museum, “that this was a place to trust a life together. This was a place with no detail left unattended. The level of care that went into building this house … we wanted to live within that care.”
Ehrin isn’t sure that last part makes sense, but she lets it go. She stomps a foot hard on the floor and says, “I bet if you put a marble down on the floor, it would stay just where you put it.”
Jessica nods. “Every inch of this house is level. Every inch is in perfect balance. It’s important, don’t you think?”
The rest of the people in the room nod agreement. Ehrin thinks of her own house, in which she and Bob can barely keep their footing. She downs the last of her wine, and she goes in search of Bob. She finds him entranced by another of Adrian’s stories — something about black diamonds in the snow and grabbing life by the throat. Ehrin pulls Bob away. “Listen. We’re going to have a baby, and we’re going to name it Marbles and it’s going to roll wildly over the tilted surfaces of our imperfect lives.”
His eyebrows arch. “Marbles?”
“It works for a boy or a girl.”
He considers. “How’s it spelled?”
“The name … this baby of ours … how is it spelled?”
She smiles and leans heavily into him, steadying herself. “There’s an h … after the M.”