We're two drinks past dinner when Heidi informs me that she and Karl have bought another house. "We couldn't pass it up. Mid- threes in Point Reyes." She flags a young woman in a striped wool cap and orders another round. "It was going to be an investment. But Newt wants it, once it's fixed up. Did I tell you he's moving back? He asked after you."
"I hope you reminded your brother I have a restraining order."
"Wasn't that last year?"
It's a year since I've seen Heidi, a year since my ex-husband Newt crashed my second book launch party. I'd played it low key at first. Even managed to be civil when he cornered me at the bar. At least until his date joined us. We all ended up in squad cars. No charges were pressed.
"The order's good for five years," I say. I finish my drink.
"God. That's as long as you were married."
"It's not based on how long we were—"
"Anyway, we were lucky to get the house. There were multiple bids even though some woman died there. Azalene something. They didn't find her for two months. She had a lot of cats. Thank god there was a window open." The crowded charms on Heidi's bracelet jangle as she swirls her drink. "Can you believe those cats chewed that woman's face off and then crapped all over the place?"
My fingers squeegee the dew from my empty glass to the tabletop. Heidi giving her brother a house isn't a surprise: just another of the handouts that started when she married Karl's money. But Newt moving back to the Bay Area? Unexpected. He's a native Angelino with an arrogant disdain for anything north of Castaic. I scan the room to catch the server's eye. She smiles (it's a work smile, not a real one) and nods. Drinks are coming.
Heidi goes on. "It's going to take us a while to get the house in shape. That woman—Azalene-whatever, face-planted in the living room. Left some kind of massive stain that seeped through the hardwood to the subfloor. It'll cost us a fortune to fix. Not that my brother cares."
The server arrives, flicks two paper napkins on the table and deposits our drinks.
"Adipocere," I say once she glides away.
"Adipocere from saponification." I explain that if conditions are right during decomposition, body fat can turn into a greasy, wax-like substance. "Basically, Azalene melted," I say.
Heidi's eyes widen, and then crinkle at the tails as she laughs. "I've known you what? Ten years? I have no idea how you know that. Or why. Jesus, Cadence."
"Google." The word dives beneath her laughter without a splash, unheard. Like an Olympic perfect ten.
Heidi wipes her eyes with the napkin. "You look great by the way. I meant to tell you earlier." She siphons a mouthful of crushed ice from her drink. Every year since we graduated, Heidi's gotten heavier. Every year, I work harder not to. "Did I ever tell you that Newt said you were the one who proposed?" she asks.
"Your brother's a liar." I drain my glass again.
She laughs. "Such a 'B'." Heidi leans on the table, breasts corralled by elbows. "So. Karl says I'm supposed to ask if you'll help pay for fixing up the house."
A bleat of laughter muscles its way up my throat. "Newt's your brother. He's your problem."
"But he's your ex-husband. He put his career on hold while you got yours off the ground," she says. "And he never got restarted."
"He say that?"
"Well, it's true. He worked as a paralegal to support your writing. Now he's stuck there."
"What's true is that your brother never passed the bar." I set my empty glass down hard enough to kill conversation one table over. Blame was Newt's go-to for everything.
Heidi and I met through an ad our senior year at Berkeley, became roommates and then college friends. I met her brother Newt when he came up from L.A. for her twenty-first birthday party. Heidi drank too much that evening and passed out. Newt and I stayed awake all night and talked. He shared that he wrote poetry, that he was third year Loyola Law. Law school had been his father's idea.
"Where do you want to be when the nukes hit?" he asked.
"Nowhere near them. Why even bring that up?" I didn't say what I was thinking, that it was a stupid question. I wanted him to be perfect.
"Well, I want to be fucking." He kissed me. "You're the first girl I've met who could save me," he said.
I should've asked what he meant. Instead I moved to Los Angeles after graduation. We got married and became yuppies with day jobs, writing nights and weekends. I sold an article to Sunset magazine. Newt got pissy, said my stuff was commercial and easy to sell. Not like poetry. Poetry was a niche market, he said. Impossible to crack. Four years later I finished a manuscript I'd started in college, got an agent, sold my first novel. He avenged my success by blowing my small advance on new speakers and weed. When the movie rights were optioned, he broke a dining room chair against the wall. Unable to write his way out of his anger, Newt gave up.
My mom once said that sex was the last thing to go in a marriage. For Newt and me, it was writing. Writing was the last thing we had in common and when that fell away, I moved on. Abandoned him, he said.
"I told Newt you'd say no."
"I thought you said Karl put you up to it."
"Both of them. Whatever. I was outnumbered." Heidi's glass slips in her hand and a splash of tequila plunges to the floor, a pale suicide. "So we okay? You and me?"
"Fine." I smile, same as the waitress.
© J.R. Hampton