Fireworks Every Night
The sun’s golden glitter threw itself against Marie Antoinette’s harp. Gilded with hand-painted flowers and depictions of Minerva, it stood in the corner against a wall of windows that commanded sweeping views of the Long Island Sound. To me, the harp seemed lonely—a party guest who doesn’t know anyone, in desperate need of a drink. Every time I visited Alex’s parents’ house, I headed straight for it and plucked a string. The tension was so taut that it resonated without seeming to vibrate. The sound was akin to a bell, ringing out delicate and clear up to the double-height ceilings. I could never quite believe that Alex grew up with Marie Antoinette’s harp in his living room. “It wasn’t her main harp,” he said. “I think she just strummed it a few times.”
Like many other pieces in the Wellmans’ art collection, the harp traveled often to different museums and conservatories around the world. It appeared, disappeared, went on tour.
For our engagement party, it reappears.
The event producer arrives. His assistants carry clusters of white flowers, tablecloths, enormous shapely vases. Parties of this caliber make me nervous. Someone stands for a speech, and I brace myself for a manic episode. I sit on anything white and I’m certain I’m going to start my period. Needing a drink, I open the liquor cabinet—crème de cassis, Campari. The Wellmans are not drinkers.
Mr. Wellman approaches. Mild-mannered, soft-spoken, he is the embodiment of a wise patriarch. He dozes in the rose garden. He reads up on wars. Anyone in the family has a question about tax shelters—they go to him. They have to make an appointment and everything.
Mr. Wellman is impeccably polite. To the point where I have a hard time telling how he really feels about anything. I once went with him, just the two of us, to buy a painting. The artist lived in a building in Hartford—an hour-and-a-half drive from Darien. I had never witnessed an art deal; I was under the assumption it would be a joyful event. The artist wouldn’t come out of her kitchen, so Mr. Wellman negotiated with her boyfriend in the TV room. He was nice—he offered us coffee—but the artist kept shouting rude remarks. “Sure you want it? Think it’s gonna match your sofa?” I was confused: why was she insulting a buyer, especially one as kind and generous as Mr. Wellman? I asked him about it on the drive home. “Well,” he said and left it at that.
“There you are! Hello, dear,” he says. I close the liquor cabinet.
“I have good news.” He gauges my reaction, though he hasn’t told me a thing. “Your mother’s coming.”
My face goes tingly and my breath cycles fast, as though I might faint. He must notice something in my expression, because he starts saying things like We want to meet her. We’ve grown to love you. I’m sure we’ll grow to love her as well. It will mean a lot to her to be involved. That’s all any parent wants.
By the time I find Alex, in a separate wing, in his childhood bedroom, laying out his suit on his childhood bed, I’ve broken into hives. They start at my chest, climb up the side of my neck, and creep around to the corner of my lip.
“Are you allergic to the hydrangeas?” he says.
“Did you invite my mom?”
He sucks in his cheeks. It’s his tell; he does it whenever he knows he’s done something somebody won’t like.
“She RSVP’d. We got the email this morning.”
I’m floored. She has email? My feeling is that there’s been some kind of mistake. Like, he got in touch with the wrong Mary Kay Borkoski.
“What’s her email?” I say.
“What is it?”
“MissPalmBeach at AOL.”
I haven’t seen my mom since I was seventeen—about nine years ago. Last I heard, she lives in Ohio and her job involves manual labor. Yet there’s no doubt in my mind: that’s definitely her email.
“My parents were concerned that the guest list was too lopsided,” Alex says. “Your side was basically blank.”
“There’s a reason for that!” I hear panic in my voice.
Alex softens his tone. “My parents set everything up. It’s all taken care of. They want you to feel represented. They feel like you don’t have anyone. That’s all.”
Everything he’s saying is profoundly embarrassing. Not having family support makes me feel like a reject—which is exactly why I wanted to elope to Vegas. But Alex wouldn’t have it. He said that marriage was a time to “build our community”—if we had problems, in the future, we could turn to those who, in bearing witness, had sanctified our vows, and they would support us. I had never understood that to be the purpose of a wedding.
“I’m not prepared to see my mother. Especially in front of a crowd of people I barely know.”
“This time tomorrow, you’ll feel differently,” he says with cool certainty. “Trust me.”
I sit on the bed and watch him get dressed. I wonder if he’s looked for or perhaps maybe even found my father. But I can’t bring myself to ask. The doorbell rings. Guests arrive.
Dress damp with sweat, rash throbbing along my jawline, I stand in the corner beside Marie Antoinette’s harp. We look out to the living room, to the growing sea of navy blazers and classic strands of pearls. The candles are lit; tuxedoed waiters offer glasses of wine. I down one.
I watch Alex mingle. He is so good at making people feel welcome. His hair freshly cut, smiling, he is courteous, charming, especially with the elderly guests, and there are so many elderly guests—people his parents have known for decades, people with whom his grandfather attended boarding school. Shaking hands, everyone looks happy. I down another wine. My hands get that floaty feeling, and I begin to feel ashamed of my behavior. The Wellmans are right. She is
my mom. She does
deserve to be here. I don’t know why I didn’t invite her. I guess I saw it as doing her a favor—I didn’t want to put her in the position of having to make up excuses as to why she couldn’t come.
Alex spots me. His smile grows wider. I’m lucky. He’s going to force me to grow as a person. He’s all-knowing. He waves me over.
The entrance hall is crowded. No sooner do I stop talking to one couple than I bump into another. In the course of conversation, I take small steps and work my way toward Alex. I move aside; I let people pass. One more wine and I visualize the house from my mom’s point of view—standing out because of the way it’s lit and the number of people going up to it. I don’t want her to feel intimidated or self-conscious. Maybe I should wait outside for her.
The air smells like wet leaves. Cars round the turn, and the driveway seems to swim.
I don’t want to seem rude or unappreciative, so I return to the party. People I’ve never seen before say, “There she is!” I fill our conversations with questions so that there’s no time or space for them to ask me any. At the slightest lull, I go back outside. Foot traffic in the entrance hall dies down, until I’m the only person opening and closing the front door.
Dinner is served. The large, airy garden room has been transformed into a dimly lit communal dining space. Glass candelabras rise from tables covered in cloths and plates, layers of dark green and electric lime. There are crumbling classical sculptures, and lemons—so many lemons—some loose, some tumbling from bowls, and some hanging from lush trees. Guests recall stories from Yale Law, and I feel their body heat, the vibration of their laughs, the crackle of the skin as I cut into my duck confit. But, mostly, I feel Mom’s empty chair beside me, as palpable and distracting as a tumor.
“Tell me, dear,” says Grandma Wellman. She asks me a question, but my attention is on my racing heart, and I don’t catch a word of it. I’m not sure how to ask her politely to repeat herself, so I say, “Let me think.” I pretend to concentrate on my thoughts and hope someone will save me.
“Mary Kay Borkoski?”
My stomach drops. One of the assistants has pulled back the chair. The name plaque is in his hand. “Will she be joining us, or . . . ?”
“Uhhhh . . .” I say.
“It’s your mother’s chair, dear,” says Grandma Wellman in a way that implies I’m drunk, which I am.
“I know, but I don’t think she’s coming.”
“Of course she is.” She waves away the assistant.
“Wait,” I say.
“Your sister?” Grandpa Wellman says.
“No. My mom,” I say.
“But your sister . . . She is