Dee had pregnant friends back home. She had missed their weddings and now she would miss the births of their children. She felt left out but it comforted her a small amount to think that there were plenty of people in the world who hadn’t had their babies yet, and she could meet and befriend a great number of them. With those babies, she would be sure to be present for their ejections from birthing canals.
It was not easy for her to make friends. She tried hard not to appear overeager, or to let her strangeness worm through, so instead people took her for aloof. It was difficult work to be social, and she didn’t put in much effort, especially since she’d moved to California, so she understood that her old friends had distanced themselves. She would too, if she got the impression they did not find her interesting or worthwhile.
Maybe these people could be the ones, she thought, observing the group she was with one night when she and her boyfriend Linus went out to a restaurant on the Sacramento River. But she brushed the idea away fairly quickly. They were a film crew passing through town, making a commercial for a chain of Assisted Living Homes. Linus had been hired on as a local grip. Shortly, they would be on their way back to their headquarters in Oregon, then off to the old people in some other city. But tonight, they seemed in the mood to laugh, and Dee, too, needed to have some fun. They urged Dee to drink, which she did, but the enormous Margarita the waiter brought her lost its appeal after a few sips. Something was wrong with her hands, and had been for a few weeks. Her joints took turns swelling, cracking her skin open, and the salt from the rim made her palm sting. She sipped faster; if she finished this, she could order something plainer, something stronger.
She hid her hands from Linus, as well as the swelling in her knees, and she lay awake at night as her heart raced and he snored next to her. She had not yet gone to the doctor. Every morning she daubed heavy fingersful of concealer under her eyes.
“To Linus!” Gene, who was the director, said, and everyone raised their glasses. From Linus, the attention turned briefly to Dee. When they asked her what she did, she tried to make a joke: “I’m pretty busy being unemployed,” she said, but that only evoked a low chuckle from the group. She hadn’t pinned them as go-getters but they must have been the non-traditional kind. Dee always felt eager to admit her shortcomings before others had a chance to guess them for themselves. She did this in hopes of appearing – humble? Realistic? Usually it just made things awkward, but it was an urge she was never able to resist.
Linus squeezed her hand and whispered, “It’s all right, babe,” but she got the sense that it was not. She had submerged her quirks – the make-believe, the obsessions – but they were beginning to bob to the surface of their relationship.
She settled back quietly, picked at her food and drank her booze, and watched everyone gulp and swallow. The patio of the restaurant swung out over the river, which tooled beneath them, and Sacramento’s skyline nosed its way through some trees down-water. They were interesting people and the night was warm and pink, and she was happy just to observe.
Gene began a story about his days in the circus. He’d been a clown, but had also worked with lions. “There was one lioness,” he said, “who was in love with me. One of the female trainers tried to work with her once, and she would have been mauled to death if I hadn’t been there.” Gene smiled at no one in particular and looked proud of himself. “The lioness was jealous of her.”
Gene wore a Hawaiian shirt and a ring on his pinky with a ruby that winked at the table. He had a big slab of a face, which Dee imagined looked as an ex-clown’s should – mischievous, as though he’d spent a lot of time in his life pretending. Dee flexed her own fingers and was met with resistance in her joints. She’d stopped wearing her usual rings.
“Waiter!” Gene called out, and their server came. His name was Carlos and he’d been annoyed with them since they’d sat down. They were one of those loud, demanding groups, whose members came and went separately and who, later, would want multiple checks.
“It’s their anniversary,” Gene said, gesturing to Linus and Dee, though it wasn’t, and even Dee wasn’t quite sure when they’d begun dating. Theirs had been a vague beginning that dawdled on for months.
“I saw you give that boy over there a sombrero for his birthday,” Gene went on. “Do you have anything for them?”
Moments later Dee was shrinking underneath a sombrero as half the restaurant staff clapped and sang around them.
Gene snapped photographs with his phone, and Dee didn’t know if she was supposed to smile or be candid, so she did something in between that looked more like a grimace. When the servers had cleared away, Dee tried to go back to being invisible. Her gaze fell on a woman named Ellen, a producer for the exploit, whom Linus had talked about on the way to the restaurant. She wore a loose white blouse with floral stitching. She was suing the company the crew worked for, Linus had said, since she had tripped over lawn furniture on a pool deck in Albuquerque. She claimed her back had never recovered but there, at the restaurant, she was laughing, and she twisted around in her seat to flag down the waiter. Her shrimp quesadillas had arrived cold.
“I normally don’t send things back to the kitchen,” Ellen said to Dee. “But seafood has to be hot.”
Dee nodded. Her meal was fine, though the table had been surprised when she’d ordered chicken. Linus was a vegetarian – a pain when it came to ordering lunches on set – and they had all assumed he was doing it for a girl.
“Many a time have I changed my lifestyle for a woman,” Assistant Camera Trent said, raising his glass. “But it turns out Linus is just a little bitch.”
He turned to Dee. “Is that hard for you?” he asked. “That he doesn’t eat meat.” His grin turned into a leer. “Any meat?” The table roared and Dee blushed. Trent looked as though he were waiting for a response, but Dee fumbled comebacks in her mind and eventually Trent turned away.
Dee knew people thought she wasn’t interested in them, but she had figured it out: she was the opposite, intensely interested. So interested, in fact, that she got so caught up thinking about other people that she ignored them entirely. Linus had told her previously that she needed to spend less time thinking.
A clown walked past them, then, and Dee couldn’t believe her luck: a current clown and a former clown, in the same place. He stopped at the table next to theirs, where the child was having his birthday dinner. (His parents had thrown dirty looks their way throughout the night, directed at whoever was saying something inappropriate.) The clown stretched out a balloon and began to inflate it with a pump. Ellen took a sip of her drink and turned to look at him, but when she did she spat out the tequila.
“He needs to leave,” she said.
She worked with a former clown, so she couldn’t hate them that much, Dee thought, puzzling over the girl across the table. She seemed very high maintenance, despite the linen clothing and the windswept look of her hair.
The balloon inflated and Ellen started coughing. Everyone turned to look at her, their mouths open and their heads cocked. “She has a bad latex allergy,” Linus said abruptly, as though suddenly remembering. Gene stood and took big strides toward the clown. He grabbed his shoulders, too roughly, and the father of the boy rose up, his napkin falling from his lap.
“What’s your problem?” the man said, and punched Gene before he could respond.
Ellen fumbled for her purse but dropped it, and it was Linus who reached down, picked up the Epipen, and drove it into her thigh.
There was confusion, then, over who was to blame – the current or former clown, the father of the boy, the manager who didn’t seem particularly interested either way. Dee stayed behind at the table as the rest of the group left the restaurant, stumbling a little, punching the numbers for taxis into their phones. Linus was helping Ellen to the exit. Dee wanted to leave some sort of note for Carlos. They’d been loud, and obnoxious, had demanded song and treated him badly, and after the man had punched Gene, the manager waived the bill, but Dee knew that meant no tip for Carlos. Dee was energized by what had happened that night, but it was also her nature to apologize.
But her fingers wouldn’t close around the pen right, and even when she shook them out and rubbed her joints, her writing was nothing more than scrawl. She rifled through her wallet but only found two singles, and she worried that leaving them would be more insulting than leaving nothing. She pushed in her chair and was about to walk toward the parking lot when a boat passed by on the river, and she heard the slow drawl of a trumpet playing Taps. Someone’s ashes were being scattered, a water burial.
She let the pen drop. The night had gone well in her mind.