By the time the doorbell announced our guests, dinner was nearly done, the wine was chilled, and the hors d’oeuvres were set out in the living room. When the bell rang, I lit the last of the candles, and then opened the front door.
Julianne pressed a bottle of wine into my hands. “Pour me a glass, please. A big one.”
I winced. “Sorry to hear that.”
She waved her hand. “Oh, I’ll be fine. Especially after a big glass of wine.”
“Ben’s in the kitchen. He should be able to help you out.”
She took the bottle back from me and moved past me down the hall. I watched her go, then turned back to the door to greet her husband. He was shockingly tall, basketball player height, with a neatly trimmed dark beard and brown hair.
“Hello. You must be Greg.”
He shook my hand. “Elise. So nice to meet you.”
“Is she okay?”
“She’ll be fine. She’s spent much of the day bemoaning the time and money down the drain, but she’ll be okay in a couple days.”
“How are you?”
“I’m fine. Bummed out, but fine.”
“Let’s go see how Julianne is getting along in the kitchen,” I suggested, and led the way down the hall.
I watched from the doorway as Julianne finished the dregs of her glass of wine, then held the empty glass out to Ben, who refilled dutifully. He looked up at me, his eyes confused and a little sad. He’d seen me take down a bottle of wine after a negative cycle. It seemed pretty obvious that Julianne had gotten bad news.
“My beta on Thursday was a fucking four,” Julianne hissed, after downing half of her second – oh, God, I hoped it was only her second – glass of wine. “Four. It’s like a joke.”
“Yeah, but the number doesn’t matter,” I replied. “As long as it goes up.”
“No, it’s at point five today. Another joke. Like, it can’t be zero and let me move on with my life. Oh, no, that’s too easy.”
“I didn’t even know you could get a decimal point,” I said.
“Honey, there’s nothing I can’t do,” Julianne replied, setting her now-empty glass on the counter. “Except have a baby.”
Julianne was finishing her third glass of wine when Paige and her husband Jake arrived. God, they looked young. Dressed a little nicer, and I’d believe they were on their way to prom. They even resembled each other, the same bright blue eyes, though Jake’s precisely combed hair was a bit blonder. They looked every bit like a couple who had been together so long that they were starting to become one entity.
Paige presented me with the pie – “Cherry,” she said. “I hope that’s okay” – and we moved down the hall to the dining room. We sat down at the meticulously set dining room table, with Ben’s mouth-watering pheasants with roasted potatoes on each plate, a fancy salad on the side, candles and flowers in the middle of the table, doing everything I could to impress. I didn’t think there was anything I could do at this point to impress Julianne, unless it was to refill her glass, but I needed to do something to win over Paige and her husband. Julianne wasn’t helping that cause.
“I wouldn’t care about this,” Julianne said, “if only someone could tell me what’s wrong with me.”
Ben opened his mouth, and I kicked him under the table. While I was sure his response was witty, we didn’t need to add that to the mix.
“You guys don’t have a diagnosis either, right?” Julianne asked me.
“See, you guys,” Julianne continued, gesturing toward Paige with her wine glass, “have it made.”
“What do you mean?” Paige asked.
“You know your husband shoots blanks,” Julianne said, and Ben spit his wine out at this. “So you know how to fix that.”
Paige’s husband Jake turned red. He shot Paige an angry glance.
“That’s not your business,” he hissed.
“It’s not a big deal,” Julianne replied.
Of course, it wasn’t a big deal to her, or frankly to me. We didn’t judge people on their ability to reproduce. But it was clearly a big deal to Jake.
“That’s private information between my wife and me.”
“Well, it’s not like our doctor told me.”
“Paige should know better than to discuss such things with you.”
“We’re friends. Friends talk about these things.”
“No, they don’t. It’s private.”
“It’s private, Julianne,” Paige repeated. “I can’t believe you would say something like that at dinner.”
She looked mortified. I’m sure over the years I had pulled this same thing, discussing otherwise private information with a friend, assuming it was in confidence. But you never knew when something like that would end up coming out, and this was definitely one of those times that it was blowing up. Ben was studiously avoiding looking at the rest of the guests at the table, eating his meal as if nothing was going on.
“Don’t be prudes,” Julianne said. “We all have something wrong with us. And we all talk about reproduction all the time.”
“Well, I don’t,” Ben said, and I shot him a look that he didn’t see, his head still bent over his plate.
“Julianne,” I said softly. “Maybe this is one of those things girls talk about between themselves that they don’t want everyone to hear about later.”
“Hmm, like cramps. I got it. Sorry, no problem, I won’t mention it again.”
“It’s too late now,” Ben said, and again I shot him a look. If he continued to ignore me, this party could become even more awkward. If that was even possible.
“Ooh,” Julianne said. “It is, isn’t it? Sorry. I’ve had a lot of wine.”
The two-thirds of the party that weren’t Paige and Jake laughed. An entire bottle had sacrificed itself so that Julianne could make an ass out of herself, and take Paige down with her. I couldn’t remember the last time I knocked back four glasses of wine in less than twenty minutes, though no doubt I had. I wasn’t entirely sure why I found her so amusing, rather than annoying. Maybe because I could see that’s what she needed. Behind her attempts to keep things light, I could see the pain in her eyes. She was reeling from this latest slap in the face. She’d be punished via hangover, like so many who made the same choice to get hammered and then speak their minds. Paige would probably be pretty pissed too. I had no beef with Julianne so far.
“Ben, this is delicious,” Paige said, gesturing with her fork toward her plate. “Do you cook often?”
Finally he looked up from his food. “Well, Elise can’t boil water. So I do my fair share of the cooking, plus hers.”
“Paige, you made a pie!” I said. “How did you learn to do that?”
“Oh, it’s pretty easy, once you get the hang of it.”
“Did you seriously make the crust yourself?” I asked. I was glad for the distraction from Julianne’s drunkenness. And also, why would someone make a pie in this day and age when you could buy one? I had to know.
“I did. I’m sure I could teach you if you wanted to learn.”
Ben laughed. “No, I’m sure you couldn’t. Trust me on this.”
“I’m pretty hopeless,” I agreed. “I buy my pies at the store. They have all kinds of flavors, Paige. You really should try it.”
“Baking is a great stress reliever,” she replied. “I guess it’s my hobby.”
“So Julianne is the only one who stalks her fellow patients at the fertility clinic.”
Julianne snorted. “I told you, I needed a hobby. Imagine how much worse I’d be if I didn’t have my fellow patients to keep me busy.”
Ben caught my eye across the table. “I like them,” he mouthed.
Me too, I thought. Me too.