Stories Tragedy

Gold & Black Balloons

Of course, Missy was making a scene at the reception’s welcome table.

Thirty-five years had not blunted Missy’s expectations that she should be greeted by anything but a bevy of uncaged doves and a fanfare of trumpets.

She seemed disappointed with us.

“I don’t see my name,” she asked, blinking at the table cards. “Do you think there’s been a mistake?”

“Apparently,” we replied.

Over Missy’s carefully coiffed head read a banner: “Jessi & Clive – Still Alive!”

Black and gold balloons attempted to make the church’s musty multipurpose room more festive for Jessi and Clive’s 35th wedding anniversary celebration. They’d married right out of high school.

“Well, check again please,” Missy insisted. “I’m sure my husband sent in the RSVP card.”

“You aren’t on the list,” we said, offering Missy little consolation. “But we can pencil you in. There’s room at Table 29. It’s in the back near the restrooms.”

“My husband assured me he sent everything in on time,” Missy mumbled, her head on a swivel, looking for someone to blame. “He’ll be here any minute. You remember Todd—”

Yep. We remembered Todd. Todd the Rod. He was the only student in our graduating class that was prettier than Missy. While Missy kept her knees locked together, Todd ran through the freshmen and sophomore girls and—rumor had it—a few of the substitute teachers, two lunch ladies, and possibly half the PTA.

After all, it was the Eighties.

“Todd will be by later to handle everything. I’ll just fill out this nametag.”

Missy grabbed a purple Sharpie and wrote her name in large curling letters. She still dotted the “i” in her name with a little heart. She peeled off the backing of the nametag and slapped MISSY on her left tit.

“Okay, Missy. Have fun,” we said.

After they married, Missy and Todd moved up north. We’d heard she had quite a career in the city that left no time for family reunions, summer trips home, or long lunches with old acquaintances. We found it strange, though. Missy had been so involved in high school, in the local church, in the community. But, like all small towns, more people decided to leave than stay. Those who stayed cleaved unto each other especially tight.

Those who left, left. We didn’t light too many candles in the windows.

We watched Missy expertly sashay into the small throng, her chin tilted upward to give her crepey neck a more swan-like appearance. Her high-waisted pencil skirt showed off a narrow waist and impressive calves, her legs capped off by impossibly high heels. Our bunions hurt watching her click around in shoes so orthopedically unsound.

The rest of us had acclimated to our fifth decade of life, happily shoveling down spoonfuls of potato salad and cramming wedges of chocolate sheet cake into our laughing mouths, our ample bottoms overhanging the metal folding chairs.

We sat in semicircles about the room, clustered by gender. Our husbands talked about sports teams and vented about politics. We gossiped about other people’s bad decisions and whispered words like “cancer” and “biopsy.”

But we all watched Missy from the corner of our eyes.

Missy circulated around the hall as people conglomerated, leaving Missy a lone gazelle amongst wildebeests. She saw one or two of her old friends who let Missy air kiss them. Like a game of musical chairs, her form grew more and more solitary as intimate friend groups found each other.

We could see her calculate the decades she’d missed.

Missy put on a coquettish smile and walked by our husbands, hoping to start up a conversation. The men looked sheepish, offered her a small nod, and then resumed their conversation about the new chicken place near the hospital.

With each passing rotation around the room, we watched Missy’s chin droop. Her eyes watched the doorway. She pulled out her iPhone. She put it away. She walked to the refreshment table, poured a cup of punch, tasted it, then threw it out. She crossed her arms and tapped her long lacquered nails. She pulled out her iPhone, texted something, then frowned.

There was nothing here for her.  

We looked at each other. We were the minor players in high school, the quiet girls who said little but saw everything. Wordlessly, we moved en masse over to Missy, full of strange compassion.

“Is Todd on his way?”

She startled. We had interrupted her private reverie.

“Uh, no. Todd isn’t coming,” she smiled thinly. Her dental work was breathtaking, her teeth as straight and white as when she called out cheers on the football field. Her lips were accentuated by pretty plum lipstick. We preferred our tubes of Chapstick.

“Oh, I guess we’ll see him another time,” we said.

“Absolutely.” Her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Todd was really hoping to see you all again.”

Todd the Rod would be hard-pressed to remember any of our names, we thought.

“So, are you visiting for a while?”

“I’m home,” she said flatly. “For the duration.” She looked distracted, attempting to find her bearings, everything appearing both familiar and not.

“If we can be of any help—” we offered.

“Thanks, but I’m good. I’m—We’re really good. I’m just back in town for a little while,” she added and quickly turned her head.

We collectively envied the wave of her thick blonde hair, cared for with biotin supplements and hot oil treatments. Our hair was brown and frizzy, clogging up the shower drain as it thinned.

Missy had had enough.

With a final look around the room, much smaller now than she’d once remembered, she took long strides toward the exit, not acknowledging anyone before pushing open the door to the parking lot and disappearing into the night.

Her departure left waves of nostalgia trailing in her wake, and for a moment we felt like guilty conspirators. But in the closing moments of Jessi and Clive’s 35th wedding anniversary celebration, there were dishes to clear, tables to wipe, chairs to fold, and balloons to pop.

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