All Hallows’ Eve
Beth pictured herself and Gina dressed as cats for Halloween: leotards and fishnets, or else fishnets with very short skirts. Heels. Headbands with ears. Maybe tasteful whiskers. They’d arrive at Hopper’s, where Asher would be waiting, nursing a pint at the bar, and he’d turn and see them, but it would be Beth who would take his breath away. His mouth would open and he’d set down his drink and walk over and say, “Let’s get out of here.” His eyes liquid. She pictured Gina shaking her head and smiling, saying, “You two,” the way she did with couples she approved of, and the words would make them both smile, her and Asher, the way attention from Gina made everyone smile. And Asher would grab her hand and lead her back to the apartment.
But Gina said sexy cats were out. Overdone. Ditto bunnies, nurses, witches, and police officers.
“I don’t get it,” she said, as she did every year. “It’s cold on Halloween.” She set the bowl of popcorn on their living room table.
“That’s why you drink,” said Beth, popping the tab on her Diet Pepsi, snug on her side of the couch. She wouldn’t even mind, she’d decided, if Asher wanted Gina to come home with them. It was Halloween, after all.
“I wish you could still get away with wearing a turtleneck underneath.” Gina dug a handful of popcorn from the bowl and sank into the sofa.
“I used to hate that,” said Beth.
“But at least you didn’t have to suck in your stomach for hours.” She tongued the kernels one by one into her mouth. “How can we be expected to drink beer all night with our midriffs exposed?”
“So drink vodka,” Beth said, settling deeper into her cushion. Gina had nothing to complain about, anyway—her midriff looked great exposed.
“Why don’t I go as a mad scientist and you can be my sexy assistant?” Gina said, crossing her legs. “I could wear a mustache and frizz my hair and put on a lab coat. You could wear something low-cut.”
Beth rolled her eyes. “We’re not dating.” She heaved herself forward and scooped a fistful of popcorn. “The whole point is to have two of the same sexy costume. Like twins.”
“Then why don’t we just go as sexy twins?”
“And have to stand next to each other all night for our costumes to make sense?”
Gina sipped her club soda. “People weren’t even that dressed up last year. I don’t want to be the only one at Hopper’s in a leotard.”
Beth looked at the TV, which was tuned to the E! channel. They liked to watch it when they felt like doing nothing much. As usual, beautiful people were flouncing around impeccable, perfectly lit buildings. The difference between her and Gina, Beth knew, was that Gina’s dating life wasn’t a Rube-Goldberg machine she calibrated every night. When Gina dated, it happened easily, out of the blue (or so it seemed to Beth)—the barista she chatted with would ask her out, or a client would set her up with his brother. Beth, on the other hand, agonized for hours over crafting the precise conditions that would lead to: (1) her wearing Asher’s favorite dress to work; (2) the office being too hot; (3) her taking off her sweater; (4) Asher noticing the dress; (5) Asher not having to get home early that night; and (6) her getting time alone with Asher after work. So she’d arrange her laundry schedule and open the heating vents all the way before she left the office so it could get warm overnight, only to have Asher call the next day and say he was working from home because his son was sick. And then her dress would be sweaty and need another dry clean.
But for the weekend of Halloween, things had aligned almost magically: his wife was taking their kid to Westchester to trick-or-treat with her parents. He was staying in the city. He wanted to go out. Gina had to cooperate. Beth tried a different tack. She suggested a costume with layers so that Gina would have the option of keeping warm, but when Gina asked for an example, she couldn’t think of any. She checked her phone for the hundredth time since leaving work, but no new texts.
“Oh, god,” said Gina. “This is about Asher.”
Beth looked up and set her phone on the coffee table.
“Don’t tell me he’s going out on Halloween.”
“Beth, he’s married,” said Gina. “He has a son.”
Beth reached for the remote and flipped to a different channel. Gina didn’t understand. She could feel Gina watching her, waiting for her to respond, so she was careful to stare at the TV, to pretend she found fascinating what turned out to be an infomercial for a one-piece home gym. In her peripheral vision, she saw Gina pick up her glass and stand.
“He isn’t good to you,” she said, and after waiting another minute walked to her room.
Beth watched the fitness instructor squat and lunge, shining with perspiration. Brushing her teeth before bed, it occurred to her that, in her imagined version of Halloween night, she hadn’t pictured Asher in anything other than his usual khakis and button-down.
At work the next day, she had to cut promo sequences for the two-part Venice episode of Family Freud, the unaccountably popular reality series about a married psychoanalyst couple and their two teenage kids. It had come on last winter as a mid-season replacement. No big hopes. Her supervisor had put her on it so she could cut her teeth. But the Doctors Henderson had captured American TV viewers—possibly, as Asher insisted, because between the teenagers and the psychoanalysis, it was all about sex without seeming to be.
She enjoyed compiling the “previously on” segments, but she lived for the “next week” clips. Preparing the audience for what would come, giving them just enough to tantalize them without giving everything away. The intensity of choosing thirty seconds of footage that would summarize an hour of programming, the way she’d emerge from the blue-walled editing room with no idea how long she’d been under. She often came out with several new texts from Asher, or walked back into their office to him demanding where she’d been. He missed her when she was in there.
Plus, she loved losing herself in the drama of Dr. and Dr. Henderson, who discover halfway through their Venice trip what the audience has known for weeks, that the thirteen-year-old Trent has been burning himself with cigars, which of course the good doctors see as glaringly symbolic of his awakening sexuality.
She watched footage of the family emerging from an airport gate, riding in a taxi to their hotel. Establishing shots of Venice: the Rialto Bridge, the Piazza San Marco, canals with gondolas scattered along their surfaces, gondoliers with muscled arms and striped shirts.
Gina would love it. They’d gotten into the show in spite of themselves, Gina delighted by its absurdity, and Beth fussy about her handiwork. Gina loved cities, any place that was beautiful and appreciated good food. She was the only New Yorker Beth knew who regularly went to museums, ballets, operas, off-Broadway shows. Except even as she imagined Gina’s reaction, she felt a twinge. She hated when they fought, hated that Gina didn’t approve of her and Asher. Yes, he was married, but it wasn’t as straightforward as that. Sometimes Gina was naive about men, about what relationships were like. She’d never really had a serious boyfriend, after all, so what did she know? In the real world, you couldn’t always find someone who was both perfect for you and single and you couldn’t always get out of a relationship when you wanted to. Beth understood this, understood that what she and Asher had was real even though Gina seemed to think she was wasting her time, missing out on other opportunities. What opportunities, though? There weren’t exactly crowds of men clamoring for her number.
She watched what she’d put together so far, tried to picture them on their sofa on Halloween, when this episode would air: laughing, matching. Equally excited about the possibilities the night held as they had been in college when they had a whole crew: Mia, Kay, Maggie, Emma. It felt forced. She could only picture a costumed Gina looking annoyed.
When she got home from work, she found Gina in the kitchen.
“I cut the Venice episodes today,” she said.
“Can’t wait,” said Gina, washing a pot. She set it in the dish rack and dried her hands on the towel hanging by the stove.
“They find out about Trent’s little habit,” said Beth.
Gina lifted the towel to her nose, made a face, and re-hung it. “Smells like mildew,” she said. She pulled a bowl from a cabinet, set it beside a dish of apparently freshly boiled eggs (they smelled like farts, but Beth was not about to say anything). She lifted one, tapped it against the counter, pinched its shell. It slid off in a neat arc.
“There’s a restaurant scene.” Beth opened the pantry and pulled out a box of Ritz crackers. “Pasta, wine, eggplants—total food porn. You’re going to love it.” She sat on a stool across the narrow kitchen from Gina, watched her peel egg after egg.
“By the way,” said Gina, “Joe told me today it’s supposed to rain on Halloween. A lot.” She paused long enough to raise her eyebrows.
Beth swallowed a half-stale cracker. “Isn’t it kind of early for a forecast?”
Gina shrugged. She peeled the last egg and tossed its shell in the trash. “It’s remnants of the hurricane. They always know ahead of time.”
Beth felt venom rise in her. It’s not Gina’s fault, she told herself. Not her fault it’s going to storm. But it felt like her fault. She tried to picture Asher trekking through hurricane winds, lashed with rain, to meet her at a bar. Didn’t seem likely.
Gina pivoted to the fridge and pulled out mayonnaise and pickles. She set them on the counter and took curry powder from the spice rack. “Anyway,” she said, spooning mayo on the eggs, “I thought we could go as fishermen—you know, in those yellow slickers and hats? At least we’d stay dry.”
Of course. “And what would we wear underneath, turtlenecks?” Beth couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of her voice.
“Does it matter? The costume’s the fisherman gear.”
“It matters if we go into bars warmer than fifty degrees.”
“What would you like to wear underneath?” Gina spun, her back against the counter.
“It’s Halloween, Gina.” Beth shoved the cracker sleeve back in its box. “Nobody’s handing out awards for modesty. Just get drunk and hook up like everyone else.” She stood. Not much of a dinner, but she’d eat later, when Gina was finished. Gina, who waited until a man called her (they always did), who regularly got asked for her number and declined to give it, whom men found alluring and attractive and who didn’t seem to care much either way. The only reason she didn’t go out every night of the week was that she was picky—too picky, Beth thought. Waiting for something impossible. Unrealistic about how men really were. Gina scolded her for lowering her standards, and this infuriated Beth; not everyone could afford to maintain high standards. Some people just didn’t get noticed by men, especially when they hung around people who looked like Gina all the time. Once, walking home drunk, Beth had accused Gina of being a prude, which she had immediately regretted. She pushed the box of Ritz back onto its shelf.
“Wait,” Gina said, her eyes on the eggs she was mashing. “Keep those out. They’ll be good with this.” She looked up and nodded between the box and the bowl. A peace offering.
In the following days, Beth, too, heard predictions of the terrible Halloween weather that would hit New York. On Wednesday, two days before Halloween, the sky was already gathering clouds. The wind picked up and blew lingering leaves off the city’s trees. Walking from the train, she pulled her scarf tighter around her and leaned into the chilly wind. Workers were unloading filled sandbags from a truck when she walked into the lobby.
Her promos for the Venice episode had been running for a week already: footage of the whole family riding in a gondola, fifteen-year-old Julep gazing at the gondolier while the doctors exchanged knowing looks about his steering rod; Mrs. Dr. Henderson saying to the camera she’d never seen a city so obsessed with water, in the scandalized tone she had that made viewers hang onto every syllable; the parents opening a door in their hotel suite and their shocked faces, Mr. Dr. Henderson saying, “Oh my god, Trent,” which was of course the scene where they walked in on him burning himself. Beth settled at her desk, set her steaming coffee down and jiggled her mouse to wake her computer.
Asher was not in yet. Wednesdays, he had to get his son to preschool and usually arrived late. A little incompetent in that department, she knew. He’d mentioned once—after the first time they’d slept together—that he didn’t really have a knack for parenting, that he was glad the Drs. Henderson were not around to critique him as he tried to get his son ready for school. Beth had laughed, wondering whether he’d wanted the kid at all, and then why he’d had to mention the child just then, in that already too-short window after sex when things just were and he didn’t have to worry about getting home yet, about whether he should shower.
A poster of the Family Freud cast slipped from its tack on the wall beside her desk. She stood to refasten it and looked at the family a moment. Asher had said he thought the mother was a babe, something about the mole by her mouth and the way she looked at people. Actually, Mrs. Dr. Henderson wouldn’t be a bad Halloween costume. Her look was sort of promiscuous-meets-refined. In the poster, she wore a skirt suit over a button-down with a plunging neckline. Chunky jewelry, hair brushed back but not too severe. Makeup dramatic, impeccable. And if Gina wanted to dress in a jacket and long pants, then Mr. Dr. was just the thing. It wouldn’t be ideal, but Beth had decided that it was better to have Gina on her side, especially if she was going to have to wheedle Asher into coming out during the storm. She’d send her a text and—
“Good morning, coworker,” said Asher.
She jumped. She turned from the poster and saw him dumping his messenger bag beside his desk, which sat only inches from her in their cramped, two-person office. His light-blue shirt had what looked like toothpaste on it.
“I miss anything?” He swilled from a takeout coffee cup and set it on his desk.
“Just watching me walk in.” Beth felt her pulse hurrying, as it always did around him, as it especially did when he took her by surprise.
He put his hand on his chest. “My heart’s breaking,” he said, lightly, but he held her eye contact because no one in the next office could hear that. He switched his computer on and winked.
Beth hated how tongue-tied she still sometimes got around him, how she had to think about everything she said to make sure it sounded right. Only in the office, though. When they were somewhere else—anyway, it was exhausting, talking in two layers at once.
“You’ve got something on your shirt.” She wanted to go to him with a damp cloth and dab at it until it disappeared. Then maybe have him take his shirt off so it could dry…
“That little fucker.” He said it affectionately, scratching at the white blotch.
Beth excused herself to the editing room. He grabbed her hand when she walked by his desk, squeezed it, and kissed the palm, once, very quickly. She walked across the office with her spine on fire.
Friday—Halloween—dawned even grayer than the rest of the week, with wind so high and whistling that Beth woke before her alarm. She stumbled into the tiny living room at the same time as Gina.
“Gross,” Gina croaked, gesturing to the windows. She squinted in the light with that bleary, no-contacts look. She shuffled through the kitchen to the bathroom.
Beth turned on the news, where an energetic weatherman was warning that the weather would not be good for trick-or-treaters, and that parents could visit the station’s website for a list of indoor trick-or-treating locations throughout the city. The rain map called for an inch to fall before the storm passed through.
Beth picked up the remote.
“If you have travel plans for this weekend,” the weatherman said, “get an early start. We’re expecting roads to flood.”
Beth turned it off. She hated him. What if Asher’s wife—
“What?” said Gina, at the kitchen threshold.
“Hurricane,” said Beth. She stood and walked past Gina to the bathroom.
At almost precisely noon, rain began pelting her office window.
“Damn,” said Asher, looking at his watch. “They really called that.” He stood and walked to the window. “And this is just the remnants.”
Beth joined him. Sandbags clustered outside every building on the block. People hurried, well covered in raincoats and umbrellas, dodging trash scudding down the sidewalk and pressing against trees.
She could smell his cologne, subtle and woodsy. In college, it had been easy to hold onto a guy’s shirt or borrow something that smelled like him. Not so much anymore. The wife might notice.
“I assume you and the lovely Gina are going out in this,” he said.
“Naturally,” she said, though her stomach curdled at the “lovely.” She watched an umbrella flip in the wind, its owner struggle to right it. “We don’t believe that water is a good reason to stay home.”
“And what slutty costume have you settled on this year?” He was so close he hardly had to speak the words for her to hear them.
Beth joke-hit his arm. “Sexy, Asher,” she said. He caught her wrist before she could pull it away. Her voice buckled at the unexpected contact. “Not slutty.”
“Too bad,” he said.
She felt herself blush.
With his thumb, he rubbed the inside of her wrist. He locked her eyes until she couldn’t take it.
“Anyway, you’ll see them soon enough.” She looked out the window as she said it. Too pleading, she knew. Too desperate.
Asher made a kind of quiet chuckling sound. She felt him look out the window, willed herself to turn around and march to her desk. Drop it. Act uninterested. Play hard to get.
“Are you still planning on coming out tonight?” she said. Like a child asking if he could come out and play. If his mommy would let him. She should walk away. Now. But she couldn’t.
He tapped the pane lightly with his finger. “Supposed to get about an inch,” he said.
She couldn’t read his tone. Not entirely regretful. “Yeah,” she said, almost a whisper.
“Megan doesn’t want to risk the drive.” He turned to her.
And since when did he care what Megan thought, she wanted to say. She’d been through his Facebook photos. Megan was gorgeous. Controlling, though, from what he said. But a knockout. Taller and thinner than Beth. Better skin. She’d studied art history in college. Worked at the Gagosian when she graduated. But he didn’t have a choice, she told herself. He’d rather come out with us—with me. In the rain. He loves her but he doesn’t like her. She felt something rise in her throat, the worst part of Asher, of what their relationship (could she call it that?) did to her. She nodded, made some sound that she hoped he would mistake for a mature, indifferent reply, and walked straight out of the cramped office and into the editing room. How had she ever thought the pieces would fall into place? She and Gina hadn’t even settled on a costume—she’d never mentioned the Dr. Henderson idea. Kept hoping she’d come up with something better. She checked the shelf for a box of tissues and locked the door. Stayed in the blue-walled room a long time, and when she emerged her office light was out and the building hummed with rain.
When she pushed open the apartment door, Gina was curled on the sofa with a plate of Chinese food, the TV playing the closing credits of the show before Family Freud. Beth’s stomach growled at the smell. She hadn’t eaten lunch. She tugged off her sopping boots, trudged to the bathroom to prop her umbrella in the tub. She felt as if she could sleep forever, and wanted to. And when she woke up, Asher would have a new job and she and Gina would meet handsome brothers who each loved one of them, and rents in Manhattan would have magically deflated.
“I got dumplings,” Gina called from the sofa.
Beth looked at the counter, where a row of takeout cartons steamed. Gina didn’t much like dumplings, but Beth did. Tears hummed between her temples and she took a deep, shaky breath.
She lifted a plate from the cabinet and heaped it with lo mein, Szechuan chicken, an eggroll, and dumplings. Gina. How did a person like her exist? Beth made it to the sofa and collapsed, bone-tired, as if she might never stand again.
From the TV, the announcer’s voice said, “Previously on Family Freud,” and Gina upped the volume, adjusted her legs and leaned in slightly.
Beth didn’t know if she had the energy to eat. She lifted a forkful of food. The sequence ran, as she’d seen it dozens of times: the Hendersons deciding to go to the convention, Trent burning himself in his bedroom at home, the doctors discussing whether Julep was sexually active, the family boarding the plane. Hot, greasy noodles hit her tongue “like manna,” as Gina would say, and she half-smiled at the thought.
The show began.
“This might be a bad time to ask,” said Gina, as the family waited at the Italian airport for their bags, “but do you have any costume ideas?”
For a minute, Beth didn’t know whether she would laugh or cry. She looked at Gina’s face, the expression at once sheepish, apologetic, amused. She laughed, caught her breath and felt it turning into tears. She bit her lips, set her plate on the table, and tried to get a hold of whichever it was, but couldn’t.
“Beth,” Gina said, setting down her own plate. She put her arm around Beth, who started crying in earnest, tears punctuated with laughter and Gina’s “it’s okays,” and the Hendersons’ wretched attempts at Italian. A tissue appeared in her hand and she wiped her face, felt the rush slow down and started in on hiccups.
“You want to hear what my dad said?” asked Gina, when the tears had mostly wound down.
“He said we should go as turnips, because then the farmer men would dig us.”
Beth laughed in spite of herself, the way dad jokes always made you laugh when you were determined not to.
“Because there are so many farmers out drinking in Manhattan,” said Gina, watching Beth.
“And turnip costumes are so easy to make.”
“Not to mention sexy.”
Beth wiped her face. “Megan decided to stay home,” she said.
Gina nodded. “It’s not safe to drive.” She glanced at the TV, a commercial for a utopian world made possible by air freshener. “He’s probably miserable. Wiping drool and dealing with tantrums when he thought he’d be out with you.”
“I don’t know why I let him get to me.” Beth balled the tissue in her fist. “I never should have let any of this happen.”
But it had happened, and as Gina pointed out, she couldn’t make it un-happen by staying home with no costume on Halloween. So the question remained: what would they be? On the TV, the family climbed into a gondola, Julep ogling the well-muscled driver while the parents exchanged knowing looks.
“That’s about what our street looks like,” said Beth, nodding at the canal. The water had come to her ankle in some places when she walked back from the train. “Like that storm sophomore year,” she said. “When the Sig Eps kayaked down Fourth Street.”
They watched the oars blade through the water.
“Wait,” Gina said.
Beth turned to her.
“We both have striped shirts,” she said. She stood and hurried to her bedroom, then emerged holding a hanger with a black-and-white striped shirt.
Beth grinned. She stood and darted to her room, flicked through her closet. It was between a navy turtleneck and a trench coat she hadn’t worn in years.
And they both had black pants. Gina flattened a shoebox to make a sign that read, “Gondola Rides: €10.” She hung it around her neck with a string. Beth uncorked a bottle of wine. After one glass, Gina drew herself a mustache with eyeliner. They were giggly by the time the doctors found their son burning himself. Rain and wind buffeted the apartment—it hardly seemed to matter. They were gondoliers. The thought had resonance in Beth’s mind, a sonority all its own. It seemed to fit like a puzzle piece in a part of her she hadn’t realized was empty.
They finished the wine, their makeup, the episode. They opened another bottle and had a glass each, to bolster themselves against the weather. They buttoned into slickers and grabbed their clutches and linked arms, warm and ready for the storm. Outside, the rain was absurd—ankle high in places, rushing toward gutters. The streets, with their leaf clumps and rain-battered cars, had none of the stateliness of Venice, none of its charm. As soon as their feet hit pavement, they were soaked, the rain dashing under their hoods to their hair, but they plodded on, determined to get to Hopper’s, where most of the patrons were literate and the bartender sometimes forgot to make them pay because he liked Gina and she sometimes flirted with him. At the corner of 91st and Second, they squinted into the rain in both directions and saw nothing—no cars, anyway, the street under half an inch of water. Trees thrashed. A grocery bag scudded by.
“We need a real gondola,” Gina said, her voice drowned by the rain pelting Beth’s hood.
Beth’s hair plastered her cheeks.
“Hopper’s might be flooded,” she half-yelled, squinting at the far sidewalk without managing to bring it into focus.
For a moment, Beth allowed herself to picture an empty gondola coasting toward them down the street, a bit unstable in the wind. She imagined herself and Gina climbing in, lifting the oars and rowing stoically down Second Avenue, stopping to take on the soaked and tempest-tost people huddled under flipped umbrellas, caught on their way to or from some place that would no doubt be dead and sodden, despite the fact that it was All Hallows’ Eve and the young people of New York City were supposed to be dressed provocatively, drinking, trying to get half an inch closer to each other; despite the fact that their gondola didn’t seem large enough to hold everyone. She let herself believe it was large enough—she couldn’t imagine Gina turning anyone away. She pictured the frown on Gina’s mustached face, waving away ten-euro bills as people tried to pay, then Gina tossing the sign itself into the roiling street water.
“Tonight,” said the Gina of her imagination, in an exaggerated Italian accent, “Tonight, everyone ride-a for free!” And the real Gina, the one standing beside her shivering and wet, leaned in and asked if maybe they ought to go back, and Beth agreed it was probably best, and they waded back down the sidewalk and up their apartment stairs, and dumped their wet outer clothes in the bathtub to drip. The Henderson doctors, Beth knew, would have said she and Gina were in love. And really, when you considered all the evidence, who was to say they were wrong?
Brenna Lemieux has been lucky enough to live and write in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Paris, Galway, and Illinois. She is the author of two poetry collections and a lot of eerily similar grocery lists. She currently lives in Chicago.