It was hard to remember completely the first time I met Ana. I only have two specific memories from that night. The first one, firmest of the evening, was my blurred reflection in that too-small, too-dark bathroom. I sweltered under my raincoat but couldn’t take it off; I wasn’t dressed for the place. I swiped another layer of magenta over my lips. My eyes seemed to slide down my face. The second memory, the fainter of the two, is shaking her hand. She was small and fair. She reached her hand in first and the nail of her index finger slipped under my thumb for a fraction of a second before our hands fully closed around each other in the appropriate gesture. The sensation of the phantom nail lingered even after our hands disjoined and fell limp to our sides.
Ana was a friend of Phillip’s. I didn’t know much about their relationship. Phillip was good-looking, better than me maybe. Broad shouldered and strong-jawed. His dark hair flopped naturally into a boyish side part. The only flaw was a shining white slash above his lip, the scar let by a repaired cleft palate. At the beginning of our relationship I would try and kiss it, feel the smoothness under my tongue until he told me to stop. I never tried again. He didn’t smile much, which I initially attributed to the disfigurement; smiling made it pronounced, stretching the scar and exposing more of the canine and gum of his left side. But I think smiling is just not his way.
“Do you remember that girl, Ana?” he said to me last week. “We’ve been talking again. She has a fiancé. A new job …” he trailed off.
“That’s so great that you’re back in touch.” He didn’t respond.
“We still haven’t had people over to the new place,” I continued, “why don’t we invite Ana?”
He paused. “If you like.”
“Would you like that?”
“Yes, but you’d be doing the work,” he said referring to the cooking, but the statement made us both quiet.
Saturday I called in sick. I vacuumed between the cracks in the couch, repainted the closet, and threw out anything old or weird in the medicine cabinet, refrigerator, and under the sink.
Dinner was short ribs braised in Barolo, torn greens, and fingerling potatoes. Dessert was Greek yogurt with wildflower honey and persimmons. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth and won’t cater to those that do. Though the dessert would most certainly not be appreciated by Phillip and most likely not by Ana or the fiancé, it was posh enough that if Ana were to mention it to one of her more hip, food-knowledgeable friends, they would understand how well it balanced the meal, how it was a modern and bold thing to make, and Ana would have to agree.
After the ribs had browned and were finishing in the oven, I took a short rest and went outside on the patio. I was worried for a while that even though it was November, it was too hot a day for such a heavy meal, but now that it was late afternoon I saw a splattering of clouds and a cool breeze had picked up and blew against my face. I looked around me as if I were a stranger seeing the building for the first time. The terracotta Spanish titles on the roof in crooked little rows and the pink stucco of the walls both faded and darkened from years in the sun. Planters filled with twists of succulents, clusters of hens-and-chicks, beds of ice plants. I took a seat on one of the stiff wooden chairs I had picked up earlier that day and surveyed the neighborhood, other places like ours. The house north of us had three giant hummingbird feeders on its balcony that shined like stained glass in the sun. A dozen, over a dozen hummingbirds clustered on each feeder, more hummingbirds than I had ever seen. I called out to Phillip for a moment, but then hesitated as I watched the swarm of them—their needle-ish beaks and green, jeweled bellies. They crawled over each other, fighting their way to drink nectar from the yellow plastic daisies. More and more seemed to fly in to add to the mass of hummingbirds and from my spot an easy hundred feet away, I could hear the electric buzz of too many wings beating at the same time.
The doorbell rang around eight. I kicked my old clogs into the hall closet. Phillip opened the door and I heard Ana’s laugh—high-pitched and fast, like a child that had been just caught at tag. “Renata’s in the kitchen,” I heard him say. I bent into the oven to give the potatoes a stir as I heard footsteps approach.
“Did you want to come say hello?” Phillip asked.
“In a sec.” I kept my head in the oven, away from him. He lingered a moment and my eyes burned from the heat. Then his footsteps faded away.
Phillip led them into the sitting room and poured them drinks. I went to grab the salad spinner and noticed I could see Ana from beside the pantry. She stood with her back to the cold fireplace. She was as I remember, slender and blonde. Her feet looked like a doll’s in ballet flats. She wore an ankle-length black wrap skirt and white blouse. She had a wide forehead and eyebrows so light they were almost invisible. Her pale hair was parted in the middle and fastened in a bun at the nape of her neck, and when she smiled her closed-mouthed crescent-moon smile, she looked like a Flemish Madonna.
She must have felt my stare and set her tumbler on the mantle, turned away from the men, and walked towards me. Her gait was stilted, almost mechanical, and like her voice, a contrast to her appearance.
I turned away from her quickly, dumped the mess of greens into the strainer and turned on the faucet full blast.
“Renata!” She lifted both arms above her head like she wanted me to pick her up. I bent down to hug her—my hot arms over her cool ones, flesh against bone, dark against light.
“I’m so glad you came,” I said.
“Do you need any help?”
“No, not at all,” I responded and tossed my hand.
“Phillip tells me you’re a fabulous cook.”
I struggled to glide through the kitchen with grace. Picked up a sauté pan, checked the ribs, spun the greens, salted the potatoes, all the while feeling her eyes on me.
“Have you seen the view from the patio?” I ask.
“Oh, am I bothering you? I’m terrible at domestic things and have no idea what goes on…here,” she said, gesturing around my kitchen.
“No, no, no, not at all. So, Phillip tells me you have a new job.”
“He told you that?” she said, her transparent eyebrows rising. “He does have an interesting take on the details, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” I said, trying to be in on the observation.
“It’s like he wants something and then tells himself the fairytale, right?”
“Exactly,” I said, as she walked towards me arms outstretched.
“And then you just have to, like…” she grabbed both my shoulders for emphasis and shook me, hard. For a small woman, she was strong. It took a moment to steady myself. She let out what sounded like a squeal of delight. On my arms were the indentations of her fingernails.
“That Phillip,” she said with a wink, and walked out of my kitchen.
When everything was ready I placed the dishes family style on our new farmhouse table. It was an antique and when I sat at it I imagined the past owners using it—an old rural couple, their lined, gray faces. I saw them spooning from hearty bowls of beans and stews after a long day out in the dust and heat and it was comforting knowing my table held memories of this family of hard workers, loyal, and grateful.
I shook the pudgy, pale hand of the fiancé as he took a seat.
“This is Renata,” said Ana, “she’s been hiding in the kitchen.”
“Looks like she’s found something,” the fiancé chuckled.
“Oh yum,” Ana said as she spooned a bite from each of the dishes onto her plate. “Phillip, are you spoiled now? Do you demand a hot meal daily?”
Phillip smiled. I had a sudden urge to reach over and tug the left side of his lip down.
“So,” I said, “how did you two meet?”
“Least romantic story ever,” the fiancé blurted.
Ana blushed. “It’s common now; everyone meets online.”
Phillip nodded in agreement. “Yeah, it makes sense.”
“I’m not saying it’s not practical.” The fiancé poured wine into everyone’s glass.
Phillip’s hand found mine on the table. “Really delicious.”
I tried to grab his, but was too slow and only managed to clasp his pinky and ring finger as he pulled away from me.
“Living in the hills, huh? What kind of wild life you got here?” asked the fiancé.
“Hummingbirds,” I said.
“Not this time of year,” said Phillip. “We have rabbits, bats, coyotes even.”
“Oh creepy,” Ana said.
“They’re not that big,” I said, “or most of them aren’t. They look like mangy German shepherds. You see them late at night. I hear them from my bedroom, great packs of them, the pups yipping. The adults howl when they’ve caught one of the neighborhood pets.”
“Oh, that’s just lovely,” Ana said, and I blushed.
“The coyotes of Hollywood hills—sounds like a reality show,” the fiancé laughed, and tried to catch Phillip’s eye.
Ana threw her hands in the air, “Seriously, one more word and I’m going to sacrifice all of you to the coyotes.” She jammed a finger into Phillip’s chest, “especially you, mister, for bringing it up.”
I tried to pay attention to what the three of them were talking about, but since I had nothing to say, I remained quiet. I took a bite of short rib, that thick wad of flesh in my mouth. It was sweet, bloody, and fatty. I felt a dull ache in my jaw as my back teeth sank into the meat. I swallowed, washing it down with the wine they had brought.
“Have you set a date?” I asked.
“We’re having a long engagement,” Ana responded. She was done eating and pushed her plate as far as she could away from her into the center of the table.
“That’s nice,” I said, “to make sure everything is just right.”
“There are too many failed marriages,” the fiancé said, “that’s not us.”
“Well, long engagements help with that. So that way you’re really sure.”
“We are really sure,” Ana said. She filled Phillip’s glass.
“I know. That’s not how I meant it.”
“We’re sure about each other,” the fiancé added, “we’re just working out the details.”
I nodded and refilled my own glass. “Like wedding details?” I asked, though I hoped it wouldn’t encourage a dialogue about place settings and tuxedos.
“No. Like lifestyle choices,” said the fiancé. “OK, being honest here, like kids and stuff.”
“That is a discussion,” I said clumsily.
“Are you and Renata on the same page?” Ana asked Phillip.
“Yes,” he responded, stone faced. That was Phillip. It was hot at the table and he had rolled up his cuffs. A stray lock of hair fell across his face and he brushed it away.
“Gotta be on the same page about kids. That’s a permanent decision,” the fiancé said.
“Some people change their minds,” said Ana, “those are the dangerous ones.”
“I think that’s normal,” I said, not sure why I was arguing, “Especially as people get older.”
“Which way?” Ana asked, “wanting and then not wanting or vice-versa?”
“Not-wanting, then wanting is the more common one, I guess,” I said.
Ana set her elbows on the table, resting her chin on her hands. Phillip and the fiancé turned to her, waiting for her to speak. It seemed the house was very quiet at that moment.
“I heard of this girl who got pregnant but didn’t want to keep the baby. She decided to, you know, get rid of it, but didn’t want to tell her boyfriend. Well, she got her prescriptions from one of those mail-order pharmacies and had a three-month supply of birth control saved up for whatever reason.”
Ana took a breath. She met my eyes across the table and for a moment, I thought she’d stop, that she’d find a connection between us, that she’d see me, and stop.
“She took every one of those pills,” Ana continued, “one after another, a three-month supply of hormones all at once. The boyfriend comes home and finds her bleeding and in excruciating pain. He takes her to the hospital and finds out what she’s done. Well … that got rid of the baby.”
I looked to see if Phillip’s expression had changed.
“That’s a load of crap,” the fiancé said with a laugh. “You don’t miscarry from too much birth control.”
“Well, that’s what she told him anyways. Maybe she was never even pregnant. Maybe the whole thing was just for attention.”
“Well, I’m calling bullshit, excuse my English. I never understood why people say, French.” He stabbed another potato and shoved it into his mouth. “I mean it’s English, not French.”
I stood, lightheaded. I picked up my plate and walked towards the kitchen. It was only when I had my back to them, sitting at my table watching me, that I felt that wave of anger, that tingling hot rush and for a moment I could see nothing at all.
I entered the kitchen and I set my plate, my fork, and my expensive German steak knife into the sink. I heard as Ana followed behind me, her ballet flats flopped against the tile.
“Renata?” she said innocently.
“You’re sick,” I said between clenched teeth.
She sighed, reached up and put her hand on my shoulder. Don’t touch me I tried to say, but it came out a low growl. Her hand still on my shoulder, she leaned in close, as close as she could get to my ear. She put her left hand on the sink beside mine. Her engagement ring glittered in the florescent kitchen lights. “I just want to help. I just want to help you both.”
I picked up the fork and stabbed it into her hand that rested beside mine. She yowled. The fork wobbled, still imbedded in her flesh. She ripped it out and blood poured from four little holes. “Fuck!” she screamed. “Fuck! Fuck!”
And then Phillip and the fiancé were in the kitchen doorway, side-by-side like sentries. I think Ana was still screaming. Without looking at her I tossed over a linen napkin. Then there are only flashes; red blood on white tile, the blush that rimmed Ana’s hairline, Phillip’s mouth twisted into a snarl, and a single, gleaming canine tooth.