This story originally appeared in our June 2014 fiction issue.
Dorothy arrived at the party before her husband. After the movie, which had been a bore, Dale had dropped her off at the Hollywood Hotel and then driven home to pick up a different shirt. The one he’d worn had itched him, he’d said—“you over-starched it again”—and he couldn’t wear it another minute. He hadn’t done the laundry, either. That’s not his job. Not a man’s job. He’d reminded Dorothy of that. More than once, for certain. But that most likely had just been an excuse for some time alone.
Dorothy walked to the bar. The hotel’s decor was earthy but still oddly matte. Green leaves sprouted from potted plants in the corners of the room, and an Indian man in a tan suit and white bucks with gum soles stood beside a painting of a red sun rising while a ship, below, sank. The room was filled to the brim with people, but the Indian stood alone. He was leaning against the painting, and it tilted slightly. He was listening to a girl with a strawberry-blond bob play the guitar. Girls who play the guitar don’t have nice fingers. Dorothy never understood those girls at all. Not even a little. The guitarist played a medieval song and sat beside a dartboard. In the room’s center burned a gas fire from a black chrome fireplace—a fire that you could turn on and off, with a switch that sat on the damper—and along the leather couches were royal-blue and apple-red feather pillows. Dorothy arrived at the bar. There was a line of people. She waited her turn for a drink. Fatigue had struck her, and as she licked her dry lips and tasted the stink of incense and patchouli, she reached into her purse for her cherry ChapStick. She applied her cherry ChapStick and licked her lips, and she was better, so she put it back.
“I’ll have a white wine, I think,” she said as she reached the front of the line.
The bartender wore a tuxedo and had a moon face with his hair parted neatly to the side. He corkscrewed a bottle and filled a plastic wineglass and handed it to her.
“There you go, ma’am.”
“Can I ask what I’m having?”
“Sure. It’s a pinot grigio from up in Napa. It’s fruity, but acetic. Not too aggressive. A little nutty. Austere, I’d say. Yeah, austere.” He smiled at Dorothy.
“Well, thank you. I like most things—adult things, that is—but I appreciate the effort.”
He poured himself a little.
“I mean, that’s what they told us to say. Honestly, I think it’s a little yeasty. But that’s just my taste.”
“Yeah, yeasty. But then again, what do I know. I wasn’t born to be a caterer.”
“No, I guess not,” replied the bartender, and his disposition thenceforth became quite glum.
Dorothy walked around the party, switching her plastic wineglass from one hand to the other, from time to time making her way back to the bar. It was crowded, but she’d begun to enjoy herself. She knew some of the guests from when she used to go to her own premieres, years prior. They remembered her, and they missed her. Many asked why she’d stopped. She wanted to be a good mother, she replied. Really, though, there wasn’t room for two successes in her household. Too much personality. One person had to float while the other floundered. One sailed, and one sank. Highs and lows. Peaks and valleys. It didn’t matter which one, she thought. It used to be her, but now this had to be. In this world, there are some people who carry the piano and some people who play the piano. Dorothy wanted both. But again, Dorothy had begun to enjoy herself. Enjoy the party. She was chatting and being cordial, and then she started laughing—laughing!—and nobody judged her. She was free, for the time being. It had been a while. Nobody told her what to do. And as the hours passed, people’s ties began to loosen.
Then, from above, Dorothy saw Dale enter. She was upstairs and could see the front door from her vantage point between the shoulders of two men. She was speaking with two executives who had some ideas about her career, and from below they were all you could see. They said they could help her get back into movies—that she could get back on top. And she was talented. And she was prettier than she ever was. She liked to hear that. My goodness, she loved it. As Dale walked in, though, the party was at its fullest, so he couldn’t see Dorothy. He’d changed into a red shirt, which, paired with his green evening jacket, make him look like a Christmas card. Happy holidays! Dorothy wore white. She was over statement pieces. In terms of what she wore, I mean. Dale looked around the front of the room, but he didn’t see her. Then he walked to the back. He looked up, for a moment, toward the second floor, but he couldn’t see her past the men in suits. Dorothy saw him, though, and pushed between their arms. “Dale!” She hung out over the railing. “Dale!” she called. But the music was loud, and he didn’t hear. “Dale,” she called again, but again he didn’t notice. People were dancing near the entrance, and a woman swung around and elbowed him between his shoulder blades. The woman apologized, but he got angry, because she had hurt him, so he left. He slammed the door behind him once he’d walked through. So Dorothy shoved her way along the wall down the stairs—making herself small—across the makeshift dance floor and finally outside. She followed. She saw him walking toward the parking lot. He was nearing their car. In his eyes, his car.
“Dale!” she yelled. “Dale!” she yelled again.
He turned around. He finally saw her. But he kept his mouth shut.
“Come back, baby. I was just upstairs.” She reached him and grasped for his forearm, but he pushed her off. “I’m having the best time, baby. Why are you leaving? You just got here. I was only just upstairs.”
Dale stared at her, again. This time longer than before. He grabbed the sides of her head. He pressed his hands around her ears and then held tightly on to her hair.
“I missed you, baby. It’s so good to see your face,” Dorothy said, and closed her eyes and opened her mouth and waited for Dale to kiss her. Kiss her to say hello.
But he just looked at her. Then he head-butted her as hard as he could. Her head whipped back as her nose started bleeding, and she tried to put her hands to her face, but he blocked them. He still held her head by the ears. He took a clump of her hair and wiped at the blood pouring from her nostrils. He watched it pool up at the edge of her lip and dye her split ends brick-red. And then he let go. He left and went back to the party.
Dorothy fell to the ground in a ball. She cried and cried. Her face was ruined, and her hair was ruined. Her tears mixed with her blood as she wiped her face with the back of her hand, and soon it was covered in mucus. The valet, who had looked away when Dale was with Dorothy, walked over to her. A long, black mustache framed his face—like mouse hair—and his name tag read “Chulo.” He reached down to help Dorothy up.
“Are you OK?” he asked.
She breathed through her mouth, not through her nose.
“I guess I’ll be OK,” she said. She’d stopped crying. But still she bled.
He pulled her up and steadied her. He rubbed her back, and she leaned into his arms.
“Do you want me to get security?” asked Chulo.
“No,” she replied, and sighed and pushed Chulo off. Her nose was still bloody. She breathed through her mouth. “I just need to clean up.”
She made her way to the bathroom with her head down. She’d borrowed Chulo’s grease rag to cover her face. She’d draped it over her forehead and got through without being noticed. With a piece of tissue pushed up her nostril to clot the bleeding, she attempted to make up her face. The swelling would be hard to hide. After she’d finished with a layer of foundation—just foundation—she heard a knock at the door.
“I’m in here,” she shouted. She was angry and had already taken something for the pain. But now she was really hurting.
“I know, ma’am. This is Eddy, from security.” He stopped, then continued. “I have someone with me. Someone who says he knows you. Your husband, actually, he claims. Is it fine if he comes in?”
“No, it isn’t, actually. Tell him I’m busy and I don’t wanna see him or talk.”
“What did you say?”
“That I don’t wanna see him or talk!”
She could hear them speaking from behind the door but couldn’t make out what they were saying; the music was too loud.
“He says he wants to apologize,” Eddy shouted over the noise. “He says he’s sorry.”
Dorothy sighed again, this time through her nose. Her crimson tissue clot fell out into the sink, and the blood ink ran along the porcelain. Blood continued falling from her nose and past her lips, and she tasted it. Mixed with makeup, she didn’t mind. She balled up another tissue square and patted her face and then put it up her nostril. She looked at herself. She looked ugly. She hated herself, again. She’d forgotten about the executives.
“Fine,” she replied. She turned the lock counterclockwise—lefty, loosey—and Eddy opened the door and peeked in. He was handsome. Tough-handsome.
“You all right?” he asked. Real sweet.
“Yeah. It’s fine. Thank you.”
“No problem, ma’am. I’m gonna let him in, OK?”
Dale entered. His shirt was more open than before. He sucked in through his nostrils and felt more energetic. These days he only breathed through his nose.
“Let me look at you,” he said, quietly, and he grabbed her face again. He turned it from side to side in his palms. He was checking whether he’d done enough damage. Then he held it straight and looked back at her, flat in the eyes. He let go with his right hand and slapped her. Then he slapped her face again.
“Don’t ever embarrass me like that again,” he said, coolly, calmly. “I told these people we were coming here together. Coming together. As man and wife. And then I can’t find you. And I ask someone. And they say you’re upstairs, talking to two guys. Two guys. Single guys, at that. Do you consider that acceptable behavior? As a married woman you think that that’s OK?”
Dorothy rested her face against Dale’s hand. She could feel her cheeks getting hotter. She thought she must look red. Redder than before, even.
“Do you hear me?” Dale asked, and then let her go.
Dorothy turned toward the sink, away from him. She squeezed the porcelain in her hands until a fake nail cracked off and landed against the blood-clot tissue.
“Let’s hope so,” Dale said. And then he opened the door and left. He left the door open behind him.
Dorothy looked up at herself in the mirror. She grabbed a tissue and blew out the old tissue and threw them both in the toilet and watched them tie-dye the water as she flushed.
She took a cab home. Dale took the car. She was nervous as she entered the house and walked upstairs to the bedroom. The lights were still on. She crept through the door and saw Dale on the bed. He lay in his underwear and dinner socks with the TV remote in one hand and the rocks glass—the same rocks glass—in the other. An ice pack rested on his head. He looked up at her.
“I kind of hurt myself, if you can believe it,” he said, chuckling. Then he looked back toward the TV.
Months later—actually, probably less—Dale woke up in the middle of the night. He wasn’t sure why. He hadn’t heard anything—instinct, I guess—but he was suddenly filled with energy. And perhaps, even more so, fear. He reached over to Dorothy’s side of the bed and felt for her, but no one slept beside him. He breathed in deeply. He pulled off the covers and stood up. He noticed the bathroom door was closed, but low light was streaming through the half-inch space beneath the doorframe. He walked to it, quietly, with measured steps. He opened it. The shower curtain was pulled shut, but two pedicured feet stuck out the far end. A hand-painted antique lamp—an East Coast winter scene, children sledding in the park—which just yesterday had been on the bedside table, was plugged in, and lit, sitting on the toilet bowl. It sat perched on the lid. In the tub the two legs and feet were crossed over each other. Dale took two steps and opened the curtain. Dorothy lay sleeping. Peacefully sleeping, in an empty tub, with an avocado-green facial peel, dry and cracking, still on her face. Her hair was pulled back in a bun on her head. Her hands were clenched just below her breasts, one of which showed through her bathrobe. Her breaths were soft and mechanical. Her heart rate was slow. She breathed now only through her nose. In and out, only through her nose.
Dale stared—disdainful—a while, scratching the stubble on his neck and breathing, also solely through his nose. His doing so, though, was because he was angry. His doing so, though, was because he wanted to control his breath. His doing so, though, was because he’d lost control, and he wanted control, and he would do whatever it would take to regain it, he realized as he finally stopped breathing and opened his mouth and spoke.
“Dorothy?” She didn’t move. “Dorothy?” Louder. He grabbed her ankle and shook her leg.
She opened her eyes and turned toward him and smiled, before closing them and pulling her leg away and getting comfortable and attempting to regain her rest.
“Hi, honey,” she replied, eyes still quiet, as though he’d caught her catnapping before an oh-so-important soiree.
“What are you doing in here? Why the hell are you in the bathtub?”
“What do you mean? I’m sleeping.”
“I can see that you’re sleeping. Why are you sleeping in here?”
“I wasn’t cozy in bed.”
“What does that mean?”
“You kept hogging all the covers.”
She nuzzled back into herself and looked quite comfortable. Dale left and went back to bed. The next day, Dale went out for a pack of cigarettes. And Dorothy was, rather suddenly, in her eyes, all alone.
Kevin McEnroe loves New York, loves the Knicks, and this is his first published story.