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Capital S, All Italics

by Jessica Conaway 2 months ago in Short Story

There is no greater punishment for a life lived poorly than moving to the suburbs

Image Credit: Everett Collection

There is no greater punishment for a life lived poorly than moving to the suburbs. I believe Socrates said that. Or maybe it was one of the Kardashians. I don’t quite remember. What I do know is that we have been living in this neighborhood for 336 hours, and I am convinced that I must have done terrible, unspeakable things in a past life to deserve this torture; this Saab-driving, dinner party-hosting, PTA-fundraising torture. The Suburbs (capital S, all italics, of course) is where corporate careers and former homecoming queens go to die. And death comes slowly; preceded by a seemingly endless loop of pumpkin spice lattes and idle gossip.

I am a city girl. I am at my best when I am in a city. Adam was aware of this when we married, and he remained on board when we had the twins. He was absolutely content to live in a cramped two-bedroom above the Broad Street Bakery with our twins and continue our chaotic lives. And it worked for us for a very long time.

Until it didn’t.

Eight months ago I was passed over for a promotion at my design firm. It was a crushing blow to both my ego and my career. Adam took this as a sign that the universe had granted my long-forgotten childhood dream of becoming an illustrator. And thus began his Suburbs campaign.

"Remember when the girls were born, and you used to cry yourself to sleep because you wanted to stay home with them forever?"

"Look at this listing, Hon! Four beds, three baths. A pool! It has a pool!"

"Man, the school district’s funding just got cut again. At this rate, there will be no money at all for anything by the time the girls start high school."

This went on for a few weeks, and I held out as long as I could. But even though his execution was annoyingly misguided, Adam had some very good points that I couldn’t deny. We agreed on a house that’s probably more than we can actually afford in a newer development called “Pear Tree Glen.”

And now we live in the eighth circle of Hell, where the husbands hide in man-caves and the wives smile plastic smiles as they side-eye each others' grocery carts.

It’s a very odd feeling to go from 65 hour work weeks to a completely clear calendar. What I wouldn’t give for an asinine meeting that could have been an email, or a pointless hallway conversation about font size. I would probably weep tears of joy if someone dropped the words “synergy” or “best practice” at me.

It is just about lunchtime (11:45 am please be prepared with at least two ideas for customer-centric key performance indicators to improve the twins’ pain points before dinner). The girls are plugged into a reality show about cupcakes, and I am willing the overloaded dishwasher to unload itself when a knock on the sliding glass door causes my heart to leap into my throat. I look up to see Edith Johnson-Covey waving at me with one hand and carrying a basket in her other.

Luke and Edith Johnson-Covey are our neighbors to the left. He owns a chain of gyms in the city, but the only things I know about her are the exact three things I am not; tall, slender and stylish. She is wearing what I suspect is a vintage Valentino sundress, and she has diamonds everywhere; wrists, ears, three out of 10 fingers. She moves through space as if she’s floating, and as she sort of wafts into my kitchen she inexplicably comes in for a hug.

“Mrs. King!” she exclaims in an overly gleeful voice, as if she was a celebrity meeting a fan. “It is just so lovely to meet you at last!”

I am not a hugger. I have never been a hugger. At best, I can tolerate a handshake. As I pull away from her, the scent of Edith’s perfume hangs between us. It smells like rich people.

“Please, call me Holly,” I say. “Would you like to sit?”

Edith drifts into the chair at the head of the obnoxiously large kitchen table that looked so much better on the Pottery Barn website. She gently places the basket on her lap.

“Thank you so much, Holly. I can only stay but a minute.”

“Would you like some coffee?” I am very bad at small talk with other women. I learned from a very young age that I am missing the Inane ChitChat gene.

“I would love some coffee, Holly, but only if it’s a dark roast.”

I scan the coffee pods next to the Keurig. “I have that,” I say.

“But, ooooh, is it organic, Holly?” Edith says through clenched teeth in a mild but distinctly condescending tone.

“I th-”

Edith waves her hand. “You know what? It’s fine, Holly It probably won’t kill me.”

An awkward silence befalls us as I prepare a non-organic, generic dark roast cup of coffee that probably won’t kill her, and I join her at the table when it’s done.

Edith takes a teeny sip from the mug that I only now realize has a chip on the side of it.

“I am so very sorry if I scared you, Holly, knocking on your patio door. It’s a force of habit. The Jermyns-they lived here before you-only ever used the patio door.”

“Oh. Well, you did startle me, but I understand.”

“So, Holly, tell me.” says Edith. “Where are you from?”

“Um, New Hampshire originally. But we moved here from Boston.”

“Ooh, Boston!” Edith squeals. “I just love Boston!”

“Uh. Yes. I miss it.”

“Well, I imagine,” says Edith. “And Holly, do you work?”

“I’m in graphic design. I mean, I was. Now I freelance,” I sputter. I suddenly feel as though I’m tanking a very important interview.

For a job that I am not qualified for.

With the head cheerleader from my high school.

“And you have twin girls, correct, Holly? And are they with a nanny currently?”

“Yes. A nanny called Netflix.”

I don’t think she gets the joke.

It suddenly occurs to me how much and how unnecessarily often she says my name, and frankly, it creeps me out.

“Well,” I say because I have no idea what else to say.

“Well.” Edith places the mug on the table and regards it as if she may or may not have just ingested poison. “I must be going about my errands.” She puts the basket next to the mug on the table and taps it lightly.

“Some goodies for you, Holly. To welcome you to the neighborhood.”

Edith flashes me a toothy and unsettlingly wide smile before floating through the door as mysteriously as she came.

When she is gone, I open the basket. To my chubby delight, I find a dozen elegantly decorated homemade cupcakes and assorted cheeses. There is a delicate pink envelope nestled beside the treats. I pull it out and lick the icing that has smeared on it because I am a woman of no shame who licks icing off of envelopes. The words FOR HOLLY are written in careful, silver calligraphy. Edith must have an unlimited amount of free time to be able to master more than one hobby. The note inside reads:

9:32 pm. Take the footpath through the woods. Tell no one.

What the hell is this?

I read the note over and over again trying to puzzle out what I am missing. It must be a joke. Right? It’s a prank. Or some sort of hazing thing. I didn’t peg this neighborhood to be so...elitist... but I’ve seen enough Real Housewives seasons to know how wealthy women with too much time on their hands behave.

Well, I am not one of those women.

On the other hand, I am desperately bored.

After the girls are safely tucked into their beds, and Adam is safely tucked into an HGTV renovation show, I slip through the sliding glass door. The girls and I had explored the footpath a few days after we moved in. It is lovely during the day but absolutely terrifying right now in the darkness. The flashlight from my phone is doing little to assuage my imagination. I have watched enough Investigation Discovery documentaries to know that boogeymen are real, and smart women just don’t go wandering in the woods at night while their husbands are blissfully unaware. Just when I have convinced myself that there was undoubtedly a serial killer with a machete following me, I notice light reflecting off the trees just ahead.

All at once, I find myself in front of a campfire in a small clearing surrounded by fragrant pear trees. It seems comically out of place, considering that there is an affluent neighborhood full of wine-drunk WASPs just a few hundred yards away. The chuckle that rises in my throat quickly dies when I realize that this campfire is surrounded by five robed, hooded figures. None of them look at me.

“Welcome, Holly,” one of the figures says; back turned to me, further adding to my fear that I am five minutes away from being the subject of someone’s true-crime podcast.

“Welcome, Holly,” chants the group in unison.

I recognize Edith’s distinct nasal tone. I don’t know who these other four weirdos are.

One of the figures approaches me. It is Edith; her face is covered by a white plastic mask, but I can tell her from the cloud of expensive perfume. Robed Edith takes my hand and leads me to a chair in front of the fire. It’s a country blue Adirondack chair that sells for about 300 bucks on the LL Bean website.

“Welcome to the Order of the Pear, Sister,” they say in monotone voices muffled by the stupid masks.

My only hope is that whoever is holding the hidden camera doesn’t make too embarrassing of a hashtag when they post this to their Instagram stories. I also notice that Edith’s robe is from Neiman Marcus; I bought my mother the same one last Christmas.

“I’m sorry. What is all this?” I manage to choke out without erupting into giggles.

Edith takes off her mask and tosses it aside. The others follow her lead. I recognize one of them; Megan...something. She's the doctor’s wife who lives three houses down. I don’t know the other three, but they are just as sleek and polished as the rest. However, I am suddenly and acutely aware that they are all drinking Natural Ice beers out of cans. The shortest one-the one wearing emerald earrings so large that they gleam in the fire light- plops down onto a nearby log and belches. Loudly.

“Fuck, Amy. Gross.” Edith laughs and hands me a beer.

I am thoroughly, utterly confused. “I’m sorry. What is happening here?”

“Well, it’s like this, Holly. The suburbs suck,” Edith says. “But we have to be...this. All the time. On point. Perfect.”

She takes a long swig from her can.

“But...why?” I ask.

“Because it’s what’s expected. It’s what’s supposed to happen in the suburbs.”

“So we formed this little club,” says Amy the Belcher. “We come out here once a week and just...chill. Be ourselves for a minute”

“So,” I begin slowly. “You have to be the Stepford wives in public just because you live here?”

Megan Something nods. “That’s correct.”

“Because society says so?”

The one I don’t recognize speaks up. “Yes. Society and some of the bitches who live around here.”

“And you put on this little show with the masks because…?”

“It’s theatrical!” Edith says.

“And you’re letting me join your club?” My voice sounds five octaves higher. I’m entirely too eager. I hope I don’t sound like a loser.

Edith nods. “We were pretty sure you were one of us when you made that Netflix babysitter joke the other day. So, are we right? Are you one of us, Holly?”

I crack open the terrible beer, take a long chug and belch. It's not as grand as Amy's, but they all applaud.

"Okay," I say. I’m in.”

Short Story

Jessica Conaway

-Winner of Jan 2021 Creative Writer's Society Short Fiction contest

-Honorable Mention in 30 Second Friendships Jan 2021 narrative contest

-Author of numerous half-finished novels gathering dust in my Google Drive

Twitter: @MrsJessieCee

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