The Vines held hands as they entered the Paulson’s backyard: Jana struggling in heels; Russell the only man in long pants.
“We’re overdressed for a neighborhood BBQ,” Russell said, the gate by the Paulson’s tomato garden clanking shut behind him.
“Shorts are informal,” Jana said. “I’m trying to make friends. Anyway, overdressed or not. It’s all about relativity.”
He squeezed her hand. “You mean it’s all relative?”
“Whatever. Smile,” she whispered at they approached their host, Denise. “Not that big. You look like a monkey when you show your gums.”
He knew she got cruel when she was nervous, which was why he didn’t squeeze her hand again to shush her.
“Adorable yard, Denise!” Jana said.
Russell held out his hand to their host. “We really appreciate the invitation.” He watched Denise’s eyes move from his wife’s long black hair to her short skirt, recognizing the expression of instant dislike that Jana elicited from women every time they moved for his job.
“I always do Labor Day,” Denise said. “Everyone brings something home cooked to share. Truly, it’s nothing.”
Jana removed a bottle of Champagne from her oversized leather bag.
“Fancy,” Denise said.
Jana shrugged. “I don’t cook, but I wanted to bring something.”
Two more guests—neighbors, Russell assumed—joined the conversation.
“Meet the Vines,” Denise said. “From the new house across the street.”
Russell tried to look relaxed and friendly, focusing his attention especially on the ladies who were potential friends for his wife. Maybe he would win them over if she couldn’t, and then they’d accept Jana into their book clubs or whatever women did that Jana was sure would make her happy this time.
“Did you bring your children?” one of the neighbors asked.
“It’s just the two of us at home,” Russell said, a line he often used at Jana’s request.
“We like our freedom,” Jana said. Russell watched her wink at nobody in particular. Tell them we’ve been trying for years, Russell had tried persuading her to say in the past. He figured that she’d at least get a sympathy vote when meeting new people. The unrelenting sunny disposition she was determined to project had to annoy people.
The fact that she looks like a movie star annoys people, his sister once provided as an explanation for Jana’s loneliness. He told his sister how ridiculous she sounded, how inane she was to make grown women seem that petty.
“That monstrous house of yours certainly has enough space for a big family,” Denise said.
“We thought four kids,” another woman said. “Or at least three.” She looked to the women on either side of her for agreement. “Or that maybe someone was building a neighborhood community center.”
Russell heard Jana’s soft voice repeating the words “monstrous” and “community center.” He stepped towards Denise and lifted his hand like he might hit her.
“Russell!” Jana yelled.
He grabbed the Champagne from under Denise’s arm.
“It isn’t you,” he said, holding Jana’s arm as she strained to keep his pace while they walked quickly across the Paulson’s trim lawn in those ridiculous shoes. “At least it isn’t only you.”
Nina Badzin is a Minneapolis-based writer. Her work has been published in The Baltimore Review, Compose Journal, The Ilanot Review, Matchbook Literary Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, Modern Loss, Monkeybicycle, On Being, Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. You can find her at ninabadzin.com and on Twitter @NinaBadzin.