Birthday Partyby Scott Herndon
Harpy bathed for the party, washing her hips in long, narrow ovals. As she moved the sponge in a circle across her belly, she was struck by an image of Arnold de la Rosa. She imagined him mounting the window as if by an act of sheer will alone, until all five feet of him were swinging by the curtain rod into the shower. And though she knew this was impossible, especially for a bookworm like him, he nevertheless took hold of her little wrists in the beat and stipple of the showerhead. “That’s enough of a birthday party for you, Harpy,” he sneered.
Though she sensed something different in his voice, a power or a violence seldom suggested by the quiet pokings of his tongue above his economics textbook, she washed herself in a luxurious saddle of soap: the shock of him, licking the lather from her arms like whipped butter. Harpy knew she would scold him and say, “Stop it you, Stop it you.”
She took the loofa sponge from the nozzle and thought of her last boyfriend, Allan, who had been kinky for a week or two, she supposed, but who never did anything on earth like that. Allan wound up kissing like the buffalo in Golden Gate Park lolled over in their alfalfa, wide-tongued and meditative, if not somewhat boring and pent-up and sloggy. No, the awful thrill of it was that Arnold and his slinky tongue were doing something no one else would approve of, something that made her heart thump and thump. “Oh Arnold de la Rosa,” she said now holding one hand as it dripped over her eyes. “Can’t you see? You’ve done the impossible.”
When she came downstairs, the birthday party had already begun. The rump roast, swaddled with a towel, had long since broken into a sweat, and on their orange platter, twice-baked potatoes lay upon each other, posing in humpy gestures on their wilted bed of lettuce. Harpy took a slice of carrot and impaled one of the potatoes.
“That one’s yours then,” her mother said.
“He isn’t here yet, is he?” Harpy asked.
“I’m afraid not,” her mother said. “Why don’t you go out there and say hello. It isn’t everyday that your Grandpa Herk has a birthday.”
Harpy stopped at the doorway. Herk was sipping from a stumpy mug of beer. Her step-father, the usual glaze in his eyes, crossed and re-crossed his legs. He swirled his glass of Grand Marnier, as if to invite her into the living room. “Harpy,” he said, “Why don’t you just call the de la Rosa boy. Maybe he forgot. These things happen. And anyway, if you’re sure he isn’t coming, then let’s all have some fun. Today is Grandpa’s special day.”
“Cheers to that,” Herk said, his belly stretching and relaxing beneath his polyester sportshirt as he coughed. “I don’t get to see my granddaughter much at all, it seems.”
As she sank into the couch, her mother called from the kitchen, “Hun, we can’t find the family phone number in the diocese listings.”
“That’s fine, mom,” she said, but her mother was already leafing through the phone book. Harpy could hear her licking her thumb every so often, then reapplying it like a gluestick to the thin pages. “Is it under D, L, or R?” she chirped.
“It’s not under any of them,” Harpy said. “He transferred into school late. I have mentioned that before, mother. I have been exceptionally clear on this matter.”
Her step-father nipped at his drink and said, “Hey Noodles, I think his father is in the construction business. I met him at Boosters.”
“Why do you feel compelled to call her that,” Harpy said.
“It’s an inside joke, honey,” he said. “Don’t thirteen year-olds have inside jokes anymore?”
Harpy fled upstairs to her room and locked the door. From every direction, her possessions encroached upon her, until she hated everything she enjoyed, until she hated herself. In their vases, carnations hung their heads. She hated the awards she’d won at the Equestrian Friends Annual Horse Show, which sagged from the wall in turquoise and gold ribbons. Her Book Club poster of Ivanhoe was embarrassing, the way Sean Connery stood, his weight on one leg and looking drunk enough to barf in his hands.
She stroked her cat, Pin-Cushion. When she asked her why everyone at school thought she was “aloof and mean,” Pin-Cushion flicked her tail and flashed her teeth. “You’re too dumb to know anything,” Harpy said.
Bristling, her ears lying flat out on her head, Pin-Cushion seized Harpy’s finger and clamped down with tiny, needling teeth. “You bitch!” she shrieked. She opened the door and spanked the cat out of the room.
She felt so alone, and it was so quiet in the house. How awful the party would be if Arnold didn’t come. HE had all but ignored her after they’d been appointed partners for Ms. Marten’s economics project. And when he acted so, an awful ting happened—the more distant he became, the more she became engrossed in him, the more she’d imagine taking him to the marina to listen to the pipes clang in the waves, the more she’d see him taking her by surprise, ravishing her with unexpected kisses sucking at her earlobes in the riprap far below the parking lots.
If it happened that way now, she knew she’d slap him. She would tell everyone almost everything, and it would be Arnold de la Rosa who looked like an idiot before the whole school, and not Harpy Macallister. No one, not even the Sirocco sisters, would suspect her of imitating the crush that went unrequited on him. It would be Arnold de la Rosa who paid for showing his desire first, and she would be there when it happened.
“Harpy,” her step-father whispered through the door.
“Arnold is here. You’d better come downstairs.”
Was it true? Almost three hours late, but he’d come. She turned on the desk lamp and brushed her hair. Bathed in light, her room seemed to sparkle. She tied her hair into a bun and slipped into her dark suit jacket just like the one she’d seen businesswomen wearing on Market street, their faces sharp and smart. At lunch, as they streamed from their office building, she would watch them stroll past businesswomen with only half an interest. Protecting the secret of attraction on their fashionably manicured hands. And yet, looking at herself in the mirror, battened down and slim-waisted as the jacket made her look, she could still recall how hard it had been, just convincing her mother that the outfit was worth buying, that she wouldn’t look like a penguin in a school which, as her mother well knew, was teeming with unaccountably judgmental girls. Well, here she was now, standing in the mirror, looking like an editor, or a CEO, or really, something.
As she walked downstairs, her heart pattered to the tinkling of forks and porcelain in the living room.
When Harpy saw Arnold, his smile was hollow, and his front teeth were gone. Handsome, swarthy Arnold, normally so serene and intelligent, how he looked pale and destroyed, a hideous smile cursing his face. Gap-mouthed, he grinned wildly at Herk, who was shaking his slim hand. When she brought herself to speak, she wanted to say, “Hello, Arnold.” But what rushed out was, “Jesus Arnold, what happened?”
“Sorry I’m late,” Arnold spat, “I’ve been on painkillers since I fell from the ladder. My mom woke me, when she found out when the project was due. I got up and ran over here, Harpy, I did. You can call and ask her if you want to.”
“You wear the pants, don’t you, Arnold?” Herk asked.
Well don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t listen to him,” she said.
Herk said, “Have you ever heard of Guadalcanal?”
“Honey,” her mother whispered, “Just sit down while Granpa tells the story, and then you both can leave.”
“Mom, I’d rather not.”
“Is something wrong?” her step-father asked.
“No,” her mother said. “Everything is fine.”
Harpy sank into the love seat and stared at Arnold, who was staring at Herk, who was staring at the floor, as if preparing to sweep up his words. He said, “When I was eighteen, I wasn’t in no Height Ashbury. I was boxing, and believe me, I fought with some tough sons of bitches.”
Arnold seemed to be tottering in his seat, fighting to keep his back straight.
“We’d sit on the beaches and watch the dogfights,” Herk resumed in a low, distant voice, as if expecting the ceiling to produce a wave of zeroes or corsairs, any minute. “I always thought I’d lose my teeth in the ring, taking it in the face from the big Slav from Queens, or even a redneck what have you. I never thought I’d get hit smack on from what they call ‘obscured tracer fire’.”
Everyone sat gawking as Herk plucked his dentures from his mouth and used them to illustrate his unsuccessful brush with death. Through his toothless mouth, Herk pushed, “Every so often, the bullets get mixed with tracers, and when the tracers get plucked in midair by stray bullets, they get obscured. Well, this one got me right in the chops.”
Arnold looked at her and tilted his head, one eyebrow stuck higher than the other. When she shrugged her shoulders, he broke into a fit of wheezing, or snickering, she could not tell. She felt the tenuous grip on her self-control breaking, bit by bit. “Granpa,” she said, “I’m sure Arnold has better things to do than look at your gums.”
“Now there’s a lesson in it,” Herk scolded.
“What’s going on in there?” her mother chirped, giggling in the kitchen.
“You should know better than to laugh at me,” Herk said to Arnold, a stern look in his eyes and the dentures hovering in the air, as if their mass were the only thing keeping his hands from pummeling poor Arnold. “Losing your teeth is how you become a man.”
When Arnold nodded and the story continued, the room constricted around Harpy, the mantelpiece clenched its teeth and grew larger, the space between the ceiling and the floor seemed to narrow.
She hurried to the kitchen, watching her mother pulling hair from Pin-Cushion, preening her with gentle “Coos” and “There-baby-doesn’t-that-feel-better’s.” Harpy turned around and stomped back into the room. “Granpa,” she said, “My mom says we’ve got to get to work upstairs.”
“What are you working on?” he said.
“Ms. Marten wants us to recreate a junk bond offering.”
“That figures,” he said. “Don’t let me stop you.”
She led Arnold up to the guest room on the third floor, where he suddenly seemed to hesitate. “You mind if I sit down or something?” he said.
“Oh no,” she said. “Make yourself comfortable.”
How could she tell him? How could she touch him, or kiss him? And did she even want to kiss him at all, could she even feel her tongue lolling like raw meat over his gums? She locked the door behind them.
The room was dark and cool, and Arnold slumped down on the couch. Crossing his hands behind his head and closing his eyes, he sighed. “I know everything about the stock market,” he said. “My dad’s an investor.”
She sat down and blurted, “No, he isn’t. My step-father said he’s in the construction business.”
“Exactly, Harpy. He invests in building offices for corporate ventures. Someday, I will, too.”
Harpy thought to herself, “Oh.”
“So what do you think we should invest in?” Arnold said.
“Well, I’ve been working on our project for a couple of weeks.” She unbuttoned her jacket professionally and said, “I have it all here.” She unfolded a legal file and showed Arnold several reviews of failing companies that could be touted as candidates. Their bonds could rise and fall in massive swings, but were, Harpy suspected, worth the risks, especially if they could bail out before America’s grandparents caught wind of the scheme. Anyway, it was only a school project, and it wasn’t even real money.
Arnold looked at her work and, after a moment, said, “Great job, Harpy.” He folded his hands and smirked, and the black gap hung like a cape over his teeth. It wasn’t that disgusting really, if you were really careful not to remember how he’d lost them. For instance, she thought, he didn’t have some sort of gum fungus.
For a moment, nothing happened. In the silence, she wondered if she could tell him. Was it the right time? It was the right time, or as close to the right time, as would come.
“Arnold, there’s something else that’s been bothering me.”
She said in a clear and distinct voice, “You have a crush on me, don’t you. Not a huge one, but still, a crush.”
Arnold didn’t answer immediately, and, for a brief time, it was quiet, until he said, “Of course I don’t, Harpy.”
Silence brooded in the room and seemed to take shape as she decided what to do next. She still hadn’t played her cards—nothing exposed, nothing on the line. She stood up and paced once, twice. Leaning against the windowsill, she could see her reflection in the icy glass. She knew she shouldn’t say it, but looking at her own face, so flushed, she said it anyway. “It’s just that I think I want to go out with you.”
When she turned around, Arnold mumbled, “I’ve liked you, too, Harpy, for a long time, I just couldn’t tell you.”
But was he serious? She just wanted to ignore the stark. Cold way he’d said it, the tone that suggested that this was the first time he’d noticed her at all. Maybe he was trying to take advantage of the situation; maybe she needed to be sure.
She said “Really? Tell me what you’ve liked about me.”
“What kind of question is that,’ Arnold slurred.
“Can’t you just tell me one thing?”
Arnold stood up and began kneading her shoulders. Floppy and soft and without rhythm, the movement of his hands felt disconnected from any nerve in her body: they seemed so far from the firm and manly gestures she’d sometimes imagined him making.
She let him press his chest against her, felt his hand slip like a dead fish beneath her skirt. She leaned forward, their lips met, and the room disappeared in a softness she’d never expected, a warmth no loneliness could have imagined: She could even feel the tickle of his breath against her neck, his nose against the line of her jaw. She tried to ignore Arnold’s hands, which were fussing in the strip of her bra. Concentrating on his lips, she found that his kisses were always changing: they were soft and cushioned, or commanding and swirly, or somewhere in the middle, maybe like one of the diving boards at the community pool, so limp that it dipped into the water on the way down, only to flip the diver high in the air, a twisting and fleshy acrobat. In this middle ground, she found her balance, as she and Arnold coaxed each other, until finally nothing seemed left but sighs of breath and more embraces, each part of their bodies making itself known through their clothing.
In a flash, though, she became aware of his hands cupping her rump in insistent squeezes. This was going too far, sure, but she tried to ignore them by staring into his eyes, a patchwork of greys and browns. He raised an eyebrow, and she saw the horrifying white of his eyeball as one of his hands slipped toward her hipbone, and then slunk to the edge of her groin. What could she do now, was this too far, of course it was. What would the girls at school say, if they were to find out? She found the space in his mouth with the tip of her tongue and stabbed the stumpy gap between his teeth. Shrinking backward, he gave a quickened, “Ow! Oh Damn, Harpy.”
As he scratched her arm, Harpy heard her mother say, “And this is what Harpy’s done to her beautiful room.” Would her mother bring Herk upstairs? Pulling Arnold by the palm, she led him into the closet, where they ducked beneath some heavy clothes and sat on a large metal box.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just can’t go that far, not before you say you’ll go with me.”
“I can’t say that,” he whispered, “Not with them coming up here.” He seemed excited by the danger, and Harpy, anxious and frightened, and a little bit excited herself, convinced herself that she could handle what was happening.
“Jesus,” she said. “I don’t think so. I told my mom not to come upstairs while we worked. She’ll leave us alone, I swear. I locked the door, too.” She kissed his forehead, and, after a time, began to feel secure in the quiet space of the closet. But soon, she began to feel his hands beneath her. Just as she was about to reprimand him, she felt him pull away, cracking the door open to the flooding yellow light of the desk lamp. Downstairs, she could hear the family laughing in drunken gusts. It was as if she were in a dream.
“Jesus, what the hell is this box we’ve been sitting on?”
“I don’t know,” she said. It looked like one of her stepfather’s possessions, one of those remnants of his life in Ohio. She remembered a story about him swallowing forty yards of gauze during of his inner cleansing rituals, and so when Arnold asked, “Mind if I open it?” she simply consented, half expecting to see the gauze coiled like a great brown snake.
She knelt down behind him. With the light at her back, in the middle of the closet, the metal box crouched, smothered with waxy stars. On its sides the painted faces of men in masks stared at them with consternation, and gap-toothed women grinned deliriously, holding whips in their hands. Clingy white briefs showing, breathing fast, Arnold bent over and fiddled with the latch.
She took a step back and watched his gangly finger swing the lid open and mutter, “Oh God. God.”
“What?” she asked. She clutched him from behind, holding him by the shoulders. “ What is it, a mask?” She held the heavy thing in her hand. It was a brass cage fit for a human head, and her first impulse was to laugh. Really, it was odd how funny the thing was. What was it, an awful joke, with its wide brass circle over the mouth, its metal bars diving from the forehead to the nose, or others arching from the temple to the jaw? And what else was there? As she looked deeper into the box, other objects engaged her. There were shiny leather riding boots, a studded corset, even a scaly belt with a tassel. Picking up the belt, she fell into giggles. She pulled the brass cage over her face and danced, swatting her thigh with the belt, waiting for him to laugh, too.
“God,” he sneered, “you look like a whore, Harpy.”
Arnold strained to collect his things. “This is much, much more than I expected. This, this is absolutely awful.” His tone was deep and severe; the gap in his teeth slurred each word, made them menacing and horrible.
“Please, Arnold,” she said, feeling cold and shocked and ashamed, too humiliated to remove the cage from her face, “It’s a joke.”
“Oh yeah. Then where did you get that?”
“It’s not mine. I swear. I think it’s my mother’s.”
“It doesn’t matter! Then it’s your mother who’s the whore. I mean, what’s the difference?”
“It’s not my fault,” she said.
“I don’t care,” he said. And before she could reply, before she could drop the whip, he flung the door open and stumbled down the stairs, leaning heavily on the banister as he descended.
“Arnold, wait,” she shrieked.
But he was gone. Shutting the door firmly behind her, she imagined him tripping on the stoop. She watched him fall, and as he moaned in pain, she saw herself picking up the remains of his lost teeth, tossing them one by one into the storm drain.
When she saw herself in the mirror, her hatred for Arnold de la Rosa assumed a thousand new shapes, swirling from self-loathing, to pity and rage, to disbelief. She stood there, a spindly girl, staring at her little breasts and daisy-printed panties, looking baggy, made for someone much bigger than her. And then the loose brass cage on her face: a gaping metal circle embedded with fake emeralds around the mouth, parallel bars running from her forehead to her brow, a small square of leather over the crown of her ugly face. It was too much; and when her mother called, “Harpy, is everything all right?” she shouted in a voice she didn’t recognize, “Yes, mother!”
She struggled to shut the metal box, but it would not close. She pressed down on the whips, knuckled gloves, boots, chains. She sat on the box and gritted her teeth, leaning on it until the latch held firm. She felt more than loathing: she felt sick with a disease that said she was perverse, an awful slut. He would tell the Sirocco sisters, she was sure of that. They’d torture her. Her heart beat wildly as she tidied the guest room. “It wasn’t my fault,” she insisted, but the room simply swirled around her, as though she were strapped to the ceiling fan, turning and revolving above the metal box, turning and turning, and dangling there: Each turn, and she felt a new, unexpected loathing. She hated Arnold; she hated her mother; mom; but where was she; but mom; but where was her mother; where was she.
“Harpy,” her mother called. “Where are you? Come on down here at once!”
As if in a trance, too humiliated to refuse, she stumbled downstairs.
When she entered the living room, her step-father, his slim beard glowing in the firelight, said, “Harpy, Jesus. What’s going on with you?”
“Nothing,” she said. “Nothing.”
“Harpy?” her mother called. “Baby, what happened with Arnold? What’s wrong?”
From the kitchen, her mother floated towards her. Her nose small and turned slight upward, her sagging breasts, her slim legs and shoulders, like Harpy’s own – how could she tell her what had happened? She could not.
Her mother’s fingers slipped through the bars of the cage, pulling it from her face. As her soft hands stroked her hair and forehead, Harpy began to cry.
“There, there,” her mother whispered as Harpy leaned into her breast. “Arnold de la Rosa isn’t everyone.”
Scott Herndon is at work on his first novel and lives in Brooklyn.