I didn’t think she would come, but there she was. At her entrance, SuzeN successfully sucked the oxygen out of the already stale room, filling it with a dense cloud of expensive perfume. I immediately felt that claustrophobic tightness in my head, as I often do in her presence. This time, I will grant, it might have had a little to do with where we were. The place itself. A dark, greasy party room in the back of an Irish-owned Mexican restaurant wasn’t exactly my idea of a pleasure dome. Hot Tamales was a cheap watering hole disguised by a cheesy-safe, south of the border menu all the neighborhood Yuppies would not only love, but it would keep them thirsty. SuzeN’s scent didn’t blend well with burnt chilies and corn.

I think it can be assumed that a woman who changes her name from Susan to “SuzeN” and classifies herself as a “Sculptress” when filing her taxes invites a response. Mine, after I’d heard her whole name inflation thing (years ago) was to roll my eyes whenever speaking of her. It was a habit most of the family had developed, when they weren’t hiding from her.

The former Susan Krock of Nowheresville, Wisconsin, had escaped a dull childhood in the green yonder, a land of squirrel stew and cow pies, to try out the big city some years ago. She worked very hard to be able to respell her first name with an eighties edge that was all the rage then. In order to marry well, she’d toned up, toned down her box blonde a shade, changed out of daisy dukes into a little black dress, and learned to make a killer martini.

Once Richhusband was secured, she befriended the up-and-coming designers at her favorite boutiques, the ones the other rich wives had introduced her to. She also befriended The Art Crowd, became a collector, and hosted events under her husband’s sponsorship at the Union League Club. By osmosis or sheer miracle, lo and behold she became an Artist. Someone who could possibly actually carry off using capital letters at the butt-end of her name. Miriam was about to marry Richhusband’s younger cousin, so SuzeN, self-anointed Lady Bountiful, would magnanimously attend the sad little stripper party and try to imbue it with class.

Heavy tables, lazily misaligned end to end, were set for tonight’s gathering, young Miriam’s bachelorette party. Their surfaces looked dull and sticky, and expelled a rancid odor, like maybe they had been wiped with last week’s unclean sponge after last week’s bachelorette party. The chairs were no better, grayed, filmy with fingerprints and barnacled by the occasional petrified clump of –let’s hope–guacamole. I tried not to think about it, but took perverse pleasure in knowing SuzeN would have to sit her Jil Sander-clad ass in one of them.

Thank God Julia was there, a person I could relate to. She had married into the Make-upped Medusa’s family six months ago and so was relatively new to the grand clan of which SuzeN was spouse to the eldest, fattest, and most financially successful son. But she treated Julia more like someone’s pet goldfish, something cute and incidental, not even worthy of feigning an interest. Of course, in my observation, she treated most people this way. It must have agonized her that Julia was a natural creative. She was also ten years younger and had the face that would have stopped Botticelli in his tracks. She wore Levis to almost all occasions and engaged in messy arguments if the topic impassioned her. She was guileless, honest, and sometimes filter-less. I, an old friend of the family, was helplessly drawn to her lovely awkwardness, and her irrepressible and irreverent sense of humor. Old self-aggrandizing, Botoxed SuzeN knew in putting forth an effort to engage Julia, she risked exposure as a phony—that was my opinion. Comely, food-loving, truth-telling, aspiring writer Julia wasn’t going to–didn’t–count in SuzeN’s golden-glow universe of big names and small dress sizes.

Julia was going to try to score a few points with her aloof new sister-in-law tonight, an alcohol primed effort toward familial bonding. The mystery of the Moai statues came to mind. SuzeN did not strike me as easily moved. And this type of affair was far from SuzeN’s arena. She’d be doubling up on her bull and hairspray. It was doubtful Julia could find a way to break through all that tonight, and if she could, it was even more doubtful the effort would leave them cozy companions.

Julia and I had become friendly, both of us writers, and had, together, cheerfully agreed to ferry the bride to Hot Tamales. Miriam was so excited you’d think she was on her way to accept the Pulitzer Prize. I was amused by this enthusiasm, especially given the neon palm trees buzzing in the windows and ash can along the sidewalk brimming with butts and sandy vomit. I never would have thought up this kind of shindig. I would have held some nice, deathly boring luncheon or some such thing. Everyone would have brought a potted plant home; your proverbial yawn. I’m not much for parties.

It wasn’t Julia’s idea either. More of an urban farm peacenik type; a fairy-obsessed children’s book writer, she would never have thrown a stripper party. And if she’d actually had such a lapse in judgment, the chosen environs wouldn’t smell like a gym locker, the guacamole would be freshly made with plenty of cilantro, and her choice of tequila would likely have been researched a little beyond the bottom shelf. Nothing the color of piss in the morning. No, this party was not Julia’s baby. And you know, with certainty, it wasn’t SuzeN’s. She didn’t slum. This was the brainchild of Miriam’s high school friends, a pack of voracious women who were behaving like they had organized a successful prison break.

The bride-to-be blushed at the attention being heaped upon her. Miriam was a decent gal. Sturdy, adaptable, she had a nice unremarkable set of personality traits, a history of solid, if forgettable accomplishments, an altogether winning harmlessness. That night she glowed. Maybe it was the garish lighting—but her skin seemed truly radiant. I caught a twinkle of delight behind those old Lescrafters wire-rimmed glasses. Mischief? Whatever it was, animation gave her beauty, assigning color to an essentially Paint by Number person. I admit I was a little surprised she was game for this type of roasting. She was not typically a look-at-me kind of girl. But before even taking her coat off, she threw back a tequila shot that had been delivered into her hand. Then another. She let herself be led to the seat of honor. Don’t kid yourself, it was no better than the other chairs. She simply believed it was.

I was happy for her. It wasn’t likely Miriam had been in this kind of role very often. She was to share her life with a beloved cousin who, all concurred, was witty, loyal, and generous. He was absolutely charming, actually. In Miriam he had found a woman who would never challenge or humiliate him like his first wife had, who would always stand by his side, laugh when he made jokes. She wouldn’t cross him or pull any fast ones. There was an absence of bad about Miriam; she was a safe bet. Those who have been wounded understand the merits of marrying safely. And that night, the acquiescing little Miriam was getting acknowledgement. She was no party girl, but she would run with it. Her wedding was likely to be her only chance to sit at the head of the table.

I sipped at a cloying Margarita, deftly avoiding eye contact with SuzeN. I knew I would wake up with a vicious hangover, but I thought it was worth adopting the stance of one who actually belonged at this blue fiesta. It might just keep the Wax Princess away. Besides Julia, I knew Miriam and one or two others peripherally, and liked them peripherally. SuzeN, on the few occasions I’d been with her, had just given me a pain. Julia and I exchanged a wry glance that bespoke our general discomfort with the crowd at hand. It seemed to me that Julia and I often shared an out of place sort of feeling, like we were library books shelved in the wrong section. Tonight we had to occupy that section with SuzeN.

I pretended to scan a collection of dusty dried pepper wreaths that hung above the dark wainscoting. SuzeN took me by surprise, giving me her economy greeting package: a neat, symmetrical smile, the offer of her slim, manicured hand, a skilful peck on the cheek. How are you? Her expensive hair was illuminated by a green-orange sheen where a couple of spots converged. Her makeup was flawless. Evidently she had anticipated and corrected for bad lighting.

Floating along, I answered. I intended to be vague, evasive. That way I could keep my space. I never gave SuzeN anything good to work with. She’d been known to casually toss it into the open at an advantageously disadvantageous time. And you?

Really good! We are all well, thanks. You look wonderful, she slid in. It was to be a game of politeness. I would play right along. I asked about her daughters, the anorexic one and the thief. Of course I hid that inside knowledge. SuzeN’s social veneer, always polished to a high gloss, was never more so than as she shared the girls’ many accomplishments at dance and escapades at boarding school. I nodded, actually impressed, amazed they had managed to evade myriad forms of incarceration. Her outfit impressed me too. Couldn’t be Jil Sander. Though a show off, she’d never wear that to a place like this. Eileen Fisher, maybe. Yes, a four hundred dollar eco linen tank dress would be casual enough, an appropriate go to for this kind of thing, if indeed they made a size small enough for her. I was decked out in TJ Maxx jeans and a silky teal blouse my roommate had talked me into wearing.

I heard the phrase, my gallery dropped into the conversation once or twice. I suppressed an impulse to throw up. I knew she “made art”. Did she mean she’d finally gotten someone to represent her? Or had Richhusband bought her that too?

This is set to be a…noche especial, no? SuzeN winked conspiratorially. She declined the glass of piss offered to her. I was taken aback. I had never imagined her a person with a sense of humor. I smiled into my drink. Julia joined us just then, grimacing a little, holding a shot glass as if it was a dirty sock. SuzeN’s smile curled with an almost imperceptible condescension.

I’m not sure about this little event…Julia said, not noticing. She directed us with a glance toward the kitchen door. There, a more than tolerably built black-robed man twirled the ends of his belt and laughed with two young servers. One, a very pretty, plump Latina gazed at him with huge dark doe eyes. Beside her, a stringy, pimply youth with cropped purplish hair and a brow piercing watched her. His smile, like the rest of him, was half formed, more of a sneer. The man’s robe had some lettering across the back that I couldn’t make out. His hair was also black and heavily oiled. Shiny black combat boots with silver glitter soles finished off his ensemble. We all drew in breath, then exhaled together.

Oh Lord, do you think he’s for us? Julia leaned in. SuzeN wanted to laugh, I could tell, sliding her eyes from me to El Toro over in the doorway of the kitchen. I hated that she thought I was on the same wavelength with her.

Currently off duty, El Toro glanced around at his evening’s assignment. I’m sure to him we read as a bunch of youngish suburban women rapidly getting drunk on lousy shots, undoubtedly parked on the moral side of our sexuality, but willing to go shopping. He sized up SuzeN, taking her in from bottom to top, and resumed his banter with the wait staff.

When it was clear we were drunk enough, the servers ran out baskets of wan tortilla chips and bowls brimming with soupy red salsa. They deposited them on the long table without looking, retreated and returned with plastic bowls of guacamole having an unfortunate resemblance to something a baby might have expelled. The servers went back to loiter in the doorway again. Pretty girl preened and rebraided her thick hair, ducking closer to El Toro. Her smile glittered pink in the light. They targeted glances at a few of us. The kid with the impalement on his face scrolled his cell phone and picked absently at his acne. We drifted to our seats. In Julia’s, SuzeN’s, and my case, it was reluctantly.

Music suddenly blared out of hidden speakers. A Mariachi orchestra, on cassette, and the tape was badly warped. The table swarmed with greedy hands ravishing the baskets and bowls as Miriam’s friends dove on the food. They overloaded chips with great dredges of guacamole the color of Desert Storm camouflage. Watery salsa dripped from aluminum spoons. Glasses were refilled by “Cam”, whose nametag I caught as he reached in on my right with a plastic margarita pitcher. Cam’s hair was luminous violet under the lights. It was actually lovely, but it was likely the tequila had gotten to me. The girl’s nametag said “CRYSTAL.” Her skin was satiny smooth, melted caramel. She followed with a tray, offering shots, lime wedges and salt. Miriam’s friends chewed and beat their water glasses with knives and forks. It was clear we were being summoned to share. Time for a few words each about the bride to be. I saw Julia and SuzeN, seated directly across from one another, catch each other’s gaze and hold it. They suppressed what looked to be a mutual urge to grin.

Words were spoken, darling stories told by breathless women, a few tributes to friendship hung on quivering lips. Some randy one-liners ate those up. SuzeN brought composure to the table by calmly welcoming Miriam into their family of women. It was a little sickening, but I suppose someone had to extend the formality.

Okay everyone, let’s get this party started, yelled a thick-thighed brunette in a tight mini skirt. She was the Maid of Honor and one of the hosts. She waggled her ass as one would wave a flag at the start of a race. You all were asked to bring along a special gift for Miriam, so let’s share! The roaring resumed, but it had a different tone, more animal.

Did you bring a gift? I turned to Julia.
She slumped a little, No! You didn’t either? I shrugged empty-handed.
Did we both miss something on the invitation? I’d always been awful at checking invitations.

Odd bags and loosely wrapped packages were passed down toward Miriam. Everyone giggled and elbowed and shifted in their seats. SuzeN was impassive as she handed her small pearly pink gift bag over and watched it flip, pawed along like a wild salmon in the clutches of hungry bears.

Being seated at the far end of the table challenged our ability to make out what the others were saying. The music was loud and the conversation running over itself. It was also hard to see beyond the snapping of disposable cameras and flying tissue paper. At our end, Julia and SuzeN began to talk. SuzeN was responding to her with what appeared to be genuine interest. It seemed like maybe they found the inhabitants of their respective islands to be friendly. That was good for Julia. It was what she’d wanted. SuzeN still gave me a royal cramp, but I wasn’t the one who had to spend my life having holiday dinners with her.

The hoots and reverie of show and tell began to trickle down toward our end. Edible underwear. Edible massage oil. Glow in the dark condoms. An inflatable “happy to see you” policeman with plastic handcuffs. Our eyes rushed to meet when a toothbrush in the form of a proud member of the male anatomy was passed around. Drinks were refilled. While Julia and SuzeN talked, a redhead beside Miriam presented her with another shot of tequila and a punk chick wannabe crowned her with a tiara of inflated condoms. I watched as she accepted, yucking it up sportingly.

A lull fell on their end, followed by a burst of hilarity. The pack was slavering over something, but brassy sarcasm drowned out their words. Meanwhile, Julia and SuzeN, who had looked over, resumed their conversation. I managed to catch sight of a small book as it made its way down to our end. A dainty little volume was delivered into my hands, open. Julia leaned in to see it. Together we read a poem that nearly gagged us with its erotic clichés, things like, “Her alabaster skin awakened to his touch;” “his taut, bronzed torso;” and, “Her eager lips.”. Swept into the wave of merriment, we both fell into serious giggles. Real laughter felt good. Julia, all liquored up and not a little impulsive at this point, was quick to share the pathetically comical treasure with her new best friend. Across from her, SuzeN and her tiny fishbone of a smile were waiting, uncomfortably silent.

Ohmygod, you have to hear this poem! Julia proclaimed to her sister-in-law, a little too loud. She was flushed, cute, eager, really vamping it up. I’ve got to read it to you! She cleared her throat; “Scars…Of…Passion”! We snorted again at the title. She proceeded to recite the poem aloud for SuzeN, using plenty of coy posturing, accenting all its embarrassing phrases and trite innuendo.

Ooh, and lucky for us, there’s a shitty illustration that goes with it! The stilted, one-dimensional pen and ink drawing was, predictably, of male and female bodies awkwardly entwined. Of course he was on top.

I mean seriously, I could write better than this in the seventh grade! Julia said. How does this even get published? Her face screwed into a sardonic grin, she closed the book and passed it forward to SuzeN.

That’s when Julia’s grin flatlined.

In gold embossed letters beneath the title, our eyes hit upon the author/ illustrator/ publisher’s upgraded Wisconsin name. It appeared we weren’t the only ones who had missed the call for gags on the party invitation. I got busy tamping down the rise of particularly wicked mirth. I think right then, time must have stopped for poor Julia. She remained absolutely motionless for a full ten seconds, during which time I’m sure she fantasized a mad dash for the door and a leap into the next passing cab. Or was weighing whether or not to claim an historic case of Tourette’s Syndrome. SuzeN applied the salve before Julia could even gather her wits to acknowledge the wound. SuzeN had expertise in making things look better. It was her M.O.

Oh Jesus, I didn’t know you wrote…I thought…Julia tried.

A gag gift, I know. An easy mistake to make, under the circumstances.

And there went the friendly natives. I watched the martyred SuzeN recede into a cool, collected superiority while Julia all but cut herself to shreds expressing regret. I tried and failed to shift the focus with humor. I was dismissed by both of them, no more than a fly on the backside of a cow. SuzeN did her thing, the thing she does best. A finely crafted benevolence iced us out while she brushed off Julia’s mea culpas. They scattered like crumbs on the table.

It’s fine. Don’t worry. She looked away, beautifully.

Julia stared, helpless, demolished. I snuck my hand under the table and gave her leg a tiny squeeze, all the while trying not to succumb to the evil delight fighting its way past my better judgment. Just then Crystal flipped a switch on the wall and the colored lights roved the darkened room. Any levity, damage control of any kind at our end of the table, was now suspended. With the moving colors, SuzeN seized up, alert like a setter. Resigned to deserving whatever came next, Julia dropped her head and shook it pathetically from side to side. I swallowed the last of my drink and licked my shrunken, salty lips. I wished ourselves part of the woodwork, as gross as it was. It was hard to believe things could get worse, but like SuzeN, I sensed, distinctly, they were about to.

In a moment it was bye bye Mariachi and mortification, hello Duran Duran. The pounding bass sunk so low I could feel it dislodging the dreadful coating the margaritas had left in my throat. Miriam’s friends danced in their nasty chairs, almost wild with anticipation. A howl, the sound of future regret, escaped Miriam. She put her head down, the condom crown bowing and bobbing along. She must have been trying to make herself smaller, less noticeable. She knew whatever was about to happen would most certainly be starkly embarrassing to her. Enter El Toro. Undoing the belt in his robe, he let it hang as he sauntered over to Miriam’s chair and stood behind her. There she rocked in an effort to hold back hysteria, while her friends shrieked with abandon. El Toro, or Gary Groove, as was stitched on the back of his robe, began writhing against her chair. I caught myself in an expression of mild disgust. The disgust was really about the chair. As a man, Gary was no Adonis, he was fit however, attractive in a buff, smarmy sort of way. The rest of the girls loved it when, slowly, he let the robe slide to the floor. Cam whisked it away, grinning like the prurient adolescent he was.

Gary got into the music. He gyrated his orca black Speedoed hips and stroked his professionally waxed chest. A gold cross on a chain gleamed blood red in the deceiving light. His hands were large, capable. He ran strong fingers provocatively through his oily mane. He thrust his jaw forward in the way of sexy superheroes. Suddenly he grabbed Miriam’s hand and, moving to the music, awarded it the dubious privilege of massaging his inner thigh. She went rigid, shaking with a silent laughter that looked physically uncomfortable. Gary was a pro. He was used to reluctance. Little by little he eased her hand up his taut torso and flexed his pecs, making his cross dance. Her lily-white cheeks pumped to a shiny crimson, easily seen even in the carnival light show. Caressing her, and, as the others screamed, undoing the top button of her shirt, he rubbed her hand along his cheek and sensuously kissed the palm. He straddled her chair, undulating, all but grinding her. Then, done. Dismount. Leaving her in excited shock, he moved on to the next in line. He was efficient. It was obvious how this was going to go. Julia and SuzeN were at the opposite end of the table from Miriam. They would be the last two.

Peering up, Julia said, Not sure if I can deal with the expectations here…

While the rest hooted and grabbed at Gary Groove, the three of us were poised, awaiting with gruesome anticipation the arrival of our oily assailant. SuzeN narrowed her eyes, gathered us in. Once again she surprised me.

Well, ladies, we’re in for it. We’ve got to, um…take this one for Miriam. She said this with a glint of horrible humor in her eye. This was not a side of SuzeN I had ever seen before. Certainly not one I expected to in this situation, not after being publicly embarrassed in the worst way. I tried not to like her for it.

Gary was mid-table. One of Miriam’s friends, the freckle infested redhead, fervently stroked his thigh and reached for—he moved on then. Honestly, his timing was impeccable. I wished I had that skill and could suddenly dematerialize when he got to me. Luckily, when he did, he must have sensed my stoic disinterest. With no attempt at a grope or snatch, he just ran a limp hand down my arm. He had his eyes on SuzeN.

The music switched for the finale. It couldn’t possibly have gotten any more cliché than, “Love to Love You Baby;” but there we were. My groan vanished like steam in the heat at our table. The disco thumping was obviously a cue for Gary. With rehearsed flourish, in one swift maneuver, he deftly pulled Julia’s chair around beside Lady SuzeN’s. I knew I couldn’t stop this. Something about the whole thing became horribly mesmerizing, like witnessing animal sacrifice. Julia knotted up her brows and shook her head piteously. She glanced at SuzeN, a look of dread upon shame. Perfect SuzeN was trying to hold her composure, but the surprise had left her mouth gaping open. It didn’t look pretty. No one else had gotten this special treatment. Gary leered as he positioned himself between them.

There were a number of times when I might have been satisfied to witness the undoing of SuzeN the mannequin woman. In fact, if it hadn’t mortified—perhaps been the ruin of–Julia, I’d have thoroughly enjoyed the group ridicule of that narcissistic little anthology of hers. But at that airless moment what I saw before me was only ugliness. Assault.

While the rest of the soused suburban women screamed and rocked and pounded the table, behaving like a pack of frenzied hounds, I watched the take down I thought I craved. Gary Groove’s groin was level with SuzeN’s face, then in her face. That left the ass end for Julia. The hounds may have broken the sound barrier then. Awful whirling lights made the humiliation of two sisters into a macabre circus. From her distant throne, Miriam the reluctant queen sheltered her eyes. Her gasping laughter turned ragged and confused. Her condoms bobbed unglamorously. Gary’s Spandexed gonads were battering SuzeN’s face, a face which had transformed hopelessly back into Susan’s. Julia winced against his hard buttocks as he “stirred the pot”, using them as his oven mitts, his hands in their hair.

The big drunk redhead peed in her pants and had to run from the table just as the volume hit a distorted crescendo. Donna Summer’s turgid moaning had been turned up by that little jackal cub Cam. I started to rise and reach across the table, a rescue reflex, only to be pulled back into my seat by the Maid of Honor. Wait your turn! She cackled between swallows of her margarita. It’s friggin’ hilarious! She howled, and plunked herself in my lap for a closer view. I jabbed her with my keys. She never even noticed.

Heartlessly good at his job, Gary overacted the sexy as his chosen victims struggled to turn away. All the while Crystal danced in the kitchen doorway, lost in a black-robed fantasy. Love, like the Devil, takes many forms, I suppose. This concession, however, did not diminish my revulsion. I felt the shame of betrayal surge within me as I watched Julia trying to breathe. I even felt it for old chignon-perfect, designer clad SuzeN just then. I hated sharing anything with that phony. But she had begun to look like me. We were the same.

Having enough of his hammering manhood, Susan and Julia let go of the frayed rope of tolerance. Flailing as if cast into deep water, blinking and groping madly, they reached around Gary, fumbling for each other’s hand. The best they could do was to use their ballast to clumsily push the offender away. With a roll of the abs and a salacious purr, Gary Groove exited triumphantly in spite of this, or maybe because of it. But for his big ridiculous boots, he might have been a cat–the cat that got away with eating the canary. His robe was waiting for him, held out by the ample arms of dewy-eyed Crystal.

I saw Susan grasp Julia’s forearm then, meaningfully. Julia shuddered. It was a deep shudder, a reflex, her guts and bones trying to shake off the night’s violations. First she had been forced to eat crow, then vulture. It had been no different for nowhereville Susan. I shuddered too, thinking of my own vulgar superiority, my own abasement. I felt my shame, the voyeur’s, tighten within me.

The two remained, dazed, in Gary’s arrangement, side-by-side, defiled, sacrificed in the name of a crummy nuptial celebration. We inhaled dense, sour party room air. Our silence separated us from the giddy inebriation of the others, and separated me from the two women so close to me. Lights came on, and the dishevelment of their hair left them looking scattered, ridiculous, utterly poignant, a ransacked piñata. Humiliation, the great equalizer.

The bride’s rubbery loot was packed up down the table. Towing the etiquette for our beleaguered end, I swore under my breath and managed a handy SuzeN style economy package smile in their general direction. The mini skirted Maid of Honor barely acknowledged. Miriam didn’t notice. She was still on her barnacled throne, wiping tears from her eyes with the backs of her hands.

The redhead returned, her narrow mouth smeared with lipstick, foiled desire in her posture. A little wet shred of toilet paper hung from her, unnoticed. Susan reached for a shot glass then. In a startling arc she drained it like a yokel, like it had been a long hot day on the field combine. She pushed one toward Julia. Salvaging a scrap of self-esteem, Julia lifted it. Then and there, smooth as a whip, the vulgar spirit vanished.

Now a writer living in Evanston Illinois with her restaurateur husband and teenage daughter, Christina Robertson’s professional background is in psychiatric clinical service. She is drawn to Nature and its painful, terrible beauty, particularly as it exists within people. Her first short story was published in The Ravens Perch.