Russian acrobats twirled Darlene and me high above their heads. The silver sequins of their costumes cast a kaleidoscope of dancing lights across the walls of my living room—fireplace blazing behind for full-theatrical effect. We had met the Russians earlier that day at Harbourfront, part of an Around the World celebration. When their troupe finished performing, we asked if they wanted to get together that night. We told them to wear their costumes, not expecting they would, or that they would meet us at all.
They showed up at our regular hang—a biker bar originally outfitted with octagonal wooden picnic tables outside and burgundy leather booths inside. In an effort to clean things up, become respectable, these were replaced with plastic patio furniture and palm trees out, red and white checkered tablecloths in. We called it The LoveBoat–SwissChalet. The men Darlene and I met were always brought back to my place. Darlene had a boyfriend—the boyfriend. The only thing he and I had in common was our disdain for one another.
The Russians gently set us down and took a bow before we pushed them back into my horrible little couch, a red IKEA pull-out covered in wine stains and candle wax. They had their routine. We had ours. Down to our underwear, Dar and I kissed before unhooking bras and tossing them into the fire. We straddled and gave lap dances to the docile Russian boys while the acrid smell of poly-something burned in the background. The bras, the ones we bought for such occasions, were cheap Yonge Street finds—sexy with lace and all the trimmings.
The four of us ended up in the bathroom—Darlene and Viktor in the claw foot, me and Illia in the shower. I tried to tell my guy he had the same first name as a favourite figure skater, but language was restricted to bodies only.
Still wet, the Russians left scrambling to the airport. Dar and I woke hours later, a tangled two, and walked out of my bedroom to a small balcony that overlooked a maze of alleyway garages. We recounted the day and the night before, before she left.
Between our shenanigans Darlene would set me up on blind dates. Maybe because I referred to myself as a third wheel, but I was always joking. The boyfriend was the third man out. The guys she set me up with were often his Bay Street buddies, suits I had nothing in common with, but because it drove him crazy I couldn’t resist. I liked to think of him worrying that I, who he thought so little of, had the power to ruin his reputation. He thought he was well on his way to grooming Darlene to be the perfect wife who would host business dinners and charity events.
I never doubted her desire or ability to end her relationship when no one was expecting it—least of all him. So there was no rush, and besides, he was bank rolling our fun.
But then they moved in together, into the ritzy part of town where Corinthian columns and gargoyles flank front entrances, where manicured lawns compete. They didn’t live in one of these mansions but in a renovated coach house owned by a friend of the boyfriend’s parents, ensuring he’d be in the right zip code to grease the rungs of the corporate ladder.
I avoided visiting as long as I could, but she’d insisted I come over before going to see Beck at Varsity Arena. Entering the neighborhood felt like touring a movie studio lot, the only people I saw were renovators and landscapers hustling to and from pickup trucks. “Fuck, Frank, you forgot the jigsaw again,” a worker said before he caught my eye.
I spotted the ivy-dripping Tudor Darlene had described and made my way around back. Hanging on their door was Darlene’s brass knocker from her old place, a place where the front door was painted every month to cover gang tags. I lifted the knocker and tapped two long, one short—my signature.
When she opened the door we laughed, both wearing the same shade of violet tights—hers fishnet, mine argyle. She had cut her long dark hair, leaving short wisps to frame her round face and a superman curl dropping from her left temple. We hugged and kissed on the lips, shorter than usual, but I thought nothing of it. Tasting her fruity Bonne Belle Lipsmacker reassured me nothing had changed, at least not in that moment.
All her belongings were there, mixed with a few new pieces—a puffy white leather couch and hanging glass lamps. She poured a Cabernet and led me out to their back patio. We sat in the sun for a couple sips before moving under a trellis of grape vines.
“I feel weird,” she said. “I haven’t gone to a big show in years. Are we too old?”
“What, you can’t go to a concert after thirty?” I hated when she talked age and that I should start thinking about my future. Picking up guys together kept those worries at bay, but we hadn’t done that since the Russian boys, a couple of months earlier. We’d be back at it, I was sure—I had a cheap bra on and had left fire logs back on the hearth.
We moved inside where Darlene sat at a small vanity in a nook off the living area while I stretched out on the couch. She asked to borrow my makeup. He won’t admit to it, she said about the boyfriend, but she’d catch him through the kitchen window, in his car, dabbing her concealer on his pimples.
I laughed, spilling my wine. “Shit!” I ran to the open kitchen and grabbed a tea towel. Fuck, I thought, why was everything white. “Do you have club soda?”
“No,” she said, passing me a salt shaker.
“Isn’t this going to ruin the leather?”
“It’s not real.”
I felt better already. I did my best to rub the burgundy out but left a few drops still visible, knowing the boyfriend would notice. “It’s no big deal,” Darlene said. Let’s go. We’ll stop along the way, grab a cocktail.”
We walked across Yonge and Davenport to Avenue where Darlene suggested we go in to the Howard Johnson. It was funny—her age comment and then us sipping chocolate ocelots and crantinis at a hotel jazz lounge. She flirted with the piano player and made requests which he promptly obliged. Her interests in music, food, and politics made it easy for her to fit into the boyfriend’s world.
She unveiled a pack of matches on the way out, the piano player’s name and number scrawled inside.
The opening band was playing when we entered the arena. We walked around and around and back again, not knowing where to enter until a security guard finally offered to show us. A couple, sitting in our seats, began arguing with him and among themselves. I grabbed Dar’s wrist and led her down the concrete steps before we climbed over the wall, dropped to the floor, and got lost in the crowd.
We couldn’t understand why no one else was dancing, especially the teenagers who cared enough to push themselves to the front. As people on the floor compressed and the body heat increased, we rolled down our tights and stuffed them into our purses. I pointed to a guy jumping in circles ten feet away. Darlene pulled me over and the three of us didn’t stop cavorting until the show was over.
Catching our breath, Blue Nail Polish Boy asked questions. Dar always had a multitude of stories, storytelling often the snare. We were sisters sometimes, sometimes from Timmins or Toledo or Timbuktu. I was impatient for her to reinvent her real life story, to write the boyfriend out forever.
The arena was so loud that when the boy inquired about school, Darlene thought he’d asked where we worked. She began telling him about her “paralegal job” when I interrupted. “No, Dar, he asked what grade we’re in.”
She gave me a look like the jig was up but quickly recovered. “Oh, we’re a bit older than that. You’re still in high school?” He was. He’d just come down from Barrie for the show and had to meet his dad for a drive back. We made our way out, sipping from a flask the boy had sneaked in.
“He was cute,” Darlene said, after we hugged the kid goodbye. I told her she didn’t need to worry about feeling old.
We instinctively walked back to the Howard Johnson to find the piano man still hunched over his instrument. At the bar, Dar flashed me a glimpse of her purple leopard-print lace bra. She extended an invitation to our new friend, and he agreed to join us after his final set but before he finished, her phone rang. From her expression, I knew who it was. After a quick conversation, she said she’d better go.
And that’s when she told me the boyfriend was now the fiancé. And when I had no response and no congratulations, she told me not to worry about the wine on the couch, that she would say she had spilled it. I kissed her goodnight and watched her climb into a cab.
Instead of taking the piano player home, like Darlene had suggested, I paid the bill and left.
I didn’t ask or talk about the wedding and neither did Darlene. Her interest in matchmaking continued, but I refused to date anyone who knew the fiancé.
“You’ll like this one,” she promised.
The Set-Up was a creative, a photographer from Windsor where Darlene was really from. She knew him from high school. It wasn’t until after I agreed that she told me he was married. Not to worry, she said, the relationship was on the outs—he was miserable.
Darlene told me to meet her for dinner, that her friend would show up after, and she would only stay long enough to make introductions.
I was impressed with Darlene’s selection. She knew I liked thin and slightly effeminate, the opposite of the piano player whose thick hairy forearms and sausage fingers manhandled the keys. The three of us had a drink and then crossed the street to The LoveBoat–SwissChalet. Dar and I danced to Marvin Gaye on the jukebox, wrapping ourselves around each other as The Set-Up looked on. She whispered, “Do you want me to leave you alone?” I shook my head. Things were as they should be, would be. Everything would be okay.
We walked all the way back to my place, pissing in back alleys and fondling one another. I poured drinks and ordered more from an after-hours. We went straight down the hall and fell in a heap on my bed. Darlene reminisced, revealing she’d had a crush on The Set-Up in high school. I got up and walked out to the balcony and lit a Marlboro Light. The smoke went nowhere, hanging still in the late summer air.
Darlene called my name, but I didn’t answer, waiting instead for her to come to me. They came, and Dar began her striptease, taking her T-shirt off and throwing it inside. She was wearing another cheapie. She undid the front clasp, her breasts bobbing out and casting shadows on the slanted brick rooftop. The Set-Up sat mesmerized.
I went inside to find long-stick matches by the hearth and carried them back down the hall and outside. I unhooked my strapless push-up and we simultaneously lit our bras on fire, dropping the quick-burning lingerie onto the balcony’s edge. Darlene pulled The Set-Up inside. He crawled on top of her and began suckling, and when she rolled over and asked him to spank her, he obeyed.
I was a voyeur, sitting in a chair in the corner of the room when the doorbell rang. I wrapped myself in a sarong and went down to find a guy holding a twelve-pack of Blue. He followed me up the stairs. Realizing I had no cash, I went back to the bedroom to find Darlene on all fours, screaming into a pillow. Fuck. I asked the beer guy if he would drive me to the nearest bank machine. He did, and I walked home, stopping in the park across the street.
I felt a pang of jealousy but elation as well. She had planned to be back at my place—the cheap bra. The fiancé was only a title. He, too, was disposable.
I went home and opened the door to silence. Cracking a Blue, I walked to my bedroom. The room was filled with a pulsating amber light. I stood hypnotized, transfixed on their collapsed bodies—he still inside her. A familiar smell drew me to the balcony and that’s when I saw its wooden railing enveloped in blue-green flames, metal underwires glowing red within.
“Motherfuck!” I shook out the can of Blue I was holding and ran for water. Darlene and The Set-Up followed and the fire was put out in two trips. We sat outside, laughing afterwards, drinking the rest of the delivery beer. The Set-Up left at sunrise, said he had to grab his things at a friend’s before driving back to Windsor. His kid was playing ball in a tournament that afternoon. Darlene had never mentioned a kid.
A week later a wedding invitation arrived. I didn’t rsvp and Darlene didn’t call.
The date came and went.
I can’t say I didn’t think about her every day after—whether she was happy with the husband, sitting on a real leather couch, or if she had a new sidekick.
Three months passed after the balcony fire. I was kneeling on the hearth, sifting ash and looking for an eighth matching underwire when the phone rang. It was Darlene. She talked small, her voice nervous. “Hang on,” I said. I poured whisky, went to the balcony, and lit a cigarette. I ran my fingers along the charred wood and asked about the wedding. I’d never once asked about the boyfriend or the fiancé while together, she and I, and there I was asking about the husband. But I didn’t listen to what she was saying, only to the sound of her voice. I snapped out of its lull when she burst into tears. Hope was restored, I thought. She’d realized the wedding—everything—was a mistake. I listened.
The Set-Up confessed to his wife that he’d slept with someone when he was in town.
“So,” I said. “That’s his problem.” For God’s sake. When will people realize they need to suck up the guilt of infidelity if they want to keep what they have. I waited for more. I knew there was more. She was still sobbing.
The wife knew he had seen an old friend and put two-and-two together. And with that she called Darlene and bawled her out.
“Just be thankful she’s not living here,” I said.
“I need a favor,” she cried.
Darlene wanted me to cop to the affair, get this woman off her back. I didn’t see the point—what was so different between the Russians and the piano player and The Set-Up? A fuck is a fuck is a fuck.
Dar was pregnant. That’s what was different.
I spat a mouthful of whisky and took a minute to respond, thoughts swirling. Was it the husband’s? The Set-Up’s? Did either know?
Darlene was afraid the wife would call the husband about the affair, or worse, about paternity.
“Please,” she begged.
I phoned The Set-Up’s wife, detailed my dalliance, and explained that Darlene had merely introduced us. I called myself a first-rate slag, offered sincere apologies, and added that I had seduced him. She screamed that I was a no-good home-wrecker and to leave her husband the hell alone. If only I was a successful home-wrecker.
Dar had told me that she would call soon after to see how things went, to talk about the baby, her plans. But she never did, and as the months went by my heart jumped a little less each time the phone rang. I marked on the calendar her approximate due date, counting forward from the night of the fire. If she was going to contact me, I thought it would be shortly after the baby was born. And I was right.
A small envelope arrived in the mail with no return address, yet I recognized her print. I slipped my nail under its flap and sliced along its crease, leaving a streak of paper-cut blood behind. I was expecting IT’S A BOY or IT’S A GIRL, but it was a THANK YOU card. Inside was blank save for two letters and her name, but I knew what she was thankful for.
Thank you for saying you fucked The Set-Up, thank you for keeping your mouth shut, and thank you for disappearing from my life.
The “xo Darlene” meant nothing.
Three silver sequins fell from the envelope. I picked them from the carpet and held them in my hand a moment before tossing them into the fireplace, into the ashes.