The Garden Party
By Judith Zimmer
It was overcast, but they moved the chairs outside anyway. The invitation had promised a garden party—and they were determined to deliver. The rain had stopped; pale light slanted down, making the hedges glisten. They had been talking about the weather for what must have been hours. It was familiar to Jeremy and yet irritating, reminding him of all the reasons he’d left.
They had decided not to hire a caterer. Across the kitchen, Julia was spooning cream cheese onto endive. His uncle carried a chair. The champagne was properly chilling. Max and Trevor, both about the same height, both adorable, played on the grass in the corner of the lawn, entwined since they’d met the day before. At the far end of the counter, his cousin was leaning so carelessly into the olives that a drape of her rust-colored hair threatened to mingle with the garnish. Before he could warn, Julia pulled back the wayward strand. She caught his eye—and looked at him the way she used to when they knew what the other was thinking.
Tomorrow his mother would marry Stephen in a little church in the woods. The women had their hats ready. Everything would change. He wasn’t sure yet what kind of adjustment that would require, but he did know that it would be one of the last times he’d be in this kitchen in exactly this way. It was a premonition, a holding on, and he didn’t mind it.
Jeremy was surrounded by the makings of punch. The curved glass bowl, spoons, measuring cups. Vodka, cranberry juice, orange liqueur. He frowned, concentrating. He was working from memory, the recipe languishing at home. He was dying to have a cigarette. He missed dangling it from his long fingers. The tall blond with the crooked nose and hair like wheat. He knew the cigarette made him look good.
The breeze from the open window carried a hint of milk, a country smell he’d come to associate with his mother’s thatched cottage. It had been several years now since she’d moved to the edge of this picturesque green, so typically English, as his American wife was fond of saying.
He poured in a test amount of cranberry, pleased as the color fogged into rose.
“Anyone want to taste,” he said to the room.
Julia appeared at his side. Her sneakers and running clothes matched his; she had encouraged him to try jogging. She took the tumbler and her time, swirling the liquid around in the glass before putting it to her lips. He watched her mouth. A few years ago, he hadn’t been able to take his eyes off that mouth. But now, he watched how the lips curled around the glass and thought how unflattering that made a mouth look. They’dbeen in England for seven days and he’d barely touched her. This had never happened before. Somehow whenever they left home, they would manage to find one another. But not this time. Not yet.
“It’s sweet,” she said. “What about more citrus?”
He squeezed fresh lime into the bowl and stirred. This time, he offered her the big spoon.
“Does it need more vodka?” he asked.
“That depends on how drunk you want to get your mother’s friends?” she smiled and touched his arm. She was trying to connect. He didn’t let on that he appreciated the effort. Communication had never been their strong suit. But she never stopped playing all her cards.
“Are you okay?” she’d ask.
“Sure. Why?” he’d answer, skilled at turning the question back on her. Even in the best of times, he was a person of few words. Just like his own father, from whom he’d learned the art of silent communication—the way you could just be with a person and know what she was thinking. You didn’t really have to be sure. You could intuit. From his father, he’d learned to do that, to settle for the quiet between two people.
It happened only rarely now with Julia. The rest of the time, she didn’t go for the silent treatment, as she called it. Anyway, there seemed to be no quiet between them, no empty spaces for him to fill. And so he had let the practice go.
“Taste the punch?” he said to Charlotte.
“Coming,” she said. They were first cousins, but she had been brought up in the states—and in accent and volume was the opposite of him.
She took the tumbler and watched him. “Jeremy, it’s fine. You’re fussing. Go get dressed.” Char was not his wife and could say whatever she wanted.
On his way upstairs, he passed the photo of his own wedding. Julia in an off-the-shoulder gown, long dark hair swept up, his dark suit, their faces eager and fresh. She still had that good smile. In the picture, he could see the little birthmark over her lip. An Indian woman had once stopped them on the street and pointed to it—its location marked beauty or strength or power, he couldn’t remember which.
They’d met soon after he’d arrived. He hadn’t had an image of what he wanted until she was in front of him. It turned out that hers was the city he wanted to make his home. Out-spoken, exotic, Jewish. Being near her, he got closer to what he wanted.
“Glad that’s done,” she said, walking into the bedroom. “What a lot of work.”
“It was. Thanks for helping.” He was grateful she was there, that much he knew. She still had that effect on him, preventing him from being sucked back into England.
He sat on the bed, tying his shoes. She took her dress out of the closet and hung it over the door. She ran the water in the bathroom sink and came out wearing a slip. Then she put on the dress and stood in the front of the full-length mirror, grimacing. “I’m not sure about this now,” she said.
It was a linen dress, a brown earthy color. “It looked fine at home,” she said. “But it’s too loose, too bohemian here.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “Really. It looks good.”
She continued to review her image in the mirror. He had that familiar feeling. If she could stop what she was doing and look at me.
“It’s just my mother’s friends,” he said.
“And your family.”
“You really have nothing to worry about. My family loves you.”
He didn’t know if she believed him or not—and perhaps he should have cared more, tried harder. He wanted to get downstairs where the drinks were ready and the haze of the party would overtake him.
“See you down there,” he said.
When his father died suddenly in his sleep of a heart attack, they’d given her the job of calling his parents’ friends. She’d wanted privacy and they’d sent her to a little room in the attic of his parents’ semi-detached house in Oxford, looking out over the neighbor’s slate roof. He thought of how she’d made those calls with her American accent. Just her voice alone brought New York along. She had found the phone numbers in his father’s fraying address book, and been protective of their grief. Jeremy had worried that she’d find out something in that black book about his father that he didn’twant to know. But if she did, she never said. Not then. Not in the ten years since.
He looked back at her from the doorway.
“Don’t be too long,” he said and went downstairs.
She nodded in the mirror, turning slightly to one side, then the other. “I won’t.”
He helped his cousin take the cheese platters out to the tables on the lawn. A few guests were already milling around the bar. Glasses were filling up.
“Let’s get this party started,” Char said, ladling punch. Julia joined them—and the three of them touched their glasses together.
“Down it! We know you can do it.”
He watched his cousin taunt his wife. There was no point getting in the middle. His entire family could drink Julia under their antique dining room table. They did it all the time. Tart gin and tonics served before dinner, the glass ice frosted and the green circle of lime sinking. Supper nowhere in sight. She’d rely on chips and crudité, until you could practically see the alcohol making its way to her head.
“I will if you do!”
There had been tension between them these last few hours, he noticed, ever since his mother had announced that after the wedding she was leaving the guests in Julia’scapable hands. He had seen it coming, his mother hadn’t.
“You know, I’m more English than you, Julia,” Char had said once his mother was out of range.
And Julia had turned to him, looking for help, a quiet appeal in her eyes that tried to remind him that they were in this together. It was just a beat, a second, and then she turned away. Had he heard right—or had his cousin really said "Jew-lia?"
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Char,” she said quietly. “I’m not English at all.”
He drank some punch, then some more. It tasted good, he had to admit. He felt it warm him from the inside. The sky seemed lighter. He seemed lighter.
“It all looks wonderful.” His mother approached, arms outstretched, the content bride. She wore her age well, white hair wisped high off her forehead, always smartly turned out. Today, her shimmery gold dress extended the glow around her.
“I couldn’t have done it without you.” And she hugged them each in turn. They stood together, admiring the set-up, the linen tablecloths, the strand of white lights on the hedges, the garden transformed.
They were interrupted by the boys, clamoring to play on the green across the road.
“What a brilliant idea,” said Julia, as though suddenly pleased to show off her Englishness. Stephen took each boy by the hand. They watched the three of them go down the driveway and past the hedges. Then, they could hear Max and Trevor hooting and shouting as they ran across the grass.
“Do you think Max will call him Grandpa after tomorrow?” Char asked Martha.
“That’s up to them.” Martha winked at her son. “Stephen does love having another little one around.”
“And you probably do too.” Char volunteered.
Jeremy watched his cousin cozy up to his mother. He wanted nothing to do with all the women in the family and their piercing, ricocheting emotions.
“The more, the merrier, I’ve always said,” Martha intoned. Jeremy and his brother were 18 months apart. Martha loved to talk about the antics of raising her two rough-and-tumble boys, who were so close in age they were practically twins.
“Ah, Mum, you always said we were a lot of trouble,” William came up from behind and gave their mother a hug.
“Yes, but what fun it was,” she said, looking up with pride at her two sons—and then turning a meaningful gaze at Jeremy and Julia.
Jeremy looked down at his hands, longed to see a cigarette there. He steadied himself, gripping the top of a wrought-iron chair.
He knew where this conversation was going. He had been here before, his mother and brother ganging up on him. The day, her shining future, made his mother glow with optimism. It seemed to give her license to say anything, to talk about subjects she was usually quiet about. And she seemed to want her children to do the same. His brother was obliging. But then again William wasn’t married and no one expected anything of him. The same was true of Char.
Julia, with her strong sense of family, could usually handle anything. But he watched her squirm, deflect. She put her expression into neutral—a purposeful blank, the muscles unmoving. And he knew why.
“You’re so right, Martha,” Julia said. She sounded cheerful enough. “Look at the two of them out there. Max can’t get enough of his friends. He’s such a social kid.”
“But what are you waiting for?” William said. “Max is how old? Eight? That’s quite a gap.”
Julia smiled as though they were all in on the secret. Jeremy knew how much she wanted another child. There had been a brief time when he thought he could do it. They would call her Sadie. He could see the two kids buckled into the back of the old blue Ford Julia’s grandmother had given them.
His mother looked at him and then at Julia, pleased that the topic was finally out in the open. His mother touched his arm. “And you two are such good parents,” she said.
His mother’s blue eyes were shiny and her expression was open and alert. He didn’t think he’d ever be able to tell her that it wasn’t so easy being a father. Even Char didn’t know what he really thought. Only Julia had seen it all.
Julia turned to fiddle with the tablecloth on the table behind her.
“More punch anyone?” Jeremy said.
You’re so good with kids, his friends always told him. So, he was as surprised as anyone by his reaction to Max’s birth. In the hospital, the pediatrician had said, “you must be the sperm donor!” He knew it was a joke and he should shake it off—but it stuck in his mind until it became true.
When they brought Max home from the hospital—and put him in his car seat on the kitchen table, the loft felt different. The table was now Max’s. Jeremy had a sudden premonition of what would follow. This will be Max’s place; this will be Max’s thing; this will be the place for Max’s thing; this will be Max’s time (to nap, eat, shit); this will be Max’s time to shit all over everything in every place. Welcome home, little man!
The open space of the loft had had such appeal. He’d taken pleasure in putting up some of the bedroom walls himself, walls that didn’t touch the high ceiling. But adding a baby? What had they been thinking? There were no real rooms or doors you could close. There was nowhere to go.
The baby grew. The loft got smaller. He felt squeezed. All that need, the smell of breast milk everywhere, the crying and clinging to Julia. He couldn’t relate and he couldn’t get between them. He watched their bond develop. Julia tried to include him as much as she could. “Come with us to the park. We’re going to the book store.” And he tried, accompanying them to birthday parties or out to brunch with friends who had kids, but he was never at ease. He was always afraid that Max would cry or make a lot of noise—and then what would they do?
So much for silent communication. “It’ll be better when he can talk,” Julia said. “Then you’ll be able to understand each other.” But Max—who, with blondish hair and light coloring looked just like Jeremy—had full run of the English language now and that hadn’t helped much.
“Max. Quiet down.” The kid had energy. Inside energy, outside energy. There was fuss and noise, arguments, negotiation. Play dates and babysitters. Decisions about nursery school, then elementary school. The time spent talking about it. And the choices—public, private, neighborhood, uptown. From the sidelines, he watched Julia deal with the pieces of Max’s life. Cajoling, arguing, reading, playing.
The Julia he’d known seemed to have disappeared into Max—and she didn’t look likely to come back anytime soon. Had she ever been as zealous about him? He was being childish, he knew, and he resented feeling that way. Could he really be jealous of his own son? He hadn’t really wanted to share Julia. He remembered someone in the family, an aunt maybe, once saying the same thing about his father.
The overwhelming presence of Max, the strength of him. His little backpack with the miniature stuffed animal, the little brown monkey that jumped up and down when he walked. The school papers and folders, notebooks, and dog-eared books.
“Dad, let’s play, let’s read.” Max summoned him to the floor, to the train tracks, to the art project. And Jeremy would get down on all fours and do as he was told. He admired his son’s energy, his enjoyment. The kid had a will that he respected. Not to mention that Max seemed to have been born with a direct and unquestioning connection to him.
Then there were the times when Max was inconsolable. “He’s having a tantrum.” That was Jeremy’s word for it.
They would stand over the sobbing puddle of the boy. And Julia would turn to him, expectantly, wanting his guidance, asking him what to do. He resented her asking for help.
He disliked these moments intensely. His own father had hit him with a belt when he’d talked back. But that wasn’t done anymore. And the tools left to him, the words and the time-outs seemed weak. They were what Julia used and wanted him to use. But he didn’t believe in them. He was defenseless. There was nothing he could do against the force of his son, against the force of the two of them.
“I can’t deal with this,” he’d say and walk away. By that time, they were living in another loft where there were walls. There was even a soundproof room with glass walls where Jeremy could work.
Through the glass, he could see that the squall had passed, and that Julia and Max were going out to the park or doing something else. But the storm wasn’t over for him. He was left in the vortex of the yelling and the noise and his own inability to act. He had gone into his study to work. And yet he would have liked Julia to look up, to bring him a cup of tea. But she never did. He knew she hated that he’d walked away. But he didn’tknow how to say what he wanted or resented and eventually gave up trying.
A stack of plates in one hand, and the door handle was slippery in the other.
“Let me get that.” Uncle Andrew opened the door and they walked through to the kitchen.
“Big day tomorrow. New stepdad and all that. You okay?”
“Sure.” He was surprised by the question. Uncle Andrew was giving his mother away during the ceremony. They’d practiced a few hours ago at the church, the minister indicating to each member of the family where they should stand on the light-colored uneven stone. He’d been particularly struck by the floor, the worn patina, the way his shoes felt in the dip, the spot he’d been assigned to. He hadn’t really given much thought to Stephen, the man, the stepdad.
“Everything okay back in New York? I only hear what Char tells me.”
“Just fine. Thanks,” he said, wondering what her version of their life there might sound like. Loyal Char, competitive Char. He was fond of his cousin, even if he didn’talways trust her.
They stood side by side at the sink, facing the big window and looking out at the lawn and at the variations of green beyond. There was a playground at the far end—and they could see the outline of the boys racing around and Stephen on the bench.
“You’ve done a great job with Max. What a lovely kid.”
Jeremy mumbled thanks and turned away. It was rare for someone to tell him that. Not that Max wasn’t worthy of praise, but that praise was rarely directed at him. He felt strangely emotional. His uncle seemed to be talking to him from far away. Images swirled. The uneven cobblestones of Crosby Street. The classroom where he taught last semester and that student who was always looking at him. The silence of the loft when no one else was home. She’d sent him that email. He hadn’t responded, but he would. Turning the corner on Lafayette and coming down Spring. The faculty had been warned about certain kinds of contact with students. The tall steps of the loft when you came in through the heavy steel door. If he wanted to keep his job, he’d have to be careful.
Later in the afternoon, the clouds threatened—and the guests moved into the living room. Jeremy took the punch bowl back to the kitchen to refill it. From the kitchen, he could see his mother standing next to her fiancée in the doorway, her face shining with light from the dress or from the window. He hadn't seen her this unburdened in years.
When they were young, he and his brother would sit at the kitchen table while she bustled around them. She’d have set up an activity for them, like cutting pictures out of magazines. They’d wield their scissors around images of horses and dogs, fences, and flowers. The best times had been when Dad wasn't home. Dad was fierce. He yelled. The house was calm when he wasn’t there, and it was just the three of them in the kitchen with the teacups and cake crumbles, the magazines, and the child-size scissors.
He closed his eyes and opened them again and made the living room a square— the fireplace, the couches, the sideboard, the low ceiling. The guests were standing with their drinks. His mother was holding her fiancé’s arm, looking happier than he’d seen her in years. His son was on the floor playing with Trevor and some wooden clothespins. He narrowed his vision and removed everything else from the square—and what was missing was Julia. The room was without her and it was brighter. The feeling was overwhelming—like a breeze that comes in the window unexpectedly or the air is suddenly sweet and you notice. Then he widened the lens. He let Julia in—there was she, holding a glass of punch and standing in the doorway of the kitchen, talking to his uncle. Her dress, which was loose and flowing, did look out of place here, just as she said it would.
His mood, the breeze, seemed to be connected to his mother—because if she could make such a change, couldn’t he? And that was the beginning for him. Now that he’d seen the square, the vision of the living room, he thought he could see a path.
The clothespins splattered across the wood floor—and the room was quiet for a minute.
Julia was smiling at the boys—and so was his uncle. Jeremy sprang to action. He bent down to the floor with his camera, kneeling in front of his son, and Max turned toward him. Jeremy framed the young, smiling face in the lens.
For that moment, it was just him and Max. And he was glad, so glad that he’d have that photo. He turned back. Julia was still standing in the doorway and smiling, although she wouldn’t be when she found out what he had decided.