Kr-online-issueFiction

Birthdayland

It would be wrong to say that I resented Felicity. You’re not allowed, I don’t think, to resent a person who’s saved your life. It’s just that whenever I looked at Felicity’s face—the thin mouth whose upper lip vanished entirely when she smiled, the downturned eyes, the combed-back hairstyle which, she claimed, Vidal Sassoon himself had recommended to her—the thought came into my mind: I never want to see that face again. If she were to spontaneously combust, or dematerialize, or be hoovered up by a passing spacecraft, I would find it very convenient. I imagined myself waving at the flying saucer as it hurtled away. I would be grateful to the extraterrestrials who had, however inadvertently, relieved me of a problem I’d been unable to solve myself.

The thing was, Felicity felt a certain obligation to take an interest in my welfare. I knew this because she told me.

“The Chinese have a saying, Imogen,” she’d say. “Save a life, and you are responsible for that life.”

In practice, this meant that she liked to keep an eye on me. She would call me sometimes, or send me vitamins in the post with instructions in her beautiful, cursive handwriting about how to take them. One tablet, thirty minutes before food, she’d write. And don’t forget to hold it under your tongue until it has dissolved completely.

I’d moved away, but Felicity liked to visit the city I was living in, and when she did she always sought me out. Sometimes she liked to surprise me. One day, she appeared while I was at work. Toward the end of my shift, she came up to the counter, hiding her face behind one of the big, helium-filled foil balloons we sell. This one was pink with silver writing. It said: For a Very Special Girl!

I watched the figure approach, two little legs sticking out of a camel coat.

Then she was in front of me, snatching the balloon down to reveal her face.

“Surprise!” she said.

“Felicity!” I said. I gripped the counter like I might fall if I let go. “How lovely to see you!”

“So this is where you work?” she said. “How festive. I love parties!”

I work at a big-box store called Birthdayland. It’s part party shop, part venue for children’s birthdays. On the ground floor we sell supplies: paper plates and serviettes, costumes, balloons, and tanks of helium to inflate them. In one corner, a purple-beaded curtain leads to the Adults Only area, where we stock supplies for bucks’ and hens’ parties: aprons with rubber breasts attached, risqué board games, and a comprehensive range of penis-themed items: penis tiaras, penis snow globes, penis shot glasses, penis pasta.

Meanwhile, the back wall is a giant pick-’n-mix, displaying every conceivable kind of candy. There are the traditional ones: raspberry, bullet, milk bottle. There are those sour enough or hot enough to be more of a dare than a pleasure. And then there are the truly niche lollies: wrenches, hams, flounders with anatomically correct wonky eyes. We have lollies that look like ears, and lollies that taste like earwax. Kids come to that wall like the three kings coming to the nativity scene, with great reverence and a sense of occasion. Either that, or they run at it like they’re running into battle, eyes rolling back, screaming their heads off.

On the second floor are a series of themed rooms: Fairy Room, Cowboy Room, Dinosaur Room, Unicorn Room. On weekends the party guests troop in and out, up and down the stairs, to the sound-proofed rooms where professional adult fairies and cowboys and dinosaurs and unicorns do their best to keep them entertained. Once the shop has closed for the day on Saturdays, the staff usually go out and get filthily, blackout drunk.

We have a Clown Room, too, with a multicolored ball pit, a clown mural, unicycles, and enormous shoes for the children to wear. But no one uses it anymore. Everyone hates clowns now. Our resident clown, Bert, has to debase himself by playing a cowboy instead.

“I trained to be a bouffon,” he said to me when I first met him. “Do you have any idea what that means?”

“Is it a kind of clown?”

“‘Is it a kind of clown?’” he said, mocking me. He then picked a large, dry shard of mucous out of his nostril and took a moment to examine it. “How did I wind up among such philistines?”

A bouffon, he explained, was a kind of clown who did not allow themselves to be mocked; instead, they mocked the audience. They were the ugliest, the most dangerous, the cruelest of clowns, and therefore they were the finest. He had trained under a grand master of bouffon, who had trained his students by first breaking down their egos. He would make them walk around hunched over, sniveling, then patrol the room, hitting various pupils with a stick. You are dogs, he’d say. You are all dogs!

Bert told me that his favorite thing about performing as a bouffon was singling out people in the audience to torment. He said he had a gift for choosing them; he could always sniff out shame, guilty consciences, or troubled minds, and he would interrogate these people until they were in hysterics, either of mirth or distress. It was all the same to him.

“I’d get right up in their face and say, ‘Sir, did you let your roommate fist you? You did, didn’t you? And you liked it, didn’t you? Say you’d do it again. Say it!’ ”

“Did they say it?” I asked.

“Always,” he said.

 

Felicity bought the balloon and asked me when my shift finished. She invited me to have dinner at her club. I said yes. I didn’t mention that I had plans to go out with Bert and the others and drink jugs of cheap beer until the pub threw us out.

The club, an exclusive ladies’-only club called The Rosamund, had a reciprocal relationship with the ladies’ club where Felicity was a member. She always preferred to stay at clubs when she traveled. I’d been to The Rosamund before. It was always close to empty, other than a few elderly women in Hermès scarves passing silently between the rooms. I met Felicity there, and we sat in an otherwise vacant dining room with heavy damask curtains and ate lamb chops with mint sauce. There was a self-serve bar and a sideboard laden with cakes and cheeses, from which you could serve yourself. Felicity suggested we ignore these and order a prune and brandy soufflé.

“It’s not on the menu,” she said, “but they’ll make it for me.”

The soufflé, an unexpectedly vivid purple in color, was delicious. I ate it before it could deflate.

“Before I met you,” I said between mouthfuls, “I didn’t know places like this existed.”

“They’re everywhere,” said Felicity. “Once you know where to look.”

We lapsed into an awkward silence.

“How’s Nate?” I asked.

Nate was her son. It was at his party that the accident had occurred. I never heard from him, after it happened, but then, I never expected I would.

“Oh, you know what it’s like with boys,” she said. “The more they change, the more they stay the same.”

She’d bought the balloon as a gift for me, and it hovered between us like a third guest at the table. It rotated, slowly, a ghoul’s head on a string neck, and the silver words kept entering and exiting my vision: For a Very Special Girl!

 

By the time I next saw Felicity, I had found myself in a relationship with Bert. Both of us were disgusted by this, but once we had started, we couldn’t stop. Our trysts were most often in the Clown Room. We knew we were safe there. No one ever wanted to use the Clown Room.

He would put his gun belt and his ten-gallon hat on afterward  and say, “That was the last time.”

“Absolutely,” I’d say, looking at the mural of clowns who’d witnessed what we’d just done: clowns squirting water from their lapel flowers, clowns stuffed into clown cars, clowns slamming cream pies into one another’s faces.

“You smell like salted cod,” he said.

“And you smell like dog food.”

“I smell like a man.”

“A man who eats dog food.”

Truly, he was revolting. At first glance he could fool you into thinking he was handsome. His features were full and symmetrical. But through some private determination, he was descending into ugliness. He liked to shave the front half of his head and tell people he’d had a brain tumor. He grew his fingernails into long, tapered ovals. He had one incisor tooth missing and refused to get a false one. There was just a vacancy in his mouth, a dark, square window which I’d probe with my tongue, sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose.

Sexually, however, he was surprisingly skillful. The first time we latched onto one another, he did something so slow and elegant with his fingers that I gasped.

“Oh my god,” I said, impressed. I’d never thought of Bert as someone capable of exceeding my expectations.

Then he ruined everything by saying, “You like that? I call it ‘threnody for fiddle.’”

Eventually, I brought him to meet my mother, who I only saw a few times each year, usually at lunches we both sat through with gritted teeth. While I made tea and she stacked the dishwasher, she said, “So, does Bert have another job, or is he just a clown?”

I didn’t think it was worth explaining the distinction between general clowning and bouffon.

“He’s just a clown.”

She tucked the plates into the rack, leaving even spaces between them.

“I didn’t realize you could be employed full time as a clown.”

Bert appeared in the kitchen.

“Those of us called to clowning are all full time,” he said. “The discipline doesn’t leave room for anything else. Any mercantile ambitions I once held have long been dashed.”

“What a pity,” my mother said.

That night I went back to Bert’s place, and we rolled around beneath the vast and intimidating poster that hung above his bed. The poster was an advertisement for one of Bert’s shows. It was as wide as the bed and almost reached the ceiling.

In the photograph, Bert stood in the middle of a stage, at the center of a line of grinning bouffons. He was hunched over, one knee high in the air with his toes pointing downward. The bouffons were wearing costumes that looked like pantyhose stretched all over the body—stuffed. Bert told me later that they liked to use rags or sponges—to render their figures lumpy and out of proportion. Their faces were made up in crude smears of white and red. Bert was squinting, his expression both gleeful and cruel. He told me that when the photo was taken he’d been in the middle of telling the audience that they were a rotting pile of philandering scum, a noble pastime for a bouffon.

I tried my best not to look at it.

Something I liked about Bert was his frank and erotic appreciation of my scarred leg. The lovers I’d been with before, mostly men, had either studiously ignored the scars or else touched them reverently, softly, with lips or fingertips, as though trying to heal or absolve me. Not Bert. Bert said, You look like melted plastic, and licked my leg with the whole, flat paddle of his tongue.

He never asked how I’d acquired the scars. The morning after we’d dined with my mother, as I drank cold and muddy coffee in his bed, and he dozed next to me, I said: “Don’t you want to know how I got them?”

“Got what?”

“My scars.”

“Not really,” he said, turning over.

I was in a maudlin mood. Such a mood was encouraged by the atmosphere in his room, which was small and filled with junk: things he acquired because of their hideousness and then refused to clean or maintain. Things which, in some cases, he actively destroyed. There were broken VCRs, dead and spiky succulents, some spongy from overwatering; sticky, old, nudie magazines from the 1970s and ’80s with their covers half torn off; chairs with one leg shorter than the others. One live fly buzzed in the windowsill above a pile of dead ones.

I hit his buttock with my fist.

“You should want to know,” I said. “It’s very tragic. And very interesting.”

He picked up a pillow—which lacked a pillowcase and was covered in concentric perspiration stains, like the rings on a tree—and put it over his face.

“Go on then,” he said. “If you must.”

“I was on a yacht,” I said. “There was an explosion.”

He pulled down the pillow enough to expose one enormous, untrimmed eyebrow, one inquiring eye.

“An exploding yacht?” he said. “Ooh la la.”

“The yacht didn’t explode,” I said. “There was an explosion on the yacht. I guess it was more like a fire.”

I was annoyed. Somehow, he was managing to make me feel that the story was untrue, that I was exaggerating. But the truth was that, in the years since the accident, explosions no longer seemed unlikely or even dramatic to me. I found I expected them to happen all the time. I’d watch cars pass on the road, or aeroplanes overhead, or microwaves beeping, and think: how are none of these things exploding? They were all so full of the capacity to explode that it seemed absurd to me that more of them didn’t go ahead and do it.

I told him about the men who had approached me and my friends on the beach. They were boys, really, only twenty or so. But they looked like men to us. I was only eleven. It was the first time I’d been allowed to go to the beach without adult supervision, and my mother had only granted permission because two of my friends were bringing their older sisters, who were sixteen or seventeen. All of us were baking in a silent row, sundazed in our bikinis. Hey, the boys said, indicating a nearby pier. See that yacht? Our friend is having a party. Want to come?

The older girls conferred among themselves and decided we’d go. When I said I couldn’t go anywhere on a yacht because I had to be home before dark, the boys laughed and said not to worry, the yacht wasn’t going anywhere. They escorted us onto the pier, and then onto the yacht, which was white and chrome and gleaming. The one who spoke to us was named Greg, and there were others whose names and faces have receded in my memory. Greg put his hand on the small of my back and introduced me to the party host, Nate, before vanishing with one of my friends. I remember the press of people and brushing against the cool flesh of those who’d jumped in the water; I remember the buffet, how there was a platter of sushi that had been arranged to resemble a giant fish with its mouth open, and how that fish started to become pockmarked, then to vanish, as people ate the nori rolls that comprised its form. I remember Nate’s goose-pimpled skin, his tiny, hard nipples; I remember him pushing a piece of sushi into my mouth, whole, after I’d said I didn’t think I’d like it. He said, Sure you will. I remember the brightness of the caviar as it popped between my teeth.

And I remember the beige carpet in the cabin on the upper deck, how it ran up the walls; I remember this especially, because, after the explosion, this was the fabric I stuck to.

It was late and almost everyone else was on the lower deck. I’d had too many vodka Cruisers, thrilled that I could drink them, that no one minded or even seemed to be watching, thrilled at their sweetness and lurid colors. I wasn’t sure how I’d arrived in the cabin, but it was quiet and pleasant in there, though when I lay on the bed I could feel the sushi swimming in my stomach, and I needed to keep my eyes closed to make sure it didn’t rush back up.

I remember telling Nate happy birthday. I remember him telling me it wasn’t his birthday.

The next thing I knew, a percussive sound like a punch. Yes, smoke; yes, the shrieks and rising heat. And now for the gory part: the fire, which burned on the lower deck, was hot enough to melt part of the upstairs cabin’s carpet—which, as my lawyer would later tell me, was a nylon polyamide blend and therefore didn’t meet the relevant nautical safety standards. I tried to run to the stairs but collapsed at the entrance to the cabin and lost consciousness. And the skin of one leg melted into the carpet, trapping me. The top half of my body had landed on a different type of flooring, newly laid on the landing that led to the stairs — a UV-cured urethane product that was fire retardant and which, I came to learn, had preserved the integrity of my face, arms, chest cavity, and abdomen. I don’t remember pain before passing out, or believing I was in mortal danger. All I remember thinking is: My mother is going to kill me.

Later, several people who’d been on the boat told me Felicity saved my life. It happened so fast, they said. She was the one who ran in through the smoke while everyone else clamored to get off the yacht. She saw me, unconscious, and saw my leg. She gritted her teeth, tore my leg from the carpet, and dragged me down the stairs and off the yacht to safety.

Where was Nate? I’d asked.

Nate was with us, everyone said.

I picture it sometimes, my shin coming away from the melted carpet with strings attached, like Felicity was separating two halves of a grilled cheese sandwich. Whenever I think of this, a phantom of pain travels up my leg.

My lawyer asked so many questions. He was particularly interested in the bikini I was wearing. Was it a child’s bikini, or a woman’s? What was the color, what was the style? Would I describe it as modest? And had I started menstruating by the time of the accident? He said it would be helpful, very helpful, if my physique was plainly still that of a child.

“She was a child,” said my mother, though the look she gave me suggested she doubted her own assertion. “She is a child.”

The thing was—and I knew better than to say this—I hadn’t really felt like a child. I’d enjoyed the sense that everyone thought I was older than I was, that finally my maturity and sophistication were being recognized. I hadn’t even been disgusted by the taste of the sushi. It tasted fresh and delicate, and I had been impressed with myself for eating it, not only without complaint, but with genuine pleasure. I knew I shouldn’t have been there, and I shouldn’t have been drinking, but I’d been flattered to find myself accepted among the adults. I had the dim feeling that somehow this made everything my fault.

“That’s it?” said Bert, when the story was over. “That’s all?”

“What do you mean?”

“You expect me to feel sorry for you because you got drunk on a yacht?”

“No, I just—”

To my shame, I felt tears welling in my eyes.

“Awwww,” said Bert. “Poor sad face! Poor widdle thing! Are you a widdle burned girl looking for her nursey-wursey?”

I wanted to say something that would cut through his cultivated nastiness. It still burns, I wanted to tell him. That’s why I take cold showers. But Bert would always go further than I would, always. So I kept my mouth shut.

I didn’t tell him about the aftermath. About how the lawyer had been hopeful at first. He told me I could get a settlement. A sizeable settlement. Duty of care, he said. Restitution. Pain and suffering.

But then Felicity had come to visit, and she brought flowers, a box of chocolates, a huge pink teddy bear. She was so glad to see me, she said. When she’d been dragging me through the smoke, she wasn’t sure that either of us would make it out alive. She smiled and picked lint from the hospital sheets. She’d brought me a gift: a beautiful necklace of tiny pearls.

“Not a gift for a little girl,” she said. “But I bought it before I realized how young you were. I’m sorry, my dear, it’s just — you looked so grown up!”

Anyway, she said, she hoped I liked it. It was just a token, of course. Just a little something, to show me how very sorry she was.

After the lawyer met Felicity, he wasn’t so optimistic any more. Felicity made an offer, and my mother accepted it. I never knew how much the offer was; it’s something I’ve often wondered about. My mother explained that the money would go into her account, not mine—it would be needed for medical expenses, she said, and other unforeseen costs associated with the accident that might arise in the future.

“Besides,” she said, sometime after the check cleared. “What were you doing up there in the first place?”

 

Gifts were a habit with Felicity. Whenever I saw her, she had something for me. The day she met Bert, surprising me once again at work, she’d bought me a silk scarf. It was a floral print, pink and blue.

“It’s just so gorgeous,” she said. “Isn’t it? When I saw it, I thought of you. I thought: Imogen must have it!”

Bert appeared in his cowboy outfit, his sheriff badge glinting.

“Well, well, well,” he said. “Who do we have here?”

I made the introductions.

“Felicity!” said Bert. “What a pleasure. I’ve heard so much about you.”

“All good, I hope,” Felicity said.

“And what’s this?” said Bert, reaching for the scarf.

“A gift,” I said.

“A gift! How splendid.”

I had left the scarf in its box, where it lay in a perfect folded square; Bert shook it out with a flourish, like a matador, and proceeded to tie it around his head.

He batted his lashes. “What do you think?”

“Oh, very pretty,” said Felicity. She walked up to him, took the scarf’s tails in her hands and tied them in a natty little bow beneath his chin. There were deep wrinkles at the base of her fingernails, and it seemed the skin was withdrawing, revealing how deeply the nails were embedded in her fingers. It made me feel for my own nail beds, trying to get a sense of where they began and ended.

“Anyway, boss,” said Bert, looking at me. “Is there anything I can do to make our VIP guest more comfortable? A massage, perhaps? A visit to the private lounge? A personalized tour through our latest collections?”

I had recently been promoted to manager at Birthdayland, and Bert’s response to this had been occasional flourishes of such obsequious behavior. But Felicity didn’t seem to notice, or to care, that he was being sarcastic.

“I’d love a cup of tea,” she said.

“I’m afraid we don’t serve tea, Madame, but how about a complimentary bucket of pick’-n-mix?”

Bert,” I hissed.

But, to my surprise, Felicity said she’d be delighted to sample the pick-’n-mix. Bert offered his arm and she took it, and together they sauntered toward the back wall, while Bert pointed out confetti and feather boas, piñatas and sticks to hit them with. I followed a few paces behind, at once worried about what Bert would say or do, and filled with an urgent desire to see him say or do it.

He paused to show her a range of latex Halloween masks, rolling an ogre over his face to demonstrate how they molded to the contours of the wearer’s skull. Then, still wearing the mask, he took her to the wall of sweets, gave her a bucket, and filled it—using his hands, not the scoops provided—saying “I insist! I insist!” as the bucket overfilled, gummy worms and jelly babies spilling all over the floor.

Felicity didn’t seem perturbed by any of this. I watched, as her fingers with their semi-exposed nail beds pecked into the bucket over and over, transferring bright, sugared shapes to her mouth. While munching, she spied the Adults Only section through its twinkling, purple curtain.

Bert saw the direction of her gaze.

“And would Madame care to peruse our range of novelties for the mature partygoer?” he said, his voice muffled by the mask.

Felicity put a green snake in her mouth and pulled its head off with her teeth.

“Yes,” she said. “Madame would.”

I stood there while Bert showed her the range of penis-themed novelties. Felicity put a penis-shaped whistle to her mouth and blew.

“Bert!” I said, when he offered Felicity a baseball cap with a rubber penis sticking up from its center.

“Ah, my mistake,” he said. He took the cap off and replaced it with a tiara, a kind of circlet, on which a ring of miniature phalluses waved gently on their spring bases.

Felicity regarded herself in the mirror that hung on the wall. “Yes,” she said. “That’s more like it.”

After she’d purchased the penis tiara, Felicity insisted that Bert and I both join her at the club that evening for dinner.

“No,” I said, sensing danger. “It’s too much. You’re too generous, we couldn’t possibly—”

“Nonsense!” said Felicity.

“Nonsense!” said Bert.

When she’d gone, I told him that if he didn’t take the mask off I’d deduct it from his wages. He bowed almost to the floor. “Your wish is my command,” he said.

That night, in that same nearly deserted dining room with the damask curtains, it was as though Bert and Felicity forgot I existed. They had eyes only for each other. When the waiter brought us a dish of beans in butter, flaked almonds scattered on top, Bert started eating them with his fingers.

Haricot vert is the king of the beans,” he said.

Felicity snapped her fingers and called the waiter over.

“More haricots verts!” she said. “Chop chop!”

When the beans arrived, Bert stuck two beneath his top lip like the tusks of a walrus.

Felicity picked one up in her liver-spotted hand and pretended to smoke it like a cigarette, blowing imaginary smoke rings out of her mouth.

The two of them made ample use of the self-serve bar. The staff—either through instruction or embarrassment—ignored Bert when he pulled a cork from a half-empty bottle with his teeth, then drank straight from the bottle despite the selection of glasses available. He ate cheese off a knife, which he gestured with as he spoke; and when a particularly oozy chunk of brie landed in my hair, Felicity snorted with laughter.

“Here,” she said, holding out a napkin.

Bert took it from her and spun it into the shape of a rose, which he presented to Felicity. Felicity took it and allowed him to kiss her hand.

 

That night I got angry with Bert. I hated getting angry with him. Not because it disrupted our domestic harmony—we were living together by then, the poster of him hissing at the unseen audience now suspended above a bed which had once been solely mine—but because I was embarrassed. I could sense myself becoming a “poor widdle burned girl” who needed her “nursey-wursey.”

But that night I lost my temper. There was crying; there was screeching. There were accusations that in some inscrutable way he and Felicity had been mocking me. I said he had humiliated me. I said: wasn’t it bad enough that this woman had saved my life? Wasn’t it bad enough that I had to live in her debt, accepting whatever gifts she saw fit to give me? That she’d be trailing after me like a balloon, shiny and buoyant, forever?

To my surprise, this outburst didn’t spur Bert to further cruelties. For a moment he turned serious. He ceased goading me, and it was like a wind had stopped blowing in my face.

“Sit,” he said.

He poured a tumbler of neat, cheap whiskey for me and one for himself. In our new, somber mood, we clinked the glasses.

“I thought you understood,” he said.

“What?”

“What I was doing.”

He said this slowly, deliberately, as though I was an idiot.

“I understand,” I said, though I didn’t. The drying tears made the skin on my face feel tight. “Of course I understand.”

He nodded at me. “Good,” he said. Then he opened his mouth wide and threw the whiskey back.

“After all, I know how much you love Felicity,” he said. “You adore her. You cherish her little visits. And why wouldn’t you? She saved your life.”

“She saved my life.”

Bert’s expression was such a picture of earnestness that I started giggling, despite myself.

“She saved your life.” He hopped up from his chair, squatted, and started walking around the room like a monkey, tickling his armpits, then dragging his knuckles on the ground. “She saved your life!” he said. “She saved your life, she saved your life, she saved your life!”

This made me giddy with laughter. I ran to the kitchen, grabbed two saucepans, came back and started banging them together, while Bert kept saying those same words, again and again, until they were sounds detached from their meanings.

Eventually, I threw the pans aside. Bert pulled me into an embrace, and we waltzed in circles around the living room, chanting: She saved your life! She saved your life! She saved your life!

 

“You know the difference between a clown and a bouffon? The real difference?” Bert said a few days later. We were in the kitchen cooking penis pasta. This was one of the perks of being a manager at Birthdayland; I had my pick of the expired goods.

“Tell me,” I said, blowing on a mini phallus, then biting it to test whether it was al dente.

“Ultimately, the clown is a lone figure,” said Bert. “The bouffon prefers to travel in packs. He finds a little gang of fellow bouffons. They stick together. And that’s how they get away with it.”

 

One day, another person I had known came into Birthdayland. It was Greg.

Greg didn’t recognize me at first. He came up to the counter on a Saturday morning, well-dressed and harried, and said, “I need a princess costume.”

“Which princess?”

He looked at me blankly.

‘Give me one of each,” he said.

As I rang up fourteen separate princess outfits with matching wigs, I said, “Greg, you don’t remember me, do you?”

He looked again.

“Jesus,” he said.

“Imogen.”

“Imogen,” he said. “Of course, of course.”

He concentrated very hard on putting his credit card back in his wallet, and his wallet back in his pocket, then lifted the bags off the counter.

“You look good,” he said.

I smiled, feeling the elasticity of my facial muscles.

You look good,” I said.

The plastic bags were cutting into his fingers.

“How’s Nate?” I asked. Greg’s face said Don’t make me do this, and in that moment I was glad for Bert’s rudimentary schooling in bouffon. It meant that I didn’t give into my first instinct, which was to let Greg off the hook.

“He’s good.”

“Oh yeah? What does he do now?”

Greg swallowed. “He’s a lawyer. Corporate.” After a slight pause, he added, “but he does a lot of pro-bono stuff.”

“That’s nice,” I said, nodding. “Is he married?”

Greg’s look of alarm intensified.

“Yeah,” he said, then cleared his throat. “Yes, yep. Two kids. A boy and a girl.”

“And you have a daughter.”

Greg nodded.

“How old?”

“She’s six today.”

“Wow. What a fun age,” I said.

“Yeah, it is. Anyway, I should leave you to it—”

“Felicity stays in touch.”

This name struck something in Greg. His expression shifted, then shifted back.

“Felicity. . .,” he said.

“Nate’s mother.”

“No, I know,” he said. He nodded, and kept nodding. “I know her. Of course.”

“We hang out sometimes.”

“Oh,” said Greg, surprised. “Really? That’s nice. I mean, that’s really great.”

“She saved my life,” I said.

Greg looked away. He said it was good to see me, and then he said he had to go.

 

The next time Felicity came to town, she let me know in advance—to make sure, she said, that both Bert and I would be available for dinner. Bert suggested that we host. It was our turn, after all.

“We must host a proper banquet,” he said. “Six courses, not counting the amuse-bouche and petits fours.”

“I would expect nothing less.”

“I shall bang the dinner gong.”

“And I shall serve the vol-au-vents and salted cod.”

“A la russe?”

“But of course.”

When Felicity’s invitation to the club came, however, Bert was happy to accept it. I wondered about this.

“You’re not embarrassed, are you?” I said. About—” I gestured at the familiar squalor of our surrounds, “all this?”

“Why would I be embarrassed?” Bert said. He was lying in bed, digging around in his navel.

“Because she is who she is,” I said. “And we are who we are.”

“I am what I am,” said Bert. He looked closely at the blue lint he’d extracted from his navel. “I yam what I yam what I yam.”

At my insistence, we brought flowers to the club for Felicity. I chose a bunch of natives: eucalyptus and gumnuts with one huge protea at the center. When we gave them to Felicity, Bert reached out and gave the protea a squeeze. “Honk if you’re horny,” he said.

She had the flowers taken to her room, and over gin and tonics from the open bar she said she’d put in a special dinner order just for Bert.

This turned out to be an entire tureen full of buttered green beans.

“Bon appetit!” said Felicity.

Bert pulled the tureen over. He stuffed a napkin into his shirt collar and started eating. “Mmf,” he said, chewing with his mouth open. “Delectable. You shouldn’t have.”

My quiche and Felicity’s salmon arrived. As we ate, they got onto the topic of bouffon. Bert was explaining how it depended on interaction with the audience.

“To you, for example,” he said, twirling a bean and then using it to gesture at Felicity. “I might say—now, here’s a very respectable lady. Married, I presume?”

“Of course,” said Felicity, displaying her nested wedding and engagement bands.

“Children?”

“Four sons,” said Felicity. “Well, three and a half, one of them is a stepchild.”

“Ah, and I imagine you would have preferred to do away with that one. Subtly, with poison. Or perhaps you prefer the meat grinder approach?”

Felicity slid a translucent bone from her fish. “Actually, I think accidents are best,” she said. “You don’t have to do too much that way. You merely create a circumstance.”

“So why didn’t you?”

“Create a circumstance?” Felicity chewed thoughtfully. “Too tenderhearted, I suppose.”

She rubbed her fingertips on a napkin. Once again, I felt I was fading into the wallpaper, the damask curtains. I considered getting up and leaving but settled for pouring myself more wine.

“Ah, I see how it is. You love too well,” said Bert.

“When it comes to my family? Oh yes,” Felicity said. “Guilty as charged.”

“A common predilection,” said Bert. “Who did you prefer to fuck? An uncle? A cousin? Both? Both at once?”

Felicity burst out laughing. Bert smiled with his mouth full of green pulp.

“No, no,” he said. “I see now. It was one of your sons. Or maybe more than one of them. Those juicy little morsels. I bet you could have eaten them all up.”

Felicity kept laughing, then sighed. “You devil,” she said. “I think I would have liked your little shows.”

“They were indeed minuscule,” said Bert. “Almost too puny to be perceived by the human eye. And yet, I had a whole theater to myself once.”

“Really?” I said.

Bert looked at me. “Of course. The Salle des Bouffons.”

I gave him a blank look.

“The Clown Room,” he said.

Felicity said she’d love to see it, and Bert insisted he must show it to her, immediately. I tried to refuse, but the momentum Bert and Felicity were able to generate between them was too powerful for me to resist.

We took wine and champagne from the open bar. We also took an entire cheesecake and the plate it had been served on, as well as the decorative silver cake knife. Felicity made no effort to conceal what she took. When I said, “Shouldn’t we cover that?” she said, “Whatever for?”

The concierge didn’t stop her, and neither did the doorman. The taxi driver raised no objections to the uncovered cake or the unsheathed knife. I saw then how Felicity moved through the world. But I couldn’t imagine what it felt like, to assume that no one would raise any objections to anything you did, or try to stop you from taking whatever you wanted. I envied her. How could I not, mired in my own preparedness to cringe—averting my eyes, concealing my misdemeanors, saying sorry, excuse me, to everyone who bumped into me on the street?

Birthdayland, at night, felt oddly similar to a hospital or a museum. I disarmed the alarm and turned on the fluorescent lights. The place was neat and quiet and orderly. The lights were reflected in the freshly mopped linoleum. The disinfectant smell made me queasy. I had once spent six weeks in hospital, lying on my back with my bandaged leg suspended in the air.

“I don’t know about this,” I said, but no one was listening.

Bert led the way up the stairs and Felicity followed. I trailed behind, wondering whether anyone had used the Clown Room since the last time Bert and I had snuck in there. He’d taken one of the balls from the ball pit that day and tried to fit it into my mouth. He’d almost succeeded.

 

Once inside the Clown Room, Bert insisted on giving us a demonstration of bouffon. “You’ll have to forgive me,” he said. “I am without my costume. I shall have to improvise.”

He picked up a cushion from one of the child-sized chairs and stuffed it up the front of his shirt, then stuffed another up the back. He emptied a cardboard box of pencils onto the floor, then tore the box to make himself a kind of hat.

Felicity, meanwhile, set the cake and the knife down on a table and sat contentedly sipping from a bottle of champagne. She offered me some and I accepted; but when I tried to drink it, the champagne fizzed and caught in my throat. I gagged. Champagne ran down my chin and onto my dress.

Both Bert and Felicity found this very amusing.

“Greedy thing,” said Felicity, and winked. She saw that there were crumbs of cheesecake on her fingers from holding the plate, and licked them.

Bert, watching, started licking his thumb, then stuck his whole thumb in his mouth. This was followed by each of his fingers in quick succession, first those of one hand, then the other.

Felicity shrieked with laughter. “You brute!” she said.

“Brute?” he said, feigning offense. “Me?” He turned around and lowered his pants to show Felicity and me the top of his pasty buttocks and the beginning of the seam of dark hair that ran between them. “How very dare you!”

“More!” cried Felicity. “Don’t stop there, you little tease! We want more!” She turned to me. “Don’t we?”

I gave some noncommittal applause. Bert fastened his trousers and said, “Very well. Given that you ladies have seen fit to attend my little boîte this evening, it’s only fair that I give you a performance. But as for a subject?”

He pursed his lips and drummed his fingers against his cheek in exaggerated thought.

“Help me, ladies,” he said. “I need a setting.”

“A cabana!” said Felicity. “A zoo!”

“A jail,” I offered. It had struck me how the themed rooms at Birthdayland, with their combination of padded surfaces and cement, resembled cells.

“A wedding! A cruise ship!” said Felicity.

Bert pointed at her and raised his eyebrows. “Now there’s a thought,” he said. “But how about, instead of a cruise ship—so vulgar, so outré—we go for something a little more boutique? A yacht, for instance?”

Felicity maintained eye contact with him and drank more of the champagne. “Go on,” she said.

“Now,” Bert said, “as for characters . . .” He paused again. “I have an idea. I’ll be you,” he said, pointing to Felicity, “and you’ll be her.”

“Bert—” I said.

“Who will she be?” said Felicity, inclining her head toward me.

“She’ll be the audience,” said Bert. “The whole exercise is void without an audience. Everyone knows that!”

Bert—” I tried again.

“Hush!” he said. “No talking from the audience!”

Bert extended his hand to Felicity, who took it, stood, and followed Bert to one of the blue vinyl play mats, dropping the empty champagne bottle on the way.

“Now,” said Bert. “Let’s begin.”

Felicity had a flinty look in her eye. “I’m her?” she said.

Bert nodded.

Felicity lay down, feigning unconsciousness. She let her body sprawl; she was spread-eagled, mouth open. Briefly, she opened her eyes. “You’ll have to imagine I’m in a bikini,” she said.

“With relish,” said Bert.

He went to the door of the Clown Room, then wandered over to Felicity’s body and prodded it with his scruffy brogue.

“Hey,” he said. “You there.” He prodded her again, more roughly this time. “Hey, wake up, you little slut!”

Felicity didn’t move.

“Ungrateful bitch,” he said. “Tawdry little whore.” All the while, he kept prodding and prodding. When she didn’t respond, he knelt down and slapped her face.

I gasped. “Bert! Jesus Christ!” I said.

But still Felicity played along, lolling her head and groaning.

Bert lowered himself to a squat, the cushions protruding from the bottom of his shirt. “Come on, cocksucker,” he said.

He got a hand under her shoulders and one under her knees and tried to lift. His cardboard hat fell off as he grunted with effort, and I saw how awkward it was, how difficult. I saw how big Bert was compared to Felicity. I felt a chill and suddenly realized how cold it was in the room, how the cement walls felt strangely damp, as though coated in condensation.

Felicity, laughing, opened her eyes and Bert closed them with two fingers as though she were a corpse. Eyes closed, still laughing, she said, “It wasn’t like that! It wasn’t, it wasn’t!”

I tasted raw fish at the back of my throat.

“Was it like this?” he said. He started dragging her by the ankles and zooming her across the mats while she screamed with mirth.

“No!” she said.

He dropped her, then stood behind her, hauled her up by the armpits and, breathing heavily, pulled her backward with her legs trailing until her skirt started to slip down.

“No!” she said, breathless.

“Then how?” I said.

I thought of Nate pushing a whole sushi roll into my mouth, the little pop pop pop of caviar.

Felicity was breathing heavily and so was Bert.

“How what?” she said.

“How now brown cow,” said Bert.

“Please,” I said. “Just tell me what happened.”

We stared at each other.

Bert took a little bow.

“Enough now, eh?” he said. “Enough bouffon for one night.”

I looked away first.

There was a long silence. Then Felicity went to the cake, took the silver knife, and started cutting it. I felt an impulse fill me and spill over, the way the champagne had fizzed and spilled over. I went to her and snatched the plate away. She stared at me, uncertain, still holding the knife. I thought of smashing the cake into her face. I thought of smashing it into Bert’s face.

In the end I set the cake back on the table, knelt, and put my own face in it. Not angrily, not with any force, but slowly, suffocatingly, like it was made of tar or quicksand.

When I came up for breath, Bert picked some of the cake off my face and ate it. “There’s a reason we use cream pie,” he said. “Its adherence is superior.”

 

Our wedding was small and badly planned. But everyone got drunk or high according to their tastes, and the reception at Birthdayland went long into the night. We sat in the center of the party like a king and queen. They all came and reveled for us: gorilla and fairy, fireman and unicorn, wizard and dinosaur, all costumed in shabby suits and cocktail dresses. By the end, the reception was littered with confetti and tears and broken glass, and this felt right; this felt like we were starting as we meant to go on.

Felicity declined the invitation, though she wished us well.  And as was her custom, she sent me a gift. This time it was a check. After a little deliberation, we used it to buy a wedding band for me, and for Bert, a false tooth.

It’s not a permanent fixture. It’s a single, prosthetic tooth on a band of metal that encircles his palate. But when he clips it in, it looks convincing enough. When he takes it out at parties, the children are suitably frightened. And best of all, he wears it whenever I tell him to: when we dine with my mother, say, or when we go dancing; and sometimes when we stand by the back wall at Birthdayland and eat enough candy to make ourselves sick.