Spring/Fall 2020

Choose The Best Answer

By Linda McMullen

1998

Abby and Katie, in matching nightgowns, display well-brushed baby teeth and beg me to push play. “Are you sure?” I grin. (“They can watch more of the movie if they are helpful getting ready for bed,” Sylvie had said, looping delicate gold hoops into her ears. I watched, cowed by her nonchalance: I couldn’t imagine being a young divorcée. But Sylvie was concealing an incipient bounce behind a stately gait, gliding toward Rick’s purring, mid-life-crisis convertible. “You’re a treasure, Grace,” she had called over her shoulder. After three years of Candy Land and Trouble, I was inclined to agree.)

“Yes, yes, yes!” the girls scream, and Robin Williams’ sunny-side-up egg voice whisks us away to the Cave of Wonders, where he will grant Aladdin three wishes.

I’d settle for one, weeping, head-bent-over-folded-hands-on-bended-knee-at-the-Mary-chapel grateful.

***

Josh Fontaine had interrupted the PSATs last year by standing up. I followed his burgundy sweater through the spiral nebula of desks in the cafeteria toward Mr. Jenkins, the advanced algebra teacher. Mr. Jenkins concurred with Josh: the correct answer to question 14 in the math section wasn’t there. “For the moment,” Mr. Jenkins had said, “just…choose the best answer.” I had bent my head over my desk so Josh wouldn’t see my dimples emerging. I was only on question 12.

(We would both become National Merit Finalists; he with a 1550; me with a 1540.)

This year we have AP Calc, AP U.S. History, and AP English together, but we share a table in AP Chem—spawning complex esters, amplifying our own swirling pheromones. Experimenting. Nothing grotesque, nothing overt—fingers sparking as we pass test tubes.

Smiles.

Glances.

Wretchedly nerdy puns: “What do you call someone who knows nothing about the periodic table?” “A boron!”

Which is why I feel acid rising in my throat when I hear that he already asked Bethany to prom. She isn’t a cheerleader, only because she is too busy with ballet. The only class Josh and I share with her is gym.

I drive my used Saturn to prom, and give Jenny, Angela, Heather, and Jill a lift. We do the Macarena and the Electric Slide, sit out the rest. Amidst the glare of emerald and ruby, rose and violet, and my own cerulean nightmare, Bethany stands apart, in gray. Gray? At prom? And then, when the strobe sweeps over her, my mouth turns in on itself. The dress, with its tiny straps, fitted bodice, and ballerina skirt, transforms her into a princess from a fairy-story, wearing a gown the color of starlight.

“I’ll be right back,” I say to Jenny, waving off a potential herd migration to the bathroom. I splash some water on my face, and ruin my mascara. I repair it, sort of. I’ll just tell Jenny I’m having cramps or something, and head home—

“Grace?”

Here, beside me, in royal navy.

“Hi, Josh.”

“Having a good time?”

“Peachy,” I return. Inwardly: When was that cool? 1968? “How about you?”

“Pretty good,” he says.

“Just pretty good?” Inwardly: Shut up, SHUT UP.

“I…just…” His eyes meet mine.

Time slows.

Freezes.

“I should’ve…”

I try to say something—anything—but the only thing in my mind is the formula for dopamine: C8H12ClNO2.

“Grace, you’re—”

“Josh!” says Bethany, shatteringly. Perhaps it’s just me.

They dance. I wait, inert, through one, two, three dances, to see if he’ll look toward me. He’s so close, he’s facing me over her shoulder; his eyes pass over me, expressionlessly.

There are no more puns for the remainder of the year. Josh goes to NYU in the fall and Bethany goes to Juilliard. I go to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I babysit on Saturday nights and go to St. Paul’s on Sundays.

With Jenny, Angela, Heather, and Jill.

***

2008

Sylvie Page and Richard Travers,
request the honor of your presence
at their marriage
Saturday, the 21st of June, 2008, at 4 o’clock
Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church

I turn the invitation over in my hands. After all these years, finally. Abby and Katie will be her bridesmaids, I imagine. It’s nice of them to invite me; I was only the babysitter. I call my mother to find a way to beg off. She says that Sylvie insists.

“Are you sure?” I sigh.

My mother says Sylvie said her relationship with Richard would never have materialized if I hadn’t been there to watch the girls.

I remind her that I’ve got work.

I hear her forehead furrowing through the phone.

I tell her I’ll be there.

She murmurs something about wonders never ceasing.

I’m grateful that she allows me to pretend I didn’t hear. Going home somehow dredges up all those ineffectual feelings.

I wish that I didn’t have to go.

***

Josh Fontaine had reappeared last year, in the form of a pernicious algorithm also known as Facebook’s ‘People You May Know’. In his profile picture, he and Bethany are living in a New York moment, with coordinated-but-not-matchy glamour. His Italian suit suggests that he parlayed his math major into a filthily lucrative Wall Street career. With that incredible bull market and all.

Maybe I’m projecting.

I query my Facebook group chat, including Jenny, Angela, Heather, and Jill: Should I friend him? Bubbles appear in rapid succession:

NO.

no

No.

Angela doesn’t answer; normally in Madison, she’s currently in Tokyo for work. (She will respond, later, with just one word: Trouble.)

I wish I had more answers to choose from.

But, back to work. Trial 12. Dr. Samantha Jenkins (no relation to the advanced algebra teacher) is researching norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRIs), or, more specifically, how our tiny pharmaceutical company can develop the next generation antidepressant. There’s no laboratory chitchat; there are no smiles, no jokes. Time is the enemy and we lab assistants are its thieves.

***

I’ve got a dress that Pantone calls “snorkel blue” and I don’t know anyone at this reception except for the bride and her daughters, and the groom, as a waving acquaintance. My dopamine-related musings are interrupted by an excellent deejay who skips “Celebration” and goes right to Etta James. However, bowing to the inevitable, he also launches the Macarena. I smell The Electric Slide in the offing.

And then—

“Grace?”

How? How in the name of all things holy is he here, looking like a prince, or some non-brooding-but-still-a-gym-rat Batman? I barely produce, “Hi, Josh.”

Don’t be stupid.

“Having a good time?” I ask.

“Peachy,” he says. “How about you?”

“Pretty good,” I reply. The cocktail shrimp, in fairness, were worth the price of admission. Not to mention—Josh.

“Just pretty good?” he smiles. Then he asks if I mind if he sits down.

Richard is a treasured family friend, apparently. I say I’m with the bride. And time slows, freezes, and reverses itself. I might be at prom again, having the conversation we were meant to have, then …

He is just as smart, and just as geeky, offering this gem: “Liquid nitrogen asked dry ice how it felt to turn into carbon dioxide, and he answered, ‘It’s sublime!’”

I shake my head. He arches an eyebrow.

“I…just…” I murmur, and he puts his hand in mine. We stand…and walk…

“We’ll be right back,” he murmurs to Richard. And a few moments later we are in the back seat of his rental car and his lips are pressing mine, insistently. My snorkel-dress falls away, and so does my bustier, and the streetlight falls softly on the gold cross at my neck…

…and somehow, I say, So how long have you and Bethany been split up?

He looks foolish, momentarily, as if he realizes his mistake, that the answer to question 14 is there, after all.

He starts: “I should’ve…”

I reinsert myself into my clothes with attempted dignity, scrambling in the backseat of a mid-sized sedan. I open the door, and fall onto my feet. My stomach is leaden.

“Grace, you’re—”

The back of my dress is somehow lodged in the waist of my pantyhose.

As I stalk back toward the reception, Josh’s phone rings. He answers. From twenty feet away, I hear Bethany’s silvery voice:

“Josh!”

***

2018

Me, too, lights up my Facebook feed—Abby and Katie; Jenny, Angela, Heather, and Jill. Jill’s story is horrific, but she’s chosen grace: she’s a trauma counselor.

And she’s taking the time to reach out to me: “Do you want to talk?”

I want to scream. Seven years with Roy Jenkins (the nephew of my former boss)—and no ring, no house, no pair of small girls in pigtails and tempera-tinged overalls. Instead, he is on some dopamine-fueled, Hunter S. Thompson-inspired Vegas adventure with an anorexic teeny-bopper called Madison.

“No, but thanks.” I pause. Her rapist was Ben Smith, from our graduating class. “Have you decided about… going?”

“I’m not.”

“Are you sure?” Neither Jenny nor Angela nor Heather is able to go.

“I’m sure.”

I understand, but now I’m wondering how to navigate a solo flight for my 20th high school reunion. And I already bought a dress. It’s a shade called ‘navy peony,’ so dark it looks like mourning.

I wish I’d called it off with Roy seven years ago.

I only started dating him because he slightly resembled—

***

Josh Fontaine. The school newsletter is profiling Josh Fontaine in their “Where Are They Now” feature. There’s a photo of him smiling incandescently, the reclaimed penitent. He discovered the misery his subprime mortgages had caused; he subsequently left Wall Street and founded a nonprofit to help low-income persons restructure personal debt. I wonder how Bethany feels about the precipitous drop in income. Or maybe Josh was able to amass enough of a reverse-Robin-Hood fortune before his Damascene conversion that it doesn’t matter.

***

At the reunion: Mr. and Mrs. Josh Fontaine. I admire the Instagram-worthy photos of their children—one boy, one girl, platinum blond. Perfect. They are at home in the care of their Puerto Rican nanny (such a treasure). They’ve been married, what, twelve years? No, fourteen, they correct me, with identical regal smiles. “That’s impressive,” I say.

“It’s chemistry,” murmurs Josh, with a sly half-smile.

That sends me back twenty years.

I’m thirty-seven now.

No time to waste.

Bethany moves away to address her former ladies-in-waiting about her successes as a choreographer.

Josh and I are alone.

I take him by the hand. He starts, drops it. “This looks like trouble,” he murmurs—but he follows me to my car as the Electric Slide fades out.

“Josh!” I exclaim, without meaning to. I’m too loud. Too—

“Grace, you’re—”

What is he about to suggest? Drunk? Crazy? I want to forestall either accusation, and we both try to speak:

Me: “I should’ve…”

He: “I…just…”

Well, this is the moment. I reach beneath my dress and remove my panties, then press them into his hand.

Our eyes meet.

I clutch his gym-rat body to mine.

In less than half a minute I am spread-eagled in my back seat and he is pumping with what I choose to believe is twenty years of pent-up lust; he breathes something into my neck that I can’t quite hear.

“Just pretty good?” I ask, smiling.

“Pretty good,” he echoes, then kisses me on the neck.

“Peachy,” I correct him. He smiles. Our conversation is woefully out of sync, but our bodies are not.

“How about you?” he asks, as I produce.

“Having a good time?”

Our emergent animal noises leave no room for doubt.

We catch our breath as the sounds of the Macarena emanate from the rented hall. He has the decency not to look abashed. He says he’d better go, and I agree. I pull my skirt back down, but remain on my back. I remember to raise my knees. He looks at me curiously. I wave at him, cheerfully.

“Bye, Josh.”

“Grace?” he queries, but I just wave at him, and rest. Serene and confident that this moment will pay dividends. Nine months from now.

have chosen the best answer.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.


Linda McMullen

Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her pieces have appeared or are forthcoming in ChaleurBurningwordTypishlyPanoplyOpen: Journal of Arts and LettersAllegoryEnzo PublicationsThe Write LaunchPalaverCurating AlexandriaSunLitCoffin Bell JournalFive:2:OneEvery Day FictionThe Remembered Arts JournalRaw Art ReviewThe Poet’s HavenWeasel PressDragon Poet ReviewScribbleCosumnes River Journal, and the Anti-Languorous Project.

Spring/Fall 2020