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  • Man and Wife
  • Katie Chase (bio)

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Figure 1.

Photograh by Marta Rostek

[End Page 10]

They say every girl remembers that special day when everything starts to change.

I was lying under the tree in my parents' backyard, an oak old enough to give shade but too young to be climbed, when Dad's car pulled into the garage. All afternoon I'd been riding bikes with Stacie, but we had a fight when she proposed we play in my basement—it was getting too hot out, but I was convinced she was only using me for my Barbies. This was eight years ago. I was nine and a half years old.

Dad came out and stood in the driveway, briefcase in hand, watching me pull up grass. "Mary Ellen!"

I yanked one final clump, root and dirt dangling from my hands, and sat up.

"Come inside. I have wonderful news." [End Page 11]

In the kitchen Dad was embracing my mother, his arms around her small, apron-knotted waist. "I can't believe it went through," she was saying. She turned to me with shiny eyes, cleared her throat, and said in her sharp voice, "Mary, go get down the good glasses."

I pushed a chair to the cupboards and climbed onto the countertop. Two glass flutes for my parents, and for myself a plastic version I'd salvaged from last New Year's, the first time I'd been allowed, and encouraged, to stay up past midnight and seen how close the early hours of the next day were to night.

Dad took down the last leftover bottle of champagne and popped it open, showering the kitchen floor. My mother laughed and wiped her hands on her polka-dotted apron, as if she'd gotten wet.

"Hold up your glass, Mary Ell," said Dad. He filled it halfway, and theirs to the rim. When in the past I'd been curious about alcohol, my parents had frowned, taken a drink, and feigned expressions of disgust. On New Year's, for instance, my cup had held plain orange juice, and the next morning, while my parents still slept, I'd had orange juice in it again.

"A toast." My mother held up her glass and waited.

I waited, too. The champagne fizzed, bubbles rising.

"To Mary," said Dad, and then he stopped, choked up.

"Our own little girl, to be a woman," my mother said. "Bottoms up."

They clinked their glasses together, and mine met theirs dully, with a tap that brought an end to the pleasant ringing they'd created. I brought the champagne to my lips. I found that, if ingested in small sips, it was quite drinkable, no worse than my mother's Diet Coke, and it had the welcome effect of making me feel I was floating away.

"Don't you want to hear what the big news is?" said Dad. My mother turned her back on us to the cutting board, where she was chopping a fresh salad.

In a small voice I said, "Yes." I tried to smile, but that feeling was in my stomach, made more fluttery by drink. I recognize the feeling now as a kind of knowledge.

"Well, do you remember Mr. Middleton? From Mommy and Daddy's New Year's party?"

At the party I'd been positioned, in scratchy lace tights and a crinoline-skirted dress, at the punch bowl to ladle mimosas for their guests. Many of their friends introduced themselves to me that night: Mr. Baker, Mr. Silverstein, Mr. Weir. Some bent to my height and shook my hand. Mr. Woodward scolded me for insufficiently filling his cup, and his young wife, Esmerelda, my former babysitter, led him away. [End Page 12]

"Mr. Middleton—that nice man with the moustache? You talked together for quite some time."

Then I remembered. As I served other guests, he'd lingered with a glass of sweating ice water, talking about his business. He directed his words to the entire room, looking out over it rather than at me, but he spoke quietly, so only I could hear. He offered figures: annual revenue...