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Fiction Contest Honorable Mention

Isabelle Loses Her Mind for a Short Time

By Britt Freitag '08

"I'll let them in." It was almost disconcerting how Peter jumped to his feet. He could have been one of those silver men in the street, a "statue" existing for the sole purpose of terrifying tourists with sudden movement.

Isabelle, his fiancée, had been chopping onions at the red granite countertop. It was rare granite and had to be imported from Italy. From her station at the cutting board Isabelle could hear the loud entry of Peter's twin brother Michael, Michael's wife Linda, and their brazen daughter Darcy. The Morgan clan stormed the kitchen. Isabelle's first instinct was to clutch the knife and defend the red counters from the oncoming invaders. But convention forced her to relinquish her sword.

Michael came toward Isabelle, looking much older than his fifty-four years. He didn't want to be nice to this girl his brother was engaged to. Every bone in his body protested their upcoming wedding. He could hardly force those rigid structures to hand over a bottle of white zinfandel. "A housewarming gift."

Isabelle thought, he's wondering if I'm old enough to drink. "Thank you Michael. That's very thoughtful." In truth it wasn't absurd for Michael to wonder such a thing. Isabelle was only twenty-two, and Peter had embarrassed his family by proposing to her so soon after he had divorced his wife of seventeen years.

Much later, after the dinner, Linda and Darcy would privately confer about "jezebel" as they liked to call her (as the name unfortunately rhymed). The marriage was surely doomed, because they weren't even married yet for crying out loud and the girl was wiping off tears even as they arrived for dinner. And she was cute enough to be with someone her own age so what was she marrying Peter for? Surely Peter must have gone off the deep end because he was marrying someone he could have been arrested for sleeping with only a couple of years ago. And could you believe what she was wearing? Her cleavage needed its own zip code in that outfit! Were they real or had Peter possibly paid for them?

"I like your blouse. I might even have the same one!"
"Thanks Darcy. I got it on sale."

The disastrous ballet of politeness had begun. The chorus line was unsure of the choreography, and Isabelle seemed like an understudy for a great prima ballerina who had suddenly vanished from the production. While Peter, looking onward at the messy display before him, was a displeased director who abruptly ended rehearsal.

"Let's sit down and eat!"

Watching Darcy gulp at her wine reminded Isabelle of her visits to the botanical gardens with her grandfather. They would stand at the edge of a great lake in the Japanese garden and feed the Koi fish. Well, actually, Grandpa would feed the fish and Isabelle would watch eagerly from behind him. She was always too scared as a little girl to feed the massive Koi, but she loved to watch the spectacle from a small distance. Grandpa must have had magic powers to charm the fish out of the water. Somehow he would beckon herds of them, or at least twenty-seven, to his feet on the shoreline. One would never guess that a bunch of fish could make such a racket. The sounds issuing from their mouths resembled the roar of a Jacuzzi. A Koi could be as long as your arm, and when they were hungry (which was always) they would open their mouths so wide a golf ball would have easily fit between their lips. Her grandfather would laugh at their greediness, and sometimes Isabelle would be brave enough to crouch down to watch those great mouths open and gulp, open and gulp. In much the same manner was Darcy taking her wine.

Michael was appalled that his daughter should behave in such a way. It was bad enough that his brother was marrying some girl no older than Darcy, but now the latter was getting smashed and it wasn't even 7:23. She knew it bothered him that she drank so much (had this started in college, or high school?), and she was purposely asking him to pour the wine instead of just doing it herself. He wanted to refuse her, but he could never deny his only child anything. He thought that if she looked at him one more time in that ridiculous, innocent way and asked for another drink he was going to drown her in the stuff.

"Sure honey, here you go."

Darcy didn't understand why everyone was letting her refill her glass so often. Her dad was smiling like a dope as if he was thrilled to death to be her wine porter. Maybe no one noticed how drunk she was.

They all sat around the table as if playing a game of poker. Through the open window a man with a deep voice was yelling across the street. A car alarm was sounding in the distance, and the San Francisco traffic had dwindled. Somewhere in the apartment Isabelle's cat Czar was attacking his rubber mouse that had a bell inside of it.

Isabelle didn't quite know where to look so she concentrated on her plate. There was the clinking of the cutlery, and Czar was hurling himself down the hallway. Finally she said to Linda, "Is this the fIrst time you guys have been to San Francisco?"

"No, Michael and I were here in the eighties one time. I think he had a conference."

"That's right." Michael said, and grinned.

"When I fIrst moved here with Peter I had never been to the West Coast before. My favorite thing about the city is that the sidewalks have something like glitter in them — they just sparkle and sparkle. I love that." It was the most words she had said all in a row the entire evening.

Peter looked at her and sat back in his chair, letting out a small sigh. It was exactly because she said things like this that he loved her so much. He had met her at O'Hare International Airport when they both lost their luggage. Immediately he had thought she was beautiful. He adored her black rectangular glasses, and her long dark brown hair. Someone might have looked at Isabelle and judged she could have been stunning if she could only lose fifteen pounds, but Peter thought her just right. Vaguely in his memory was an image of Mr. Boldron, a middle-aged psychology professor droning on about evolution and how men subconsciously choose women who appear more fertile. But Peter had dropped psych after only three and a half weeks. "You know I've lived in this city for years and I never noticed that? They do sparkle."

Linda slid her hands under her thighs and leaned forward in her chair. Then, as an afterthought, she raised her arms over her head and cracked her back.

Darcy was being politely ignored by all accounts, although despite her intoxicated state she was hardly being disruptive. She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest. She was staring at the incredible display of tulips that Isabelle had arranged as a centerpiece for the dark ebony table. The tulips, in variations of red and pink, were brilliant. "Look at those flowers!" she said.

Linda, who's only experience with tulips came from purchasing half-dead ones at the Buy n' Save, began to explain the history of the magnificent specimen.

It took all of Isabelle's concentration to keep the blood from rushing to her face. Tulips came from Holland, not Germany — everyone knows that. And they weren't imported from South America but from Asia. They had been growing there for thousands of years and had actually gotten their name from the Turkish word for turban. The Dutch were mad for their little turbans. They became the ultimate status symbol, more revered than even the SUV. A rare bulb cost more than a house in Amsterdam. The trading of hybrids and mutations was such a hot commodity that people sold everything to cash in on the market. A "tulip crash" resulted. The economy was devastated — people took their own lives. The tulip was not a mere flower. The bulb had raised a nation to exaltation and brought it to financial ruin.

Isabelle would have liked to have been in Holland before the great tulip crash. She had wanted more than anything to honeymoon there, but Peter had insisted on Bermuda. Sometimes she wondered why she agreed to marry him. Maybe she accepted his offer because it never occurred to her to decline, or perhaps because she loved him. She liked his crooked smile and clean fingernails. He hardly looked fifty-four. His hair was turning grey, but his athletic build and bright blue eyes gave him a youthful sort of look. And it pleased her that he had sweaty palms when he proposed to her at the opera. Besides Tommy Weinert in the fifth grade, she thought Peter was the first great love of her life. Still, even though Isabelle cared for Peter and picked up his dry-cleaning, she would never forgive him for choosing Bermuda over Holland.

"Isabelle has quite the green thumb, isn't that right sweetheart?" The feeble attempt at conversation had been limping on without her.

"Yeah, my dad's dad is a gardener himself, and I sort of take after him."

"I never could get into it myself," Michael said.

Her grandfather had cultivated in her a genuine love of plants and flowers. Her happiest memories from childhood were playing in the garden behind her family's great white house in Missouri. Grandpa would tend to the plants, his other grandchildren, while Isabelle amused herself. Occasionally she wondered whether she had been raised unintentionally to love flowers more than people.

"Oh even when I was young I enjoyed it," Isabelle replied. "My favorite movie used to be the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland because of the part where she sings with all the flowers. But they think she's a weed and they drive her out of the garden." She immediately felt foolish.

"Wasn't Carroll on opium when he wrote that story?" Michael said, and grinned again.

Isabelle wondered if he had to use Icy-Hot to relax his cheek muscles at the end of the day. She imagined Linda leaning over to snatch a bedtime kiss and saying, "Oh Michael! That damned Icy-Hot! You never warn me." And Isabelle couldn't help but let out a "ha!" at the silly image.

Now Michael looked genuinely pleased for making someone laugh, as Peter had always been the charmer, the class clown, the popular one.

"How's the dessert?" Peter maintained that only barbarians refused dessert. Isabelle was the first woman he had dated since his divorce who dared order a slice of key lime pie on their first date. He had always admired her for it. Now, she leaned over a bowl of Cherry Garcia, twisted her elbow-length brown hair, and set it over her right shoulder. Peter longed to reach across the table and touch her hair. "Rapunzel, Rapunzel," he wanted to say, "I'll love you forever and ever."

"Do you want the coffee?" Isabelle said, since she noticed Peter was staring in that direction. She couldn't stand the stuff herself. She had only tasted it once, at her father's funeral. Isabelle's mother had given her a cup of coffee instead of saying, "Your father is dead and I will never recover. Maybe you won't either."

She was only eight and three-quarters when Mr. Jenkins was hit by a speeding yellow Ferrari as he reached for a dime in a crosswalk. Since then her mother was perpetually in a dark room, nursing a gin and tonic or watching her stories.

It was her grandfather who raised her and nursed her grieving spirit with as much care as he showed to his rose bushes. Isabelle was tortured by nightmares that her dead father's corpse, decayed beyond recognition, was trying to embrace her. And it was Grandpa who came running when she screamed aloud in the night. He was the one who comforted her because it was only a dream baby only a dream Daddy would never really scare you like that he's an angel not a scary monster and maybe I shouldn't have let you see that Dracula meets Mummy II movie after all but anyway everything is going to be okay because your Daddy would never do a thing like that and he loves you and is watching you from heaven.

There is a certain intangible but very noticeable moment when a party has ended. Whether it is at a country club, frat house or six-story apartment on a hill in San Francisco, the moment inevitably comes. Indeed, in this case it had come and gone hours ago, but it had been ignored, making the dinner even more uncomfortable.

Isabelle wanted the Morgans to leave as much as she wanted to see the Dutch tulip fields. But they seemed resolved to linger eternally. Maybe she would have to be the one to go. It was a horrible thought that came from her intestines. She wasn't at home here in this great city with its sparkling sidewalks. She belonged in Missouri with her grandfather and the garden, with her mother locked in a dark room. She would go to the botanic gardens again, and this time she wouldn't be scared to feed the Koi. She missed her people. And the Morgans would always be Peter's family, not hers. She didn't want them to be. She was twenty-two years old and scheduled to be married in four days time. She thought of other people her age and doubted if many of them were in the same circumstance. She couldn't envision the wedding pictures, the honeymoon (why Bermuda?) or their life together afterward. She couldn't do this because deep inside her organs she knew that it was never going to happen. It would have been better to have left a long time ago. Poor Peter — she did feel bad about that. But she liked him too much to lead him on anymore. So it was settled then.

The Morgans finally left, with Darcy held up by one parent on each arm.

"Well, that wasn't a bad dinner." Peter said.

"I'm exhausted." Isabelle gestured around the kitchen. "I'll clean up tomorrow — I've just got to go to bed." She held Peter's face in her hands and kissed him. "Goodnight. I love you."

Peter then sat alone at the dark wooden table, hearing Isabelle walking around in their bedroom.

He would do the same thing the following evening except he would be slumped with his head in his hands, crying. He would be alone in the kitchen, with broken glass and soggy tulips against the wall where he had thrown the centerpiece.

 

Works Consulted

"Tulip History." http://www.holland.nl/uk/holland/sights/tulips-history.html

Cupola