Do people like you ever have wishes, Jonathan?
What does that mean? People like me?
People who have everything. Was there ever something you wanted, but could only wish for?
Festooned implied some kind of old-world family dancing around with ribbons, draping them over lamps and doorways, catching the flowers as they fell out of their hair. It brought to mind musical theater and swaying skirts. It felt Swiss Family Robinson. Mary Poppins. The Waltons. Good night, Jon-boy.
Despite the sour taste in the front of my tongue and the bitter one in back, festooned was the only word that suited the house on this, the day of my engagement party. I wanted to drink far more than I had. I wanted to take that bottle of Jameson’s I knew my mother hid under her bathroom vanity and sit in a corner to finish it. I wanted to suck it dry. But I didn’t do that anymore. When I drank, I held a glass and sipped until the ice melted, never finishing before. Then I waited and eventually got another. I hadn’t been drunk since I was sixteen.
And if I did drink that bottle? Who would care but my fiancé, Jessica? Or more to the point, whose opinion did I value besides hers? Who else did I serve?
She wanted this event, and she got it. I couldn’t deny her anything, and really, it wasn’t such a big deal to throw a party. It was nothing to gather a team of people from Hotel A to festoon my parent’s Palisades house, send invitations to the right people, and make sure there was food. My staff were experts at managing women with exquisite taste, such as my bride-to-be. It was no burden to me whatsoever.
The burden was having the engagement at my father’s house. The burden was explaining to him that the wedding would be at the my future in-law’s residence in Venice, and his presence was not requested.
There were reasons for all of it, of course, spite not being the least of them. I understood spite, even enjoyed it on occasion, poured over cold cubes of guilt with a chaser of regret. But this spite was too old and too ugly to enjoy.
“There you are,” my mother’s voice came from behind me. I’d been looking out toward the yard, watching subsets of staff ready it for the flood of people. “Have you seen Jess?”
“She’s out with my sisters getting her feet and fingers done. Something tasteful, I’m sure. No need to worry.”
Mom slipped her hands over my shoulders, her hands brushing the fabric free of some imaginary lint. “Are you happy?”
“You’ve seemed down. Is it Jessica?”
“The thing with your father?” Mom didn’t look concerned as much as benign. She’d perfected that look of harmlessness over forty years, and she wore it well under light makeup and a strawberry blonde chignon.
“He’s come to terms with it.”
“Is the bar up? I need a drink.”
She looped her arm into mine and we walked outside.
My father hadn’t ever actually come to terms with anything in his life, ever. He sat and waited until opportunities presented themselves. He was utterly non-aggressive in the way a cat is utterly still outside a mouse hole, waiting for the rodent to either forget he was trapped or get hungry enough to risk everything and leave.
The party setup was going smoothly, people in tuxedos and black dresses gadding about with purpose. The hedges had been trimmed, the tennis court locked. The pool had been cleaned, repainted and decorated with floating flowers. No one asked me a goddamn thing about anything and I liked it that way. The bartender, an actor from the looks of him, was setting up glasses in neat rows. Behind him, the majesty of the Pacific Ocean stretched into a haze where sea met sky.
“He told me he understood,” Mom said, continuing a conversation she assumed I wanted to have. “Business deals sometimes go bad and someone gets hurt.”
“You should talk to him about it.”
“Hey,” I said to the bartender. “Two Jameson’s, rocks.”
“I’m not having any,” Mom said.
She smiled and punched my arm. “Jon. Always the joker. Listen to me. This radio silence with your father isn’t productive. I mean, he did agree to have the engagement here.”
“To save him embarrassment. This thing with him has put me in the middle and to be truthful, it’s stressful.”
She knew how to feel stress, my mother. The management of anxiety was an art form with her, necessitating the use of a cocktail of medications and hospitalizations when she misjudged her secret alcohol intake. Poor Mom. Really. A willing captive in a house as big as an island nation.
It was my turn to flick an imaginary piece of lint off her shoulder. “He took my future in-laws for everything, blew a chunk of it and passed a few million back to them. Not enough for them to get a decent lawyer.”
“It was twelve years ago and it was a legitimate business deal.”
“Legal. It was legal. Not legitimate.”
Despite earlier denials, she took the glass of whiskey, holding it but not putting it to her lips, as if it was a prop. I remembered she drank wine in public and whiskey in private. I was getting muddled already.
“I know they’re your family now, the Carneses. But don’t forget where you came from, young man.”
As if I ever could.
The last family party my father and I had attended together had been seven years earlier. Sheila’s birthday had an unfortunate proximity to Christmas, so every one of her birthday parties became Christmas parties. Her house in Palos Verdes perched on the edge of a sheer drop to the ocean. For a mile in each direction, a beach as wide as a sidestreet ribboned at the base of the cliff. But toward the end of that year, the beach disappeared under rushing tides as it rained for twenty days straight.
Children toddled underfoot, with nannies running bent-kneed behind them. Extended family on top of extended family, most drunk or on their way there, myself included, even at sixteen. I did what I wanted, like all my friends. Nothing could happen to us that money couldn’t fix, so no one paid attention.
I had no self-control at that point. I was a loose cannon of temperamental fits, drunken rages, and risky behavior. The last incident had been driving my father’s new Maserati into South Gate to drag my friend Gordon out of a meth house. I’d thrown him into the driver’s side and hit the gas from the passenger’s side to wake his sorry ass out of a stupor. We’d sideswiped his dealer’s Escalade, four-thousand-dollars’ worth, and in the end, Gordon had gone right back to using, but my addiction to nearly dying had been sated for a month, at least.