The night of Karen Kleiner’s 40th-birthday party, the sky was a silky blue and the cold lid was finally lifting off the city. I wore no tights under a dress that Karen had given me — a gauzy sack that she had purchased on final sale and we couldn’t send back. It was unclear whether I was meant to ring the bell or use my key, so I stopped a few houses short and inspected my shoe until a couple started up the Kleiners’ steps.
Karen came to the door looking like a magical butterfly in her jade jumpsuit with wing sleeves. She took her time greeting the other people first.
“You made it,” she addressed me in a funny tone, and I wondered if she’d been expecting me to arrive early. I handed over the tiny pink cactus I’d brought as a gift.
“It reminded me of Louise,” I told her.
Karen cupped the pot in her palm and blinked as if she were having trouble computing something, then motioned for us all to come inside.
The place was filled with a different kind of chaos than I was used to when I arrived in the mornings. Colorful piñatas and delicate paper flowers hung from every corner, and a duo in matching red striped sailor shirts was over by the loveseat performing Mexican folk songs. Karen and Jonathan used to live together in Puebla before they had kids. That was their thing: Mexico.
Out on the patio, the crowd swarmed around tiki torches. Notes from disparate perfumes dotted the night air. Somebody had fastened a rope across the top of the iron stairs, confining the party to the Kleiners’ deck, which jutted out of the townhouse like a metal tongue. The land below was a patchwork of overgrowth and bald spots. I’d helped Karen fill the patio’s perimeter of planters with tall grasses to obscure the sight of this space that nobody ever used, just the downstairs dog when the neighbors let him out to pee.
The guy manning the bar was your standard Boston hipster with rounded shoulders and black skinny jeans. He was sniffing me out with his eyes, and I sensed he’d detected my in-between status.
“Lana?” It spooked me to hear him say my name. Then I noticed the gold stamp on the cocktail napkins and realized we must have overlapped at the restaurant. Jonathan owned an upscale Oaxacan place in the South End, and I’d worked there as a hostess the summer after I graduated music school. That’s where Karen had found me.
“Mona,” I corrected him.
“Sorry. I’m better at faces.” There was a loaded pause, which I was probably supposed to fill. “Russell,” he said at last. There was something cocky about his delivery, like he was not going to let the fact that I didn’t remember him come between us. “You had that hickey.”
I raised my fingers to the spot below my left ear where I used to rest my violin six hours a day. Now I spent my musical energy singing about inchworms and fire trucks with Max and Louise.
“It’s gone,” I told him. “I’m here full time, as the nanny.”
Russell’s lips twitched, as if my ending up with the Kleiners and not at Boston Symphony Hall were some grand travesty. At least I wasn’t muddling limes for a living.
“I’ll have mine with salt,” I said, savoring the fact that only one of us was allowed to drink at Karen’s party. My privileges didn’t just apply tonight; I’d started having wine with the Kleiners whenever I stayed for dinner. Only one glass, but still. Russell took an irritating amount of care with my margarita, shaving jalapenos with an X-Acto blade. When he finally handed it over I took it down in four gulps and left the empty glass on the table.