Just a glass. Balanced for a moment as brief as a breath. Like a confused dancer undecided about a direction here on the edge of the ancient yellow Formica counter. A speck of light filters through the crystal etchings on this last, best glass, one of three remaining after years and years of life following the goddamned wedding.
Susan watches the glass, her hand stretched out in a flat welcome, her stomach moving in waves as the glass falls and Susan, always anticipating the next movement of everything, moves with it.
"Shit!" She screams as the glass punches through the soft skin in the folds of her fingers. "Shit! Shit! Shit!" The blood gushes, covering the spot where she used to wear a ring and then down onto wrists that are as thin as the stem of the broken glass. Before a drop of blood hits the floor, before Susan can raise her hand, before a thought can form, the women come running.
There is a concert of unrehearsed movement on the kitchen floor. Alice runs for the dishcloth; Chris is on the floor cradling Susan in her arms; Sandy is looking to make certain the good bottle of wine has not spilled. Joanne and Janice are crouched like frogs close by, their hands dangling between their legs; Gail guards the small door between the kitchen and the living room, and Mary is poised to grab more towels and maybe, if the cuts are deep enough, those big bandages she knows Susan keeps on the shelf behind the kitchen sink.
"Is it deep?" Chris asks, extending her fingers around the tiny bloody wrist where a red-colored stream begins moving over her own fingers.
Everyone waits. There is a silence that reaches toward Susan, who answers by pushing herself into Chris's chest, bending her head so she can lie against her friend. Then there is the unspoken gesture of Alice slipping the stained dishcloth into Chris's free hand, and Chris placing it around the bloody wrist once and then twice like she is wrapping a holiday gift.
"Hey," Susan stutters, a whimper visibly rising from her stomach through her chest and toward any opening it can find. "I'm fucking pregnant, fucking, fucking pregnant."
There it is, suddenly as plain as the long splinters of glass. Forget the blood, forget the crystal glass, forget every damn thing. Everyone moves closer, except Sandy who reaches for the bottle of wine, grabs the plastic cups off the side of the table and then sets them down in a circle around the bottle of wine.
"Oh honey," Alice says, reaching without thinking to run her fingers, already bent with arthritis, into the edges of Susan's incredibly short hair. "It's okay, sweetie, we're here now, we're here."
Susan weeps into Chris as if she is a giant Kleenex and although Chris has never rocked her own babies, she rocks Susan. Back and forth, back and forth, while the other women slide closer, reaching first for a glass of wine until the eight women are touching, breathing, drinking, sitting in a mass that has quickly surrounded Susan and Chris.
"How pregnant?" asks Gail.
"Just barely," whispers Susan. "I found out yesterday."
"I take it this isn't the best news you ever had?" Chris already knows the answer. "Oh, you poor, poor girl."
Everyone knows right away. They know without Susan saying a thing, without looking into anyone else's eyes, without a single movement in the room. Susan knows they know. These women have seen the lining of her soul, the secrets of her heart, the insides of her mistakes and faults. When they walked into her house thirty minutes ago under the pretense of one of their charmed female gatherings and saw the circles under her darting eyes, saw her hair matted to one side, saw the newspapers stacked on the living room table, saw only one car in the driveway, they knew.
"It's not John's baby. Oh Christ, it's not John's baby."
While it is impossible for the women to sit any closer to each other, they quickly try, tucking under legs, clasping their plastic cups, scooting sideways, brushing shoulders and pushing their rear ends just another inch closer to Susan and Chris.
"Does John know?" Mary asks quietly, knowing already that the one thing John is ever in and out of is a hell of a lot of trouble, and definitely not a wife he most likely hasn't had sex with in twenty years.
"I don't even know where John is," Susan answers. "A clinic in Milwaukee knows, but that's it. John hasn't been here for a long time. He's gone, he's always gone, he's always been gone."
Now there are a thousand things to say and the women are restless, tapping the plastic cups with nervous fingers, holding back questions, wanting to skip over the obvious and find a solution, solve a problem, help their friend, a woman they love. But they wait, because they know this has to happen slowly, and they want it to be perfect and right and cautious, just a little bit cautious, because Susan has never been like this, and it's important, so important.
"Let's pull the glass out of that hand before we go any further," Alice says. "Here, just open your fingers, and let me clean this up."
Alice, with her bent fingers, is the one who knows about babies born and unborn, alive and dead, and when she touches Susan, picking the little shards of glass out one at a time and dropping them into Janice's outstretched hand, she tries hard to think only of that. "There now. We'll just put a few Band-Aids on those fingers, and I think you'll be fine."
The Band-Aids are passed over, more wine is poured, and Sandy and Mary quickly pick up the remains of the glass and drop the pieces onto the shelf where Susan keeps her recipe boxes and cookbooks.
Susan shifts, turning to face the women who surround her, but Chris won't let go of her and pushes in her legs to hold the tiny woman against the full frame of her body. The women talk then, the same easy conversation they might have had in the living room, without a broken glass, where Susan would have eventually told them in greater detail about the boyfriend who has been standing in the wings for years, more--always more--about John, the missing husband, about the risks of a baby when you are past forty and tired and angry and sad and don't want any more babies anyway.
Another bottle of wine comes off the top of the counter, and this sad circle of friends becomes lost in remembering and talking and simply being there together on Susan's kitchen floor. An hour passes, and the voices rise and fall and rise and fall like a wave moving from one wall to the next and then back again.
The women talk about abortion, and they talk about what bastards half of the men they have married and loved and slept with are and always will be. There is a chorus of sorrow that floats from one woman to the next, and these women who have spent time together for years and shared their loves and who have talked about lust and hate and crime and passion don't see that the early evening has passed, and that there is a half moon rising outside of the high kitchen window.
They talk with great sincerity and kindness about helping Susan and driving her to the clinic and helping her to get that damn attorney to file the divorce papers and getting off the fence with the jackass she's been screwing for twelve years. The women talk about these things mostly without anger, but that rises from them too, in an unseen layer of life's tragedies and sorrows that always seems to hover close.
As the women talk, they don't see themselves as separate entities even though they are each as different from one another as the proverbial fish is to the bicycle. They are grandmothers and career women, housewives, a secretary. They are divorced, married, grieving, wildly happy, conservative, liberal and a combination of every sad tale in the universe. But those differences are overshadowed by the fact that they are all women and friends, and because they have shared their secrets and because now they are lying on the floor in Susan's kitchen and they have made the world stand still.
When their words begin to slide into each other after the fourth bottle of wine, Sandy decides they must eat. No one rises from the floor though, and the time or the place doesn't seem to matter. It becomes clear first to one and then to the next that they matter, just them, and nothing else matters for these hours, not another person or thing or problem.
"Well," Sandy finally says, "I'm just thinking, 'Thank God that Susan threw that glass on the floor.' I haven't done anything like this since the last time I got stoned in college."
"Oh, Sandy," laughs Chris, leaning back to shift her weight, "the last time you got stoned was probably this afternoon. Isn't this the day that kid drives through from Madison?"
No one looks shocked or stunned, especially because it is Sandy who has always had a hard time remembering it is no longer 1968, and they are once again and always talking about the unspeakable, about what really happens in a life, about what really matters most. There is shifting, the flush of a toilet, bowls of red Jell-O and a tuna salad, and chips and salsa, and whatever else Sandy can reach by crawling to the refrigerator and then shoving the plastic containers across the ten feet of space from the open fridge door to the pile of women on the floor.
Something else is happening during the sharing of food. There is the flow of erotic energy that has the scent of people in love in those first months when there are hours of talk and always a communication with bodies and eyes. Women especially know about this phenomenon. Women who cling to each other and who flock to female friends and say everything and anything with such ease it is often embarrassing to watch. It is like the magic moment of discovery when something finally makes sense, when someone finally says the right thing, when the pieces of life finally flow in the correct line. It is bright and sexual and the release of a thousand demons when a simple idea begins to grow until nothing can stop it, and then something that just an hour ago was unbelievable and unthinkable makes perfect sense.
Chris gets the idea first, and it comes to her just as quick as every other wonderful thought that has helped her escape death a hundred times and tackle life in every conceivable fashion. The idea is hers because she has missed this the most, this love affair women can have with each other. These hours where women talk and hold each other and pass on whatever bits of courage they need to get on with it; the times when they can become emotionally naked and turn themselves inside out and continue to love what they see anyway; and a moment just now, when you can tell someone you are pregnant and don't want the baby and hate your life and your husband and the man who made this baby with you and "could you please, right now, tell me what in the hell I am going to do about this mess of my life?"
The others, often sidetracked by the very things that they now discuss, have missed it too. It has come to them sporadically in their lives, and not often enough because there is never enough time. Luckily, during these last months these women together have become an electric charge. There is a current of life running among them, and somehow a spark of magic has risen up and the women have become powerful and invincible and now they can do anything they want.
"What time is it?" Chris begins, and the question startles everyone because they don't care what time it is and they think with great joy that they may never care again.
"Geez," Janice says, rolling over on top of a pile of potato chips, "it's probably late, but screw it, let's just stay up all night and have a slumber party."
Mary rolls toward her with outstretched arms. "Let's make it a party that lasts ten years, and we'll just live on the floor and eat and drink and talk and never let anyone else in the house."
"Oh God," remembers Joanne, moaning as if she has just had an incredibly personal physical experience. "Once when I was living in Chicago, I did that for three days but it wasn't with a room full of middle-aged women."
Everybody smiles and Chris knows that her simple question, like the broken glass, has changed everything. She smiles. "Quick, tell me something you have always wanted to do but never did, everybody think of something, just tell us all whatever pops into your mind."
Everyone begins dreaming. The women slide around on the floor, roll their eyes, and their thoughts come to a mutual conclusion. In unison they dream of leaving. Simply walking out the door and moving on from something or someone. The magic of friendship has spoken to each one of them so they are dreaming the same dream.
Chris says what will happen next is just for them and absolutely no one else. "No one," she emphasizes with a half scream, because she has done this in her life a thousand times and she knows that to do it, even once, is necessary for survival, for change, for forgetting and moving on. To do it together would be a miraculous occurrence.
"We could do it, you know," she tells them, becoming the teacher they are waiting for. "None of us have babies, hell, half of us don't even have a uterus anymore. Imagine it, just imagine it and don't think about anyone else but yourself. That's the secret here."
The women are thinking and Chris urges them on. She reminds them of the months and months they have tried to talk away everything from menopause to rape. She tells them that sometimes a simple movement, a simple act, can be more therapeutic than a million meetings around a living room coffee table listening to old records from the '60s and drinking wine that isn't quite as good as you'd like it to be.
"Are you trying to convince yourself too?" Sandy asks her, leaning across a set of legs to bring herself closer to Chris. "Where are your demons, dear friend? You've been everywhere and done everything. We have to be in this together."
Chris is the only one who has never cried during all these months of meetings and shared secrets, and when Sandy sees that her question has made Chris weep, she is momentarily startled. When she reaches beyond Susan to wipe Chris's cheek, she doesn't say anything else but waits. Everyone waits.
Excerpted from The Elegant Gathering of White Snows by Kris Radish. Copyright © 2003 by Kris Radish. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.