Joyland

New York |

We Wives

by Christine Hennessey

edited by Kyle Lucia Wu

Every celebration starts the same. On the morning of the Fourth of July we close off the cul-de-sac with bright orange traffic cones, pull card tables and kegs into the street. We wives drink chilled white wine and our husbands sip beer. The scent of grilled meat fills the air while the radio plays the Beach Boys, Billy Joel, early Beatles. As darkness descends on Long Island, the sky lights up with fireworks, bright colors smeared across the stars. We don’t care so much about the explosions above our heads; the real show begins once it’s dark.

The ritual was born from a joke, a throwaway line offered up nearly ten years ago during Meadow Avenue’s quarterly HOA meeting. Once the idea was planted in our heads, however, its bloom became inevitable. We weren’t creative when it came to the nuts and bolts; we didn’t need to be. We liked rules and a game seeped in tradition, the kind our parents played in the seventies, boasted a rich tradition to which we were drawn.

And so, that first Fourth of July, our husbands dropped their keys into a large bowl and we wives took turns reaching in, eyes closed, to pluck our destinies from the jumble of plastic tchotchkes and commemorative baubles. This continued until all the keys were gone, all the couples split apart and put back together anew.

From that moment forward, the yearly Block Party became more than a blind display of patriotism. It was an opportunity to widen the lens of our shared experience and make new discoveries. On the morning of the fifth of July, when we gathered again in the streets, fingers entwined once more with our own partners, we felt like the victors of a modest rebellion.

***

Then Joyce and Tom, from Number 27, moved out. It happened in early spring, just after the world began to thaw, and it was a surprise, to put it mildly. They didn’t say goodbye, didn’t even post a “For Sale” sign until after they were gone. One minute Joyce was pulling weeds from around their mailbox while Tom put a fresh coat of paint on the shutters, and the next minute the whole place was shuttered, doors locked, curtains drawn. Their lawn grew ragged. During the neighborhood’s weekly poker games our husbands cracked open beers and tried to guess what might have happened. We wives didn’t need to discuss anything; we already knew.

Over the last few years, the Block Party had begun to lose its luster. Instead of freeing us and opening our minds to new possibilities, it had become routine. Rote. Just another obligation, like the PTA, or jury duty, or buying Girl Scout cookies from Tiffani’s daughters. Then there was the uncomfortable fact that ten years had passed since our first party. A decade is no small sum; it takes a toll. Our husbands had grown bellies, round suns rising from beneath their shirts. For us there was a sinking instead, our breasts hanging lower, our bottoms expanding inch by inch. This was new territory, but we’d lost the desire to conquer it.

We held a meeting in the park to discuss the issue of Joyce and Tom, dragging lawn chairs and six packs behind us. The swings on the playground swayed in a light breeze, and we remembered when our children were smaller, how we had to watch them constantly in order to keep them alive, the dull pleasure of each milestone. Now they lived on the cusp of their own transformation, adulthood a menace on the horizon.

“It’s over,” Frank from Number 20 said, as soon as we all settled. He and Laurel had lived on Meadow Avenue for fourteen years. He was bald and round and, upon climax, made a sharp “oh” sound, over and over, like a fire alarm. By some miracle of odds, he’s been matched with Tiffani for the last four years running. As a result she and Laurel had become close, their friendship built on commiseration. It wasn’t the outcome we imagined, but we were getting desperate. We took what we could get.

“What’s over, Frank?” asked Chloe. She smiled at him from across the circle, her eyes wide and dark. Chloe, from Number 24, was known for dispensing pep talks with rigor. Whoever owned the keys Chloe pulled from the bowl on the Fourth of July would straighten his shoulders, his confidence already shored up.

“The Block Party. Someone’s going to buy that house, and it’s not going to be like when Charlene and Derek moved in. It’s too different now. We’re too different.”

When Charlene and Derek moved in to Number 28 we’d been seven years younger. Inviting them to the Block Party, explaining how it worked, convincing them to join the festivities—it had taken some cajoling, a few bottles of wine. We wives sat close to Derek in short skirts and sheer shirts, while our husbands listened attentively to Charlene’s concerns. But that was seven years ago, and we’d moved on to sweatpants. Frank was right to be worried.

“It’s always different,” Chloe replied. “But isn’t different that the point?”

“You know what I mean.”

“I’m not sure I do.”

“Forget it,” Frank said. He leaned back in his chair and sipped his beer aggressively.

“I agree with Frank,” Stephen said. He was married to Sandra and had the long, sinewy fingers of a piano player, a detail we wives had not overlooked. “Maybe Joyce and Tom had the right idea. Maybe it’s time to pull the plug on the Block Party. We can still set off fireworks—we’ll just go to bed when it’s over. Like a normal neighborhood.”

A murmur of agreement ran through the crowd. Suddenly Heidi, from Number 29, clapped her hands three times, each slap louder than the last.

“I want everyone to stop this talk right now,” Heidi said. She was a kindergarten teacher with a penchant for blindfolds, popular among the husbands. We wives had mixed feelings. “Yes, Joyce and Tom’s decision puts us in a pickle. Yes, the dynamic of the Block Party will change when new people arrive. Yes, we’re all a little older. But that is no reason to give up. Did George Washington stay home from the Delaware River crossing because he’d put on a few pounds, or was worried the British wouldn’t like him?” Heidi had appeared on Jeopardy once, a detail she never let us forget. “No,” she barked. “He did not. And neither will we. Now buck up, buy all the fireworks you can get your hands on, and get ready for the best Block Party of your life.”

Her rallying cry placated us in one sense, but we wives worried about what would happen to Number 27 in another, more literal way. Meadow Avenue was nestled in a development on the outskirts of Bellhaven, a planned community that provided a safe, secluded world where children and families could thrive. The houses varied from street to street in size and splendor, some of them taking up large swathes of land, others more modest. The houses on our cul-de-sac were identically mid-range, lining the street with picturesque precision. Each one had four bedrooms, two full bathrooms, a kitchen, a dining room, and a breakfast nook. The odd numbered houses, on the right side of the street, had a fireplace on the north wall; in the even numbered houses, on the left side of the street, the fireplaces were on the south wall. Most days it was a comfort to know that inside our homes, we were all the same. That on the Fourth of July, no matter where we ended up, we could easily find our way to the kitchen for a glass of water, even in the dark.

The only exception to this rule was Number 27. It was the original home, the house upon which all the others had been modeled. Because of this status, it broke the mold, literally. It had a bonus room, adjacent to the master bath, that jutted out over Joyce’s—now no one’s—garden. As if to highlight the fact that it was different, the home’s first owners had painted its exterior a rich, buttery yellow, a striking departure from the beiges and blues that surrounded it. On those summer days when the sun took its time setting and the sky was full of the cicadas’ low buzz, the house glowed softly, pulsing with a warm light.

Each Fourth of July, we wives hoped to end up with Tom’s keys in our hands, so that we would know what it was like to go to bed inside that particular shade of yellow. Our fantasies had become shamefully suburban—to turn a corner and find a room we didn’t know was there.

***

Number 27 finally sold in late May, to a couple in their early thirties, relocating to Long Island from Virginia. We wives were the unofficial welcoming committee, so on the first Saturday after they moved in we arrived en masse, armed with fresh baked cookies and bottles of beribboned Moscato. The wife, who called herself Hannah, opened the door.

“Oh, my! Y’all are so sweet!” she said. “Come in, come in. Sorry it’s such a mess—we’re still unpacking.” She ushered us into the living room, which looked perfectly organized already, not a stray paperback out of place. As we arranged ourselves on her furniture, we learned that Hannah taught Pilates. Drew, her husband, worked in real estate. They had no children—Hannah made sure to add a firm “yet.”

“I guess that makes us the new kids on the block,” she said. “Literally!”

“What do you mean?” we asked.

“Oh, you know.” Hannah shifted on the couch. When we first entered her home, we noticed that she was attractive—it was a difficult fact to ignore. Now, however, her beauty seemed to taunt us, growing more obvious by the second. Her hair was long and blonde, her body firm and muscled. She kept talking but now she began to look uncomfortable, suddenly aware of her own good fortune. “I just mean that most of our neighbors—most of you—are a bit, you know, older. You’re like, what—in your forties? fifties? It’s not a bad thing! I’m jealous, actually. Y’all seem to have it figured out—kids, husbands, a real community. I hope we get that lucky!”

“Lucky,” we said.

“Of course,” we said.

“Good things come to those who work,” we said.

We left Hannah’s shortly after that, claiming that we didn’t want to overstay our welcome. In reality, we left because her freckled nose and toned triceps had raised some new concerns.

Over the years, we’d faced challenges. The Block Party was not without drama or consequence. One year, nine months after the Fourth of July when she was matched with Shawn, Barbara gave birth to a daughter, despite the fact that her husband, Jeff, was infertile. We all celebrated the miraculous birth, welcomed the tiny girl as a gift from God. Plus she looked a bit like Jeff, if only because our husbands had begun to resemble one another, the same way owners start to look like their dogs. Three years ago Paula had a double mastectomy, lost both her breasts in one fell swoop. When the Fourth of July rolled around, our husbands rose to the occasion, desiring Paula’s body not because it was scarred, but because it was new. When she pulled George’s key from the bowl, the disappointment radiating from the men healed all of us.

And then there was Alyssa, Greg’s first wife. She’d been one of the Block Party’s strongest advocates. The Fourth of July wasn’t enough for her—she thought we should play the game at every holiday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, even Halloween. It was too much, of course—the costumes alone would have muddied the waters—and when we refused, she took matters into her own hands. When Barbara discovered Alyssa and Alex soaping one another in the shower one March, no holiday in sight, it was almost the end of the Block Party. We did not make ultimatums or demand apologies—that was not our role—but things appeared to resolve. By July, Alyssa was long gone and Barbara, with the help of a couple’s therapist, had forgiven Alex. Greg rejoined us the following year, Lydia at his side, and it had been mostly smooth sailing since.

We had not yet told Hannah or Drew about the Block Party. It wasn’t the kind of thing you could add to a house listing. The reveal required a certain delicacy and Hannah’s beauty, an aberration on Meadow Avenue, had thrown us off. We worried about how her presence would alter the party, whether it would change the way our husbands looked at us or—worse—the way we saw ourselves.

***

It was a Tuesday afternoon in mid-June, ten days after Hannah and Drew moved in. Sandra, from Number 22, was trimming the bushes in her front yard when Hannah stepped outside, walked to end of the driveway, and turned to face her own house, hands on narrow hips.

“Is something wrong?” Sandra asked, pushing her sunhat back on her forehead.

“No,” Hannah said. “Not exactly. It’s just—” She paused, bit her lip. Sandra would later report that Hannah was wearing bright red lipstick, a midweek extravagance if we ever saw one. At first we didn’t believe Sandra—she was known for embellishments—but eventually we all saw those lips, full and red, parading down the street during Hannah’s pre-dawn power walk and lingering in the produce aisle of the grocery store while she cradled melons in her small hands.

“Go on,” Sandra said.

“I’ve been thinking about painting the house,” Hannah finally replied. “That yellow is just so—I don’t know—over the top?” She paused, glanced at Sandra as if gauging her reaction. Sandra responded as any of us would.

“Oh, no!” she said. “You can’t do that! Number 27 has always been yellow. It’s a tradition. And besides, some of us are still waiting for our turn.”

“Your turn to what?” Hannah asked.

“Oh,” Sandra said. She hoisted her clippers and began cutting the bush haphazardly. “Nothing. I didn’t mean anything.”

“No,” Hannah said, her voice sharp. Sandra was flummoxed—we weren’t used to such displays of emotion, right there in the street. “You did mean something, and I want you to tell me what it was. This keeps happening. People in this neighborhood keep almost saying something, or changing their minds at the last second.” Hannah stamped her foot, like a child. “It’s weird.”

Sandra paused, weighing her options. In addition to embellishing stories, she was a chatterbox. If our husbands were matched with Sandra, we knew they would spend half the night listening as she imagined, out loud, what position everyone else was in. At any rate, she told us, Hannah and Drew would find out soon enough; the Fourth was right around the corner.

For once, Sandra had a point. We’d already put up signs announcing the Block Party, ordered the kegs and begun preparing. Greg and Lydia had started jogging shortly after Hannah and Drew moved in, motivated by the Pilates instructor’s toned physique. Frank was lifting weights in his front yard at all hours of the night. Laurel and Tiffani and Chloe had their hair done together, a girls’ day at the salon. Sandra herself was drinking smoothies daily, had gotten her eyebrows threaded at the mall that very morning. No wonder Hannah had begun to suspect something was going on. It was impossible to hide.

“Well,” Sandra said. “There’s something you should know about Meadow Avenue.” And then she told her everything.

***

A week later, the Block Party was underway. It was a perfect Long Island afternoon. 86 and balmy, a sky so blue it broke hearts. Our husbands seemed to have a new energy—“Some pep in their step,” as Tiffani liked to say. We wives were on edge, smiling with our teeth as we gripped our white wine spritzers. Still, we had to admit there was a hum of excitement in the air, a shift that reminded us of the Block Parties of yore. An additional layer to our anticipation, like a tiered cake, decadently frosted.

And so we drank wine and beer, ate hot dogs and hamburgers, made small talk, and got a little drunk. It began to get dark and our teenagers gathered their things, ready to abandon our party for their own bacchanals. We clutched them a beat too long as we said goodbye, trying to tamp down their burgeoning libidos. And all of us, no matter who we were talking to or what we were doing, kept a careful eye on our new neighbors from Number 27.

We hadn’t known if Hannah and Drew would come. After Sandra told Hannah about the Block Party, explained the keys and the bowl and how we’d each go home with a husband not our own, Hannah said nothing. She simply stood in the driveway biting her bright red lips, her yellow house glowing behind her, its bonus room tucked carefully out of sight. Once Sandra finished talking, Hannah thanked her, turned away, and slowly walked up her driveway. “She had lipstick on her teeth,” Sandra said, as if that explained everything, as if the lipstick smeared on her teeth was a sign or a symbol. Except Sandra didn’t know what it meant, and neither did we. As July 4th approached and our preparations reached a fever pitch, thoughts of her red lips and yellow house plunged us into a constant state of arousal.

And so, when the door of Number 27 swung open and Hannah and Drew strolled down their driveway to join the Block Party, we breathed a sigh of relief.

“We’re so glad you could make it,” Laurel said. She handed Hannah a glass of wine. Benjamin, from Number 29, who once spent an entire Fourth crying into Paula’s naked lap for unknown reasons, opened a beer for Drew.

“Hannah said this was a party we couldn’t miss,” Drew said, squeezing his wife’s hand. She smiled at him. We watched her carefully, saw the way her eyes roamed the street, taking in the detritus of the party—the sagging card table, the orange cones standing sentry at the entrance of the cul-de-sac, Greg’s bulky radio, which filled the street with music. And then she shifted her gaze from things to people. As her eyes moved across each of us—Frank and Laurel, Barbara and Alex, Benjamin and Heidi, Charlene and Derek, Tiffani and Joel, Paula and George, Lydia and Greg, Harold and Chloe, Tina and Shawn, Sandra and Stephen—we felt a bolt of electricity run through us. It was as if her eyes had the power to strip us to our most essential selves, lay us bare right there on the street. We were vulnerable and we were beautiful. Our breathing grew shallow. Our faces flushed red. Beneath the hot July sun, sweat slipped down the length of our necks, glimmered on the curve of our collarbones.

It soon became clear that Hannah had not told Drew the real purpose of the Block Party. He made small talk, discussed things like property taxes, mortgages, the length of the seasons—summer in Virginia, he informed us, lingered in a way he would not miss, but the barbecue in the south couldn’t be beat. At one point we managed to separate them—accidentally, of course, we aren’t animals. We wives gathered around Hannah, our hushed conversation harmonizing with the radio.

“Are you coming to the after party?” Heidi said. Her glass was stained with red prints from her lips. Ever since Hannah arrived, we had begun applying slender tubes of lipstick while standing at our bathroom vanities. When we walked into our kitchens and kissed our husbands good morning, we pictured the inside of Number 27, the delicate curve of the banister, the curtains in the den, soft and sheer.

“I’m not sure how long we can stay,” Hannah said. She had already switched to water. This was not a good sign.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Paula said. “I thought the same thing when we were planning the first Block Party. But it’s not like that. This party, this night—it’s transcendent, the one night of the year we get to truly come alive. It’s primal.”

“Don’t mind Paula,” Tina said, shaking her head. “She gets carried away. What she means is that yeah, the whole thing seems weird when you’re brand new to it. We were all new to it at some point, so we know what you’re going through.” Tina lowered her voice so we had to lean in to hear her next words. “But I’ll tell you something. As much as I look forward to the Fourth of July every year, there’s nothing I wouldn’t give to experience the whole thing again for the very first time.” Her eyes fluttered shut and she smiled. We remembered the night she and Shawn first joined us. Tina ended up with Alex and they had not been matched up since. Next to Tina, Barbara balled a napkin in her fist.

“It’s not the experience that I’m worried about,” Hannah said. “I mean, yeah, it’s weird, but I get it. We live in the suburbs now. What else are we going to do?” We stared at Hannah and blinked. “And I’m sure I can handle whatever happens. I was president of my sorority in college.”

“Then what is it?” Barbara asked.

“It’s Drew.” And then Hannah started to cry, mascara running down her cheeks. We handed her napkins and refilled her wine glass, patted her back and stroked her hair. For a moment, we wished that we could change the rules just once, so a wife might end up with Hannah instead of a husband.

“We haven’t had sex in ten months,” she said. Paula was so shocked she had to lower herself to a folding chair. “Part of the reason I agreed to leave Virginia was because I wanted to start fresh somewhere, thought a change of scenery might help. But it hasn’t. Nothing has.”

“But you’re so beautiful,” Samantha said. We murmured in agreement. Hannah laughed.

“Tell me about it,” she said. “Not to sound full of myself, but I work out all the time. I eat chia seeds and kale like it’s my job. I do Kegels every morning in the shower. And for what? So my husband can tell me he’s tired, he has to work late, he’s not in the mood? Is this what marriage does to a couple? Is this what happens when you get older?” She looked so innocent when she cried, like one of the sitters who used to lead our children away from the party when they were younger. When we were younger, too.

“Yes and no,” Tina said. “Marriage isn’t easy. Getting older isn’t pretty. Sometimes I think about setting fire to every house on Meadow Avenue and watching it burn to the ground.” We looked at Tina, heads tilted, but decided to let her keep talking. “The only way to keep yourself alive—really alive—is to find ways to make it new. Clean the house in sexy lingerie. Have a drink in the morning, after the kids have gone to school. Cut loose on the Fourth of July and see what happens.” She smiled, pleased with her pep talk. Hannah hung her head, her blonde hair swinging forward, obscuring her face.

“It isn’t just about cutting loose,” Charlene said. Charlene didn’t speak often, didn’t socialize much beyond the Block Party and the Christmas Extravaganza. But each summer she made jam from scratch, endless jars filled with thick, pulpy fruit, sealed tight and left on our doorsteps, a sign of sweetness to come.

Now Charlene’s words were a different type of gift, the kind that opens in your hand on its own accord, wrapping paper unfurling effortlessly to reveal some hidden treasure. “It’s about coming together,” she said, her voice soft and firm at once.

“Thank you,” Hannah whispered, her sobs subsiding. Above us a Roman candle whistled into the sky, rockets of fire shooting toward that great unknown.

***

In the end it was easy to help Hannah and, by doing so, to help ourselves. Drew, we realized, did not belong on our cul-de-sac. He wasn’t one of us. By next July 4th he would be gone, back to Virginia and pulled pork and to-do lists piled on the bed in the empty space beside him. We did not have to tell our husbands; they could see it, too.

Shawn and Stephen set up the beer pong table, a relic from our past. We filled the cups with whiskey instead of beer, pitted Drew against Stephen, who played basketball in college. Stephen won each game handily, as we knew he would. Drew grew frustrated—he was the kind of man who liked to win, and we took some pleasure in watching him lose. After an hour Drew could barely walk, slurred his words, even drooled a little. He finally passed out on Lydia and Greg’s couch and we tucked a light blanket around him, left a glass of water and some aspirin on the coffee table. He’d wake in the morning to a world of pain, but that was his problem, not ours.

Once Drew was gone, the rest of us—wives and husbands—lingered for a moment in a circle beneath the moon, which was bright and full above us. The streetlights had come on hours ago, the cicadas were singing. Hannah stood at the center, weaving slightly on her feet, her bright red lips curved into a smile. She reached for us and we wives stepped forward, held her gently by her elbows, by her arms. We were no longer afraid of the future, its ravages and insults. The Block Party had been a noble effort, but it was misguided. For all our talk of bravery and rebellion, we’d hewn to the old models. No more.

Our husbands watched as we lifted Hannah off the pavement, then followed as we carried her forward. Her toes grazed the sidewalk, the manicured lawn, the steps that led to Number 27, which seemed to glow beneath the light of the moon, welcoming us and whispering yes, yes. The door swung open and we carried our blonde bride across the threshold, disappearing—all of us, together at last—into that house of butter and gold.