She sees the blood well up, spilling over her index finger, dripping onto the cutting board. She hears the clatter of the knife hitting the floor. She feels her voice tear through her throat, a sharp, involuntary vibration: Oh!
Roger is beside her then, shoving her finger under the cold-water faucet—so frigid—then leading her to the bathroom, wrapping her hand in something soft, applying an unguent, a bandage, a kiss on the forehead. Better? he asks. We have to get back.
Yes, back to the guests, in the dining room—have they had dessert already? She nods—Be right there—and he leaves her. She turns toward the mirror, its lights too harsh. She inspects her face, leaning forward, seeing dark circles under her eyes. She touches the delicate flesh, puffy and purplish, like overripe black plums.
She enters the dining room to a cacophony of concern—Maddy! What happened? Honey! Are you okay—Yes, I'm fine—then quick simultaneous nods in her direction and their attention turns back to Faye.
It began pouring rain, Faye is saying, and we went to a lounge bar, where a blind man was playing the piano. We were about the only ones in there. I kept going up and giving him requests, and we got to talking. We really hit it off, you know? Then my date came up—I think he was jealous—and he says to the man, ‘Do you want to touch her face? Don't blind people like to do that?' And the blind man says, ‘I only touch the faces of women I sleep with.'
Laughter across the table.
Well, that shut up him up real quick, I'll tell you—Faye, leaning forward now and touching Roger's arm—Aren't you lucky to be married—sighing, giving his arm a squeeze.
Maddy, gazing at her, thinks of the name cards she'd so painstakingly placed around the table, carefully orchestrating husbands and wives and friends—only eight of them but as her mother had always said, the seating arrangement makes the difference between a good party and a sleeper. Faye had moved the cards—I'll come over early, to help you, she'd said—relocating herself near Roger, seating Maddy at the opposite end of the long cherry table.
Maddy rises abruptly, returning to the kitchen. Dessert, she needs to get dessert—for a moment she can't remember what she prepared. Opening the fridge, she sees a cheesecake; she sets it on the counter and pulls out a large kitchen knife.
Roger walks in—Let me, he says, taking the knife.
Maddy shrugs and reaches into the cupboard for dessert plates, the fine ones her mother had given them for their wedding. She notices a chip on one; she runs her finger across it, but it's already worn smooth—an old chip. When did this happen? she wonders.
As Roger slices the cheesecake, Maddy spoons coffee into a filter. Go sit down, he says. I'll take care of this. She returns to the dining room, watching him serve the cheesecake, watching Faye's upturned eyes as he pours the coffee.
I can't believe none of you knew I was a twin, Faye is saying. Well, the thing is, my twin was never born. It's called vanishing twin syndrome. When my mother got pregnant, they heard two heartbeats. So they told her she was having twins, you know? The next month, when she went to the doctor, the second heartbeat was gone.
What happened? Roger, sitting beside her again.
It turns out—turning to him, her hand on his arm again—that seventy percent of pregnancies start out as twins. It's like survival of the fittest in there.
So you were the strong one, Roger says.
Maddy stands up. More coffee, anyone? Another drink?
Screw the coffee—Faye laughs, eyes down at her untouched cup—I'll have another gin and tonic. Tomorrow's Sunday; I can sleep it off.
In the kitchen, Maddy splashes gin over fresh ice in Faye's lipstick-covered glass. Her own lips curl in distaste—what's the color? Something too red—she remembers when Faye sampled it at the counter at Filene's—it's called Vamp, or Vixen—Look: fuck-me lips, Faye had said, rubbing them together, puckering.
Maddy quarters a lime on the cutting board and squeezes juice into the glass, dropping in the pulpy rind afterward. What's the gestation period for a budding love affair? she wonders. How soon until Faye is in his bed? Until Maddy disappears entirely?
With a furtive glance toward the swinging door, Maddy picks up the knife again. She holds it against her pinky, moving it thoughtfully, scratching but not drawing blood. Then she peels the bandage away from her index finger. The gash is still raw, the surrounding skin wrinkled from trapped moisture. Using the sharp blade, she slices into the cut, deeper this time, careful not to cry out.
With the flow of blood comes relief. She flexes her finger, watching the spread of crimson over the porous cutting board, seeping into its cracks and fissures. In one movement, she pushes the cutting board, knife, and lime into the sink and runs the water to wash away the blood. She holds a paper towel to the wound. She pulls it away and replaces the bandage.
Back in the dining room, she hands Faye her drink—Thanks, hon—and Faye takes it without a glance. Maddy sits, hands folded in her lap, under the table, her mind calmer, focused on the ache in her hand. The conversation around her grows muted, distant. For the moment, Faye's voice has lost its pulse.
Title graphic: "Lip Dangerous" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2010. This story originally appeared in Witness, 2002.