By Holly Allen
Published online with Obelus Journal, 2020
Doug patiently waited over forty minutes for them to make up their minds. He dragged Lawrence off to an old electronics store at the west end of the mall, leaving Louise and Ava hovering over a stale cinnamon roll and a medium diet soda in the food court. He was happy to see Louise so excited, so full of energy. She’d woken up at six in the morning two weeks straight. She hadn’t pressed snooze a single time. Every morning it was coffee and catalogs, coffee and catalogs.
“Ava said she prefers tangerine invitations and napkins. What do you make of that?” she’d asked one morning, a big permanent marker in one hand and a bottle of low-fat creamer in the other.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he laughed, his mouth full of buttered bacon. “Isn’t that something for you girls to decide?”
After a moment of consideration, he’d said, “Well, I guess it’s not a very, uh, normal color for a girl’s birthday, is it?”
“Hmm, maybe you’re right. Pink is classic. Periwinkle isn’t bad either. Green is out of the question…”
Doug hadn’t seen Louise watch primetime commercials with such fervor since before they were married. He could recall the hungry way she had eyed an ad for a chrome four-slot toaster with the double browning feature, neck outstretched and bottom lip curled like a hunting dog. He recalled it lovingly.
“Dad, why didn’t we just stay with Ava and mom? What are we looking for?” asked Lawrence, glancing at a rack of wet t-shirt DVDs with a mixture of disgust and curiosity.
“We’re not looking for anything. We’re waiting.”
“For Ava and your mother to pick a damn color. They’ll head over to the print shop afterwards but, knowing them, it’ll take an hour or two,” Doug grumbled. He flipped through the nearby rack.
He bought Lawrence one of the tamer wet t-shirt DVDs. One with younger girls, legal but pretty and small enough to be his own age. It was covered in tacky graphic art- turquoise exclamations like “BARELY LEGAL” and “SWEET AS CANDY” with little pastel yellow stars and teddy bears along the spine of the case. It was cheap and only listed the running time at a max of thirty-two minutes. That’s way more time than he’ll need at his age, Doug thought with a snort of a laugh. Lawrence hadn’t asked for it and he looked thoroughly embarrassed when his dad approached the counter, but none of that really mattered. It was perfect.
When the whole family met up in front of the mall entrance, Doug was pleased to hear that his wife had convinced Ava to settle on pale pink invitations, delicately bordered with a repeating pattern of gold-print lilies.
“We can order the matching napkins and tablecloths for the dining room. Won’t that look nice?” Louise smiled, gently shaking Ava’s shoulder as they reached the minivan.
Ava nodded tamely, folding her skirt under her thighs as she climbed into the backseat. Lawrence hopped in, tossing the plastic bag from the electronics store into the far back of the vehicle before Ava could catch sight of it.
That weekend had been fully booked for the entire family. Louise had spent countless hours flipping through the yellow pages, calling her sister for advice, and doing online searches that ranged from “a smaller waist in just seven days” to “the staining resistance of silk versus satin.” They had revisited the same two malls eight times already. The same six-dollar Macadamia nut cookies the size of a golf ball. The same handwritten “OUT OF ORDER” sign plastered onto the bathroom stalls. The same, never-ending half-off sale at the men’s haberdashery.
Louise had visited and revisited every dress shop. Early on, Ava had asked for a quaint looking lime-green summer dress with massive sunflowers printed on it. Louise had called Doug over just to discuss the matter.
“She’s quite stuck on it…I don’t know what to do. It’s entirely backless,” Louise had whispered, pulling Doug aside while the kids stood awkwardly by a faceless, white mannequin.
“I think you girls should be able to make up your own minds without my interference… but don’t you think it would show a bit too much skin?”
Louise had shuffled her feet from side to side and her face flushed over. She hadn’t been so embarrassed in a long time. Doug could see it. It made her look a little younger, a little more alive. She was almost cute then.
“Yes… yes, I think so. I don’t know why she would suggest it. She should know better. Maybe it’s her way of lashing out.”
Doug had peered over Louise’s shoulder and watched Ava and Lawrence. Lawrence had begun to pull packages of pantyhose off the shelf. He’d freed a single pair of taupe stockings and was now pulling them up the thin legs of the nearby mannequin. Lawrence glanced around every now and again, vigilantly keeping a lookout for store clerks while pulling the stockings higher inch by inch. Ava looked desperate, as though she wanted to laugh, her chest heaving up and down under her frilled blouse, her cheeks puffed up with air. She withheld, silent but nearly sweating from the severe restraint. Doug smiled proudly.
“No, I don’t think she meant to lash out. I think it’ll be fine.”
Another thirty minutes of negotiation and Louise had convinced Ava to settle on a beaded ivory gown. The dress had cost nearly nine hundred dollars but Doug hadn’t complained. If the party went well, the costs would move on to another man and he would be free. The dress was sure to bring at least five gentlemanly offers, he was certain of it. The gown had full-length sleeves with lace trim and a high, buckled collar. The waist section tightened with the aid of eighteen reinforced straps along the rib and backbone area. As Doug passed his credit card over the counter, he had measured the skirt length three times over with his index finger and thumb, even holding it up twice to Ava’s front. The dress must’ve weighed at least thirty pounds. Doug’s wrist had cramped up a bit after he’d completed his feverish measurement, assured that the gown was truly “floor length.”
“The shoes don’t fit though,” Ava objected in a soft voice as Doug pulled into the driveway, slick with oil.
“They will,” her mother said placidly, adjusting her hair in the rearview mirror.
“They’re two sizes too small. I haven’t worn a size five since sixth grade.”
Doug put the car into park slowly, stalling in case his opinion was needed. He eyed the lawn, looking for any spot in need of water. He noticed a few tufts of crab grass popping up in between cracks in the cement pavers leading up to the front door. He would mention them in an off-handed way to Louise later and would be sure to place her pink and red gardening gloves near her nightstand that evening.
“I have some old bandages in the medicine cabinet, I think. Or else they’re in my sock drawer. I use them for wrapping my own feet for cocktail parties, especially on New Year’s.”
“Will that really work?” Ava asked, unabashedly.
“Yes, it should. I think your father has a few rubber bands stashed away in his work bench as well,” Louise sighed, giving up on her hair.
The next morning, Doug made sure to set up a sort of camp for himself and Lawrence. He arranged the two old armchairs in the living room just so, directly facing the wide television on the back wall. The coffee table was laden with two types of beer, pretzels, and orange soda. Unfortunately, there was not much on the television so early on Sundays. He settled for Wheel of Fortune.
“Why are we watching this?” Lawrence asked, leaning far to the left, looking down the hallway as loud electrical noises began to emanate from Ava’s room.
“There’s nothing else on,” Doug answered, turning up the volume slightly to drown out the white noise.
“There’s a documentary on frogs in the Amazon. And I think they’re showing old horror films on 317.”
Doug didn’t answer immediately; he watched the screen with a good deal of ambivalence as a contestant puzzled over the unfinished noun phrase S_ _ _ T S_ _ T _ _ _. Finally, after the first contestant drew a blank, they showed a pretty model in a tight navy dress shake her head disapprovingly.
“Jessica is the best model on the show. She’s got the best tits,” Doug smiled, too focused on the screen to see Lawrence look away awkwardly.
In a sudden flurry of scissors, air freshener, and French onion dip, Louise hurried through the living room, squeezing past her husband’s camp with heavy breathing. She pulled a large tray of tiny sandwiches and baby carrots from the lower shelf of the fridge and set it down delicately in the middle of the dining room table, adjusting it three of four times to make sure it was centered.
“Doug, dear, did you remember to call the doctor yesterday just to confirm the appointment today?” she asked nervously.
“Good, good. I already drilled the stirrup attachments to the sides of Ava’s bed. Oh, and I draped the streamers from the window frames and bedposts as well… Do you think I ought to drape some along the stairwell?”
“Well that’s your choice dear but I’d say more is better.”
With that, Louise struggled and scooted as swiftly as she could through the living room, eager to finishing the last bits of decorating.
Within fifteen minutes, the first of the guests arrived. A few of Ava’s friends, all well dressed and powdered with soft applications of blush barely visible on the apples of their cheeks. A couple neighbors had been invited and not a single one forgot to bring a bitter salad or a thoughtful gift. The young men arrived too, tall and stern and single file, patiently awaiting the show. Doug eyed them inconspicuously from his cushioned armchair, analyzing their cufflinks and shoe soles with a discerning eye.
Another fifteen minutes and the doctor arrived. He nodded amicably to the man of the house and headed for Ava’s bedroom. The guests politely arranged themselves in two single-file lines once the doctor had announced the preparations were complete. Louise teared up a bit, recalling how this same event had been for her when she was Ava’s age.
The two lines slowly sifted through Ava’s room, about five to six people comfortably stationed up against the back wall at a time. With each passing group, the doctor reinserted the speculum, spreading the vaginal walls just far apart enough to display the intact hymen to the crowd, and stood aside. The guests smiled and clapped, sure to compliment Ava’s petite feet, her slim figure, or her expensive, ivory dress.
“Observe here, the girl’s chastity remains intact,” the doctor repeated in an everyday sort of tone.
The young men took a step closer, narrowing their eyes a little, leaning in close as Ava’s face turned bright red.
Louise cried a little more and was sure to thank each and every guest for being there. She felt fairly pleased with herself for not forgetting to buy decaf for those who couldn’t drink normal coffee.
As the guests made their way towards the hors-d’oeuvres, eager to see whether the little sandwiches on the table were ham or turkey, they heard a loud voice ring out from the television as the final Wheel of Fortune contestant solved the puzzle.