Jan/Feb 2022  •   Fiction

The Party at Freida's

by Marlene Olin

Artwork by Dale Bridges

Artwork by Dale Bridges

Like many Miami communities, 50 grand homes lay clustered behind a ten-foot wall. A small guardhouse stood at the entrance. Sprays of bougainvillea climbed the gates. Nearly every neighbor was invited to the yearly party, and though Luz didn't work for all of them, she knew all of their stories.

Freida Plasky's house was no different from the others. The living room was as vast as a hotel lobby. White carpeting. Italian cabinets. Crystal chandeliers. Tray in hand, Luz scanned the crowd. Then, ever so discreetly, she shoved a paper napkin under the couch with her foot. Who would notice? They hired her to waitress, not to clean. It was just one night, and nights like these came and went. Two hundred dollars and a nice fat tip from the husband. She glanced down at her uniform and unbuttoned her top a little further.

Then she bent over. Now she was eye to eye with the napkin. Sure, she could have picked it up. The napkin was easily within her reach. Instead she paused. Luz was 23 years old, barely half the age of most of the guests circling the room. She could feel their eyes, imagine the lumps in their throats while they looked. Underneath the white nylon top was a black lace bra, the push-up kind, the kind with a pink rosette on the bridge. The further she bent, there more there was for them to see.

And later, when she stood in the light, they'd enjoy the matching panties underneath. Sauntering on her high heels, she smiled. The sauntering, the smiling—this was what they expected. Meanwhile she handed out wine in plastic flutes and imagined being anywhere else. The mall. Macy's. In her mind, the cash was tucked inside in her wallet, the evening done.

She carried a tray of lipsticked glasses into the kitchen and set it on the counter. The regular housekeeper, a woman from Honduras, worked among the pots and pans. A slave, this poor woman. She sent half of her money home while the other half went to a two-room apartment in Hialeah. A dozen relatives waltzing in and out—eating her food, wearing her clothes, using her car. Luz shook her head. Some fools never learn.

While the oven oozed heat, the dishwasher churned. The woman, as usual, stood by the sink, her arms cocooned in gloves, a swirl of yellow in a cloud of 100 percent humidity. Two other people were near her. A hand clutching an elbow. A lowered voice. Luz grabbed another tray of glasses and carried it outside.

Dios mio, thought the housekeeper. She felt her face redden and her heart race. Mrs. Freida and her friends. They talk and talk like I'm a ghost.

Freida Plasky was fiftyish. Ironed cheeks. Puffed up lips. Nape to knee Chanel. As President of the Condo Association, it was on her shoulders to host the party. She had a hundred guests to entertain, but this lunatic, this Slavic slut, kept her ambushed in the kitchen. Svetlana Stein was at least a decade younger, and that decade meant everything.

East European. From Romania or Slovakia or Slovenia, who could tell. Resistant to the ravages of time, she was universally hated. The Lululemon leggings. The platinum hair. Her Porsche convertible was a particular source of community disapproval, screeching out of the driveway, airborne on the speed bumps, missing baby strollers by inches.

"Last veek," said Svetlana, "It was the kids' computer. This veek it's my husband's iPhone. I tell you there's a rash of burglaries going on!"

Freida glanced at the hand squeezing her elbow. Svetlana wore a five-carat behemoth on her finger plus a Rolex on her wrist. Why in the world would a thief go to the trouble of breaking into a home just to grab some cheap electronics?

"I've called the police once, twice, three times," said Svetlana. "But no one cares!"

Their community prided itself on its security. They had armed guards. Surveillance cameras. Infrared lights. The truth was clear to everyone but the Steins. Their teenagers, a trio of juvenile delinquents, were clearly the culprits.

The kitchen door swung open and closed, bringing a gust of air-conditioned air with it. Varsha Patel needed a glass of milk. Her stomach ulcer was acting up, and little lasers were burning her lower intestines. She was clever enough to slide through crowds unnoticed, her footsteps quiet, her radar on high alert.

"The thief," said Svetlana, " uses a ladder and climbs to the second floor balcony. You know how kids are when they watch TV. The house could burn down and they'd never know."

Varsha, skin the color of mahogany, eyes like olives, inched closer to the two women. Between the noise of the sink and the clattering of dishes, eavesdropping wasn't easy. "Guards? Cameras?"

The behavior of the Stein kids was an open secret. But what the neighbors didn't know was that Varsha conducted a very lucrative business inside the confines of her home.

Her methods were ingenious. She simply bought bulk quantities of fake designer purses and had them shipped to her address. Then she'd buy dozens of real designer purses, switch the tags, and return the fake ones to the stores. What handbags she didn't keep for herself she sold online.

Of course, her scheme could easily collapse. She set a neighborhood record for UPS deliveries, and someday someone would notice. But money does funny things. It gives you hindsight, loads of hindsight. You remember the crumbling house you grew up in, a room shared with six brothers and sisters, a dozen hands swiping food from a single bowl. Sure, her husband was a successful surgeon. She had more money than she could spend. But when she gazed into the future, she was absolutely blind.

Varsha quickly made her way down the hall. Then she tried one closed door after another until she found a bathroom. After locking the door, she reached into her Hermes purse and pulled out a cigarette. With a shaky hand she flicked her Gucci lighter until a red hot ember flamed. Two, three satisfying puffs and her pulse slowed. Soon her head was wooly and her mind muted. Then suddenly her cellphone buzzed.

"This is Frank Gonzalez calling from the guardhouse. We've got around a dozen packages floor to ceiling. You know. The ones from Beijing. You gotta pick up your stuff, Mrs. Patel. There's no room for us to move."

Perched by her side was a wastebasket. She tossed the cigarette stub into the garbage while her thoughts raced. Somehow she had to leave the party, drive her SUV over to the guardhouse, and charm the guard into helping her pack the car. It wasn't until later that she remembered the wastebasket and the tiny tendrils of smoke snaking their way out.

Meanwhile Gonzalez was busy juggling multiple jobs. He surveyed each car and each pedestrian who asked for entry. And there was no end to the inconveniences people imposed.

His favorite time of day was in the in-between spaces, the lull between traffic, the quiet moments left alone. For it was in those precious moments when he daydreamed about the future. His bank account was growing. He just bought a car. Soon, very soon, he'd have enough to buy Luz a ring.

Like waves lapping the sand, his mind drifted in her direction. The sweet skin between her breasts. That soft spot upon her wrists. Citrusy. Like she dabbed on a little Florida. And suddenly his world of headlights and car honks instantly disappeared.

"You awake in there, Gonzalez?"

Dave O'Malley sat like a king on a throne. A $200,000 Bentley with a 200-pound paunch behind the wheel. He bore the confidence of a pit bull and the swagger of a drug lord. Sure, he was late to the party. But with enough money, men like O'Malley could be late to everything. Rumor had it that he made his fortune in payday loans, bilking people like Gonzalez their hard-earned cash.

Gonzalez scanned his clipboard. "You in for the night, Mister?"

Jesus, that guard could sleep through the apocalypse, thought O'Malley. He rolled down his window far enough to flick his cigar. "Heading for the party. There's still a party going on, right?"

He slammed his foot on the gas and reluctantly headed to the Plaskys. There was a pecking order in the community. The most expensive houses, like his, sat on the bay. The Plaskys were considered wannabes. Though their lot was nearly twice the size, it wasn't waterfront. And why bother living in Miami, thought O'Malley, if you couldn't walk onto your patio and see boats bobbing by?

In fact, O'Malley had an opinion on just about any topic and wasn't shy about sharing it. He was against church but pro life. He was against mass shootings but pro guns. He was against Democrats but hated Republicans. And now he had to go to the goddamned party! A half hour tops to make Doris happy, then he'd binge watch American Ninja on TV.

The wife was sitting beside him in the front seat. "Remember, they're our neighbors," said Doris. "Would it hurt to be fucking friendly?"

Throughout the community, Doris O'Malley was known as the New Age Nazi. Everyone feared her. Hair pinned in a bird's nest. A flowing linen skirt. Shamballa beads roping her neck. On Wednesdays Doris conducted a psychotherapy group in her living room. A dozen middle-aged women spent an hour smoking medicinal marijuana and grousing about their spouses. Like curing cancer or climbing Everest, mindfulness was hard-won.

"Would you hurry, for Christ's sake! The party's halfway over!"

As their Bentley barreled down the street, they were assaulted by colored lights and pulsing music. And by the time they approached the front door, the noise was deafening, the lights worse. Shoulders back, they walked into the foyer.

Doris sighed. Sometimes she felt like the only evolved specimen in a world filled with missing links. After steering her husband toward the food spread, she prowled the other rooms. She was always on the lookout for prospective clients, and each of her neighbors was crazier than the next. Take an obscene amount of money, a heightened sense of paranoia, and every imaginable ethnic group, and there you have it: Miami, a Petri dish for neuroses.

Hiding in the shadows was the nuttiest of them all. Carmen Diaz. Hair-sprayed hair. Kabuki makeup. Carmen lived her life as if it were ending any moment. Everything seemed ready to crack. The cheap wine glass. The icy smile. Doris quickly zeroed in.

"Carmen, you look tense. Are you tense? The Wednesday group would do wonders."

Carmen's childhood in Colombia was like a B-movie. Her grandparents were tortured. Her mother raped. Her father shot. She slept with a loaded gun under her pillow and a Costco-sized prescription of Xanax by her side.

She glanced up from the platter in her lap. Take a deer, have it look in the headlights, then run it over twice. That was Carmen's expression. She had diligently spent the last ten years learning English. But still there were gaps. Language barriers. Culture chasms the size of the Grand Canyon. Usually she relied on her husband to come to her rescue. But where the heck was Carl? Like magic, he somehow appeared.

"You okay, hon?"

Carl was a white guy from Minnesota. When he met Carmen, he thought all of his dreams had come true. Dreams of mystery and foreign countries, exotic lands and new adventures. The midnight skin. The melon lips. Of course, he had no idea a storm raged under the surface. That a fragile treaty had been forged between Carmen and her anti-psychotic medication. That if anyone crossed the thinnest of lines, his wife would go totally bonkers.

But like all marriages, theirs found an accommodation. Carl learned stress was contagious. That it could leapfrog from one person to another like a cold. So every evening and weekend, during each spare moment of his life, he hid in the garage. The door stayed open, of course, to let in the breeze. But from dawn to dusk, seven days a week, his neighbors would see him Windexing his car, reorganizing the shelves, re-mopping the floor. Most people, in fact, didn't recognize him without a T-shirt and flip-flops.

"Is that you, Carl?"

Jim Ouillette was fortyish and, unlike most of his neighbors, grew up in Miami. Like Carl, he was a survivor. Over the years he had adopted and nurtured a split personality. He owned three nightclubs in South Beach and dressed the part. Versace silk. Dolce and Gabbana. Gold bling. But around the community he was just a normal guy. The sort of guy who picked up trash that blew across the street, whose kids played lacrosse in the driveway.

Soon he and Carl were finding their rhythm talking cars. The new Alfa Romeo. That Ferrari engine. But when Luz walked by with her tray of drinks, their eyes followed her wake.

"You know," said Jim, "a lot of women pay good money for an ass like that."

They gazed through the windows. It was getting late. The deejay was playing Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. People were clutching loved ones. The moon loomed overhead.

Meanwhile that waitress kept circling. And with each pass, her perfume followed. Sweat bubbled on their foreheads and trickled down their necks. They both looked for their wives across the room.

"Is there anything you need?" asked Luz. Then enjoying her audience, relishing the gaze of the two younger men, she lingered. Bent over. Picked up a plate. Straightened the couch. The dance stayed the same only the steps changed. Then she reached inside a slit of a pocket, pulled out two of her business cards and pressed them in their hands.

They blinked. She smiled. Then turning ever so slowly, she left them with their mouths hanging open. Who knew what the future had in store? There were birthday parties. Office parties. New Year's. Luz glanced at her watch as she headed toward the kitchen. It was almost midnight. By two, Gonzalez's shift would be over, and she'd have a ride home.

She was passing the bathroom when she thought she smelled smoke. Of course, it could have been a million things. Doris O'Malley could be toking up with some of her poco locos. The Stein kids could be setting their pets on fire. The woman from Honduras could have fallen asleep by the stove. Only later, when the sprinklers burst from the ceilings and water poured like rain, did she know for sure.