Bitzi Monsoon shared her tragic backstory exclusively at dinner parties. It took approximately seventeen minutes to tell the whole thing start to finish, which covered her first two glasses of wine. While guests leaned in, smitten by the quiver of Bitzi’s frosted hair and the matching tremor in her voice, she’d have her third glass. After kind words and condolences, she drank the fourth. If the party was large enough and she told it just right, she might even get to finish the bottle.
Drink in hand, it started like this:
When Bitzi was barely three years old, her mother drifted off to sea in an inflatable raft and subsequently died from exposure. At the time, Baby Bitzi’d been sick with the flu. Her mother went out for milk, stopping at the beach to clear her head. Exhausted, she’d fallen asleep in an abandoned raft. Out on the empty beach, the fated waves came for her, dragging up the shore inch-by-inch.
Oh no, people murmured, passing around a cheese plate. I’m so sorry.
It changed my life forever. Bitzi poured wine down the side of her cup, a jeweled puddle forming on the tablecloth. Can someone please hand me a napkin?
Adrift for a week, the sun cooked her mother’s head until her brains parboiled. There was nothing in the raft. No food, no water. The gallon of milk was found on the beach, spoiled to curds in the heat. When the coast guard found her, she’d been incoherent. Her mother died in the hospital less than twenty-four hours later.
That’s so sad, people whispered, reaching for another bite of hummus. How awful for you.
It’s made me who I am. Resilient. Bitzi held out her glass. Is there any more Riesling?
A mother swallowed by the tide, unwillingly taken from her beloved child. That was the story Bitzi told people, anyway. It was much more interesting to hear about sun-cracked lips parted on Bitzi’s name; her mother’s shaking hand reaching desperately toward shore and her only child.
Do you remember her at all? people asked, shaking their heads and patting her shoulder. You were so young.
I can never forget. Bitzi poured the last few drips in her glass and reached for the bottle opener. Can we…
Let me get that for you, they said, uncorking a fresh one.
The smell of the wine was thick in the air, no room for garlic or onion.
Thanks for listening, Bitzi said, taking the bottle with her to the restroom.
The real story was standard issue fare: Bitzi’s mother, gone out for undisclosed reasons, left her three-year-old stranded at the next door neighbor’s apartment. Bitzi’s ancient babysitter snored on the ratty sofa cushions, blissfully unaware she’d just been gifted someone else’s child.
But for Bitzi’s logic, the raft story was true enough. “Enough” was all that really mattered when it came to party stories. After all, her mother had essentially floated off, at least from her daughter—drifting into obscurity, away from any semblance of normal parenting responsibilities. The raft event seemed as plausible as the clichéd truth. So she told the story at parties, and people liked hearing it almost as much as Bitzi liked telling it to them.
It was as clear in her head as if she’d watched it on television, and in truth, she’d seen a scene very much like it once on The L Word. If anyone ever brought that up, Bitzi shrugged it off and took another sip of her wine.
Are you going to compare a television show with my mother’s death? Her watery eyes pleaded. Are you going to do that to me, at a party? Do that to me, an orphan? Her shoulders drooped. Anyone callous enough to bring it up immediately changed the subject and brought her a fresh drink.
There was no actual proof that her mother was dead. There’d been no further communication. Radio silence from the one person who held Bitzi’s genetic code; her father already a no-show since insemination.
Bitzi conjured her mother’s death in her mind: the choppiness of the water, her fatigue after staying up all night with a sick toddler. How her mother lay her head down in the sun-warmed vinyl interior of an abandoned raft, just for a minute, before heading back to tend her sick child. It seemed perfectly plausible. It’s what Bitzi would have done.
Bitzi Monsoon was a has-been real estate agent, a fragrance hawker at the mall, a seller of pyramid scheme breast augmentation pills, and a cashier at a grocery store. The latter was the job she’d had the longest because there was ample opportunity to stock up on buy-one-get-one wine. She worked nights and helped stock, running the register with an off-the-cuff air that bothered her supervisors. She price checked multiple items and never looked to see if customers were switching sales stickers on any of the Thursday deals.
Sometimes Bitzi drank wine at work, pulling long swallows from screw tops she kept in her locker. When she wined, the world glowed happier and golden. That’s what she told the few coworkers who’d caught her doing it. They all loved Bitzi, so they let it go, and Bitzi drank her BOGO wine and worked the register with increasing irregularity. Items were scanned in duplicate or sometimes even triplicate, and Bitzi’s paycheck reflected these inconsistencies.
Oftentimes she got invited to dinner parties through her perfume job. She was charming with strangers, especially single women of a certain age. She had a very round face and a tiny pug nose that turned red when she drank. Her body was shaped like an overripe pear and ladies went wild for it. They pinched her cheeks and played with her little hands, holding them up and pressing them against their own to show the difference in size.
What are you going to do with these? Their long fingers curled up over her own. Baby hands, pudgy little kid fingers.
You’d be surprised. Then she’d show them what she meant, curling everything just right inside their bodies, and they never mentioned her size again.
She’d met her latest girlfriend at a free wine tasting at an ABC liquor superstore. Ginger and Bitzi both showed up early and stayed late, begging additional sips off the bored employees and sucking remnants from discarded plastic cups. They bought four bottles of the cheapest red, taking it back to Bitzi’s place. They drank two apiece, out by the algae-rimmed apartment pool, passing out in beach chairs and waking up with blood-dank stains congealed on their clothes and lips. Drips pooled onto the deck from overturned bottles like someone had been stabbed.
Ginger smiled at Bitzi with wine-darkened teeth, a smile like George Washington’s wooden grin. You wanna come with me to a party tonight?
They gorged themselves on stale oyster crackers from Bitzi’s kitchen cupboard and napped together in the dirty sheets. The sun fought hard to stream through the broken mini blinds in her bedroom window. When they woke again it was twilight, sky amethyst-hued and much more forgiving. They took a shower together and drank the last of the white wine in Bitzi’s refrigerator. Bitzi lent Ginger a sequined party dress with ruffled sleeves and she wore a crushed velvet and lace top she’d picked up at an estate sale.
At the party, Bitzi told everyone her story and loaded up on seven-layer nacho dip. It wasn’t the kind of soiree she usually liked to frequent, but she wasn’t going to be picky and Ginger was having a good time. They ran out of wine after appetizers and Bitzi resorted to swilling beer, drinking one bottle after another from the cooler on the back patio. It was cold outside and someone had draped up Christmas lights. They were half falling down and dripping into the doorway like falling stars.
Bitzi wasn’t a beer drinker, but she had three and then four, then five bottles of beer and decided to forego dinner completely. Belly distended in her crushed velvet top, she felt disproportionately huge, as if she’d swallowed a melon. She stumbled around by the bushes bordering the fence, listening to Ginger tell her own story—one she’d get to hear repeated at parties ad nauseam: how Ginger rescued a dog hit by a car, then the dog had turned out to belong to her long lost adopted brother. Very heartwarming; emphasis on the reunion between the two, the dog a Siberian husky with a pure white coat that had streaked toward his owner like a bright comet.
There wasn’t an exit to the yard, at least not at the back gate. Bitzi hung onto the chain link and vomited up the wine and beer, plus the seven-layer dip. It got on her dress and crusted in the lace around the collar. Ginger collected her from where she kneeled on the ground, legs itchy from the crabgrass. It took three strong heaves to get her back to her feet. When they reached the patio, Bitzi tripped over a flagstone and broke one front tooth clean in half.
It took several months to get the tooth fixed. They weren’t invited back over to that house.
Ginger found parties through work and Bitzi found parties through work and they both attended those parties with an equal degree of drunkenness. They loved and hated each other, screaming themselves hoarse in the car on the way home from most places, drinking more at Bitzi’s apartment, and passing out half naked on the lanai or maybe in a half-filled bathtub.
Though it didn’t seem possible, Bitzi kept all three of her jobs, replenishing her stash of wine with castoffs from the back of the storage crates at the grocery store. Ginger worked at a retirement community and sometimes came home with jewelry for Bitzi—brooches shaped like pink flamingoes, or ropes of creamy pearls that swayed delicately between her breasts. Bitzi didn’t ask where the jewelry came from and Ginger didn’t offer any explanation.
The two of them made quite a pair: Bitzi with her tiny, round body and Ginger taller than most men, her hair the vibrant red of a copper penny, a color she kept stocked in the cabinet below the sink. When she colored her roots, the tap and the rugs turned a bloody mess. Usually the wine she was drinking got hair dye in it, and it was a close call whether she was willing to poison herself and drink it.
Do I remind you of your mother? Ginger asked one night after they finished a third bottle of Rosé, Bitzi’s pants around her ankles, her girlfriend’s fingers steadily creeping their way under the loose elastic of her underwear.
Her mother was an amalgam of everything and nothing, a smear of watercolor paint washed away in an ocean wave. Almost anyone could remind her of her mother, if she thought about it hard enough. Ginger’s lack of tact and her proclivity toward garlic-smeared toast, even her co-workers at the mall who were all fifteen years younger than her, faces stuck to their cellphones. Mothers abandoned, mothers exuding a rusty kind of glamour, mothers ready to take off at a moment’s notice, mothers more invested in a glass of wine than an actual conversation.
At the next evening’s party, she and Ginger rousted the wine bar and took turns eating all the olives from a cut-glass serving bowl. Fingers tart with brine, Bitzi sucked her thumb into her mouth and left it there. Ginger wore a black-beaded dress, so heavy it dragged down in the front until her nipples were nearly revealed.
My poor little lamb. Sweet, darling girl.
Pressed to Ginger’s chest, Bitzi sucked her thumb and zoned out to the fuzzy flow of conversation. Ginger popped another olive in her mouth. The juice slipped down her chin and drained into Bitzi’s hair; the feeling like an unsolvable itch. Her face stuffed into Ginger’s cleavage she prayed the room away. She was very tired and just wanted to go to sleep.
The next thing she knew, she’d fallen onto the floor.
I dropped my baby! Ginger cried, leaning over and spilling half her glass in Bitzi’s upturned face. Gagging, she rolled onto her stomach and attempted to crawl away through a sea of legs, fat and thin, pantyhosed and bare. Her girlfriend chased after her, laughing, grabbing onto her skirt and yanking her back toward the living room.
Bitzi broke free and scrambled under the dining room table. She stayed there for the rest of the night, eating crackers that fell on the floor. She let people refill her plastic cup with splashes from their own glasses.
It wasn’t Ginger’s idea to stage the intervention, but she didn’t do anything to stop it.
People are coming over here tomorrow, Ginger told her, dragging all of the dirty clothes into a single mound that towered as tall as the kitchen counter. You gotta clean up.