Broken Tiara

(as it appeared in venuszine, August 2005)

Susie Carmichael might have continued like this for years; if she hadn’t gone looking for the dildo her sister Anna had sent her last Christmas. If she hadn’t stood on the boxes in the closet. If she hadn’t fallen into Richard’s suits. If she hadn’t found the red satin panties peeking from the breast pocket of his gray worsted wool blazer.

But the truth hit her. It was as obvious as Chrissy Stein’s boob job. Richard Peter Carmichael was a lying, cheating, no-good asshole who deserved to die. And not in a sudden, violent way but in a deliberate, long-suffering way similar to their marriage.

They met fifteen years ago, on the evening of the Butter Queen Ball. Susie stood alone in her shiny new tiara and custom-tailored blue velvet dress thinking about the lumps in cottage cheese and believing in romance when he stuck out his hand and said, “Hello Sweetness, I’m Richard Peter Carmichael.”

His name should have been clue number one, a guy named after a penis. Twice. But Susie thought Richard was handsome and liked how he called her “Sweetness” and how he held the door and steered her with his large palm on the small of her back.

Susie wore the tiara again a year later when she and Richard were married in a tasteful ceremony at the Elks Lodge. And when they returned from their honeymoon in Pompeii, Susie embarked on a new life as obedient housewife, complying bed partner, dutiful weekend gardener, diligent shopper, wrapper and sender of good cheer.

She understood some men didn’t want to be with a woman who was smarter than them. They didn’t realize this might be an asset when there were questions to be answered, decisions to be made, money to be invested. Richard was one of these men.

On weekends, between ironing his boxers and perfecting her six layer chocolate cake recipe, Susie would ask him stupid questions like, “Which way do you screw in a nut to tighten a washer?”

Richard would smile and chuck her under the chin with a slim, baby-soft finger, then slam her up against the wall and ram his hips at her like a jackrabbit in heat.

“Did you say screw, Sweetness?”

Susie would lift her skirt and stare over his hunched shoulder, mentally drafting plans for a fully-automated solar septic system that would service the state of Arizona.

“You’re the best, Richard.”

Last Sunday, Susie left the crossword puzzle out by the toilet with the easy clues erased. Richard finished the puzzle in a few days. The joy the success gave him was worth sacrificing her ego—until he started to gloat—then Susie waited until he was asleep and she leaned over, whispered in his hairy ear, “I did it. I did the whole fucking thing, you moron.” That night she slept well.

And so it went, until this morning–until a stranger’s underwear forced Susie to look a little deeper. Susie slumped to the closet floor crying, holding her delicate face in her hands and rocking, remembering Uncle Bob and how he’d smile that crooked grin when she did things for him. She’d fold his laundry, trim his hedges, suck the dirt from under his refrigerator on her hands and knees, just to please him. And when Uncle Bob passed away and the Will was read, Susie was richly rewarded for the pleasure she gave, and in time she forgot about the midnight visits and the smell of rubber.

Susie pulled herself up, wiped her eyes, blew her nose, and did the two things that made her happy. She wore her tiara and went to mow the lawn.

It was easy to think out here in the yard with the rest of the world drowned out by the hum and buzz of the lawnmower’s souped-up engine. Maybe it was the tiara with its sparkling rhinestones. Maybe it was the way the combs dug into the side of her head reminding her who she was. Or maybe it was the rumble and shimmy of the powerful tractor beneath her, sharp titanium blades spinning four times the speed originally intended, spewing debris over two acres with a satisfying chunk and whirr.

Whatever it was, Susie felt at peace. She would handle this thing, just like she’d handled everything else. Richard Peter Carmichael might be an asshole, but he was her asshole.

Susie smiled, shifted the tractor into third and headed for a large pile of pine cones in a copse of trees. She ducked under the low hanging branches, and remembered—too late—the tiara sitting seven and three quarter inches tall on top of her head.

Filigree and rhinestones, sterling silver and white gold proved no match for titanium. The blades of the tractor made mulch of Susie’s 1989 Cobb County Butter Queen tiara, adding a sparkle to the chewed-up bark and pine cones under the fir.

Three hours later, Susie was talking to Madison Sutherbee, damn glad not every household had a video phone by the year 2000, because if the reflection in the toaster was any indication, she looked like hell. And not more than seven minutes ago she’d been sitting on the toilet taking a shit and lying to Madison, telling her the mayonnaise jar was giving her trouble.

“Are you making tuna?”

“Yeah,” Susie answered, remembering last night’s menu.

She coughed to hide the flush and heard from Madison’s end, the pop of a cork, a gurgle of wine, as Madison went on to the next subject; her darling son, Hunter. Hunter-who-could-do-no-wrong-Sutherbee.

Susie couldn’t have children and didn’t want to take in somebody else’s leftovers, so she often ignored her friends when they asked, “When are you and Dick-”

“His name’s Richard.”

“-going to have kids? Don’t you want to leave a legacy?”

Sure, Susie wanted to leave a legacy. A neat, quiet legacy of this is mine and that is mine and oh by the way, that’s mine too. Not that she was greedy—she just had a thing about her stuff, her space. Uncle Bob called it nesting. She called it organized.

Susie switched the phone to her other ear, waiting for Madison to take a sip of her Chardonnay so she could say, “The year before I was crowned Butter Queen, I went to Algiers, did I ever tell you that?”

“Algiers, huh? Don’t they eat dogs there?”

Susie looked out the window, saw the dismantled tractor, the sun glinting off stray chunks of gold in the grass. She ran her fingers over the larger pieces of the tiara she’d been able to save—pieces she was gluing together.

She said, “I used to snowboard, before it was the rage—even heli-skied in British Columbia with a guy who played back-up guitar with Neil Young.”

Madison said, “Was he hot?”

Susie laughed, remembering the guy’s dick was the size of a junior tampon, which reminded her of the time she thought she’d lost one inside herself¾a tampon, not a dick. She’d squatted over the toilet, fingers fishing around knuckle deep, before she thought to look in the bowl and saw it under the toilet paper, sunk to the bottom like a red, waterlogged canoe.

Susie turned the reconstructed tiara in her hands. It was perfect–for a baby or a cat.

“Yeah,” she said. “He was hot. You know, he gave me Mr. Fuzzy Balls.”

Madison squealed, “Ooh, Mr. Fuzzy Balls? I loved him! You should get another cat, Susie. You could adopt one from the shelter….”

That was just what Susie needed, something else she’d have to fix. She grabbed a pair of scissors and left the kitchen, half-listening to Madison’s familiar rant about unwanted animals and her desire to save every dog in Idaho. She still couldn’t understand why a woman who believed in the glory of animal heaven would be so reluctant to send any there.

In her bedroom, Susie draped Richard’s blazer across the bed and arranged the sleeves so it looked like he was still inside. She held the scissors like a butcher’s knife, raised her arm, then carefully snipped off all the buttons and cut holes in every pocket.

There was a pause on Madison’s end, the zip of a lighter, a deep inhale. Susie dropped the scissors and buttons into the night stand drawer and told Madison, “My brother says there’s a feral pack of Chihuahuas roaming the hills of Los Angeles.”

“Really? Someone should save them.”

“They come out at night, drink from swimming pools and eat people’s cats.”

“Oh, the poor kitties….”

Susie sat next to the blazer, thinking about how you can’t save everything. She pulled the panties from the pocket. They weren’t satin, after all, but a synthetic blend designed to emulate satin, as if your ass would know the difference, or the fat sweaty palm of a cheating husband would really fucking care.

She remembered how easy it had been to snap the neck of Mr. Fuzzy Balls when he’d been sick, too sick to rise out of the shit that dribbled nonstop from his furry behind, too sick to close that milky cataract eye. But Richard was a big man, thick in the neck.

Susie stuffed the panties back in the pocket. She’d never understood the whole lingerie thing anyway. You put on some expensive, itchy, lacy thing so your husband/boyfriend/lover would say, “Wow. Take it off.” Susie would rather invest her money on Wall Street. From the size of the red undies, it looked like Panty Girl would rather invest her money at Krispy Kreme.

Besides, Susie looked great naked. Richard always told her so. But now she wondered who else he was asking to strip for him, who else he was calling, “Sweetness,” and where he was touching her when he said it.

Susie adjusted her grip on the phone, carried the blazer to the closet and hung it back where she’d found it.

“Say, Madison? Whatever happened to the chemistry kit we gave Hunter last year?”

The next morning, Susie waved to Richard as he drove off. She liked how quiet the house was without him nattering around. She made anagrams with the Latin names of East Coast ferns and played computer chess with Czechoslovakian lesbians while sipping Chai tea. She researched the blood flow from brain to penis in a two hundred pound man then cooked up a big batch of saltpeter and a suburban version of Viagra with Hunter Sutherbee’s chemistry set.

According to the twelve-year-old on the internet, a breakfast of sodium nitrate and PDE-5 would quell Richard’s desire for donuts and in the evening, a combination of vardenafil and dopamine would increase Richard’s nitric oxide level to yield an instant and long-lasting erection–whether he wanted one or not.

“Watch out, dude,” the kid wrote. “If you’re not careful, his Johnson could explode.” The warning was followed by a exploding smiley face and the words, “Peace, out.”

That night, Susie served Richard a gourmet meal, complete with a warm cherry pie. Richard thought the pie tasted a little bitter, but the strong coffee seemed to make him feel better, better than he’d felt all day.

Like always, Richard figured it was something about him—but when he carried his wife into the bedroom, still confused yet proud of his youthful vigor, he had a moment of clarity—he had never felt this way with another woman.

Susie woke before him and slipped down to the kitchen. She listened for the shower, the flush, the creaking stairs, then met Richard at the door, his briefcase and commuter mug in her hands.

She said, “Have a wonderful day.”

Richard stood there in his gray worsted wool blazer with the buttons sewn on crooked and took the coffee. He reached for his briefcase, brushed his hand over Susie’s breast and grinned.

“Sweetness, you’re the best.”

Susie watched him walk gingerly to his car.

She said, “Don’t you forget it,” almost loud enough for him to hear and when he blew her a kiss as he drove away, she added, “Dick,” then closed the door and went back to her chess match. Hajek had just mounted the Najdorf Sicilian Defense and Susie had the perfect reply.