A Party With No Music

“Do you think anyone else is going to bring potato soup?” Melissa asks, her black hair brushing my cheek as she whips it over her shoulder.

divert my gaze from the road for a moment, dramatically lowering my sunglasses to glance at Melissa in the passenger seat. I can smell her Bath and Body Works perfume from here. Every day she spritzes A Thousand Wishes on the insides of her wrists and along her collarbones, just enough that the floral notes waft gently into my nostrils. “In the middle of June? You should be safe, Mel.” Fuck, I hope everything goes well today. I told her we should just pick something up from the store and put it in a Tupperware container, but she insisted she make a dish from scratch.

“Oh hush,” she playfully hits my arm before flipping down the sun visor to inspect her makeup. “Some people like soup year-round. Don’t judge.” I adjust my eyes back onto the road, but I’m not really looking at it. Instead, I’m looking into the future, where I might have to explain to Mel why I’ve been lying to her for the past year and seven months of our relationship.

“So, Myles, who is this potluck for again? Your great aunt’s birthday?” Her round brown eyes are painted with forest green eyeshadow, blended at the corners with a charcoal black eyeliner. She normally opts for shades of neon pinks and blues but decided to mute her palette in the wake of my family. I glance into the rearview mirror and staring back at me are my messy brown curls that cascade down my forehead, the only thing taming them are a pair of scratched black sunglasses I found in the glovebox. My beard, neatly trimmed, wraps around my face, meeting above my upper lip. My oversized nose protrudes from my face, which Mel likes to call “distinguished.”

“Actually, it’s her retirement party,” Aunt Linda had been a high school algebra teacher for the past 33 years, and last week officially marked the last of her days basking in teenaged hormones and poorly masked body odor. Normally, Mel and I ditch functions hosted by my side of the family, but she insisted that we go. We are the outcasts of my family, their conservative stiffness and opinions clashing with the colorful liveliness of Mel, and anyone who rejects Mel rejects me as well. They conceal their criticisms in bite-sized compliments, like pills hidden in cheese given to clueless dogs. I would rather not feign smiles and return insincere compliments, but she thinks it’s important that I have a relationship with my family, even if it is at her expense.

I guess that’s what I am so worried about. They can be so ruthless. The last family function we attended was my nephew’s birthday party around our one-year mark. In the middle of the party, Mel came up to me, tears rimming her eyes, asking if we could go home. Without a question, we left. Turns out, on her way to the bathroom, she overheard my mother and sister talking about how there was no need for me to bring a clown to the party since they already hired one, that I always liked them big, but never that big, that she was a passing phase until something smaller and hotter came along. 

It’s crazy that some people don’t see the beauty in Melissa. Like, I can list about a million things off the top of my head that I absolutely adore about her. For starters, I am an absolute sucker for the way music moves through that woman’s body. There’s no controlling it. Seriously. It doesn’t matter where we are, or what we are doing. You can literally see the rhythm starting at her fingertips, manifesting with a light tapping to the beat. But eventually the music possessesher toes, then it wiggles up her legs, twisting down her arms, until it creeps up her throat, launching out of her mouth, more screaming than singing, unable to be tamed. Ass shaking, head banging, nothing can control Mel when a banger comes on. And I am the last person to stop her. Nothing is sexier than watching her throw it back in the middle of the freezer aisle in an overcrowded Walmart, shopping carts and customers dodging her flailing limbs as they try (and fail) to get their frozen peas. 

And don’t even get me started on her smile. I’m not talking about those half grins she pulls out for Instagram photo shoots with her friends, or how she covers her mouth with her hand in public when she laughs like she is trying to hide bad breath. Mel’s smile might as well come with a designated driver because it’s so intoxicating. The way her dimples sink into her like stitches in her skin compliments the creases that cascade like pleated silk around her eyes. It’s not only her face that lights up, it’s the entire room. The best part? She has a gap between her two front teeth that patents the smile as her own. She hates it. Mel has spent hours researching home remedies for correcting her teeth, refusing to invest the money into Invisalign and claiming that adult braces looked too “corny.” I swear to whatever higher being you believe in, Mel would spend at least an hour every night pushing her teeth together with her fingers in a desperate attempt to correct her smile.  She claims the one perk is that she can shoot water from that opening, a party trick she likes to whip out when she’s had too much to drink, when her guard is down. When she no longer worries about the world looking through her gap into her. 

But the thing that takes the cake is that Melissa is the worst cook I have ever met. And I will be the last person to tell her that. The thing about Mel is that I am the closest thing to a family that she has, and no one has ever spent a moment of their time showing her what good cooking is supposed to look like. She never spent Thanksgiving mornings with her mother preparing mashed potatoes and green bean casseroles, or by her father’s side learning how to grill up hamburger patties on the Fourth of July. Routine and consistency and homecooked meals were never welcomed in her house growing up, so she invites them into our home now. She insists on making us dinner every Sunday night, convinced that it will start our week on the right path. I watch her work tirelessly in the kitchen all day, meticulously chopping, peeling, measuring, preheating, and mixing. I always offer to help, thinking my aid might be the saving grace the dish might need. However, Mel always dismisses me, her honey-thick voice softly, yet sternly, telling me that she does not care what I do, as long as I do it outside of the kitchen. 

Every Sunday evening, I stare into the bowl or plate of whatever concoction Mel has crafted, typically mushy vegetables and undercooked meat staring back. Without fail, whenever I glance up, she is staring at me, eyes large and twinkling as she awaits my feedback. I’ll cut into a raw potato, or a tough, under seasoned piece of chicken, and chew. And chew. And chew. Until I can gulp the bite down, chasing it with a splash of water. I always tell her that whatever she made turned out fantastic, that, after a few bites, it was just so filling, and that I will take the leftovers to work tomorrow, which is code for “picking up McDonald’s on my lunch break.”

 The best way to describe Mel’s cooking is that it’s like going to a party with no music. All the right pieces are there, but you know something is missing. However, you can’t quite put your finger on it. All the spices and seasonings that should be mingling and mixing instead stand awkwardly in your mouth, unsure of what to do. It’s not like she doesn’t follow a recipe, it’s more like no one showed her how to properly measure, or how long to cook chicken so that it is falling apart with a fork, or when to add spinach to a recipe that requires you to cook down celery and onion too. Such as potato soup.

It might be insincere, or even cruel, to keep this lie going. But I love watching Mel pour herself into something, and cooking is a love language that, although she insists, she is fluent in, she doesn’t know how to speak a word of. And I don’t have the heart to tell her that she has been speaking gibberish this whole time.

The gravel under our tires crunches as we creep into Aunt Linda’s driveway, the only signal that there is a party here being a single orange balloon tied to the mailbox and a sea of cars polluting the front yard. Seconds later, I hear Mel’s door close. As she walks around the nose of the car, I watch her brush out the front of her black dress, another fashion choice dictated by this family gathering. Normally, she is never one to conceal who she is. Mel is always the loudest person wherever we go, both visually and audibly. Her voice ricochets off walls, bouncing in all directions until it can find an ear to land on. It naturally booms over my soft words and demeanor, but always silences to hear me speak. Her wardrobe consists of every color in the rainbow except black, and the fact she owned a black dress was a surprise to both of us. 

I find myself secretly hoping that Mel forgets the Crockpot full of soup in the backseat, that she just laces her fingers through mine and walks into the party. That everything goes smoothly; no concealed insults, no shit talking, no raw potatoes, no watery broth. But my wishing stands no chance against Mel’s confidence in her cooking, because before I can turn my head I see her diving into the car, strategically balancing the Crockpot in her arms while closing the car door with her hip. 

“Ready?” she asks, raising her eyebrows as the question escapes her lips. 

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I reply, feigning a smile. “I can take that for you if you want.”  Maybe if I take the Crockpot from her, it will slip from our fingers during the transfer, crash to the ground, and its contents will seep into the dirt. 

“It’s okay, I got it. But if you can grab the fence for me that would be great.”

 Fuck. I grab the latch to open the gate to the back yard but stop in the middle of lifting it from its place. I freeze. “Are you sure you want to do this, Mel? We don’t owe them anything, you know.” It’s true, we don’t owe them anything. They are nothing more than vultures that peck away at self-esteem, and they have already left her bone dry. 

Her eyes soften, her arm twitching under the Crockpot as if she wants to lift it onto my shoulder, but it’s too busy securing her prized dish. “Myles, we’ve talked about this. I want you to be close to your family. I’m not about to be the reason you don’t have a relationship with them. I can handle it. Really. Don’t worry about me.” She pauses, then chuckles. “Plus, I spent all day making this soup for the party. Maybe it’ll win them over. Who knows?” Her smile is warm and sweet and inviting like fresh baked cookies. It almost reassures me that everything will be okay. It almost allows me to forget what is awaiting behind this white picket fence. It almost fools me into believing that maybe Mel’s soup won’t be half bad.

But I am snapped back into reality as we walk into the party. Everyone stands around in small circles, glancing and leaning as they talk, watching our every step. The only sound outside of muffled conversation is that of silverware clinking. I know Mel is painfully aware of the silence, but she hides her discomfort behind cheerful enthusiasm. “I’m going to put the soup inside,” she says, her voice painfully chipper.

“I’ll come with you,” I insist, taking the Crockpot from her. Her pale arms are bright pink from the heat radiating off the soup. She releases a sigh as she follows me to the kitchen. We weave past clusters of relatives, all of which hand out tense hugs paired with smiles that don’t quite reach their eyes. 

My arms burn against the stainless steel of the slow cooker, and Mel frantically plays Tetris on the countertop with dips and casseroles to make room for her soup. I gently drop it on the counter, shaking out my arms the second it is free from my grip. She opens the lid and a breath of steam escapes. At least it smells like potato soup. I grab a ladle hanging from above the stovetop and slowly stir it. Bits of bacon rise to the surface, paired with tiny clumps of curdled cream. Heavier whisking is required to unstick the pile of potatoes that cemented to the bottom of the slow cooker. I feel Mel’s hands wrap around my waist as her head rests on my back. “Don’t be shy, try it!” she exclaims. 

Mel wouldn’t let me try the soup before leaving the house; she wanted it to be a surprise since it was a new recipe she was experimenting with. She thrusts a spoon into my face, and I dip it into the broth. “Be sure to get some potatoes. And some bacon, too!” I wade the spoon around, fishing out a bite-sized chunk of potato and a piece of bacon to accompany it. I stare at the spoonful of soup, and it stares back. I take a bite, and I half expect it to bite back. But there is no bite. I think Mel forgot to season the soup. To my surprise, the potato is cooked all the way through, but the bacon is soggy, and paired with the curdled cream, it creates too much chewiness in my mouth. I swallow, feeling its warmth slowly slide down my throat. “What did you think? Was there too much paprika?” There’s paprika in there?

“I love it,” I say, smiling with my lips pressed tight together. I wish there was some way I could distract her, but I know that Mel will be attached to my side the duration of this party. We are the seasonings that don’t quite mix and mingle in this dish. We are all that we have.  “Why don’t we go outside, find somewhere to sit, and try to relax?” The further we can get from the soup the better. 

“You find us somewhere to sit, I’ll make us a couple of plates,” Mel replies, grabbing some dishes from the stack next to the sink. As I walk outside, Aunt Linda and my mother walk in, heads raised high in the air. Both greet me with quick “hellos” and “how are yous” accompanied by “are you still with that girl,” to which Mel replied with a shy wave of her hand. None of my previous partners have survived the wrath of my family, but Mel is strong. Mel can withstand any backhanded compliment or unveiled insult. She can handle it. Honestly. But just because she can handle it, doesn’t mean that she should have to. I really, really didn’t want to leave her alone, and the fear in Mel’s eyes screamed for help, but I was whisked out of the room by my aunt and her insisting on a sudden desire for some “girl talk.”

I sat outside, alone, for what seemed like a century, waiting for Mel to be free from my family’s grasp. Finally, I see her walking out of the kitchen towards me, her arms straight at her side, shoulders slouched. As she gets closer, I notice the edges of her eyeshadow are slightly smudged. I lift my arm to wrap around her, but she deflects it. “Can you go back in there and grab the Crockpot?” Mel asks, her voice low and monotone. Immediately a million thoughts begin racing through my head. Linda made some comment about her legs in that dress. Mom said her skin was glowing, then asked how far along she was. Mel had them taste her soup. 

I make a beeline for the kitchen, ignoring my mother’s raised hand as she tries to grab my attention. I look into the slow cooker and notice a significant mass of soup missing from the pot. My heart drops as I glance at the sink, an empty bowl staring back. I flip open the garbage can lid to see a heaping, steaming pile of potatoes and bacon resting on the top of the trash. Fuck. I unplug the Crockpot, raking my brain for something, anything to say to Mel once I return to her outside. What do I do? How am I going to explain myself? How do I justify all the times I praised her cooking? All the times I lied to her face?

I clench my teeth together, pick up the Crockpot, and brace myself to return to Mel. She is already waiting by the fence. I give her a half smile as I walk towards her, but she quickly turns her head away. Shit. I am preparing an apology speech in my head, juggling the slow cooker in one hand as I try to rest the other on her shoulder. She nudges it away. “We can talk once we get to the car,” she utters slowly, her eyes cast to the ground. I glance over my shoulder to see all my relatives staring at us leaving, their mouths moving but none of the sound loud enough to reach us. I swivel back around, following Melissa out the gate. 

We load the Crockpot back into the car, and drive away, the only thing breaking the silence is the gravel crunching under the tires. My eyes dart off the road for a moment to glance at Mel’s face. She is staring straight ahead, a tight grimace slapped on her face. Her cheeks are red and trails of black and green makeup race down her face to her chin, where stained teardrops drip off onto her dress. I return my attention to the road, clear my throat, and quietly, cautiously, try to get her attention. “…Mel?”

“Yeah?” she sniffles, wiping her nose with the back of her hand. 

“Do you want to talk about it?” My stomach is cartwheeling inside me. I don’t know if I can handle it if she’s pissed at me. Or worse, if she doesn’t trust me anymore. 

“Not really,” she sighs. Another wave of silence settles between us. The tension is eating me alive. I need to know what my mother and Linda said to her in that kitchen. I decided to shatter the silence once again. 

“Are you mad at me?” The question sits heavy in the air, wrapping around my head and suffocating me. I don’t know if I can handle the answer. 

“No, why would I be mad at you? It was my idea,” She rests her head on the palm of her hand and watches the houses and cars fly past her window, seemingly unfazed by the question. 

“I know, but I should’ve fought to stay in the kitchen with you,” Seriously. I feel terrible that I left her to fend for herself against my mother and my aunt. No one should have to face that type of evil alone. Especially Mel. Especially her soup. 

“It’s okay. Next time we’ll just ditch whatever bullshit family event they host and get pizza or something.” That sounds divine. A night in with Mel. With takeout. Without homecooked meals. 

“So, does this mean no more cooking on Sundays?” I joke, trying to lighten the mood. 

“Huh?” She lifts her head from her hand and looks at me, confusion making home in the creases between her eyebrows. 

“Linda and mom said that your soup was shitty, didn’t they? That’s why you’re so upset?” I mean, why else would she have lost her mind like that? She said she could handle their insults.

“No, your mom said that my dress was too form fitting for my body type, and Linda said the color was nice, but would be nicer on someone without pasty white skin. I just snapped. I tried so hard to impress them just for them to tear down my outfit anyway.” She pauses for a moment, my comment loading in her head. “Why? What’s wrong with my soup?” Fuck.

“N-Nothing, I just know how they are. They don’t like anything good. Like you,” Wow, that was a pathetic excuse. God, I hope she bought it. I feel the panic slowly diffusing throughout my body, stiffening my limbs. But I force myself to snap my neck towards Mel to read her reaction. A smile is painted on the lower half of her face, a promising sign that she took my half-assed flattery to heart. However, skepticism has slithered into the back of her eyes, her eyebrows meeting in the middle of her forehead as turns the comment over, carefully examining every word that escaped my lips. Slowly her arms rise from her sides and wrap around her chest, crossing over each other like straps holding her back from jumping to conclusions. 

“No, no, no, no. Back up a second. Why did you assume they said something about my soup?” Her eyes are now pressed into a squint from the weight of her furrowed brows, her body turned to face me as I return my attention to the road before me. What do I say? Do I fess up? I can’t lose Mel. If I lose Mel, I lose everything. Do I say something? Do I blame someone else? Do I-Wait a minute, that might work.

“I… h-heard someone…say…s-something,” The words stumble and trip over each other as they escape my mouth like they had too much to drink. 

“Really? Who? Was it because there was too much paprika? Because I was thinking the same thing, but I thought I would try to balance it out with some more bacon and…” Mel’s thunderous voice is like a whisper compared to the thoughts shouting in my head. Next to me, she is still rambling about ingredients and pointing fingers at relatives who would be the most likely to insult her soup, which, frankly, is all of them. But all that I can think about is how pathetic I am. That the foundation of our relationship is established on a lie. That my world, my Mel, pours herself into whatever she does. That she looks to me to be her safe space, her corner of the world where honesty and trust reside, the things that I’ve been denying her for the entirety of our one year and seven months together. I glance at Mel, her black and green makeup still smeared just below her eyes from crying earlier. Her hair is starting to frizz from the afternoon heat, but against the sunlight creeping in from the window, the loose hairs look like a halo hovering above her head. God, she is stunning. She deserves more. She deserves the truth. Slowly Mel’s voice starts to seep into my ears, “… but I’m pretty sure I put in the right amount of salt-” 

“Mel, I lied,” I blurt out. In three small words, I feel my world start to crumble. Although I’m not looking at Mel, I can picture the pain residing in the creases of her forehead as her fingertips desperately try to massage them away. I glance at her to see instead her pale skin painted red, the heat pulsing off her enough to warm the air-conditioned car. The frizz nestled above her head, once a shimmering halo now sits like a mushroom cloud after an explosion. 

“What?” Confusion and hurt are woven into her voice. There’s no going back now.

“I’ve been lying,” I utter again, the words stinging the back of my throat as they escape my mouth. 

“What do you mean,” She’s trying to conceal the pain in her face by softening her eyes, but it just amplifies the heartbreak and betrayal in them. I’ve never seen her Mel like this before. I battle the tears pooling in the corner of my eyes, clearing my throat to distract from the deafening silence as I try to think of what to say next. “Well?” Mel asks, her voice breaking. 

I’ve hurt her enough tiptoeing around the truth. Quickly I blurt out, “No one said that your soup tasted bad-”

“Pull over,” Mel interrupts, refusing to break her gaze from the passenger window. Pull over? Is she breaking up with me on the side of the road? Is she going to kill me with her bare hands? Leave my body in the ditch? Not that I don’t deserve it. 

“What?” Other than my potential murder, I can’t imagine why else she would want me to stop driving. Slowly, she turns to me, the mushroom cloud of frizz is now standing straight up as if she were electrocuted. Mel’s eyeshadow has left her eyelids and migrated down her cheeks, traces of black and green tar staining the surface. Beneath the streaky layer of makeup her cheeks continue to burn crimson.

Shakily, Mel’s voice begins as a whimper, crescendoing into a shout. “How am I supposed to talk to you while you’re staring straight ahead? Pull the fucking car over, Myles,” Without a thought, I push my blinker up and yank the car into the shoulder, Mel refusing to break her gaze the entire time. “Why would you lie about someone not liking my soup, Myles? I mean, why would you bring up anyone saying anything about my soup anyway? I don’t understand? What are you trying to say?”

There’s no more hiding, which means no more watching Mel cut up uneven carrots. No more of her forgetting to turn off the oven hours after we ate because she was so caught up in plating the food. No more toothy, gap-filled grins that can hardly be contained as she watches me take the first bite of whatever she cooked. No more giggles when I joke about how she must have been a professional chef in a past life. Maybe no more Mel. 

“Mel, your cooking… is terrible. But it’s one of the things I love the most about you,” The words hang heavy in the air like a wet blanket on a humid day. The corners of Mel’s mouth are contorted in disgust, while her eyebrows are knitted together with confusion. Stray tears continue to drip from her cheeks down her chin, landing on her chest. 

“So, you’ve been lying to me about my cooking? Myles, I’ve been cooking for the both of us since we started dating,” Mel sniffles as she wipes her nose with the back of her hand, her eyes softening as she places a hand on my shoulder. “Why did you feel the need to lie to me? Were you scared to tell me the truth? I know I can be too much sometimes, but I promise I-”

“No, Mel! God no. You’re not ‘too much.’ You’re plenty. This is not your fault. I just loved that you loved me enough to put your heart into something every week just for me,” Why is she apologizing? Why isn’t she murdering me on the side of the road? Fuck, I would rather her do that than ever blame herself for me not being strong enough to tell her the truth. 

“Well, I never had a family that cooked for me, so I wanted to cook for my own family. You should have told me Myles. Really. I could have handled it. I thought you saw me differently than that,” The disappointment hurts more than her wrath ever could. She thinks I see her as weak and thin like tissue paper. 

“Melissa, you are the strongest, most beautiful person I know. I lied because I loved watching you do something you loved, and I didn’t want to be the person to crush that beauty within you. If that meant choking down some dry meatloaf every once in a while, I was more than willing to. It was this stupid family gathering I was worried about. I know how they are. And you know how they are. I should have been honest from the start. You’re right, Mel. I’m so, so sorry.” I lose my composure and tears start pouring out of my eyes. Looking back at me from the rearview mirror are flushed cheeks and a runny nose, like a child after being pushed down on the playground. God, I am pathetic.

Mel slowly wraps both arms around my shoulders, resting my head on her chest as she cradles me. My tears and snot make her breasts hot and slick against my cheek, but it’s strangely comforting, like a terrible tasting homecooked meal. Suddenly, Mel speaks up, her voice vibrating through her skin. “So, you said my meatloaf was too dry? Even the one I cooked on your birthday last year?” 

I sit up and look Mel in the eyes. She seems like herself again, her porcelain skin back to its natural hue, and her hair, although still frizzy, has settled to the sides of her head. “No, not the one on my birthday,” I chuckle, “That one was so drenched in grease it might as well have been going through puberty.” Swiftly Mel’s fist strikes my arm, a light sting left behind. 

“Oh, shut up,” Mel chuckles, shoving me off her. She flips down the sun visor and begins scrubbing off the stained makeup with her hands. Her bare face is angelic. Faded acne scars highlight the apples of her cheeks alongside residual blush that wouldn’t rub off. Hell, Melissa is beautiful. She slams shut the sun visor and grabs my hand. “Maybe we can start cooking together on Sundays? We can make it the ‘Myles and Mel Cooking Show’ where you do all the work and I get to watch you cook for me like you’ve been doing for the past, what, year and seven months?” 

“I think you’ve got yourself a deal,” I say as I start the car. Maybe that’s the thing about parties with no music. Sure, they’re awkward and none of the spices quite mix and mingle the way that they’re supposed to, but the silence leaves room for conversation to grow, to listen, to find what the recipe needs. 

Samantha Misener

Samantha Misener is a recent graduate from Western Illinois University, having received a Bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in creative writing. Her love lies in impulsively buying (and inevitably killing) houseplants, experimenting in the kitchen, and spending time with her cat, Twisty. Samantha’s work has been presented at the Sigma Tau Delta 2022 National Convention in Atlanta, Georgia. She was also an award winner of the 2022 BYOP playwriting competition. Her goal after graduation is to find a career where she can continue to develop her passion for writing.
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