A woman and a man at a party whisper to each other. Their faces are obscured by a water glass in the foreground.

was the cutting remark you served with a squirt of Peychaud’s bitters and a side of weekend guests. I’d delivered Oysters Rockefeller, still steaming in their shells, to the table. To make up for your stinginess, your brother took a double portion. I was so grateful I ignored the spinach stuck between his teeth.

But not you. You made him the butt of jokes, as usual. He laughed easily and I admired him for it, even as I was dying inside at his brother’s coarseness. Even as I handed your brother a toothpick.

The closest thing to acid was the way you flirted with your brother’s date by comparing the two of us aloud, the girl too drunk and too stupid to realize she was only incidental in the measurement. But your brother knew better. He came to stand next to me as I washed the dishes, placed the side of his shoe against mine deliberately and left it there. I felt his sympathy lather up around me like the dish soap on my sponge.

The closest thing to acid was how you said there wasn’t room for me on the boat, and anyway, the dogs needed bathing because they’d been in the lake. In the bathroom where I checked my face to be sure it was whole and unscarred, I could see out the window that you were driving the boat too fast over the wakes of other weekend boaters. Everyone was laughing except your brother, whose face was turned back toward the house. I called the still-wet dogs to me and encouraged them to jump on your side of the bed.

The closest thing to acid was how you yelled for me to get more chips as you and your friends sat on the edge of the couch watching the football game on TV. I dumped tortilla chips into a bowl and thought how only men would play such a dumb, brutal sport. Your brother came to get the snacks from me, his eyes kind, and told me how good the guacamole was. When I walked him to his car to say goodbye, I pressed my cheek to his and whispered, “I married the wrong brother.” His eyes searched the empty windows behind me as he closed the trunk with a gentle click.

I wanted him to whisper back, “I know.” I wanted him to tell me to hop in the car. But he only stood there, a look of helplessness rising to the surface of his face, then popping like a soap bubble from the night before.

I watched him lay his hand in the small of his date’s back as he guided her into the front seat. They drove away. I placed my hand against my face like his had been against her back. I checked to be sure that the skull underneath my fingers was not corroding and I counted my footsteps on my way back inside: one extra drop of habanero in the salsa for each step.

It could burn, too.

Photo by nicoleta wagner, used and adapted under CC.