The first time was in November of 1990. It was a few years into the partnership and Robert was acting like a new person, all animated and jovial, unlike the stoic man she married. "You have to meet him, Grace!" Robert pushed, "Sol's wonderful." The law firm was doing well and Grace knew what that felt like, the rush of pride in building a career from nothing. So she gritted her teeth and cleaned the house and made the dinner and let Sol and Frankie Bergstein into her life.
They barged in, two wild souls vastly incompatible with Grace and Robert. Sol had a kind heart, she knew deep down, but he was loud, and emotional, and would sometimes talk with his mouth full or laugh for too long. In these moments Grace would glance at Robert, trying to meet his eyes, but he'd be laughing along with Sol and Grace would plaster a fake smile to her face and try to get through it. For her husband, who seemed lighter these days. At least one of them should feel that way, she thought, and nibbled on her salad.
Even worse than Sol, though, was Frankie. Frankie, with her tacky jewelry and weird political stances and her utter lack of adherence to social norms. The first time they met, Frankie had lifted up her shirt and inquired brightly, "Do these things look right to you?" Grace had choked and spluttered, and before she could scramble up a response, Frankie was laughing and talking about something else. It wasn't until minutes, or possibly months, later, that Grace was back to her regal, controlled self. Maybe it was the way Frankie unbalanced her that pissed her off so much.
Robert and Sol were engaged in something about a case and next to her, Frankie was attempting to pick up grapes with a pair of wooden chopsticks. She had brought the chopsticks herself, declaring something about international culinary appreciation or something. Grace, ever the polite host, inquired as to when she had learned how to use them in the first place. Frankie had replied that she hadn't, but tonight was the night.
That had really set the ball rolling for how the night would go, Grace thought.
As predicted, Frankie Bergstein had, so far, failed to actually pick up any food with the chopsticks. Grace ignored her for as long as she could, which turned out to be about 15 seconds.
She took a sip of her margarita for the courage. "Frankie--" she began, her voice a little higher than usual.
"Sh! I almost got it." She did not almost get it. The grape bounced out of the bowl and rolled onto the floor. It was not the first.
Grace closed her eyes and didn't think about the fruit stains that would inevitably remain in her white rug. The one she bought just two weeks ago.
"Frankie, please stop doing that," she tried again, a note of hysteria entering her voice. She looked to her left, at their husbands, somehow still deep in conversation. Was this hell? What did she do to deserve this? She glanced back at Frankie, who was now picking up pieces of pineapple with her fingers, finally seeming to have given up. Grace watched (in disgust, she told herself) as Frankie sucked the juices off her fingers with a soft pop.
"You know we have silverware you can use? Besides chopsticks?" Grace grinded out, unable to keep the annoyance from entering her voice. She took another gulp of her margarita. A glance at the clock told her it had only been 20 minutes since dinner started.
Frankie smiled a blinding smile that made her eyes sparkle. Grace didn't know that was possible, outside of cartoons, possibly. She would've investigated further but the human the eyes were connected to was speaking again.
"Grace, I'm trying to experience other cultures. The chopsticks were hard. But I'm on eating with my hands now. Like Indians!" In demonstration she grabbed a handful of the lemon garlic chicken that had taken Grace so much effort and precision to create.
"Mm. So good," Frankie exclaimed, mouth full. "You're a great cook, Grace."
The sauce from the chicken was spilling down Frankie's fingers.
Grace watched, half in horror, half in fascination. "Oh god-- here, there's napkins--" she tried to offer, but Frankie had already brought her mouth to her hand and licked along its length. Grace watched with rapt attention as she sucked each digit into her mouth sloppily and then licked her lips, shiny with grease. And then, in an explicit move that somehow only Grace saw, her tongue dipped into the crease between two fingers, gently lapping at the remaining sauce.
Grace's mouth went dry and she felt a lurch in her abdomen. She pushed her chair back and stood up shakily, making Robert glance worriedly in her direction. She smiled at him in what she hoped was a reassuring way. "Just going to the bathroom," she announced loudly, walking quickly away from the table, from Frankie's piercing blue eyes, from her knowing smile.
She stumbled into the bathroom, her ears ringing, her heart pounding. She grabbed the edge of the beautiful porcelain sink, letting the cold surface cool her sweating hands. When had her hands begun to sweat?
Grace looked up at her panicked reflection in the dark mirror, the dim yellow light casting dark shadows on the face Grace worked so hard to keep young
. She looked as she felt; dizzy, unfocused, and yeah, maybe she had a little more to drink than she usually did, but it was just to cope with Mr. and Mrs. Hippie-Dippy for a night. That's why she suddenly felt so off, she told herself, as she took several calming breaths. She should eat something a little more than just salad, she thought, to calm the lurching sensation in her stomach caused by the alcohol. She steeled herself and backed out of the bathroom, rejoining the party.
"Grace!" Sol exclaimed in that always-cheery voice of his. "We were just talking about our kids, and Robert mentioned that Brianna recently graduated from middle school. How exciting!" Grace smiled and sat down, gathering some casserole and green beans onto her plate.
"Yes, she's so bright. Top of her class, actually. She's following in my footsteps." As she said this, Grace thought she caught Frankie rolling her eyes but she couldn't be sure.
Then the wild-haired hippie muttered, "Well, its only middle school. They don't teach kids anything real in middle school. Probably don't even mention what we did to the Native Americans--"
"Frankie! Not now, we're guests." Sol looked embarrassed, which was a first.
"Am I wrong? AM I?" Frankie insisted, her voice pitching upward. Those blue eyes were wide and honest.
"N-No, honey, but maybe not now."
"Yeah, whatever. Those kids are gonna grow up just like this one here." She pointed a sauce-covered finger at Grace.
"What the fuck does that mean?" Grace said sharply.
Robert stood up suddenly. "Why don't we bring the cheesecake out?" He said a little too loudly and jovially. He left the dining room in a hurry.
Grace hardly noticed. She felt her face flush and knew she was losing composure again, but she was just out of it enough to not care anymore. Enough of the faking smiles and being a perfect polite host. She didn't have to take this shit in her own house.
Frankie chuckled. Grace wanted to strangle her.
"You," she started again, and it was clear Grace was not the only one intoxicated. "...look at this house, at your job....you've lived your whole life according to what society wants you to do. Perfect husband, perfect kids-" here she rolled her eyes maddeningly and Grace felt her scowl deepen. "I bet you never question life the way you were taught, Grace. I bet you never live life the way you want to."
Grace was ready with a response. A full retort, complete with her history and education and charity work and HOW DARE YOU CRITICIZE MY JOB AND KIDS and as she opened her mouth to let Frankie know just who she was dealing with, Frankie met her eyes, and without breaking contact, lifted two sauce covered fingers to her mouth and sucked them clean in one smooth, slow, stroke, leaving behind two glistening digits.
Grace could do nothing but stare at Frankie's mouth, and the rosy curve of a smile that was beginning to show.
"You never do what you want, do you?" Her eyes, dark in the dim light, seemed to peer into Grace's soul. The blonde had no response.
After what seemed like an eternity Robert came back into the room, and with him, the oxygen returned. Grace sat down.
"Don't speak to me like that. You don't know me, and you don't know my family," Grace said softly. In a way that demanded respect. And Frankie seemed to pick up on her tone, because she ate dessert in silence and used the silverware she was given.
When she left, arm in arm with Sol, she glanced back at Grace with those piercing blue eyes and Grace felt her stomach lurch again.
She found herself breathing a sigh of relief when the door closed and the house was still and normal again. But Grace still felt unbalanced, even when she drank a glass of water and sobered up, when she changed into a silky nightgown to sleep. When she woke up the next morning, she had forgotten all about the fingers and lips and tongue that roamed her mind through the night.
That was the first time.