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Family Circle 2010 Fiction Contest: "Divorce Circus"

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In the tent's entryway, Ralph pushed streamers out of his face and tried to gain his footing. Vicki sauntered past him wearing a ridiculous white cowgirl hat and carrying a donkey piñata. "The guest of honor has arrived!" She stooped to kiss Bethany. "What do you think of all this?" She gestured wide and the tiny bangles than lined her sleeves jingled. Bethany, her face full of joy, kissed her mother's cheek and ran off to join her friends. Her sand-colored hair streamed out behind her and Ralph thought that he should have at least tried to braid it, like he'd watched Vicki do hundreds of times. How hard would it have been?

Ralph stood against a table piled with dozens of cupcakes. He waited until Vicki sashayed by again. He put his hand out to stop her. "You've outdone yourself," he said.

He'd made his tone intentionally hostile but Vicki simply smiled and squeezed his hand. "Isn't it great?"

Ralph swatted at a loose balloon, wishing he had the audacity to slap Vicki's irreverent happiness right out of her. Then he captured the balloon between his palms, ashamed of himself. He narrowed his eyes at a juggling clown. "You're trying to buy back Bethany's affections," he said.

Ralph noticed Vicki's shoulders stiffen, her painted mouth harden into a thin, unattractive line. "No, Ralph. I'm trying to give our child a fantastic birthday."

"You could have done that with cake and ice cream! You didn't have to rent an entire circus."

Vicki shrugged, thumping the piñata against her thigh. "What's wrong with a grand gesture?"

Ralph shook his head. "This is totally over the top, Vicki, and you know it. You're trying to make Bethany forget how much you hurt us."

"Hurt you, you mean."

The band of clowns started to play a boisterous rendition of "The Farmer in the Dell," forcing Ralph to shout over the noise. "You're the reason Bethany doesn't have an intact family. You're the reason we fell apart."

Vicki shook her cloud of hair. "No, Ralph. You're the one who can't forgive and move on."

"What are you going to do the next time you screw up? Buy her a Porsche?" Ralph threw his hands into the air, knocking a cupcake off the top tier of the three-tiered platter. He watched it fall—white icing splattered into the dirt—and felt a tiny jolt of satisfaction.

Vicki ignored the cupcake and hugged the piñata against her white and gold tasseled vest. "Bethany's having a wonderful time and that's all that matters. If you don't like it, you can just leave."

Ralph watched her saunter across the tent, swinging her hips so that even the juggling clown stopped to watch her. It seemed to Ralph that he was the only one sorry for their broken marriage.

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