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FICTION / The Ice Unicorn / Fred White

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Reared on its hind legs, the ice unicorn reflected the Grand Ballroom’s chandelier lights along with the heads and torsos of the nearby wedding guests, misshapen, Lionel thought, like reflections in a funhouse mirror. The ice sculpture served as the centerpiece for a ring of hors d’oeuvres—cheese and melon cubes, shrimp, celery sticks, whatnot. Two hours into the wedding reception for Cassie and Matthew, the unicorn’s neck tendons and the grooves on its horn were becoming less distinct. Lionel circumnavigated the food ring and nibbled indiscriminately. He had exhausted his capacity for chitchat, and Estelle was busy conversing with one or another of his colleagues or their spouses. It irked him that she so enjoyed social extravaganzas. Given the choice, he would have opted for a bamboo flogging. He twisted out of his tight tux jacket, yanked off his bowtie, and moved toward a less congested corner of the ballroom, making a wide girth of the bride and groom, currently stuffing shrimp and gobs of brie into each other’s mouths. 

He considered taking a brisk walk around the hotel complex so that the night air could revive him, when he heard a familiar voice. 

“You look as thrilled to be here as I,” said Pauline, his department’s admin assistant, who was pressing a tropical drink skewered with maraschino cherries to her bony, freckled chest. 

“Need some help getting those cherries nibbled?” he lowered his face to the goblet. 

Pauline giggled. “If Estelle saw that, you’ll be sleeping in the dog house tonight.”

“Sort of where I’ve been these past five years,” Lionel smiled.

“I see. . . a man with a story to tell.” Pauline pointed to an unoccupied table. “I might as well hear all the sordid details before I start gossiping about you.”

“It’s simple: after half a decade of conjugal life, I’ve only now managed to admit to myself that marriage is bad for my complexion.”

“Well, I’ve got a soothing skin conditioner at home. Shit, did I just say that?” Pauline’s cheeks flushed. “So . . . what took you so long?”

He shrugged. “I’m good at denial. Estelle keeps telling me to get out of my academic bubble, but I retaliate by saying, ‘Look who’s accusing whom of living in a bubble, Miz Desperate for Attention!’” Lionel shrugged.  “I can be an ass sometimes.”

“I would have kicked you in the balls so hard, you’d be qualified for the children’s choir.”

He smiled, avoiding Pauline’s eyes. There was too much residual anger and hurt in those eyes—but longing also. He wondered how her marriage had gone on the skids but could not bring himself to ask her.  

As if reading his thoughts she said, “My situation was more . . . urgent. My dearly beloved, you see, put a knife to my throat after I dumped his last bottle of Jack Daniel’s into the sink.”

“How awful.”

“Not so awful. It’s what it took to get me to file for divorce. After a month of weeping, I discovered the pleasures of post-menopausal womanhood.”

Could he glimpse some of that post-menopausal womanhood in her eyes too? Lionel leaned toward her . . .

Pauline sipped her cocktail. “I can tell that you and Estelle are on the skids; you stay as far apart from each other as possible in public.” 

He nodded sadly.

She suddenly began waving. The bride was shuffling toward them in her wedding gown. “I’m so happy you’re here!” Cassie gushed to Pauline, squeezing her arm. “You too, Li!  I know how you detest large gatherings.”

Lionel opened his arms histrionically. He could sling the bullshit too. “One sight of you makes it all worthwhile,” he crooned, actually hoping that Cassie would detect the disingenuousness of his tone—she resembled a rouged-up vampire. They embraced, and Lionel breathed in an unsettling scent of lilac-spiked perspiration. He fingered a string of her hairspray-stiffened auburn hair and toyed with the urge to kiss her heavily on the mouth, if only to make her suspect, however fleetingly, that she had hitched herself to the wrong man when it came to unbridled lust. The glint in Cassie’s eye made it clear to him that she knew what he was thinking. He resigned himself to bestowing what he hoped would be regarded as a highly ironic peck on her damp, splotchy cheek.  

The rock band, a quartet of hirsute Ozzie Osborn clones in tight black leather, had just returned from their break. A sudden pok pok pokof microphone tapping and “Testing testing testing” and guitar tuning grated the air. Everyone near Lionel and Pauline began gravitating toward the dance floor.  

“Now begin the spasmodic twists and lurches euphemistically known as dancing. Estelle will soon materialize before me within the next ten seconds, insisting that I dance with her.”

“Just do it, dahling.  Why make a fuss?”

“I hate this game.” But he stood up and headed for the dance floor anyway. Mercifully, Estelle was already dancing with William Waddell, the English Department’s most recent hire, a specialist in captivity narratives. He moved liquidly through some pelvis-writhing routine. Estelle, by contrast, seemed to be concentrating too hard on looking graceful: she was having difficulty moving her feet, manacled as they were by the stiletto heels.

Lionel returned to the table, dismayed to see that Pauline had left. He headed for the exit, and had gotten as far as the elevators when he heard Pauline call out, “Hey, Lionel, where do you think you’re going?”

He turned. “I need to get outside; I’m oxygen-deprived.”

“You’re leaving Estelle to fend for herself among your carnivorous colleagues?”

A cluster of revelers came shrieking and laughing out of one of the elevators. “She’s welcome to the post-rational lot of ‘em.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t hear you! Can’t we go someplace where it’s quieter?”  

“Capital idea.  Follow me.”

The cool night air, the relative absence of people, even the blank facades of the squat glass office buildings, made him feel at ease.  He put his arm around Pauline and inhaled deeply.  She nestled her head against his neck.  

“I hate my life,” Lionel finally said.

She sighed as if he had just recited a love poem to her. “That makes two of us.”

Why was she indulging him? Provoking him?

“Do you ever think about leaving Estelle?” she finally said.

“Sure, but—”

“‘But’?”

He shrugged.

“A part of you wants to salvage—”

“I don’t want talk about my matrimonial state.”  He instantly regretted his tone. “Sorry—that did not come out right.” He kissed her hand.

“Stop pretending to be gallant; I can see right through you.” 

They walked in awkward silence. Suddenly she clasped his arm and pulled him toward a driveway that descended underneath one of the buildings.  At the bottom, where a steel-mesh gate barricaded the driveway from the garage within, she pressed her lips into his, whimpering like a baby. “What do you think of my gallantry?” 

As gently as he could, he pried her arms off his neck.  “I don’t know what to think.” He wanted to shove her away and embrace her again at the same time. 

“In that case . . .” She clawed a hand through her hair, “go fuck yourself.” She pushed him so hard he stumbled backwards. “You’re the biggest hypocrite I’ve ever met, and I’ve met lots of hypocrites.”  She rushed out of the driveway, her heels clacking almost comically.

He shouted after her, “Hey, listen, I’m sorry!”

She raised her middle finger high in the air. “Shove your apology up your ass. Go back and dance with your wife.”  And she vanished.  

The suggestion was ludicrous; he would be a phony if he set foot on that dance floor.  He headed back to the hotel and stopped in the men’s room.  He avoided looking at himself in the mirror as he washed his hands and face. “A few minutes on the dance floor,” said his mirror-face, “nobody caring whether you’re Fred Astaire or some goose flapping about—but no-o-o, you have to be a prick about it.”

Lionel nodded contritely.

The reception was thinning out. He scanned the ballroom for Pauline. Where could she have gone?  The bride and groom were conversing with several others at a table. Estelle was still yapping away with William Waddell, both of them plucking morsels of fruit from underneath the now conspicuously disintegrating unicorn. 

“Where were you?” Estelle said.  

“I was wondering the same thing,” added William Waddell, winking; he swished away loose strands of flaxen hair from his forehead.  “Your charming wife was severely overtaxing my meager dancing abilities; I kept hoping you’d show up and tap my shoulder.”

“Yeah, well, I have this problem with receptions. . .”

“Right,” interjected Estelle. “Lionel has this problem with receptions, and with people, and with anything resembling fun, or music composed after the eighteenth century, not to mention da—”

“Shut up!”

She gasped.

“Heyy, cool it,” said Waddell.  

“You’re among colleagues,” Estelle said, pressing Waddell’s arm.

“To answer your earlier question, I was outside, trying to get a fresh perspective on things.”

“‘Perspective on things!’  Christ, Li, you should hear yourself.”

“--and concluded that I’ve been a blowhard, seeing phoniness in this hullabaloo”—he made a sweeping gesture of the room— “and thought I’d ask if you’d care to dance with me.” 

Estelle tilted her head and jiggled her ear “Sorry, dear; I must be getting hard of hearing. It sounded like you were asking me to dancewith you.”

“Well?”

“Well what?”

“I’m trying to get along with you, and you’re only trying to get my goat.”

Just then William Waddell bowed and excused himself.  Lionel watched Estelle watching him amble across the room. And then he spotted Pauline.

“Charming man, isn’t he?” said Estelle wistfully.

“Unlike your self-absorbed clod of a husband.” 

“You said it, I didn’t.”

“That’s right—and I wasn’t being sarcastic.  I ama self-absorbed clod.”

Estelle looked as if she couldn’t decide whether to laugh or break into tears.

Lionel kept gazing at Pauline, hoping to catch her eye; but she already was fixated on William Waddell, and opened her arms to him as he glided toward her.

He returned his attention to his wife. She was scrutinizing him with mock-expectation, one neatly lined eyebrow arched higher than the other. “How about if we just go home?” he said.

“I thought you wanted to dance with me. Make up your mind.”

“What I’d really like to do is put a gun to my head.”

A shriek came from behind them. It was Cassie, flat on the floor, her gown splayed like an enormous carnation. Matt, apologizing profusely, tried helping her back to her feet, but she kept pushing him away.

“Are you hurt?” Estelle, rushed over to the capsized bride.

“We were just screwing off,” said Matt, his naturally red face flushed to a bright scarlet. “She tripped over my foot.”

“He tripped me deliberately,” Cassie gasped, her face directed at the floor. Then she turned herself around, sat up, and glared at her new husband. “I didn’t think that our wedding reception was an appropriate place for the groom to start lamenting about his bride’s earlier sex life.”

“Cassie, for God’s sake!” Matt said.

Cassie gripped Estelle’s arm and awkwardly returned to her feet, muttering something about one more fantasy bride biting the dust.

“I didn’t do it deliberately,” persisted Matt.  He put his arm around her.  “Will you forgive me?”

“I guess I’d better.  This isn’t the place to begin a domestic quarrel, is it?” She pushed Matt away, winked at Lionel—then exclaimed, “Ohmygosh! people are leaving! They’ll want to say good-bye to us.”  She dashed toward a cluster of waving guests; they surrounded her instantly. 

Lionel felt Estelle’s hands on his leg. She was brushing his trousers with a napkin.  “What the heck did you get on these rental slacks—salsa? Cocktail sauce?  They’re going to hit us with a huge cleaning bill.”

“Isn’t love wonderful?” he shouted to a passer-by, spreading his arms. 

It was nearly midnight and the ballroom, mercifully, was beginning to clear out.  Custodians began folding up and stacking the chairs, whipping off the linen tablecloths and flinging them into a laundry pile, sweeping up debris. Lionel, Estelle, Cassie, and Matt drifted over to where Pauline and William Waddell were sitting motionless in front of the unicorn, or what was left of it: a featureless head with only the faintest trace of snout; a gleaming, dripping torso that now resembled that of a walrus more than a fairyland horse.  The legs had melted into what now seemed like four well-sucked popsicles.  The spiral horn had broken off, leaving only a molten stub.

“Estelle?” Lionel turned severely to her.  Her face was expressionless; she refused to make eye contact with him.

“Look at me!”

She looked at him. Her eyes flashed hostility.

“I’ve been a lowlife, Estelle. But I promise to—” his voice broke and he didn’t try to finish the sentence.

Estelle looked away.

He reached for her hand.  To his surprise, she did not pull it away.  He waited for the right words to surface, words that would set things right for them, words that would heal years of wounding. But all he could do was gaze at her in silence.

“Cat got your tongue, Casanova?”

He wanted to tell her that he loved her. But what came out, absurdly, was “My tux coat had to be two sizes too small; did you know that when you rented it for me?”  

“Sure, because it’s always such a pleasure listening to you complain.”

Lionel took a deep breath. “I was going to say, ‘Of course you didn’t know that.  didn’t know that because I never wear suit coats.  That’s what I got for not going there myself to be fitted.”

“And you’re telling me that now because . . .”

He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.  She shuddered. 

“What the heck are those janitors doing?” Cassie cried out, stumbling to her feet and rushing over to where two men, wearing leather aprons, were dumping the leftover hors d’oeuvres into pails. Now they were joined by another man wielding a sledgehammer. He shouted something to the others and they all guffawed. Then he leaped onto the platform, hunched over, gripped the hammer as though he were some kind of medieval executioner, and took aim at the unicorn. Cassie screamed, “No!  Wait! Please! Not yet!”

The man lowered his hammer, straightened up and grinned at her. “Here come de bride,” he mock-crooned. The other custodians laughed. He returned his attention to the task at hand. With one massive blow to the unicorn’s flank, he sundered the sculpture in half.  With several subsequent blows, each one more powerful than the one before it, he transformed what was left of the unicorn into several heaps of crushed ice.