derby

Kentucky Derby banquet and viewing party thing, at the LA Athletic Club. We're not members, but Kross is. Figured what the hell. We'll wear goofy hats, suck down a few mint juleps, root for the horse with the best name. An excellent excuse to day drink with friends, anyway.

I get there first, see Kerry waiting at the bar. No hat. Plain black shift dress. Looking annoyed. The club is terribly understaffed. Always takes ages to get a drink. The woman working the entrance accepts my cash and cuffs me in a flimsy wristband I'll lose within five minutes; I stuff Terence's, along with his free drink coupon, into my clutch. A clutch seemed in order, to go with the pleated woven dress someone must have secretly clipped a good four inches off over the winter. I feel naked. Adjusting my headband, where a hot pink silk dahlia blooms on an inch of netting, I decide not to give Kerry hell for her lack of costume. But it was her idea.

"Ross is grumpy," she informs me by way of greeting.

"The dress looks great!" I respond. It's an Anthro score she texted me about a couple nights ago. I didn't realize she was going to wear it today. But no amount of tugging on my hem is going to change how short and silly my own is. Time to cash in that free drink coupon.

Back at their table, which sits adjacent to the massive projection screen showing pre-race festivities, Ross picks at a plate of traditional derby fare, as interpreted by the LAAC. Finger sandwiches, pigs in a blanket, fried chicken. Kerry has waited for me to eat, and after setting our drinks down, we hit the buffet. Everything I put on my plate looks brown and dry and wilted. Remembering the KP Health Action Notice I received via email a few days back, I add a couple spoonfuls of cut strawberries. Slightly elevated, I'd read, my jaw nearly hitting the keyboard as I scanned the results of my blood work. Cut back on fried foods, cheese, and butter. Immediately I'd sent a screenshot of the message to Mason, my partner in thyroid disease, dadlessness, and now, apparently, high cholesterol. He'd only just found out about his a few weeks before.

OMG we're fucking twins, he replied.

Ridiculous, I texted back. Caught me completely off guard.

Meet you at Furr's at 4:15 for dinner

(Cracks about getting older figure heavily into our conversations these days. We even have a hashtag for it: #goodforty, coined by the twenty-something girl who, while flirting with him, assured Mason he was "the good forty".) 

The strawberries turn out to be the best thing on the plate anyway.

We catch up, the only real news since we've seen one another last being our respective vet visits. I tell them about Chaucer's mysterious panting episode; they brief me on their cat's medical issues. We are all of us mortal: canine, feline, human. I don't mention my elevated cholesterol, which depresses me. Makes me feel old. Kerry is turning forty-five just days before I turn forty. Big year for both of us. When I'd offered to plan something for her birthday she'd answered, with typical frankness, "Well you can try, but I don't know if I'll want to do it." I've missed her.

Terence arrives and settles in. He feels out the loop, coming late. Scooches his riveted leather chair close to the table. "What'd I miss?" I've prepared a plate for him since, absurdly, the food is already being pulled. The race hasn't even started and they're shutting down the party. Breaking a sugar cookie in half, I assure him he hasn't missed much. We've barely started drinking and haven't picked our horses yet. I finish the cookie and have another.

Ross hands me a printout of the race stats. I ignore the odds and read the names aloud. "Upstart" is my favorite. He points out how much Terence, ever the good sport and clad in a salmon-colored bow tie with matching suspenders we picked up for $20 in the Fashion District, resembles Bill Nye. Kerry nearly spit-takes her julep. But I'm not satisfied until Terence poses for a pic, perfectly imitating a photo of Nye I pull up on Google images. It's spot on. Also terribly unflattering. I text a side-by-side to him and everyone we know. The four of us giggle like idiots, barely aware of what's happening in Kentucky. The day has officially begun.

There's a costume contest, organized by an upsettingly perky woman whose dirty blonde hair matches the wide brimmed, beribboned hat she's cocked just so. Her entire getup is as beige as the brunch on my plate but much prettier. And she knows it. Flashing a flirtatious smile, she saunters around the room, drawing the suspense out. "Whoooo will it be? Who will be our best. Dressed. Womannnn?" Kerry and I roll our eyes. By now we've all decided this was an overpriced dud of an event at best and at worst an alarming display of privilege. Several women are wearing the kind of expensive Gainsborough hats I saw the day before in the Fashion District, selling for over $100. I feel guilty enough about my headband, which I talked the shopkeeper down to $20.

The race is over in the blink of an eye. Excited shouts, laughter from the more raucous tables near the bar, then it's done. The crowd clears out quickly, leaving the dining hall zapped of energy. But we've got coupons for the "Specialty Punch" being served at whiskey bar next door, so after Terence and I make an ill-advised stop by the photo booth, that's where we head.

Seven Grand is making a good show of it, for a Saturday afternoon. Most everyone there is dressed up, too, which makes Terence feel a little better about his ridiculous ensemble. Such a good sport. Me, I've about forgotten my headband and miniscule frock. Or I'm just too liquored up to care.

We stay long enough to collect our free punch, which isn't half bad, and for me to say hello to a bartender I know. Old roommate of an ex-boyfriend. It's an embarrassing conversation.

Hey! (For the life of me I can't remember his name.)

Hey! (I'm pretty sure he doesn't remember mine, either. Thank god.)

How's it going? You guys out for the derby?

Yeah, yeah! Day drinking, you know. 

The awkwardest of nods and silences ensues.

So, how's living with ___? (Holy fuck, did I just say that? Am I that drunk?)

Oh, we don't live together anymore. He moved out. Still my best friend, though. (This last feels like a warning.)

Let me start over. (I shake my head as if to clear the slate.) How are YOU? What's new with YOU? (He laughs.) So obnoxious. That was so obnoxious of me! (He laughs more, shrugging it off. He's a good guy.)

Good, good. Doing the ___ and the ___ and working for ____. Which is cool because I get to ____. (I nod emphatically, feeling mortified, and make some inane comment to show I'm paying attention.)

Well, great to see you! (His name comes to me, and I use it, hoping it doesn't sound like an afterthought.)

Yeah, you too! You look great! (He gestures to my dress, headband.) Really, looking awesome. (I think I hear a trace of begrudging surprise in his voice, and I wonder, drunkenly, what that's about. No matter. Ancient history. I'm a different person now, with different LDL levels and everything.)

We take an Uber to Villain's Tavern, and the rest blurs a bit. Sitting outside in the sun, at our regular table. We have a regular table, I inwardly marvel, with these friends of ours. That is a thing to be grateful for. 

We talk for almost two hours, slowly losing sunshine and heat. Bacon cheddar fries to share; today is not a day for minding Health Action Notices. Several trips to the bar for cocktails the bartender takes a stupidly long time to prepare, packing them with extra shaved ice to disguise how underfilled they are. In the bathroom, Kerry and I argue over whether or not the mirror is "skinny" and which of us has the worse throat wattle. Back outside she deletes the group photos we take (No, no, terrible, ugh, no...) but shoots a selfie before handing my phone back to me.There.

Later when we're waiting for another Uber, the four of us stand close together, pairing up tightly for warmth. Where did this cold come from?? A young family is having a photo shoot feet from where we wait. They must have wanted the Arts District backdrop - brick walls, wide alleys, industrial cool. Two impossibly blonde little girls mug and twirl for the camera, the younger one clearly more comfortable in front of the lens. Kerry, semi-wasted, is fascinated by them. "Look at their hair. Look at it! Ellie! What happens to blond hair? It doesn't stay that shiny and perfect!"

"You have the exact same color hair," I point out. And she does.

"Yeah but I pay hundreds of dollars for it."

Next up is dinner: Mexican food in Silver Lake. Margaritas we drink on the rocks, but with glasses of ice served on the side. Someone figured out you get more alcohol this way, and we've stuck with it ever since. Enchiladas: cheese for Ross and Terence, chicken for Kerry and I. An argument breaks out. Familiar territory for us - woo woo, superstition, psychic powers and whether there's life after death. Sides form, as usual. Two against two. I complain, begging them to knock it off. They know I hate getting into this shit. I storm off to the bathroom. "You guys can talk about this all you want, but you know where I stand, and you know I hate arguing with you. I love you guys too much. I don't want to do this again." When I come back it's still going. Gets more heated. Too much alcohol today, too sensitive a topic. Do you guys not think that I'd love to talk to my mom and my dad? That I'd pay anything for just an hour's worth of conversation?? It's not. Fucking. Possible. So what's all theoretical for you? Not so much for me. Tears. First me, then Kerry, in sympathy.

"Ellie, none of us knows what that's like. None of us has lost a parent." She's conciliatory, dabbing her eyes. I try to explain it's not a competition, that's not what I meant. Holy fuck are we drunk. Somebody hands me a napkin. Terence tries to wrap his arm around my waist, but he's on the wrong side of this whole thing, and I'm furious. We catch our breaths, pay the check, and stumble back outside into the cold, shocked and quiet at the turn the night has taken.

In the Uber home I'm sandwiched between Ross and Kerry, who plays with my hair and squeezes my arm every few minutes. We're all of us rattled but I'm the most far gone. Before leaving the restaurant I'd made them promise we'd leave this topic alone once and for all but we can't take back the nastiness that's already been aired.

Next day, I fire off an apologetic text to them both. Sorry, Jesus. Terence and I are so different that sometimes I just latch on to those differences. Both answer, making jokes. It's all good. We've been friends for four years now and it's all good. We know it was drunken bullshit, and it's already funny in retrospect. 

The nice thing about getting older: our friends get older right along with us. And the nice thing about going through shit is that some of it we go through with them. Our pets get sick. We get sick. We face down milestone birthdays and high cholesterol. We confront fading hair color, ghosts from the past, and fears from the present. And we do it together, because it's so much better that way. Drinks in hand, dumb hats on head, we race towards the end together.