Here’s what you do:
Step one. On your weekly trip to the grocery store, purchase a nice big bottle of Reddi-Whip, or similar. Do not make special, midweek grocery store runs, as hubby may become suspicious when he sees credit card transaction history.
Step two. When hubby and children are out, remove whipped cream can from fridge and leave at room temperature, approximately two hours. Chilled cream will not function properly.
Step three. DO NOT SHAKE.
Step four. Leaving can upright, apply slight pressure to nozzle, releasing nitrous oxide gas but not whipped cream.
Step five. Place mouth over nozzle. Inhale deeply. Enjoy the buzz that follows and repeat as needed.
Huff on, bitches.
Maggie cleared her Internet history, exited the browser, and leaned back in her spongy blue office chair. Whipped cream. That was a new one. As JeanTheHuffingQueen so rightly pointed out, it was “a luxurious food rich with ironies, simultaneously innocent and erotic.” On one hand, ice cream sundaes coated in confetti sprinkles. On the other, licks of frothy white swirled over pink nipples. Used for so long to please husbands and children, now finally commandeered by their wives and mothers, its breathy spray tickling women’s brain cells into oblivion. Irony, all right.
JeanTheHuffingQueen was a big fan of irony. She was a fan of inversions. Shoe polish was good for more than turning husbands’ loafers a liquid black. HIGH gloss, she commented. They got that right. Compressed cans of canola oil were not only for cooking pancakes for the kids before school. Hair spray, meant to immobilize and contain, suddenly became an agent of freedom and unruliness.
For Maggie, it had started recently. Two days before her one-year anniversary, she’d soaked a dishrag in Lemon Pledge and pressed it over her mouth and nose in the middle of dusting the coffee table. She pulled the citrus air in to her lungs, deeper and deeper, until a lightness settled behind her skull. After that it was the air freshener in the cupboard under the bathroom sink (she’d reeked of lavender for the rest of the day) and then her nail polish remover, its sharp white sting. By the time Patrick took her out for their anniversary dinner, she’d collected a slew of new ideas online, jotted a shopping list full of solvents and aerosols. It looked so ridiculously innocent: Pam and Lysol and Scotchgard. She stuck it to the fridge with a magnet and smirked when Patrick walked by, oblivious.
It really wasn’t fair to Patrick. His crime was having a forty-hour workweek and semimonthly direct deposit. It was arriving home at 5:17 every Monday through Friday and sighing just a little too heavily as he loosened his tie, dropped his laptop case on the kitchen counter. It was his fondness for chicken Parmesan and his wife’s inability to shake the feeling that he was entitled to it.
Maggie slammed her laptop lid. She didn’t care what the website said. She wanted whipped cream now, in the middle of her Wednesday afternoon. She grabbed her handbag and left the house.
Maggie’s heels clipped the grocery store linoleum. She wore heels because that’s what Patrick bought her. He bought them because he liked her in heels. She wore heels because Patrick liked her in heels.
Patrick wasn’t even here.
She headed down the dairy aisle. Dairy—blocks of fresh mozzarella, heavy jugs of full-cream milk—only recently became an option for Maggie. During college, she would never buy such perishable items. It was ramen noodles, canned minestrone, and frozen burritos, if she could bum a few square inches of space in her roommate’s mini fridge. But after graduating last spring, marrying Patrick, and moving into his beige stucco house with its double-door refrigerator, her culinary repertoire expanded. Fridge space correlated positively with ingredient variety, which correlated positively with meal complexity, which correlated positively with time spent in the kitchen, arches aching in her strappy heels. It was inevitable.
The whipped cream cans gleamed behind glass doors, sporting images of white turrets atop vanilla ice cream scoops, stacked pancakes, deep red berries in little glass bowls. What they should have pictured were bored housewives, sucking gas from the nozzle while wearing lingerie and pearls. An image JeanTheHuffingQueen would approve of.
“If you’re trying to decide on a brand, I really do advise against the knock-offs. They just don’t propel the way name brand does, if you know what I mean.”
Maggie turned. Standing next to her was a woman—mid-thirties, dark ponytail, breasts ballooning under a pink V-neck. Her manicured fingers curled lightly around the handle of a shopping cart filled to the brim with sundry items, tossed in haphazardly.
“Do you work here?” Maggie asked.
“Oh no. I don’t work. Or—sorry—I’m not employed outside the home. That’s the phrase they’re using these days, isn’t it?”
Maggie glanced at the contents of the woman’s cart: sacks of sugar, flour, ivory macadamias. Coconut oil (organic), a dozen large eggs (pastured, vegetarian fed), baking chocolate (Belgian). It was the cart of a baked goods aficionado with no regard for cost. But between the overpriced tubs of cocoa and packages of dried mango, certain products leapt out at Maggie as incongruous. Computer duster. Model airplane glue. Three bottles of Febreeze, fresh linen scent, contents under pressure.
The woman reached past Maggie and grabbed four cans of Reddi-Whip. Then she stared at Maggie, eyebrows raised, a hand on her hip.
“Well?” she demanded.
What the hell. Maggie opened the glass door and grabbed a half dozen cans. She didn’t have a cart, so she cradled them in her arms, cool metal tantalizing her skin. The woman grinned.
“Jean,” she said. “My name’s Jean.”
Looking back, it wasn’t as much of a coincidence as it first seemed. After all, she’d found The Huffing Queen’s web address scrawled on the bathroom wall of that very grocery store. It was written with heavy black ink, the permanent, once-pungent kind. She imagined Jean squatting on the toilet, brushing a fat marker tip across her nose, then inking the URL onto the cubical door while her brain cells buzzed. A likely scenario.
But was it likely? Was it probable that just days after the Lemon Pledge incident, Maggie had found proof of a fellow inhaler living in the very same city? The fact that it had happened could mean only one thing: this was far more common than she’d guessed, perhaps even an inevitability, a mathematical certainty, like the fridge-size-kitchen-time equation. Lock a woman in a house with a laundry room full of cleaning agents, and sooner or later she will find herself slumped on her pristine kitchen tiles with a spray nozzle in her mouth. A leads to B leads to C.
It was a syllogism that was about to be confirmed.
“The girls will be here any minute,” said Jean as she pushed open the door to her middle-class home with its chemically green lawn and front porch welcome mat. Maggie was unsure how she’d got from the dairy aisle to the passenger seat of Jean’s BMW (perhaps the fumes were already taking their toll), but somehow they’d made the trip through the suburban neighborhood to arrive here. The whipped cream cans slipped and clinked against each other in her arms, still clutched awkwardly to her chest.
“Gotta take a piss, be right back,” said Jean.
She disappeared down the hallway, leaving Maggie in the entryway with her Reddi-Whip. The house was immaculate. Hardwood floors gleamed under LED lights, plush carpet showed neat rows from recent vacuuming. The place reeked of fresh linen Febreeze.
The doorbell rang.
Shifting the cans to free her right hand, Maggie opened the door. Standing on the doorstep was a thin blonde woman in a sundress and floppy hat, holding what looked to be a loaf of zucchini bread swaddled in Saran Wrap. She beamed at Maggie, revealing shocking white teeth behind a lipsticked smile that faltered only slightly upon seeing the six large canisters of whipped cream.
“Hi! You must be Jean’s friend!”
Maggie’s mouth opened, but she was saved by Jean reemerging from the hallway.
“Oh, Barbara. It’s you.”
“Jean! How are you!” The woman’s voice didn’t go up at the end, making the question sound less interrogative and more exclamatory. “I brought you a little something, and wanted to invite you to bible study tonight!”
“Now Barb, we’ve been over this. Bible study is at five o’clock. Simon expects his dinner promptly at five-thirty. Are you suggesting I leave my husband to fend for himself? That doesn’t seem like a very Christian thing to do, now does it?”
Barbara’s magenta grin stayed fixed. “You’re such a good wife, Jean. You know, what I do on Wednesdays is I make a slow-cooker dinner. That way Scott can eat the minute he gets home! I’d be happy to give you my recipes!”
“Sure thing, Barb. Maybe next week.”
For the first time, the grin slipped a fraction of an inch, only to be hoisted right back up as she deposited the zucchini bread in its shiny cocoon into Jean’s arms and said she hoped they’d see her soon!
The door closed and Jean sighed. “Christ almighty, that woman needs to snort some glue.” Just then, the doorbell rang a second time. Jean’s face lit up. “Now that’s the girls.”
The door swung open and four women spilled into the entryway, each one clutching several grocery sacks. Through the thin plastic, Maggie could make out the shapes of aerosol cans, spray bottles.
“Hillary honey, how are you? And you brought the baby, oh good, I love it when you bring him. Come on in, Vera, come on in. Hello Daphne—did you bring more of that delectable scrapbooking glue? Why not? Huffed it all in the car, is my guess.”
Jean herded them all into the kitchen, where they dropped their bags on the dining table and stood gabbing. They were average looking women—cardigans, lipstick, capris. One—Hillary—carried a sleeping infant in a baby carrier, a binkie wiggling between his lips as he sucked in his sleep. Vera was older, sporting foundation that didn’t quite hide her wrinkles, and blonde curls that were surely artificial. Daphne wore expensive sunglasses in her hairsprayed coiffure, and her nails gleamed a bright pink acrylic.
Finally, Jean seemed to remember Maggie was there. She shushed her friends and turned to face the newcomer. “Girls,” she said. “This is Maggie. Maggie—put that whipped cream down, for Christ’s sake, Maggie— this,” she extended an arm, sweeping it around the kitchen to gesture at herself and the other women, “is The Housewife’s Huffing Club.”
The four women looked at her, at her heels and blended eyeshadow. Behind the ruffled blouse and blush contours of her face, they recognized a boredom, which bordered on frenzy, the eyes of an animal pacing its cage. They grinned.
And so Maggie was inducted.
“Killer ribs, Mags,” said Patrick, shaving a strip of meat from bone. “Just what I needed tonight.” He had a smear of barbecue sauce across his chin; she thought about telling him, then decided against it.
Ribs were not Maggie’s favorite meal. She preferred lemon pepper salmon, grilled asparagus, wild rice cooked with slivered almonds. Or even better, something requiring little or no prep. Omelets. Noodles tossed with jarred sauce and frozen veggies. But Patrick made it clear that his office job left him drained, and in need of nothing but the heartiest, meatiest, sauciest foods. So she filled her shopping carts with red meat and bottles of A1 sauce and Patrick stayed happy.
But tonight, she couldn’t have eaten much of anything. She was still vaguely nauseous from that afternoon’s meeting. The women had sat at Jean’s kitchen table, passing around a plate of Bible Study Barbara’s zucchini bread and giggling their way through all six of Maggie’s whipped cream cans. Maggie watched cheeks flush and eyes turn pink with swollen veins. Each breath of nitrous oxide produced a short, pleasurable high, lasting about sixty seconds. During that time, she felt her body sway, heard blood drum her ears and air whoosh her lungs. All the sounds of her body magnified, and she became aware for the first time of the music pulsing beneath her skin. Her body felt new to her.
She got up from the table and scraped the remains of her ribs into the trash while Patrick leaned back in his chair.
“By the way, I’m out of white shirts. Think you could wash a load tonight?”
She flipped the hot water on, held her sticky dinner plate beneath the jet. “Sure thing.”
“Thanks babe. You’re the best.”
We only use products that belong in the housewife’s domain, Jean had said. Cooking and cleaning supplies, primarily. The garage was off limits. Gasoline, WD-40, paint thinner—these were the things husbands would notice missing. We derive our power from the items men would use to enslave us. Maggie had never thought of Patrick as trying to enslave her. It was just something that had happened.
Patrick came up behind her, put his plate in the sink. His arms snaked around her waist and he nuzzled his nose behind her ear.
“I love you.”
In the midst of their whipped-cream buzz, Jean had shown Maggie a scar on her collarbone from where her husband had thrown a ceramic vase at her. It shattered. Blue chips all over the floor. I kept cutting my feet on them.
“I love you too.”
Each week after that, on Wednesdays, Maggie would meet at Jean’s house with the rest of The Housewife’s Huffing Club. Every time, Barbara would come by with an invitation to bible study and a plate of baked goods. Maggie suspected that the cran-apple muffins and triple chocolate brownies were the only reason Jean continued to lead the poor woman on, as they arrived just in time for the club meetings and made a nice addition to the feast of fumes laid out on the kitchen table.
Over canisters of hairspray and tubes of super glue, Maggie grew acquainted with her club mates. The chemicals had the effect of considerably speeding up the getting-to-know-you process. Hillary was the diaper-toting, stretch mark-bearing mother of four, whose perennial exhaustion caused her to pass out regularly on Jean’s sofa, dining table, or even bathroom floor. Daphne’s husband was a stockbroker, whose gifts of opal earrings and winged Vespas failed to crack his wife’s endless boredom. Vera, age 65, was the only one not married. Her husband had died several years ago and all three of her kids were grown and living out-of-state. She confessed to sometimes calling random telephone numbers, just to hear another person’s voice in her ear, confirm her existence to herself. Before she met Jean, that was.
Jean. She was the group’s idol. Daphne told Maggie she’d tattooed the words “Fuck You” above her pussy on her tenth wedding anniversary, and five years later, her husband Simon still hadn’t noticed. “Doesn’t even look at her when he bangs her,” Daphne said, taking a long sniff of glue.
Perhaps they idolized Jean because she had it worst of all.
One Wednesday, as Maggie, Vera, and Hillary were sitting down to a jar of rubber cement (deemed domestic enough due to its potential for crafty interior design projects), Jean strode into the kitchen and put her hands on her hips.
“Daphne will no longer be a member of this club.”
“She chose to take Freon from her home’s air conditioning unit. Her husband noticed the levels were low, and when he couldn’t find a leak, he confronted her. She came clean.”
Gasps from Vera and Hillary, a little louder than necessary.
“This is why we have rules,” Jean continued. “If it’s not inside the walls of the home, it’s not for us.”
“Did you kick her out?” Maggie asked.
“Yes,” said Jean.
Jean’s mouth tightened. “It’s not our job to talk to our husbands. Talking to them gives them the upper hand. Maybe—”
“Maybe not all of us hate our husbands the way you do.”
Jean’s jaw clenched. “Do you want to leave too? Go back to the husband you love so much?”
Maggie imagined walking out of the Febreeze-drenched house, going home, cooking up the bloody hamburger patties sitting in her freezer, scrubbing fat from the pan with a wad of steel wool afterwards.
“Good. Sit down.”
Later that night, after Patrick was snoring, Maggie crept out to the backyard, a brown paper bag in her hand. The AC unit hummed in the summer dark.
Over the next few weeks, Maggie got a thrill every time she remembered she was breaking Jean’s rules. She sucked Freon until it vibrated her bones. Her vision warped, tulips turning to helium balloons and floating up, up until they burst against the sharp needlepoint of a crescent moon and rained down red and yellow.
We are the martyrs of our sex, said Jean.
Maggie didn’t particularly want to be a martyr.
One night, while scrubbing hardened spaghetti noodles from a pot, Maggie’s phone rang. It was Jean.
“I need you to come. Now.”
“Just come. Please.”
The line clicked. Maggie pause, phone clamped between shoulder and jaw, a tea towel in her hands. Jean never admitted to needing anyone, or anything. That was part of her creed of irony—if men denied the existence of women’s needs, then women should burn their needs away in the sting of ethyl acetate, blast them into oblivion with canned air and reckless indulgence.
Something was terribly wrong.
“I’m going out,” she announced to Patrick, who was paying bills while watching a Red Sox game on TV. He looked up.
“I’m going out.”
“A friend’s. It’s an emergency.”
“You could finish the dishes while I’m out.” A bold afterthought.
He just stared, mouth open. She opened the door and left.
“Thank God you’re here,” Jean said when she opened the front door. She ushered Maggie in and led her wordlessly down the hall to the living room.
Bible Study Barbara was passed out on the carpet.
“She just came over. I think she was drunk…”
“What did you give her?” Maggie’s eyes drifted to the coffee table. Glue bottles, cooking spray, whipped cream, air freshener, Sharpies, shoe polish, furniture polish, nail polish.
“She wanted to try everything. She seemed starved for it.”
Maggie knelt, pressed two fingers to Barbara’s sallow neck, just above her pearl necklace. The pulse was elusive.
“We need to call 911.”
To her surprise, Jean didn’t argue. She just watched as Maggie dialed the number and requested an ambulance to their address. When she hung up, she asked Jean,
“What did she say to you?”
“Her husband filed for divorce.”
They stood there, the two housewives, staring at the unconscious woman on the living room floor and thinking of the cookies she’d brought them the day before, the ones iced with pastel daffodils.
Barbara died on the ride to the hospital. It said in the newspaper that she was survived by her loving husband, Scott, and would be deeply mourned by all the women in her bible study group. It didn’t say how she died.
The following week, the women of The Housewife’s Huffing Club sucked air from whipped cream cans. Maggie found herself craving zucchini bread.
“Why’s there a truck outside?”
It was two weeks after Barbara’s death. Maggie was squirting the front windows with Windex. Through the streams of blue, she saw a white pick-up parked at their curb.
“Probably the AC guy. He’s supposed to be coming today.”
The hand holding the Windex dropped to her side. “The AC guy?”
“Yeah. I think we’re leaking Freon.”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“I didn’t think you’d care.”
Maggie rubbed the pane mindlessly, breathing in the delicate blue scent of chemical. She counted minutes. There was a knock at the door.
“Well, you’re definitely low, but no leak.”
“Nope. You know, it could be kids stealing from your pipe. They do it to get high.”
“No kidding? You hear that Maggie? Kids are getting high on AC coolant now.”
Maggie sprayed the window, watched blue drip.
“Unbelievable,” she said.
Alyssa Quinn is a senior English major with a creative writing concentration at Utah State University. Her work has appeared in The Claremont Review, WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, and Scribendi.