Palo Alto Weekly 22nd Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Adult

 

About Christine Chua
Christine Chua wants to assure everyone that the darkly comedic "The End of the Party" has nothing to do with her real life.
"It's not at all autobiographical. I may be a lawyer but I've never set anyone on fire," she said.
The story hinges on a couple growing into adulthood and illustrates the usual struggle between couples - whether to get married or not.
Chua shows a remarkable amount of insight pertaining to that decision despite never being there herself. "I've never been married and I wasn't in that position when I was in my twenties," she added. She likes to write about those situations though. One story she was working on for the contest is also about a couple (this time a married couple at a crisis point). She likes the dark humor in everyday situations as well, which definitely pops up in her winning story. That style wasn't necessarily a conscious decision she says.
"I'm afraid that I may just be darkly humorous," she said.
Chua has lived in Menlo Park for six years and works for the Palo Alto firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, which specializes in law for high-tech companies.
When asked how the story came to her, Chua describes a writing class she took several years ago in which someone brought up the image of someone spreading kerosene over their body.
That sparked her creativity three years ago and when she heard about the Weekly's contest she reworked that old story.
Until recently, writing was as a hobby she had during high school and college.
"I really wanted to be a writer when I was younger but of course that ended after college," she said.
After all that time Chua never thought she was going to come back to writing.
There wasn't a big event that brought her back to writing, she just took the advice of many of her past teachers and sat down and wrote.
"There are many people who say they have ideas and that they could write this or that but once you actually sit down and start writing it's actually kind of hard," she said. Chua recently participated in National Novel Writing Month.
"You commit to writing 50,000 words in a month. It's all about quantity, no quality. We'll see where that goes," she said.
It's an interesting avenue for writers in any capacity to create a network of friends through your own personal site.
"You can link your site to your friends and see what they're doing. It's kind of nice to have this community around. They also have these things called 'Write-Ins' when they meet at coffee shops. I have to say I'm pretty anti-social about it," she said.
Chua is really surprised that she won. She picked the story out of the older stories she had available.
"Quite frankly this one fit the word-count requirement the most."
Kyle Lemmon

THE END OF THE PARTY
by Christine Chua

The party had come to one of those lulls where people either get a second wind or they start to leave or pass out.

It was our joint birthday barbecue. My boyfriend, Jimmy, and I usually celebrate our birthdays together because Jimmy’s birthday is two days after mine. He always jokes that that makes me older than him even though at thirty-five, soon to be thirty-six, he has five years on me.

The evening had started out well enough. We had invited over a bunch of our friends. Well, I say “our friends” but more and more these days, “our friends” can be divided into “my friends” and “his friends.” Regardless, the party had gone well. People seemed to have a good time. Jimmy doesn’t cook much but he’s an ace at the grill and I kept the margaritas and sangria flowing. I had been in a bad mood before the party started but it’s amazing what a few well-timed shots of tequila can do to lift your spirits.

By midnight, things were looking a little ragged. Some of the tiki torches that I’d put around the patio had gone out and the leftover food was congealed to the point that even wandering dogs might have given it a pass. My friends had already left so it was pretty much Jimmy’s crowd by then: some of his co-workers from Legal Aid and other people he had picked up here and there. I used to be part of the Legal Aid crowd too, but I had moved to a corporate job a little over a year ago and I wasn’t as close to the Legal Aid folks as I used to be. I know some of our old friends think that I sold out and maybe I did. But I have to say I enjoyed earning a six figure salary and I felt more like a responsible adult. I was finally reducing my law school debt and I liked that we could throw a barbecue and didn’t have to ask our friends to bring their own alcohol and stuff to grill. Jimmy teased me sometimes about going over to the dark side but he didn’t complain when we moved to a bigger apartment or bought that big screen TV he’d lusted after.

A few people were smoking pot and the fumes were giving me a slight headache.  The tequila had worn off long ago and I was tired. With the lateness of the hour and since my friends had gone home already, I felt no continuing obligation to be a good hostess or even participate in the conversation. It seemed pretty desultory anyway.

I thought about trying to close down the party but Jimmy seemed to be having a good time and I didn’t want to be a killjoy. I sat back against my lounge chair and tried to relax. Apart from the leftover food, the surroundings were lovely. We were by the pool in the well-manicured backyard of Jimmy’s parents’ house. The graceful landscaping should have been calming, but instead, it reminded me that Jimmy and I lived in an apartment and didn’t have our own well-kept yard. Jimmy’s parents had been younger than we were now when they bought this house. I wondered if Jimmy ever thought about that and why I always had to be the grown-up.

I sat up, edgy, remembering our earlier argument. So much for relaxing. I rose from my chair to start cleaning up. I thought the activity might distract me from my darkening mood.

Jimmy was slouched in a chair flicking his lighter on and off and as I passed him, he put the lighter down and grabbed my arm. “Hey, babe. Whatcha doing?”

I couldn’t tell how stoned he was. In addition to the weed, Jimmy, like me, had had a couple of well-timed tequila shots earlier. He’d also had some ill-timed tequila shots, some beer, sangria…

“Just cleaning up a bit. I don’t want your parents to wake up to face a giant mess.”

Jimmy must have heard something in my voice because he sat up straight. “What’s up? Are you mad?”

“Nothing. No. I’m just cleaning.”

Jimmy focused his gaze on me. “You ARE mad. What is it, my little BP?” He tried to drag me onto his lap. I let him because I didn’t want to make a scene. When I worked at Legal Aid with him, Jimmy used to call me his partner in law and crime, but after I started my corporate job, he nicknamed me his little BP. Bourgeois princess.

His eyes narrowed and he nodded, knowingly. “I know. You’re still pissed about this afternoon, aren’t you? The birthday thing.”
Jimmy and I have sort of a birthday tradition. Instead of getting each other gifts, we each get to ask for something we want and the other person pretty much has to do it unless it’s something out of their control or totally unreasonable. Of course, there’s not much that Jimmy considers totally unreasonable, either on the giving or the receiving end.

The tradition started when we were first going out: I made him take me miniature golfing on my birthday, mistakenly thinking it would be the height of retro fun. We had barely finished the second hole when he started complaining.

“Look at this place,” he whined. “There are no water traps, that windmill thing barely works. This is completely lame-ass. How’s about we play slap shot? Oooh, better yet, how about strip mini-golf?”

“This is a family place, Jimmy. Shut up and putt.”

By the tenth hole, even I had to admit the mini-golf was a bad idea. We had played with our eyes closed. We had played a hole using our left hands. Strip mini-golf wasn’t far behind. As Jimmy waited for me to putt, he looked over past the edge of the golf course at the go-cart race track next door.

He turned back to me, smiling evilly. “Next stop, race cars.”

I tried to put him off. “The target audience for that race track is twelve-year old boys. You know, people who don’t actually have driver’s licenses or get to drive on real roads? I think we’re a little old for that.”

“Look around us, my friend.” Jimmy gestured expansively with his golf club, indicating our fellow mini-golfers. He was right. We were surrounded by noisy eight-year olds and their bored parents or grandparents.

“Fine.” The truth was, I can be a granny driver and I wasn’t looking forward to being outdriven by a bunch of kids years away from getting their learner’s permits.

Needless to say, not much later, I found myself donning a sweaty, smelly helmet and strapping myself into a tiny race car emitting a disproportionately large amount of black exhaust. Six deafening laps later, I was ready to throw up but I had to admit it had been better than the mini-golf.

One year, we got SCUBA certified. That worked out well because it was something we both had wanted to do. Plus, we managed to get away for a long weekend in Mexico for our final dive.

Last year, Jimmy made me go skydiving. I argued hard for that being totally unreasonable but he didn’t let up. It was terrifying and exhilarating. On the way down, as the wind rushed past my ears, I worried about how I was going to explain this to my mother. In return, I made Jimmy promise to give up pot except on special occasions. He didn’t give me nearly as much trouble as I had given him and has been surprisingly good about keeping his word.

*  *  *  *  *

This afternoon, as we stood in the kitchen preparing for the party, Jimmy nudged me with his elbow.

“Hey.” He was shaping hamburger meat into a ball. “You haven’t told me what you want for your birthday.”

 I had been slicing tomatoes and I paused, looking out the window, searching for the right words.

I put the knife down and turned to face him. I said slowly, “I want you to think seriously about us getting married.” Then I rushed on, “I know we’ve sort of discussed this before, but this time I’m asking you to really consider it.” I wanted to reach for him but he was still busy with the burgers.

“Ugh. This, again!” He dropped the ball of ground beef onto a tray with a plop. “We’re talking your birthday present. Don’t waste your birthday wish on something so boring.”

I folded my arms in front of my chest. “I don’t think it’s boring. Look, I’m not asking for an engagement ring. I’m asking you to think seriously about our future.”

Jimmy turned on the faucet to wash his hands. “Honey, you know I love you. I’m committed to you. Ask me for something else. Let me take you somewhere. Anywhere you’ve always wanted to go. Greece? Thailand? Oh wait a minute, it’s me who’s always wanted to go to Thailand.” He laughed, trying to lighten the mood.

I refused to be distracted. “It’s not just about love and commitment. We’re not getting any younger and if we want to have children, we should start thinking about it soon.” This was my silver bullet. Jimmy loves children and I know he pictures himself as a father someday. Jimmy picked up the tray of hamburgers and headed to the refrigerator.

I pressed on, speaking to his back. “I don’t want to freak you out, but today I’m officially closer to age forty than age twenty. And in two days, you’ll officially be closer to fifty than twenty!”

I don’t think Jimmy was very impressed with my math skills. He remained standing in front of the open refrigerator for a few moments. “I think we need more beer and ice. I’m going to make a run to the store.”

*  *  *  *  *

Now, Jimmy turned to our party guests and confided, “The BP wants to make an honest man of me. What do you think?”
Heat rose along my arms and up my neck. “Let’s not discuss this now.” I shifted restlessly on his lap and Jimmy tightened his arms around me.

“Why do you want to get married? Do you think it will somehow prove how much I love you? Do you think I don’t love you enough?” He squeezed me again.

“Don’t be an ass,” I whispered in his ear. I pushed against him, moving to get up. He tried to hold on to me but I pulled out of his embrace and walked over to the pool.

Jimmy called after me. “Marriage proves nothing! Love isn’t about a wedding or a mortgage, it’s about risk. It’s about being out there and feeling alive.” Great. The sophomoric ramblings of a Cuervo Gold philosopher. A couple of his friends gave drunken “Yeah!”s.
I couldn’t believe he was doing this. I wanted to hit him, I was so angry. I breathed deeply, trying to calm myself by staring at the distorted image of the moon reflected on the dark surface of the pool water.

“Why do you need me to prove that I love you?” I heard metal scrape against concrete as Jimmy pulled himself upright from his chair. “Why don’t YOU prove to me how much you love ME? Show me you’ll live on the edge with me.”

I turned and watched him stumble around the patio area. He picked up a knife, then set it down. Next came a container of charcoal lighter fluid from the grill area. He stared at it for a moment then flipped the cap open and squirted the fluid over his chest and arms in wild squiggles. He found his lighter in his pocket and lurched towards me.

“Show me how much YOU love ME. This is what I want for my birthday present. Set me on fire.” He grabbed my arm with one hand and held out the lighter in his other. “Come on, honey. Flick my Bic.”

“Stop it.” I looked down at his hand on my arm. “Don’t do this.”

“You light me up and we fly to Vegas TOMORROW.”

I looked into his eyes, willing him to leave me alone.

“Come ON.” His voice turned goading, then pleading. “Come on. Come on. It’s my birthday. If you do this, I swear, I’ll do whatever you want. We’ll get married. Anytime, anywhere, any way you want.”

“Please don’t do this.” I tried to pull my arm out of his grip but he held fast.

“DO IT!” He yelled in my face.

“Fine.” I grabbed the Bic out of his hand. I’m bad with lighters and I usually have to give them a couple of tries but this time the flame popped right up when I pressed down. I held the lighter against Jimmy’s stomach. His shirt was ablaze immediately. I jumped back in shock, dropping the lighter as the flames licked my hand, then watched as the fire traveled over his stomach, up towards his chest, then across his shoulders, following the trail of the lighter fluid. For an instant, Jimmy stood paralyzed, his mouth opened round in the shape of his surprised

“Whoa.” Then he started sort of hopping around, waving his arms.

The acrid smell of burnt hair propelled me into action. I kicked out at him, sending him backwards into the pool.

He hit the water with a crackling hiss as the flames were quickly extinguished. He surfaced, spluttering and coughing. There was a lot of splashing as he treaded water sloppily. He was exuberant and shouted out, “I fucking ADORE this woman! We are getting married TOMORROW!” He slapped his hands against the water making another big splash. “VEGAS, baby!” He dog paddled clumsily to the pool steps, then got out of the pool, swaying.

I was bent over at the waist, nauseous. My heart was racing and my breathing was shallow. I worried that my dinner and the margaritas I had sucked down were about to make a reappearance.

Jimmy hauled me up and gave me a wet hug. “You are the fucking BEST!”

I couldn’t speak, I felt so ill. I was still sort of hyperventilating.

I hadn’t set Jimmy on fire because it was his birthday or because he had dared me to or because he said he would marry me if I did it. At the moment my thumb rolled down the jagged gears of the lighter, I was so infuriated with him that I hated him. I wanted him hurt, possibly dead. And even though I regretted what I had done the instant his shirt caught fire, I couldn’t erase that triggering moment.

I was shivering from more than just Jimmy’s drenched body wrapped around me.

Jimmy slung his arm around my neck and kissed me above the temple. Beaming happily, he turned to his friends. “Is this love or WHAT?”


Judge's comment
I love the invention in this story, the Carveresque world its characters inhabit. The prose, too -- simple, unadorned, direct and powerful -- works extremely well to capture the end of this particular party, and does so in a surprising blaze of near-gory. I look forward to seeing more of Ms. Chua's work.