Authors: Francine Prose
Tags: #Young Adult, #Adult, #Contemporary
Yet you’re my favorite work of art
.” Margaret sang to the lake and the trees and the sun. I knew that, in her secret heart, she was singing to Aaron. It was strange, how the music changed everything, so that, note by note, Mirror Lake began to look like one of Aaron’s paintings.
At the same Senior Show, Aaron did a PowerPoint presentation of his paintings of the lake in different lights and seasons. The first painting was of the Fourth of July, of colored stars exploding and wobbling in the black water. Somehow everyone recognized that they weren’t ordinary landscapes, but something special and new, as if an old master had decided to paint on velvet. The audience gasped each time a new image appeared, until they heard themselves and giggled. Aaron waited, then clicked on the next image, and the crowd gasped again.
Margaret was the singer, Aaron the artist. They were the glamour couple, their radiance outshone the feeble gleam of the football captain and his slutty cheerleader girlfriend. They were superheroes with superpowers. Aaron saw more than a normal person. Once, when he and Margaret and I were riding around, he’d braked and shown us a grove of orange mushrooms like fingers wriggling out of the moss. Margaret was always the first to hear thunder, or a mouse in the wall, or some amazing Billie Holiday phrase I’d never noticed even though she’d played me “God Bless the Child” a thousand times before.
Is your figure less than Greek?
” Margaret sailed the line over the lake, and I tried not to think about how our mother had mocked it.
Margaret and Aaron were in love. I was their alibi. Margaret would tell my parents she was taking me to the movies, and I’d go to the theater, and she and Aaron would pick me up when the film was over.
On the way home I’d tell Margaret about the film, in case Mom or Dad asked. But they never did. They always said lying was worse than whatever the lie was about. I already knew that even if they were right, you couldn’t live in a family without a lie or two as a cushion between you and the people you loved. If you were lucky, you might not need a big lie, maybe not even one as large as Margaret smoking and having sex with her boyfriend.
The first time Margaret and Aaron went out, Aaron came in to meet us. Mom and Dad intercepted him at the door, a body block they intended to seem welcoming and friendly. He shook hands, starting with Mom, who winced. An electrical current arced between Aaron and my father, sparking with more information than either wanted the other to have. By the time Aaron got to me, his palm was so wet that I had to stop myself from wiping mine on my jeans.
The next morning, Dad said, “There’s something squirrelly about the guy. As if he had a secret acorn stash, and the thing he really gets off on is not telling the other squirrels where he’s got it hidden.”
Margaret said, “You say that about every guy I go out with. Every guy I bring home, it’s like
Romeo and Juliet
.” In fact she’d only dated one guy, junior year, and it hadn’t lasted. A senior with a bolt through his ear who made everyone call him Turbo. “Maybe you think that any guy who would want to hang out with me must have something wrong with him.”
“Quite the opposite,” said Dad.
Mom said, “I know what your father means. The kid’s too good-looking. Little Adonis carries himself like a vessel of some precious oil he’ll drip on you if you’re lucky.”
Margaret said, “How strange that someone who married Dad should hate someone for being handsome.”
him,” said Mom. “
is a little extreme, dear.”
“That’s enough,” our father said. “The kid’s got a screw loose, is all.”
It embarrassed us when our dad used lame, old-fashioned phrases like that. Something’s not somebody’s cup of tea. That’s how the cookie crumbles.
screw loose?” Margaret asked.
Dad said, “I don’t know, sweetheart. The one that holds it all together.”
Is your mouth a little weak? When you open it to speak, are you smart?
Margaret’s voice rose and lingered lightly on “smart.” She made it sound like fun, like flirtation, not like a list of qualities some guy is telling his girlfriend she lacks.
Mom and Dad told Margaret she couldn’t smoke, but not that she couldn’t see Aaron. They always said it was a mistake to forbid kids to do something, unless you wanted to make it their heart’s desire. They often talked as if all four of us were involved in some group child-raising project, as if treating us like semi-adults would make us do what they wanted. But they gave Margaret such a hard time about Aaron—Little Adonis this, screw loose that—that it was easier to pretend that Margaret and I were going to the movies.
Besides, Margaret liked conspiracies, codes, secret signals, her version of the tactics with which the brave Resistance couriers outfoxed the Nazis in her beloved French World War II films. We had a system worked out: Margaret and I would drive most of the way to town in Mom’s car and meet Aaron at a designated spot. We’d park Mom’s car behind a barn and get into Aaron’s van, and they’d drop me off at the mildewy-smelling, fake-retro Rialto.
Don’t change a hair for me, not if you care for me
.” Our little rowboat caught a current and turned, then stopped turning.
Sometimes I tried to see Aaron from our parents’ point of view.
didn’t seem like the word for a sweet-tempered guy who, like my sister, seemed to throw off a golden light.
? Margaret was right. Our parents would have hated any boy she brought home.
Aaron often had paint on his jeans and his hands, and once, when he showed up with a comet of blue across his forehead, I nearly reached over to wipe it off, but Margaret got there first. Aaron treated me like a person, unlike the boys in my school, to whom I was a window through which they kept looking for a hotter girl with bigger breasts.
After the movie, Aaron would ask me to imitate the stars. My Julia Roberts, especially, cracked the two of them up. He called me “kid,” which he’d probably got from a film he’d watched with Margaret. They liked the same things—jazz, old movies, art—though I never knew if Aaron had before they’d started going out.
Stay little valentine, stay
Lazily, the boat revolved, until Margaret’s blond hair was back-lit. When I looked into the sun, my sister blazed like a candle. Her eyes were shut tight, and I could tell that her mind was empty except for the music.
The last wisps of that “
Each day is Valentine’s Day
” hung over the water, like the haze of heat and mosquitoes that would shimmer there when it was really July instead of this fake summer day.
I said, “Are you seeing Aaron tonight?” I wondered what was playing at the Rialto. Margaret and I listened to Mom practice so long without a mistake that I almost relaxed.
“I don’t know,” Margaret said. “We had a fight this morning on the phone.”
“A serious fight? About what?”
“Nothing. Nothing important. Aaron can be a little nuts.”
“Nuts meaning . . .”
“Freaky,” Margaret said. “You’ve got to watch out for him sometimes.”
“Freaky how? Watch out how?”
Margaret had something she wanted to say, but she wasn’t going to say it.
“A screw loose?” I said.
“Right. A screw loose.” It was a relief to be off the subject of Aaron and onto the subject of Dad.
“Anyway,” she said, “how serious can it be? Aaron and I are out of here in September. He’ll fall in love with the first girl who takes off her clothes in art class.”
“Won’t you miss him?” I asked. “I already miss everyone. You, Mom, Dad. Aaron, I guess. And I’m not even gone yet.”
I said, “Then shut up about it, okay?”
“I’m sorry. You know I’ll miss you, Nico. You know I’m sad about leaving.”
I had decided to forget about Margaret leaving and just enjoy the summer. Last summer, I’d been an intern at my old nursery school, and the summer before that, I’d gone to the town’s recreation program and a week of soccer camp. This summer, I planned to read, watch movies, go swimming with Margaret, maybe catch a fish or two that Dad could cook for dinner, and not waste one precious minute before she left me alone with our parents.
With our eyes closed and the sun on our eyelids, I felt I could ask a question I could hardly let myself think, face to face.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Surprise me,” she said.
“Are you and Aaron having sex?”
She lit another cigarette. I was sorry I’d asked.
“I thought I said, ‘Surprise me.’
” “Well, are you?”
Margaret spun a smoky doughnut from between her parted lips. Finally she said, “Yes. But you knew that, Nico.”
We’d certainly never discussed it. She and Aaron never even held hands when I was around. Sometimes I’d imagine them making out, until I’d begin to feel a strange sensation, like something inside me dissolving from the center out. Was that sex? I didn’t know. I liked it, and I didn’t. I knew it was sick and perverted. Not the feeling so much as the thinking about my sister and her boyfriend.
For a moment I was distracted by the red branches inside my eyelids. The sun was trying to trick us into believing that the afternoon would last longer than it would. With the first hint of dusk, Margaret would want to go inside. Once she told me that twilight was when the spirits of the dead surfaced from the lake and made party plans for the night. She loved telling me ghost stories. I knew, that is, I
knew, that she was trying to scare me. But what made it scary was that part of her believed it.
“What’s it like?” I persisted.
“What’s what like?”
“God, Nico. I can’t believe you’re asking me this.”
After a long time Margaret said, “You know how when we go out for ice cream, you never know which flavor you want?”
After they picked me up at the theater, we ’d drive to the Dairy Divine. I always took forever deciding, until I’d finally give up, give
, and settle on something awful. I knew it was only ice cream. But the lumpy cherry vanilla and the gross butterscotch mocha raisin seemed like a frozen symbol of everything wrong with my life. Aaron and Margaret never got impatient or made me feel rushed or embarrassed. Margaret said there was something holy about indecision and regret. She told me the French expression—the spirit of the staircase—for the voice that catches up with you, minutes after the fact, to make fun of whatever you said and come up with the perfect answer you didn’t think of. We even had our own code phrase: SOS, we called it.
Margaret always ordered pistachio, which tasted like dish detergent. She thought the color was funny. She liked the way the maraschino-cherry green dye stained her lips and tongue, and when she finished, she’d smile at us, leaving me and Aaron to marvel at how someone could look so beautiful with a green mouth and teeth. Sometimes the kid behind the counter would offer her a napkin as if he wanted to ask her to sign it.
Aaron ordered coffee swirl, sometimes butter pecan. Margaret let him taste hers, and she’d have small bites of his. Something about the easy, intimate way they traded tastes was what first made me begin to think they’d had sex while I’d been at the movies.
When had we switched from talking about sex to talking about ice cream? I said, “I know it drives Aaron crazy. Even though he’s nice about it, he really hates it, right?”
Margaret shrugged. “Sex is the opposite of not being able to make up your mind. You don’t
a mind. You don’t have to think. You know
what you want.”
What could Margaret possibly mean? She was getting like Mom. I thought, I’ll never eat ice cream again.
I said, “We forgot the sunblock.”
Margaret said, “You look good with a tan.”
“Mom will have a fit,” I said. “Skin cancer, remember?” “Mom will have a fit for a change.” Margaret leaned over the boat. “Can you see the bottom? Look, Nico. Look at that.”
I looked until we almost tipped. A dark shape flitted by.
“See what that was?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“You didn’t,” she said. “But so what. Did you know there’s a lake in Macedonia where the fish are seventy million years old? Maybe if we saw all the way down, we’d see fish that have been here that long.”
“Each fish lives seventy million years?” Ever since we were little, she’d made up scientific facts. She told me that if everyone in the world wore their watches upside down, time would run backward. She said that turkeys were so stupid they drowned in the rain, and that you could sharpen your hearing by walking around with your eyes shut. The problem was, some of it was true. Maybe there
fish that old living in a lake like ours. Maybe that was why I was drawn to science. I liked the idea of an authority I could go to for a ruling on the stories my sister told.
Margaret sighed. “The species, Nico. Not each individual trout.”
“Joke,” I said.
A shadow darkened the water. Last summer, algae had begun to grow—Dad pointed out the obvious irony—on the surface of Mirror Lake. By last August, it was an eco-threat, and now the town was watching to see if the bloom would return. In a few weeks, they were having a town meeting about the pond scum. The
. It was a word I liked knowing.
“Not if the phytoplankton chokes off their air supply,” I said.
“Listen to you.” Margaret exhaled through her nose.
This turn in the conversation was making me feel gloomy. I would never be poetic and beautiful like Margaret. I would never find a boy to call me his funny valentine.
I told myself to keep quiet. I said, “You shouldn’t smoke.”
“Why not? One cigarette’s not going to kill me. God, you
sound like Mom.”
“That’s three,” I said. “Three cigarettes in an hour.”
Margaret gave me a long, unreadable look. Was it anger? Affection? The sun in her eyes? She stood. The boat rocked slightly.