Authors: Jennifer Weiner
That night, Bethie pulled the bowl out of the refrigerator and a mixing spoon out of the drawer. She scooped a walnut-sized glob of dough out of the bowl and shoved it in her mouth. Almost before she’d swallowed that bite, she’d scooped out another, working to force the spoon through stiff, cold dough. She sat at the kitchen table, with the spoon in her hand and the bowl tucked between her arm and her body, scooping and eating and scooping and eating and scooping and eating some more, the spoon moving faster as the dough warmed up, filling her mouth with the cloying sweetness of sugar and chocolate, swallowing in breathless gulps, trying to cram herself so full that there would be no room left for her confusion or her rage or her shame.
* * *
Every Wednesday, for the whole summer—June, July, and into August—Bethie went to Uncle Mel’s. Each week she would try to find the words to tell her mother what was happening, and each week she’d lose her nerve. The one time she tried to say something, Sarah had stared at her. Her mother had been dressed in a new maroon-colored rayon skirt and matching bolero jacket, with the bright morning sunshine illuminating the new dark circles beneath her eyes. Her face was exhausted as she’d stared at Bethie, finally shaking her head and repeating what Bethie had said. “Hugging you too long? What do you mean?” Sarah had asked, and the words had shriveled up and died inside of Bethie’s mouth. She would have told Jo, had her sister been there to tell, but Lynnette had gotten Jo a job as a counselor and tennis instructor at Camp Tanuga. Jo had packed her duffel bag and gotten on a bus three days after school ended. Nor had Bethie failed to notice the haste with which Sarah had grabbed the first ten dollars that Bethie had left on the table. That had erased any doubt Bethie might have had about whether her family needed
the money. She thought about writing to Jo, but what could Jo do, two hundred miles away in the Upper Peninsula? Go to the camp director and say,
Sorry, I’ve got to go home, my uncle is hugging my sister?
All summer long, every Wednesday morning, Bethie would push her spoon back and forth through the bowl of cornflakes that she’d pour herself, waiting until the cereal turned to mush, knowing that if she said she wasn’t hungry, Sarah would have questions. Her mother would rush off to work, and Bethie would be left alone in the house. She’d do the laundry. She’d mop the floors. She’d defrost whatever they were having for dinner. She’d vacuum and dust and fold things that didn’t need folding, none of which filled the hours that dragged by, until it was three o’clock and time to take the bus to Uncle Mel’s.
Each week, Bethie would arrive by four. Aunt Shirley would let her in and assign her some task that would never take more than thirty minutes. Bethie would empty her cousins’ toy chests, sorting through what was broken or abandoned, or she’d take the plates off a shelf in the kitchen or dining room, wash the plates, dust the shelf, then dry the plates and stack them back where they’d been. Once her work was done, she would sit in the air-conditioned living room, watching TV by herself, because her cousins had gone to a camp of their own, and she never saw her grandmother. “Elkie’s not feeling well,” Shirley said, the one time Bethie had asked. She would wait, not watching the television, feeling her stomach squeeze into a ball at the sound of the garage door opening and Uncle Mel’s too-hearty greeting to his wife. Every week she would offer to take the bus, and each week Uncle Mel would say, “No! No! I insist!” After the second week, instead of pulling into the driveway of their house on Alhambra Street, Uncle Mel would cruise past the empty house and park at the very end of the block. At first he was satisfied with pulling her against him. By July, he was settling her on his lap. Bethie would close her eyes, taking sips of air through her mouth, as his horrible breath filled the car and fogged the windows and his hands
roamed over her chest and her hips and her bottom, pinching and grabbing. As bad as that was, it got worse when he’d start talking about her father while he touched her, in his horrible, lisping baby talk
. Poor widdle Bethie, do you miss your daddy? Poor Bethie must miss her daddy so much
. He’d rock against her, faster and faster, his stinky breath coming in agonized pants against her neck, until, finally, he’d thrust himself against her so hard that it hurt, and shudder, then wilt back into his seat, before handing her the money and letting her go.
Bethie would scramble out of his car and run home through the summer twilight and the air that smelled like barbecues and fresh-cut grass. A twirling sprinkler would send sprays of water arcing onto the Steins’ lawn, and she’d hear car doors slamming, kids laughing or arguing, and moms calling their children in for dinner. It felt like another world, a lost paradise, like all of Bethie’s previous summers, when her dad had been alive. The Dubinsky girls would be playing hopscotch; the Stein boys would have their bats slung over their shoulders as they ran home for dinner. Andy Simoneaux, her friend Barbara’s little brother, would ride past her on his new bike. He’d used clothespins to clip playing cards to the spokes, and they made a whirring sound when he pedaled, calling, “Hi, Bethie!” She would wave at Andy, hurrying for her own front door, praying it would be dark enough so that no one would see the wet spot on the back of her jeans. She’d leave Uncle Mel’s money on the kitchen table, underneath the white china sugar bowl with its chipped lid and its gold rim, and peel off her clothes and stand under the shower, first with the water scalding hot, then icy cold. She’d cook dinner and pick at her food, and sit in front of the television set with her mother, who no longer had the energy to knit or mend or even fold the laundry. After dinner, Sarah would sit, nodding off halfway through
Leave It to Beaver
The Andy Griffith Show
. Her mouth would fall open, and she’d snore. In the glare of the television set, she looked old, and frail, and powerless. After her mother had gone to bed, Bethie would slip into the kitchen, padding on her bare feet, plucking a mixing spoon out of the drawer, opening the refrigerator and
shoving whatever she could find down her throat, anything that was soft and yielding. Cookie dough was best, but she’d eat ice cream and sherbet or cottage cheese, bread or cold rice or mashed potatoes, raspberry jam or chicken gravy that had solidified to jelly. Anything that was soft, anything that could be scooped up and gulped down without her even tasting it. Anything to fill the hole that had opened up inside of her, anything to fill the void, until there was no room left for bad memories or anger or guilt or shame.
By August, she’d put on ten pounds. Her skin was broken out, with angry red pimples spattering her forehead and cheeks, and her breasts had grown two cup sizes so that all her bras squeezed. Sarah didn’t say anything about the vanishing supply of food, which she surely must have noticed. All she did was snip a copy of a seven-day grapefruit-and-hardboiled-egg diet out of
Ladies’ Home Journal
and leave it at Bethie’s spot on the kitchen table after she’d left for work, murmuring, “When you’re short, with a small frame, every pound shows.”
Bethie avoided her friends, who were spending their summer days sunning themselves by the public pool or who, if they were old enough, had part-time jobs babysitting or scooping ice cream or waiting tables. She wasn’t old enough to work, and she couldn’t stand the thought of putting on her swimsuit, which no longer fit, and lying on a towel on the concrete around the pool, with so much of her body exposed. She said she was busy when Barbara Simoneaux asked her to double-date, and missed Laura Ochs’s Sweet Sixteen.
Under the weather
, she’d say, which was code for menstrual cramps, or she’d say,
My mom needs me at home
, and who could argue with that?
Finally, one Wednesday night in August, Uncle Mel pulled down Alhambra Street and, oh thank God, the lights were on in the house, shining through the window. “Uncle Mel, I have to go,” Bethie blurted, and had her feet on the ground almost before the car had stopped. She ran across the lawn, fumbling for her key on its ribbon, hurrying through the door, and Jo was there, Jo had finally come home. She was standing in the kitchen, her legs
tanned underneath her white camp shorts, her shoulders broad and strong beneath her green-and-white Camp Tanuga T-shirt. The light above the stove was on, giving the shabby room a warm glow, and the radio was tuned to the Tigers game. Jo was cracking eggs into a bowl, the scuffed pale green plastic one they always used. Bethie saw a startled expression on her sister’s face as Jo took her in, before her sister asked, “How about breakfast for dinner?” Bethie was so relieved, so glad to see her sister, so glad not to be alone, that she started to cry. Jo put her arm around Bethie’s shoulders, pulling her close.
“Hey, what’s wrong? Are you okay?” Bethie couldn’t answer, couldn’t speak. “Is it Dad?” Jo asked, her voice warm and sympathetic. Bethie leaned against her, the scent and the solidity of her sister’s body reassuring and familiar. “I know. I miss him, too.”
“It’s not that,” Bethie managed to say through her tears. “It’s something else.”
Jo looked down at her. “What?” she asked. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Uncle Mel,” Bethie whispered. She inhaled, squeezed her eyes shut, and said, all in a rush, “He’s touching me.”
After Bethie told Jo everything, Jo’s lips turned white around the edges and she started walking like she couldn’t keep still.
I’ll kill him
, she kept saying.
I’ll kill him.
She paced the length of the living room with her tennis racquet in her hand, looking ready to start smashing things. Bethie was the one who calmed her down, the one who said, truthfully, that Uncle Mel had never touched her underneath her clothes, or made Bethie touch him under his.
He’d just say that he was comforting me, or that I was misinterpreting things
, Bethie said
. And Mom needs the money. You know she does.
Jo paced, and glared, and told her,
We have to come up with a plan. We need to get him to leave you alone, and we need his money.
That night, for the first time in months, Bethie ate her dinner and did not sneak out of bed to eat, and Jo told her a story, not about Princess Bethie in the dark woods in search of a magic chalice, or in the high tower, but Princess Bethie in Uncle Mel’s house on a quest for cash, and the sisters
talked late into the night.
The next night, Bethie and Jo waited until six o’clock, when Uncle Mel was sure to be home, and drove to Southfield. Jo parked in the driveway, and the sisters walked to the door. Shirley’s expression went from annoyed to surprised when she saw that both sisters were there.
“Is Uncle Mel at home?” said Bethie. “Jo and I need to speak to him.” Her hands, her knees, even her neck, everything was quivering, but her voice was clear and steady. Shirley gave them a curious look, but she said, “Of course,” and led the girls into Uncle Mel’s office, which had bookshelves full of medical texts, and an imposing dark wood desk, where a fancy black and gold pen rested on a leather blotter. A minute later, Uncle Mel, in his suit pants and white lab coat, walked in.
“Well, isn’t this a nice surprise! What can I do for you young ladies?” he asked.
Bethie’s stomach felt fluttery, the way it did when her teachers handed out exams facedown, in the minutes before they said, “Begin.” She wanted to get up and run, out of the office, past Aunt Shirley and her cousins, through the gleaming kitchen, all the way back to the car. As if she’d read her mind, Jo took her hand and gave it a squeeze, and Bethie forced herself to breathe and tried to remember all the stories her sister had told her. Princess Bethie had faced the dragons and the wicked queen. She’d tamed the wild stallion and ridden on its back; she had hacked her own way through the forest of thorns before the prince ever showed up.
Uncle Mel was looking at her. Bethie swallowed, then started to speak. “You talked to me about ‘The Road Less Traveled’ at my father’s shiva. Remember? ‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood’?”
Uncle Mel gave a cautious nod. Bethie felt her belly uncoil. The sick, sinking feeling she’d carried all summer was evaporating. What was left in its place was rage. Her chest and throat and cheeks felt hot. She kept her face still and made herself smile, and tilt her head, and speak sweetly.
“Our father didn’t choose, though. He didn’t get to choose. Your parents chose for him. He didn’t get to say, ‘Maybe I’d like to finish high school and maybe I’d like to go to college.’ He had to drop out of school and go to work, to help the family. To help you. It wasn’t his choice to die before he turned forty-five.” She paused to take a breath, before delivering her final blow. “Or to have his daughter get pawed by his brother once a week.”
Uncle Mel’s face darkened. He raised his hands. “I think you misunderstood—”
“I think she understood fine,” Jo interrupted. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself. We should report you to the board in charge of eye doctors.” Jo glared at him. “Or maybe your wife.”
In his study, behind his gleaming desk, Uncle Mel’s mouth was moving soundlessly. “I didn’t mean . . .” he finally managed. He gulped, then said, “I was distraught!”
“I bet Aunt Shirley would be pretty distraught if I told her what you were doing.” Uncle Mel was squirming. Bethie could see beads of sweat gleaming through the coarse hairs of his mustache, and how he couldn’t look either one of them in the face.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“A while back, our father asked to borrow money. Remember? He wanted to open a Laundromat with Henry Sheshevsky. And you told him no.”
“Only to protect your family!” Mel said, his voice loud and self-righteous. He looked toward the door, lowered his voice, and continued, “Your father . . . he didn’t have a
kop far geshefte
. No head for business. He’d have lost my money, and whatever he’d invested of his own.”
“Maybe,” Bethie said. Jo was glaring across the desk with her hands in fists. Bethie knew that her sister probably hated hearing her father insulted that way, like he was dumb, or incompetent. She could feel her heart pounding, the sound of it in her ears. “Or maybe we’d be the ones living in Southfield with a swimming pool in our backyard. We’ll never know. That’s the road not taken, right?” She gave Uncle Mel her prettiest smile. “You can’t
go back to where the road diverged. But I bet you’d feel better if you helped my mother out.” Bethie squeezed her hands together so that he couldn’t see them tremble. “Whatever my father asked to borrow from you. I want you to write our mom a check.” She sat back, her stomach twisting again, her palms sweaty and her mouth dry.
, she thought.
Now he’ll tell me that I made the whole thing up. He’ll call my mother and tell her I’m a liar. He’ll start yelling, and he’ll throw us out.