Authors: Jennifer Weiner
Jo swallowed. “Hi, Mom.”
Her mother raised her head. She looked smaller, shrunken and pale, with all the anger drained away. “Are you hungry?” Sarah asked, as if Jo had just come home from school or basketball practice.
Jo didn’t know what to say. In her whole life, she could count the endearments Sarah had used on one hand and have fingers left over. Sarah couldn’t manage an
I love you
, couldn’t find time to watch a basketball game, barely spoke Jo’s name if she could help it. She thought that Jo was unnatural, and had probably felt that way for a while. But she could ask if Jo was hungry, and fill her plate with something good. It wasn’t the kind of affection Jo craved, the love she’d gotten from her father, but it was something. Lots of people went through life with less.
Bethie carried a basket of rolls to the table. “Do you want whipped cream?” she asked. Jo reached for her sister’s hand.
“I’m sorry,” she said. Her throat felt tight, and her eyes were burning again, remembering what she’d said. Bethie gave Jo’s hand a squeeze as she passed, and went back to the kitchen for the
whipped cream and pies. Sarah gave Jo a plate of turkey and gravy and stuffing, and set a wedge of pumpkin pie on a dessert plate. Jo understood that she was being offered a chance, an opportunity to defend herself, to set the record straight and say,
Lynnette and I are just friends
I’m not unnatural
Don’t worry, I like boys, I just haven’t met the right one yet
. But Jo didn’t say those things. Instead, she sniffled, wiped her nose with her napkin, and said, “Maybe I am different. But being different isn’t the worst thing.” That was as close as she could come to
Mom, I like girls
and I’ll never get married
. It was closer than she ever thought she’d get.
For a minute, there was silence. Then Bethie ate a bite of pie. Sarah poured a splash of wine into her glass and looked at Jo searchingly. Her expression wasn’t angry, just puzzled, like Jo was an exotic animal, some ungainly, awkward creature, an ostrich or a giraffe that had folded itself through the front door and sat down at the table, and Sarah was wondering what to feed it, or how to make it disappear.
“You think I’m mean,” Sarah finally said. “But all I want is for you to be happy. I want you to find a man who loves you like your father loved me. I want you to have children. To have a regular life.”
“Maybe I don’t want regular,” said Jo.
“You don’t know. It’s hard being different.” Sarah turned toward the window that looked out at the street. Jo wondered if her mother was thinking about her own parents. All her mother ever wanted was to fit in, to have a real American family whose members would look and sound and behave like everyone else.
“Well,” said Jo. “I guess I’ll find out.”
“I guess you will,” Sarah said, and tried to smile. In the candlelight, with her curvy figure, her clear skin and shiny hair, Bethie glowed. Sarah looked thoughtful and sad. Jo suspected that she and her mother had endured their last big blowup. They’d told each other the truth, and maybe things would be easier between them. The air smelled of vinegar, and pumpkin pie, and cinnamon and cloves, fresh rolls and Henry Sheshevsky’s wine.
“Look at us,” Jo said. “The Kaufman ladies.”
“We’ll be fine, Mom,” said Bethie, and Jo nodded and took Bethie’s hand, repeating what her sister had said. “We’ll be fine.”
ave a good weekend, Beth,” called Mrs. Miller as Bethie made her way down the hall of Bellwood High. “You, too,” Bethie said. Mrs. Miller—aka Killer Miller—taught the sophomore Honors English class, which Bethie had aced.
“Bye, Bethie!” chorused three freshmen cheerleaders as they sat on the waist-high brick wall in front of the school. Bethie gave them a wave and strolled through the parking lot, hair bouncing, skirt flipping around her knees. She was going to visit her sister in Ann Arbor for the weekend. She had a plaid overnight bag packed with pajamas, her toothbrush and face cream, pedal-pushers and a blouse, and her prettiest party dress, sleeveless taffeta with a blue-and-white floral print, and a matching blue-and-white headband. The dress’s bodice nipped her in where she was the slimmest; the full skirt covered up her thighs.
Jo had offered to meet her at the train station, but Bethie wanted to walk through the campus by herself. She got off the train on an overcast Friday afternoon in October and headed
uphill to join the flood of kids making their way around the Diag. The U of M was big, even as state schools went, with more than forty thousand undergrads, and it was easy to get lost in the swirl. Bethie walked, staring up at the hulking buildings, some made of red brick, others of brownstone, many covered in a latticework of ivy, some big enough to span entire blocks. When she could, she snuck glances at the students. Most of the girls dressed in the kind of clothes Bethie wore, skirts or Bermuda shorts, sweater sets and double-knit dresses and Ship ’n Shore blouses, with lipstick and hair teased and sprayed into bouffants or flips. But, here and there, Bethie saw girls in long, loose dresses that looked like something a pioneer woman crossing the prairie in a covered wagon might wear, or loose-fitting jeans and sweatshirts, without a stitch of makeup and with unstyled hair tumbling past their shoulders. A few of the Negro students, male and female, had hair that stood out like puffy crowns around their heads, and one boy wore a pin on his jacket:
U.S. OUT OF VIETNAM
. Bethie felt her eyes widen as she passed a boy with straight dark hair so long that it tangled with his chest-length beard, and gave a startled smile as he nodded at her and flashed two fingers, spread in a V. She looked down, blinking, confirming that he was indeed barefoot, even though the temperature was in the fifties and the slate had to be cold underneath his feet.
She saw two white boys throwing a Frisbee. She saw, beneath one tree, a Negro boy wearing glasses with tiny round, dark lenses, strumming a guitar and singing about John Henry, and beneath another, a girl with a sketchpad, occasionally stretching out her hand and studying the bend of her wrist before returning her attention to the page. Someone handed Bethie a leaflet about a meeting of Students for a Democratic Society, and someone else handed her a flyer for a luncheon hosted by the Foreign Students Alliance, and a tall, slender woman in jeans and a University of Michigan T-shirt walked toward her. The woman’s dark hair was cut short and tucked behind her ears, her expression was alert
and curious, and her tanned skin glowed. People watched the girl pass, her long legs making short work of the distance, drawing appreciative glances from some of the boys. She was almost right in front of her before Bethie realized that the stranger was her sister.
“Hey!” Jo gave her a hug, picked up her bag, and said, “How was the train?”
“It was fine,” Bethie said, feeling childish and dowdy as she hurried after Jo, taking two steps to every one of her sister’s.
“Are you hungry? I thought we’d get a bite to eat.”
Jo took her to the Union, a four-story redbrick building. In the basement cafeteria, they bought a burger for Jo, a chicken-salad sandwich for Bethie, and two cups of coffee.
“What’s on the agenda?” Bethie asked, automatically removing the top slice of bread from her sandwich.
“Want to sit in on my literature class?” Jo asked. “It’s a survey course on British poetry.” She smiled, gesturing like a game-show host. “Keats! Yeats! Byron! Auden!”
“Parties, Jo,” Bethie said. “I want to go to parties.”
Jo gave her a fond, indulgent smile. “Tomorrow’s the game, of course. We’ll want to leave early, for the tailgating.” Bethie knew that thousands of students and even more alumni descended on Ann Arbor for football game-day weekends. They’d park their cars in the lot near the stadium, they’d dress up in the team’s colors, maize and blue, and set up their grills and barbecues to cook brats and burgers, and they’d drink, and drink, and drink some more. Sometimes, Jo said, rolling her eyes, they’d even manage to put down their beer steins long enough to go into the stadium and watch the game.
“How about tomorrow night after the game?” Bethie asked.
“We can go hear some music. And on Sunday, I’m going to a demonstration with some friends.”
Bethie nibbled a lettuce leaf, wondering why, with all the things she could be doing, Jo was wasting her time walking in circles in front of a department store with a picket sign. Was that
really the best thing she could think of? Or was it an excuse, so that she could go do something else, something she didn’t want Bethie to know about?
Bethie took a last bite of her sandwich and said, “I’ll skip the class. If it’s okay, I’ll just walk around for a while.” Jo gave her a hug, and a key to her dorm room, and they made plans to meet there at six o’clock that night.
* * *
After an hour’s stroll around the campus, staring at the girls with limp, lank hair in sack-like dresses, or the ones in bell-bottom jeans, Bethie found her way back to Stockwell Hall. She climbed three flights of stairs, unlocked the door, and stood in the doorway of Jo’s room, breathing in her sister’s familiar scent. After Jo moved out, Bethie had taken over the closet they’d once shared and had transformed the bedroom as best she could. She’d convinced Sarah to buy a pink and white braided rug for the floor. New wallpaper was not in the budget, but Bethie had covered the walls in layers of posters of the school’s drama productions, photographs of herself, Barbara, and Linda at the swimming pool,
magazine articles called “The New Eat-for-Beauty Diet,” and “How Much Do You Want to Be Pretty?” along with ads for dresses she wanted to buy, or patterns she’d try to sew someday. Her bed was piled with pillows that she’d made from fabric remnants; her desk was stacked with schoolbooks and magazines. She’d draped her bedside lamp in a red rayon scarf to give the room a soft glow after she’d read about a character in a novel doing that, and she’d bought a full-length mirror to hang on the back of the door. It was undeniably a girl’s room, undeniably hers. In contrast, Jo’s dorm room, with its mostly blank walls and meticulously neat desk, could have belonged to anyone. It was like a prison cell, the home of a girl whose inner life was a secret and who was taking pains not to give any part of it away.
At least, at some point during the last few years Jo had learned
how to make her bed. There was a dark-blue spread on the bed, a single pillow in a white case, a triangular U of M pennant and a poster of the Ronettes tacked on one wall and a Kennedy campaign poster on the other. Underneath the window, Jo had stacked plastic orange crates and set her record player on top. Jo’s records were stored in one crate, her paperback novels and hardcovers from the library,
The Invisible Man
On the Road
, in another. A desk and chair made of the same varnished yellow wood stood against one wall, a free-standing closet rested against the other, and Jo’s bathrobe and towel hung from a hook on the back of the door. Bethie surveyed her sister’s belongings. She didn’t see any signs of a boyfriend—no boys’ clothes in the closet, no razors or shaving cream on the dresser, no records in the crate that couldn’t plausibly belong to her sister. When her first search was complete, she went through everything again, looking more closely for signs of a girlfriend—a different brand of deodorant or perfume on the dresser, the smell of a different shampoo on the pillowcase. She couldn’t find a thing.
, Sarah had said, and Jo hadn’t denied it, but Bethie wasn’t sure that meant that Jo was really a lesbian. Her sister and her mom had been at war for so long that Bethie could imagine Sarah flinging the accusation in a moment of rage, and Jo throwing it back in Sarah’s face just to make her mother even angrier. It was also possible that Jo didn’t know herself, one way or the other. But Bethie remembered how her sister looked at Lynnette, with a kind of fierce, protective tenderness that suggested more than friendship. Lynnette was married now—Bethie had seen Jo’s friend at the new A&P, pushing a shopping cart, her stomach a bulging half-moon underneath her maternity blouse. Had Jo found another girl, a friend, or more-than-friend, to replace her?
Bethie slid her hand underneath Jo’s mattress. There she found a book that wasn’t on display in the crate, a pulpy novel with a lurid cover and the title
ODD GIRL OUT
, she thought, and read the first three chapters about a girl named Laura who
was in love with an older classmate, a sorority sister named Beth. Maybe she should have been horrified, she thought, as she read the breathless prose of the sex scene. Certainly her friends would have been horrified, and maybe even afraid to be alone in a room with Jo, and Sarah would be furious and ashamed, more than she already was. Bethie examined herself for revulsion or disgust and found none . . . only sympathy. She understood that the world would make room for her in a way it might not ever accommodate her sister, and a sense of her own good fortune.