Authors: Jennifer Weiner
“Are you working?” Bethie asked.
“Just getting my toes wet.” Just as she had in every town they’d lived in for longer than a few months, Jo had put her name down on the substitute teacher list in Avondale and three neighboring towns. Most weeks she only worked a day or two, and some weeks, not at all. But it was something. She also wrote the occasional piece for the local weekly paper, the
, which she knew most people read only for the classified ads. So far, she’d interviewed a ten-year-old who’d been cast as one of the orphans in the Broadway production of
, a married couple who bred prizewinning Cavalier
King Charles Spaniels, and the town’s oldest resident, a surprisingly sharp 102-year-old who’d been eager for an audience to hear his thoughts on Jimmy Carter, whom he called “the peanut farmer.”
“And what do you do all day?” her sister asked.
Jo made herself smile. “I cook. I clean. I read. I write.”
“So you’re basically Betty Crocker,” Bethie said.
“Betty Crocker with a library card.” Jo kept her voice mild. It was the reading—that, and the exercise—that let her believe that her life was different from her own mother’s, and she needed to believe that there were differences. Sometimes, she would look up and see days that were essentially the same as her mother’s days had been, endless rounds of cooking and cleaning and laundry, of checking homework and combing hair and ferrying her daughters to soccer practice and Hebrew school. The only difference was that her mother lived in an integrated neighborhood, with African American neighbors and colleagues, if not friends, and Sarah was minutes away from a big city, with its museums and orchestras, even if she chose not to go.
So Jo read. The Bravermans subscribed to the
New York Times
, which came in the morning, and the
Farmington Valley Times
, which arrived in the afternoon, along with
, from which Jo attempted the occasional ambitious recipe (usually that would result in the girls turning up their noses, Dave cheerfully urging them to try some of whatever Mommy had worked so hard to prepare, and the three of them sneaking off to McDonald’s while Jo scraped the leftovers into the sink). She kept up with current events, national and international, and most weeks she finished at least one book, sometimes two. Biographies, mostly, books about wars and dead presidents; everything but novels. She’d lost her taste for fiction. Sometimes she thought it was because spending even a few hours in an imaginary world would make it too tempting for her to consider other versions
of her own story, other ways it could have unfolded. A different ending, a true happily-ever-after.
“Look at that snow,” said Bethie, sounding as satisfied as if the weather had been arranged just for her. Jo drove them down the mountain, over a bridge that crossed the Farmington River, and along the two blocks that made up Avondale’s downtown. There was a Catholic church, a glowering heap of brownstone, and down the street, a white clapboard Episcopalian church, with a cross thrust up into the wintry sky. The town’s library, housed in a two-story Georgian mansion with the children’s section in the basement, where Jo sometimes felt like she’d spent half of her life, listening to story hour and picking out books. Down the street there was a small supermarket, a liquor store, a five-and-dime called Fielder’s, and the elementary school. Jo turned again, into a neighborhood of residential neat ranch-style houses and small Colonials with perfectly square lawns and even a picket fence or two. Jo saw Bethie taking it in and waited for some crack about “Little Boxes,” or suburban conformity, but instead her sister kept quiet, her eyes on the sky and the snow.
“Dave’s at work, in Hartford. I hope he makes it home.” The truth was, Jo was hoping Dave wouldn’t make it home. She liked the idea of hunkering down with her daughters and her sister, the four of them weathering the storm together. Already, she’d stacked three days’ worth of logs by the fireplace and had a week’s worth of old newspapers ready for the girls to roll and fold into knots. There were flashlights with fresh batteries and candles in every room, and she’d braved a trip to the supermarket that morning, where her fellow housewives were acting practically feral, grabbing for the last loaf of bread or gallon of milk or four-pack of toilet paper, as if everyone’s snow-day plans included French toast and diarrhea.
“Wait until you see the girls,” Jo said. “Kim writes poetry and short stories, with illustrations and everything. She’s in a combined second- and third-grade class, but she’s already done all the third-grade work, so they’re talking about skipping her right to fourth grade. And Missy . . .”
Before she could continue listing Kim’s academic achievements or describing Missy’s prowess as a striker on the six-and-under Wildcats soccer team, Bethie interrupted. “And Dave? How’s he doing? How are things?” There was the tiniest pause before Bethie spoke the word “things,” and Jo heard what her sister was really asking.
How’s heterosexuality treating you? Still living a lie?
Speaking rapidly, Jo said, “Dave’s terrific. I mean, it took him a while to figure out what he was going to do. To figure out what would work. As you know. But I think this is it.” Jo was sure that Bethie must have noticed by now her husband’s inability to stay in one place, at one job, for very long. It hadn’t taken Jo long to realize that her husband was all about the fast buck, the quick, easy score.
Behind every great fortune, there is a crime
, Dave liked to say. So far, Dave hadn’t committed any crimes—at least, not that Jo knew about. But she worried, and she was careful not to ask too many questions when her husband pulled the suitcases from wherever Jo had stashed them and announced yet another new venture in another new town.
“He’s selling used sports equipment?” Bethie’s voice wasn’t quite mocking, but it was definitely skeptical. Again, Jo told herself not to take the bait.
“I know. When he told me, I was thinking, ‘How’s that going to support us?’ But people in New England are sports-crazy. Soccer, hockey, lacrosse, tennis. Everyone ice-skates, everyone skis. And everyone’s kids outgrow their cleats and their boots and their poles and their bindings.” Dave had started with one RePlay Sports store, which he’d opened with two of the fellows who’d gone in on his sports bar in Hartford and the guy who’d invested in the apple orchard in Vermont. She had to give Dave credit, Jo thought. He never held a job for long, but he never made long-lasting enemies, either, or left his former partners feeling so burned that they wouldn’t give him seed money for his next project. The bar had only lasted for nine months and had left Dave with a permanent aversion to the food-service industry and, she suspected, some significant debt. But the sporting-goods
store had been a success, and now there were three RePlays in Connecticut. After years of what Dave, in his arch and mocking manner, called “a certain degree of financial uncertainty,” and one desperate six-month period that had culminated with the two of them piling their belongings into the trunk of Dave’s car and leaving their apartment in Baltimore in the middle of the night, probably two steps ahead of the landlord, they had enough money to swing the mortgage on the three-bedroom ranch house on Apple Blossom Court. Already, Dave was eyeing the houses in the new developments on the west side of town, the center-hall colonials where every house had four bedrooms, central air-conditioning, and an in-ground pool in the back.
“Dave’s terrific,” Jo said. “And I’m great.”
Bethie sat for a long, terrifying beat of silence. “I saw you once,” she finally said. “On campus. You and Shelley Finkelbein.” Jo felt like she could barely breathe. Thinking about Shelley always made her feel like she was choking. “You were walking near the Union, and you were holding hands . . .”
“We were not,” Jo blurted. She hadn’t meant to say anything at all, but she had to correct Bethie’s misperception. She and Shelley had been careful. They would have never held hands in public.
“You were,” Bethie said. “Just for a minute, and you did it like a joke. You’d grabbed each other’s hands, and you were swinging your arms, and I saw the way you looked at her, and the way she looked at you.”
Jo winced. She couldn’t remember the precise moment Bethie was describing, but she remembered very well the way she’d looked at Shelley, way back when. Quietly, Jo said, “It was a long time ago.”
“How is Shelley?” Bethie asked, as if Jo hadn’t spoken.
Without answering, Jo clicked on her turn signal and was careful not to stomp on the gas. Bethie waited until Jo was forced to answer.
“Shelley’s divorced,” she said.
“Oh?” Bethie’s eyebrows rose toward her forehead. Even when
her face looked surprised, her tone was still tranquil. “What happened?”
Jo shrugged. “You know what Mom always says. ‘You never know what’s going on in someone else’s marriage.’ I just hope she’s keeping her married name. Ziskin was a definite upgrade.”
Bethie smiled. Jo felt the bands around her chest unclench. Then they were on Apple Blossom Court, just behind the school bus, which opened its doors and disgorged Kim and Missy. The girls came sprinting down the street, lunchboxes banging against their legs, running through the snow and calling their aunt’s name.
* * *
Bethie gave the girls their presents—candy necklaces, a pair of fancy barrettes, homemade fizzing balls, which would scent the bathwater with lavender, and got herself settled in Missy’s bedroom. By then, the snow was falling so thickly that looking out the window was like peering into a cloud. Jo lit a fire and instructed the girls to fill the bathtub with water and make sure the flashlights were loaded with the fresh batteries and the candles were at hand. “We’re like pioneers!” Bethie said. “Let’s pretend we’re in a covered wagon!” The girls had happily joined in the game, and Jo had gotten dinner started, seasoning the chicken and trimming the green beans.
Just before five, Dave called. “I think I’m going to be here for the night,” he said. “They’ve closed Route 44, so even if I trusted the car to make it over the mountain, I’d be stuck.”
“Just be safe,” said Jo.
“Don’t worry about me, lambie. I’m going to test out a few of the new sleeping bags we got in. I’ll bunk down in the office. I’ve got a generator and a space heater and one of those propane cookstoves.”
Jo suspected that Dave wouldn’t be in his office for long. If she knew her husband, he would gather as many of his fellow stranded businessmen as he could and make an expedition to whatever bar was open before bunking down, or at least he’d find
some whiskey to amplify the space heater’s warmth. Dave was a sociable man. He loved a party, especially an impromptu, accidental one. The best nights they’d had were in the summer, where neighbors would all drift toward the night’s designated backyard. The kids would splash in the plastic wading pool or run through the sprinklers, or use garbage bags to construct a water slide. The wives would drink Tab or white wine spritzers; the husbands would drink beer and talk sports. Eventually, a few of the men would be dispatched to raid refrigerators for hamburgers and hot dogs and buns for the kids, and someone would go to Fitzgerald’s Market to buy steaks for the grown-ups. Dave would preside over the grill; the wives, half-drunk on wine and sunshine, would find paper plates and plastic cups and light citronella candles to keep the bugs away. The kids would gorge themselves and watch
, eventually falling asleep on the family-room floor, and the grown-ups would sit out in lawn chairs in the humid darkness, drinking, laughing, telling jokes. Dave always had a few new ones, and he’d trot them out while he stood behind the grill in his
KISS THE COOK
apron, with his tongs in his hand, holding court. “So the son’s standing at his father’s sickbed, saying, ‘Dad, squeeze my finger if you can hear me.’ With his last bit of strength, the dying father squeezes, and then the son says, ‘Dad, that wasn’t my finger.’ ”
Sometimes, when dinner was over, Jo would put on a cassette—Stevie Wonder or Linda Ronstadt or Fleetwood Mac—and turn up the volume on the portable player. Dave would dance with the women: tense, tightly wound Judy Pressman, with her hair in a neat, low ponytail, or Stephanie Zelcheck, the youngest of the wives, who’d just had a baby and was barely twenty-five. Sometimes Jo would dance, but mostly she’d watch, sitting off to the side with one of her daughters or someone else’s baby on her lap.
“Are you and my ladies all right?” Dave asked on the phone.
“We’re good.” Dave was still a handsome man, but he’d put on about ten pounds, and his hair was thinning. Jo noticed the
way he would run his fingers through it when they passed reflective surfaces in bright sunlight, or in the morning, in the bathroom, after he’d gotten out of the shower. Dave was vain, a little lazy, perhaps not entirely honest, and money passed through his hands like water, gone almost as soon as he’d gotten it. But he loved their daughters, and he could still make her laugh or amuse her with a cutting observation. And, every once in a while, Dave made her remember her own father, with a sweet, piercing kind of pain. After their second baby had been a girl, Jo had braced herself for Dave’s disappointment, but he’d been delighted instead.
Girls are less trouble
, he’d said, lifting the baby from Jo’s arms and kissing her cheeks.
And I can already tell that this one’s going to be a beauty, like her mom.
“How about you?” her husband asked. “What’s the plan? Did your sister make it in?”
“She’s right here.” Bethie was sitting on the couch, Kim and Missy on either side, an afghan pulled up over her legs, a small, inscrutable smile on her face.
She’s like a tourist
, Jo thought.
A visitor in the Land of Suburbia.
“And we’ve got a fire going, and plenty of sandwich stuff if the power goes out. Don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine.”