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Authors: Jody Gehrman

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BOOK: Notes From the Backseat
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Coop's face lit up. “You're kidding! That's amazing.”

“Yeah,” I said, trying hard to match his enthusiasm but ending up about seven notches below.

Dannika twisted around in her seat and eyed me carefully. “Are you saying you want to stay there?”

I shrugged. “We could. I'm sure she wouldn't mind.”

“What about you?” Dannika said. “Do you mind?”

It was a rare break from her normally self-absorbed state. Maybe all women share an instinctive understanding of the melancholy gravitational field that surrounds our mothers' houses.

I held her gaze. She was backlit by the dashboard lights, so she wasn't much more than a silhouette, but even in the semi-darkness, I could feel something shifting. “It's not my first choice,” I said, “but I guess it's okay. I can deal.”

“Cool.” Coop was oblivious to the fragile telepathy passing between his two passengers. “Just tell me where to go.”

 

When my mother opened the door, she was wearing an enormous orange fleecy
thing
that looked, more than anything, like a sleeping bag with sleeves. I'd seen that sort of thing in a catalogue somewhere, but I didn't believe that anyone actually
wore
one. I think it's modeled after those little sleep suits people put infants in, before they're old enough to protest. Her brown hair was streaked with gray, which seemed to have a different texture from the rest of her hair, so that her usually sleek brown bob was marred by slightly horsy, fraying stripes. All in all, she looked quite awful, but when she saw me her face went from an old-lady suspicious frown to a huge childlike smile. Instinctively, I took a step forward and let myself be wrapped up in her warm, fleecy hug.

“Gwenny, Gwenny, Gwenny—look at you, too adorable! What are you doing here? I see you brought your friends.” Her eyes moved past me to Coop and Dannika, who were still lingering on the front step, looking vaguely apologetic and disoriented. “Come in, come in!” she called, before I could answer her question. Coop stepped forward first.

“Uh, Mom, this is Coop,” I said.

“Coop! What sort of name is that?”

“Actually, ma'am, it's Arthur Milton Cooper, officially.”

“Arthur—that's a lovely name. Why would you let anyone call you Coop?”

I rolled my eyes. “Mom…”

“Well,” Coop gave her a sheepish grin, “by the time I was three even my own mother could see I was never living up to Arthur Milton. So she started calling me Coop, after my old man.” He shrugged, and I was seized by a violent urge to kiss him.

Mom opened her mouth and let out a huge, horsy laugh. “That's too cute.” When she'd recovered from his hilarity, her gaze moved on to Dannika, who was standing near the door with her hands in the pockets of her sweatshirt. “And who's this?”

“I'm Dannika, a friend of Coop's.” There was an awkward pause. “And Gwen's,” she added.

“Great. Welcome.” My mother's look was so transparent, I wanted to cover her face with both hands. She clearly didn't trust this Amazon and she was trying to decide who the cute guy belonged to—the blonde or me. I didn't want to know which way she'd place her bets.

Coop must have read her expression just as easily, because he slipped an arm around my shoulder and said, “Gwen's told me a lot about you.” This, of course, was a total lie, but I didn't care. He was claiming me as his, and that's what mattered. “It's great to meet you at last.”

Her eyes lit up. “Well, wonderful, wonderful. Come in, make yourselves comfortable.” She sort of hobbled backward in her orange bag. I saw what was coming seconds before it happened, but my reflexes weren't good enough to prevent it. Her fleece-encased foot stepped back toward the sunken living room stairs and then all at once she went over, like a big orange tree chopped at the base.

Coop was helping her up again before I could even move. Luckily, the living room was carpeted and she'd fallen rather gracefully, considering. “Mrs. Matson, are you all right?” He helped her to the couch and sat her down.

“My God,” she said. “How embarrassing. I don't even drink.”

“Mom, maybe you should…change? That suit seems a little hazardous.”

She stroked her fleece lovingly. “Isn't it great, though? I love this thing. I never take it off when I'm at home. Once I had to drive Steven to the airport and I wore it the whole way.”

“You can drive in that thing?” I noticed now that there was something yellowish and crusty on the sleeve.

“Oh, yeah. See, there are zippers at the bottom to let your feet out, if you want. It's just warmer this way.” She snuggled into it happily. “My goodness, look at you! I haven't seen you since Christmas. I love what you're doing with your hair.”

“Mom, I've worn it this way since the third grade.”

“I know that! I'm your mother, you think I don't know that?” She shifted gears for a moment from ecstatic to indignant, then back again. “What I mean is, it looks shinier now. Did you do one of those whatchamacallits? Cellophane wraps?”

“No.”

The sliding glass door opened, then, and Steven walked in with the dogs—all five of them: the two Irish wolfhounds, the black Lab, the spotted mutt and the very nervous Chihuahua that always looks like it's in the process of freezing to death. “Ooooh, come to Mama,” my mother cooed as the Chihuahua leaped up and cowered in her lap, staring at us with glassy-eyed horror.

“These are the children,” Mom said in that cutesy baby voice she always uses around the dogs. “Carrie and Larry,” she said, pointing to the wolfhounds, “O.J.” she pointed to the Lab, “Pokey, the mutt, and this—” she lifted the Chihuahua's chin with one finger “—is Aurora. Say hello, honey.” To my horror, Mom lifted one paw and made Aurora wave at Coop.

He smiled at the nappy little creature, then at my mother. I was sure he was thinking,
is this Gwen in twenty-five years?

“And I'm Steven.” We all looked at Steven, then. He always looks the same—I've never seen him without that silly beret on. Who wears a beret? He must imagine it looks artistic and intriguing, but in combination with his moth-eaten sweaters and baggy, shapeless sweats, the effect is more homeless guy than modern day Picasso.

As Dannika and Coop introduced themselves to Steven and the collective stench of dog filled my head, I started getting anxious. I wiped my sweaty palms on my wool skirt and wondered what had possessed me to make this detour. I wished to God I'd let Coop find us a hotel, even if it did mean cruising through ten lobbies before Dannika was satisfied with the feng shui of this or that Holiday Inn.

I snapped out of my nervous inner monologue when I heard Steven saying, “Dannika Winters? From
Dannika Winters Makes Yoga Easy?

“That's me,” Dannika admitted shyly.

For some reason I looked immediately to my mother, who was eyeing her husband and the shapely blonde in her living room with naked hostility. I wondered if my face was that openly bitter when I watched Dannika with Coop. The Holiday Inn, with its plastic ice buckets and soda machines, was sounding more and more utopian every second.

“I do yoga with you every day.” Steven was looking more animated than I'd ever seen him.

My mother scoffed. “More like once a month, Steven!”

He barely even glanced in Mom's direction. “I really admire your work. It's so wonderful that you make yoga accessible to uncoordinated old goats like me.”

For a horrible half-second, I flashed on what Steven and thousands of old guys like him actually
do
when they watch Dannika's tapes and I seriously wanted to heave. It was one of those irrepressible visuals that makes you wonder about your own mental health.

“Thanks.” Dannika tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and looked at the floor. I flashed on the sycophant at the juice bar in Malibu and how she basked in his attention. Even with the cop, she was perfectly willing to flirt once she'd disposed of all incriminating evidence. But now she seemed self-conscious and uncomfortable. Maybe being a goddess is a job, like anything else; at the end of the day you're ready to get off duty, sip a vodka tonic and zone out for a couple hours so you can get up the next day and do it all again.

“Are you kids starving?” Mom got up from the couch. “I'll just change my clothes and rustle up some burgers or something.”

Dannika smiled weakly (
sorry, honey, no root juice and soy yogurt at this pop stand
). Coop, on the other hand, beamed at Mom, and when she saw his eager man-who-is-dying-for-a-burger look she actually tittered. “Coop, I believe you're hungry,” she said, sounding all at once like the Southern belle she once was.

“Mrs. Matson, if you fried me up a burger, I'd pledge my loyalty to you for life.”

Mom giggled some more, but Steven frowned. “Her name's Mrs. Sherman,” he said.

“But Coop can call me anything he likes,” Mom said, and sashayed (well, as best she could in her sleep sack) to the bedroom to change her clothes.

Signing off from Chateau de Dog Hair,
Gwen

Friday, September 19

5:24 a.m.

 

D
ear Marla,

Okay, I'm writing. Breathing, writing, writing, breathing. If I weren't carving these words with a ballpoint pen into these pages right now, I'm afraid I'd be carving my initials into Dannika's little line-free forehead. (Side note: she's twenty-eight. Why doesn't she have a single wrinkle?)

I'll back up a little, tell you what happened. Maybe writing will calm me down and cool this dangerous mood I'm in.

After Mom made hamburgers for Coop and me, offering Dannika a handful of carrot sticks and a bruised apple as her vegetarian option (I was half mortified, half exhilarated by Mom's rudeness) the issue of sleeping arrangements came up. You and I spent most of our time at your house, of course, since you had a better stereo system and your parental units didn't fight; then again, yours didn't speak to each other, but that's another story. The point is, maybe you don't remember my Mom's house much, so I'll give you a minirefresher course: it's small. When you factor in the ever-mounting collection of dogs and Steven's fascination with at-home exercise equipment, it's a wonder the two of them can even move around in there.

But you know my mom—forever the optimist. I think Coop had her thinking she was Scarlet O'Hara, living in a house with an east and west wing, wearing a satin gown and petticoats. After dinner, she graciously offered to show us to our rooms. I was thinking
rooms?
Did they slap together an addition since Christmas? Clearly, she was a little befuddled, because she led us down the hallway to my old room, opened the door, and said, “Oh.” I guess at this point it occurred to her that:

a) She did not have “rooms” to offer us but
a
room.

b) It hardly seemed appropriate to shove all three of us into the double bed where I'd lost my first tooth.

c) She was not, in point of fact, Scarlet O'Hara.

There was an awkward pause.

“This is great,” Coop said, sizing up the situation with remarkable speed and accuracy. “The girls can have this room and I'll take the couch.”

I was torn between loving Coop's mother-friendly ways and hating that he'd just condemned me to a night in bed with Dannika. It was torture, but there was no way around it. I comforted myself with the reminder that Mom and Steven sleep like logs, so I could always sneak out to the couch after lights-out. I told myself it might even be more fun that way—more high school.

So, Mom made Coop a cozy little bed on the dog hair-covered couch and gave him her best down pillow dressed in a fresh flannel case. We all brushed our teeth, washed our faces, said good night, and by eleven everyone was in bed.

It was very strange, getting under the covers with Dannika. As we lay together side by side in the dark, I felt weirdly self-conscious. Worse, I worried she could tell I was lying there stiffly, staring at the ceiling, too awkward for sleep. I became painfully aware of my own breathing and the placement of my body in relation to hers.

After a few minutes of this, she turned onto her side so she was facing me. “This was your room?”

“Yeah.” I remained flat on my back, staring into the darkness. “We moved here when I was four.”

“Does your dad always wear that beret?”

“He's not my dad,” I said quickly.

“Oh—stepdad?”

“Yeah.”

Her tone was gentle. “So your parents are divorced?”

“Yes.” The word hung there between us, awkward in its brevity. I knew my lines. I was supposed to give a quick synopsis of my parent's messy breakup, explain my father's whereabouts and marital status, maybe throw in a cliché about how it had all worked out for the best. I just wasn't up to it. Things hadn't worked out for the best. My father was a sad Peter Pan who couldn't keep it in his pants and he'd broken my mother's heart. After he left her, she'd settled for a pedantic, weird, financially unstable shithead in a stupid beret; he was unattractive in just about every way and therefore totally safe. That was the naked truth—or part of it, anyway. I couldn't see delving into all of that with Dannika, who had so far proven herself about as trustworthy as an ill-tempered rattlesnake.

“You don't want to talk about it,” Dannika said.

I sighed. “Not especially.”

“My family's way fucked up, if it's any consolation.”

For some reason the phrase,
keep your friends close, your enemies closer
popped into my brain. I wasn't in the mood to spill my family secrets, but if she felt like talking, the least I could do was listen. “What are they like?” I asked.

“Well, my dad's dead. That's the most important thing to know about him.” Her voice was distant, removed, like she was narrating someone else's story. “Then Mom married a plastic surgeon in Malibu. She went from waiting tables at Denny's and clipping coupons to spending every Christmas in the Swiss Alps.” She made a breathy sound of disdain. “But she's not happy.”

I wanted to ask if her stepfather had done her boob job, but I bit my tongue. “I guess everyone's family is weird.” I sort of hoped that would end the conversation on a benign we're-all-human note, at which point I could dash out to the couch and have sneaky don't-wake-the-parents sex with Coop, but Dannika wasn't done with me yet.

“Where's your real dad?” she asked.

“He lives farther north,” I said.

“Like where?”

Why was she asking all these questions?
“Outside Fort Bragg.”

She sat up on one elbow. “Isn't that where we're going?”

“Pretty much,” I said.

“Are you going to see him?”

I turned onto my side, my back to her. “No. There won't be time.”

“I'm sure we could, if you wanted.”

“No.” It came out louder than I meant it to. “I mean—whatever—we're not that close. I don't plan on telling him I'm there.”

She lay back down and neither of us spoke for a minute, but I could tell she was thinking about what to say next. “The thing is,” she whispered. “No matter how messed up he is, once he's dead, it's like
game over,
you know? You don't get another chance to work it out.”

I didn't respond.

“Not that it's any of my business,” she added.

When I still didn't say anything, she fluffed up her pillow and said, “Well, good night. Sweet dreams.”

“Yeah,” I mumbled. “You, too.”

 

I didn't have sweet dreams. I fell into a chaotic montage with a plot as linear as a French film; every image was cryptic, yet inexplicably melancholy. There was my father in a wool sweater, smoking a joint; then there was Coop, riding a bike away from me. At the same time it wasn't Coop, it was my father, and though there were a hundred other pictures that sluiced through my brain like cards being shuffled (Dannika in fur boots and an Eskimo parka, my third grade teacher getting mad because I'd thrown away my milk) the dream kept circling back to that strange duet between my father and Coop. What does it mean? I've got no idea. And I won't subject you to any more of it because we both know there's nothing more tedious than having to hear about someone else's dreams.

The point is, I woke up sweaty and disoriented. The dream had filled me with a potent cocktail of sadness and dread. It took me a good ten or twenty seconds to remember where I was. A quick glance at the clock told me it was almost four. Miraculously, I'd fallen asleep before I could sneak out to Coop on the couch and surprise him with a stealthy seduction. My dreams had drained me of any desire for sex; now all I wanted was to curl inside the hot, protective circle of his arms.

That's when I realized: beside me, where Dannika should have been, there was nothing but the wrinkled expanse of sheets and blankets.

I felt my heart throbbing in my throat.

I got up and, very quietly, tiptoed into the living room, listening all the while for sounds of betrayal: muffled giggles or amorous sighs coming from the vicinity of the couch. All I heard was the toilet running and the phlegmy rattle of Steven's snores. As I stepped out of the hallway into the living room, I spotted the empty couch, and for a split second I could picture them with terrible clarity stretched out in the backseat of the Mercury; Dannika would be on her back, her hair splayed out in a white-blond fan that spilled over the edge of the seat. Coop would be above her, sweating and—Oh God, it made me want to heave just thinking about it.

That's when I heard the low murmur of voices and saw an orange flame flicker to life out on the porch. I crept to the edge of the sliding glass doors and, hiding behind Mom's ailing ficus, managed to spy on them through the sickly yellow leaves. It wasn't very gratifying. The moonlight was weak, and through the double-paned glass all I could make out was the vague sound of their voices.

A part of me really wanted to go out there. I missed Coop, suddenly—craved him with a bone-deep need even though I was furious with him. I didn't know exactly what his crime was; couldn't he hang out with his best friend in the middle of the night on my mother's porch? All the same, I felt betrayed. I wondered how it had happened. Did Dannika slip out of bed and wake him? Did he knock softly on our door and she was the one who answered? Or were their internal clocks so perfectly synced up, even their insomnia happened simultaneously?

Obviously, I couldn't go out there. It was just too humiliating. I'd feel like the naggy wife. I flashed on a memory that made my already anxious stomach churn with nerves. We were having dinner in this very house. My mother had cooked pot roast and mashed potatoes. Our guest was a woman with flaming red hair and earrings that caught the light, casting prisms onto her neck and shoulders like some sort of faerie queen. She was beautiful, and I hated her. I don't know who she was or what she was doing there, but I remember how she and Dad kept laughing and raising their glasses in toasts while my mother cleared the dishes and scowled. I remember looking at the wine in their glasses and imagining it was blood; I told you I was morbid. Again and again, I wished the woman with the copious red hair would just put down her fork and leave. She hadn't eaten enough of her dinner to deserve dessert. The roast still sat on her plate, a meaty pink, barely touched.

God, the things my mother went through, all in the name of keeping my restless, self-absorbed father from leaving. Nothing she did worked. She could go on cooking pot roasts and ignoring his flirtations, she could give him his freedom, his “open marriage,” but none of it made any difference. He was a man made for leaving and in the end that's exactly what he did.

Thinking of all this, my stomach knotted inside me, as if my mother's burger was preparing to turn on me. Maybe it was mad cow, I thought. Soon I'd be scratching wildly—wasn't that the first sign? Maybe Dannika had the right idea, living on roots and soy products. I pinched my thighs, feeling fleshy as I monitored her slim shadow bent near Coop's, the two of them leaning against the porch railing side by side. I watched a single plume of smoke snake through the watery moonlight, rising between them; it was impossible to tell if it had come from his lips or hers. What were they talking about, anyway? It was that deeply intimate time of night—the last hours before dawn—when the specter of death touches everything and you'll cling to whatever's near. Especially, I thought, if it happens to be a glamorous, pencil-thin sex goddess with pneumatic boobs.

Suddenly they turned toward the sliding glass doors and I felt a brand-new panic rise inside me—could they see me? I shrank farther into the shadows of the ficus, pressing myself into the corner. Then I heard footsteps out on the porch. Peeking through the branches, I saw them heading straight for me. Oh God—oh
God
—I stumbled back toward the hallway. As the doors slid open behind me, my foot caught the edge of Steven's ab machine and I sprawled onto the carpet.

“G? You okay?” Coop was kneeling beside me. “Danni, turn on a light, would you?”

In a matter of seconds, the merciless glare of track lights illuminated my shame. I wanted to curl into a fetal ball and will myself dead.

Coop helped me sit up. He brushed a few strands of hair out of my eyes with surprising tenderness. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” I blinked a little in the bright room, hoping to appear half asleep and vulnerable. “I got up for a glass of water and I guess I tripped.” It was a fairly ineffectual lie, flimsy as cellophane, but I knew it would make the moment pass more quickly than a confession.

Coop chuckled with the indulgence one usually reserves for toddlers and kissed my forehead. “You poor thing,” he said, helping me up. “Did you bruise anything?”

I looked down at myself. I was wearing that whisper-pink satin nightgown I bought from the Countess of Albania—remember her? Under normal circumstances, I thought it guaranteed me Alluring Siren of the Night status, but at the moment I was struck by just how many acres of chubby thigh it revealed. My knees were rug-burned and I thought I could see the beginnings of a potbelly protruding from beneath the satin drape.

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