Authors: Amy Shearn
Dear God. What is with all confessions lately?
I braced myself. “Oh? Everything okay? Is Dad okay? Oh, man, are you and Dad okay?”
“Of course! Of course! I mean, your father. It’s so hard to tell. But I— Jenny, I’m going to go on a trip.”
“What?” I took the phone away from my ear and stared at it. “Mom?”
the woman beaming. “I’ve been saving. A little bit out of every paycheck.” Oh,
. It was enough to break your heart. My mother had been working as the receptionist at a dentist’s office since I was in high school. She always spoke of the job with great pride, but it was a depressing affair. Lots of blousy outfits and paperwork, fluorescent lights, paper-cut fingers, kids with fluoride-rinse spittle flecking their faces. Half her conversations, especially when she’d just started there, began, “Well, Dr.
says . . .” For a second I thought she was about to tell me what Sarah and I had always joked about with grossed-out gallows humor—that she was in love with the white-fingered, fiftysomething redhead, oh he of the elegant cavity filling (ew); that they’d been having a secret romance of tepid snuggling for years.
“I asked your father to come with me, and he looked at me like my hair was on fire. No surprise there! You know we haven’t taken a vacation since we all went to Canada together?” I did. I had been sixteen, Sarah eighteen, and neither of us in any mood for family fly-fishing. The trip was an epic disaster, rarely spoken of—so exquisite in its horrors that the stories still had not gained the tragedy-plus-time patina of humor. “So,” my mother continued, “I bought my ticket, and I’m going next month.”
“Really! And where are you going?”
I’d taken a sip of cold coffee, mummified with old milk, and now I almost choked. “Egypt? The one with the pyramids?”
My mother chortled, delighted with herself. “That’s the one, kiddo!”
“I’m going on a seniors’ tour. My girlfriend Beverly’s coming, too! The bus picks you up at the airport, and they make all the arrangements and everything. They even provide meals, so you don’t wind up having to eat anything crazy. We’re going to see the pyramids and the Sphinx and all of it.”
A squall erupted from the living room, where Betty had wrenched the stuffed bunny from Rose’s grip. “MY bunny!” she said angrily when she saw me looking. She embarked on a trail of tears around the room, clutching things to her chest, chanting, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” I turned around. Maybe if I pretended not to have seen anything, the situation would resolve itself. “Mom, how can you go to freaking
Right when I need you,
I didn’t say, because it didn’t make any sense.
“Africa? I guess it is Africa! Egypt doesn’t seem like Africa, though, does it?”
“I don’t know. You’ll have to tell me.”
“Honey, don’t be upset. You told me not to come there. And I just—I just have to go somewhere.” In a lower voice, “Your father is driving me nuts. I don’t think he’s spoken a word all month.”
“How long will you be gone?” I spooned the macaroni into two plastic dishes. Sometimes I got so sick of plastic things. I suffered a momentary pang of desire for china plates, silver flatware, linen napkins, an elegant adult life I’d never had.
“Three weeks! Mom! What about Dad? What about your job?”
“Oh, I have plenty of vacation days saved up. They can get a temporary girl for a few weeks. And even though Dr. Olson says”—I rolled my eyes automatically—“they can’t manage without me, well, honey, to tell you the truth, I’m so sick of that place, I could spit.” Sick of it! This did not gel with my idea of
my placid mother, chatting with people at work, stopping by the Hy-Vee on the way home for a pound of beef to cook for my dad, settling into their overstuffed sectional in the evening to watch four hours of prime-time network television a night. For an instant I tried to picture her face and couldn’t. I should have been proud and excited for her, and I was, I promise I was, but the bratty teenager who leased some space in my brain couldn’t stop keening,
But that should be
! I should get an adventure! She won’t even appreciate it!
Jenny, my dear, grow up. Can you imagine how bored this woman must be? This is a great thing for her. A great thing for someone you love can’t hurt you.
Oh? What about Harry’s current great thing? That’s hurting me. It’s hurting me a lot.
I seriously doubt that whatever he’s doing right now is a great thing. I doubt he’s having a whole lot of fun. And I think you know that, too.
Rose was propelling yet another bunny toward her mouth when Betty yanked it from her. There went the pouty lower lip, here came the tremble. I held the phone away from my face. “Betty, you have not played with that bunny in ages. You know you don’t really care about it.”
“Sorry, Mom, not you. The girls are fighting—” Rose erupted into wails. I hurried over to scoop her up. Betty stood still until her face had completely flushed, like she was filling up in preparation, and then—lights, camera, action—performed her famous patented boneless-break-dance tantrum.
I could hardly hear my mother anymore. “They can’t possibly be as bad as you and Sarah were! You two. I always said you would fight over the cat box if I gave it to one of you.”
“I know. You’ve mentioned that. Betty! Give it back!”
Betty clutched the bunny to her face, ignoring Rose’s sobs. “Baby shares wif me.”
Oh, the sharing. It was so complicated to explain. Betty had to share with Rosie, with Emma, with all the other kids, but wasn’t allowed to take things from them . . . ? I got tangled up myself when I tried to clarify. Not that anyone ever said it was a good idea to try to reason with a two-and-a-half-year-old, but when she was the person you talked to most, it was hard to resist the temptation.
“Look, Mom, I have to go.”
“First tell me the news. Any updates from Harry?”
What is he, a reporter? No. There is no update. There is no news. Obviously, I would have mentioned something like that.” A flicker—should I mention the postcard? Part of me wanted to defend Harry to my parents. I thought what he’d done was life-level crummy, but I didn’t want my mother to think so; I didn’t want her to think of me as married to some jerk.
He sent a postcard,
I imagined myself saying,
and he told me he just needed to sort some things out and he’d be back soon, so it’s really all okay.
It sounded idiotic even to me. A postcard. What a jerk.
I didn’t say anything. I plunked Rose into her bouncy seat and grabbed the bunny, throwing it, for lack of inspiration, into the fridge with the margarine. Now Betty stamped her foot. “Mommy, nooooo!”
“So what are you having for dinner? I think I’ll make a meat loaf for your father.”
“I have to go. I’ll call you later, okay?”
“That sounds good. We’re just having the most humid night here, I can’t believe it.”
“Oh, honey, I wanted to ask, ah— So have you— I know you were off your medication because of the baby, and I’m wondering now, ah, just with everyone happening, if you’ve—”
The woman left me no choice. I had to hang up on her. Also, Egypt! It’s possible I’d never been so annoyed with my mother in my entire life. Obviously, I had to call my sister. If there was ever an argument for the value of siblings, it was a moment like this. (Meanwhile, Betty was showing each of her toys to Rose, one by one, then shaking her head and taking each away from the baby’s bewildered grasping fingers. I was sure I hadn’t made her this way. Right? She was just at that age? Right?)
“You’re kidding,” Sarah said. “Egypt? The woman has never left the country. She thinks ketchup is spicy.”
It really was good to have a sister sometimes. As usual, we reviewed annoyingly provincial things our mother had done while visiting our urban homes, then moved on to ridiculous things we’d been fed or encouraged to do as children. When Betty was born, I’d been flooded by love for my mother—everything she’d done for us! now I understood how difficult motherhood was! how no one ever appreciated all the little things you did!—but that initial outburst had mellowed. Sarah and I slipped comfortably into our well-worn litany of complaints, ignoring our own futures as someone’s complained-about mother. “I remember her saying ‘Go watch TV’ so she could clean,” Sarah said, as if recalling an episode of nightmarish abuse. “I
” I said, stepping over the pile of cookware, matte with fingerprints, that had been appropriated for Betty’s spaceship. “And then remember how we argued over what to watch too much, so they got us each a TV for our room? How sick was that?”
Sarah laughed. “You say that now, but it was pretty amazing at the time.”
“True. Lonely, though. I think I didn’t want to watch whatever it was so much as I wanted to fight.”
“You always did like fighting.”
I chose to ignore that. Even while we were laughing over our past as squabbling sisters, Sarah had the ability to raise my hackles with a single word. It always happened just as I was feeling warm and close to her: She would say just the thing to upset me. As in “So how are you
I rolled my eyes. Ugh, still?
You modern girls think too much. I never in my life analyzed my relationship with my siblings so much. What’s to analyze? She’s your sister.
“I’m fine, Sarah,” I said testily. “Everything’s fine.”
“Really? That’s great.” She paused. I could hear Max shrieking in the background. “Any word from—”
“No. Hey, I should go get these girls ready for bed.”
“Okay. But you know, if you ever need to talk—”
Oh, my perfect sister. Kind and compassionate, sensitive, worried about how everyone was feeling, all the time with the
. She had always been an unfair kind of sister to have, beautiful and blond—we hardly looked related—and smart and well behaved and well liked. Now she was a couples therapist, of all things, which made it impossible to speak to her of Harry even before this most recent episode. She was always recommending books with titles like
Learning to Feel, Learning to Love.
Learning Not to Barf at Touchy-Feely BS, that was the one I needed. Her perfect husband even had the audacity to be rich in an unobnoxious way. After all these years, with all these miles between us, I could hardly stand to talk to her most of the time.
Has it ever occurred to you that Sarah might have some secrets of her own? That even Sarah might think she’s too good for her life and not good enough for her life, that even Sarah wants to visit Egypt, so to speak?
No, not Sarah. Seriously, believe me, her life is perfect.
You don’t know her.
I thought about my mother and my sister all night as I squinted at the flounces on the flower-girl dress I was finishing. My initial peevish reaction of feeling put upon by anyone else’s happiness (a personality flaw I knew was as unbecoming as it was unhelpful) had dissipated with the soothing repetitions of work and the rusalka’s mutterings.
After all, it’s not their fault that Harry’s gone, that New York’s expensive, that the girls are at tricky ages, that you’re tired.
I know that. I guess I do. It has nothing to do with them.
It does, because they are concerned about you. Because they care about you. Not because they want to gloat at your troubles or make you feel worse. Jesus, Jenny, I never knew anyone who had such a hard time with every last little thing. You think too much. Just let me help you.
Like that, I was suddenly able to remember how I loved these people, how it was true that it didn’t hurt me to be happy for them. I know it probably should have started to come naturally to me when I was about fifteen, but I don’t know, maybe being able to empathize with your family was part of that final adolescent growth spurt that had skipped over me, leaving me short and bitter. The next day, uncharacteristically, or maybe characteristically, I called them back. “I think that’s really, really wonderful, Mom. I think you’re going to have an amazing time, and I can’t wait to hear all about it.” Even though my voice sounded a little fake to me, oversugared like a coffee destroyed by flavored syrup, my mother sounded genuinely touched and promised to send the girls postcards with exotic stamps. “Thanks for your concern, Sarah,” I said in my next call, trying not to sound customer-servicey. “Sorry if I get defensive. The whole Harry situation is hard for me to even acknowledge.” Why did it feel so artificial to say something sincere?
Still, I felt better, a little lighter, a little taller, a little brighter. Maybe there was hope for me after all.
Then there was the other side of the family, my ties to whom I felt unraveling the longer Harry was gone. I headed down to the Ever So Fresh offices in Bay Ridge, a Brooklyn neighborhood I hadn’t visited in a little over a lifetime. Since my last life, actually. Sylvia, who apparently had become a psychiatrist without our knowing, informed me that I’d stayed away because being there was too painful. Maybe she was right. But I had never liked the place, and I was reminded why as I approached, the girls tucked into the fancy new double stroller I’d purchased with my first haul of dress money. This was real Brooklyn, Italian Brooklyn, where men in wife-beaters smoked cigarillos on stoops, listening to transistor radios as if transported from the pre-iPod past; ladies with big hair and bigger nails leaned out windows and screamed unbeautiful arias to one another; kids leaped in the tidal spray of an open fire hydrant. The ice cream truck that tinkled by sold only soft-serve cones, no sugar-free fruit ices, like in Park Slope. It was picturesque, but I always felt like an outsider, as if my ten years in New York were nothing but a tourist’s stopover. People who lived here had lived here forever, and their parents had lived here forever; they viewed Manhattan as a suspect foreign country; they knew Harry from when he was this high. Harry hated it, and in his rebellious adulthood he’d migrated some subway stops north, which was about the length of Sylvia’s apron strings.