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Anna Has Two Mommies

                                    Alison Umminger


[a novel excerpt]

I am not a thief.  If you invited me to your house, you wouldn’t need to double-check and make sure that all the liquor was still in your cabinet, or that a Starbucks gift card hadn’t mysteriously vanished from your countertop while I was watching television with your daughter.  Stealing, contrary to my mother’s newfound take on me, is not my “thing.”   My sister, Delia, is an actress in Los Angeles, and she told me last summer that everyone needs a “thing.”  She’s beautiful, with silver-grey eyes and ink-black hair that goes half way down her back, and a voice that sounds like she makes dirty phone calls for a living.  She was almost cast as a Bond girl, but she told me that beauty isn’t enough.  Everyone here is gorgeous, she said, so you have to figure out something else.  You’ve got to be good at at least two things, and known for one.  She almost qualified as an Olympic gymnast, so being able to do her own stunts is her “thing.”  I visited her last summer, and she took me to a boutique in Santa Monica and helped me pick out a new pair of glasses for when I started high school.  It is safe to say that being beautiful is not what I am going to be known for, but she told me that with the right glasses I could rule the world of “nerd chic.”  I think she forgot that nerds are not, nor will they ever be, chic in Atlanta, or maybe in any high school in America.  I bought a pair of thick, black frames that you normally see on blind, old men, and wore the reddest lip gloss my mom would let me leave the house with.  Flawless, my sister had said.  Very French.  The only person who noticed my makeover was my best friend, Doon, and she let me know that I had lip gloss on my teeth.  I didn’t get beat up, but I didn’t get asked to Homecoming, either.

Now, if you asked my mother, she would probably make me out to be a criminal of the first order.  To hear her tell it, I’m no better than those actresses who shoplift from Saks and whine about being bored with their lives on the news.  Blah, blah, blah, you can’t be trusted she was actually crying when my sister gave me her phone at the airport.  Blah, blah, blah, how could you have violated Lynette’s privacy like that?  Blah, blah, blah, I wish I’d known more about how I was raising you when I was doing it.  Like I’m some kind of paragraph she wishes she could delete and re-write, but she already accidentally e-mailed it to the world.

The good thing is that now I am in Los Angeles, while my mother is in Atlanta with her awful new wife and toddler.  How?  My mother asked.  How did anyone let a fourteen year old girl through security at the Atlanta airport?  Are  you carrying drugs?  She yelled at my sister for a while, who pulled the phone away from her ear theatrically and whispered over the receiver, “Don’t think this means you’re not in a huge pile of shit.  Because you are.”

But huge piles of shit are relative, and it’s hard to feel threatened in the Hollywood Hills, not in my sister’s apartment, at any rate, which is all mirrors and white light.  I think if my sister were less pretty, her apartment would be cheesy—too many pillows and candles, too few decent snack food choices.  Instead, it feels like the inside of some Egyptian goddess’s sanctuary, full of perfumes you can only buy in Europe, expensive make-up in black designer cases, and underwear that is decidedly non-functional.  It has crossed my mind that my sister might be a slut, but a really nice-smelling, clean, and discerning slut.  Even I know better than to ask if that’s one of the two other “things” that she’d good at, though Doon and I have some theories.

“Can we go shopping tomorrow?” I ask.

“Are you deaf?  You’re in some serious trouble,” my sister says.  Then she laughs a little, she can’t help herself.  “So you stole Lynette’s credit card.”

“I didn’t steal it.”

“Have you considered law school?  You stole the number.”

“I used the number.” I said, annoyed that she even wanted to talk about it.  “It was under five hundred dollars.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”  She kept an eye on me like I might make a break for the door, leveling green powder and yogurt into a blender.

“What’s that?”

“Greens and probiotics,” she said.  “Fish oil, B vitamins, Acai berry juice, and herbs from my Chinese doctor.  It’s like licking the bottom of a compost pile, so let’s hope it’s doing something besides bankrupting me.”

Dramatic, my sister.  But at least she makes money for it.

“And don’t change the subject.  You could have gotten nabbed by some pervert.  Mom was scared to death.  Oh, yeah, roll your eyes and make me another mean mean grown-up, but you’re lucky you got here.  What if I had been on location somewhere?”

My sister puts on music, Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here.  Lonesome music that seems like it only belongs on the West Coast.

“What if the taxi driver had been a serial killer?” I said.  “What if terrorist hijacked the plane?  I did get here.  I’m fine.  I’d like to know how long it took her to notice I was gone.”   

“Not long.” My sister sipped the grass-shake. “Lynette’s bank called a few hours afterwards about a suspicious charge.”

Lynette’s bank called.  I’ll bet they did.  Before my mom decided she was a lesbian, I thought lesbians were all these really nice, earthy, crunchy, let’s smother you with our twenty extra pounds of lady-love and fight-the-power people.  But Lynette isn’t like that at all.  She’s thin and smart and mean, and probably sleeps with her cell phone to get bank alerts like that.

“So it’s really their money they’re worried about,” I said.

“That’s not what I said at all.  That’s how they found out.  Are you depressed or something?”

I didn’t shake my head either way.  I hadn’t really thought about it.

“I’m not taking sides on this one.  Cora’s clearly lost her mind and I regret that you’re living the crazy, but you can’t just steal people’s credit cards.  You can’t.  Okay?”  She ran her finger inside the glass to get the last of the sludge while I re-opened the refrigerator door to see if anything with refined flour or sugar had materialized.  No luck.

But it wasn’t really theft.  It wasn’t.

Two weeks ago Cora, our mother, shanghaied me with a “family meeting” at my favorite Starbucks.  When they first split up, if either of them was late for a pick up, I would sit in the corner and listen in on people’s first dates, or the baristas bitching about which customer tipped in pennies, or who they thought was throwing up in the ladies room.  I loved to put on my headphones and pretend to listen to music and spy.  My parents decided it was a good neutral spot when they first separated, when they yelled constantly about “their needs” and who was doing what wrong and screwing me up for all eternity, like they’d made being an asshole to your spouse an Olympic event.  Starbucks introduced the public shame factor.  They still hated each other, but they learned to hate each other politely and with the volume dialed down.

My Dad had on a pink shirt, the button down kind, that his new girlfriend, Cindy, probably bought him.  She’s a stylist, which means that she gets paid by adults to dress them in age-inappropriate clothing and then tell them that they look “hip.”  Atlanta is full of tight-assed, bleach-blonde women who look twenty from behind, and turn around to reveal their botoxed, eight thousand year old, veiny-handed glory.  These are Cindy’s clients.  She likes that my father is a carpenter.  “He works with his hands,” she said to me, and I swear it was dirty. 

My mom looked tired, but then she always looked tired.  She had left Birch (yes, she named my half-brother after a tree) with Lynette, which meant that she was fiddling with her boobs to see if they were going to explode.

“Mom!”

“Oh,” she said.  “Sorry.  I forget sometimes.”

“You forget all the time.”

She closed her eyes for a minute and then opened them.  I don’t think she even heard me.

“Anna,” my father said in his sad, authoritarian voice.  Pink shirt, soy latte, Dad, I cannot take you seriously.  “You have to start treating Lynette with respect, and Cindy as well.”

Poor, poor step-dults.  They both looked so earnest, like they really cared whether or not I pretended not to hear Lynette when she wanted me to play Cinderella for an hour, or that it hurt Cindy’s feelings that I didn’t want to go with her to buy overpriced purple jeans for some third-tier hip hop star.  I had almost convinced myself that I could leverage the situation into a new phone, when my Mom came out with this beautiful and well-rehearsed number:

“And because your father is starting his own business, and I’d like to stay home with Birch, we won’t be able to afford your school anymore.  We have a thousand dollars allotted for your activities for the year.  Five hundred for the fall and five hundred for the spring.  It’s really a lot, if you think about it, but that’s only if we take you out of Lakewood and put you at McKinley.”

My dad was staring right through me to the table behind us.

My mom checked her right boob again.

It felt like there was a boa constrictor around my throat.

“We looked at the test scores, and they’re really not that different at McKinley.  It’s close to the house, and you can walk home if you need to.”  My mom was giving me the same look she gives a chicken when she wants to see if it’s done or not.  “We know that you have friends at Lakewood, but you’ll make new friends.”

“You make new friends,” I said.  “I like my friends.”

I had complained about Lakewood every morning my mom dragged me there, but suddenly it seemed like an island in the Bahamas.  Lakewood was small, and there was a park on the campus where we could go outside to eat lunch.  We had a period just to read at the library, and my teachers all dressed like they were professors from a movie set in the 1950s.  The teachers at McKinley looked like latent pedophiles, and the cafeteria might as well have been a prison.  I’d hears stories from my friend Doon.  I didn’t need my mom to give me the hard sell.

“Now, Anna,” my dad countered.  “This isn’t easy for us to have to say.”

“Then don’t say it.  You don’t have to say anything, do you?  You just want to because you have some anorexic teenager buying you pink shirts and you’re too lazy to work now that the baby is a born.  And he’s a toddler now, in case you hadn’t noticed.  He’d be happy if you went back to work.  I wouldn’t want to say around that crazy house all day, why would he?”

Mostly when my mom got mad it was at Lynette, but I could see a predatory flash in her eyes.  I think she was a tiger in another life.

“That’s enough, Anna.  I don’t expect you to understand how much work it is to take care of you and Birch.”

A woman at the next table craned her head to get a closer look, and I didn’t even care.

“Include me out,” I said.  “You don’t take care of me.  You take care of you.  And STOP touching your boobs.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I was thinking about Birch.”

That was it.  I was done with both of them.  Poor Birch, who was still stuck on my mom’s boobs half the day, when she could easily have kicked him off and given him a glass of milk or something normal.  He was going to have thousands of dollars in therapy bills.  Millions.  Good luck when they realized they only had five hundred dollars for that when he turned thirteen.

“I’m not going to expect anyone who has three different partners for three different children to understand that it’s hard for some of us to leave our friends.  I don’t want to make new friends.  I like my friends.  You’ve made sure I’ve had enough new experiences for my whole life.  For forever.  Teenage mom?  Got it.  Mom decides she’s gay?  Yup, that too.  Mom decides that even though she’s WAY too old to have a baby on her own, she’ll have some doctor work some voodoo.”

“That’s ENOUGH, Anna,” my father said.  And pink shirt or not, he meant it.

My mom made a little sobbing noise.  It wasn’t fair.  If anyone was supposed to be crying, it was me.

“No one tells you,” she said, giving me the kind of face Birch did when you brought him the wrong number of crackers, like you’d wrecked his whole world on purpose or something.  “That your children can be so cruel.”  And my dad, who I know personally hates her guts behind her back ALL THE TIME, went over and rubbed her shoulders and gave me a look like I was the bad one.  Like they hadn’t just double-teamed me to ruin my life, and now it was going to be my fault.

“At least you can see what I’ve been telling you about,” my mother said, finally.  My father closed his eyes, hard, and let out a long sigh.

“It’s never easy,” he said.  “Those first years.  I think I forgot.”

“None of it’s easy,” she said.

I had officially vanished.

“I think I’m getting strep throat,” I said.

My mother put her hand on my forehead and pulled it back as quickly.

“You’re fine,” she said.  “And I think you know it.”

But I didn’t know it.  It felt like I was having one of those allergic reactions where your whole throat closes down and your eyes blow up and they have to get a needle into you fast or you’re tomorrow’s AOL headline.  And no one cared or believed me.

So it wasn’t just because it was almost five hundred dollars exactly to fly out that weekend—and they’d already made it clear that five hundred dollars was the budget for all things Anna-related—it was because I knew that I was doing them a favor, if you thought about it.  It might have been real stealing to take the extra seventy-four dollars from Lynette’s wallet, but I figured they wouldn’t want me getting to LA and thumbing a ride.  Not even they would think that was a bad use of money, in the end.

One thing I didn’t tell my sister, and I wouldn’t tell my mom or dad.  I wouldn’t tell anyone, really, because it’s the kind of thing that just makes you look sad when you’re supposed to be having a good time.  I imagined when I got on the plane I’d try and order a wine, or see if they’d upgrade me to first class, or at least spend some money on the snacks they make you pay for.  Traveling with parents means sad dried fruit and chewy popcorn in ziplock bags.  I was going to have Pringles!  I thought it would be my reward for talking my way through security, but the crazy thing was they just let me through security like a fourteen year old traveling alone was the most normal thing in the world.  Maybe it was, but I’d never done it.  They didn’t even find the water bottle and mini can of mace attached to my keychain.  I felt even more invisible than I did at the coffee shop, and by the time I boarded the airplane, it was like I was one of those balloons we used to send in the air with our name and address on the string in the hope that someone might mail it back, but no one ever did.

Maybe I was depressed.  The thought did cross my mind that once I landed in LA, I could take a taxi to Disneyland, or high-tail it to the Hollywood sign, or get one of those maps of the stars’ houses and become a professional stalker, or maybe even become the youngest member of the paparazzi ever and become famous for that in a movie-of-the-week kind of way.

When we landed my sister was right outside the gate, inside security, plastered to her cell phone.

“Yes,” she said.  “She’s here.  I see her now.  She looks fine.  I know.  Okay.  Love you too.”

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“What am I doing here?  Have you completely lost your mind?”

“No.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.  Well, right now, I’m missing work because my phone rang this morning after Cora got a call that you weren’t in school and then they figured out that you’d stolen a credit card.  Seriously.  I’ve got to hand it to you, Anna, I thought I was a grade-A fuck-up for not going to college, but you’re leaving me in the dust.  Is something happening?” her voice lowered a bit.  “Is anyone molesting you?  Because I wouldn’t send you back and I would always believe you.”

“No!” I said.  “Gross.  Who would molest me?  Dad?  Lynette?  No, it’s just.  I don’t want to talk about it.”

“You flew all the way across the country and you don’t want to talk about it.  Fine for now, but I’m gonna let you in on a little secret, they’re gonna want you to talk about it.”

I hadn’t seen my sister in almost a year.  She’d always been pretty, but now she had the smoothed down look of a Barbie doll.  Her hair was straight and the glossy brown of an expensive magazine cover.  She had on a wifebeater, blue jeans, and a denim jacket with five inch high dominatrix heels:  black leather with silver studs.  But she could still walk faster than me, in my converse low-tops, old-navy denim, and red, Georgia sweatshirt.

“They wanted to send you right back home,” she said.  “You can thank me for the fact that you get to stay here to cool off for a couple of days.  But you’re under house arrest, okay?  No running off to the Coffee Bean for celebrity sightings.  I want to understand what’s going on.  You know this makes me feel guilty too, don’t you?”

Just walking through the LA airport made me glad that I wasn’t in Atlanta.  When you go up the escalators at the Atlanta airport there’s a mural on the walls that features a mystery-raced toddler with blurred-out genitals playing in a fountain.  I think it’s supposed to be friendly and inclusive, but it’s just weird.  The LA airport is the exact opposite, no one is trying to look friendly, and everyone we passed looked like they might be someone.

“You’re not even listening,” she said.  “Does it even bother you that I could lose my job for missing work today?  Finding an actress to fill my shoes is like finding a clover in a clover field, okay?  A thank you would be in order.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.  Delia stopped walking and stared me down, like the old days.  “And thank you.  Thaaaaannnnnnk youuuuuuuu.” 

She rolled her eyes.

“So what are you working on?” I asked.

“Were you even listening when I called last weekend?  It’s an indy horror flick about zombies and the organ trade in China.”

“Seriously?”

I hadn’t checked a bag, so we headed straight for the parking lot.  It felt like I was going on vacation.

“Did you know that part of the reason they won’t do away with the death penalty in China is the organ trade?  And they don’t just execute people in prisons, they have these vans that drive around and pick people up and do away with them on the spot.  So I’m supposed to be this American woman who sees a body thrown from one of the vans only,” she paused in creepy horror movie style, “it’s not really dead yet.  I think they’re trying to make a point, the director keeps talking about human rights and Amnesty International, but I think that’s to hide the fact that he can’t write dialogue.  Not my problem as long as he can pay my salary,” she said.  “You want to know what it’s called?”

“What?”

She was cracking herself up, “Thief of Hearts.  I mean, unless your lead zombie is on the rebound, it’s too goofy, right?”

“I guess.”

We get into a BMW convertible that is definitely not my sister’s.  For the longest time she was dating Roger, a film student who would have been hard pressed to drive a ‘92 Corolla off a used car parking lot.  But now she’s “just good friends” with the cinematographer of the Bond flick that she lost the part for, and he lets her use his car when he’s abroad.  Because friends do things like that in LA, especially when one of the friends is extremely good looking.

“I’m practically the lead, only I’m down a kidney or something by the end.”

It was three hours earlier in California and had just started to get dark, but I felt tired.  I leaned my head against the window and watched the traffic, the palm trees, the fruit stands on the side of the streets.  It was easy to be in California with my sister.  She was the kind of person that people didn’t just buy drinks for—they offered her their cars, their homes, their credit cards.  I knew what the week would be like if I stayed here, Pilates and yoga, a trip to the old perv who balanced her energy, a few days on the set, a manicure or a haircut, and maybe a sip of a beer when we went out with the cinematographer, just to prove how “cool” he was.  People were nice to me when I was with Delia because I was her sister.  My sister would never have to steal five hundred bucks—if she so much as looked a little sad, someone was there to open his wallet.

If only my sister were my mom.  “Overrated” she said when I told her that once.  “Cora was my sister-mom, and we’re a real portrait of functionality, right?”

I’d heard stories about my mom in the old days, how she would take Delia on dates with her when she couldn’t find a sitter, or the time they just took off to go to the World Series of Poker in Vegas because my mom had a dream that she was going to win big.  The mom I got, Cora 2.0, always made me call her Mom and until two years ago she and Dad were sort of like sitcom parents, only a little less funny and (time has revealed) a lot less sexy.  I guess they were fine, but they definitely weren’t fun.  When my sister talked about Cora, it was like she knew a totally different person, which I guess she did.

I thought that maybe my mom was going to call back and I was going to be forced to get on the phone to apologize, but after my sister hung up with her the second time, the phone never rang.  While Delia was learning her lines, I got on the internet and sent my friend Doon an e-mail.  She told me that I should Google “punishments for stealing” so that I would be ready for anything when I talked to my mom.  We figured out a while ago that my mom likes to get advice from the internet.  After reading about how a child who steals probably already feels ashamed enough (please, God, let her decide that I’ve suffered enough!), I found a site that showed a truck running over the arm of a boy who’d been caught stealing in Iran, only it turned out that the picture was a fake and it was just a scam for money.  Then I searched those death trucks in China that my sister was talking about, and they looked like the kind of RVs that I used to think it would be fun to take on vacation, like in that Chevy Chase movie, where you could shower and poop and sleep and wake up in New Mexico, only in China they were sleek and black like giant police cars, and you woke up dead.  I wondered if Doon had heard about those.  I was pretty sure she hadn’t so I sent her a link to a page.  China definitely sounded worse than Atlanta, even if my sister swore by their doctors.

While I was surfing the web, I started getting more and more nervous, like I was going to have a panic attack.  So I Googled panic attack and decided that I didn’t want to start having those at fourteen, but it didn’t make my chest feel any less tight.  I don’t think I missed my mom and I know I didn’t miss Lynette, but I wondered if Birch had noticed I was missing.  At night, he liked to bring me this book about a duck and a cat and an owl who make soup out of pumpkins.  I’d make these big slurping noises and he would die laughing, and when Birch laughs it’s pretty disgusting in terms of cute.  I wondered if he brought the book to Lynette, or what they told him had happened to me.  He wouldn’t have understood either way, but I kind of wished now that I had said good-bye, or left him a note.

In the other room, I could hear my sister practicing her lines.  It pumps.  It bleeds.  But does it feel?  Her bed felt like the bed in a hotel, with white-white sheets and pillows everywhere, and the room smelled faintly of roses.  Do you love me?  Or do you just think you love me?  What is it beating inside of you?  From through the wall, those three lines over and over.  Louder then soft.  Scared.  Happy.  Excited.  Then very alone.

 

After your mother has decided at the age of forty-four that it turns out, surprise!, she likes women better than men, I’m going to say that there’s not a lot left out there to shock you.  A couple of months after my mother left my dad, Doon and I kissed.  Doon’s pretty enough, she’s short and has the kind of blonde hair that’s naturally white, like cornsilk, but brown eyes which you wouldn’t think would happen naturally, but they did.  She could probably have a boyfriend now if she wanted one.  I mean, if I were going to like girls it would make sense that I would like Doon, because I already liked her enough to have her be my best friend.  My mom said that’s not how it works, but it seemed like Doon was the only person I could have kissed and not have it turn into some federal, “you’re a dyke just like your mom” thing around the neighborhood.  And we went to different schools, so it seemed extra safe.  It’s not even that I liked Doon in that way, but I figured, and I still think it’s not a bad thought, that if was going to end up gay, I wanted to know about it right away and not wait until I had a family and screwed up everybody’s life.

It turned out that I didn’t like kissing Doon and she didn’t like kissing me, and maybe we’re both just not good at it.  Then Doon kissed her first boy a few weeks later and she said it wasn’t much better, but it was still a little better.  It’s stupid, but that kind of hurt my feelings, which makes me a dork, not a lesbian.  Still.  If I ever had a family, I can tell you that I wouldn’t wreck it just to make out with someone new every ten years.

My sister took me to work the next day, and for the rest of the week, and the movie set was like I had imagined it would be from watching TV and reading magazines, only there was a lot more sitting around and waiting and all the food on the fancy tables was sad and stale.  And the actors were short.  There was one guy who I guess was kind of famous on a cable TV show, and his face was handsome, but it was like they made him in miniature so I just couldn’t see how people would get excited about him if they really saw him.  But I guess that was the whole point of Hollywood, that no one ever really saw you.  When we went home at night my sister would learn her lines for the next day and the calls with my mother would start.  I can’t even talk to you.  You have no idea how much you scared me.  How are we going to get you home?  I can’t just leave Birch, and I don’t want you traveling alone again?  How can I trust you to get on the right plane?  Where would you end up next?  Like I was Waldo or something.  Do you know my milk almost dried up when I thought you were gone?  Oooohmigod, I had to hand it to my mother, she could even make running away totally disgusting.  I expect you’re spending your time away figuring out how you’re going to pay Lynette back.  You have to learn to think about someone other than yourself.  That was a little too pot-kettle as my grandmother used to say, but mostly she just yelled at me until she got tired and asked if I had anything to say, which I really didn’t, except that I wasn’t sure how I was going to pay the money back, which she said didn’t count as an apology and just got mad again.  Yesterday, I asked her how Birch was doing and she calmed down a little bit and put him on the phone, but then he disconnected it.

So when we came home from the set on Thursday, I was pretty shocked when we opened the door and Lynette was sitting on the sofa, working on her laptop like it was Sunday afternoon in Atlanta.  She even had MSNBC on the television with the volume off, which she liked to say helped her concentrate.  For a minute, I thought about running, I mean seriously bolting across the room like it was home invasion time, but she didn’t look mad –not even half as mad as my mom sounded when we talked on the phone.

“Hey, Lynette,” my sister said, and gave her a half-hug and a kiss on the cheek.  “I’m glad you found the key.”

It’s terrible having an actress for a sister:  traitor.  Mental note made and filed.

“I rented a car,” Lynette said.  She closed the laptop and put it on the coffee table.  My face felt hot, like I’d been in the sun too long, and I needed to sit down but I didn’t want to go into the living room with her.

“Hi, Anna,” she said.  Awkward.     “Hey, Lynette.”

“I’ve gotta get the zombie off,” my sister said, gesturing to the make-up that was still on her arm, and before I could figure out a way to make her stay, she was in the other room.  The lady on the television was moving her lips above a story headline that said STOCKS TO RALLY?  It made me nervous, because stocks meant money and money meant the conversation that I really, really, really did not want to have.

“Well,” she said.  “I can tell by looking at you that you have no idea what you’ve put us through on the other end.”  Then she stopped, took a deep breath, and started again.  “Sorry, that’s not how I wanted to start this conversation.  I’m glad that nothing happened to you.  We both are.  And I’m not here to bring you back, or to take you to the police.”  She laughed at that one like it was some really obvious and stupid joke, but I’d bet a million dollars that the option had seriously crossed her mind.  “I want to say first, before we get into anything else, that I don’t think the way your mother handled things in talking to you about the change of school was the best idea.”  She paused again, and I edged myself onto the arm of the sofa farthest from her.

“When all of this happened,” she said.  “I tried to put myself in your shoes.  Your mother said that it didn’t go well when they talked to you, and I realized that I never got to talk to you and most of the time, we’re so busy with Birch or work that we don’t hear what you have to say.  So I flew out here, first and foremost, to listen.  I think you know what questions I might have, so I won’t patronize you.”  Ha!  I had to hold back a smile because I had googled the exact site that talked about “not patronizing” your little thief.

Then she stopped.  It was my turn, but I didn’t want to talk.  It didn’t have anything to do with her, and I knew that she was being nice.  If I’d had any sense I would have googled “how to sound sincere when apologizing,” but I hadn’t, and it was too late.  Then I realized it was a Thursday so Lynette was missing work, and that made me feel almost worse than anything.

“Okay then,” she said.  “What if I were to tell you that I’m not going to mention the five hundred dollars again.  We’ll let that go and start over.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “I mean it.  Thank you.”

She gave me a pinch-lipped smile.

“Here is what we decided.  You’re ahead on your studies relative to the school you’ll be entering, and it’s almost summer, so we’re going to let you stay here until you’ve earned the money for a return ticket.  You need to be back by the end of the summer.  This isn’t a joke and it’s not a vacation.  We checked and saw that you’re old enough to work part time, and your sister has been kind enough to say that she’ll help as much as she can with finding a job and transportation.”

I bit my cheek so that I wouldn’t look as happy as I felt.

“Was this mom’s idea?” I asked.

“It was mine,” Lynette said.  “But that’s not all.  You can test out of your science and math classes, but your English teacher wants you to do a final project.”  Lynette opened her briefcase and passed a manila envelope across the table.  “She’s going to follow up on e-mail if you have any questions.  They were quite understanding.  I hope you understand that you’ll be missing all the end of year activities, the chance to say good-bye to your friends.”

I was already thinking of the places that I would apply for jobs, maybe the candy store near the lot where my sister was filming.  Or one of the ice cream stores with the trendy names and all the girls in line who looked like they kept that ice cream down for about 2.5 seconds.  If Mom and Lynette thought missing some picnic at the aquarium was a punishment, they had read the wrong internet article.  But I dug my teeth in harder, until I could almost taste blood, until a tear started to form.

“And you can decide how you want to communicate with Birch.”

You wouldn’t think it was possible, but I’d really forgotten about not seeing Birch for three months.  He was just learning to pull himself up on furniture when I left, and he could make the signs for “finished” and “more.”  He even called me “Na Na” when he really wanted my keys or to go through my wallet.  He would probably start walking this summer.

“Do you think he’ll remember me?”

Lynette looked like she felt sorry for me, and I felt for a minute like I really was going to cry.

“Why didn’t Mom fly out?”

“Your mom can’t leave Birch,” she said.  “You know that.  And we didn’t think it would be in his best interest to be on such a long flight for a short visit.” 

She then went on to tell me about how much my mother loved me, and how she wasn’t very good at expressing it, and how worried she had been.  I probably sell Lynette short, since she flew thousands of miles to come and tell me something that she could have just said on the phone, and my mom couldn’t even be bothered to pack up the baby for a day to check on me herself.  For all she knew my sister had turned into a heroin junkie and was going to sell me for organ parts.  I hated my mother for that, for sending Lynette to do her dirty work.

“It’s a complicated thing,” Lynette finally said.  “The way mothers love their daughters.  You don’t understand it now, and I know it’s not helpful when an adult says something like that, but one day you’ll see.  The way you feel about Birch is the way your mother feels about you, only she’s had thirteen more years to know you and hope for you and love you.”

Sometimes when Birch was doing something accidentally hilarious like trying to eat a shoestring, I’d ask my Mom what I was like when I was his age.  She told me that she wrote everything down in my baby book, but I wanted to hear what she remembered.  Well, she said, You were terribly smart.  We could tell that from day one.  And we could always see what you were thinking.  Your eyes would get wider and brighter and you’d lunge for something, or start dancing like a lunatic, and your father and I would laugh and laugh and laugh.  I could sort of see myself being like that, but the thing I couldn’t picture was my mom and dad laughing like she said they did.  It was like someone telling you about a trip they had taken, somewhere far away and fabulous, only when you went to visit yourself the weather was lousy and all the good places were closed.  I thought about the movie my sister was working on, and how it sometimes felt like my life was the transplanted part of everyone else’s life.  Something that could be cut out, or grafted on, but which didn’t really serve a purpose in and of itself.

“It’s not the five hundred dollars,” I finally said.

And I could tell the minute I said it that she already knew, knew that and probably a lot more, maybe she even knew that she was leaving just when I wanted someone to hold me close and take me home.  


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