Everything about Jessie is wrong. At least, that's what it feels like during her first week as a junior at her new ultra-intimidating prep school in Los Angeles. Then one day, she gets an email ...(more)
"Home, sweet home," Dad said the first time we walked into his new wife's house, and he spread his hands wide, as if to say 'Not too shabby, right?' If our house in Chicago was low-ceilinged and squat and tough, what I thought of fondly as a wrestler of a house, this one is the prom king: tall and shiny-toothed and the effortless winner of everything. White couches. White walls. White bookshelves. It's bad enough she's paying my tuition. Now I'm terrified to add stain damage to my running tab.
No, not quite home, sweet home. It feels weird to complain about living in something out of MTV Cribs, and yet, I miss our house, which Dad sold to the Patels the first day we put it on the market. Aisha is now sleeping in my old room, which has been stripped of my vintage movie posters, and collage of book covers, and pictures of Scar and me making silly faces. Here, I'm tucked away in one of the many extra guest rooms, all of which are decorated so as to keep you from overstaying your welcome. I now sleep on an antique-style daybed--the sort of thing fit for a 1950s pinup girl to show off her garters, and not so much meant for, you know, actual sleeping. The en suite bathroom is equipped with monogrammed Tuscan soaps that look too expensive to touch, much less use. And the walls are decorated with the kind of abstract art that looks like the handiwork of a third grader. My only addition to the room, besides Bessie, my childhood stuffed cow, is a tiny photo of my mother and me from when I was about eight or nine. My entire body is wrapped around her thigh, like I'm a baby monkey, even though I was already too old for that sort of thing. She's looking down at me. There's love and amusement in her eyes, adoration and fear in mine. I still remember the moment it was taken. I was afraid of a new babysitter, convinced, for some reason, that if my mom walked out the door, she'd never come back.
"Don't you love it?" my dad asked of the house, after he had carried my life in two duffel bags up the sweeping staircase to "my room." He was so happy and excited, like a kid who had done good and wanted a treat, that I couldn't let him down. He had turned helpless when my mom got sick. One day she was healthy, the captain of both of our lives, the one who organized everything, and then suddenly she was not. The diagnosis: stage four ovarian cancer. She became too weak to walk across the room, much less navigate the intricacies of the day-to-day: meals, rides, keeping us stocked in toilet paper.
Sapped and exhausted, my dad lost both weight and hair, as if it were him, not her, who was having the chemo and radiation. As if he were her mirror image. Or conjoined twin. One of them unable to function without the other. It had been just over two years (747 days, I count them), and I couldn't help but notice that only recently had he started to put back on the weight, to look more solid. Again, finally, a man, the dad, not the child. For months afterward, my dad would ask me questions that made clear he had no idea how our daily lives actually worked: Where do we keep the dustpan? What's the name of your principal? How often do you get checkups?
My dad worked full-time, and when he wasn't working, he was busy negotiating with the insurance companies, dealing with the mountains of doctors' bills that kept coming and coming, so cruel after the fact. Instead of bothering him, I borrowed his tired credit card. Set up auto-ship for paper towels and toilet paper, kept a grocery list, bought us granola bars and instant oatmeal in bulk. Because I hadn't yet gotten my driver's license that first year, I ordered bras online. Tampons too. Asked the Internet all the questions I would have asked my mother. A sad virtual substitute.
We made do. Both of us did. And for a while there, we were so busy holding things together, I almost forgot how things used to be. How all three of us used to be conjoined. When I was little, I'd climb into bed between my parents so we could make our daily Jessie sandwich. We were a happy unit; three seemed a good, balanced number. Each of us had our defined roles. My dad worked and made us laugh. My mom worked too, but part-time, and so she was point person, the family soother and the glue. My only job was to be their kid, to be their good egg, to bask in their constant stream of attention.
It's been 747 days and still I have not yet learned how to talk about any of this. I mean, I can talk about how I bought the toilet paper, how we were broken, how I was broken. But I still haven't found the words to talk about my mom. The real her. To remember who she was in a way that doesn't make me keel over.
I don't know how to do that yet.
Sometimes it feels like I've forgotten how to talk altogether.
"It's amazing, Dad, really," I said, because the new house is amazing. If I was going to be held captive by a wicked stepmother, surely there are worse places I could have ended up than living in the pages of Architectural Digest. I wasn't going to complain about its utter lack of homeyness--and not even homeyness specific to me, but homeyness in general--or the fact that I felt like I had moved into a museum filled with strangers. That would sound petty. Anyhow, we both knew that that wasn't the problem. The problem was that Mom wasn't here. That she would never be anywhere again. When I thought about that for too long, which I didn't, when I could help it, I realized it didn't matter much where I slept.
Certain facts tend to render everything else irrelevant.
We once were three strong, and now we were something altogether different. A new, unidentifiable formation. A cockeyed parallelogram.
"Call me Rachel," Dad's new wife had said the first time I met her, which made me laugh. What else was I going to call her? Mother? Ms. Scott? (Her maiden name. Actually, not her maiden name. Her previous married name.) Or even more ridiculous, her new name, my mother's name: Mrs. Holmes? In my head, she remains Dad's new wife; it's a futile exercise to try to get me used to the idea. Dad's new wife. Dad's new wife. Dad's new wife. Talk about three words that don't fit together.
"Call me Jessie," I said, because I didn't know what else to say. The fact that she existed at all had come as a surprise. I hadn't even realized my dad had started dating. He had been traveling a bunch--pharmaceutical conventions, he claimed--and I hadn't thought to question him, even though he had never before taken a work trip. I figured he was using work the same way I was using school: as a way to forget. I was excited to be home alone for those weekends. (Did I take advantage and throw big parties, where kids sipped beer from red Solo cups and left piles of vomit on our lawn? Nope. Scarlett slept over. We made microwave popcorn and binge rewatched old seasons of our favorite shows.)
Then one day my dad came home and said this whole thing about having fallen in love and I noticed he had a new ring on his finger. Cold and shiny. Silver: a bitter medal. Apparently, somehow, instead of going to Orlando to learn more about Cialis, he had eloped to Hawaii with a woman he met on the Internet in one of his bereavement support groups. At first, I thought he was joking, but his hands were shaking, and he was half smiling the way he does when he's nervous. And then came the long, terrible speech about how he knew this was going to be difficult, a new city, switching schools and all--this was the part he said fast, so fast that I made him repeat it to make sure I had heard him right. This was the part when I first heard the words "Los Angeles."
A step up, he said. An opportunity. A way to get us out of "our rut." Those were other words he dared to use: "our rut."
I hadn't realized we were in a rut. "Rut" seemed way too small a word for grief.
He was tan, his cheeks pink from three days on a beach. I was still pale from the Chicago winter. My fingers probably smelled of butter. I didn't cry. After the shock wore off, I cared a whole lot less than I thought I would. Sometimes, when Scarlett says I'm strong, I think she really means I'm numb.