My mother loved my sister. My sister was worthy of love. I remember walking in on them once, as she was brushing Courtney's hair after her bath. She was telling her a story about when she was a little girl. Courtney was giggling, and my mother was laughing along with her.
"We would have been good friends if we'd grown up together. You are just like me when I was your age." I sat on the edge of the bathtub to watch them.
"What about Jo?" Courtney asked, shooting me a smile that was missing its two front teeth. "Would you have been good friends with her too?"
It was like she hadn't even noticed I was in the room until Court said my name. She blinked at me slowly, and smiled at her youngest daughter. "Oh, you know Johanna and her books. She wouldn't have had time to play with us, all that reading she does."
I wanted to tell her that I would burn every book I owned to be a part of their little mother/daughter club. Instead, I just shrugged. Courtney was a lot like my mother; the only difference being that she actually liked me.
I should have been jealous of her, but I wasn’t. She was the kind one in my family; the one who got up early on my birthday and piled a plate with little Debbie snack cakes and sneaked them into my room singing “Lake of Fire” by Nirvana. My birthday was on the Fourth of July — a huge imposition to my parents who hosted a party for the company on that day. But, Court always made sure the day was special. When my straight A’s went unnoticed, she would pin my report card to the refrigerator and circle my GPA in red marker. She was the love in my otherwise loveless life ... the warm blanket in a household that valued frigid emotional temperatures. When everyone else skimmed right over me, my sister zoned in. We had a bond and bonds were hard to come by.
When I brought Caleb home for the first time, my father noticed me. It was as if he could finally look at me now that I had secured a man of Caleb’s caliber. Not only was my new beau from money, he was well spoken, respectable, and ambitious … and he knew a damn lot of sports trivia.
They’d invited us for dinner. I watched them from my perch on the sofa. My dad laughed at everything Caleb said, and my mother buzzed around him like he was a blue blood. My sister was sitting next to me — so close our legs were touching. When we were together, we were always this close. It was a quiet rebellion against our parents. You try to create a divide between us, but we resist. When my parents were distracted with Caleb, Court elbowed me in the ribs and wagged her eyebrows. I burst into laughter.
“Methinks you did good on this one,” she said. “Any good in bed?”
I pulled a face at her. “Why would I be with anyone who was not?”
She raised her eyebrows. “I dunno, Lee, remember that guy from high school? The one with the chin dimple?”
I snorted into my glass of wine. Kirby, that was his name. The name in itself should have told me everything. You could not take a man whose named sounded like a video game avatar seriously. Especially when his head was between your legs and he started humming Kiss while making aggressive jabbing motions with his tongue.
“Women, not girls, rule my world, I said they rule my world…” My sister sang the lyrics, squeezing her eyes shut and biting her lip like Kirby used to do.
We erupted into laughter, earning a disapproving look from my mother. I swear that woman still had the ability to make me feel fifteen. I looked at her defiantly and laughed louder. I was twenty-eight f**king years old. She couldn’t control me anymore.
I thought everything went splendidly until we climbed into the car. Caleb was holding the door open for me when he suddenly said, “Your dad’s a chauvinist.”
I blinked in surprise. He didn’t say it as an accusation. It was more of an observation. It was a true observation. I shrugged.
“He’s a little old fashioned.”
Caleb pulled me into a hug. He was looking at me strangely, his eyebrows drawn and his mouth pulled into a thoughtful pucker. I’d come to know this as the ‘I’m psychoanalyzing you’ face. I wanted to pull away so he couldn’t see into me, but pulling away from Caleb was like shutting yourself in a freezer. If he was shining on you, you wanted to stand under his warmth, soak it all up. Pathetic. It was also beautiful. No one had ever given me as much warmth. I clung to his arms, and let him psychoanalyze to his heart’s desire. I wanted to know what he was seeing when he looked at me so intensely. He broke the spell, suddenly grinning.
“So, I guess you’ll be staying home, barefoot and pregnant?”
I raised my eyebrows. When he said it, it didn’t sound so bad. “Will this be in your home?” I asked. I was being coy. He kissed the tip of my nose.
He let me go too soon. I wanted to stay there and talk about whose baby I was pregnant with, if the floor my bare feet were standing on was hardwood or tile? If we’d be living in a two-story or a ranch house? My head was spinning. That was as good as a proposal for me. The man was golden. He even made my father look at me like I was human. We’d only been together around eight months, but if I played my cards right I could have my ring by spring. That was a happy night for me.
It didn’t take me long to realize that Caleb was my empty planet.
I jump up when I hear Caleb’s car in the driveway. We’ve been together for over five years, but I still get butterflies whenever he walks into a room. I try not to look needy, but when his key turns the latch and he steps inside, I fling myself at him. I need him to forgive me. I’ve been in perpetual twilight since he stopped smiling at me.
I catch him off guard, and he laughs as my weight slams him into the wall. I have my legs wrapped around his waist and my nose pressed to his. I want to make out with him like we used to do when we first met, but the first thing he says is — “Where’s Stella?”
The smile drops from my face. I hate that. How am I supposed to know?
I sigh and slide down his body, disappointed. “Probably with whatshisname.”
Caleb narrows his eyes at me; his mouth is a straight line.
“Did you spend any time with her today?”
“Yes,” I snap. “I fed her this morning because the manny was late.”
The muscles in his jaw pop as he grinds his teeth. They pop. I flinch.
Pop ... flinch … pop … flinch.
I feel self-righteously angry. It wasn’t unusual for mothers to rely on nannies to take care of their babies. In my circle, it was perfectly normal. Why did he always have to make me feel inferior?
I curl my upper lip across my teeth. “Do you think Olivia would have made a better mother than me?”
For a second, undisguised anger flashes across his eyes. He turns away, turns back to me, and turns away again like he doesn’t know whether or not to confront the fact that I said her name.
I want a fight. Every time he looks at me like I’m a big, fat disappointment, my mind goes to Olivia. It’s like shifting gears for me; Caleb’s disappointed eyes trigger it. Suddenly, I’m in that magical place where I release the clutch, the gas pedal goes down, and my mind is racing toward Olivia. Fuck. That. Bitch. What power does she have over him? I want to run at him, pound my fists against his chest for always mentally comparing me to her. Or am I the one mentally comparing myself to her? God, life is so messed up.
Just then, Sam comes into the room with the baby. The anger on Caleb’s face melts away, and all of a sudden, he looks like he’s about to cry. I know that look; he is relieved — relieved to have something other than me. I turn and walk toward the door.
“Where are you going?” Caleb asks.
“I’m hanging out with Sam tonight,” I say. I avoid Sam’s face and snatch up my purse.
“Let’s go, Samuel,” I snap. I see him stifle a smile as he ducks his head obediently and walks to where I am waiting. I am out the door and down the stairs before Caleb can say anything. I hear them exchange words behind me, but I am halfway to Sam’s car, and I decide that stopping to eavesdrop will ruin my credibility. Caleb is probably warning him about my tendency to become belligerent when drunk. Sam comes jogging out a minute later. Without a word, he opens the passenger side door for me, and I climb in. He drives a Jeep, the kind that has no roof or real windows. I settle into my seat and stare straight ahead. I’m going to destroy Olivia. I’m going to find her and beat the crap out of her for ruining my life.
“Where to?” Sam says, looping around the driveway.
“Call that slutty looking cousin of yours,” I say. “We’re going wherever she is.”
He raises his eyebrows at me but doesn’t move toward his phone.
“She’s at Mother Gothel tonight,” he explains. “You ever been there?”
I shake my head.
“Great. It’s your kind of place.” He shifts his Jeep into traffic, and I grab onto the door to steady myself. This was going to be a long drive.
Mother Gothel is not my kind of place. I announce this loudly as we walk through the door. A bouncer with half a dozen face piercings checks our IDs. He eyes me in a way that makes my skin crawl, and I grab on to Sam’s arm.
“What the hell is this place?” I whisper as we enter into a room lit by electric blue lights.
“A hookah bar,” he says. He raises his eyebrows, “An emo hookah bar.”
I wrinkle my nose. “Why would she come here?” I was thinking of all the classy bars on Mizner Avenue, just a stone’s throw away from this depressing rat hole.
“She goes through phases,” he says, nodding towards the bartender. “Last month it was tea rooms.”
He orders two dirty martinis. As I take mine, I wonder how he knew I drink them?
“Aren’t you going to lecture me about liquorfying my breast milk?” I say over the rim of my glass. He groans and tries to take it from me.
“Shit, I forgot,” he says. “It’s hard to remember that a cold shrew like you is actually a mother.”
I grunt and hold it out of his reach. Touché.
We make our way over to a table, where a small group of people is clustered together. I see Cammie’s blond head bobbing around animatedly, as she tells a story. When she spots Sam her face breaks into a smile … until she sees me. Her blinks come in rapid succession, like she’s trying to expunge me from her vision. I smile sweetly and head in her direction. This bitch has info on Olivia. I can feel it. I bend down to kiss her on the cheek. I like to keep my greetings European.
“Sam,” she says tightly, “I didn’t know you were bringing a … guest.” She cocks her head in a way I’ve only seen Southern Belles do. I place her accent to Texas.
“First night out since baby?” she asks me.
Sam grunts from behind me. I spin around to shoot him a warning look and then turn back to Cammie.
“Sure,” I say. “Sam was kind enough to let me tag along. Cool bar!” I look around in mock interest. When I look back at her, she’s on the tail end of an eye roll.
She motions towards two available chairs. I take the one closest to her, and Sam sits down next to me. She makes introductions around the table. The group is composed of two attorneys, a professional skateboarder that keeps shooting looks at Cammie’s exposed cleavage, and a number of pierced, tattooed lesbians.
For the next hour, I listen to them prattle about the most dull topics in the world. I play with my hair and try not to yawn. Sam watches me in amusement as he contributes to their conversation. Twice, he catches me unawares by asking my opinion on politicians.
“Really, Sam,” I finally snap when no one is listening. “Can you not?”
He grins. “Just trying to be friendly.”
How does someone with so many tattoos know about politics? Am I stereotyping? Too bad. I lean close to his ear so only he can hear me. Cammie frowns.
He’s gay! I want to scream at her. And, even if he weren’t, seriously, I don’t do sloppy men.
“I’ll give you a hundred bucks if you can get everyone out of here so I can talk to your slutty cousin alone.”
Sam stands up and claps his hands. “I’ll buy everyone a shot, except for Cammie.”
Cammie rolls her eyes but stays seated. Everyone else follows Sam to the bar, laughing and clapping each other on the back.
She looks at me expectantly, like she’s on to my scheme.
I swear this bitch and I speak the same language … in different accents.
“Olivia Kaspen,” I say. Her face registers nothing. “Do you know her?”
Her lips curl into a smile, and she dips her head once to acknowledge that she does. I feel searing heat start in my chest and spread outward. Emotional fireworks, if you must. I knew it! I lick my lips and pull a cigarette from my purse.
“That’s how you know Caleb,” I say. She nods that awful smile still on her lips. I inhale and watch her through my lashes.
“Why does he love her?” This was the first time I had ever verbalized the question, though I had pondered over it for God knows how many years. Olivia was attractive — if you were into sluts. She had too much hair and wide-spaced eyes, but I had been around her enough during my trial to know how men responded to her. She was aloof, cold. It was mysterious. Goddamn men and their goddamn mysteries. I had never seen her smile. Not once. It was hard to believe someone as alive and warm as Caleb could have feelings for an emotional prune.
Cammie is watching me, trying to decide how far she wants to go with her answer. I wonder how well she knows Olivia. It had never occurred to me, until now, that she might be good friends with her.
Eventually, she clears her throat. “Well, she’s a bitch like you. Caleb has always been attracted to the Cruella De Ville type. But, I suppose if you want an honest answer…” her voice trails off. The band comes on stage and things are starting to get loud. I lean forward, hungry for her answer.