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EXACTLY TWO WEEKS, ONE DAY, AND TEN HOURS AGO, my mother completely ruined my life. She announced over her usual dinner of Kraft macaroni and cheese (with tomatoes and broccoli bits mixed in—her attempt at being healthy), that she no longer wished to remain married to my dad.
She planned to move in with her new girlfriend, Gabrielle.
She went on and on about how it had nothing to do with me, and nothing to do with Dad, so we shouldn’t feel the least bit bad about it. She’d simply come to realize that she wasn’t the same person on the inside she’d been showing everyone on the outside. Yeah, right.
Needless to say, I have not yet told my girlfriends, with whom I have a totally different relationship than my mother has with her girlfriend. Or partner. Whatever. I’m not exactly focused on how politically correct I am in describing my mom’s bizarro crush. Especially since I can’t describe Gabrielle to anyone yet. I can’t even deal with telling them about the divorce, which—if I actually let myself think about it for more than ten seconds—is crushing in and of itself. I mean, I had no clue. None. Totally oblivious.
And what’s worse, my friends will freak.
Then they’ll treat me all nicey-nice, giving me those sad eyes that say, We’re soooo sorry, when really they’re thrilled to have something scandalous to gossip about while they’re ignoring Mr. Davis’s weekly lecture about how we’re not keeping the lab area clean enough in Honors Chemistry. Or they’ll be so horrified by my mother’s newly found “lifestyle” that they’ll slowly start ignoring me. In tenth grade—at least in Vienna, Virginia—this is the kiss of death. Even worse than not being one of the cool crowd. Which is the type of person I currently am. Not quite cool, that is.
So tonight I’m eating dinner at the table by myself, watching while my mom and dad stand in the kitchen and debate who’s going to get the mahogany Henredon sleigh bed and who’s getting the twenty-year-old brass bed I refused to have in my room (and that’s going to need duct tape to hold it together if anyone decides to get a little action on it).
“Hey, Mom,” I finally interrupt. “I know you want the Henredon, but when Gabrielle was here last week, she told me she thought the brass bed was wicked cool.”
My mother shoots me the look of death. “Nice try, Valerie, but I don’t believe Gabrielle’s used the phrase ‘wicked cool’ in her life.”
I deliberately roll my eyes. “She didn’t say that exactly. Geez, Mom. I think she said it was . . .” I pretend to struggle for the right phrase, something that will convince her. Given Mom’s behavior lately, I’m betting she’ll do anything to make Gabrielle happy. “Shabby chic? Whatever that means. But it was obvious she really liked it.”
I shrug, then look back down at the Thai stir-fry my father made for me before my mom showed up at the door with her SUV full of empty boxes and a list of the furniture she wanted to take to her and Gabrielle’s new place.
If I’d had to bet which of my parents had coming-out-of-the-closet potential, I’d have put my money—not that I have much—on Dad. Let me state up front that he’s no wuss. He drinks beer and watches shoot ’em up movies like a real guy. He goes to the gym every morning before work and has a smokin’ set of biceps and pecs. And according to my friends, he’s kind of hot. For a dad, at least.
It’s just that for one thing, his name is Martin, which sounds pretty gay. There’s a guy at school named Martin who’s a total flamer. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—I have no problem with people being gay. Really I don’t. I’m a live-and-let-live type. But Martin’s a friend, he’s not my parent. That’s where I have the problem.
Aside from the name thing pegging Dad as potential gay material, he’s the chief of protocol at the White House, which means he reminds the president and his staff of things like, “Don’t invite the Indian ambassador to a hamburger cookout.” Dad can also describe the proper depth to bow to the Japanese prime minister and the trick to eating spaghetti or the oversized hunks of lettuce they always serve at state dinners without making a mess of yourself. He knows how to tie a bow tie without a mirror and can tell you what kind of jacket is appropriate for a morning wedding.
Believe it or not, these are marketable skills.
Oh, and my dad is an awesome cook. Unlike Mom. I’m guessing Gabrielle’s going to be cooking for them.
Playing casual, I flick my gaze toward my mom. “I’m just saying that if Gabrielle really likes the brass bed, maybe you could surprise her with it. That’s all.”
Getting that crap bed would serve them right for what they did to me and Dad. Especially if it fell apart under them.
Ick. I do not want to think about this.
My mother leans against the granite-topped island in our kitchen—designed entirely by Dad, appliances, cabinets, and all—and crosses her arms over her chest. She gives him the same cold stare I got when I was busted smoking a cigarette behind the high school last year. “I suppose, if the Henredon really means that much to you, I could take the brass bed.”
My dad’s mouth curls up on one side. “Sacrificing yourself for Gabrielle, Barbara?”
That’s about as nasty as my dad ever gets. My mom just huffs out of the kitchen, yelling over her shoulder, “I’m taking the brass bed. And the Waterford table lamp.”
“That was my mother’s! Take the mandarin lamps from our room instead. You get two that way. Fair enough?”
She’s already halfway upstairs. “Fine!”
“And don’t forget to take all your self-help books. There are two boxes of them next to the bed.”
My dad turns to me, his expression half sad, half angry with my mom. I think he wants to deck her. I guess she’s butch enough to take it now.
I know, I know. So not politically correct. But she’s the one who hacked off her long, wavy hair. Not that short hair’s bad—it can be sexy. It’s just that there’s flirty, feminine short, and there’s what-were-you-thinking short. No forty-five-year-old with a nice, conservative name like Barbara should wear her hair in a buzz cut. Especially when, at least until a couple weeks ago, she used to love going to the salon with me for a girls’ afternoon out so we could get our hair and nails done and be pampered like movie stars.
It suddenly hits me that she probably isn’t interested in doing those afternoons anymore. Now I’m getting depressed. And this isn’t something mom’s self-help books address. Not that I’d read them, even if they did. I have no desire to live my life according to Dr. Phil.
“I’m really sorry about all this, Valerie.”
I shrug. I’m good at shrugging just right, so my parents think I really don’t give a rip about anything. “It’s not like it’s your fault, Dad.”
At least, I didn’t think so. I mean, was Dad not giving Mom enough attention during their marriage? He was always surprising her with romantic gifts and flowers—and he’s even taken her to the White House a few times for dinner—but was he being as protocol-minded with her in private as he was out in public?
I’m guessing not, since that’s no excuse for getting an ugly haircut and moving in with a woman named Gabrielle who’s ten years younger than you are. But I try not to think about my parents’ sex life. Either them together or, as the circumstances are now, them individually. Eee-yuck.
“I don’t think it’s either of our faults. These things happen.” He lowers his voice and adds, “But if you can save the Mottahedeh china from your mother like you did the sleigh bed, I’ll make you whatever you want for dinner tomorrow night.”
Whoa. I’m not really sure which china is the Mottahedeh, and I’m wondering why Dad thinks he’s going to need any china—it’s not like he’s going to be throwing dinner parties like he and Mom used to anytime soon—as if! This whole begging-me-to-help-him thing is so not my father. Mom really must be knocking him for a loop.
“Even if I want Peking duck?” I ask.
Dad frowns. “You wouldn’t like Peking duck.”
“But it’s hard to make, right?”
“No. Just time consuming.” He squints at me for a moment. I think he’s trying to ignore the sound of my mother going through the upstairs closets, rooting around for anything Gabrielle might like. I still say he should get a lawyer. Mom’s going to run all over him. But he doesn’t want a scandal. Wouldn’t be proper, and Martin Winslow is all about proper.
Finally he says, “What if I take you out to dinner? Anywhere you choose.”
Ni-i-i-ce. “How ’bout the Caucus Room?”
If you’re not familiar with D.C., let me tell you that the Caucus Room is not cheap. It’s the kind of place all the rich kids from school go with their parents so they can accidentally and on purpose bump into senators, Supreme Court justices, and the like, then brag about it the next day as if these people were their closest family friends and all hot to write them college recommendation letters. I have no idea if the food’s any good—it might totally suck—but I’ve always wanted to find out. Just because.
“Haven’t been there in a while,” Dad says, tapping his fingers against the gray-and-silver-flecked granite. I can tell he thinks it’s funny this is where I want to go. “But if that’s where you’d like to dine, then why not? I’m certain I could get a reservation.”
I am not believing my luck. I’d still take having my real mom back—the way she was before making her announcement, doctored Kraft dinners and all—over a dinner at the Caucus Room. But if my parents are going to get a divorce no matter what, as Mom informed me in no uncertain terms two weeks, one day, and ten and a half hours ago, and she’s determined to spend the rest of her life shacked up with some peppy spandex-wearing blonde eating soy-burgers and seaweed, I guess it’s as good a consolation as any.
My dad picks up the phone and dials without having to look up the number. While he’s waiting for the restaurant to answer, he asks, “You do know which is the Mottahedeh?”
“The flowery blue-and-silver stuff?” I guess.
“That’s the Wedgwood. She can have that. The Mottahedeh has the tobacco leaf pattern in it. Lots of reds, blues, and greens.”
I’m still not sure what he’s talking about, but I tell him I’ll encourage her to take the Wedgwood, if she wants china at all. Honestly, I think she’s more focused on the bed thing.
He makes a reservation for Winslow, then grins at me as he hangs up the phone. The kind of odd grin that gives a girl a real scary feeling, like things are going to get even worse.
“This will work out well,” Dad says as he helps himself to a plate of stir-fry. “A few things have come up I haven’t told you about and we have a few decisions to make. Dinner out is as good a time to discuss them as any.”
At the uncomfortable smile on his face, I’m wondering, what could possibly come up besides my dinner?
“They’re going to make you choose,” Jules tells me, in a been-there, done-that tone of voice. She’s got her hands under her pits to keep warm, since we’re huddled behind the Dumpster at Wendy’s, where Jules works part-time. It’s the only place we can safely sneak a cigarette without getting caught. Not that I’m a real smoker—it’s an emergency-situation-only thing. I can’t stand for my clothes and hair to reek. But I decided that telling my two closest friends, Julia Jackson, a.k.a. Jules, and Christie Toleski, that my parents have announced plans to divorce constitutes an emergency.
Of course, I left out the Gabrielle part. I’ll figure out a way to explain her later. And just so they wouldn’t think I was totally pathetic, I slipped in the fact Dad is taking me to the Caucus Room. It took me around two seconds to realize telling them about the dinner was a mistake, or at least, mentioning the part about Dad telling me we had some decisions to make.
Christie takes a long drag on her cigarette, which is only, like, the second or third she’s ever smoked in her life. She’s five-foot-nine and blond with decent-size boobs, plus she’s totally smart and athletic, so she doesn’t have many emergency situations. She’d be completely popular if she didn’t hang out with me, Jules, and the rest of our gang. I’m sure she realizes it, since the snob kids invite her to their parties every so often, but we’ve been buds since before kindergarten, and I think she worries about being backstabbed by the cool crowd. We’d never do that to her.
“I don’t know, Jules,” Christie frowns. “Wouldn’t both her parents sit her down to discuss it? You know, do the family meeting thing?”
Jules shakes her head. Her parents got divorced when we were in third grade, her mom remarried the next year, and then divorced the guy the summer before we started sixth grade. Her parents then remarried—each other, of all people—when we were in eighth grade. So Jules is kind of an expert on the marriage/divorce thing. “Not to be rude about it, Val, but what other decisions could your dad possibly mean? My guess is that he wants you to live with him, so he’s going to take you out, tell you that you have a choice, then give you that look that says he really wants you to choose him.”
As the last word leaves her mouth, her eyes suddenly bug out, and she starts to bounce, which makes me nervous. I hate when Jules gets bouncy. “Oooh, unless he’s seeing someone! Do you think he’s seeing someone? Maybe he’s trying to hide it by saying you can live where you want, but he’ll kinda pressure you to stay with your mom. Just so he can have time alone with his new girlfriend.”
I roll my eyes at her. “There’s no new girlfriend, Jules.” Not in Dad’s case at least. But Jules sounds excited about this possibility, which pisses me off.
She’d better not tell anyone about the divorce. I consider this A-list-only information right now, and Jules and Christie are the only friends on my A list besides Natalie Monschroeder. Natalie got grounded yesterday for dropping out of Girl Scouts without telling her parents, which is why she couldn’t make it to Wendy’s. But since we all quit Scouts after fifth grade and her parents wouldn’t let her, I figure she’s dealing with her own problems right now and doesn’t need to hear about my cruddy life.
Jules blows out a puff of smoke and gives me this poor-ignorant-you scowl. “There’s almost always a girlfriend involved, Valerie. Otherwise why would they get divorced out of the blue like that?”
I try not to look right at her. If only she knew.
As a car engine revs nearby, Jules glances around the Dumpster to see if anyone is watching us as she talks. You can never be too careful, and none of us wants to get busted with cigarettes again. Our parents would assume we were secret chain smokers and would ground us for the rest of sophomore year.
“I can’t see your mom having an affair,” Christie says, which makes me cringe inside. “She’s the total soccer mom. But you have to admit, your dad’s always going to those upscale parties, and he gets to meet tons of famous people at the White House. Maybe one of them hit on him, and your mom thought—”
“Let’s just say there’s no girlfriend. Okay?”
“Fine,” Jules says, but it’s obvious she doesn’t believe me. I don’t want to clarify by pointing out that my mom is the one asking for the divorce, not my dad.
“So who are you going to choose?” Christie asks. “If that’s what dinner is really about.”
“I don’t know.” I hadn’t thought about choosing. I know that sounds stupid beyond belief, given that my parents are now going to be living in two different houses, but it just didn’t occur to me. I guess, in my gut, I kind of believed my mom would get over it and move back home. Decide it was a mistake and announce that she’s not gay after all.
I’m getting way depressed now. Maybe I should have just told Christie and not Jules. Or kept my stupid mouth shut entirely.
“Your mom’s going to get the house, right?” Jules asks. “The wife always gets the house. It’s kind of a rule.”
“Actually, she’s getting an apartment and my dad’s going to stay in the house.” I really don’t want to get into the details with Jules, so I grind what’s left of my cigarette against the side of the Dumpster and I lie. “I think she wants to feel independent or something.”
“Damn.” Jules looks at her watch. “Gotta go. If I’m late coming off break, I’m gonna get fired.”
She got in trouble Monday for not cleaning the Frosty machine the right way, so she promised the manager she’d redo it today. She’s dying to get moved up to cash register so she doesn’t smell like french fry grease at the end of every day.
“Listen, Val,” she sniffs, “I’d normally tell you to stay with your mom, but if you’re going to lose your bedroom and have to move into some tiny apartment—”
“But how could you not live with your mom?” Christie says in shock. Christie’s been coming over to my house since preschool, so she knows my mom pretty well. At least, the way my mom used to be.
“I don’t know,” I admit. And it’s true. I can’t imagine not living with Mom. But I feel the same way about Dad. I don’t want to not live with either of them.
Jules drops the butt of her cigarette into the snow, then pops two cinnamon Altoids into her mouth and passes the box to me before Christie steals one. “I gotta go. Call me tonight and tell me what happens. ’Kay, Val?”
“It’s probably going to be late.”
“First thing tomorrow then,” she says, tucking the Altoids box back into the pocket of her black polyester Wendy’s pants. “But call by nine. It’s Saturday, so I’m on the lunch shift.”
Once she’s crossed the parking lot and ducked into the back door, Christie lets out a painful-sounding sigh. “Don’t listen to her, Val. You know how she is.”
“Yeah.” I give her my whatever shrug.
“It’ll be okay. And you know I’m here for you if you need me. Anytime, day or night. Just call me,” she says, adjusting her hood so her hair is tucked inside.
It kills me how pretty Christie is without even trying. She had one zit—one—a couple months ago, and it was very nearly a cigarette-smoking emergency situation, she was so certain her boyfriend would dump her. As if. Over a zit? I wanted to smack her back to reality. First, over her lack of zittiness (is that a word?), and second over her boyfriend insecurity. He’s totally into her. Still, she could do a lot better than Jeremy Astin, if you ask me. But Christie’s way nice, and pretty much my best friend, so I don’t want to hurt her feelings by telling her this. She loves Jeremy, even if he is a little too much into cross-country and runs in public wearing those icky nylon shorts, even when it’s ice-cold outside.
I’m just about to say good-bye and walk back to school to get my junk out of my locker when I see a familiar green Toyota SUV in the drive-thru. It’s my mom and, to my horror, Gabrielle is with her. Why I have no clue, since Gabrielle is a crusader-type vegetarian.
Before I can say something to Christie to keep her from seeing them, she grabs the sleeve of my coat. “I almost forgot to tell you, with Jules here and you telling us about the divorce and all, but Jeremy said that he and David were talking in the library yesterday and your name came up.”
Since I have had a crush on David Anderson since, like, kindergarten, I actually look away from my mom and Gabrielle and pull Christie another step behind the Dumpster.
“Are you serious?” I ask, trying not to sound too excited, even though Christie knows I would just die to go out with him. “Who brought me up, David or Jeremy?”
“David did. He asked Jeremy if you were with anybody.”
My heart does an instant flip-flop in my chest. You have to see David to know why. He’s a total, one hundred percent hottie. Surfer-blond, with these fantabulous green eyes I can’t even look into, they’re so freakin’ gorgeous. He could bump the sexiest man alive right off the cover of People and females everywhere would rejoice, I kid you not. And even though he’s never asked me out, I think we’d be great together. I mean, we share a group of friends, we both have parents in politics, and we’re hyper about our grades. “What did Jeremy say?”
“He played it cool. Said he didn’t think so, but he knew a couple of other guys liked you.”
“Wow. Good one.” Jeremy just scored major points with this, as long as David didn’t catch on to the bluff. Maybe Jeremy does deserve Christie after all. “Then what happened?”
“That was it. But Jeremy definitely got the impression he’s interested. Like maybe we could all four go out sometime.”
I think I am going to collapse. Right behind the Wendy’s Dumpster, snow and old french fry muck and all.
Christie is grinning now, and I know she’s excited she distracted me from the whacked situation with my parents. “Jeremy told me about it before saying anything to David because he wasn’t sure how you felt. If you want, I bet he could hook you up. Seriously. Would that not be the best?”
“Well, yeah!” I force myself to chill, though. “But don’t make me sound desperate or anything. And don’t tell Jeremy that I’m too into David, if you haven’t already. That’d kill it right off.”
“Okay. I didn’t say anything to Jeremy, I swear. I wanted to tell you first. “
This is why Christie is number one on my A-list, even if she is Miss Perfect. I guess I’m lucky she’s going out with Jeremy, or David would be all over her. They could be Mr. and Miss Perfect.
Oh, damn. What if David’s only interested in me because I’m Christie’s friend? It wouldn’t be the first time a guy asked me out because he thought it’d get Christie to notice him.
Of course, at exactly the moment this occurs to me, a familiar car horn blasts not twenty feet away, practically rendering me deaf.
“Val-er-ieee! Oh, Val-er-ieee!” My mother is pulling into the parking spot nearest to the Dumpster and has her window down. I see Gabrielle in the passenger seat popping the top off a salad and picking out the croutons. Guess they’re not whole wheat or something.
I brace myself for Christie to ask who’s in the car. Why, why, why me? I hate lying to my friends, and Christie, of all people, would be most likely to understand.
But I am not ready to deal with this. Not yet, not even with Christie. Maybe I can say Gabrielle’s a neighbor. No, wait, Christie knows all my neighbors. Maybe someone from the Boosters? Or Mom’s book club?
Geez, I despise lying. I don’t think I can do it.
My mom sticks her head out the window and asks if we want a ride. Thank goodness, Christie says no, we’re heading back to school. My mom waves and takes off, but I can tell she’s curious. And so’s Christie. Her mouth is hanging open, and she’s watching the back of the SUV as it rolls out of the lot.
Book club. I’m going to say Gabrielle’s from book club.
“Ohmigod.” Christie looks like she’s just swallowed her Altoids mint the wrong way. “What did your mom do to her hair?”
© 2006 Nicole Burnham Onsi