Read an Excerpt
The Best Tea in the World
“You’re going to have to break one of my toes,” I explained. Lorrie Ann and I were sunning ourselves in the tiny, fenced-in patio of my mother’s house on thin towels laid directly over the hot, cracked pavement. We had each squeezed a plastic lemon from the supermarket into our hair and were praying to be blonder, always blonder, our eyes closed against the sun. There was jasmine on the wind.
In the narrow cove of our nineties California neighborhood, there was no girl more perfect than Lorrie Ann Swift, not so much because she was extraordinary, but because she was ordinary in a way that surpassed us. Her parents loved her, and she loved them. In fact, it was difficult to even get an invitation to their house, so much did they prefer one another’s company to the company of outsiders. Even her older brother, instead of cruelly taunting her or running her over with his bike, shared his CD collection and advised her on her breaststroke.
Most of our parents had wound up in the sleepy ocean hamlet of Corona del Mar through a series of increasingly devastating mistakes. The Southern California real estate market, which had seemed throughout the eighties to have no ceiling, had suddenly crashed, and many fathers were now stay-at-home dads whose time was divided equally between the bottle and the couch, an ice pack over their eyes, as their wives scrambled to become certified dental hygienists. One girl, Miranda, had a mother who worked at Disneyland during the day and then worked all night from home as a telephone hotline psychic. “It pays better even than phone sex,” Miranda reported one afternoon as we licked sugar-free orange Jell-O powder from tiny saucers. I remember too that they had four extremely aged rottweilers, two of whom had lost control of their bowels.
Mostly, our parents had assumed that life would be self-explanatory and that, bright and eager as they were, they ought to be able to handle it just fine. This faith, a faith in their own capableness, was gradually leaving them and being replaced, at least in the case of my own mother, with an interest in the occult and a steady red wine habit. Some have characterized the boomers as optimistic, but to my view they were simply soft and rather unprepared. They didn’t know how to cook or sew or balance their own checkbooks. They were bad at opening the mail. They got headaches while trying to lead Girl Scout meetings, and they sat down in folding chairs with their fingers pinching the bridges of their noses, trying not to cry over how boring and hard life had turned out to be, as around them feverish little girls screamed with laughter over the fact that one of them had stepped in poop.
Lorrie Ann’s parents were not losing faith, though. They were living in some other, better world. They went to church every Sunday. They rented classic horror movies every Friday night, and even Lorrie Ann’s older brother, then sixteen, stayed in to watch, as they ordered Domino’s and made popcorn in the tiny one-bedroom apartment all four of them shared. Her father, Terry, had an earring (a big golden hoop like a pirate’s) and wore a black silk top hat to parent-teacher night. He was a Christian rock musician, and Lorrie Ann’s mother, Dana, was a preschool teacher who collected gnomes: ceramic and wooden gnomes of all sizes and styles, standing on the floor and on tables and shelves, their backs to the wall, their dull eyes turned on the center of the room.
Certainly, it seemed to me, Lorrie Ann would never have been stupid enough to get pregnant in tenth grade by a boy she didn’t even like, which was precisely what I had done. And yet, the spring I was fifteen, it was Lorrie Ann who came with me to get the abortion, who helped me to plan it all out. She had already turned sixteen and gotten her license, but I didn’t just need her as my driver. I needed her, in all her goodness and her primness, to forgive me, to give her consent by participating in my scheme.
“Can’t you just say you’re having your period? Why do I have to break your toe?” Lorrie Ann asked, her eyes hidden behind the dusty lenses of my mother’s borrowed sunglasses.
“Who misses a championship game because they have cramps?” I argued. Trying to get an appointment at Planned Parenthood had been a nightmare. There wasn’t any way I could reschedule, and I doubted I could play softball the very next day. I wanted Lorrie Ann to break my toe so that I could show my coach a real and visceral damage. Also, in some strange way I viewed the breaking of my toe as the price of the abortion itself, a way of reassuring myself that I was still a decent person—it was the punishment that makes the wicked good again. Though raised entirely without religion, I was somehow Catholic through temperament alone.
“Just say you’re sick!” she insisted.
“I don’t like lying, and this is as close as I can get to making everything true.”
Lorrie Ann looked at me dolefully. “You’re nuts,” she said. “You lie all the time.”
“Yes, and I hate it. It’ll be fine. We’ll get drunk and you’ll just do it.”
It made a lot of intuitive symbolic sense to force the beautiful, pure, and good Lorrie Ann to break my toe and punish me for my abortion. To us, Lorrie Ann’s family was magic, and this magic transferred to Lorrie Ann herself. It honeyed her golden hair and deepened the oceanic blue of her eyes. It made her upturned nose seem elegant, instead of Irish. It was what made it sweet, not dorky, that Lorrie Ann was the last girl in sixth grade to start shaving her legs. I think we all were jealous of those fine golden leg hairs, like a shimmer of fairy dust along Lorrie Ann’s calves. Why did it look so beautiful on her and so ugly and shameful on our own stolid little shins? Why did Lorrie Ann look graceful in beat-up Keds and shorts a bit too small for her? Why was it charming when she snorted from laughing too hard?
Yes, we were jealous of her, and yet we did not hate her. She was never so much as teased by us, we roaming and bratty girls of Corona del Mar, thieves of corn nuts and orange soda, abusers of lip gloss and foul language, daughters to sham psychics and newly certified phlebotomists.
And so, just after high school, when terrible things began to happen to Lorrie Ann, we were all shocked. It was like some bizarre postmodern rendition of Job. We were transfixed, struck dumb, without access even to the traditional gestures of delivered casseroles and decent silences. The story of Lorrie Ann became the thing stuck in our throats, keeping us quiet as we nervously chose careers and, with many doubts and superstitions, consented to marry the men we were in love with. (All of our parents had gotten divorced—how could we fail to be afraid? All of our parents, except, of course, Lorrie Ann’s.)
In a way, Lorrie Ann made me everything I am, for my personality took shape as an equal and opposite reaction to who she was, just as, I am sure, her personality formed as a result of mine. People do that kind of thing. They divvy up qualities, as though reality, in order to be manageable at all, should be sorted, labeled, pinned down. To this day, my mother considers herself the smart one and her sister the pretty one, even though her sister went on to get a PhD in marine biology and my mother became a makeup artist. For me, my friend Lorrie Ann was the good one, and I was the bad one. She was beautiful (shockingly so, like a painting by Vermeer), but I was sexy (at thirteen, an excess of cherry ChapStick was all that was required). We were both smart, but Lorrie Ann was contemplative where I was wily, she earnest and I shrewd. Where she was sentimental, I became sarcastic. Normally, friendships between girls are stowed away in boxes of postcards and ticket stubs, but whatever was between me and Lorrie Ann was not so easy to set aside.
And so, the following weekend, we had gone to the Planned Parenthood on Nineteenth Street in Costa Mesa, I had gotten the abortion, and then we had eaten In-N-Out afterward. I felt ill enough that probably I should have just gone home and curled up on the couch like it was a sick day in elementary school. A heating pad and a handful of Advil would have been heavenly. But I didn’t want to admit that I needed coddling. I wanted to be tough, even violently blasé, about what had just happened, because maybe if I acted like it didn’t matter, then it would actually matter less. When I requested In-N-Out, Lorrie Ann had no choice but to drive me there. “Are you sure?” she asked. “How do you feel?”
“I’m fucking aces,” I said, and Lorrie Ann laughed nervously.
But after we ordered and were sitting on the scalding stone picnic bench with food that neither of us wanted, we didn’t seem to be able to talk, and I knew that in order for us to be friends completely once more, I would need to find a way to let her in, to give her access to those cold and brightly lit minutes I had just spent without her.
“The nurse had kind of a mustache,” I said finally. I was thinking about her face, hovering over me during the procedure—that was what they had kept calling it, “the procedure.” The expression in her eyes was hard to parse; it was not pity, but it was not judgment either. There was no overt emotion, and yet her face was honest and open. Finally it struck me: the nurse was looking down at me in the same casual way one looks at one’s own face in the mirror—studying it without any sense that the face belongs to another.
“I think she hated me,” I said. “Or else she hated all of it: abortions and young girls getting them on Saturdays. Or maybe she was just bored. Maybe she was just bored during my abortion. That’s weird, isn’t it? That it can be the biggest, scariest, worst thing that’s ever happened to me, and for her it’s just another day at work?”
“I’m so sorry,” Lorrie Ann said, setting down a fry. She flicked her fingers to get rid of the salt. “I just keep thinking that I wish it were me, that I could have done it for you so that you didn’t have to do it yourself.” She was on the verge of tears, which was helpful. If she was going to cry, then I couldn’t, and it was easier to comfort her than to comfort myself.
“It really wasn’t that terrible,” I told her. “They kind of keep it from all the way happening to you. They hide it from you. Maybe it would be better if they didn’t, if you got to see, if you knew. But really, I’ve had trips to the dentist that were worse on a pain and ickiness scale.”
Lorrie Ann looked at me, then laughed softly. “Fucking liar.”
Afterward, we went back to my house, where my mother was annoyingly home and annoyingly drunk. What was most upsetting about my drunken mother was how sentimental she became. “I love you girls so much,” she whispered as she tweezed our eyebrows for us, her own eyes filling with tears. “You’re so beautiful.”
I remember I was bleeding like a Romanov, going through Kotex after Kotex all afternoon, as she gave us facials, the one fan making a clicking sound every time it feebly rotated around the living room. I had to lie and say I had the runs to explain my frequent bathroom breaks and glassy-eyed distraction. I could feel Lorrie Ann worrying about me, and I kept trying to smile and shrug at her, mouth that I was fine, whenever my mother’s back was turned. But the finer I claimed to be, the more frantic I became inside, which resulted in a peculiar, languorous anxiety.
My brothers, struck dead by the heat, lounged on the leather sofas. Really, they were my half brothers, progeny to my new stepfather, Paddy. My real father was off living some kind of glamorous car-salesman life in San Francisco, where I visited him annually, usually for two or three days, though we were often exhausted from trying to be nice to each other by the end of the very first day. My father never felt like family, not like my brothers. They were five and six then, naked except for their Superman briefs, their satiny tan skin seeming to glow against the black leather.
“This is an exfoliating serum,” my mother informed us, slurring only slightly. She was a makeup artist for Chanel and my whole life was a series of sample-size beauty products: tiny tubes of cream pressed into my palm as talismans against danger.
All afternoon and evening, Lorrie Ann and I waited: for our new faces to be revealed, for my mother to finally pass out, for my little brothers to go to bed (they still loved Goodnight Moon then—God, what a boring book! Good night this, good night that, over and over again). Finally, past midnight, Lorrie Ann and I snuck out to the small patio with the claw hammer.
I remember Lorrie Ann was chewing on her fingernails. Her mother, Dana, to discourage this habit, had painted them with a product disturbingly called Hoof Hands. But Lorrie Ann confessed to me that she liked the bitter taste and positively gnawed the polish off in flakes that melted on her tongue like battery acid, only to beg her mother to please paint them again.
“I can’t, Mia,” Lorrie Ann said, setting down the hammer and immediately beginning to chew on her nails again.
“Bitch, do it!” I shouted. We were both very, very drunk. My mother had been buying jugs of Carlo Rossi ever since my stepfather had been fired from the Italian restaurant where he worked. Supposedly, now he was going to become a hair stylist.
“I just can’t,” Lorrie Ann had said, starting to cry.
“Fine,” I said, “you fucking baby.” I remember that the night sky was clear, simply swimming with stars. And I grabbed the hammer and brought it down as hard as I could on my toe.