"If you ever say that again," Mona said, "I'll knock your teeth down your throat."
She responded as she always did when I got rude, calmly and without looking at me. It's probably a good thing she didn't turn her head, because she was driving, but she wouldn't have anyway. Mona usually talked from the side, or from behind a magazine, but always in the middle of something else. The only people she looked in the eye were strangers. On those rare occasions when we were invited to join our parents' dinner parties, Mona got right up next to someone, the way they do in Europe, and nodded and smiled and said the right things. My father was proud of her for this, at least while he was still living at home, because he liked chatty women. My mother disliked it, and tried to redirect whatever conversation Mona had hooked someone into. It wasn't always a bad idea. Mona could get quite bubbly and inane, and cause strained silences at her end of the table.
In any case, I didn't remember what I'd just said to make her mad. Insults came so quickly from my mouth that I didn't keep track of them. It helped that Mona was so easy to tease. She had a weight problem and bad skin, and no luck with boys. At 15 I was thin, pimple-free, and pretty popular with both sexes. At 20 Mona was slumping through college with a C average and a tendency to hang out with what my father called "the wrong crowd" Back then, in 1970, this group included anyone who was anti-Nixon or anti-Vietnam. My father had reached a fever pitch of criticism about the times, though his remarks to Mona about how she should behave were always mild. My mother, however, had standards Mona never met which got tougher and less rational as the summer went on, especially in July, when my father moved out.
The day Mona and I were driving home, the day I said whatever it was, was in August, after my father left. My mother was giving a dinner party that night, and we were coming back with four bags of food and several bottles of liquor that Mona loved being old enough to buy. Even though my mother was on her own now, she still liked to entertain, and there was no reason not to, since everyone coming tonight already knew about my father. We lived in a small town, both my parents taught at the local college, and there was no such thing as privacy. People were calling my mother to offer sympathy the same day my father moved out. The only way to survive a separation in an environment like that was to prove you could take it and show the other person all the good stuff he was missing. Hence, the dinner party.
It was mid-morning, but already hot and sticky. Mona and I sweated and sighed and hauled the bags up the back stairs into the kitchen to find my mother in a bad mood. She was an excellent cook and a good hostess, but these facts never reassured her when she had people to feed. The whole thing put her into a panic where she moved faster and faster until one of us got slapped. It was usually Mona. Mona liked to hover, and reach across my mother into cabinets looking for something to eat, and stick her fingers into what she was making and criticize.
"Where the hell have you been?" my mother said without looking up. She was chopping cucumber and tomato for a green salad, and other vegetables were lined up waiting. Neither of us answered or offered to help. Doing so would earn a quick comment on how clumsy we were, or what a mess we'd make, though not offering meant we'd get called lazy and selfish in the future when this crisis was over and we were in the middle of another one. Where insults were concerned, my mother liked to keep her options open.
Mona and I took turns at the sink, patting water on our faces, while my mother began going through the bags. She shoved the liquor bottles to the back of the counter, making them clank and rattle. It was impossible to tell what her plan was, or if she even had one. She was usually very organized, but today it seemed like she didn't know what to do next. As I watched her pick things up and put them down someplace else, I realized for the first time how upset she was. I think we'd all been living in a fog since my father left. We'd expected it, my parents had discussed it openly as a sane, practical solution, and now that it had happened, I saw there was nothing sane about it. Not for us, anyway. My father was probably enjoying it, he had one of his old students to keep him company, a pretty little thing with two small children and a needy, clinging manner that must have been very flattering after my mother's cold shoulder.
"Now girls," my mother said, back still turned, "go on and get out of my way for a while. But not too far. I may need you."
Mona and I looked at each other. That meant dusting and vacuuming even though the cleaning lady had come yesterday. We'd have to set the table, inspect the china and silver for spots, make another trip out to buy flowers, crush ice for cocktails, put out clean ashtrays and fill the nut bowls. Then we'd be ordered to change into something suitable and re-appear in time to pass the hors d'oeuvres and keep our mouths shut. The thought of it sent Mona off to her latest Vogue magazine, and me to the comfort of my room, which had gotten so messy my mother refused to enter it.
I sat down on my bed and sighed. There was nothing to do. There never was anymore. I'd gone to camp last summer, but no one brought it up this year. At the time I didn't mind, now I wished I were anywhere but here.
I began rereading Gone with the Wind, my old standby. My mother wouldn't approve. She felt I should explore something 19th century, like the Brontes or Dickens. She taught literature and believed in novels. Great ideas would not find me, she said, I'd have to look for them, and books were the place. She should have known not to say this to a 15-year-old. The last time she brought it up I said that Gone with the Wind was certainly a novel and at least it was set in the 19th century.
I didn't start at the beginning, but at my favorite part, Scarlett's escape from Atlanta. After a couple of pages I paused and looked out my bedroom window. We had three huge elms that we'd lose to blight the following year, making my mother say that even the trees had abandoned us. Right then they were swaying in the first breeze of the day, dappling the sunlight with their thick dark leaves. I don't know why they made me sad, but they did. Maybe their existence seemed so much simpler than mine. When I picked up the book again, I'd lost interest. Breaking through the Yankee lines was nothing compared to living through the rest of this day.
"Girls," my mother called up the stairs, "I'm going to get my hair done. I have something on the stove. It has to simmer while I'm out. You'll have to come down and stir it. Add some water if you need to, and for Christ's sake, don't let it burn."
When she didn't get an answer, she yelled, "Did you hear me?"
"Yes," we called out together.
I heard the back door slam and the car go down the driveway. Mona appeared in my room. I was surprised to see her, because she hadn't come in it for weeks. We talked when we were downstairs. When we were upstairs, we tried to stay out of each other's way.
She looked around with disgust.
"Why don't you clean this place up?" she said, stepping over a pile of clothes.
"It suits me."
She sat down in my little rocking chair. It was built for a child's frame, not Mona's 150 pounds. It creaked, and I hoped it wouldn't break under her. After a minute she struggled out of it and heaved herself down on the end of my bed.
"She's driving me nuts," she said, examining her hands.
"Yeah," I said.
"She's not dealing with it. She's got her head in the sand" I tried to picture this.
"I'm glad I'm going back to school," she said. "I don't want to be here when she blows up."
I nodded and sighed. Right now my mother was pretending nothing was wrong, but in another month, when Mona left and my mother started teaching again, it was going to hit her hard. What worried me was that I'd be the only one left to catch the fall-out. My mother suffered all the time from disappointments, real and imagined, and she never did it in silence. When this latest disappointment got bitter enough, she'd take it out on me.
"I don't know who's worse," said Mona, "him or her. On the one hand I have the Wicked Witch of the West, but on the other I have my father running around like Joe College. It's embarrassing."
She had a point. Our father was acting pretty stupid, wearing flashy clothes, taking tennis lessons, and driving a second-hand sports car. We were supposed to see him twice a week, and more and more often he cancelled at the last minute. I'd gotten used to his voice on the phone, and could almost predict which excuse he'd use. I wanted to tell him I didn't care if he'd rather be with his girlfriend, and that she was welcome to him. I never quite found the words. My mother's angry face, accusing me of disloyalty, floated through my mind and I always missed my chance. I was supposed to feel wronged and refuse to see him, but I couldn't do that either. All I could do was as little as possible, and hope that neither of them noticed.
"And that nit-wit he's running around with," said Mona, rolling her eyes at the ceiling.
I laughed because in the few times we'd mentioned her, we'd never referred to my father's girlfriend by her real name, which was Minnie.
Minnie was a giggler, and looked at my father so adoringly it made me sick. I'd only met her a couple of times, when my father brought her along on one of our scheduled outings, but I knew I'd see more of her in the future, because they were going to get married. He hadn't said so, but it was obvious. I learned later he'd been wanting to for years, even when Minnie was married to her first husband, and that my mother had known it all along.
"Why is she giving this party, anyway?" said Mona. "What's she trying to prove?"
"Why should she stop seeing people?" I said, even though I agreed with her. I'd learned that playing devil's advocate was safer than having opinions of my own.
"She should move someplace else," she said. "I wouldn't live in the same town as my ex-husband, that's for damn sure" "They're not divorced yet. Besides, maybe he'll move."
"Are you kidding? Give up all he's worked for? The glory of the Ivy League, the ivory tower, the easy lays?"
"Shut up, Mona."
"Well, the point is, he'll never go. He's too comfortable. And she'll run into them all the time. She already saw that half-wit at the store."
"I was there. Talk about a deep freeze. Mom's face could have cut ice."
"Does she know who Mom is? Maybe she didn't recognize her."
"Everyone knows who Mom is."
That was probably true. My mother's reputation rested on her cooking, her wit, and her Harvard Ph. D.
"Oh well," said Mona, getting up, "I'm glad it's not my problem."
On her way out she stopped in front of my full length mirror. She was wearing a dress she'd made herself. It was sewn in three separate pieces, bodice, waist, and skirt, with three different colors, purple, pink and red. The picture on the pattern had softer colors, but Mona liked to live dangerously. She examined her face closely, and popped a couple of pimples.
"I could be such a beauty," she said, pushing her hair up in back and twisting around for a better view.
"Yeah, if you had a different head."
"Look who's talking."
She went out. A minute later I heard her yell, "Shit! Oh no, shit!" I ran into the hall. Mona was leaning over, clutching the banister. The smell of something burning was unmistakable. We galloped down the stairs. Smoke was coming from a pot in the kitchen. Mona grabbed the lid, and dropped it on the floor. I turned off the stove and looked in the pot. Whatever my mother was making was now crusty and black. Mona ran her hand under cold water. I waved the smoke away and looked into the pot again. I recognized the remains of my mother's bean, tomato and bacon dish. It was one of her favorites, especially in summer, because she served it cold.
"What do we do now?" I said.
"Shut up and let me think."
We both looked at the kitchen clock to see how long we had before our mother returned.
"Can we make another batch?" I said. There was a bowl of raw green beans on the counter, and three tomatoes on the windowsill. Inside the refrigerator was a half pound of bacon.
"No way," said Mona. "I don't know how to make it. She'll know."
"Of course she'll know. We have to tell her. I just thought she'd be less mad if we tried to fix it."
Mona looked at me sideways.
"Get serious," she said.
"So what do we do?"
"And go where?"
"Anywhere. If we're gone long enough, she might get worried and think about that instead."
It was my turn to look skeptical. We both knew that no matter what my mother felt, worry, fear, or even sadness, it would come out as anger. It didn't change our minds, though. We were both too hot and tired to face her.
I put the pot in the sink and filled it with warm soapy water. Black flakes rose to the surface and floated gently among the bubbles.
Mona found a blank piece of paper in the kitchen drawer.
"Dear Mother," she wrote, "We blew it this time. There's no point wondering which of us did it, because we're both to blame. We cleaned up the best we could and went out for a while because we didn't think you'd want to see us right away. I'm sure you'll be able to make something else—if anybody can cook fast, you can"
She hesitated, then wrote the word, "Love" with our names underneath. She looked around and took a raw green bean from the bowl by the stove.
"P. S" she wrote, "have a bean" The bean was curved, and she set it at the bottom of the note so that it looked like a fat green smile. If it had been up to me, I'd have turned it over and left it frowning.
Mona took a spare key from the coffee cup on the window-sill and we started walking towards campus. We always went there when we didn't know where else to go. Mona and I didn't talk, except to laugh about the disaster we'd caused. It seemed a lot funnier now that we weren't home, and it was a relief to be outside, in spite of the heat.
We lived in a pretty neighborhood, with big homes at the end of deep lawns and long driveways, but as we got closer to campus the houses got less tidy. Some were scattered among small academic buildings where new and struggling departments, like African-American Studies, could find space.
My father was living in one of these houses, renting it from a colleague on leave. It didn't face the road we were on, but we could see the back yard through the trees. There were two white lawn chairs set out on the grass. The back door was open, and I could see a little corner of the kitchen.
He was home, and she was there with him. I was sure of it. Mona was thinking the same thing. I could see her glancing that way with narrow eyes. She might act like she didn't care most of the time, but I knew better. It was impossible to ignore the fact that he was here, almost within shouting distance, looking perfectly settled and happy.
When we reached the edge of campus, I stopped thinking about it. I looked at the old stone buildings and the view down to the lake, which the sun made a painful shade of blue. We'd played here as children, usually in winter when my father brought us sledding. My mother had come once or twice and stood at the top of the hill, yelling at us to be careful as we raced off below her. My father tried to get her on the sled, but she was too scared to try. One time, when Mona and I rode down alone, we came back up the hill to find them kissing and laughing. They were so involved they didn't notice us for a moment. That was the only time I'd ever seen them like that, the only time they seemed like normal parents, the kind anyone might have.
"Do you remember that?" I said.
"When we came here sledding."
"Yeah. Especially the time Mom broke her tailbone" Mona laughed.
"I don't remember that."
"You were too little. She went down with Dad and they hit a huge bump. She walked funny for weeks."
It occurred to me for the first time that I'd miss Mona when she went back to school. She was the only company I'd had all summer. For some reason, I hadn't felt like having my own friends over, and when they invited me, I usually said I was busy.
We came to the edge of campus.
"Where do you want to go now?" said Mona.
I shrugged. "Maybe College Town."
This was the commercial district between campus and downtown. Mona liked it there, and I did too. The stores all had their doors open this time of year, and there was always something to do.
We crossed the street, and someone going by in a convertible honked and waved at Mona.
"Hey!" she yelled, waving back. Mona didn't have many friends, but she knew a lot of people over here, especially "townies" like us, kids on summer break killing time. Some were older, local characters who didn't do anything but sit on the hot stone ledge of the savings bank until someone inside asked them to leave.
One of these was a black man in his late twenties. He was wearing a leather vest with no shirt, and red denim bellbottoms with fancy white stitching up the sides. He saw Mona and smiled. I wanted to keep walking, but Mona slowed down and smiled back.
"Mona, Miss Mona," he said, "you look like one crazy ice cream cone" He must have been talking about the colors in her dress, because she looked down at it and giggled.
"Franko, Franko, don't you ever do anything but sit out in the sun?" she said. She stood with one hand on her hip and the other behind her neck, lifting her pony tail up and down to fan herself.
This wasn't the Mona I knew, all loose and swaying and full of easy smiles. When we came here together last year she was chewing gum, buying records, and looking at dress patterns in the fabric store. Mona always liked putting on an act for people, but this was different. There was something furtive about her, as if she'd found another life to live when the real one went against her. She reminded me of the way my father was when he was with Minnie, and I wondered if that's what being an adult meant, having a chance to walk away from things you didn't like. It had to be, I decided, because until I turned 18 and got out of high school, I was stuck in my life.
Franko was looking me up and down in a way I didn't like.
"Sister?" he said. "Yup," said Mona, "little baby sister."
I felt like a fool because I had on white polyester shorts, a prim little blouse that zipped up the back, and a pink hair band in my hair. I frowned and Mona gave me a look which said to knock it off.
Franko patted the space next to him, inviting me to join him on the ledge. Mona sat down instead. She didn't look so comfortable now that she was closer to him.
"I worry 'bout you, Miss Mona," he said, looking at her dress again. "Some things you run up on your sewing machine belong in the Stone Age. Why don't you expand your horizons? Fix me up a nice dashiki? Sister'll help you, won't you? Sister knows what I'm talking about."
He threw his head back and laughed. Mona was laughing too, but she didn't mean it. She didn't like people making fun of her sewing. It was one of the few things she worked hard at. I thought about pushing Franko backwards into the little decorative hedge and seeing how much he laughed then.
"Let's go," I said. "I'm thirsty."
"All right, all right," said Mona. She rolled her eyes at Franko and he laughed.
We went across the street to the IGA so I could buy a Coke. Mona stopped outside the doors and pulled 50 cents out of the pocket of her dress. That was just enough for bus fare if we didn't want to walk home.
"Why didn't you bring more money?" I said.
"Why didn't you?"
"Look, this was your idea."
"Shut up and let me think."
I stood in front of the automatic doors to catch blasts of cold air when they opened. One woman pushing a cart frowned at me when I didn't get out of her way fast enough.
"Well?" I said.
"I wish I knew someone here. I might be able to bum some money."
"Why don't you go ask Franko? He looks loaded."
"He s a creep" I sighed loudly.
"Let's go find a bus," I said. "There's nothing to do here. She must be back by now."
Mona sat down on the wooden bench in front of the store. She looked drained all of a sudden.
"Let's go to Dad's instead," she said.
"Are you nuts? He's got what's-her-name over there."
I imagined my father if we showed up at his door. "Girls!" he'd say, "you should have phoned!" Then he'd stand in the doorway and look over his shoulder before asking us in. Minnie would be in the kitchen with a cocktail. She'd have on a short skirt and a sleeveless top, and the gold locket my father had bought her. She'd smile and her eyes would tilt up like a cat's. "Well, well," she'd say, and pat her hair. They'd offer us something to drink. Mona would ask for a cocktail, and my father would make her one because she's old enough now, but he'd look weird about it. Then he'd ask us to sit down. Mona would ask Minnie if she could bum a cigarette. I'd look out the window and wish I could leave.
"Bad idea," I said. "Let's just go home."
Mona's face went blank. Some of her hair had fallen out of her pony tail and was sticking to her neck.
"I can't deal with this," she said.
Her chin started wobbling and her eyes got wet. I looked around to see if anyone was looking at her. The only people in the parking lot were a woman leading a little girl by the hand. They went into the store without seeing us.
I sat down next to her.
"They're both such jerks," she said. "They don't even think about us."
I knew she was talking about our parents, not about Minnie and my father.
"I can understand Dad," said Mona. "He's having some stupid mid-life crisis. Men are supposed to do that. But what's her excuse? She's always been the same. Nothing's ever good enough. I don't get good enough grades, I'm too fat, I don't speak French as well as she does. Why can't she just leave me alone?"
She said all this staring straight ahead. Then she looked right at me, something she almost never did.
"You know what I mean?" she said.
"Yeah. But there's nothing we can do about it. We have to go home sooner or later."
She nodded and wiped her eyes. She stood up and we walked back to the main street of College Town.
"I hate this place," she said.
"Why? Because Franko made fun of your dress?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
The bus took 20 minutes to come. Even with all the windows open it was hotter inside than out. Mona leaned against the glass and closed her eyes. She'd open them whenever the bus stopped or turned, but she wasn't looking at anything. She'd fallen into another sullen trance that seemed to alternate with her talky, bubbly moods. I didn't know there was a name for this condition, or how hard Mona would fight against it in the years ahead. All I knew was that it began in those first weeks of our new life, as we changed from a family of four into three women alone.
Our mother's car was in the driveway when we got home. The back door was open, but she wasn't in the kitchen. Our note had been pushed to one side, and there was something cooking on the stove. We heard a familiar sound, cards being shuffled and slapped down in a game of solitaire at the dining room table. That didn't mean much in itself, since she played cards in any kind of mood, only that she was waiting for us.
We found her bent over her cards, drumming her fingers on the table with her free hand. There was a lit cigarette in the corner of her mouth.
"Girls!" she said brightly, raising her head. It was the first time she'd looked at us all day.
We hung back a moment, then I went through the doorway. I wanted to get it over with.
"You're missing one," Mona said right behind me, pointing to a red six that could go on a black seven.
"So I am," my mother said, moving the card. She laid down a few more one by one, shaking her head in disgust. Mona watched the game intently. I'd never liked cards that much, myself.
"Amy," my mother said to me, "you look hot. Get us all something to drink, why don't you? I made iced tea."
I came back a minute later with the pitcher and three glasses on a tray. Mona was sitting down, still watching the cards. I couldn't read either of their faces. They were much better at hiding their thoughts than I was.
"Oh, to hell with it," my mother said, scooping up the cards. She stirred some sugar into her tea with one of the long-stemmed spoons I'd brought, and looked calmly out the big picture window facing her. I was beginning to realize she wasn't going to yell at us. That worried me more than if she'd already started.
"Your hair looks nice," I said.
"Thank you, dear," she said, patting her head. "They do a pretty nice job down there."
In those days, younger women like Minnie wore their hair long, but my mother's was still short and sprayed in a helmet of swirls and waves. She'd started dying it that summer, which seemed out of character for her, but maybe my father's leaving had made her more aware of how she looked.
I noticed she'd had her nails done, too. They were painted such a bright, hard red that the rest of her hands looked old. I imagined her sitting under the dryer while the manicurist worked away. My mother never read magazines at the beauty parlor. The times I'd gone with her she'd sat quietly, lost in thought.
"I'm sorry about the beans," I said. Mona looked at me sharply.
"Oh that," said my mother. "I'm sorry too, for asking you to watch them. I should have just let it wait until I got back. You didn't need to go off like that, by the way. I wouldn't have bitten your head off."
"I suppose I usually do, don't I?" said my mother. "Well then, I'm sorry about that too."
She began shuffling the cards again and again.
Mona and I looked at each other. Neither of us could remember the last time my mother apologized for anything.
"You see, girls, I've been thinking about us, about the family. Everything seems to have gone wrong, somehow. I guess your father was unhappy for a long time, and I guess I didn't do very much about it."
She put out her cigarette and laid out another game.
"So, I suppose he had no choice but to go. And of course Mona will be gone in another few weeks, and I don't think we'll see much of her after that" A hard, icy tone had crept into her voice. She was still looking at her cards.
"I'll be back at Christmas," said Mona. She sounded worried. She was looking at the cards too.
"You'll have to see," said my mother. "You may want to spend Christmas with your father. But you'll be here, won't you Amy. You're not ready to leave me yet, are you?"
"Where would I go?" It wasn't the answer she wanted, but I don't think she was surprised to hear it.
"I don't know, dear," she said. "You might want to go live with your father. He might have more to offer you."
It wasn't a serious possibility and she knew it, but that didn't stop her from hinting I could betray her at any moment, just by caring for him. This wasn't like her, since she was usually blunt and direct. I didn't know how to fight like this, or to defend feelings I had a right to. I wished she'd said something I could snap at her for, something I could be done with and forget. I turned away and crossed my arms against my stomach, as if I had to keep something soft from leaking out.
"Mona, dear," my mother said, picking up her cards, "I hope you won't wear that dress to dinner tonight. It's very pretty, of course, only it's a bit loud. I think you should avoid horizontal colors until you lose a little weight. You know what I mean?"
I didn't have to see Mona's face to know how it looked. Her mouth was heavy and her chin was sticking out. That's when I remembered what I'd said to her in the car this morning. I'd said her dress looked like a carton of Neapolitan ice cream, and that anyone built like a soup can should never wear anything like it. It rolled off her, as my jibes usually did, and she'd responded with her typical half-hearted threat. What my mother said, on the other hand, wounded her into silence, because her opinion mattered. It always had. Mona liked to upset my mother for the sake of it, but underneath the staged clumsiness and antics, she wanted her approval very badly. I wanted to say something, but it wouldn't have done much good, because the one she needed now was my father. What I realized, standing there with my back turned, was how he'd always gotten between Mona and my mother. He had no patience for female squabbling, and protected Mona by his very indifference to it. If he were here now he'd laugh at my mother and tell her to lay off. He'd always tried to move her on to the next thing when she got difficult. Even when she turned on him, he shrugged it off, until he just couldn't take it any more. His leaving still seemed selfish, yet I understood for the first time that he'd done it to save himself.
My mother put the cards away and went back to the kitchen. She stirred the pot on the stove and looked out the window into the yard. I could tell she was unhappy. I hoped she was sorry for the way she'd talked to us, but I knew she'd never say so.
I'm not sure what happened after that, or how we spent the rest of the day. I guess we got ready for the party, pretended nothing had happened, and met our guests with tighter smiles than we might have if we'd cleared the air with a good fight beforehand. But those days were over, as my mother went on tricking us with sweet words, followed by sour, sly remarks. I still don't know why she turned devious, or why we acted as if we never heard her, when we always did.
In any case, these changes, which even I couldn't see at first, didn't show that night at the table. The atmosphere was warm and friendly, the room was full of candlelight. I'm sure Mona was charming, and that my mother let her be because without my father she needed someone else to carry the conversation. Our guests had a good time, even our oldest friends went home and said how well we'd managed on our own. We thought so too. For years the three of us remembered that day as the time Mona and I burned the beans, and as the day we proved to ourselves we could get along without my father. But now, so many years later, it comes back to me as something else, as a kind of dividing line after which we were different people, caught up in things we didn't control. We're able to now, only because we understand. Today Mona has conquered her depression, my mother speaks of the past plainly and with regret, and after a lifetime of assigning blame, I see divorce as a piece of bad luck it takes two people to cause. Even though we didn't know it for a long time, everything began that night, because in the occasional silences that fell around the table, when we happened to catch one another's eye, each of us knew for the first time that nothing would ever be the same again.