For a long time Rose’s mother had talked about quitting smoking, but it wasn’t until Rose was nine years old that anybody took her seriously. Until then it would come up from time to time—about as often as a trip to the automatic car wash. Rose’s mother would be lifting a spear of asparagus to her lips or paying the bills by the bay window when she’d pause, her eyes fixed in mid-air like someone adding up numbers without a pencil, and announce she was through with cigarettes for good. Rose’s father always had the same reaction. He’s clear his throat, blink, shift his judicious weight and say, “Well, I think that’s an admirable idea. I’ve always said those things will get you in the end.” Then he’d return his attention to his dinner or his newspaper.
He didn’t smoke. He didn’t like parties. He said: “I have no vices.” He said parties were a waste of time.
But Rose’s parents went out often, her mother beautiful in scarves and silk and sometimes a blue velvet hat, her father irritable, scrupulously shaved so that he winced when kissing his daughters goodnight. He could be stern. If you opened his study door without knocking or screamed in a game in the yard outside his window, he could take your breath away with his blue, icy stare, the stare that reminded Rose that she hated her father, which was something she sometimes remembered and sometimes forgot.
Once, when she wasn’t supposed to be listening, she’d heard her mother tell her new friend Constance Gomez, “That sanctimonious bore. The truth is he doesn’t have any virtues either.”
Rose, too, urged her mother to give up smoking. It was not that she feared her mother would die, except sometimes late at night when the shadow of her desk grew spikes and spread its wings. By the light of day she knew there was no such thing as dragons, and her mother was young for a grown-up, her arms smooth and tan and strong enough to lift Rose into the air. So it was not fear, but rather because, like the smith in the fairy tale called in to remove a stone from the hoof of the king’s horse, she enjoyed admonishing her mother. Rose would toss her head and straighten her back, pretending she looked like Constance Gomez, who was beautiful. “Really, Mom,” she’d say in her most sophisticated voice, “You shouldn’t smoke those things you know.” Then her mother would laugh, gaily but with only half her mouth, while from the other half her cigarette dangled, threatening to fall but never falling. She’d light the tip with a flick of her lighter, take a long drag, exhale in a dramatic stream, movie-star style, and at last, removing the cigarette from her lips with a sweep of her wrist, say, “That’s my Rose-petal. You’ll always look out for your mother, won’t you?”
For Rose was sophisticated, old for her age. Didn’t Constance say she had the eyes of a woman? Constance, who wore silk even when she dropped by on the way to the store, who’d exchanged a husband for boyfriends who bought her flowers and took her dancing and once, even, to St. Thomas on a cruise. And didn’t she know more about what boys and girls did together than practically anyone in the third grade? Than anyone except her best friend Ellen Leibowicz who found things out from her sister and then told them to Rose.
One night at bedtime Rose found a spider crawling across her turned-down quilt towards her pillow. She screamed and her parents came running. Her father got there first and killed the spider with a shoe.
“Oh Michael,” her mother sighed. “All over the sheet.”
Rose recoiled and said she’d never wear the shoe again.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” her father said.
“Why don’t you sleep in the guest room, honey,” her mother said, stroking her hair.
Rose loved the guest room. It had a double bed and an antique lamp and the sheets were always tight and fresh. Also, it was right next door to her parents’ room and if she pressed her ear to the wall she could hear wonderfully. Once, sleeping there when she was sick, she’d heard her father say “Goddamn them all to hell,” and another time she’d heard herself praised. Not that her parents didn’t praise her other times, but there was something special about hearing it through the wall.
Tonight, lying still so she wouldn’t wrinkle the covers, she heard her mother say, “Michael, you know, I’m going to do it this time. There’s no question in my mind but I’m going to do it this time.”
Rose didn’t know what her mother meant until her father answered, “Well, Margaret, I think that’s an admirable idea.”
“No, really. This time’s different. This time I’m absolutely going to.”
Her voice sounded strange, not dreamy exactly, but remote, and somehow stronger, like the difference between the sound of the bat hitting the ball when Rose swung it, and the sound when Joanna Lewis smashed it clear away into the outfield. Rose’s father, too, seemed to hear the difference, because he asked, his voice heavy with forbearance, “Why this time? What’s different this time?”
“I don’t know,” she answered, sighing exaggeratedly, the way Rose did sometimes when she did know but didn’t want to say. “I’ve been discussing it with Constance. She quit ten years ago—and she hasn’t had a single lapse.”
“Well, hurrah for Constance.”
“No, seriously Margaret,” he said, his voice tight with distaste, “I see women like that every day at the office. Divorcees with eyelashes out to here and clothes you know they can’t afford on their alimony.”
“Leave it alone, Michael. In the first place you don’t know anything about her, and in the second place and more importantly she’s my friend, and I don’t talk about your friends, even though Sy Marshall did take up with that blond, what was she practically a teenager when—”
“That’s enough Margaret!”
“—a teenager, yes, and his wife was—”
“—in bed after her accident, and he didn’t even have the decency to come home at night half the time, just leaving her with that nurse!”
Now her father lowered his voice. “I’m sorry, Margaret, I’m sorry. But for godssake, what does she have to do with it?”
Her mother sighed, and then was silent, and finally said, in an edgy, defiant voice, “It’s helpful to have Connie’s example. She’s done what I want to do, and she gives me support.”
“And I don’t?”
“Oh, never mind. Let’s drop it, let’s just drop it. I’m going to sleep.”
Sheets rustled, a switch clicked, and then everything was quiet for a long time. Rose was almost asleep when she heard her mother say quietly, as if to herself, “This time, I’m really going to do it.”
Constance Gomez didn’t live far away, but she and Rose’s mother always drove to each other’s houses. Rose recognized the sound of Constance’s old green sports car pulling into the driveway, but her sister Sophie didn’t because she was only five. It was a rattly, racy sound compared with their father’s car, which purred delicately and was new last year. But Rose didn’t care about her father’s car. He was late most of the time, and they often started dinner without him, her mother encouraging them to eat, to eat up, even if that meant there’d be nothing left.
Rose didn’t care, but Sophie did, and even though Rose instructed her not to, she still waited, perched patiently on the couch in the darkening afternoons, listening for the rising low of their father’s car. When she heard someone pull into the driveway, she would spring to her feet, her usual awkwardness transformed by joy into a flushed, heady grace. But often it was only Constance, ringing the bell but opening the door before anyone could let her in, crossing the room with the easy confidence of a glossy, sure-footed mare. With her long hair piled high on her head, her mouth bright with lipstick, her silky clothes rippling, she would march down the narrow hall into the kitchen or the bedroom, seeming to know instinctively where their mother would be. “So, Maggie,” she’d say, hands on hips, short even in her high-heeled boots, “He’s late again.”
Rose knew her mother loved and needed Constance, because she often heard her say in her most affectionate voice, “Oh, Connie, what would I ever do without you?” Once, overhearing this, Rose shouted from the other room, “You never say that to Daddy!” Her mother emerged from the bedroom and, instead of being angry, she stroked Rose’s hair and kissed her, saying, “Let’s not talk about it now, Sweetie, let’s talk about it later, okay?”
And Rose, who wasn’t sure she wanted to talk about it at all, nodded, and then her mother smiled and kissed her again and went back to the other room where Constance waited, only this time she shut the door.
Later, when her mother kissed her goodnight, she explained how important it was for women to have close female friends, how a man could never understand you like a woman could. Love between men and women, although essential, she said, was much more difficult than friendship between women, like mountain climbing as opposed to skating smoothly on ice. Did Rose understand, her mother asked, and Rose nodded, knowing there was all the difference in the world between the way she felt about Billy Morris, who was a year ahead of her in school and rode on her bus, and the way she felt about her best friend Ellen. It was like the difference between long division, when you were never sure you had the answer right, versus adding up two and two to get always, perfectly, four.
She knew also, because her father had told her, that it wasn’t his fault he was so seldom home, that he was a lawyer and that was what lawyers did. He also said someday he’d have more of what he called “flexibility.” She was puzzled by this, imagining him stretching backwards into a perfect arc like a gymnast or a gumby doll, and he explained it meant he’d have more control over time. This made no more sense, although she didn’t say so, because she’d learned in school that Time Waits for No Man, and because the unceasing whispered pulse of the bedside clock always comforted her.
There was a part of her, too, that didn’t care about her father’s absence, for it meant her mother was more available. Her mother was her favorite playmate, an expert builder of castles, crayoner, inventor of games. Of course, Sophie had to be included in these activities, even though she was too young to do them right, but Rose felt confident her mother really did these things for her.
Now for the first time Rose had a project of her own—a metropolis of wooden blocks. It began as a single house that grew—with the addition of a courtyard, a bell tower, and a clock represented by a painstakingly balanced round block— into a town hall. A town hall required a town over which to preside, so Rose built neighborhoods, condominium complexes, a school. Behind the town hall was a neat little house where the mayor lived with her Siamese cat. Across the street was an apartment building, tall and dull, like the one her parents lived in when she was a baby. Rose piled her blocks as meticulously as any mason, and although she asked her mother’s advice, she let no one touch anything.
The day after Rose overheard her parents’ argument it rained. When Rose got home from school she found her mother and Constance in the kitchen drinking wine out of the good crystal. The rain beat hard against the kitchen windows. Through the glass Rose saw the water drench the swing set, the wooden playhouse, the bicycle with training wheels Sophie left on its side in the yard. It was dark and there were no lights on, but Constance and Rose’s mother laughed together like cheerful conspirators. Sophie, whose kindergarten got out at noon twice a week, sat on the floor in the corner playing with her stuffed dog.
Rose hesitated in the doorway, watching her sister who seemed aloof, as though she were above what grown-ups did. Rose looked back and forth between the grown-ups, giggling like children, and her sister with her air of independent maturity, overwhelmed by an urge to seek out, for once, Sophie’s company. But the moment passed. She crossed the dim room and sat with the adults at the round, inviting table.
“Hello, Sweetheart,” her mother said, giving her a breathless squeeze.
“We’re discussing strategies to keep your mother from her cigarettes,” Constance said, sipping her wine with a deft, bird-like delicacy. Rose, flattered to be included, was unable to discipline a pleased smile.
“We’re celebrating,” her mother said. “I quit.” She raised her glass.
Rose, who had been about to speak, fell silent.
“She’s struck dumb,” Constance announced.
Rose gave her a disdainful look and then ignored her, asking her mother: “When? When did you quit?”
“Half-an-hour ago,” her mother laughed, and Constance laughed with her, loud and jubilant. Rose blinked and kicked the table in a resolute syncopation.
“Why don’t you pour yourself some milk into one of these glasses and we’ll have a toast,” Constance suggested kindly, turning to her.
“No thank you,” Rose replied.
“Joan What’s-Her-Name over on Pine St. did it with a hypnotist,” Constance said to Rose’s mother.
“Don’t kick the table, dear,” her mother said.
“Are you skeptical?” Constance asked, widening her eyes and tapping the table with the long, painted nail of her forefinger. “Well it’s true. It’s almost a science these days, not like having your fortune told.”
“Oh come on, Connie.”
“I believe it,” Sophie said from the corner. “Louisa Brownstem’s mom knows someone who forgot who he was and then was hypnotised into remembering.”
“Well you shouldn’t believe everything you hear,” her mother said, but Sophie was no longer listening. “Woof,” she said, making her dog scamper across the floor.
“Anyway,” Constance continued. “What you really need is something else to do with your hands. You have so much energy and no release. You should get out more into the world,” she said significantly.
Her mother glanced quickly down at Rose and over to Sophie, and she started to speak, but Constance held up her hand. “I know,” she said, “We’ve been through this before. I won’t push. But really, a hobby would help. Embroidery or something.” They both laughed again.
“What’s so funny? Rose wanted to know.
“Oh, honey,” her mother said, sipping her wine. “It’s hard to explain. It’s just that I wouldn’t do embroidery.” She laughed again, and then she sighed and refilled her glass. “God I want a cigarette,” she said.
The rain beat harder against the windows, and for an instant Rose was afraid the glass would break. But the window held, and Rose’s mother took a great gulp of wine as though to hold her resolve, and Rose felt only something small deep inside her fold in on itself, like a house of cards when someone slams a door.
The next day the sun came out, and it was hot, the first really hot day of spring. There was no wind, and the damp, penetrating heat made everyone irritable. In Language Arts, Rose’s best friend Ellen failed to spell “friend,” and when Cynthia McCabe laughed at her and spelled it correctly, Rose stuck her tongue out at her with a flourish. Cynthia’s nose, which was too big anyway, turned red as a geranium, and she squealed to Mrs. Theopolis, who scolded Rose and made her sit out in the hall.
At last school ended. The sun still burned hot but the breeze stirred the high branches of the newly-leafed poplars and oaks. Rose and Sophie walked slowly up the hill from the bus stop, past the Johnson house with its mailbox bent over from when Mr. Johnson ran into it last February, past the O’Roarke’s with the high fence concealing the small, oval pool, past the Clemente’s where the two little dogs rushed to the windows, barking hysterically as though volume could compensate for size.
When they got home their mother was sitting on the yellow porch steps. She wore an old sun dress, light blue with a pattern of darker flowers that brought out the traces of blue in her gray eyes. She often waited for them after school, especially in good weather, holding out her arms—strong and tanned from the games of tennis that filled her long mornings, for them to rush into, like waves towards the vast, abiding body of the shore. But today, as Rose skipped into the driveway, as she stretched her body tight as a bow to release herself in a great swoop into her mother’s embrace, she saw her mother’s hands were full.
She cradled something against her body, and her expression mixed pleasure and apprehension, as though it were a new baby that she held so carefully against her breast. Whatever it was, as they approached she made no move to put it down but held it up instead, held it to her face and ordered them to stop where they were, half-way up the sunlit path.
“Stop there,” she called, her voice high and bright, floating towards them like a bird call. “That’s it, good—smile now,” and Rose saw that her mother brandished a camera. She did something to it so that it clicked and wheezed.
“Come on now,” her mother called again, loudly, as though they were far away, and Rose was about to oblige, to don her grown-up manner and offer her mother a radiant smile, when she heard her mother’s voice say with delight, “Good, that’s good. Beautiful.”
Rose saw that Sophie, who hid in the playroom when company was expected, posed and turned, showing her baby teeth. The camera hissed and Sophie’s smiling face grew pinker and pinker until she burst into a fit of delighted, embarrassed giggles and ran into the house.
“Okay, Rose-petal, your turn. Smile for the Nikon.”
So Rose smiled. If Sohpie could do it, she could do it better.
“Shoot, this roll’s gone. We’ll take a rain check. Maybe there’s more upstairs.” She turned away, her attention focused on the black box outlined in steel which she slung carefully by a strap over her shoulder.
Rose marched down the path, sticking her tongue out at her mother’s back just the way she’d done at Cynthia McCabe. She marched up the porch stairs and past her mother. She turned the handle of the front door as though it were a television dial she was switching off.
Inside, the house felt dim, calm, familiar. Rose went to the kitchen and poured a glass of milk. Out the window she saw Sophie riding her bicycle in loops around the bright yellow forsythia bush. She sat down at the kitchen table, which was the color of milk, round as a glass, and waited for her mother to come sit beside her as she usually did, her arms crossed loosely across her chest, her gray eyes focused with benign curiosity on Rose, asking about her day.
She drank slowly, but she was almost done before the front door opened and shut and footsteps tapped down the hall. Not the usual clatter of hard soles against hard floor. The steps were slower, somehow self-absorbed, more like her father’s footsteps, and they made the lightest pit-pat. Sneakers! Since when did her mother wear sneakers on a weekday? Shoes filled her mother’s closet—gleaming patent leather, sandals with braided and twisted straps, boots of all heights, elegant heels and agile flats lined up as orderly as the neat houses on their suburban street.
The footsteps grew louder, but at the last moment they turned away and padded up the stairs.
Rose kicked the base of the table and watched Sophie fall off her bicycle. She had removed the training wheels—how had she done that? Sophie got up and stared down at the bike, a long, serious stare as though she could stare it into submission. Then she picked it up and climbed back on.
Rose left her glass on the clean edge of the table and went downstairs to console herself with her metropolis.
The playroom was in the basement next to the laundry room. The rest of the house had polished, wooden floors highlighted by fine rugs of crimson and royal blue, but the playroom was all shag carpeting, moss green and warm, good to bury your feet in and pull at with your toes. There was a couch with feather-leaking cushions between which you could thrust your hands and come up with motley treasures: lint-coated nickels, hairpins, and the occasional missing piece to an old jigsaw puzzle. There was an armchair with a broken arm that you could lift off and replace if you wanted to hide something, and a bookshelf full of worn paperbacks, board games, blocks, dolls, baseballs, tinker toys, squirt guns, and a never-used croquet set.
Each time she descended the steps and beheld her creation she was struck with surprise and delight. In her sight the old worn blocks with blunted corners and bouquets of splinters became gleaming skyscrapers and graceful mansions. On the edge of town lay a neat ring of low blocks surrounded by tall, skinny ones—a tree-lined lake. The green, leafy maples rustled their leaves like secrets in her ears, and the blue water, gleaming as the sun shone on it, lapped thirstily at the shore.
After half-an-hour, the church with its tapering steeple was a challenge she had almost met. She went to find her mother, eager to show her.
Upstairs, the living room was disordered. Armchairs sat back to back, push-me-pull-you style, crowding the couch. The rug angled sideways across the room ringed with lamps taken from end tables. Her mother, the closed shape of the camera screening her face, crawled left and right like a disoriented bug.
Hearing Rose behind her, her mother swiveled around. She kept the Nikon in front of her and peered through it at her daughter. “A subject!” she cried. “Come pose for me, Rose-petal. Over there, next to the fireplace.”
Rose shook her head. “I need help downstairs,” she said, but she stood up a little straighter and threw her shoulders back, sensitive to the mechanical eye.
The shutter of the camera sputtered and buzzed. “All right, honey. I’ll be there in a minute.” She made no move to get up.
“I need help now.”
Her mother lowered the camera and sat back on her heels. She fixed Rose under a hard, focused stare and put a hand to her hips. “Rosie,” she said warningly, “I said I’ll be there in a minute.” Rose blinked. On her mother’s knees the black box rested heavily and now her mother’s hand moved from her hip to cover it. The hand fidgeted over the dials and switches as her mother’s voice said, “Rose Alexandra, do you hear me?”
Rose said nothing, and then her mother hit the shutter button by mistake and the mechanical clatter exploded the silence, startling her mother into a little shriek.
“Mom,” Rose said, “Relax. It’s only the camera.”
It was incredible, just incredible, Constance said, the way Rose’s mother was turning her life around. And Rose agreed, privately, for it seemed to her that her mother stood on a kind of revolving stage which had turned so far that she faced away from Rose.
She was busy. She planned to take a class, which Rose thought was silly, something children did.
“No, Sweetheart, it’s all grown-ups,” her mother said, but she took to wearing blue jeans, tennis shoes, forgetting her make-up, as though she had turned around her life so far that she now grew younger.
The class would teach her to take better photographs, and to develop them, and soon, she said, she’d have her own darkroom in the basement.
“But first,” Constance said, “You need a model!” She struck a dramatic pose with her long arms outstretched.
“You?” Rose said.
They were in the kitchen again—Rose and her mother, Constance and Sophie. They sat around the table, the adults drinking coffee, the children eating fancy nut cookies someone had given Constance but Constance didn’t want. The camera lay close to Rose’s mother, its leather strap snaking across the white formica.
“I always wanted to be a model,” Constance laughed. “My secret wish.”
“Well, go on then,” Rose’s mother cried, her hand closing around the leather strap. “Stand up and pose.”
Constance laughed again. She stood up. She wore a black, narrow skirt, a forest green blouse, high black sandals and beige stockings textured with a pattern of flowers. Smiling glamorously she sauntered across the floor, turned, cradled her arms above her head. She blew a long, breathy kiss at the camera. Rose’s mother crouched behind her gleaming instrument, turned it sideways, made it sizzle and whine. Sophie watched closely, crumbling a cookie in her lap.
Rose thought of something. “Excuse me,” she said as she left the room, but nobody heard her.
Her parents’ bedroom was so neat it was almost bare. It had no bookshelves, no pictures standing on the bureau or stuck in the mirror’s frame. The bedspread was beige. But opening her mother’s closet door revealed an orderly jungle of rich colors—mostly blues, greens and deep purples—fabrics that caressed and murmured and flounced. She chose a sleeveless periwinkle dress of rough, nubby silk and slipped it from the hanger. The straps just balanced on her thin shoulders and she draped the excess skirt over her arm.
She stepped triumphantly into the kitchen in her bare feet and smiled. “Ta-da!” she cried.
Constance applauded. “Beautiful—she looks elegant, doesn’t she Maggie?”
Rose’s mother laughed and focused her lens on her daughter. “Nice, nice,” she said. “But did you have to pick the silk?” The shutter burbled and sighed.
In answer Rose raised her chin and looked arch. She curtsied. “Ab-so-lutely,” she said, faking a British accent. “It looks ravishing on me.”
“It’s a great idea,” Constance said. “Your clothes’ll fit me too, don’t you think, if they fit Rose?”
“Where’s Sophie?” Rose asked, seeing her audience was diminished by one.
“Outside.” Her mother set the camera down. Cups, napkins and crumbs covered the table. Now Constance was gone too. There was one cookie left and Rose reached for it.
“Not in that dress you don’t,” her mother snapped.
“Maggie,” Constance called, “I’m in the bedroom in a plum jump suit with the candlestick!”
“Come with me,” her mother told Rose, “and get out of that dress.”
It was only in the mornings, waking to the pale April light, that it was possible to believe nothing had changed. Outside the window two birds sat on the swing set, cocking their heads as though listening, and Rose often found herself listening too, straining to penetrate beyond the soft rustling of the unknown leaves, beyond the fading purr of a car on the street below, as though if she listened deeply enough she could find a clue in the slowly blossoming morning, an intimation of strategy.
Every morning she paused in the kitchen doorway to look for signs of change. But the externals were as they had always been: the white cereal bowls with their cheerful yellow stripes, the glasses of juice and milk, the sugar bowl in the shape of a flower. Her father sat as always with the paper folded before him, his pale blue eyes moving back and forth across the page while her mother perched lightly on a chair holding a saucer of berries or a plate of toast. When she saw Rose, her face would light up with a smile and she’d say, “Good morning, Rose-petal,” and blow her a kiss, just the way she always had.
“Good morning,” Rose would reply, crossing the threshold, sitting down, and soon Sophie would wander in, her hair unbrushed, looking as she always did: vague and slightly doubtful, as though she might have wandered into the wrong room by mistake. But sooner or later, in place of the cigarettes, the camera always appeared like the wrong animal, a hamster or a pigeon, pulled from the magician’s hat.
The photography class met on Thursday nights. It would have been more convenient, Rose’s mother lamented, if it could have met while the girls were at school. But there was no help for it. Their father would just have to be home on time once a week—surely he could manage that.
Rose, doubting it, felt light. The afternoon before the first class her mother was tense, excited. She applied her makeup carefully, as though she were going to a party. She wandered from the living room to the kitchen for no reason, flitted upstairs for a bracelet or a hairbrush. Her excitement infected Sophie, who dissolved twice into fits of giggles after which she lay panting, flushed and disoriented, on the kitchen floor.
Rose fled to the basement. It was cool there and smelled, as always, of dust and laundry soap. She stood on the stairs, the carpet soft under her feet, and surveyed the city.
On the playing field next to the school she’d set up little dolls—children playing games at recess. Miniature boats and fish floated on the lake. The church steeple angled majestically toward the sky, toward its Creator—her. She was all-powerful, so she could not be mistaken: her father would be late tonight.
She had an idea for the apartment buildings. With a magic marker she could draw windows, some curtained, others not so you could see into kitchens and bedrooms. She could draw flowering window boxes and cats crouched on narrow sills.
She worked sprawled on her stomach on the moss-green carpet. Her feet waved in the air, and she wielded a purple marker with her careful hand. The squawk of the opening door startled her, and looking up she saw Sophie clinging to the bannister, hiding behind the long hair she’d pushed forward over her face.
Through the open door floated the sounds of pots rattling, glasses and silverware banged together, the whole discordant music of dinner being readied. “What do you want?” she demanded.
“Dinner’s ready.” Sophie’s voice was rounded with surprise as she gazed through the veil of hair at the indelibly-decorated blocks. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“It’s too early for dinner,” Rose said haughtily.
“No, it’s not. It’s Thursday and Daddy’s home early and dinner’s ready.”
“I didn’t hear the car.” Rose turned her narrow back to her sister like shutting a door.
“You can’t hear anything down here when the door’s closed.” Sophie’s voice edged towards a wail. “Mom and Dad are waiting!”
Rose paid no attention, so Sophie ran up the stairs, leaving the door open so Rose could hear her cry “She won’t come!” She heard her mother’s sigh, melodious, like a music box winding down. Footsteps clacked down the hall, were hushed by the carpeting on the basement stairs. “Rosie, come on up. Dinner’s on the table.”
“I’m busy. Dinner’s not ever this early.” She hid behind her back.
“Rose, sweetheart, you knew it was early tonight. Don’t do this to me.” Rose felt the muscles in her cheeks and mouth flutter like tiny wings. Tears filled her eyes. She wanted her mother to soften her tone, or better, to come all the way downstairs, perhaps even take Rose in her arms. Then she could decide whether to be won over or to scorn her mother, to spurn her, to pretend she was invisible.
Rose heard the muffled tread of her mother’s shoe against the step and whirled around, but instead of coming down her mother was ascending, her back now the barricade. She marched up the stairs, her back straight. She shut the door behind her, leaving Rose alone in the perfect, aching silence.
And suddenly, as though wind had spilled from a sail, she looked at her city and saw blocks. Gone were the skyscrapers, the blue, sun-reflecting lake, the cool stand of trees. She saw—nothing—knelt miserable, stared as if into a darkened mirror at the dull, stained hunks of wood.
She flung herself at them. She hammered the town hall, battered the residential neighborhoods, mauled the post office. Her fists danced over the town—waltzed, reeled, leapt like kangaroos, stirred up the rubble of the demolished town like a witch’s poisonous brew.
It was her father, eventually, who opened the basement door with a matter-of-fact click of the knob and descended the stairs with his leisurely, self-assured steps. Rose, lying on her stomach in the long fur of the rug, braced herself, but the steady, even rhythm of his footsteps in his polished shoes calmed her. He stood still for so long before speaking she nearly forgot he was there, and when he did speak his voice was gentle and a bit remote, as though it came from someplace a little ways away—a cool grove, perhaps, beside a quiet lake. “Rose Alexandra, come talk to me.”
She sat slowly up, as though his voice hypnotized her. He was sitting on the bottom step, his blue eyes unexpressive pools, his hands resting soberly on his knees. She stood up, feeling light-headed, and wandered across the floor to settle beside him on the step. He lifted his arms suddenly into the air, so that his unbuttoned cuffs flapped against his wrists as though in surprise, and Rose realized he was reaching out for her. She let him pull her to his chest.
Late that night her mother slipped into her room and sat quietly on the edge of the bed. She smelled of sweat, perfume and chemicals, and underneath a lingering odor that might have been smoke. Rose pretended to sleep, but her lashes fluttered breathlessly over her locked eyes. Her mother’s hand stroked her hair—slow, gentle strokes, over and over, until Rose was lulled to the brink of sleep. There was nothing else—no sound, no movement but the hand, the wrist, five fingers drifting over Rose’s dark head.
And then her mother shifted her weight and sighed—her musical, irresistible sigh. Rose tensed, and then, without warning, she hated her mother. Without opening her eyes she turned lover, turned towards the dark wall, and she knew that from this moment on she would hate her mother every time she sighed.
A few days later Rose found the camera resting on a blue sofa cushion in the deserted living room. Until now she’d never even touched it, so she picked it up and slipped the strap over her head. It was heavier than she expected. She held herself straight and tall, resisting its weight. She felt its coolness through her shirt. She swung the focus dial back and forth and perched a finger over the shutter button. Peering into the view finder she found all was blackness. She puzzled a minute and then removed the lens cap.
A little later, through the kitchen window, she saw her mother lurking behind the blazing forsythia bush. She steadied the Nikon’s maverick weight with both hands and peered through the view finder to catch her mother in its sights. Inside the dotted circle one palm pressed her forehead. The other cupped a cigarette to her crimson lips.