On Saturday, my parents celebrate twenty-eight years. This is how they say it now. Not an anniversary unqualified, but the compound accomplishment of all the anniversaries before. Marriage begins to sound like competition, with the other couples keeping pace or breaking stride, a few of them tearing numbers from their jerseys and leaving the race behind. These are the drop-outs, the losers, the ones we make casseroles for. At every mile marker, which is a year in marriage terms, they break for dinner and have their picture taken. The next day, with fresh sweatbands and frozen water bottles, they head out on the course again.
At fifteen, I have turned cynical toward love. First, I saw Barefoot in the Park and didn’t like it. “But it’s Neil Simon!” my mother wailed. “How can you not like Neil Simon?”
“He might be fine. I don’t know him. But his play is pure manure.”
“Stop saying that! What have I told you about saying that? Nice girls never say manure!”
Maybe I wasn’t a nice girl then, at least not the kind of girl that other people loved. What did I care? People in love were pretentious. They flaunted their affection like a blue ribbon from the county fair—like they had made jam or something. They were winners, and they knew it. Show-offs. Egomaniacs. I hated them so much, them and their love.
With my parents, it was different, though. I didn’t believe they were in love. I believed they were competing for the title of Sticking It Out the Longest and Looking the Best Doing It—which was why anniversaries were important. You had to be seen celebrating somewhere, dressed up and making dumb small talk like it was the most interesting thing in the world, like you hadn’t heard it all before at least twenty-eight times, and when the waiter came by, you would stop him and say, “Excuse me, young man, would you mind taking our picture?”
“Not at all. Special occasion?” he’d smile, knowing the script full well and the part he played in it.
“As a matter of fact, it’s our anniversary. Twenty-eight years today.”
“Stupendous! That’s really something to be proud of.” If this is a classy establishment, the waiter’s accolades will come with a free dessert. If these are classy customers, they will leave an enormous tip. Then, another year, sweat bands, so on.
But this year, my father wants to do something different, something better than usual. “You’re a young woman now,” he observes. “You know what women like, don’t you?”
“In what sense?” I ask, turning to study his profile from the passenger seat.
“Julie, I’m going to level with you. Things have not been exactly—simpatico—between your mother and me—not in every respect, but in certain respects—these last few years. Do you see what I’m saying?”
“Dad, I have no idea what you’re saying. Are you even saying something? Where are we going?”
“Well, officially—” he does it again: the long pause, his shoulders hunched over the wheel like someone short and nervous first learning to drive—“officially, we’re picking up some things at the store for your mother. But I’d also like you to help me pick out an anniversary present.”
“OK. What do you want to get her?”
Now I believe he is actually blushing. The skin on his neck turns salmon, then darkens to mauve. “It’s like what I said before. I want to affect a certain kind of—reunion—with your mother.”
“Reunion? You see her all the time.”
He shakes his head and points to a coupon folded over on the dash. “Have you ever heard of that store?”
I unfold the coupon cautiously, like an overdue notice or a summons to the principal’s office. “Fashion Bug?”
“Do they have nice things there?”
“Define what you mean by nice.”
“Dammit, Julie, does everything have to be so complicated with you? I’m asking a very simple question. Can I get your mother a slinky nightgown there?”
It takes us the rest of the drive to recover from my father’s revelation. Then, we drift through the grocery store slowly, knowing what comes next but not wanting to face it or each other. Finally, to broach the subject of the anniversary again, my father says, “You know, I sent your mother a dozen red roses today. They should be arriving at the bank any minute now.”
“Oh, she’ll like that,” I say, even though I am less than sure. My mother grows her own roses and has never liked the kind that come prepackaged—cellophaned, thorns removed, fifty dollars down the drain. I can hear her fiscal commentary now.
“Well, I just want everything to be perfect,” my father sighs. “I had to ask myself whether I was taking your mother for granted and what I was going to do to change that. I realized that I needed to figure out what women really want, and I think it starts with roses, don’t you?”
We have stowed our groceries in the trunk now and are strolling as casually as we can toward Fashion Bug, though neither one of us will dare to speak of it again. The store, in just an hour or so, will be dead to us, like the accomplice to a crime or the back-up singer to a one-hit wonder.
“Plenty of women like roses,” I offer. “I like roses. I’ve always wanted someone to send roses to me.”
“Your day will come,” my father promises. “There are going to be men lining up around the block—”
“No, please, Dad, this isn’t about me—really.” He has no idea how little I want to discuss my own romantic prospects. “It’s obvious, I guess, but maybe it’s worth remembering that—”
“What?” He looks at me like a student exhausted from cramming for exams and desperate for the single right answer.
“Women don’t all like the same things. They don’t all want the same things. They’re different from each other, at least as different as men are, maybe more.”
“Is that your way of telling me I shouldn’t have sent roses to her work?”
In a way, it is. “No—I mean, look at it this way: those roses you sent are going to flourish and live forever. Nobody takes better care of roses than Mom,” thinking of all those stems severed at an angle, of sugar cubes dissolving in the vase.
“So, you’ll help me then—with the nightgown?” The culotte-clad mannequins are coming into view.
“All right,” I concede. “Let’s get this over with.”
Nobody should have to buy lingerie for her mother. This I know. Nobody should have to serve as accessory to the purchase of lingerie for her mother by her father. This I know also. But less and less do the shoulds seem to matter. I am growing into my adult skin now, and this skin comes pre-emblazoned with the Nike swoosh—Just do it. Whatever you have to do. Whatever needs to be done. I have turned newly efficient, precise as a chisel poised on stone.
“May I help you?” An associate in a leopard print mini skirt and gold lamé shoes pounces on us as soon as we walk through the door.
“No, thank you,” I say. “Dad, follow me.”
I lead him to the least obnoxious rack of nightwear I can find. There is usually only one worth perusing, and since I hate to wait, I advocate for a quick decision. “When you look at these, does anything jump out at you right away?”
“Wow, there’s a lot to choose from,” my father exclaims. “You know, when I worked for Sears—”
“Dad, stay focused. All you have to do is pick the nightgown that you think looks most like something Mom would wear, and then we’ll buy it, and we’re done.”
“But they aren’t just nightgowns,” he says. “They have these nice fancy pajamas, and then things like this—what do you call these?”
“They’re shorts. Pajama shorts.” He glances around as if seeking permission to touch them. “They’re satin,” I say. “Do you think Mom would like these?”
“They look comfortable,” he says. “Not too hot for summer, but not too skimpy either. Are they elegant? Your mother seems to like elegant things.”
“I’d say reasonably elegant.”
“And what about the color? Is that cream? Does your mother like cream?”
“Sure. Everybody likes cream. It’s a completely non-offensive color.”
“What do you put with it?” he asks.
“We have some matching robes over here,” another associate directs. “And slippers too, if you’re interested.”
“I think you’re fine with the pajamas,” I tell him firmly. “You already sent her roses, and Mom’s always suspicious of overkill.”
“Oh, is this a special occasion?” the young woman asks, dream catchers dangling from her ears, her eyes only half-open.
“As a matter of fact, it’s my anniversary,” he replies.
“Cool. How many years have you been married?”
“Twenty-eight,” my father grins. “Twenty-eight years today. My wife and I met working retail in a store—” he looks around now, suddenly conscious of his surroundings, his brow wrinkling a bit in response—“not exactly like this, but close enough.”
“That’s romantic,” she says. “We never have any guys working here. Only like one guy has ever worked here, and he got caught smoking pot, so they fired him.” When my father doesn’t say anything, she adds, “It was really bad for morale, but we’re doing better now. And see? We have these awesome robes. You should get your wife a shorty robe to go with those shorty pajamas.”
At this point, I’m interested only in damage control. “Dad, maybe she’s right. Why don’t you get the cream pajamas and the cream robe—very classy—and maybe they can wrap it up for you?”
“Oh, we have boxes and tissue paper, but we don’t have like wrapping paper to put on the outside of the box.”
A new panic sweeps through my father, the dark pink tide swelling above his collar line. “Julie, it has to be perfect. What do we do?”
“I will wrap it for you,” I promise, feeling like the parent now, like I need to take charge of the situation. “Just get the box, and we can pick up some nice paper on the way home. There’s a Hallmark two doors down.”
“Actually, that guy who got fired for smoking pot—he works at that Hallmark now.”
A beat, like we are in a stage play and someone has forgotten the line. “I’ll bet he does,” I nod. “I’ll just bet he does.”
My father has some trouble deciding on the size, but eventually I convince him that it’s always safe to err smaller—especially where Mom is concerned. If she needs a larger size, she’ll take it back and make the exchange herself.
“But it’s very important that she wears these pajamas tonight,” he whispers.
“Yeah, I get that.” My own neck burns bright in exasperating emulation of my father. “Still, I think these are going to fit just fine, and if there’s a problem, at least you haven’t implied to her that you think she’s bigger than she is. Women hate that.”
He nods. “OK. Good thinking.”
I am gone long before my mother returns from work. I have wrapped the pajamas and robe in two separate boxes, replacing the standard white tissue paper with royal purple, then cloaking each box in a floral motif with verdant leaves. My father fills out the card, also purchased at the Hallmark store from the stoner with greasy bangs, and I add a little gold seal to the lip of the envelope, a finishing touch I know my mother will approve of.
“Have fun tonight, you crazy kids!” I shout over my shoulder, backpack in hand as I bolt through the door.
“But you’ll be home for church in the morning?”
“And maybe give your mother a call later, just to check in?”
“OK, I love you.” He stands at the screen door and waves as I head up the street. I hear his voice trailing after me. “And don’t worry, Julie—someday your prince will come.”
Burning, burning: the back of my neck on fire.
At Alexis’s house, her father plays pinball in the basement and works out on his Nordic track, her sister feeds a Venus fly trap and sulks in her room, and her mother is still cashiering at the Target they built near Fashion Bug—that bright red store that will soon put the other out of business.
“I’m making bacon,” she says. “Do you want some?”
“No, I’m OK.”
“Some Cup-o-Noodles then?”
“Well, my mom called, and she says she’s not cooking, so we’ll either have to order a pizza or walk to the store.”
“You know what’s weird?”
“What?” She is trimming her bacon with gardening shears, but I don’t ask questions. Alexis is my best friend, and she likes bacon.
“We’ve never ordered a pizza at my house.”
“Never?” She turns to me, agog; her lips settle into a stunned, pink heart.
“Not once. My mom says she doesn’t want the pizza delivery people knowing where we live. She thinks they’ll come back and try to rob us.”
“That’s weird,” Alexis says, licking the bacon juice from her fingers before wiping them clean. “Come on, let’s go to my room. I have updates.”
Updates is code for information about her dating life. Alexis is sixteen and fast becoming proficient in the ways of romance. A B-student by precedent and expectation, she has set her sights on a silver medal in love and seems determined to achieve it.
“How is Ryan?” I ask as soon as she closes the door to her small room that smells always of nail polish. The ceiling is light blue with sponge-painted clouds, and a shelf bearing tiaras of varying heights and degrees of bedazzlement spans the length of the wall.
“Things are getting serious,” she whispers. “Next weekend he’s taking me on a harbor tour. It’s Seafair Weekend, so the Blue Angels will be flying, and everybody who’s anybody will be out on a boat watching.”
“Not me,” I tell her wryly. “I’ll be home alone, watching on television, crying myself to sleep.”
Alexis’s eyes, heavily shadowed with her newest, sparkly experiment, grow wide and apologetic. “I didn’t mean you weren’t anybody. I just mean—it’s a big deal for people who are dating. Seafair weekend is kind of the ultimate couples’ weekend.” She chews her bacon thoughtfully, then reaches for her manicure kit.
“The thing with Ryan, though, is that—he’s getting kind of pushy. Ever since we started kissing, nothing ever seems like enough for him.”
This is exactly as I forecasted. “So he wants you to—have sex or something?” I ask, wandering over to the window so she won’t see the way I’m blushing, the way I still can’t believe the things people will do with their bodies.
“No. Not sex exactly, but he keeps wanting—” she opens the door to be sure her sister isn’t standing outside, and then, with a grimace in her throat, continues—“he keeps wanting to put his tongue in my mouth.”
This is new. This is a revelation. I figured Alexis’s tongue was training for a triathlon by now. We both sit down cross-legged on her bed, the bacon between us like an odd, fatty offering. “So, when you guys make out, or whatever you want to call it”—I pick up one of the bacon strips so I’ll have something to do with my hands—“you don’t swap spit or anything?”
“Gross! Julie!” She looks sincerely offended.
“Well, aren’t your lips sort of dry? How do you keep the kisses interesting?”
“Sometimes they aren’t. I mean, I’m just not comfortable opening my mouth, and he’s always looking for a way in. It’s kind of a battle really. But then other times he kisses my neck, and it feels amazing. And I like the holding hands part and snuggling on the couch to watch a movie.”
“Yeah. I could see how that would be nice,” I concede. Alexis is filing her nails now, and all this bacon is just sitting here, sweating on a paper towel.
“I really like having a boyfriend, don’t get me wrong,” she says. “And Ryan’s sweet, and he has a car, and I never have to worry about not having someone if I want to go out to dinner or for a walk on the beach. But sometimes I don’t know how much it has to do with him. Does that make sense?” I think Ryan is a first-rate doofus, so I can’t imagine what any of it has to do with him. I nod and bite into the bacon now, which is no longer warm and faintly slimy. “I mean, why Ryan?”
“Why not somebody else? Is it just because he asked and I couldn’t think of a reason to say no? What if somebody else had asked?” This is a familiar pattern with Alexis. In fact, most of her updates proceed this way—doubting the validity of the relationship, asking for my opinion, convincing herself once again that it’s better to have a boyfriend than not to, at which point I’ll tease her and she’ll apologize again. Then, she’ll ask if she can paint my nails, and I’ll let her, just so she’ll know I’m not mad.
“Hey, remember that Meatloaf song?” Alexis says, laying out her tweezers, cuticle scissors, and deluxe emery board.
“How could I forget? I think it’s the only song I heard in 1993. I think it’s the only song they ever played on the radio.”
“Yeah. It wasn’t that great or anything, but I still think about it.” She smiles at me, and I surrender my hands. “What do you think it was he wouldn’t do for love? Do you have a theory?”
I usually do, but not this time. “I’m not sure. I mean, it could be just a gimmick—like there really isn’t anything at all.”
“But people do have limits, right? Would anybody really do anything for love, no holds barred?”
Alexis makes a good point, and suddenly I feel sorry, not sorry for myself exactly but sorry that I’ve gotten into this mood I can’t get out of. Once, she even joked that I was going to need some black eyeliner to match my new contempt for everything schmaltzy and tender. But what I couldn’t tell her, even my best friend, was that it was just my high standards holding me back. I didn’t want to try unless I was going to get the valedictory prize and ride off into the sunset as the best and most accomplished lover there was. Happy too—not faking it, even a little.
“You know, my mom was a Seafair princess,” I offer, changing the subject. “I think it was the year Seattle hosted the World’s Fair. She still has the dress and everything. It was right before she met my dad.”
“Wow,” Alexis sighs. “Did your mom used to be beautiful?”
“I never really thought beauty was her problem. I think kindness maybe.” Alexis digs into my nail bed and doesn’t respond.
“I’d love to be a Seafair princess,” she murmurs after a while. “It’s about time I stopped buying these crowns and actually won one.”
“OK,” I say. “You try out for Seafair princess next year, and—” sucking in my breath, certain I’m going to regret this— “and I’ll go out with you and Ryan and Ryan’s friend.”
“Really?” Her whole face in bloom. “You’ll go on a double date with us? Ryan and me and you and Mike?”
“Right. Yeah. Mike. As long as it’s not—”
“Oh my God! This is perfect! I’m going to call Ryan right now. We can go tomorrow night. We can see Mad Love!” She runs out of the room, flinging the door open so hard it rattles all the ballerina figurines.
Just then Mrs. Dennis walks in, carrying her thermal lunch sack, the hair around her temples glistening with sweat, and we smile and wave at each other.
“Do you need anything?” she asks. I blow on my fingernails and shake my head.
The next morning I leave before Alexis is even awake, climbing around the fold-out couch in the living room where her mother has taken to sleeping. I don’t ask questions. It’s none of my business. But if love starts with tongueless kisses and ends with separate beds, I’ve yet to hear a compelling endorsement for the practice, or the affliction. I’m still not sure how to classify love—is it a being, or a doing, or a having?—but I know I’m not likely to find out at the movies with Mike of the no last name and the patchy beard, his hands like two ham-hocks always punching at the air.
As I pass my grandmother’s house, I collide with my father dragging her trash cans out to the curb. “Do you need some help?” I offer, thinking this is a safer question than how was the anniversary last night?
“No, no, I’m good,” he grins. “You go on home. Your mother’s waiting for you. I have some hydrangeas to water, and if there’s time, Grandma and I are going to squeeze in a game of cribbage.”
At home, I stand on the porch and ring the doorbell. My mother will not permit me to keep my own key. (Your friends will find out how nice our house is, and they’ll talk amongst themselves, and then someone will make a copy of that key and come here and steal all my good china …)
“Julie? Is that you?” A shadow passes over the peephole.
“Yes, it’s me.”
“Just a minute … OK, it’s unlocked,” she replies in a high-pitched stage whisper. Instead of opening the door, she leaves me to do it, and when I step into the entry hall, there is only the grand piano with its lid raised, the sheet music askew and the little green booties slipping down from the pedals. A general ambience of disarray.
“Hello? Mom? What’s going on?”
“Did you close the front door?” she calls from the bedroom.
“Good.” And suddenly, my mother appears before me wearing her new white satin robe and what I can only assume are her new shorty pajamas underneath. As I look closer, I realize she is also wearing a pair of pale nylons and Soft Spot high-heeled shoes. Her lips are painted, her cheeks rouged, and her eyelashes elaborately plumed.
“I’m just going to get some cereal,” I say, averting my eyes and making a beeline for the kitchen.
“Not so fast!” My mother grabs my arm and twirls me around to face her. “You haven’t even complimented me on my new outfit.”
“It’s great, and I’m starving, so I’m just—”
“Meet me in the living room, please,” and I can tell from her tone that this is really a command masquerading as a request. There is no getting out of it.
“Because I said so”—then relaxing her grip—“and because you’re the best budding photographer I know, and I need you.” She bats her eyes coyly and disappears into the bedroom again.
“Mom?” I murmur. “Mom?” I stand in her doorway, looking forlorn. Please, Mom, I’m not a waiter.
“Now, as I believe you already know, your father bought me some new pajamas yesterday. And I understand,” motioning for me to follow, “that this was a bribe. Whatever he tells you, I want to be clear—I knew what he was after from the start.”
“OK. So—” My cheeks scorch, and my face turns the color of an apple cinnamon candle. No mirror is necessary to confirm.
“But, in spite of all the pretense and all the money down the drain”—she stops to rearrange the roses in her tall green vase—“I do like these pajamas. I think they’re flattering. What do you think?” She lets the robe drop to the rug and spins around for me to admire.
“I think—I think they look like just the right size.”
“Maybe even a little loose,” she says. “But comfortable. And also elegant. Wouldn’t you say elegant?”
Now my mother reaches for the camera case. She unzips it and begins to load the batteries into our small, off-brand 35 millimeter—a Zony I believe it’s called. “I know how you and Alexis love to do photo shoots.”
“Well, really, Mom, we haven’t done those for a few years—”
“And so I thought this was just the thing. A chance for some girl time for just us girls.” She winks at me, and I turn toward the window with a full-body cringe.
“Julie!” she snaps. “Pay attention. Your father will be home in half an hour, and then it will be time for church.”
“Maybe I should go get ready then.” I try once more, but my attempts are futile. Thrusting the camera into my hand, my mother positions herself on the couch, legs crossed, the stuffed white Persian cat stretched on the ledge behind her.
“You know there’s a cat behind you, right? That creepy James Bond cat.”
“Should I hold it?” my mother asks. Without waiting for me to respond, she spreads the cat across her lap and twists her torso sideways, looking back over her shoulder and smiling.
I take the picture. There is no point resisting now. The viewfinder is still sandy from our last trip to the shore, but there is no point in mentioning that either. My mother reclines on the couch, a pearl bracelet binding her arm. I take another picture. “How do I look?” she asks.
“Fine,” I nod. “Perfect.”
“Pose me!” my mother instructs. “I know you and Alexis do this all the time.”
“Not so much anymore.”
“I’ve heard you down in the backyard. I know you’re always coming up with the most creative poses—and, by the way, you should spend more time in front of the camera. Let Alexis take some pictures of you once and a while.”
“OK,” I say.
“Because you’re a very pretty girl, Julie!” Click. “And you ought to be more aware of it.” Click. “There’s nothing worse than a pretty girl who doesn’t know how to turn those looks to her advantage.” Click.
My mother rises now and takes a long-stemmed rose between her teeth. “Is this too much?” she asks, biting down hard, the stem like a limbo bar.
“No, not at all.” That Nike swoosh on my skin, that deep tattoo of an imperative, a birthright. Her rhinestone earrings catching the light. The camera flashing again and again, as if it wasn’t automatic. As if it mattered that I was the one pushing the button.
Soon, she snaps the head from one of the roses, sprinkling those garish red petals over the cushions, the ruffled pillows, even the pajamas themselves. From a distance, or with a poor tele-foto lens, they look exactly like polka dots, or a bad case of acne writ large.
“If your father plays his cards right,” she smirks, “he may wind up with a photograph for Christmas.” My mother lays her hand across her collar bones, throws back her head in mock abandon. “How are you at framing?”