The e-mails always began the same way.
It was the extra exclamation point that got me. My mother would call it extraneous, overblown, exuberant. To me, it was simply annoying, just like everything else about my stepmother, Heidi.
I hope you’re having a great last few weeks of classes. We are all good here! Just finishing things up before your sister-to-be arrives. She’s been kicking like crazy lately. It’s like she’s doing the karate moves in there! I’ve been busy minding the store (so to speak) and putting the final touches on the nursery. I’ve done it all in pink and brown; it’s gorgeous. I’ll attach a picture so you can see it.
Your dad is busy as always, working on his book. I figure I’ll see more of him burning the midnight oil when I’m up with the baby!
I really hope you’ll consider coming to visit us once you’re done with school. It would be so much fun, and make this summer that much more special for all of us. Just come anytime. We’d love to see you!
Heidi (and your dad, and the baby-to-be!)
Just reading these missives exhausted me. Partially it was the excited grammar – which was like someone yelling in your ear – but also just Heidi herself. She was just so… extraneous, overblown, exuberant. And annoying. All the things she’d been to me, and more, since she and my dad got involved, pregnant, and married in the last year.
My mother claimed not to be surprised. Ever since the divorce, she’d been predicting it would not be long before my dad, as she put it, ‘shacked up with some coed’. At twenty-six, Heidi was the same age my mother had been when she had my brother, Hollis, followed by me two years later, although they could not be more different. Where my mother was an academic scholar with a smart, sharp wit and a nationwide reputation as an expert on women’s roles in Renaissance literature, Heidi was… well, Heidi. The kind of woman whose strengths were her constant self-maintenance (pedicures, manicures, hair highlights), knowing everything you never wanted to about hemlines and shoes, and sending entirely too chatty e-mails to people who couldn’t care less.
Their courtship was quick, the implantation (as my mother christened it) happening within a couple of months. Just like that, my father went from what he’d been for years – husband of Dr. Victoria West and author of one well-received novel, now more known for his interdepartmental feuds than his long-in-progress follow-up – to a new husband and father-to-be. Add all this to his also-new position as head of the creative writing department at Weymar College, a small school in a beachfront town, and it was like my dad had a whole new life. And even though they were always inviting me to come, I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out if there was still a place for me in it.
Now, from the other room, I heard a sudden burst of laughter, followed by some clinking of glasses. My mother was hosting another of her graduate student get-togethers, which always began as formal dinners (‘Culture is so lacking in this culture!’ she said) before inevitably deteriorating into loud, drunken debates about literature and theory. I glanced at the clock – ten thirty – then eased my bedroom door open with my toe, glancing down the long hallway to the kitchen. Sure enough, I could see my mom sitting at the head of our big butcher-block kitchen table, a glass of red wine in one hand. Gathered around her, as usual, were a bunch of male graduate students, looking on adoringly as she went on about, from the little bit I could gather, Marlowe and the culture of women.
This was yet another of the many fascinating contradictions about my mom. She was an expert on women in literature but didn’t much like them in practice. Partly, it was because so many of them were jealous: of her intelligence (practically Mensa level), her scholarship (four books, countless articles, one endowed chair), or her looks (tall and curvy with very long jet-black hair she usually wore loose and wild, the only out-of-control thing about her). For these reasons, and others, female students seldom came to these gatherings, and if they did, they rarely returned.
‘Dr. West,’ one of the students – typically scruffy, in a cheap-looking blazer, shaggy hair, and hip-nerdy black eyeglasses – said now, ‘you should really consider developing that idea into an article. It’s fascinating.’
I watched my mother take a sip of her wine, pushing her hair back smoothly with one hand. ‘Oh, God no,’ she said, in her deep, raspy voice (she sounded like a smoker, although she’d never taken a drag in her life). ‘I barely even have time to write my book right now, and that, at least, I’m getting paid for. If you can call it payment.’
More complimentary laughter. My mother loved to complain about how little she got paid for her books – all academic, published by university presses – while what she termed ‘inane housewife stories’ pulled in big bucks. In my mother’s world, everyone would tote the collected works of Shakespeare to the beach, with maybe a couple of epic poems thrown in on the side.
‘Still,’ Nerdy Eyeglasses said, pushing on, ‘it’s a brilliant idea. I could, um, coauthor it with you, if you like.’
My mother lifted her head and her glass, narrowing her eyes at him as a silence fell. ‘Oh, my,’ she said, ‘how very sweet of you. But I don’t do coauthorship, for the same reason I don’t do office mates or relationships. I’m just too selfish.’
I could see Nerdy Eyeglasses gulp, even from my long vantage point, his face flushing as he reached for the wine bottle, trying to cover. Idiot, I thought, nudging the door back shut. As if it was that easy to align yourself with my mom, form some quick and tight bond that would last. I would know.
Ten minutes later, I was slipping out the side door, my shoes tucked under my arm, and getting into my car. I drove down the mostly empty streets, past quiet neighborhoods and dark storefronts, until the lights of Ray’s Diner appeared in the distance. Small, with entirely too much neon, and tables that were always a bit sticky, Ray’s was the only place in town open twenty-four hours, 365 days a year. Since I hadn’t been sleeping, I’d spent more nights than not in a booth there, reading or studying, tipping a buck every hour on whatever I ordered until the sun came up.
The insomnia started when my parents’ marriage began to fall apart three years earlier. I shouldn’t have been surprised: their union had been tumultuous for as long as I could remember, although they were usually arguing more about work than about each other.