I nodded. ‘Well, Thisbe’s pretty fussy…’
‘Thisbe.’ My mother shook her head. ‘I still cannot believe that name. Your father and his delusions of grandeur. What’s the middle name? Persephone? Beatrice?’
‘Really?’ I nodded. ‘How quaint. And unlike him.’
‘Heidi fought for it, apparently.’
‘She should have fought harder,’ my mom said. ‘It’s only a middle name, after all.’
The waiter came by then, asking if we wanted appetizers. As my mother picked up the menu again, ordering us some scallop ceviche and a cheese plate, I looked down at Heidi’s jacket, the pink now barely visible against the dark red of the booth all around it. I had a flash of her face the day we’d been discussing names, how she’d rushed to compliment my own cumbersome middle name, just because she assumed it would make me feel better.
‘Then again,’ my mom said as the waiter left, ‘I doubt your father picked Heidi for her fortitude. Quite the opposite, in fact. I think all he really wanted was someone fluffy and insubstantial, so that he could be absolutely sure she’d always follow his lead.’
I knew that she was probably right. After all, it wasn’t like Heidi had showed any great backbone in the last few weeks. And yet, somehow, I heard myself say, ‘Heidi’s not completely ditzy, though.’
I shook my head. ‘She’s actually a pretty sharp business-woman.’
She turned to face me, her dark eyes meeting mine. ‘Really.’
‘Yeah. I mean, I know because I’m doing her books.’ I’d forgotten how penetrating my mother’s looks could be, and I broke quickly, turning my attention back to my water glass. ‘Clementine’s could be just a seasonal business, but somehow she’s managing to turn a monthly profit all year long. And she’s really savvy when it comes to catching trends. A lot of the stuff she ordered last year at this time went on to be huge.’
‘I see,’ she said slowly. ‘Like, Booty Berry, for instance?’
I flushed. Why was I even defending Heidi, anyway? ‘I’m just saying,’ I said. ‘She’s not just what she appears.’
‘No one is,’ she said, once again managing to both have the last word and make it seem like she’d been right all along. How she always did that, I had no idea. ‘But enough about Heidi. Let’s talk about you. How’s the reading going for next year? You must be getting a lot done.’
‘I am,’ I said. ‘It’s slow going, though. The textbooks are pretty dry, especially the econ stuff. But I think –’
‘Auden, you can’t expect any subject to simplify itself for you,’ she said. ‘Nor should you want it to. A challenge only means you’ll retain the information that much better.’
‘I know,’ I replied. ‘It’s just kind of hard, doing the reading without any direction from a professor. I think once I’m in the class, it’ll be easier to know what’s important.’
She shook her head. ‘But you shouldn’t need that. Too often I have students who are happy to just wait for me to explain to them what a line of dialogue or stage direction means within the context of the play. They don’t even think to try to figure it out themselves. But in Shakespeare’s time, you had only the text. It’s up to you to decipher the meaning. It’s the only pure way to learn.’
She was getting fired up, clearly. Which was probably why it was a mistake to say, ‘But this is economics, not literature. It’s different.’
Now she really zeroed in on me, narrowing her gaze. ‘No, Auden, it’s not. That’s exactly my point. When have I ever taught you to take another person’s view on anything?’
I just sat there, this time knowing better than to answer. Thankfully, then our food arrived, and she got this last word, as well.
Things did not really improve from there. She gave up on me as a source of conversation, instead ordering another glass of wine before launching into a long, protracted story about some curriculum dispute that was apparently draining all her time and energy. I half listened, making affirming noises when necessary, and picked at my salad and pasta. By the time we were done, it was past eight, and when we stepped back outside, the rain had stopped, and the sky was now streaked with pink.
‘Well, look at that,’ my mother said, taking it in. ‘It’s your favorite color.’
I felt this like a sudden slap, which was exactly how it was intended. ‘I don’t like pink,’ I said, my voice as stiff as I felt.
She smiled at me, then reached over, ruffling my hair. ‘Methinks you doth protest too much,’ she said. ‘And your choice of outerwear says otherwise.’
I looked down at Heidi’s jacket. ‘This isn’t mine. I told you that.’
‘Oh, Auden, relax. I’m just kidding.’ She took a deep breath, then let it out, closing her eyes. ‘And besides, maybe it’s to be expected that you’d change a bit, down here with Heidi and these people. I suppose I couldn’t expect to keep you as my very own doppelgänger forever. Eventually, you’d want to try the Booty Berry, so to speak.’
‘I don’t,’ I said, and now I could hear the edge in my voice. She did, too, her eyes widening, but just slightly. ‘I mean, I’m not. I just work there. That’s all.’
‘Honey, it’s fine,’ she said, ruffling my hair again, but this time I stepped out of her reach, hating her condescension, the way she smiled, shrugging. ‘We all have our dirty little secrets, don’t we?’
It was only pure chance, and nothing else, that led me at this exact moment to look over the fence behind us to the hotel pool, which was deserted, save for one person. One person in black, square-framed glasses, his skin pale enough to be translucent, wearing red trunks and reading a small, hardback book that you knew at one glance was Literature. I glanced at my mother, catching her eye, then turned back to him, making sure her gaze followed mine. When it did, I said, ‘I guess we do.’
She tried to keep her face relaxed, but there was one, quick twitch as this remark hit home. But I didn’t feel good about it. I didn’t feel anything.
‘Well,’ she said after a moment. ‘I’m sure you need to get back to your job.’ She said these last two words the same way she referred to my dad’s book, making it clear that she doubted it mattered or even existed.