She leaned closer, offering me her cheek to kiss, but I stayed where I was. She smiled at me again, then said, ‘Oh, darling, don’t be bitter. It’s the first instinct of the weak.’
I bit my lip, turning away from her, and didn’t respond to this. Instead, I dug my hands deep into Heidi’s jacket, as if to tear the pink right off it, as I walked away. Someone else might have called after me, but I knew my mother wouldn’t. She’d gotten her last word, and it was a good one, and to her, that was all that mattered.
On the way back to Clementine’s, I kept my head down, trying to swallow over the thick lump that had appeared in my throat. Clearly, it was my defending Heidi that had set her off, even though I’d only said that she wasn’t ‘that much of a ditz’, and then paid her two small compliments. But that was enough, in my mother’s eyes, to put me squarely in the big pink camp. If I wasn’t in total agreement with her, I might as well have been Heidi. There was no middle ground.
Thinking this, I felt tears fill my eyes, just as I pulled open the door to Clementine’s. Luckily, Esther and Leah were clustered at the counter with Maggie, all of them discussing their evening plans, as always. They barely paid me any attention as I walked past to the office, where I sat down at the desk, fully intending to get back to work. But after about twenty minutes of my numbers blurring as I wiped my eyes with the back of my hands, I decided to call it a night.
Before I left the office, I pulled my hair back in a rubber band, then arranged my face to as stoic and unbothered an expression as I could manage. Two deep breaths, and then I was walking to the door.
‘The thing is,’ Leah was saying as I came onto the floor, ‘I’m never going to meet a hot guy at a coffee shop.’
‘Says who?’ Esther asked.
‘General logic. They just don’t hang out there.’
‘What about the hot, sensitive, artistic type? They live at coffee shops.’
‘See, but,’ Leah said, ‘artistic isn’t hot to me.’
‘Oh, right. You only like greased-up frat boys,’ Esther replied.
‘Grease is your specialty, actually. It’s the artistic types who don’t bathe.’
I was hoping that this conversation was engrossing enough that they’d hardly notice me. But no luck. When they saw me coming, I had their full attention.
‘So, I’ve got to go,’ I said, keeping my voice casual. ‘The receipts are done, and I’ll come in early to finish payroll tomorrow.’
‘Okay,’ Maggie said. ‘Hey, did you have fun with your –’
‘You know,’ Esther said suddenly to Leah, ‘I kind of resent that remark. I have never dated anyone as greasy as that air force guy you met last summer.’
‘That wasn’t grease,’ Leah said, picking up her phone and scanning the screen. ‘That was hair gel.’
‘I think it counts.’
‘You sure about that? Because…’
Thankfully, due to this, I was able to pretend I hadn’t heard Maggie’s half question, and slip out the door without further explanation. Not that she seemed to notice: when I glanced back, she was laughing at something Leah was saying, while Esther rolled her eyes, the three of them securely in their little pink world, as always.
I hit Beach Beans, which was a few stores down, for a large coffee, then found a place on the sand and drank it while the sun set. After downing the last drop, I pulled out my phone and hit number one on my speed dial.
‘Dr. Victoria West.’
‘Hi, Mom. It’s me.’
There was a slight pause. Then, ‘Auden. I thought I might hear from you.’
Not a good start, but I pressed on anyway. ‘I just,’ I said, ‘I wanted to see if you might want to have breakfast tomorrow morning.’
She sighed. ‘Oh, darling, I’d love to, but I’m heading back very early. I fear this trip was ill advised, to be honest. I forgot how much I dislike the beach. Everything is just so…’
I waited for the adjective that would fill this gap, knowing it probably was meant to describe me, as well. But she let it trail off, sparing both the coast and myself.
‘Anyway,’ she said after a moment of too-noticeable silence, ‘it was lovely to see you. Do let me know how your summer progresses. I want to know everything.’
It was not lost on me that this was exactly what she’d said to me the day I left. Then, though, we’d both known she meant the gory, mockable details of my dad and Heidi and their silly lives. The life that I, with one pink raincoat, was now living as well.
‘I’ll do that,’ I said. ‘Have a safe drive back.’
‘I will. Good-bye, sweetheart.’
I shut my phone, then just sat there, feeling that lump rise in my throat again. I’d always had to work so hard to keep my mother’s interest, wresting it away from her work, her colleagues, her students, my brother. I’d often wondered if it was ridiculous to feel this way. Clearly, though, my instincts had been right: her attention was not only hard to come by, but entirely too easy to lose.
I sat there for a long time, watching as people walked up and down the beach in front of me. There were families, kids running ahead and dodging the waves. Couples holding hands. Groups of girls, groups of guys, surfers dotting the distant breakers, even as darkness began to fall. Eventually, though, the sand grew empty, as lights came on in the houses behind me and on the pier in the distance. The night was only just starting, and there was still so long to go until morning. The very thought made me tired, so tired.
I jumped, then turned my head to see Maggie standing beside me. Her hair was blowing in the breeze, her bag over her shoulder. Behind her, the boardwalk was a row of lights, one right after the other.
‘You okay?’ she said. When I didn’t respond, she added, ‘You seemed kind of sad when you left.’
I had a flash of my mother, the dismissive way she’d looked at Maggie, the bikini bottoms, the Booty Berry, and then me, all of us grouped in the category of Not to Her Liking. But it was vast, that place I’d struggled to avoid for so long, as wide and long as the beach where we were right then. And now that I finally found myself squarely in it, I realized I was kind of glad to have company.
‘No,’ I said to her. ‘I don’t think I am, actually.’
I wasn’t sure what I expected her to do or say to this. It was all new to me, from that second on. But clearly, she’d been there before. It was obvious in the easy way she shrugged off her bag, letting it fall with a thump onto the sand, before sitting down beside me. She didn’t pull me close for a big bonding hug, or offer up some saccharine words of comfort, both of which would have sent me running for sure. Instead, she gave me nothing but her company, realizing even before I did that this, in fact, was just what I needed.