‘Well,’ I said as she took another sip of coffee, ‘that was a long time ago. Maybe he’s changed.’
‘People don’t change. If anything, you get more set in your ways as you get older, not less.’ She shook her head. ‘I remember I used to sit in our bedroom, with Hollis screaming, and just wish that once the door would open, and your father would come in and say, “Here, give him to me. You go rest.” Eventually, it wasn’t even your dad I wanted, just anybody. Anybody at all.’
She was looking out the window as she said this, her fingers wrapped around her mug, which was not on the table or at her lips but instead hovering just between. I picked up my cards, carefully arranging them back in order. ‘I should go get ready,’ I said, pushing my chair back.
My mother didn’t move as I got up and walked behind her. It was like she was frozen, still back in that old bedroom, still waiting, at least until I got down the hallway. Then, suddenly, she spoke.
‘You should rethink that Faulkner quote,’ she said. ‘It’s too much for an opening. You’ll sound pretentious.’
I looked down at my top card, where the words ‘The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past’ were written in my neat block print. ‘Okay,’ I said. She was right, of course. She always was. ‘Thanks.’
I’d been so focused on my last year of high school and beginning college that I hadn’t really thought about the time in between. Suddenly, though, it was summer, and there was nothing to do but wait for my real life to begin again.
I spent a couple of weeks getting all the stuff I needed for Defriese, and tried to pick up a few shifts at my tutoring job at Huntsinger Test Prep, although it was pretty slow. I seemed to be the only one thinking about school, a fact made more obvious by the various invitations I received from my old friends at Perkins to dinners or trips to the lake. I wanted to see everyone, but whenever we did get together, I felt like the odd person out. I’d only been at Kiffney-Brown for two years, but it was so different, so entirely academic, that I found I couldn’t really relate to their talk about summer jobs and boyfriends. After a few awkward outings, I began to beg off, saying I was busy, and after a while, they got the message.
Home was kind of weird as well, as my mom had gotten some research grant and was working all the time, and when she wasn’t, her graduate assistants were always showing up for impromptu dinners and cocktail hours. When they got too noisy and the house too crowded, I’d head out to the front porch with a book and read until it was dark enough to go to Ray’s.
One night, I was deeply into a book about Buddhism when I saw a green Mercedes coming down our street. It slowed as it neared our mailbox, then slid to a stop by the curb. After a moment, a very pretty blonde girl wearing low-slung jeans, a red tank top, and wedge sandals got out, a package in one hand. She peered at the house, then down at the package, then back at the house again before starting up the driveway. She was almost to the front steps when she saw me.
‘Hi!’ she called out, entirely friendly, which was sort of alarming. I barely had time to respond before she was heading right to me, a big smile on her face. ‘You must be Auden.’
‘Yes,’ I said slowly.
‘I’m Tara!’ Clearly, this name was supposed to be familiar to me. When it became obvious it wasn’t, she added, ‘Hollis’s girlfriend?’
Oh, dear, I thought. Out loud I said, ‘Oh, right. Of course.’
‘It’s so nice to meet you!’ she said, moving closer and putting her arms around me. She smelled like gardenias and dryer sheets. ‘Hollis knew I’d be passing through on my way home, and he asked me to bring you this. Straight from Greece!’
She handed over the package, which was in a plain brown wrapper, my name and address written across the front in my brother’s slanted, sloppy hand. There was an awkward moment, during which I realized she was waiting for me to open the package, so I did. It was a small glass picture frame, dotted with colorful stones: along the bottom were etched the words THE BEST OF TIMES. Inside was a picture of Hollis standing in front of the Taj Mahal. He was smiling one of his lazy smiles, in cargo shorts and a T-shirt, a backpack over one shoulder.
‘It’s great, right?’ Tara said. ‘We got it at a flea market in Athens.’
Since I couldn’t say what I really felt, which was that you had to be a pretty serious narcissist to give a picture of yourself as a gift, I told her, ‘It’s beautiful.’
‘I knew you’d like it!’ She clapped her hands. ‘I told him, everyone needs picture frames. They make a memory even more special, you know?’
I looked down at the frame again, the pretty stones, my brother’s easy expression. THE BEST OF TIMES, indeed. ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Absolutely.’
Tara shot me another million-watt smile, then peered through the window behind me. ‘So is your mom around? I would love to meet her. Hollis adores her, talks about her all the time.’
‘It’s mutual,’ I said. She glanced at me, and I smiled. ‘She’s in the kitchen. Long black hair, in the green dress. You can’t miss her.’
‘Great!’ Too quick to prevent, she was hugging me again. ‘Thanks so much.’
I nodded. This confidence was a hallmark of all my brother’s girlfriends, at least while they still considered themselves as such. It was only later, when the e-mails and calls stopped, when he seemingly vanished off the face of the earth, that we saw the other side: the red eyes, the weepy messages on our answering machine, the occasional angry peel-out on the road outside our house. Tara didn’t seem like the angry drive-by type. But you never knew.
By eleven, my mother’s admirers were still hanging around, their voices loud as always. I sat in my room, idly checking my Ume.com page (no messages, not that I’d expected any) and e-mail (just one from my dad, asking how everything was going). I thought about calling one of my friends to see if anything was going on, but after remembering the awkwardness of my last few social outings, I sat down on my bed instead. Hollis’s picture frame was on the bedside table, and I picked it up, looking over the tacky blue stones. THE BEST OF TIMES. Something in these words, and his easy, smiling face, reminded me of the chatter of my old friends as they traded stories from the school year. Not about classes, or GPAs, but other stuff, things that were as foreign to me as the Taj Mahal itself, gossip and boys and getting your heart broken. They probably had a million pictures that belonged in this frame, but I didn’t have a single one.