I pulled the patio door open and slipped outside, where it was thickly hot and muggy, another August morning. But at least it was quiet. Next door, I could see Boo and Stewart sitting at their kitchen table, eating breakfast.
Boo raised her hand, waved, and then gestured for me to come over, smiling. I took one look back at my own house, where my mother's stress filled the rooms to the ceiling, leaving a stink and heaviness like smoke, and started across the one strip of green grass that separated their backyard from ours. When I was little and got in trouble and sent to my room, I'd always sit on my bed and wish that Boo and Stewart were my parents. They'd never had kids of their own. My mother said it was because they acted so much like children themselves, but I liked to think it was so they could be there for me, if I ever needed to trade my own family.
The window in my room faced their back sunporch, an all-?glass room where Boo kept most of her plants. She was mad for ferns. Stewart's studiohe taught art at the universitywas just off that room, in what was supposed to be the living room.
They kept their bed in the corner, and they didn't even have any real furniture to speak of; when you were invited over, you sat on big red velvet cushions decorated with sequins that Boo had picked up on a trip to India. This drove my conservative mother crazy, so Boo and Stewart almost always came to our house, where Mom could relax among the safety and comfort of her ottomans and end tables.
But that was what Cass and I loved most about them: their house, their lives, even their names. “Mr. Connell's my father, and he lives in California,” Stewart always said. He was a mild and quiet man, quite brilliant, whose hair was always sticking straight up, like a mad scientist's, and flecked with various colors of paint. For most of the nights of my life I could hear Stewart coming home late from his university studio, the brakes of his bikethey had in old VW bus, but it broke down constantly squeaking all the way from the bridge down the street.
He'd glide down the slope of their yard, under the clothesline, to the garage. Sometimes he forgot about the clothesline and almost killed himself, flying backward while the bike went on, unmanned, to crash against the garage door. You'd think they would have moved the clothesline after the second time or so. But they didn't. “It's not the fault of the clothesline,” Stewart explained to me one day, rubbing the red, burned spot on his neck.
He'd broken his glasses again and had them taped together in the middle. “It's about me respecting it as an obstacle.” Now Boo slid their door open and came out to meet me on their patio. She was in a pair of old overalls, a faded red tank top underneath, and her feet were bare. Her long red hair was piled on top of her head, a few chopsticks stuck in here and there to hold it in place. Inside, Stewart was sitting at the table, eating a big peach and reading a book. He looked up and waved at me; he had juice all over his chin. “So,” Boo said, putting an arm around my shoulder.
“How are things on the home front?”
“Awful,” I said. “Mom won't stop crying.” She sighed, and we stood there for a few minutes, just looking across their yard. Boo had gone through a Japanese garden stage a few years back, which resulted in a footbridge and a fat, rusted iron Buddha sculpture. “I just can't believe she didn't tell me anything,” I said. “I feel like I should have known something was going on.”
Boo sighed, reaching to tuck a piece of hair behind her ear. “I think she probably didn't want to put you in that position,” she said, squatting down to pull a dandelion at the edge of the patio, lifting it to her face to breathe in the scent. “It was a big secret to keep.”
“I guess.” Someone was mowing their lawn a few yards down, the motor humming. “I just thought everything was perfect for her, like it always was. You know?” Boo nodded, standing up and stretching her back. “Well, that's a lot of pressure. Being perfect. Right?” I shrugged. “I wouldn't know.”
“Me neither,” she said with a smile. “But I think it was harder for Cass than we realized, maybe. It's so easy to get caught up in what people expect of you. Sometimes, you can just lose yourself.” She walked to the edge of the patio, bending down to pull another dandelion. I watched her, then said, “Boo?”
“Did she tell you she was going?” She stood up slowly.
“No,” she said, as the lawnmower droned on down the street. “She didn't. But Cass had a hard year, last year. Things weren't always as easy as she made them seem, Caitlin. It's important that you know that.”
I watched her pull a few more flowers, adding them to the bunch in her hand, before she came over and squeezed my shoulder. “What a crappy birthday, huh?” she said. I shrugged. “It doesn't matter. I wouldn't have done anything anyway.”
“What about Rina?” she said. “She's off with her new stepdad,” I told her, and she shook her head. “Bermuda this time.” My best friend Rina Swain's mom had just gotten remarried again: This was number four. She only married rich, and never for love, which led to Rina living in nicer and nicer houses, going to endless exotic places, and piling up huge therapy bills. Rina had what Boo called Issues, but the guys at school had another name for it. “Well, come inside,” Boo said, pulling the door open and stepping back to let me in first. “Let me make you breakfast and we'll not talk about any of this at all.” I sat down at the table next to Stewart, who had finished his peach and was now sketching on the back of the power bill envelope, while Boo filled a mason jar with water and arranged the dandelions in it. Stewart's canvases, both finished and unfinished, covered the walls and were stacked against any solid surface in the house. Stewart did portraits of strangers: All his work was based on the theory that art was about the unfamiliar. Stewart might have been unconventional, but his art classes were insanely popular at the university. This was mostly because he didn't believe in grades or criticism, and was a strong proponent of coed massage as a way of getting in touch with your artistic spirit. My father had been quoted about Stewart's teaching practices more than once, and always used words like unique, free spirit, and artistic choice. Privately, he wished Stewart would wear a tie now and then and stop leading meditation workshops in the quad on big football weekends. Stewart looked over and smiled at me. “How's it feel to be sixteen?”
“No big difference,” I said. With all the confusion, my father had forgotten about taking me to get my driver's license, but everyone had been so crazy I hadn't wanted to ask. “Oh, now,” he said, pushing the envelope away and putting down his pen. “That's the great thing about aging. It just gets better every year.“ ”Here you go,“ Boo said, plunking a plate down in front of me: scrambled tofu, Fakin' Bacon, and some pomegranates. ”I remember when I was sixteen,“ Stewart said, sitting back in his chair. His feet were bare, too, and sprinkled with green paint. ”I hitched a ride to San Francisco and had a burrito for the first time. It was incredible.”