“Ah,” Stewart said, nodding. A bug flew into the lightbzzzt! and he sighed. “Right.”
“What's that score say, Caitlin?” my father asked me, squinting through the patio door. “I'll go check,” I said, picking up my Coke and going inside. “Ten-?seventeen. Nebraska's up.”
“Good,” my father said, flipping another steak. I was standing in front of the TV, watching the offense get organized, when Stewart said, in a lower voice, “Is there any news about Cassandra?” I glanced outside at my father, who didn't even flinch at the sound of her name. We'd all been acting like things were fine. It was just another Labor Day, I was already back at school, Cass was at YaleI mean, there was her schedule up on the fridge. “No,” my father said in his press-?conference, news-?sound-?bite voice. “Nothing new.” Stewart nodded, rubbing his hand over his chin. “I know this probably doesn't help,” he said. Stewart, who prided himself on Being Fully in Touch with His Emotions, was the complete polar opposite of my stoic father. “But you know, I took Boo away from her family when she was eighteen. We were just kids, of course, and it was stupid, and it took years for her parents to forgive me.” My father flipped another steak, then pushed down on it, hard, with the spatula. A bug flew into the bug light, dying a loud, noisy death. “But I took good care of her,” Stewart went on. “And I know that Adam is doing the same for Cassandra. She's such a smart girl. She wouldn't be with anyone who'd do anything less.”
My father, with those nerves of steel, didn't react to this except by one, solid nod. Outside, I could hear my mother laughing, her and Boo's voices getting closer. “Well,” my father said, glancing in again at the game as a quarterback ran down the field, dodging and twisting, ducking and rushing, all the way to the end zone. “I hope you're right.” They were quiet after that, with just the sizzle of the steaks and the bug light buzzing every few minutes. It was getting dark outside, and the food was almost ready. So I went into the kitchen, watched the sun set, and ate ambrosia salad with my fingers at the end of this, another summer.
My making cheerleader changed my mother's life. She showed up at all our early exhibitions and games, wearing one of many Jackson High School sweatshirts and pins, clapping and cheering so loudly I could always hear her over anyone else. She organized our bake sales and car washes, packed snack bags full of apples and Rice Krispies Treats for away trips, and had my uniform dry-?cleaned and pressed promptly after each game. She had finally found something to concentrate on that was familiar and busy in the strange silence of Cass being gone. She was almost happy. And that should have been enough for me to keep at it. But the truth was, I hated cheerleading. Whatever zest and pep the other girls had that made them cartwheel, high kick, and smile constantly was missing in me, like a genetic or chemical malfunction. I felt like an impostor, and it showed. Because I was the lightest of all the girls, it was decided early on that I would be the one at the top of the pyramid formation we did in our big cheers. This also led to me being hated with a passion by Eliza Drake, who because of the birth control pill had put on about fifteen pounds over the summermostly in her hips and buttand was subsequently bumped to a lower, supporting position. She could have been on top, for all I cared. I was scared of heights, and climbing up all those backs to be lifted to stand, with someone grasping the backs of my knees, made my head spin. All I could think about was toppling down, falling head over feet to crash on the gym floor just as the marching band trampled over me playing “Louie Louie.” When I was up there, wobbly and light-?headed, I always thought the same thing: After this game, I quit.
But then I'd look out in the stands and see my mother beaming up at me, waving and wearing the same proud smile my father had the night Cass kicked the winning goal, bowed her head to accept her Homecoming Queen crown, or stood up for human rights on local TV. In all my life, going for the bronze, I'd never gotten a look like that before, and I knew if I quit, it would break her heart. It was like I'd somehow thrown her a lifeline, without even meaning to, and to let go right now meant she'd fall back into missing Cass and just drown. But I was not my mother's only new hobby. “What is this?” Rina whispered to me one afternoon when we stopped by my house after school en route to a game. I'd forgotten my cheerleading sweater again, just as I was always forgetting something crucialregulation socks, matching ponytail holders, pom-?poms. I was learning this sport had too many accessories for my taste: It was like being Barbie. The this Rina was referring to was my mother's new Victorian decorating scheme, which consisted mostly of wreaths, sprigs of dried flowers hanging from the walls, and various knicknacksthimbles, tiny tea sets, families of glass swanscluttered on every flat surface. The worst, however, were the Victorian-?era dolls she kept ordering from QVC, all of them with porcelain white skin and spooky eyes. They came with their own stands and were suddenly just everywhere: in the living room by the magazine rack, on the credenza, with a pack of swans, and even in the guest room, where they were lined up across the bureau, staring blankly at the closet. Sometimes when I couldn't sleep Fd think of them there, just staring in the dark, and shudder all the way down to my toes. “I told you,” I said to Rina, “my mother's going through some kind of weird adapting phase.” She was out, for once, probably buying more ceramic plaques shaped like apples and houses to hang on the walls. “What?” Rina said. I shook my head. “I don't know.” I opened my bedroom door to see a Victorian-?style teddy bear sitting on my bed. He was wearing spectacles, a bow tie, and a period vest. Another QVC special. “Man,” Rina said in a low voice, walking over and picking it up. “Get out the Prozac.”
“Shut up,” I said, grabbing my sweater off the chair. “Let's just go.” There really was no stopping my mother. Boo had tried, convincing her to take that pottery class at the Community Arts Center on Tuesday nights. The teacher was a woman artist with dreadlocks and a tattoo, and my mother reported to us in a worried tone that she did not shave her legs or underarms. This did not, however, seem to hinder her ability to teach my mother how to make lopsided bowls, ashtrays glazed with smeared reds and greens, and a ribbed tall vase for me that leaned like the Tower of Pisa. I truly believed that my mother thought she could replace Cass if she filled the house with enough clutter. But no matter what she brought in there was still something missing, which led to more swans, dolls, sprigs, tea sets, ashtrays. My father sighed when he saw the UPS truck pulling away, frowned over the credit card bill, and when my mother was out or not looking, turned the dolls in the living room to face the wall. “There's something unsettling about all this staring,” he explained sheepishly when I caught him one night, crouched by the magazine basket, furtively rearranging the dolls. He looked embarrassed to be even holding one in his arms, the School Marm, her book and slate stuck to her hands with heavy-?duty wire. “I know,” I said. But by breakfast the next morning she, the mother with two children, and the baby in the christening dress were all turned back the right way, as if they'd done it themselves during the night. My father missed Cass, too, but his loss was more subtle. Things kept coming from Yale: Obviously we were still on the mailing list, so the parents' newsletter and fund-?raising requests arrived with regularity. My mother left them on the table by the door without comment and I'd figured my father was throwing them away, until I went into his office one day to look for a pencil sharpener and found them all neatly stacked in a drawer, envelopes not even opened. The truth was, I was trying not to look too hard at anything. Not at myself, the swans, my mother mouthing the cheers along with me, the crooked ashtrays, the tired look on my father's face when another Yale bulletin came in the mail. It was easier to just float along as if sleeping that whole first part of the year, going through the motions and staring like one of those ghostly dolls, waiting for something to wake me up.