"It's me," she began, "just calling to say hello, see what's going on. I am right this minute walking to class; it's a gorgeous day here… Don't know if I told you guys, but I signed up for a communications class this semester, heavily recommended by a friend, and I am just loving it. It's taught with a psychology angle, and I'm just learning so much… And the TA who runs my recitation is brilliant. I mean, a lot of times in lectures I just find myself zoning out, even if I feel the material is interesting, but Brian, he's just riveting. Seriously. He's even got me considering a minor in communications, just because I'm getting so much out of the class… But there's also my filmmaking class, which really interests me, so I just don't know. Anyway, I'm almost to class now, hope all of you are well, miss you love you bye!"
Kirsten was so used to being cut off she always sped up at the end of her messages, so she blurted out this last part, barely beating the beep. I reached over, hitting the save button, and the house was quiet again.
I stood, picking up my apple, and crossed through the dining room. When I got to the foyer I stopped, as I often did, to look at the big black-and-white photo that hung opposite the front door. It was a horizontal shot of my mom and the three of us girls, standing on the jetty near my uncle's summer house. Each of us was all in white: Kirsten in white jeans and a plain V-neck T-shirt, my mother wearing a sundress, Whitney in a bathing suit top and drawstring pants, me in a tank top and long skirt. We were all tan, the water spread out wide to the corners of the frame behind us.
It had been taken three years earlier during one of our extended family beach trips; the photographer was a friend of a friend of my father's. At the time it had seemed spontaneous, him casually suggesting we pose, but in fact my dad been planning it for weeks as a gift for my mother for Christmas. I
remembered how we'd followed the photographer, a tall, lithe man whose name I forgot, out across the sand to the jetty. Kirsten had stepped up first, then extended her hand to help my mother, while Whitney and I brought up the rear. The rocks were hard to navigate, and I remembered Kirsten guiding my mom along the jagged edges until we got to a flat spot and gathered together.
In the picture, we are all intertwined: Kirsten's fingers are wrapped in my mother's, Whitney has her arm over her shoulder, and I'm in front, curved slightly toward my mom as well, my arm around her waist. My mother is smiling, as is Kirsten, while Whitney is just staring into the camera, her beauty, as usual, breathtaking. Even though I remembered smiling each time the flash popped, my expression in the final product is not one I recognize, my face caught somewhere between Kirsten's broad grin and Whitney's gorgeous hauntedness.
The picture was beautiful, however, the composition perfect. People always commented on it, as it was the first thing you saw when you walked in the door. In the last few months, though, it had started to look kind of eerie to me. like I couldn't just see the fine white-on-black contrast, or the way our features repeated themselves, in different measure but always similar, across our faces. Instead, when I studied it, I saw other things. Like how Whitney and Kirsten stood so close to each other, no space between them. The way my own face looked different, more relaxed. And how small my mother seemed with all of us bent around her, pulling her closer, shielding her with our bodies, as if without us to hold her down, she might just fly away.
I picked up my apple, taking another bite just as my mother's car pulled into the garage. A second later I heard doors shutting and voices as she and Whitney came inside.
"Hello there," my mother said when she saw me, putting down the bag of groceries she was carrying on the counter with a thump. "How was school?"
"Fine," I said, stepping back as Whitney brushed past, not acknowledging me and taking the corner quickly, disappearing upstairs. It was Wednesday, which meant she'd just come from her shrink's, which always put her in a mood. I'd thought seeing a therapist was supposed to make you feel better, not worse, but apparently, it was more complicated than that. But then everything was more complicated for Whitney.
"There was a message from Lindy," I told my mom.
"What'd she say?"
"The Mooshka people haven't called yet."
My mom looked disappointed, but only for a moment. "Oh, well. I'm sure they will." She walked to the sink, turned on the faucet, and lathered up her hands with liquid soap, looking out the window at the pool. In the afternoon light she looked kind of tired—Wednesdays took a toll on her, too.
"And Kirsten called. She left a long message," I said.
She smiled. "You don't say."
"The upshot," I said, "is she likes her classes."
"Well, that's nice to hear," she said, drying her hands on a dishtowel. She folded it, putting it back by the sink, then came to sit down beside me. "So. Tell me something that happened to you today. Something good."
Good. I thought for a second about what was going on with
Sophie, my daily observations of Owen Armstrong, the fact that Clarke still hated me. None of these things fell under this heading, or anywhere near it. As the seconds ticked by, I could feel myself starting to panic, desperate for something to offer up to her to make up for the Mooshka people, for Whitney's mood, for everything. She was still waiting.
"There's this guy in my gym class," I said finally. "He's kind of cute, and he talked to me today."
"Really," she said, smiling. Score. "What's his name?"
"Peter Matchinsky," I told her. "He's a senior." This was not a lie. Peter Matchinsky was in my gym class and he was kind of cute and a senior. And he had talked to me that day, although it was only to ask me what Coach Erlenbach had just said about our upcoming swim test. Normally, I didn't stretch the truth to my mom, but in the last few months I'd learned to forgive myself these little trespasses, because they made her happy. Unlike the real truth, which would be the last thing she wanted to hear.
"A cute senior," she said, sitting back in her chair. "Well. Tell me more."
And I would. Even though there wasn't much else. If I had to, I'd pad the edges of the story, filling it in, trying to make it substantial enough to nourish this need, her hunger for my life, at least, to somehow be normal. The worst part was that I had things I wanted to tell my mother, too many to count, but none of them would go down so easy. She'd been through too much, between my sisters—I could not add to the weight. So instead, I did my best to balance it out, bit by bit, word by word, story by story, even if none of them were true.