It went the same way for the next half hour, as Caroline carefully guided us through the beach house, room by room. At first it was all I could do to swallow over the lump in my throat when I saw the view from the deck of the ocean, or the room with the bunk beds where I always slept. Even worse were the pictures of the main bedroom, where a pair of my dad’s beat-up running shoes was still parked against the wall by the door.
But slowly, carefully, Caroline kept bringing us back. For every sharp intake of breath, every moment I was sure I couldn’t bear it, there was a question, something logical to grab onto. I’m thinking maybe glass blocks in place of that window in the bathroom, she’d say, what do you think? Or, see how the linoleum’s coming up in the kitchen? I found some great blue tile I think we could replace it with. Or would tile be too expensive? And each time, my mother would reply, grabbing the answer as if it was a life preserver in a choppy sea. Once she had her breath back, they’d move on.
When the slideshow was over, I left them in the living room discussing skylights and went to pull my laundry out of the dryer so I could iron something for the info desk the next day. I was almost done when my mother appeared in the doorway, leaning against it with her arms crossed over her chest.
“Well,” she said, “your sister sure seems to have found herself a project, hasn’t she?”
“Where is she?”
“Out in her car. She’s got some swatches she wants to show me.” She sighed, running her hand over the edge of the door frame. “Apparently, corduroy upholstery is all the rage these days.”
I smiled, smoothing a crease out of the pants I was holding. “She is an expert at this,” I said. “You know what a great job she did with her place, and the mountain house.”
“I know.” She was quiet for a second, watching as I folded a shirt and put it in the basket at my feet. “But I can’t help but think it’s a lot of money and work for such an old house. Your father always said the foundation would probably go in a few years. . . . I just wonder if it’s worth it.”
I pulled Kristy’s jeans out of the dryer and folded them. The black heart on the knee was just as dark as ever. “It might be fun,” I said, picking my words carefully. “To have a place to go again.”
“I don’t know.” She pulled a hand through her hair. “I wonder if it would be easier, if the foundation might be flawed, to just take it down. Then we’d have the lot and could start over.”
I was bent over, peering into the dryer to pull out the last things in there, and for a second I just froze. Minutes ago, I’d gotten my first look at the beach house in over a year. To think that it, like so much else, might one day just be gone—I couldn’t even imagine. “I don’t know,” I said. “I bet the foundation’s not that bad.”
“Mom?” Caroline called from the living room. “I’ve got the swatches. . . . Where are you?”
“Coming,” my mother said over her shoulder. “It was just an idea,” she added, more quietly, to me. “Just a thought.”
It shouldn’t have surprised me, really. My mother trafficked in new houses, so of course the idea of everything being perfect and pristine, even better than before, would appeal to her. It was the dream she sold every day. She had to believe in it.
“Is that new?” she asked me suddenly.
“Is what new?”
She nodded at the tank top I’d just finished folding. “I haven’t seen it before.”
Of course she hadn’t: it was Kristy’s, and here, in the bright light of the laundry room, I knew it looked even more unlike something I’d wear than it had when I’d first agreed to put it on. You could plainly see the glittery design on the straps, and it was clear it was lower cut than my mother was most likely comfortable with. In Kristy’s room, in Kristy’s world, it was about as shocking as a plain white T-shirt. But here, it was completely out of place.
“Oh, this isn’t mine,” I said. “I just, um, borrowed it from a friend.”
“Really?” She looked at it again, trying to picture, I was sure, one of my student council friends sporting such a thing. “Who?”
Kristy’s face immediately popped into my mind, with her wide smile, the scars, those big blue eyes. If the tank top was enough to cause my mother concern, I could only imagine how Kristy, in one of her full outfits, would go over, not to mention any of my other Wish friends. It seemed simpler, and smarter, to just say, “This girl I work with. I spilled some salad dressing on my shirt last night so she lent me this, to drive home in.”
“Oh,” she said. It wasn’t that she sounded relieved, but clearly, this was an acceptable explanation. “Well. That was nice.”
“Yeah,” I said, as she left the doorway, heading to the kitchen, where my sister and her swatches were waiting. “It was.”
I left them downstairs, my mother listening dubiously as Caroline explained about how corduroy wasn’t just for overalls anymore, and went up to my room, putting my laundry basket on the bed. After I’d stacked all my T-shirts, shorts, and jeans in the bureau, and laid out my info desk clothes for the week to be ironed, the only things left were Kristy’s jeans and the tank top. I went to put them on my desk, where I’d be sure to see them the next time I was leaving for work and could return them, but then, at the last minute, I stopped myself, running the thin, glittery strap of the tank top between my thumb and forefinger. It was so different from anything of mine, it was no wonder my mother had noticed it instantly. That was why I should have returned it immediately. And that was why, instead, I slipped it into my bottom drawer, out of sight, and kept it.
On Sunday, my sister was cooking dinner, and she needed arugula. I wasn’t entirely sure what that was. But I still got recruited to go look for it with her.
We’d just started down the second aisle of the farmer’s market, my sister deep into an explanation of the difference between lettuce and arugula, when suddenly, there was Wes. Yikes, I thought, my hand immediately going to my hair, which I hadn’t bothered to wash (so unlike me, but Caroline, convinced there was going to be some mass rush on exotic greens, had insisted we leave right after breakfast), then to my clothes—an old Lakeview Mall 5K T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops—which I’d thrown on without considering the fact I might see anyone I knew, much less Wes. It was one thing for him to see me catering, when, even if I was in disarray, at least I wasn’t alone. Here, in broad daylight, though, all my old anxieties came rushing back.