“Mom,” she said now, as I took a bite of cereal, “you’re not fine. Are you even sleeping?”
“Of course I am,” my mother said, shuffling through some papers. “I sleep like a baby.”
That is, if she was sleeping at all. More than once lately I’d come downstairs at two or three A.M. only to see her in her office, still in her work clothes, typing away, or leaving voicemail messages for her contractors or subs. I didn’t know when she went to bed, but by the next morning when I was getting up for work she was always in the kitchen, showered and dressed in new clothes, already talking on her cell phone.
“I just want to be sure that when the house is done, you’ll commit to this vacation,” my sister said now, opening one of her beach-house folders and sorting through some photographs. “It looks like it’s going to be August, probably the second week.”
“Anytime after the seventh is fine,” my mother said, moving her coffee cup aside to make a note on something with the pencil in her hand. “That’s the gala for the opening of the townhouses. ”
“You’re having a gala?” I said.
“Well, it’s a reception,” she told me, picking up her cell phone, then putting it down, “but I’m planning for it to be nicer and bigger than the sales events we’ve had here before. I’m renting a tent, and I’ve found this fantastic French caterer. . . . Oh, that reminds me, I’ve got to call about the kitchen faucets if I want to change them from ruby to diamond class.”
And then she was up, pushing back her chair and starting across the kitchen, still muttering to herself. How she’d gotten from caterers to faucets was hard to say, but it was hard keeping up with her these days.
“So the eighth?” Caroline called after her. “Of August? I can write that down, it’s firm?”
My mother, halfway through the door, turned her head. “The eighth,” she said, nodding, “firm. Absolutely.”
Caroline smiled, pleased with herself, as my mother disappeared down the hallway. She picked up her folder, tapping it on the tabletop to straighten its contents, then put it down in front of her again. “So it’s set,” she said. “The eighth to the fifteenth, we’re officially on vacation.”
I put my spoon down in my now empty bowl, finally realizing why this date had been ringing a bell in my head. It was the day after Jason was returning from Brain Camp: by then I’d know whether we were together or really over. But now it was only the end of June. The townhouses still needed windows, fixtures, landscaping. The beach house was going to be painted, the floors sanded, the new décor installed under my sister’s watchful eye. The new would be new, the old, new again. What I’d be, on a break, broken, or otherwise, I had no idea. Luckily for all of us, though, we still had time.
Wes and I were friends now. And really, no one was more surprised than me.
Initially, the only thing we shared, other than working for Wish, was that we both had lost a parent. This was a lot to have in common, but it wasn’t just about that anymore, either. The truth was, since our night stranded together, I felt comfortable around Wes. When I was with him, I didn’t have to be perfect, or even try for perfect. He already knew my secrets, the things I’d kept hidden from everyone else, so I could just be myself. Which shouldn’t have been such a big deal. But it was.
“Okay,” he said to me one night, as we sat on the back deck rail at a party in the Arbors, a neighborhood just down from my own, “what’s that about?”
I followed his gaze to the open sliding glass door that led into the kitchen, where three girls I recognized from my school—the sort of girls who hung out in the parking lot after late bell, wearing sunglasses and cupping their hidden cigarettes against their palms—were staring at us. Or more specifically, at me.
“Well,” I said, taking a sip of the beer I was holding, “I think they’re just surprised to see me here.”
I nodded, putting my beer back on the rail. Inside, over the girls’ heads, I could see Kristy, Bert, and Monica playing quarters at a long oak table in the dining room, the fancy centerpiece of which had been pushed aside and was now piled high with beer cans. More often than not at parties lately, I ended up sitting with Wes off to the side, while Kristy and everyone else trolled for extraordinary boys, or in Bert’s case, desperate fresh-man girls. While they tried their luck and bemoaned the prospects, we on-a-break types just sat and shot the breeze, watching the party unfold around us.
“And they’re surprised to see you here because . . .” Wes said, nodding at a guy in a baseball hat who passed by, saying his name.
“Because,” I said, “they think I’m Miss Perfect.”
“You?” he said, sounding so surprised I felt obligated to shoot him a look. “I mean, ah, I see.”
I picked up my beer, taking another sip. “Shut up,” I said.
“No seriously, this is interesting,” he said, as the girls moved out onto the deck, disappearing behind a clump of people waiting in line at the keg. “Perfect as in . . .”
“Goody-goody,” I said, “by association. Jason would never be here.”
Wes considered this for a second, as I noted at least six different girls around the deck checking him out. As much as I was getting used to this happening whenever I was with him, it was still a little unnerving. I’d lost count of how many dirty looks I’d gotten just by sitting next to him. We’re not like that, I wanted to say to the girls who stared at me, slit-eyed, their eyes following me whenever I went to the bathroom or to find Kristy, waiting for me to be far enough away to move in. By now, though, I could spot who was and wasn’t his type a mile off. The girl in the tight black dress and red lipstick, leaning against the keg? Nope. The one in the denim skirt and black T with the tan? Maybe. The one who kept licking her lips? Ugh. No. No. No.
“Let’s say Jason was here,” he said now. “What would he be doing?”
I considered this. “Probably complaining about the smoke,” I said, “and getting very concerned about whether all these cans are going to be properly recycled. What about Becky?”
He thought for a second, pulling a hand through his hair. In the dining room, I could hear Kristy laughing loudly. “Passed out someplace. Or behind the bushes sneaking a smoke that she’d deny to me later.”