“There are going to be some changes,” she said, her voice louder now. “I can’t count on you to make them, so I will.”
I wondered fleetingly if my sister was sitting on the steps, knees pulled to her chest, as I had been so many times, hearing her addressed this way.
“You will not be catering anymore. Period.”
I felt a “but” rising in my throat, then bit it back. Ride it out, Caroline had said, the worst is always first. And Delia was going to be out of commission for awhile anyway. “Okay,” I said.
“Instead,” she said, dropping her hand to the arm of her chair, “you’ll be working for me, at the model home, handing out brochures and greeting clients. Monday through Saturday, nine to five.”
Saturday? I thought. But of course. It was the busiest day, as far as walk-in traffic went. And all the better to keep me under her thumb. I took a breath, holding it in my mouth, then let it out.
“I don’t want you seeing your friends from catering,” she continued. “All of the issues I have with your behavior—staying out late, showing less concern about your commitments— began when you took that job.”
I kept looking at her, trying to remember everything I’d felt the night before, that sudden welling of emotion that had made me miss her so much. But each time I did, I just saw her steely, professional façade, and I wondered how I could have been so mistaken.
“From now until school starts, I want you in by eight every night,” she continued. “That way, we can be sure that you’ll be home and rested enough to focus on preparing for the school year.”
“Eight?” I said.
She leveled her gaze at me, and I saw my sister was right. Interruptions were lethal. “It could be seven,” she said. “If you’d prefer.”
I looked down at my hands, silent, shaking my head. All around us the house was so quiet, as if it, too, was just waiting for this to be over.
“You have half a summer left,” she said to me, as I studied my thumbnail, the tiny lines running along it. “It’s up to you how it goes. Do you understand?”
I nodded, again. When she didn’t say anything for a minute I looked up to see her watching me, waiting for a real answer. “Yes,” I said. “I understand.”
“Good.” She pushed back her chair and stood up, smoothing her skirt. As she passed behind me, she said, “I’ll see you at the model home in an hour.”
I just sat there, listening to her heels clack across the kitchen, then go mute as she hit the carpet, heading to her office. I stayed in place as she gathered her briefcase, then called out a good-bye to Caroline as she left, the door shutting with a quiet thud behind her.
A few seconds later I heard my sister come down the stairs. “That,” she said, “was pretty bad.”
“I can’t see my friends,” I said. “I can’t do anything.”
“She’ll ease up,” she told me, glancing toward the door. She didn’t sound entirely convinced, though. “Hopefully.”
But she wouldn’t. I knew that already. My mother and I had an understanding: we worked together to be as much in control of our shared world as possible. I was supposed to be her other half, carrying my share of the weight. In the last few weeks, I’d tried to shed it, and doing so sent everything off kilter. So of course she would pull me tighter, keeping me in my place, because doing so meant she would always be sure, somehow, of her own.
I went up to my room and sat down on my bed, listening to the sounds of the neighborhood: a lawn mower, someone’s sprinkler whirring, kids riding their bikes in a nearby cul-de-sac. And then, later, the sound of footsteps coming down the sidewalk. I looked at my watch: it was 9:05. The footsteps approached, getting louder and louder, and then slowed as they passed my house. I peered under my shade, and sure enough, it was Wes. He was still moving, but slowly, as if maybe he was hoping I’d come out and join him, or at least wave hello. Maybe he might have even asked that question. But I didn’t do anything. I couldn’t. I just sat there, as the rest of my summer began to sink in, and a second later, he picked up the pace and moved on.
It was Tuesday night, six-fifteen on the nose. My mother and I were having dinner and making conversation. Now that we worked together, this was even easier, since we always had something safe to talk about.
“I think we’re going to see a real upswing in the townhouse sales this week,” she said to me as she helped herself to more bread. She offered me the bowl, but I shook my head. “The interest has been higher lately, don’t you think?”
When my punishment had first started, I’d sulked openly, making sure my mother knew how much I disagreed with what she’d done to me. Pretty soon I’d figured out this didn’t help my case, though, so I’d progressed to the cold but polite stage, which meant I answered when addressed, but offered no more than the most basic of responses.
“There have been a lot of walk-ins,” I said.
“There really have.” She picked up her fork. “We’ll just have to see, I guess.”
By the time we finished eating, I’d have about an hour and a half before curfew. If I didn’t go out to yoga class or to the bookstore to browse and drink a mocha (basically the only two allowed options for my “free” time), I’d watch TV or get my clothes ready for work the next day, or just sit on my bed, the window open beside me, and study my SAT word book. It was weird how if I flipped back enough pages, I could see the way I’d carefully made notes, earlier in the summer, next to the harder words, or underlined their prefixes or suffixes neatly. I couldn’t even remember doing that now: it was like it was another person, some other girl.
Once, this had been the life I’d wanted. Even chosen. Now, though, I couldn’t believe that there had been a time when this kind of monotony and silence, this most narrow of existences, had been preferable. Then again, once, I’d never known anything else.
“Caroline should be coming into town again next week,” my mother said, putting her fork down and wiping her mouth with a napkin.
“Thursday, I think,” I replied.
“We’ll have to plan to have dinner, so we can all catch up.”
I took a sip of my water. “Sure.”
My mother had to know I was unhappy. But it didn’t matter: all she cared about was that I was her Macy again, the one she’d come to depend on, always within earshot or reach. I came to work early, sat up straight at my desk and endured the monotony of answering phones and greeting potential homebuyers with a smile on my face. After dinner, I spent my hour and a half of free time alone, doing accepted activities. When I came home afterwards, my mother would be waiting for me, sticking her head out of her office to verify that, yes, I was just where I was supposed to be. And I was. I was also miserable.