“My mother,” I told him, pushing the cart farther up the aisle as he lagged along beside, taking long, loping steps, “doesn’t even like scrambled eggs. She only eats eggs Benedict.”
“Which is?” he said, stopping as he was momentarily distracted by a large plastic water gun that was displayed, right at kid’s eye level, in the middle of the cereal section.
“You don’t know what eggs Benedict is?”
“Should I?” he asked, picking up the water gun and pulling the trigger, which made a click-click-click sound. He pointed it around the corner, like a sniper, taking shelter behind a display of canned corn.
“It’s a way of making eggs that is really complicated and fancy and involves hollandaise sauce,” I told him. “And English muffins.”
“Ugh.” He made a face, then shuddered. “I hate English muffins.”
“English muffins,” he said, putting the water gun back as we started walking again. “I can’t eat them. I can’t even think about them. In fact, we should stop talking about them right now.”
We paused in front of the spices: my mother wanted something called Asian Fish Sauce. I peered closely at all the bottles, already frustrated, while Dexter busied himself juggling some boxes of Sweet ’n Low. Shopping with him, as I’d discovered, was like having a toddler in tow. He was constantly distracted, grabbing at things, and we’d already taken on entirely too many impulse items, all of which I intended to rid the cart of at the checkout when he wasn’t looking.
“Do you mean to tell me,” I said, reaching up as I spotted the fish sauce, “that you can eat an entire jar of mayonnaise in one sitting but find English muffins, which are basically just bread, to be disgusting?”
“Ughhh.” He shuddered again, a full-body one this time, and put a hand on his stomach. “Icks-nay on the uffins-may. I’m serious.”
It was taking us forever. My mother’s list only had about fifteen things on it, but they were all specialty items: imported goat cheese, focaccia bread, an incredibly specific brand of olives in the red bottle, not the green. Plus there was the new grill she’d bought just for the occasion-the nicest one at the specialty hardware store, according to Chris, who didn’t keep her from overspending as I would have-plus the brand-new patio furniture (otherwise, where would we sit?), and my mother was spending a small fortune on what was supposed to be a simple Fourth of July barbecue.
This had been all her idea. She’d been working away at her book ever since she and Don had returned from the honeymoon, but a few days earlier she’d emerged midday with an inspiration: a real, all-American Fourth of July cookout with the family. Chris and Jennifer Anne should come, and Don’s secretary, Patty, who was single, poor thing, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if she hit it off with my mother’s decorator, Jorge, who we just had to have over to thank for all his hard work on the addition? And wouldn’t it be such a great way for everyone to meet my new beau (insert me cringing here) and christen the new patio and our wonderful, amazing, beautiful lives together as a blended family?
Oh, yes. It would. Of course.
“What?” Dexter said to me now, stepping in front of the cart, which I’d been pushing, apparently, faster and faster as these stress thoughts filled my head. It knocked him in the gut, forcing him backward, and he put his hands on it, pushing it back to me. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I said, trying to get the cart going again. No luck. He wasn’t budging. “Why?”
“Because you just got this look on your face like your brain was caving in.”
“Nice,” I said. “Thanks ever so much.”
“And,” he continued, “you’re biting your lip. You only do that when you’re about to shift into superobsessive, what-if mode.”
I just looked at him. As if I was that easy to figure out, a puzzle that could be cracked in, how long had it been, two weeks? It was insulting.
“I’m fine,” I said coolly.
“Ah! The ice queen voice. Which means, of course, that I’m right.” He came around the cart, holding the edge, and stood behind me, putting his hands over mine. He started pushing and walking in his goofy way, forcing me to fall into his rhythm, which felt as awkward as it looked, like walking with a shoeful of marbles. “What if I embarrass you?” he said, as if posing a theory, like, say, quantum physics. “What if I break some heirloom family china? Or talk about your underwear?”
I glared at him, then pushed the cart harder, making him stumble. But he hung on, pulling me back against him, his fingers spreading across my stomach. Then he leaned down and whispered, right in my ear, “What if I throw down a challenge to Don, right there over dinner, daring him to eat that entire jar of sun-dried tomatoes and chase it with a stick of margarine? And what if ”-and here he gasped, dramatically-“oh my God, he does it?”
I covered my face with my hand, shaking my head. I hated it when he made me laugh when I didn’t want to: it seemed some huge loss of control, so unlike me, like the most glaring of character flaws.
“But you know,” he said, still in my ear, “that probably won’t happen.”
“I hate you,” I told him, and he kissed my neck, finally letting go of the cart.
“Not true,” he replied, and started down the aisle, already distracted by a huge display of Velveeta cheese in the dairy section. “Never true.”
“So, Remy. I hear you’re going to Stanford!”
I nodded and smiled, shifting my drink to my other hand, and felt with my tongue to see if I had spinach in my teeth. I didn’t. But Don’s secretary, Patty, who I hadn’t seen since her tearful bit at the wedding reception, was standing in front of me expectantly, with a nice big piece wedged around an incisor.
“Well,” she said, dabbing at her forehead with a napkin, “it’s just a wonderful school. You must be really excited.”
“I am,” I told her. Then I reached up, nonchalantly, and brushed at one of my teeth, hoping that somehow she would subconsciously pick up on this, like osmosis, and get the hint. But no. She was still smiling at me, fresh sweat beading her forehead as she gulped down the rest of her wine and glanced around, wondering what to say next.
She was distracted suddenly, as was I, by a small commotion over by the brand-new grill, where Chris had been assigned to prepare the incredibly expensive steaks my mother had special ordered from the butcher. They were, I’d heard her tell someone, “Brazilian beef,” whatever that meant, as if cows from below the equator were of greater value than your average Holstein chewing cud in Michigan.