Chris wasn’t doing well. First he’d burned off part of an eyebrow and a fair amount of arm hair lighting the grill. Then he’d had some trouble mastering the complicated spatula in the top-of-the-line accessories set the salesman had convinced my mother she absolutely had to have, resulting in one of the steaks being flung across the patio, where it landed with a slap on one of the imported loafers of our decorator, Jorge.
Now the flames on the grill were leaping as Chris struggled with the gas valve. All of us assembled stood there, holding our drinks as the fire shot up, making the steaks scream and sizzle, then died out completely, the grill making a gurgling noise. My mother, deep in conversation with one of our neighbors, glanced over in a disinterested way, as if this methodic burning and destruction of the main course was someone else’s problem.
“Don’t worry!” Chris called as the flames shot up again and he batted at them with the spatula, “it’s under control.” He sounded about as sure of this as he looked, which was to say, with half a right eyebrow and the smell of singed hair still lingering, not very.
“Everyone, please!” my mother called out, covering gamely by gesturing at the table where we’d set up all the cheeses and appetizers. “Eat, eat! We’ve got so much food here!”
Chris was waving smoke out of his face while Jennifer Anne stood off to his left, biting her lip. She’d brought several side dishes, all in plastic containers with matching, pastel-colored lids. On the bottom of each lid, in permanent marker, was written PROPERTY OF JENNIFER A. BAKER, PLEASE RETURN. As if the whole world was part of an international conspiracy to steal her Tupperware.
“Barbara,” Patty called out, “this is just wonderful.”
“Oh, it’s nothing!” my mother said, fanning her face with her hand. She was in black pants and a lime green tank top that showed off her honeymoon tan, her hair pulled back in a headband: she looked the picture of suburban entertaining, as if at any moment she might light a tiki torch and spray some Cheez Whiz onto crackers.
It was always interesting to see how my mother’s relationships manifested themselves in her personality. With my dad she was a hippie-in all the pictures I’d seen she looked so young, wearing gauzy skirts or frayed jeans, her hair long and black and parted right down the middle. During the time she was married to Harold, the professor, she’d gone academic, sporting a lot of tweed and wearing her reading glasses all the time, even though she saw well enough without them. Once married to Win, the doctor, she’d gone country club, in little sweater sets and tennis skirts, though she couldn’t play to save her life. And with Martin, the golf pro-who she’d met, of course, at the country club-she went into a young phase, since he was six years her junior: short skirts, jeans, little flimsy dresses. Now, as Don’s wife, Barb, she’d gone subdivision on us: I could just see them, years from now, wearing matching jogging suits and riding around in a golf cart, en route to work on their back swing. I really did hope this was my mother’s last marriage: I wasn’t sure she, or I, could take another incarnation.
Now I watched as Don, wearing a golf shirt and drinking a beer in the bottle, helped himself to another of the crostini, popping it into his mouth. I’d expected him to be the grill master, but he didn’t even seem to be that fond of food at all, in fact, judging by the vast quantities of Ensure that he consumed, those little cans of liquid diet that claim to have all the nutritional value of a good meal with the convenience of a pop-top. He bought them by the case at Sam’s Club. For some reason, this bothered me even more than my now breasty breakfasts, seeing Don walking through the house reading the newspaper, in his leather slippers, a can of Ensure seemingly affixed to his hand, the fffftttt sound of him popping the top now signaling his presence.
“Remy, honey?” my mother called out. “Can you come here a second?”
I made my excuses to Patty and walked across the patio, where my mother slid her hand around my wrist, pulled me gently close to her, and whispered, “I’m wondering if I should be worried about the steaks.”
I glanced over at the grill, where Chris had positioned himself in such a way that it was difficult-but not impossible-to see that the prime Brazilian beef cuts had been reduced to small, black objects resembling lava rocks.
“Yes and no,” I told her, and she absently brushed her fingers over my skin. My mother’s hands were always cool, even in the hottest of weather. I suddenly had a flash of her pressing a palm to my forehead when I was a child, checking for fever, and me thinking this then too. “I’ll deal with it,” I told her.
“Oh, Remy,” she said, squeezing my hand. “What am I going to do without you?”
Ever since she’d come home it had been like this, these sudden moments when her face changed and I knew she was thinking that I might actually go to Stanford after all, that it was really about to happen. She had her new husband, her new wing, her new book. She’d be fine without me, and we both knew it. This is what daughters did. They left, and came home later with lives of their own. It was a basic plot in any number of her books: girl strikes out, makes good, finds love, gets revenge. In that order. The making good and striking out part I liked. The rest would just be bonus.
“Come on, Mom,” I told her. “You won’t even know I’m gone.”
She sighed, shaking her head, and pulled me close, kissing my cheek. I could smell her perfume, mixed with hair spray, and I closed my eyes for a second, breathing it in. With all the changes, some things stayed the same.
Which is exactly what I was thinking as I stood in the kitchen, pulling the hamburgers I’d bought out of the back of the refrigerator, where I’d camouflaged them behind a stack of Ensures. At the supermarket, when Dexter had asked why I was buying this stuff even though it wasn’t on the list, I’d just told him that I liked to be prepared for any eventuality, because you just never knew. Could be I was too cynical. Or maybe, unlike so many others who moved in my mother’s orbit, I had just learned from the past.
“Okay, so it is true.” I turned around to see Jennifer Anne standing behind me. In one hand, she had two packs of hot dogs: in the other, a bag of buns. She half-smiled, as if we’d both been caught doing something, and said, “Great minds think alike, right?”
“I am impressed,” I told her as she came over and opened one of the packs, arranging the dogs on a plate. “You know her well.”