I walked over to the entrance of the sunroom, careful to be quiet, and looked in at her. When she wrote she seemed to be in another world, oblivious of us: even when we were little and screaming and squawking, she’d just lift her hand from where she was sitting, her back to us, the keys still clacking, and say, “Shhhhhhh.” As if that was enough to shut us up, making us see into whatever world she was in at that moment, at the Plaza Hotel or some beach in Capri, where an exquisitely dressed woman was pining for a man she was sure she had lost forever.
When Chris and I were in elementary school, my mom was pretty broke. She hadn’t published anything yet except newspaper stuff, and even that had petered out once the bands she was writing about-like my dad’s, all 1970s stuff, what they call “classic rock” now-began to die out or drop off the radio. She got a job teaching writing at the local community college, which paid practically nothing, and we lived in a series of nasty apartment complexes, all with names like Ridgewood Pines and Lakeview Forest, which had no lakes or pines or forests anywhere to be seen. Back then, she wrote at the kitchen table, usually during the evenings or late at night, and some afternoons. Even then, her stories were exotic; she always picked up the free brochures from the local travel agency and fished Gourmet magazine out of the stacks at the recycling center to use as research. While my brother was named after my mother’s favorite saint, my name was inspired by an expensive brand of cognac she’d seen advertised in Harper’s Bazaar. Never mind that we were living on Kraft macaroni and cheese while her characters favored Cristal and caviar, lounging in Dior pantsuits while we shopped at the thrift store. She always loved glamour, my mother, even if she’d never seen it up close.
Chris and I constantly interrupted her while she was working, which drove her crazy. Finally, at a flea market, she found one of those gypsy curtains, the kind that are made up of long strings of beads, and attached it above the entryway to the kitchen. It became our understood symbol: if the curtain was pulled aside, out of the way, the kitchen was fair game. But if it was hanging there, my mother was working, and we had to find our snacks and entertainment elsewhere.
I was about six then, and I loved to stand there and brush my fingertips over the beads, watching them swish back and forth. They made the softest sound, like little bells. I could peer through them and still see my mother, but now she looked almost exotic, like a fortune-teller or a fairy, a maker of magic. Which was what she was, but I didn’t know it then.
Most of the remnants of our apartment years had been long lost or given away, but the beaded curtain had made the trip to the Big New House, as we’d called it when we moved in. It was one of the first things my mother hung up, before even our school pictures or her favorite Picasso print in the living room. There was a nail so it could be pulled back out of sight, but now it was down, a little worse for wear, but still doing the job. I leaned closer, peering in at my mother. She was still hard at work, fingers flying, and I closed my eyes and listened. It was like music I’d heard all my life, even more than “This Lullaby.” All those keystrokes, all those letters, so many words. I brushed my fingers over the beads and watched as her image rippled, like it was on water, breaking apart gently and shimmering before becoming whole again.
It was time to dump Jonathan.
“Tell me again why you’re doing this?” Lissa asked me. She was sitting on my bed, flipping through my CDs and smoking a cigarette, which was fast stinking up my room even though she’d sworn it wouldn’t, since she had it halfway out the window. Even before I quit I’d hated the stink of smoking, but with Lissa I always let things slide more than I should have. I think everyone has at least one friend like that. “I mean, I like Jonathan.”
“You like everybody,” I told her, leaning closer to the mirror and examining my lip liner.
“That’s not true,” she said, picking up a CD and turning it over to examine the back. “I never liked Mr. Mitchell. He always looked at my boobs when I went up to do theorems on the board. He looked at everybody’s boobs.”
“Lissa,” I said, “high school is over. And besides, teachers don’t count.”
“I’m just saying,” she said.
“The thing is,” I went on as I lined my lips, turning the pencil slowly, “that it’s summer now, and I’m leaving for school in September. And Jonathan… I don’t know. He’s just not a keeper. He’s not worth working my schedule around if we’re only going to break up in a few weeks anyway.”
“But you might not break up.”
I leaned back, admiring my handiwork, and smudged a bit along my top lip, evening it out. “We’ll break up,” I said. “I’m not going to Stanford with any other entanglements than absolutely necessary.”
She bit her lip, then tucked a springy curl behind one ear, ducking her head with the hurt expression she always got lately when we talked about the end of the summer. Lissa’s safe zone was the eight weeks left before we all split for different directions, and she hated to think past that. “Well, of course not,” she said quietly. “I mean, why would you?”
“Lissa,” I said, sighing. “I didn’t mean you. You know that. I just mean”-I gestured to the bedroom door, slightly ajar, beyond which we could hear my mother’s typewriter still clacking, with violins drifting in the background-“you know.”
She nodded. But in truth I knew she didn’t understand. Lissa was the only one of us who was even slightly sentimental about high school being over. She’d actually cried at graduation, great heaving sobs, ensuring that in every picture and video she’d be red-eyed and blotchy, giving her something to complain about for the next twenty years. Meanwhile, me, Jess, and Chloe couldn’t wait to get across that stage and grab our diploma, to be free at last, free at last. But Lissa had always felt things too deeply. That was what made us all so protective of her, and why I worried most about leaving her behind. She’d gotten accepted into the local university with a full scholarship, a deal too good to pass up. It helped that her boyfriend, Adam, was going there too. Lissa had it all planned out, how they’d go to freshman orientation together, live in dorms that were in close proximity, share a couple of classes. Just like high school, but bigger.
The very thought of it made me itch. But then, I wasn’t Lissa. I’d powered through the last two years with my eyes on one thing, which was getting out. Getting gone. Making the grades I needed to finally live a life that was all my own. No wedding planning. No messy romantic entanglements. No revolving door of stepfathers. Just me and the future, finally together. Now there was a happy ending I could believe in.