“Well,” she said. “We-”
“We drove home one of the new year models,” Don snapped, “and that’s not the point. The point is that we have left messages for you and your brother which were not returned or acknowledged and we have been out here for over an hour, about to bust out a goddamn window-”
“But she’s here now,” my mother said cheerfully, “so let’s just get her key and we’ll get inside and everything will be-”
“Barbara, for Christ’s sake, do not interrupt me when I’m talking!” he snapped, whipping his head around to look at her. “Jesus!”
For a second, it was very quiet. I looked at my mother, feeling a pang of protectiveness that I hadn’t experienced in years, since it was usually me either yelling at her or, more often, just wishing I could. But regardless of the anger my mother could flare in me, there had always been a clear line, at least in my mind, de marking the short but always clear distance between the We that was my family and whatever man was in her life. Don couldn’t see it, but I could.
“Hey,” I said to Don, my voice low, “don’t talk to her like that.”
“Remy, honey, give me your keys,” my mother said, reaching out to touch my arm. “Okay?”
“You,” Don said, pointing right in my face. I stared at his fat finger, focusing only on it, while everything else-Lissa standing off to the side, my mother pleading, the smell of the summer night-fell away. “You need to learn some respect, missy.”
“Remy,” I heard Lissa say softly.
“And you,” I said to Don, “need to respect my mother. This is nobody’s fault but your own and you know it. You forgot your keys, you got locked out. End of story.”
He just stood there, breathing hard. I could see Lissa shrinking down the driveway, bit by bit, as if with just another couple of steps she might be able to disappear completely.
“Remy,” my mother said again. “The keys.”
I pulled them out of my pocket, my eyes still on Don, then handed them past him to her. She took them and started quickly up the lawn. Don was still staring at me, as if he thought I might back down. He was wrong.
The porch light snapped on suddenly, and my mother clapped her hands. “We’re in!” she called out. “All’s well that ends well!”
Don dropped the croquet mallet. It hit the driveway with a thunk. Then he turned his back to me and headed up the walk, taking long, angry strides. Once up the front steps, he pushed past my mother, ignoring her as she spoke to him, and disappeared down the hallway. A second later I heard a door slam.
“What a baby,” I said to Lissa, who was now down by the mailbox, pretending to be engrossed with reading the new letters STARR/DAVIS that had recently been affixed to it.
“He was really mad, Remy.” She came up the driveway carefully, as if expecting Don to throw himself back out the door, ready for round two. “Maybe you should have just said you were sorry.”
“Sorry for what?” I said. “For not being psychic?”
“I don’t know. It just might have been easier.”
I looked up at the house, where my mother was standing in the doorway, hand on the knob, glancing down the hall to the darkened kitchen, the direction in which Don had stalked off. “Hey,” I called out. She turned her head. “What’s his problem, anyway?”
I thought I heard him saying something from inside, and she eased the door shut a bit, turning her body away from me. And suddenly I felt completely strange, like the distance between us was much much greater than what I could see from where I was standing. Like that line, always so clear to me, had somehow shifted, or never even been where I’d thought it was at all.
“Mom?” I called out. “You okay?”
“I’m fine. Good night, Remy,” she said. And then she shut the door.
“I’m telling you,” I said to Jess. “It was totally messed up.”
Across from me, Lissa nodded. “Bad,” she said. “Like scary bad.”
Jess sipped on her Zip Coke, pulling her sweater tighter over her shoulders. We’d gone by and knocked on her window after leaving my mom’s, when I decided I wasn’t about to spend the evening under the same roof as Don and his temper. Plus there was something else: this weird feeling of betrayal, almost, as if for so long my mother and I had been on one team, and now suddenly she’d up and defected, pushing me aside for someone who would stick a finger in my face and demand respect he hadn’t even begun to earn.
“It’s really kind of normal behavior,” Jess told me. “This whole my-house-my-rules thing. Very male. Very Dad-esque.”
“He’s not my dad,” I told her.
“It’s a dominance thing,” Lissa chimed in. “Like dogs. He was making clear to you that he is the alpha dog.”
I looked at her.
“I mean, you’re the alpha dog,” she said quickly. “But he doesn’t know that yet. He’s testing you.”
“I don’t want to be the alpha dog,” I grumbled. “I don’t want to be a dog, period.”
“It’s weird that your mom would put up with that,” Jess said in her thinking voice. “She’s never been the type to take much crap, either. That’s where you get it from.”
“I think she’s scared,” I said, and they both looked at me, surprised. I was surprised myself; I didn’t realize I thought this until I said it aloud. “I mean, of being alone. This is her fifth marriage, you know? If it doesn’t work out-”
“-and you’re leaving,” Lissa added. “And Chris is this close to being married himself-”
I sighed, poking at my Zip Diet with my straw.
“-so she thinks this is her last chance. She has to make it work.” Lissa sat back, ripping open the bag of Skittles she’d bought and popping a red one in her mouth. “So maybe, she would pick him over you. Just for now. Because he’s the one she has to live with, you know, indefinitely.”
Jess eyed me as I heard this, as if expecting some reaction. “Welcome to adulthood,” she said. “It sucks as much as high school.”
“This is why I don’t believe in relationships,” I said. “They’re such a crutch. Why would she put up with his baby ways like this? Because she thinks she needs him or something?”
“Well,” Lissa said slowly, “maybe she does need him.”