She washed up hard. Naked, salted. Unbearable dry-out days passed on the exposed shore. Minutes chiseled in rock and the sun took her for a bone it could bleach with impunity. She bore all the signs of having been wracked by a dauntless lover who after all these years still did not know her human name, nor the shame
she had to carry back each and every time—her name was Bethany.
Yeah, yeah. Walk it back, drama queen. Her eyes felt hot off the Xerox. She should have been at work, to state the obvious. Her employee parking spot in the bank’s lot had been rudely revoked six months ago, and now she had to feed the meter, just like the old pensioners who stabbed blindly with nickels and dimes, clutching withdrawal slips they’d filled out in shaky script at home.
She crept down the hall to the bathroom and found that the tub was full. Old water, no ions. Not a single water lily. Stale, city fluoride smell, and her arm goose-pimpled plunging in to pull the plug from the sexual hole. Down went her soul, glass eye whirlpool. She was on her knees anyway and she grabbed the side of the tub with both hands to pray. Her sister, a nurse, had once treated her to a day spa, where a sign in the starlit bathroom said, Someday is made up of a thousand nows.
Same deal, one day at a time.
She felt her daughter and her daughter’s friends shake the skinny porch that clung to the house like it was forever trying to get inside. As far as she could tell they were the kind of stoners who thought vodka was for old pervs on park benches and sloppy single moms like her.
“Hi Jewel,” she called weakly. She just wanted to let her daughter know she was home.
The house was the size of a doormat.
The kids came laughing inside.
Javier wiped his boots like a dog covering up its business, all the while giving her the eye: in a house full of women, he didn’t know who had the power, her or Jewel. A couple of girls at work were into Tarot, and there were these roles, crone and maiden, virgin and whore.
“Hey Ms. Lopresti,” said Merk, long-boned, Serbian, with semi-detached ears.
“Would you tell your friends it’s Bethany?” she faced Jewel. “Do you think I like being reminded of my ex-mother-in-law?”
Jewel shook her head sadly. “Gramma’s a honey.”
“Gramma’s the balls,” said Javier, heading up the stairs. She heard the bathroom door close.
“We have mad homework,” said Jewel.
For months before her sweet sixteen, Jewel had claimed that she “wasn’t that into materialism these days.” What days? “Sor-ry,” said Jewel. And then without Bethany’s knowledge, foreknowledge would be the word, the OG Ms. Lopresti had taken Jewel to get a tattoo. On her still-soft ankle, a roman-numeral-looking NAIAD.
Bethany had been forced to ask, “What does it mean?”
She could hear them upstairs now, but not the words.
She unplugged the microwave and lathered up its nicotine-stained interior. She got in around the private parts of the stove where there was gunk like earwax. At the back of the cupboard she found a mix, let’s hear it for Duncan Hines, the knife
came out clean—cool before cutting into squares.
Like all drunks she was intuitive, fragile as air, and as if she’d summoned Jewel, she heard her daughter’s mocking voice in the hall again, “Someone’s been baking, who could it be.”
The Serbian tree-climber snickered.
Bethany waited where she was.
She moved along the wall.
Stealthy, almost seeping—until Javier jumped, his hand to his heart—
“Double chocolate?” she pleaded.
“Aw, Ms. Lopresti.”
Merk twitched his tail.
“Sorry, Mom,” lied Jewel.
She gathered her coat and her bag and rushed from the house, underlying causes, broken inside. Jewel had no respect for her, no one did, with the exception of her son, Kieran, stationed in Germany, training to become a SEAL. Jewel with her entourage of water sprites, as if fairies could keep her from harm—wasn’t that what a brother was for?
She ground down the street with the emergency brake on. A couple hundred dollars right there. Merko-Croatian and Have-A-Nice-Day were definitely gay. She wasn’t prejudiced, but in Jewel’s bedroom? Are you all from school? she’d asked, and they’d nodded solemnly. Did you meet in your classes? What’s the problem, Jewel? Am I not allowed to have a normal conversation with your friends?
She pulled into the high school parking lot. Schools were like churches, after school. She would just sit here for a while, an island in the middle of a thousand nows. She watched a couple of ladies walking solitary laps around the track and her heart went out to them. A loose arrow of Canada geese, yakking as they flew by—
Kieran had come out with the ROTC on this very track, and she used to drive over at cocktail hour and watch them drill, their baby-fat asses and role-play frowns. Suddenly she needed to be near people, and she felt her mind swarm.
Yes, she did, she needed to walk into a bar. She put her hands on the steering wheel, squeezed hard, and passed the feeling by. Another way to think about it, said her sister the nurse, recovery was Mary’s preferred term, was rerouting your impulses. Bethany pictured a hatch of demons strutting across the rocks where the minutes were carved, the long nails of their claws leaving exhaust burns. She pictured the route to the roller rink, that birthday party Jewel had been invited to when she was in seventh grade, it was too much to bear—
and she burst out of the car and pushed through the low gate onto the track as if she were supposed to start roller skating right now. Demon impulses hurled themselves at her empty car.
Her second time around, a little band of retards was dogged out in front of her. Not that she would say that word out loud. Some kind of last-ditch, graduation-requirement PE? Lopsided girls in stripper attire drifted onto the field. Two big doughboys, their coarse hair pulled up in dry buns, blocked her view, but she found she didn’t mind. The all-purpose gym teacher had a hard potbelly that drove his legs apart. “How many laps you show us today, Coby?” he called.
The white kid picked up his waddle speed.
“How bout you, son?”
The lightskinned kid produced a minor jog. She used to hate it when other men son’d Kieran. “Don’t do this to me, girls!” the gym teacher called, and the boys’ shoulders sagged. Now Kieran was ripped, with a recon.
The boys were slower than she was and after a few minutes she passed them with a loopy smile. You need men in your life again, Bethany.
“I’m a print out my résumé third period tomorrow,” said the white boy.
“Take that shit round Home Depot, bro, stack shit all day,” said the light-skinned one. “Ten buck a hour, starting pay.”
What was Kieran doing right now, in Germany?
“You gotta be bettering yourself, you know.”
The boys walked in silence, and she slowed a little so she wouldn’t leave them behind.
“Or get me a Beamer, fi-hunned.”
The white boy whistled. “Sell that shit for sixteen hunned what you do.”
She was dying to turn around. See if she could make them smile.
“Get me a Satday Sunday car, like a toy, bro, you pull up on them bitches be like yeeeah.” Shy laughter now. “Be like slidin in anywhere—”
She wanted to laugh with them. The sky was driving the sun down. She couldn’t stay out here forever. One by one the other ladies packed it in.
Pulling up to the curb at home she felt something tick and she knew she was going to pour a drink the minute she got in there. Okay, she said reasonably. Un-tick. She waited.
I got this, she said. The ticking got louder, propulsive.
If she stayed in the car. If she pulled out again and drove around the block. If she got on the highway and kept her foot on the gas, all the way up to Mary in Medway who had said any time, I will not judge you, Bethany Lopresti, just get yourself
to my door—
She bit back tears. Sit tight. The roller rink. A thirteenth birthday party, Jewel all up in the visor mirror every five seconds, kissy lips, wetting down her brows, tightening her hair.
“You look fine,” said Bethany.
“You too,” said Jewel.
“No one’s.” She was back up in the mirror. “Harper’s.”
“You don’t know her.” Jewel zoomed in on the little scar above her eyebrow.
Rain had started splintering against the windshield. Everyone was saying it was February in May, the road felt gooey with oil, and the wipers might as well have been nail clippers for how well they were doing the job. Bethany missed the exit and had to improvise, backtracking on the surface streets, leftover houses between six-lane strips of car lots and superstores. They’d already been in the car for an hour.
“I don’t understand how you always get lost,” said Jewel.
Just then a bag lady shuffling a shopping cart started across a broad intersection on green. Bethany hit the brakes and everything went eerily silent—even time. The car slid sideways into the turn lane before bouncing against the curb. She was as sober as the grave.
A heap of crap in the cart, was that an ironing board? A garbage bag of redeemables, a fishing pole. “You crazy bitch!” shouted Bethany, banging the dash, now flooded with feeling. “Did you see that?” she turned to Jewel.
The parking lot of the roller rink was nonsensical, unnavigable. It wasn’t clear that the featureless metal building had an entrance at all. She gave up and stopped the car in the middle of nowhere.
“You don’t have to pick me up,” said Jewel.
“How so?” And even as she said it, she saw her daughter watch her begin to dissolve into the just-gifted evening, the imagined pour —
“It’s a sleepover,” said Jewel.
She was still sitting in the car. She put her hand on the latch and it was as smooth as a glass. If she spent the night in the car. If she called Mary, now. She grabbed her bag from the passenger-side floor and felt inside. No phone. One mini, single-serve. She pulled it out but it was empty, so help me Lord. Just then Jewel and the boys spilled outside, laughing and bumping into one another down the porch stairs. Jewel saw the car and feigned surprise, paused, waved. There never would have been a roller rink were it not for the fact that Jewel, not Kieran, after all, was the little smarty, and so, seventh grade, Bethany had angled her into private school, even though what was good enough for Bethany was good enough for Jewel.
The female head was vain, like only a man should be, and she talked down like a man would, too, like Bethany was Jewel’s dumb handler. No one from that school went into the Service, and Kieran felt slighted by his own sister. When he told her he was going to Germany, over the phone, he said, “Say bye to Little Miss Harvard for me.”
The first time Bethany was invited to a private school house for dinner she was so nervous she pulled up blotto, and by the time she’d crisscrossed the soft lawn in search of the front door she’d lost a heel. She rang the bell with the other heel in hand. With the Higher Power on her side, it was the wrong house and no one was home, and she sobered enough in the country air to realize she’d better hustle on out of there.
But soon the finished basements where the kids were flushed the minute they got there all seemed the same. “Red or white, Jewel’s Mom?” Buffet style, plastic plates and utensils—these parties weren’t the real parties; she wasn’t that easy to fool. She’d end up in the kitchen, clearing her throat as she approached,
“Anything I can do in here?”
The hostess would whip around.
Once, fending her off, one of the many Maddies’ moms exclaimed, “You and Jewel seem so close! I’m lucky if I get an eye-roll!”
“Something smells good,” Bethany had soldiered on.
But the Maddie-mom dropped her voice, already congratulating herself on her own charm, “Tell me the secret,” she said, all the while bending at the butt as if she had to go pee.
They were always laying their traps, and for some reason Bethany always gave in. But she had tried to speak exceedingly thoughtfully now, “Maybe because it’s just me and her?”
“Are you single?”
“My son Kieran—”
“I didn’t know you had an older child!”
“Yeah.” What the hell? “Yeah, I do.”
It was the Monday morning after the roller rink, and the sleepover, when Bethany got the call. She was permitted to have her phone on at work because of Kieran, even though at that point he was just out in Texas—not officially permitted, but a son in the service? she heard herself say, newly dignified.
“Bethany? Everything’s fine.”
Ms. Lopresti to you? But how had she known it was the head of school? What was she supposed to say? “Good to know.”
“I just wanted to check in toward the end of the year. And to convey how much we love Jewel around here.”
“It’s been such a privilege, really so great getting to know her.” The head of school went around with unwashed, unconsidered hair, and Bethany had not yet been able to work out why this insulted her. “And I also wanted to reach out specifically, because of course I’m a working mom too—”
“And with Miss Jewel right here—”
“I’m just wondering if she’d shared anything about some recent choices she made.”
I’m sorry? “I’m actually at work right now?”
“I’m aware it’s Monday,” said the head of school coolly.
Alisha and Pat were staring at her. Alisha made a throat-cutting gesture for her to get off the phone. Bethany lowered her voice
and closed her eyes. “Put my daughter on.”
“Hey, Mom,” said Jewel.
“Are you okay?”
“Absolutely. No worries.”
“Great,” said Bethany. “I’ll see you after school,” and she dropped the phone straight into the trash.
Jewel came skulking home after school, and toppled carelessly across Bethany’s bed on her back in her greasy jeans, making Bethany the imposter in her own room. “What’s going on?”
“That stain is nasty,” said Jewel.
Bethany looked up at the dark yellow shoreline. She’d been watching it for changes every night for years.
“In case you were wondering what the most disgusting word in the English language is,” said Jewel.
Or the stain looked like a cherub. Bethany crossed her arms. “Why did the head of school call me today?” Stole? Cheated? Lied? Part of her wanted her daughter to show off. To show that private school—
“I lost my virginity,” said Jewel.
A fat cherub blowing a horn.
“What did you say?”
But Jewel had closed her eyes. Her face was very pale. And before she could check herself, Bethany had cried out, “It happened to me in seventh grade, too!”
The moment the words were gone, Bethany knew what a fool mistake she’d made. She had never betrayed herself in such a way before. Never imposed her weird, thirsty secrets on her daughter. But she’d disqualified herself now, as both confessor and protector, and even before Jewel spoke again, Bethany understood that she was as alone now as if she’d been cast to the bottom of the sea.
Harper, Julia, Maddie, and Jewel had all gotten into the car with the high school boys. “I lost my virginity at camp last summer,” whispered Maddie, pressed against the door, in Jewel’s ear. “I fucking bled like a pig.” She rolled her eyes.
And later, back at Harper’s in the silty, early morning hours, the four of them splayed across two queen beds in Harper’s bedroom, Jewel—as if she were delivering to them her creamiest pearl—spoke up, “Well, guess who’s not a virgin anymore.”
There was total silence.
Then the silence began to tilt, and gather momentum
as it spilled toward Jewel. Right before it hit her she looked for Maddie across the room. “I was kidding?” said Maddie, from very far away.
“So,” Jewel finished, taking her eyes off the ceiling now, off the water stain, and turning toward Bethany with a mix of triumph and disdain, “I actually don’t care if it happened to you, too.”