We meet at Mom’s house to celebrate Baby Evan’s
second birthday. We all
seem happy to see each other, Mom, sisters, brother-in-law, Baby
Evan. We hug, get a
good look at each other.
Dad comes in, and we are happy to see him too, until we
notice that he has brought his girlfriend with him.
Not the one he left Mom for.
The new one. He
knows he is not allowed to bring girlfriends to family occasions but
sometimes does anyway.
The old one was named Janet; we hated her.
This one we will name Janet Two; we will hate her as well.
We rush in, hands grab, elbows fly.
Mom reminds us to be careful
of the rug. We arrange the
food quickly, chips into dips, cheeses on crackers, pâtés on breads,
then stuff it all into our mouths.
Janet Two does not know our feeding rituals.
She stands back and will get nothing.
Post hors d’oeuvres.
Mom stays in the kitchen to finish preparing
dinner. Dad and sisters
run to the living room to sit on the good couch.
Janet Two is scraping up the last bit of dip with a heel of
bread. I go into the
kitchen to help Mom with the dinner even though she says she’d
rather do it herself. I
look out the window at Mom’s flower garden, at the roses we were
never allowed to touch in case we broke a stem.
I eat a cookie from the dessert tray and Mom
asks if I have put on a few pounds since Christmas.
This makes me want to eat every cookie on the tray, but
instead I leave. In the
living room they are discussing how much Baby Evan has grown.
My big sister Martha says he’s in the ninetieth percentile
for height, so she must be doing something right.
Dad says it’s nice finally having a boy in the family, and he
was sure one of us was going to be a boy, but it’s too bad how
things don’t happen the way you want in life.
Dad tells us he spent a lot on the gift for
Baby Evan even though times are tight and it’s getting harder to
dock his boat in Marin and pay for Janet Two’s art classes.
Then he calls to Mom to bring him another beer, and tells me
I’d look so pretty if I just dropped twenty pounds.
Mom brings him the beer with her white knuckles gripped
around the neck of the bottle and reminds me to put a coaster under
my diet soda.
They had sat us down a few months before
Sadie’s high school graduation to tell us they were separating.
It was my second year in
college and I was living at home to save money on rent.
“It’s no one’s fault,” Dad said.
“We still love each other,” said Mom.
“We just need to work through some things.”
For a while Dad came home a few nights a week
to eat dinner and spend the night, as if nothing had changed.
Mom, Sadie and I sat on the couch watching reruns of
Cheers and eating dinner from our laps.
When he hadn’t come home for a week, Mom said, “I guess he’s
not coming,” then threw his dinner in the garbage.
Sadie and I watched her shrink down, with the
speed walking, the running, lifting weights in the mornings, and
then the nonfat yogurt lunches and brown rice and steamed broccoli
dinners. She didn’t
allow sugar or fat in the house, so after classes I’d hit the
Cinnabon at the mall and order the baker’s dozen minis and stuff
them in my mouth on the drive home.
On Sadie’s eighteenth birthday, a package came
for Mom with divorce papers.
Mom started to cry because she didn’t know she was getting a
divorce and locked herself in her room.
Sadie and I went out and got drunk and I held her hair back
while she threw up the rest of the night.
When Mom told us what Dad had been up to all
those years, we decided we hated him.
Then he told us he was going to kill himself he was so sad.
So we told him it was okay, we forgave him, and we loved him,
even though we knew we still hated him.
Then he didn’t call us for a while until Janet One broke up
with him, and then he said he might kill himself again.
The doctor said Dad would have to go to an institution if he
didn’t stop talking about suicide and we didn’t want to have to
visit Dad in lockdown, so we told him we loved him and it wasn’t his
fault, and that Janet One didn’t know what she was missing.
When Dad got better my little sister Sadie
decided she wanted to kill herself too.
It was her second year of college, and she had stopped
eating. So we told her
how good her life was and she had so much to live for and we loved
her and then we tried very hard not to upset her.
So now I don’t ever tell Dad or Sadie when they make me mad
or when I want them to shut up because I don’t want their blood on
my hands. My
brother-in-law Ned says that long after we’re all gone Dad and Sadie
will only have each other to call and threaten suicide and they
won’t have half so much fun any more.
We watch as Baby Evan pounds
crackers into Mom’s Oriental rug.
Dad asks me how things are at the law firm, and whether or
not I think the life has come back into the securities market.
Things are great over at his firm, and he just secured a
seven-figure settlement in a trademark infringement case on behalf
of their biggest client.
He asks if I’m still working the eighty-hour weeks and when I
say yes he says, “good because there’s no getting to the top of that
ladder if you’re too lazy to try.”
“That’s right,” Mom calls from the kitchen,
“you’ve got to do your time to make the big bucks.”
“Earn it to own it,” Dad says.
“Plenty of time for sleep when you’re dead,”
And I nod in agreement, even though I don’t
care about the big bucks and every time I look at a merger document
I want to scream, but I’ve got to climb that ladder, do my time,
make the big bucks, earn it to own it and look forward to sleep when
Mom tells us it’s ready, so we rush to our
places at the table. We
leave the metal folding chair at the end for Janet Two, the place
where your knees hit the leaf under the table.
Janet Two stands next to the
chair and looks at Dad, who tells us she’s allergic to metal, and
wouldn’t one of us be willing to switch with her since she’s our
guest. Sadie, Martha
and I exchange smiles until Dad says, “Cassie?”
And then I get up and go sit in the folding chair and say
fuck when my knees hit the leaf.
Mom says to watch my language in front of Baby Evan and Dad
asks Mom if she has any plastic silverware for Janet Two.
Even though there’s been a box of plastic forks and knives in
the bottom kitchen drawer since the 70’s, Mom comes out with some
wooden chopsticks and says they’re all she has.
Mom serves all of Dad’s favorites even though
she would never eat any of them, the Honey Baked Ham and the
bacon-wrapped chicken breasts, macaroni salad with mayonnaise and
more bacon. I’m a
vegetarian, but I eat it all anyway, because I can’t hear again from
Dad how it’s all that dairy and bread that’s making me fat, and I
should just try a little red meat now and again.
Martha talks about Baby Evan and how he’s so
smart and cute and likes to put his toys to bed at night and say
“bye-bye” to them and he’s really coming along with the potty
training and that problem with him biting the kids at day care is
getting better, and now her voice is high pitched and scratchy.
Then Sadie jumps in and tells us about her new exercise
routine at the gym and how the trainer is really pushing her to pull
more weight but she doesn’t want her muscles to get too bulky, so
she goes lower on the weights but higher on the reps.
Mom says she’s running a marathon in the fall and doing her
twelve miles on the weekends until she gets up to nineteen, and then
she’s supposed to go back down to twelve, but she’s not sure she
will because running keeps the heart rate up, and helps you lose
those extra pounds, and I keep my head down and pretend she’s not
looking at me.
is particularly fatty today and I gag on bits of gristle, but keep
chewing, because otherwise I will have to pay attention to the
conversation. I eat
through Dad’s story about his trip to
with Janet Two and how romantic it was, and how that’s where they
want to get married and it sure would be nice for us all to be
there. Janet Two nods
and saws at the ham with one of the chopsticks.
And Dad says they stayed at the same condo complex where we
stayed in ’86 that had the nice sunsets on the lanai and the free
towels at the beach. By now
we’ve lost Sadie. Mom
is cleaning up in the kitchen, smashing pans against the stainless
We watch as Ned and Martha try to get Baby Evan
to open his gifts.
“Over here sweetie!
Pull the ribbon!” But
Baby Evan would rather chase the cat, so they open them on their
own: the sailor suit from Mom, the toy trucks, football, bat, glove
and basketball from Dad and picture books from Sadie.
I knew Martha and Ned got Baby Evan a play stove so I bought
a miniature copper pot set.
Dad wants to know what those are about and when I tell him,
he says, “Too faggy.
You should have bought a train set instead.”
I am so full I have to unbutton my jeans and
pull my sweater down to cover my stomach.
Mom brings out cake, cookies and ice cream and reminds me I
already had my dessert.
She had the cake specially made for Baby Evan with a drawing of
Winnie the Pooh and little plastic characters from the books.
Baby Evan gets the piece with Pooh and the plastic Roo.
Mom goes back to the kitchen so I eat the frosted honey pot
off the slice she left at Sadie’s place and suck Piglet’s bottom.
Dad is discussing the trip he took to
with Mom ten years ago. Now Janet Two has disappeared.
Dad asks Mom if she liked the dozen roses he
sent to her work last week for their thirty-fifth wedding
anniversary. Never once
forgot our anniversary, he says.
Mom says “Yes, thanks,” even though she threw them away
because people in the office kept asking what the occasion was.
I am alone in the living room.
I have to lie on the floor because sitting up is too much
pressure on my stomach.
I wish I still made myself throw up like I did in high school.
Now the floor is moving.
Baby Evan is running by.
He stops, pokes me in the eye and laughs, and when I reach up
to tickle him, he bites my wrist.
Mom’s cat, Elizabeth Bennet, jumps down from the couch; he
chases after her.
Sadie has reappeared and is sticking her toe in
my ribs, telling me to get up.
She needs a ride home. She’s
not supposed to drive when she’s taking Ativan, which she always
does for family get-togethers. I
tell her I need to let my food digest before I can go.
Sadie pulls down her sleeves like she always
does to cover the scars on her wrists.
Not deep enough for suicide, the doctors said, just ideation.
“Can’t be around these assholes any more,” she says.
“Maybe I’ll rub Evan’s shitty diaper in Janet Deuce’s face.”
I see feet in the doorway and look up to see
Janet Two, mouth open, staring at Sadie.
Sadie looks at her, then at me, then walks out the front
It’s time to go.
Caesar and Jub Jub will be starving by now and are probably
digging their claws into the couch to punish me.
I do the rounds, Mom, Martha, Ned, Baby Evan, Dad.
Ignore Janet Two.
Dad puts his arm around Janet Two and says we’ll all have to
do this again real soon, because wasn’t this fun for everyone, and I
nod, and smile and go out to the car.
Sadie is leaning back against the passenger
seat, eyes closed. I
watch as the smoke winds out of her cigarette and forms a cloud
under the moon roof.
“Was it always this bad?” she asks.
I look at the crack in the driveway where Dad
took a sledgehammer to the toaster because it had burned his toast
for the last time.
I say. “It always was.”
I take the cigarette from Sadie’s outstretched
fingers and relish the burn in my throat as I inhale.
As I exhale, the smoke settles in the front window of the
car, blurring the outline of the house until it is a hazy shadow.
recently completed her M.F.A. in creative writing at
Columbia University. She lives in Brooklyn and is currently working
on a collection of short stories.