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Anything but Sweet by Joan Hill

Anything but Sweet by Joan Hill

Fiction, Vol. 8.2, June 2014

I strap Jessica into her high chair and shout a warning to Tina about the school bus. Tina scurries down the stairs and calls out a reminder for me about how little time is left until her sixteenth birthday. Without a goodbye, she lets the storm door slam.

I sense an unusual enthusiasm for school and trail after her, making it to the front door in time to watch her slide into a hulk of a sedan. I stare, my breath fogging the glass, as she turns her knees toward the driver and gathers her dirty-blonde hair. The car spews blue smoke as it chugs away from the curb. It’s a Buick, the color of a middle-aged penny.

I know about getting over on parents. I know the power of the pebble as an irresistible signal, clinking against a bedroom window in the middle of the night. I know all the freedom-loving lies. No teenager knew the rules of spinning them better than I did: make enough eye contact to prove engagement but act casual. Tell your story and keep it simple. Stay in character and, most importantly, walk away at the first opportunity.

What I didn’t know: the slap of the lie. The clash of my simultaneous urges to chain Tina to her bed forever and write her off for good. I press my forehead against the cool glass. The surprise has stiffened my jaw and hollowed my guts. I am a mannequin posing in the window.

Jessica practices her pincer grip, eyeing my face between picking up Cheerios. I wander around the kitchen, clutching my cell phone, considering what tone to use in a text to Tina. All caps yelling or sugary sarcasm? I decide against communication and drop the phone onto the counter. A cup of tea crosses my mind, but slamming the kettle back onto the cold stove is more satisfying.

If Dan were here, he would calmly survey his parenting options. I tell myself (again) that he can thank the luxury of a step-parent’s built-in distance. He is a fresh horse. I am worn down. A tug on the refrigerator door reveals that he remembered his lunch for work. The brown grocery bag he uses to carry his enormous meal is gone. My husband proves that opposites attract when it comes to calories as well. He eats endlessly yet stays thin. I must starve myself to keep from gaining an ounce.

I flip the calendar over to June, to today, and note Jessica’s well-baby appointment on the second. I run my fingers over the stars penned on the square for the third, for Tina’s birthday. I sigh for the summer ahead. For hot nights. For crickets chirping in the void.

I carry Jessica to the spot on the living room floor where I can see her from the kitchen and blow raspberry kisses against her silky little belly until she giggles. Then I leave her to play with her toys. I straighten the kitchen, remove the tray from the high chair, and wipe crumbs from the vinyl seat. I imagine Tina sitting at a desk at school. I sweep the floor and as the bristles of the broom collect debris, something gathers within me. I tap the dustpan on the waste can and decide to cancel my plans to celebrate Tina’s birthday. Manicures and shopping for new clothes hardly seem like good ideas now.

At 7:50 I dial the attendance office at the high school, and a woman tells me that Tina arrived on time. Dan would call this a victory. I call it a sickening familiarity with my past. I see only a boy and a car—and I vow to put a stop to it.

*

I’ve delayed Jessica’s nap to coincide with Tina’s return from school, and she is cranky, poking at her heavy-lidded eyes as I settle her into the pastels of the nursery and tiptoe away.

I stake out my position in the flower garden at the front of the house, beneath the kitchen window. My rehearsed lines, about exactly what it is that young men want in the backseats of cars, tangle in my head. I cringe, forced to recall moments of lust I had long ago buried. And I worry. I’m about to warn against the very thing I did to bring Tina into this world. Won’t she only hear that she is a mistake? I sit back on my heels, swatting at the gnats attacking my face, flushed with shame.

Beyond my flapping, gloved hand, I spot Mrs. Blumenthal emerging from her house across the street. I pretend not to notice and shove the trowel under a dandelion. I murmur: do-not-come-over-here, do-not-come-over-here, do-not-come-over-here, but another glance confirms the direction of her uptight gait. She approaches, her filled-in eyebrows raised.

I hate this woman. Mrs. B, as she instructs the neighborhood kids to call her, failed to disguise her age-calculating snoopiness the first time she met Tina and me. While she smiled and chatted with us, she looked us up and down, and compared Tina’s gangly height to my lack of crow’s feet. Finally she exhaled, blurted out something about us looking like twins, and stretched her overdone ruby lips into a wicked grin. “What beautiful skin you have,” she said to me. “You’ll just have to tell me your secret.”

I stand and force a smile before turning to greet her. “Hello, Nancy.”

“You dyed your hair again, didn’t you,” she says, touching her own dark curls.

“I did.” I pull the gloves from my hands.

“And that’s a new-mom haircut if I ever saw one. But oh—I prefer that color you had last summer. This is too dark for your skin.”

Again with the skin. I shrug.

“How’s that little baby?” She croons her question but doesn’t wait for an answer. “I don’t know how you do it. I barely have the energy to look after my two. Thank God they are both in school this year. And you—with a teenager and a baby.”

“I am a superwoman…” I bend down and collect my trowel. “…and with my super hearing, I just heard her cry.”

“Well, I just wanted to give this to you.” A small box wrapped in metallic pink rests on her upturned palm. “For Tina. For her birthday. It’s just a little something.”

The shiny paper glints in the sunlight, stealing all the attention. I thank her and accept the gift. I always end up thanking this woman. “Gotta go,” I say and the little gift in my hand makes me sorry for my hatred.

From the kitchen window I watch Mrs. Blumenthal retrace her steps. She is almost in her front door when the dark sedan parade-floats onto the street and comes to rest in front of our house.

Tina does not linger in the car (oh, happy day). Her fingertips never leave the surface of the car as she glides, cat-like, around the front of it, her eyes trained on the windshield. She pauses, languidly fingering the hood ornament (Jesus Christ), before continuing on to the opposite side of the car—laughing now—then leans into the driver’s window to say goodbye (goddamn it). She might as well be mooning the neighbors on the other side of the street as she shifts her weight from hip to hip. Across the way, Mrs. Blumenthal’s window curtain shifts. I cradle my head in one hand.

*

“I told you, he’s Emily’s brother.”

“Since when is it okay not to ask me?” My arms are crossed. The countertop presses into my lower back.

“Since you would say no.” Tina crosses her arms to match. “He’s rescuing me from the school bus.”

“Rescuing you? Oh, Tina, I think you need to be more melodramatic about this.” She wilts and I regret my tone.

“It’s just a ride, Mom.”

“Unless there are other things you’re not telling me about.”

“You mean like the hotel room we hook up in?” Tina smirks at my open, silent mouth. She giggles. “Come on, Mom. I’m not stupid.” She sidles up to me and touches my arm, her green eyes staring straight into mine. “There’s no way I’m going to ruin my life with a baby.”

There’s that hollow feeling again.

“Hey, what’s this?” Tina reaches past me and takes the glittering gift from the windowsill. “For me?”

“From Mrs. B. She just brought it over.”

Tina tears the paper and removes the lid from the box. She lifts a gold chain that dangles a heart-shaped locket. “Oh, this is nice.” She fastens it around her neck and opens the heart. “Look, you can put little pictures in it. I always wanted one of these.”

“Not pictures of you and that boy, I hope…” Did I say that out loud?

Tina heads for the mirror in her bedroom.

“Tina.”

She reappears in the doorway.

“Why should I believe you now?”

“Because—it’s almost my birthday. You have to believe me.”

*

In bed tonight, Dan protests, “You can’t cancel her birthday,” surprised enough by my declaration to turn on the light and prop himself up on his elbow. “I’ve read that the most important thing with teens is to maintain the relationship, to stay engaged.”

He sleeps after I assure him that I’ll think it over. Lying quietly in the dark over the next few hours, I come up with exactly zero reasons why I acted the way I did when I was sixteen. I was the fourth and youngest child. My parents were gentle experts by then, good people. There was nothing to force my fall. I had taken the swan-dive off the cliff all by myself.

There was no explanation, except maybe a boy who wanted me. Wanted me badly. Would do almost anything to get to me. It was the beginning of a real life, I’d thought—of love—and secrecy was the delicious, whispering way to say yes to all of it.

I hid under baggy clothes until my bulging reality was more than I could hide. I carried the weight, inside and out. And then, with my mother’s help, I did what I was doing now. I loved my baby, took care of my baby. Warm tears slide across my temples and into my ears. Dan is right. The birthday must be celebrated.

Tina is still my baby.

*

I have one day to make things right. I won’t be outdone by Nancy Blumenthal. Or a boy. I’m lucky to get a reservation at the riding stable on such short notice. I buy a card with loving words inside and then drive to the bakery in my old neighborhood. Even from the parking lot, the glow of the lighted cases beckons me. Syrupy air embraces me as I enter.

Jessica is on my hip, red-eyed and warm, still upset from the doctor’s needle. The tall baker finishes tying a box, the rote motions of his hands flowing like sign language. He greets Jessica and me, but the baby averts her eyes and bows her head onto my chest. I explain about the doctor. The baker clowns an exaggerated frown.

“I don’t much like the doctor either,” he says. “But my wife makes me go. What can I do for you?”

“I need a cake for my daughter’s birthday.”

“Let me guess. It’s baby’s first birthday.”

“Not this daughter.” I smooth Jessica’s downy hair. “My other daughter will be sixteen tomorrow.”

“Sweet sixteen,” he announces. “Half-sheet?”

“Quarter.” I’m thinking it’s anything but sweet. I wonder if parents of teenagers seem more exhausted to him. I can’t help myself: “Teenager, you know?”

Don’t I know,” he says, pointing his thumb for emphasis toward the store’s back room. “Got my own here. Always trying to keep him in line.” He shakes his head and grunts. His black, sculpted hair doesn’t move. “Can’t believe a word he says.”

I study him for a moment, searching for playfulness. I find none. The baker’s eyes are filled with contempt. “The cake should say ‘Happy Sweet Sixteen, Tina.’”

“Of course it should.” He begins to take notes on the order. “Chocolate, yellow, or white?”

“Chocolate.”

“Buttercream icing?”

“Yes.”

“Pink lettering?”

“No—blue.”

“Flowers?”

“Can you do horses?” I push away the thought that Tina is too old for such whimsy.

“It’ll cost you.” His sudden laughter is loud in the small store. “I have to admit I’m no good at drawing them—they always end up looking like dogs.” He rustles through a drawer next to the register and pulls out a clear bag of little plastic horses. “I have these. For an extra three dollars, they give your cake some 3-D action.”

I say yes to the horses, and we agree that the cake will be ready the next morning. Before I leave I look over the finished cakes in the case closest to me—a batch of perfection, lined up and ready to go. The baker has done his part. He’s taken them from the oven and cooled them, piped icing along their edges, and turned them into pretty props.

*

Tina’s birthday begins with a gorgeous morning, crisp but with the promise of real warmth. We wear blue jeans and boots, and Tina’s long hair is pinned beneath her riding cap, revealing her graceful neck. She sits easily astride a horse, her body loose and comfortable. I grasp the reins and a fistful of my horse’s mane in one hand, and in the other a crop and the front edge of the saddle. The horseflesh beneath it is sweaty and warm.

I push my heels down and press the balls of my feet into the stirrups, the way Tina instructed me, but trotting is a choppy surprise. I struggle to keep my balance and keep falling forward. (Are there any muscles in my legs?) It’s a relief to rein the horse back to a walk.

The horses dip their velvety muzzles into the stream before we cross to a wide, mown trail that hugs the waterline. Sycamores hold the bank with scrub trees and tall weeds, and ahead of us frogs plunk into the water. A cornfield borders the other side, guarded by a split-rail fence with a single barbed wire across the top. Patches of birch trees split the path, and there is a serenity here that gives me hope that we can have a heart-to-heart talk.

Tina takes her feet from the stirrups and lets them wag with the motion of her horse. She leans forward and hugs the chestnut mare’s neck, then drops her reins and reclines all the way back until her head is resting on the animal’s rump. I’m too enamored to tell her to be careful, too envious of her confidence. I don’t want to lose this mood.

“Can you believe the look on Dan’s face when we were leaving?” Tina’s closes her eyes when the dappled sunshine plays on her face.

I smile. “He agreed to it. I just don’t think he realized what he was agreeing to.” We laugh like conspirators pulling a fast one.

“Mom, this is so great. This is the best thing you could have done for my birthday.”

Before I can answer, before I can revel in exactly the response I had hoped for, my horse begins switching its tail violently, a tantrum of coarse hairs in the humid air.

“It’s a huge bug,” Tina says. “It’s flying around us.”

The first buck is slight—a controlled irritation. I turn in the saddle and find the horsefly settled on my horse’s rump, near the base of his tail. It is about the size of my big toe, and I realize that I’ve never seen a horsefly before today. I chase it off with the shaft of the crop, but the fly circles around and lands in nearly the same spot, its flight resolved with the energy of metal meeting a magnet. I brush it off again, and my horse dances sideways, ears pinned. I hold on but he’s coiling up beneath me.

As I watch the fly land once more on the expanse of rump, my vision dims at the edges. I notice the fly’s red-clay eyes and—is that fur on its body? Everything feels bottled and I experience a moment of respect: for the fly’s knowledge about where a horsetail cannot reach and for exactly how coordinated a rider with a crop can be, like some kind of robotic sensor owning the space between pendulum swings.

Next, my horse launches its rear half skyward.

I land on top of the fence. The barbed wire grapples with my back, below my left shoulder blade. I meet the ground fully on my side and hear a snap. Unable to breathe, I roll onto my back and weave through the clean, blue spaces between the clouds. I am conscious but detached—a warm mass in the cool, tickling grass.

Tina’s jeans-clad legs climb the fence to get to me. I see a barb rip into her hand and then her boot heels thud beside my head. She is composed, calling 911. “Exit off Route 1. Yes, south of Oxford.”

*

The evening is coming on, and the strong painkiller broadens the twilight. Nine stitches hold together the gash on my back. I feel their presence the way you feel a braid in your hair or a ring on your finger. Tina has six stitches in her hand, and it’s funny to me that we will share a scar story. I sit immobilized in Dan’s recliner, the only position my broken collarbone will allow. Dan and Tina placed me here, and then Dan left, taking Jessica to the pharmacy with him.

Through the living room window, I see the Buick pull up in front of the house. The driver hops out and smooths his T-shirt against his flat belly at the curb. With a jerk of his head, he flips his dark hair from his forehead. He stands tall in his lanky frame for a moment, a hopeful posture, before striding up the front walk. The doorbell rings its cheerful notes.

I feign sleep when Tina pads across the room and opens the front door. I imagine the glow of silent texts that must have transpired between them. (Once again Tina didn’t ask.) I crack my eyelids. In the doorway the handsome boy holds the fingertips of Tina’s bandaged hand. His eyes say sorry, so sorry you got hurt. “And on your birthday, no less,” he whispers. Their closeness is so honest it stuns me. I watch as my daughter leads the boy into the kitchen with her good hand.

The birthday girl takes the cake from the pantry and carries it to the kitchen table. I can’t see them anymore, so I let my droopy eyelids close and picture them—cutting the cotton string and lifting the lid of the floppy cardboard box, their heads touching as they peer at the cake.

“Mom, you’re shivering.” Tina’s voice rouses me a little. She must have peeked in on me. She covers me with the heavy quilt, and it seems to press me down into the chair until I hear their voices from the kitchen again.

I strain to listen, but I am so weary from the ride and the emergency room. From knowing it will be a while before I can hold Jessica again. From thanking God that this happened to me and not to Tina. Then it hits me, thundering through my narcotic haze. I am the one who has fallen. Again. The thought slips away nearly as fast as it appeared. I can’t fight this fatigue any longer. God, this quilt is warm. I let myself go and float into sweet sleep.

I dream of freeing the horses from the cake.

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