Finding out she needed major periodontal work made Greta realize that her life had become one long process of warping. Until she was out of tune. Off beat. But not in the interesting way. And this was another thing: she’d taken to thinking in constant qualification. Constant correction. Just like that! When had she become so unsure of whether she needed qualification versus correction?
Somewhere along the line she had stopped playing piano so much and had started watching daytime television shows, which had taught her that things could and should be corrected. Inserted, removed, lifted. Fairy godmother-like talk show hosts could offer you free therapy, dream vacations, and a makeover. A makeover? But what she also learned from these shows was that things could go wrong. No: things went wrong, often: Illness. Divorce. Affairs. Secrets. Lies. Loss. Rotting gums, Greta thought. Teeth losing their steadfastness.
If one thing went wrong, it seemed, so did many things. A woman sat on a plush, off-white couch and testified to losing her left breast to cancer, son to a cult, husband and best friend to each other. It was all tragedy, life, blood in the mouth like from a punch – or from gum disease even after a lifetime of semi-regular flossing.
Such stories differed greatly from the Amazing Physics show she and her husband Curtis watched on Sunday afternoons. On Amazing Physics, the key to reaching a better state required a vacuum. Computer-generated demonstrations provided the right conditions for a feather and a brick to fall to earth at the same speed, for a bowling ball to roll on forever. It truly was amazing what could occur without gravity or friction. That was what kept marriages from soaring, or at least floating uninterrupted, Greta thought: gravity and friction. And not just marriages but plain old individual people, too. Teeth and gums as well. (But there she went again editing herself, following her thought a step too far. Hadn’t her piano teachers always scolded her after recitals? Don’t correct yourself! Just keep playing!)
She had once told someone, “These aren’t my real thighs,” and in a way she had really meant it. In some other dimension there must be better thighs that belonged to her. Waiting for her to come pick them up, perhaps, like a kid whose mother is the last to arrive at the end of a birthday party, a little grumpy from the wait, but still young and fresh. (Even after cake.) Not that legs were her greatest concern. They still took her where she needed to go and were covered up more often than not. It was good to accept things. You had to, with age. You had to, when you hit sixty and looked like your old self with a snowsuit on underneath your clothes.
And the thing was, the worst thing – beyond the fact she was less than who she thought she’d end up being; beyond the infuriatingly neutral look on her husband’s face when she removed her top, the look that had carved the lines around her mouth, she was sure, and made her gums deteriorate, the look that made her feel like a mildly-interesting-but-only-when-nothing-else-was-on infomercial that would be more interesting if it would run its course more quickly like a flashy, snappy kid’s commercial – was the way her daughter looked at her. Greta had named her Beatrice, the beloved, and thought at least the name should be respected for its originality when every woman around her was issuing another Jennifer or Katie. After escaping to the West Coast for a degree in the economics of post-Communist countries, Beatrice was living with an ambassador in Brussels. People told Greta her daughter was beautiful, and she was. But she also had stony eyes and often shocked her mother – beyond an age when she could be sent to her room for it. She seemed to pity Greta her quiet, armchair husband. “Maybe Dad would be different,” Beatrice had once said at the dinner table, “if he had gone to Vietnam.” Then she had folded her napkin into a tiny hat.
Greta could tell Beatrice didn’t despise her father, though. She would become gentle and affectionate with him at times, as with an old, loved dog. Calling him “Curtisy.” Curling up on the arm rest of his big chair and watching a movie with him. Greta got the double-cheeked mwah, the fake kiss, as if they were high school friends who also told vicious rumors behind each other’s backs.
Daughters had become the topic of conversation since her friend Pauline had died of a second heart attack (a kick while she was still down from the first, mild one). Now Pauline’s daughter, Jodi, was constantly contacting all of her mother’s friends, leaving heartfelt phone messages on their birthdays and sending them the schmaltziest Mother’s Day cards with a tear-smeared signature. “All the things a Mother means…” “From a Grown Daughter to a Mother who Deserves the World…”
Everyone knew Jodi had been a vicious daughter – not just as a teenager. She wouldn’t speak to her parents for a year at a time and ruined every occasion she actually showed up for. She’d once said, in front of witnesses, “Mother, you are a stuck pig, and I hope you die.” Most of Pauline’s friends avoided Jodi’s calls and (only half-kiddingly) wished death on her. They had all repeatedly said some version of: “Just think how she treated her mother while she was alive! And now she wants to make up for it? I have no sympathy for the lately converted.”
But apparently Greta did have sympathy for the converted. In fact, she was looking for the converted. She wanted to open up a home for them and cook them her special red lentil soup. (Imagine her own Beatrice showing up on the doorstep with a duffle bag and contrite, sheepish smile – as she had after running away for an hour in the fourth grade. “Room for one more?” Beatrice would say, but she’d be genuinely wondering, not being coy in her usual, prowling-looking way.) She wasn’t looking for the unwarped, but the warped-and-then-unwarped-again: those were Greta’s kids.
So it was all because of Jodi that she’d started believing in conversion, in gradual unwarping, in the occasional, remarkable tune-up. It was because of Jodi that she’d had The Makeover. It was because of Jodi that she found herself saying things like, “Jodi, why don’t we get pedicures every day?” and “Jodi, do you think I’m more of a warm-color person or a cool-color person?” And found herself glowing when Jodi answered, “Oh, definitely warm. Try this salmon silk. Warm in every way.”
It was decided: Greta would work on her outsides and let her gums – warm, red, heart-like – follow suit. Though she’d always thought of makeovers as something young people did, like play Spin the Bottle or have debutante balls. But she’d never played Spin the Bottle, and who the heck had ever had a debutante ball? And the young people? Ah, the young. She thought of Beatrice’s long, straight eyelashes. What could possibly be made over on Beatrice?
Her eyes could be more kind.
But that wasn’t the type of thing they did at the place Jodi had taken her to. At Bélle Salon, they “smoked out” your eyes. They covered up what shouldn’t be there and striped your hair with gold. Greta kept studying the logo that was printed on everything. She was positive that accent mark shouldn’t be there. (A misplaced stripe?) And it made her distrustful. And the last thing she wanted to be was distrustful of people who were touching her.
“Don’t go too blond,” her friend Donna had offered the previous night on the phone and was saying now in Greta’s head. “They always want to make everyone too blond, and you’ll end up looking like a streetwalker or a retarded person.” But there was Jodi, reading the bottles: Sunshine, Golden Mist, Golden Mist 2 and 3, Honey Hints, Beach, Platinum Lights Off the Top of the Eiffel Tower.
“No! That’s really one?”
“Yup.” Jodi showed her the bottle, its nozzle crusty.
A man in white came up behind her and snapped a vinyl shawl around her neck. “I’m Myles,” he said. “And we are going to Make You Over!”
“I think we should start with the Hints, Myles, before we go up on any towers,” Greta said. Jodi giggled and gave her the thumbs-up sign.
“All right, now, just don’t worry about any colors right now,” he said, pulling her hair back from her face and massaging her temples.
She started speaking, rapidly and against her will, as if someone had wound up a key on her back. “It’s just that I’ve always been told I have sort of ivory-ish skin and should avoid certain harsh colors, you know. I always wore really light eye shadows, and the quizzes in those magazines said that was right for my skin. Someone at the Clinique counter even once showed me how to make the soft line under the eye – ” She wanted to sound smart about all of this, but she hadn’t imagined she’d get so defensive about her personal make-up choices. They were, after all, though, personal.
“Yes, yes. Ok, now, let’s just not worry about any of that right now,” Myles said.
Because that’s what they did here: they pretended there was no friction, soft music oozing out of every pore of the ceiling speakers, velvety towels propped beneath your chin. They defied gravity with hairspray and wrinkle serums.
Greta’s eyes were closed, and she could hear the thick swooshing of the water falling about her head. She heard Myles’s voice seeming to be arguing with another voice, in Spanish or Italian, she couldn’t hear well enough to tell. But she heard Myles’s angry, English voice before all the noise stopped: “Just go do the chores I told you to do already. I’ll handle this.”
Greta smiled to herself. The one time she’d visited Brussels, she’d noticed that her daughter had hung up chore lists on the refrigerator, split down the middle for Beatrice and Edmond, fifty-fifty. Which cracked Greta up. Some day her daughter would learn that, no matter who you were, (Greta herself had a stack of textured ivory paper with music she had composed tucked in her piano bench!), if you were the wife – or especially if you were the wife and the mom – everything would eventually fall on you.
Then some day you’d crawl out from under all that, or most of it, or some of it, and – what? You’d get a makeover. Though usually, Greta thought, the makeovers weren’t so literal. Her friend Fran had gotten a divorce and an MSW; her friend Donna had started traveling through the summer and collecting antiques. (Poor, Pauline. Well, Jodi got the daughter-makeover in her place.) And now Greta was having what looked like a paintbrush wielded above her head with what looked like pistachio pudding. Myles stroked the pudding into thick chunks of hair, then folded the chunks into aluminum foil.
“Did you remember to preheat the oven?”
Myles smiled strangely at her. “I love the clients I don’t get!” he said, rubbed her shoulder, and continued brushing his goop into sections of her head.
Because Myles kept jerking her chair in different directions, and various specialists swarmed continuously around her, Greta hadn’t gotten a good glimpse of the transformation in its entirety, none sustained enough for her to judge the finished product. Over Myles’ shoulder, she tried to read Jodi’s expression; between his feet she tried to estimate the amount of hair collecting on the floor; around his flying arms she saw oddly-shaped pieces of her face, differently-hued and far away. She had finally given up trying to determine the final color of the various goops when Myles swooped the vinyl shawl off her like a cape. She surprised herself by actually feeling excited. Or at least anxious. Somehow, sometime, like air condensing, this had all come to matter.
Myles swiveled her chair around and threw his arms out to the side, hugging air. “The new-and-improved Greta!”
There was still the slight roundness of her nose, the hint of pouches at the bottom of her cheeks. But her poor little round eyes that barely showed up in pictures. They’d – they’d smoked them out of their holes. She turned her face this way and that, smiling, pouting her lips, making faces at herself in the mirror. No matter what she did, the make-up kept her face in a defined sort of way that couldn’t be messed up; it even held up against a little bit of scowl. Was this the desired effect? It was a little old-woman-make-up-mask and a little Oscar-night-red-carpet. She couldn’t decide.
“Beautiful, beautiful,” Myles was saying. A chorus of beautifuls crept up around her from Myles, Jodi, other salon workers who happened to walk by her chair. She saw Jodi out of the corner of her eye jumping around like a cheerleader.
Her hair, honey-colored now, framed her face in soft wisps. Greta did like the hair. The rest? She was just going to have to trust them.
“Thank you,” she said quietly and swallowed.
She felt embarrassed. It was as if they’d been right, and she’d been wrong. All these years she’d been doing it wrong. And the last thing you wanted to find out, at age sixty-one, was that you’d spent your life doing yourself a disservice. The victim of an injustice, at her own hand. She couldn’t believe it.
“Can you show me how to do it?” she asked, thinking ahead to special occasions, or every day after this one.
Myles beamed and began counting on his fingers. “The first step,” he said, “is to remember The Attitude. Go through each step as if you’re queen of the whole f-ing world and this is your coronation day that will be preserved forever in digital photographs.” The second step was to remember not just to rinse, but to rinse and repeat. Third, blow dry two-inch sections of hair with a round brush. It was imperative she not lose patience and just flip her head over like some kind of crazed animal. Fourth, the hair roller process, (which was really steps four-A through E). Fifth, applying hair product, with the very tips of the fingertips, from the ends, up and out. Sixth, foundation: always smooth in an upward motion with a triangular sponge. Seventh, the eyes, which took up five bewildering steps. Twelfth, the carefully-mapped path of the blush brush. Thirteenth through Sixteenth, the lips. Seventeenth, remember, always remember, that last spritz of hairspray, that final blot of the lips, that extra piece of jewelry, before you step out onto the stage of the world, which could, after all of it, consist of curtains of a most unflattering color. Be prepared for that.
Greta nodded and stepped away from the chair, and Jodi took her hand, grinning as if she’d just walked in on her own surprise party. Jodi presented her with a legal pad: notes on everything Myles had just said. It was just like Jodi, Greta thought, to think of such things, the dear that she was. Like four-year-old Beatrice watching her mother get ready for a dinner party with admiring eyes, with a look that said Go, my stunning mother, enjoy! And I’ll be good for the sitter!
“Well? Let’s go shopping!” Jodi exclaimed.
They picked out cowl necks and blazers, cigarette pants and skirts cut on the bias, twin sets and spaghetti-strap gowns.
“You’re Cindy Crawford!” Jodi gushed, gently plucking a stray hair from the shoulder of Greta’s blouse. “You’re Heidi Klum!”
Greta had always thought Heidi Klum should spend less time in her underwear, but right now – as long as her body was cooperating, excelling – man she liked the sound of her.
Curtis looked at her, ice tea pitcher in one hand. “Wowza,” he said. Greta giggled a little, embarrassed. Should she be flattered? A male piano teacher had once said “wowza” to her and followed it up with, “I didn’t think you had it in you, girlie. I really didn’t think so.”
On her honeymoon, when she’d crept out of the bathroom in a white silk robe her mother had given her, Curtis hadn’t said anything. He’d given her a hungry look, and Greta had known they wouldn’t be talking at all that night. At the time, the conversationless-night had seemed so romantic. But now talking all night seemed more romantic.
“Let’s go out to dinner!” Curtis said exuberantly, waving the ice tea pitcher.
Greta smiled. “Yes, let’s!”
“And Jodi should join us,” Curtis said. “I’ll get my shoes.”
They enjoyed what felt like a real family dinner. She and Jodi shared a slice of cheesecake for dessert. Beatrice was always stingy with her desserts, offering a taste, but always turning down the waiter’s offer to bring extra spoons for the table. She always wanted a goblet of berries. That’s how she would order it, at eleven years old even. “May I please have a goblet of berries?” “Do you by any chance have a goblet of berries?” “Could you please make me a goblet of berries?” She’d shoot a disdainful look at her parents’ sloppier, creamier desserts. But still, how pretty she’d looked balancing the magentas and corals on her fork (Greta had started thinking all in hues!) against the olive of her face. She always enjoyed those berries, giving an elegant little smile when she was through.
“We should have a real celebration, not just some dumb old dinner,” Jodi said, licking the last crumbs off her fork.
“Oh,” Greta said. She hadn’t thought this dinner was dumb, but Curtis and Jodi were nodding emphatically at each other.
“An extravaganza!” Jodi whooped.
“Well, I am turning sixty-one soon,” Greta said, running her tongue over her teeth for stray crumbs.
So what they had decided was that Greta would throw herself a birthday party. A huge one, with printed invitations and appetizers speared by toothpicks. A gala. A ball. One that would require her to wear one of her new dresses, a pair of her new shoes, and all of her new make-up. Steps one through seventeen, without shortcuts. And it would all have to be planned, of course, and ready to go, before her gum surgery next month. While she still had all her teeth in her head. This was an important thing to have, her mother had always told her, saying, whenever Greta did something stupid, that she’d acted as if she didn’t have all her teeth in her head. Her mother was gruff, sturdy. The type of woman Greta’s daughter interviewed for school reports.
Last year her sixtieth birthday had slipped by without hoopla: a card sent almost on-time from Belgium, dinner at a Chinese restaurant with her husband, who had excused himself to go to the men’s room and had asked the waiter to bring some ice cream with a candle in it. She’d admit it was sweet – hearing him whisper to the waiter behind their booth had made her heart swell, almost ache. He was like that sometimes, like a toothache from candy. Or an ice cream headache.
But sixty-one was going to out-swell sixty. Sixty-one was to be An Event.
* * * * *
Beatrice wasn’t sure she’d heard correctly, over the scratchy phone connection from Belgium. “A makeover and a party?” she asked her mother. Was Beatrice, in fact, hearing this correctly?
“Yes, right now I’m wearing ‘Cherry bomb,'” her mother said.
“Cherry bomb? Mother, what is it, really? You can tell me. Are you dying? Did you find a lump? It’s a lump, isn’t it?”
On the other, far-off end of the line: hysterical laughter. Beatrice shelved the receiver under her chin and picked at her cuticle.
“Mother.” It had always seemed one of Beatrice’s mother’s faults that she laughed at all the wrong times and missed all the right times. How could you really talk to someone when your jokes kept missing one another? She and her mother might as well be across the ocean, literally as well as metaphorically, Beatrice had told herself when she moved. Maybe she had also said this directly to her mother; she sort of hoped she hadn’t since her mother, as always, would have been stricken rather than amused.
“It’s a party. I want you to come. You and Edmond. Everyone will be there.” There was a moment of silence. “And you should meet Jodi.”
Beatrice stacked up a pros and cons list in her head. If Edmond needed to travel, professionally speaking, in the next few months, that would be convenient for everyone. She flipped the pages of her date book. She sighed and pulled her cuticle till the crease around her fingernail filled up with red. She wondered why she had done that.
“Beatrice?” Her mother’s voice sounded even further away, childlike.
One wouldn’t want to give the effect of running toward another person too quickly, Beatrice reminded herself. One wanted the effect of sauntering, maybe toward, but maybe – just maybe – not.
“You know, I think Edmond has been talking about needing to go to New York this month. We could possibly combine the trips. I’ll talk to him.”
They said some parting words, though the connection had deteriorated so that Beatrice couldn’t discern her mother’s tone. She placed the phone on the table and, unexpectedly, pictured her mother at the piano, back to Beatrice, tuning deliberately, painstakingly, for hours. When she was a child, this had made Beatrice impatient and crazy for a serenade, ready to yank the keys out one by one.
She tried to remember Jodi from the multifamily gatherings of her childhood but once again failed to conjure this person clearly. A month earlier, her mother had photocopied the inside flaps of a card from Jodi and mailed it to Beatrice. It had seemed like a black-and-white X-ray of guts, something you shouldn’t show around, something that couldn’t really be interpreted except by a certain official. “To my second mother Greta,” it had said. Who wrote such things? Who on earth snatched such concepts from the air? What was a “second mother” anyway: something you got when you used up the first, something hoarders got, grubbers, people with an overly-expansive capacity for reaching, some second chance that you had to abscond someone else’s mother for, like grief-wrecked would-be mothers who kidnapped? Too much love, too much transferred love, was a dangerous thing, Beatrice thought. She picked up the phone to call a travel agent.
* * * * *
Over the course of several days, without really realizing what she was doing, Greta had fashioned herself a makeshift vanity in the bathroom by dragging the piano bench in to sit in front of the mirror and arranging all of her accoutrements in a semicircle around the sink. Her mother wouldn’t approve. Her nails were done, yes, but when was the last time she’d touched the piano? (She would put on Lizst’s “Third Consolation” during dinner to rectify the situation. What was the use, anyhow, of sitting in front of the piano the way she had come to do, only managing to fumble, and then staring, staring?)
Something about her had changed perhaps – though, Greta thought, concentrating sternly on drawing a line around her lips, she had always tended toward her own mother’s perfectionism. In ninth grade, the school counselor had been worried; “unaccepting of life,” she had called her. “It could lead to things,” the woman told her, chewing on a pencil nub, “like ulcers and wrinkles.” Greta had stopped shaving her armpits daily and tried throwing her day-old socks on the floor rather than directly into the hamper. Her mother had not been pleased about this latter attempt at breeziness. But she kept getting only A’s, and the counselor would not go so far as to tell her not to. She had gone to Vassar, just where she had wanted to go, and she had gotten A’s there, too. And then she had gotten married to Curtis and accidentally pregnant just three months into the first job she could find that had something to do with her major: tuning pianos. The repeated tones threatened to drive her mad: C, C, C, CDEFG, G, G, G. She’d majored in music at Vassar! Professors had used the word “conservatory” in conversations about her future, as if such a blooming idea could grow in the same garden as she!
At the time, Curtis had made so much sense: likening tuning pianos to his own work fixing up old bikes at a bicycle shop, implying if not saying that the two of them were honorable for ensuring other people’s afternoon bike rides or piano playing. Developing her own talent had come to seem indulgent, something you couldn’t actually do for a living, beside the point. This logic had appealed to her; she wasn’t indulgent or a snob who kept music to herself; Curtis had been convinced, and Greta had let herself be convinced, that her musical ambitions had in any case been driven by her mother. (But maybe all her mother had meant to teach her was to be more of a snob, at least once in a while, you won’t regret it.) So Greta would go home at the end of the day, put her feet up, and after a glass of red wine, convince herself that she was helping to maintain a certain standard of sound in the future of the profession. At least pianos savored the vibration of a slip of the hand.
After quitting in her third trimester, she had felt like a time traveler dropped into a house from a previous generation, someone who would do housework in heels while her friends ran marathons, went camping with other couples, and took up pottery. But she never did do housework in heels, so she always felt that her real, heeled self had not yet arrived. Her mother had never done housework in heels, but her mother had also married a man who was more educated than she was, so she had nothing to prove. Marrying Curtis was, her mother had said, a ridiculous decision (if her mother could call it a decision), a clumsy way to handle what she had of a life so far. Making a mess for no reason, like throwing her socks on the floor. But making a mess could be fun, Greta had told herself, and better yet if there were no reason. Or if there were a reason or two: he used to write “Good morning!” on the bathroom mirror with her lipstick before he left for work and before going to bed, he’d scrawl nonsensical phrases that came to mean something to her, like “I’ll love you as long as the hills.” Then she hadn’t cared about the symmetry of her lipstick tip, its staying power.
Besides: Curtis was good at putting greasy messes back in order. Eventually he ended up managing the bicycle shop. Greta hated to watch him make a sale, always skeptical about the promises he made. Were all those features really important or was he just trying to fund the next vacation? But she loved to watch him fix old bicycles. He was intense and thoughtful when he did this, like a surgeon. Or a hippie who made art out of old junk. She had been almost glad all those times Beatrice came marching into the house with her arms crossed, ponytail swinging, eyebrows lowered, shins and hands blackened, complaining about a tangled chain or mangled tire.
Pauline had once scowled, saying children’s snagged toes shouldn’t be cause for foreplay.
But on an afternoon talk show she’d taken to watching – and screaming at or at least rolling her eyes at – they discussed creative foreplay as an essential ingredient in achieving “Supreme Happiness.” When Greta thought of supreme happiness, she pictured Diana Ross in a metallic gown and beehive, perfect smile and clear voice. She had once thought Diana Ross was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. She almost put on an old record to dance to. Then the image of Diana Ross’s recent mug shot flashed across her mind, hair a fabulous mess. She pictured Diana Ross holding a bottle labeled Supreme Happiness and just felt depressed. At least she had some of the ingredients; Reinventing Your Look, the women on the panel had said, could not be overestimated. (And Jodi, with a wink, had assured her of this.)
Was it up to her to reinvent everything? Were all the messes her fault anyway? Often the problem was that Curtis fixed things by ruining other things. He’d once remedied a down spout situation with the pot from her favorite outdoor plant. She’d come home to find the overturned chrysanthemum on the doorstep like roadkill in a puddle of dirt.
Or like right now, she couldn’t find her dental floss, and she needed it; she thought of it as her periodontist’s contribution to her new beauty routine and had bought a spool of it the size of an evening bag. After finding the faulty garage door rigged with the thin, white thread, Greta waited angrily for Curtis to come home from work. (The door was working though: amazing handiwork.) He needed to know that something like her floss needed to stay in its proper place. Her teeth felt funny, but she would try not to yell. He couldn’t take yelling and skipped it himself, shooting off a controlled insult right to the gut to counter her uncontrolled blather – before leaving the room.
“Oops,” Curtis said when he came in and heard her complaint. “Dumb luck.”
“Dumb luck?” She yelled. Luck? Dumb! “Why don’t you just accidentally use the piano as a ladder?”
“Oh, would you stop,” he said. “You sound like your mother.” He hated her mother. Her mother hated him. Or looked down on him, which, Greta had to admit, was worse.
Greta sat back indignantly (though she knew her perfect eye make-up resisted indignant looks) and buttoned another button on the sweater Jodi had advised her to only button at the neck. “Well. Well, fine, so I sound like my mother. That’s perfectly fine with me.”
Greta looked at Curtis: he was a normal husband, she guessed; theirs was a normal marriage. She thought of her mother’s way of putting her foot down, the finality at the end of each of her sentences. The way Greta’s father would be left speechless and would turn to his daughter and shrug. Wink. Smile. And she would smile back, making her eyes big enough to show her love for him and her mother at the same time. Then he’d sit on the floor and play checkers with her until her mother either joined them or told them to clean up the mess: she wasn’t running a casino in her living room. Or Greta’s older brother would come tearing through the house, running through their game as if he were kicking up fallen leaves and demanding everyone’s attention until they were all laughing so hard they had to hold on to the woodwork.
Curtis had left the room, and she heard the TV buzzing down the hall. Later over dinner they would go through the bills together, without argument, and talk about painting the house in the spring or what kind of day Curtis was expecting at work in the morning, or both. Then Greta would sit at the dining room table to shuffle through her Party Binder, considering and reconsidering each detail, and humming to herself as she felt she should. The Party, even when she really stopped to think about it, had come to seem very important. More important even than remembering to mourn her unspent talent from time to time, more pressing than investigating whom Curtis was talking to when he snatched up the portable phone and retreated into Beatrice’s old room.
She was like some backward creature, a legged amphibian crawling back into the water: focusing on her talent as a teen, losing hours in front of the mirror in middle age. But what else could she do but stick to her new routines? Those closest to her, those grapes bunched around her, kept saying the routines were working for her. Like cheap labor. They had written down the steps for her to follow, cheered her on though she couldn’t see where this course was taking her, what new tone would arise after the bridge.
Coming out of the hotel into the surprisingly sunny day, Greta felt excited. Everything was set at the venue; the party was really going to happen. She had come out of a side entrance, where the kitchens were, and across the way she saw Curtis’s car. The bright yellow bumper sticker, “A Bicycle Built For You,” caught her eye like a flag.
For a moment she was back in the Chinese restaurant, indulging in the overheard whispering to the waiter. What could he be up to? A surprise. She was throwing herself a party, had attended to every detail, but he was going to do something. Her first thought was to tell the secret to her daughter, triumphantly. She’d be as triumphant as if she’d confessed to a secret affair with JFK, after all these years as Beatrice’s boring, old mother. Though she was really too young for JFK, even if JFK wouldn’t think so, (would tell her, a smart girl like her, to trust him and she’d be going places), and the analogy now moved her stomach in a way that made her queasy, feeling something was off, wrong, about to make her gums bleed.
Then Greta saw Jodi come out of the hotel’s main entrance, striding purposefully through the parking lot with her heels confidently managing the slush. Greta was skimming along in her slide-on shoes, trying not to lose one. She stopped and raised her hand to wave. Then she saw in Jodi’s hand: Curtis’s keys. She’d always told him his huge key chain, the size of a sandwich, was visible from across a crowded room, and now it was visible from across a parking lot, even in the glare of a sunny, midwinter afternoon: a dozing man under a huge fluorescent sombrero. Curtis had bought it at South of the Border, on a celebratory road trip after Beatrice was third runner-up at the state spelling bee finals. “This place is like the third runner-up to Disney World,” the almost-champion speller had muttered as Curtis emerged from the souvenir shop beaming, waving his plastic prize at all of them.
But now the keys in Jodi’s hand: so the personal history connected to the key chain seemed to evaporate before Greta’s eyes, the intimacy with it no longer hers but part of some hotel story. She watched Jodi shudder in the cold, coatless, as she unlocked the passenger door and hunched in, reappearing with a large purse – those purses everyone was carrying nowadays seemed to Greta full-blown bags, not purses; the one she’d gotten after The Makeover was still four-fifths empty, the contents of her old purse swimming sadly along its bottom – and scuttling back into the hotel’s front entrance, as quickly as she could in pumps and slush. She’d never seen Jodi in a skirt and pumps before.
Not even a cheap motel! A nice hotel. A hotel so nice that Beatrice and Edmond weren’t even staying here; they were staying at the Best Western on the other side of the highway. She’d chosen the best for her party. Greta stood still until her nose was running, then got into her car.
Jodi had Greta’s husband’s keys.
And then she saw herself as her daughter must: unbelievably stupid, a clumsy elephant. An elephant with honey highlights, but an elephant. Living in a bubble. A housewife in a TV commercial with a fifties hairdo that covered her ears and leaked debilitating hairspray chemicals into her brain. And she, she should have known that the seeming fool would always be the wisest, cleverest, trickiest. It was she, Greta, regal queen in her new Burberry trench coat, who was flat and dumb as a button. Wrong without qualification.
She wondered if Beatrice would be disgusted with Curtis, if she’d detest him. Or, if she’d give him a mental clap on the back, consider an affair to be character-building, as she apparently viewed digesting horror in a jungle – or character-showing, at last.
At dinner, every time she opened her mouth to speak she felt she’d shrivel to pulp, so she shoveled food into her mouth until she had a stomachache and had to go lie down.
“Excuse me,” she said. And Curtis nodded, still eating.
There seemed nothing to say, at this point, anyway. Nothing that wasn’t already, and permanently, beside the point.
All night she lay awake next to Curtis’s snoring hump – he never moved when sleeping at all – her tongue jiggling what felt like a loose tooth. She couldn’t decide whether to feel seven years old or a hundred. Her teeth were falling out of her head! It was like a fairy tale in which she failed to heed her mother’s warnings. Or her daughter’s. Or her own eyes. She went to Vassar for crying out loud! She had given recitals, in front of dozens of people, who listened to her and clapped at the end! She had written at least seven bars – seven in a row! – whose sliding melody rang completely unique to her in the whole of music! But that was long ago, in a place that didn’t matter now, before she knew about eyebrow lifts and before she’d ever thought the teeth could actually come out of her head, not in a way that didn’t involve the tooth fairy coming to clean up the mess.
When Curtis got up in the morning, she pretended to be asleep until he left to pick up the centerpieces. Just as she had asked him to, right on time. When she got up, she suddenly felt something on her tongue, like a kernel of corn or half a Tic Tac. Greta stood still a minute, concentrating with her tongue. She thought about a time she’d been tuning an A, her long finger pressing on it over and over, and the ivory key had just slid off into her hand as if it had appeared out of nowhere, fallen from the sky. She and the piano’s owner had both looked at it, then each other. Gasping, then laughing.
Her teeth were falling out of her head: of course.
She called the dentist and insisted he make time for her before the party that afternoon. She needed to hurry, but she couldn’t help herself from going through all the steps they had taught her at the salon, one through seventeen. She had taped Jodi’s notes around the edges of her bathroom mirror and, as she worked, looked at herself framed in by them.
The dentist bridged her tooth onto the one next to it.
“It’s not a permanent fix,” he said. “But it’ll do. Till the gum surgery.”
She felt his words hang in the air like a final C lengthened with the far-right pedal. “Yeah, thanks. I’ll take it for now.”
She’d be back next week for the gum surgery. Picturing angry samurais coming at her mouth with gnashing swords seemed like the most welcome of distractions. But right now she had to go to her party, at least with all her teeth in her head.
The train rolled slowly into the station, many stops before Greta’s own. The doors didn’t open right away, and just when the people waiting at the sliding doors started to look angrily toward the front of the train, conductors came through, waving their arms toward the exits.
“All right, folks. We have to evacuate the train.”
Something about a suspicious bag they had to check out. Don’t be alarmed, but everybody off.
The other passengers either grumbled and rolled their eyes or started rushing out hysterically as all of the doors opened at once. Greta gathered her coat and purse and filed out behind the others. She couldn’t help picturing the suspicious package as one of those oversized purses, like Jodi’s, looking so innocent – forthright even, with that new trend of patching your initial letter on the side – waiting to blow up in your face.
Previously she would’ve thought nothing of this, figuring everything was just a false alarm, an innocent misunderstanding. A gag gift. Like when she’d lost Beatrice at the mall for a full fifteen minutes and felt her life falling away from her, the world cracking beneath her as if the tectonic plates had begun shifting at an alarming rate and her heart was migrating into her ears. And then, there was her little girl: sitting on the floor next to a potted plant. “But I wasn’t lost, Mommy. I was right here the whole time.”
Everything had settled back into place. At a time like this, Greta usually would have thought, someone – someone like her – had just left a bag behind, other things on her mind. But now Greta wasn’t so sure. She didn’t know how things would work out. You never knew what you’d go home to.
She stepped out onto the platform and followed the crowd. She almost said out loud and with what she thought was a humorous tone, “What is this, Tel Aviv?” But she was sure someone would spin around and say, “Ma’am, since 9/11, everything is Tel Aviv.” Greta climbed onto the platform, wiping her frozen-numb nose on her brand-new leather glove. She sidestepped the grates, the points of her heels making holes in the thin snow like bird tracks. An announcement came over the loud speaker that the train probably wouldn’t be going anywhere any time soon, and the next one due was being diverted to another line. The conductors came up and down the platforms, pointing to the stairways and telling everyone to evacuate the track area. They all started trudging up the icy steps to the street level, and Greta was surprised at the lack of camaraderie of the group. They were all in this – this lagging, dangerous journey – together, yet they were all buzzing on their own cell phones. At the top of the stairway, she realized she had forgotten hers on the kitchen table. She looked around and realized she might be stranded here, on a rather lovely street in a very nice suburb, which seemed an extraordinary thing to happen, a crazy place to be left to rot. Unlikely and somehow happening. She might never get out of here, and she was certainly going to be late for, or miss, her own party. What background music would make sense for her predicament? She used to know; her hands used to tense for the right keys when a song even just drifted into her head. Now her hands were lazy at her sides, numb from the cold and forgetful.
She considered for a moment that Jodi and Curtis were just in on a surprise for her. But then the picture moved in front of her eyes in all its details: both the image in the parking lot and a collage of all the even possibly-suggestive suggestive things Jodi had ever mentioned in the past couple of months. Sure Jodi had talked about men and sex, sex and men, but always in an abstract, bitter way that sounded like those “Woman to Woman” greeting cards. No one in particular, nothing from her own experience. From her own experience: of course not! Jodi made comments about relationships, but more about how badly they all trudged along and then raced to a stop, her own ineptitude at communication and decision-making, her inability to respond to any human situation in any sort of human way. “A love sociopath slash moron”: that’s what Jodi had had the gall to call herself. And Greta, dum-dum she was now, had thought Jodi was truly, underneath it all, referring to Pauline. Jodi’s mother! Who could talk about a mother and mean someone else’s husband? Who could interpret remarks about her own husband, a lover, as remarks about a dead mother? And what Greta had said – she bristled now to think of her own voice. “I think sociopaths are supposed to all be really smart actually,” she’d mused. “Some idiot savant thing or something.” She hadn’t known what to say, so that’s what she had said, dumb and meaningless. She was the moron, the idiot with a symphony-sympathy-savant; she lacked response-ability, she had had no idea what the hell Jodi had been trying to tell her, or accidentally telling her in the way of those swept up into something sociopathic or love-like. Despite Jodi’s wine-glassy eyes and slow, apologetic way of speaking these things. Greta had no way of connecting one thing to another, which everyone else around her – Jodi, Curtis – seemed fantastically, carelessly, good at. Greta buttoned her coat to her chin and shivered.
She paced a little, back and forth, avoiding the icy patches. Her heel slid on something and when she looked down, there was a wrapper underfoot. When she really looked, she saw it was a condom wrapper. Greta pulled back in revulsion, swung around, and took in the line of houses across the street from the station. She saw the driveways mostly of dirt and puddles, paint chipping off the shutters and doors, debris in the yards. It wasn’t such a nice place after all.
She felt like a melon, a woman-turned-melon at midnight, who thought she’d been on her way to a ball but was really just running up against some melon ballers. Periodontists, melon ballers.
Once during college Greta had walked into a bar, and a man had turned around on his stool and asked, “Are you with the circus?” For two days she had stood in front of a full-length mirror trying to figure out what was wrong with her, thinking that every mirror was a funhouse mirror and the image she saw was just distorted to make her look normal. Then she found out that the circus had been in the next town over and some of the clowns, in civilian clothes, had been rumored to be at the bar that night. Everything, in the end, made sense; in the end, sense was what you got.
The clouds zipped up the sun, and Greta looked at her watch, imagining her guests shuffling into the hotel party room. She threw her head around and cackled, since laughing was such a stunningly outlandish thing to do in response to potential terror and a crowd of waiting guests you were surely going to disappoint. A gust came up from nowhere just then, flattening her hair against her face and stinging her teeth. She closed her lips tight.
It was hard to tell who lived in places like this, whether they were lazy, chain-smoking, shiftless, care-about-nothings. Or if she was being a snob, and it was just hard, so hard, to keep a yard clean. It was hard for Greta to keep her own yard clean, despite the perfect-pitch wind chimes she’d picked out with calculation, despite the snowplow sticks carefully planted to keep the borders of the lawn intact. The wind kept blowing things into your terrain. That bastard.
Her eyes scanned the street again as she tried to decide whether she was brave enough, whether it was the worst or best thing she could do to make herself into someone who was brave enough, to walk up one of these driveways for help, heels mining for solid ground in the wet dirt, knocking – on the door, not her poor teeth! – and not knowing what kind of face would be behind the door.
* * * * *
The guests were becoming increasingly restless as they waited for their hostess, and the non-uniformity of them – some in seats, some still watching the door, some giving up and gobbling down stuffed mushrooms – disgusted Beatrice. Her family was somehow unable to have a dignified party even at an upscale hotel. Edmond had taken a seat at a corner table, busying himself with his Palm Pilot. Beatrice walked over to him and stood over his shoulder, waiting for him to respond.
“Where do you think your mother is?” he asked without looking up.
She leaned close to him and whispered throatily in his ear: “Try to find out something, darling, s’il te plaît?”
He nodded. She turned and watched her father unbuttoning his jacket and laughing over something with that Jodi person. The two of them had compiled some kind of poster for her mother and stood there, still holding it between them like a science fair project.
It was all very unsophisticated, which was sometimes how her mother liked things: wearing old cutoffs and playing Herman’s Hermits at barbecues, for instance. But her mother had seemed different on the phone yesterday, mentioning Burberry, and telling Beatrice all about the marinated artichokes and champagne-flute centerpieces. So it didn’t seem to Beatrice that her mother wanted the party to be falling apart like this, and she was beginning to worry. She walked quickly across the room, offering polite-hostess smiles and nods to all her mother’s friends.
“Curtisy.” She liked to call her father this, a combination of a pleasantry, a virtue, and a baby doll she’d had when she was four. Her father’s back was to her, and he and Jodi were talking about Hideki Matsui. Beatrice didn’t know what that was, but it sounded like a volcano. “Dad. Give me your keys. I’m going to go find her. This is getting ridiculous.”
She took the key chain out of her father’s outstretched hand (she still hated that thing) and gave him a full smile, but with a sigh. “Wish me luck!”
Beatrice started to turn away, when Jodi caught her eye. Her expression was either apologetic or territorial, Beatrice couldn’t decide.
There were things one could not say, Beatrice thought, though one might want to, at a party. There were questions one could not ask about one’s parents, not when one was trying to keep an occasion from falling like an upset soufflé. Especially of someone who had taken up with one’s parents in a way one did not understand and did not want to appear to be suspicious of. Or jealous of. To such a someone, one simply said: “All is fine in my world. Try a potato croquette.”
“How’s about a potato croquette?” she said to Jodi and then excused herself.
How long could it take to hop on the train and go to the dentist? The city wasn’t so big. It made Beatrice fidget to think of its small quarters. Brussels was home now with its Gothic cathedrals, windows as long as your body, and always-damp skies. (Most people she knew moved to Manhattan after college, so they could return home for visits with a big-city sense of humor. But Beatrice didn’t want to be funny like everyone else; she wanted to be hilarious). At the same time, this had been a pretty nice place to grow up. She became defensive when Edmond made jokes about it, but defensive in a nonthreatening way, like a tough poodle. In any case, it wouldn’t take very long to keep driving along the tracks like this and try to find her mother getting off the train. As a family, they’d rarely used public transportation. Maybe her mother had accidentally gotten off at the wrong stop and was trudging the rest of the way on foot.
Ahead of her were some emergency vehicles, blocking one lane with their lights spinning. She could see some police officers and EMTs coming up the steps from the tracks. They didn’t seem harried, but there were an awful lot of them milling around. She felt alarm rise into her throat, but pushed it down and breathed deeply. She always covered her alarm or turned it into something else, rushing in to fix things like a warrior. These were the only two attractive options.
When she spotted her mother at the end of a driveway down the block, though, seemingly turning circles in a puddle with one hand over her mouth and the other palm-up in a helpless shrug aimed at nobody – and was her mother blond? – she admitted she had to swallow a lump.
But then Beatrice saw her mother see the car, push her head forward as if to make sure she saw what she thought she saw, and wave heartily. She pulled the car over to the curb and beeped the horn five times in a rhythm.
Beatrice unrolled the passenger window and flashed a lopsided smile, a sexy leer. She had always thought this sort of thing was funny, coming down to the breakfast table in the oversized t-shirt and scrunched socks she always slept in and drawling “Howdy, stranger” over one shoulder to her father before slithering into her seat in what she deemed a mature, womanly way. Now she said, with a flirtatious tilt of her chin, while her mother practically clawed toward the car, dirty and wet and eager and, Beatrice was surprised to see, in a way that made her heart hurt a little, absolutely thrilled, “Looking for me, beautiful?”
Rebecca Entel is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Cornell College. Her fiction has previously appeared in The Madison Review and Leaf Garden. She currently lives in Iowa City.