Marla's daughter Bethany slipped back inside the apartment after saying goodnight to the boy she'd been seeing for two months. When Marla crossed her arms, Bethany sighed.
"He seems very nice, honey. I've told you that," Marla said quickly. "I like him."
Bethany looked down like she was studying the dingy carpeting, and Marla could see delicate crease lines in her pearly blue eye shadow. "Good. Me, too," Bethany said.
The table where Marla sat took up most of the cramped dining room, so Bethany had to pass inches away from Marla to get to the kitchen. Only the two of them lived there, and Bethany had picked up Marla's habit of smiling and squeezing the other person's shoulder as she passed. But tonight she didn't, and Marla distinctly felt the absence of touch on her shoulder. In that absence she saw a vision of what her life would be after Bethany left her—a shadowy life of work and TV, occasionally seeing a movie with a friend, trying out a few social groups only to realize being alone was better than being with people you barely knew. Even though being alone was no good either. In the kitchen, Bethany popped open a soda can.
Bethany's father—Bethany had told Marla, you can just call him my father... ex-husband sounds so ugly—had offered to help Marla and Bethany move into the tiny apartment two years ago after he moved his own stuff into a nicer apartment with a grocery store cashier he'd been seeing for six months. No, we can manage by ourselves, Marla told him. And she and Bethany had managed just fine. Marla adjusted her hours at the doctor's office where she worked the front desk so she could be home whenever Bethany was there. They were doing just fine.
Later, when Bethany would become a single mother shuttling Zoe and Emma to doctor appointments and playgrounds, hurrying them through spelling and math homework so she could heat up leftovers, holding them after nightmares while she kept her own nightmares about bills and loneliness to herself, Bethany would tell Marla the same thing—We're doing just fine—and Marla would know that it was both very true and very false.
Marla thought about getting up and standing at the kitchen's only door, but this was an aggressive move, she knew, because it would trap Bethany, who would get defensive. Marla waited at the table, listening to the refrigerator door open and close, open and close. Bethany never snacked after dinner. She'd told Marla that this was how people got fat, which was a dig not only at Marla but at all women past twenty, women whose hips and bellies widened, women who surrendered themselves to gravity and spread. But Bethany often took inventory of what was in the fridge—she wanted to know that the option was there for her, on the off chance she might want it.
"G'night," said Bethany as she passed Marla.
When Marla looked at Bethany's hair, finally grown so it hung halfway down her back after she cut it all off with the kitchen shears after her father left, Marla couldn't help be annoyed at how that boy Andrew kept his arm around Bethany whenever he was with her—every moment, it seemed—his skinny forearm nestled in her hair. Like he was claiming her. "It's just that you two seem very close all of a sudden," Marla said as Bethany reached the hallway that led to their bedrooms. "Very serious."
"I told you. I like him." Bethany stared at the soda can in her hand. "I love him." This last was in a quiet voice, like the times when Bethany would beg to stay with Marla instead of going to her father's: But I like it here better, Mom.
"Sixteen is so young."
"Can we please not have this same conversation over and over?"
Marla searched for something unique and meaningful to say, but she didn't want Bethany to walk away while she was still searching for that perfect phrase. It wasn't hard to say the right thing; in retrospect, she had thought of many right things to say to both Bethany and Bethany's father. But it seemed impossible to say the right thing at the right time.
"The weird thing about sixteen is that it feels much older than it is," Marla said.
"So I keep hearing."
"I know I can't stop you. From, you know, being with him. I know that. Don't think I don't."
"Good." Bethany turned to go as if she'd been unclipped from a tether. "So I guess there's nothing more to say."
"There's a lot more," Marla said to herself.
Bethany plopped on her bed and turned on her laptop. It took forever to boot, and sometimes it went through a series of error screens that made her want to throw it against the wall. Her mom had gotten it for her for Christmas, but she'd dropped it this spring and its edge was scuffed and probably something inside was slightly not right. Sometimes her belongings didn't seem like she owned them until they were slightly not right, as if before that, they belonged to someone else who wasn't clumsy and didn't come from a broken home. But then the Microsoft colors began to glow on the screen, and it was all okay.
Andrew had messaged her twice since he left the apartment, telling her he loved her. There was something both beautiful and desperate in that phrase, the way it felt at first like it was just a statement, but it was really begging for a reply. You couldn't just ignore it. "I love you" was like that. Andrew was like that, too. Andrew's mother had dementia and his dad had gone away long ago—really gone away, not gone like Bethany's father, whose apartment she went to every Wednesday night and every other weekend, where she messaged Andrew and watched videos on her laptop while her father played Grand Theft Auto with his grocery story girlfriend. Really gone, like Andrew didn't know where he was. And Andrew's mother was cracked. Totally crazy. Bethany only met her once but she whipped up the sweatshirt she was wearing and showed Bethany and Andrew her tits and then laughed—brayed, really, like a donkey—like it was the funniest thing ever. That was what Andrew had to live with, but he got up and got dressed and went on with his life every day. That in itself was amazing.
It was all amazing. Andrew and Bethany, together.
The sex was less amazing than the idea of the sex. But still, love was amazing. It was the most amazing thing she could think of. She messaged him that she loved him, too.
Ur mom doesn't like me does she?
Of course not, she wanted to tell him. Her mom didn't like anyone Bethany liked—not Rick Thomas, whom her mom said was stuck-up, not Jackson Cade, whom her mom said cussed too much, not Andrew, whom her mom said was too possessive. In her mother's eyes, Bethany was practically a princess, and no one was good enough for her. Bethany's probably bored because she's off the charts smart, her mom said to Mrs. Brashears when Mrs. Brashears told her Bethany had been more interested in writing notes to Nikki than learning geometry. If Nikki wants to be two-faced, let her do that to someone else, her mom told Bethany three months later when Nikki and Bethany were no longer speaking. She's probably just jealous of your looks. And you're so funny, too. You're not just pretty but you're fun to be with, too. How could she treat you that way?
Sometimes her mother talked and talked until Bethany felt like she was talking about someone else, a second Bethany whom Bethany instantly disliked for being so perfect. And besides, her mother's dislike of Andrew—it all went back to THE DIVORCE. How could it not? To be loved and then not be loved anymore. Now that she was in love, Bethany couldn't imagine the pain in that. To have someone totally understand you—to give someone all the pieces of you they need in order to understand you!—and love you, and then suddenly they don't love you anymore. While THE DIVORCE was happening, all Bethany could think of was herself, but now, in the intense memory of her mother stuffing their clothes into garbage bags to move them out of that little house where they were once a family, she knew the same thing could happen to her.
She would keep this love she had. She would never let it go.
She likes you. Don't worry, Bethany typed to Andrew.
Marla watched Bethany pick at her French toast, cutting tiny squares and then tinier squares until the sugary dough was mostly smeared onto the plate. "I'm going to take you to Dr. Walters for a check-up," Marla said. She felt nauseated as she geared up for the next line, but she had made the decision sometime around 4:00 a.m. after lying in bed awake and helpless the whole night, knowing that this force in her daughter, this need for love, was larger than both of them, and that Bethany would turn to sex—and its duplicitous connection to love—just as Marla had those many years ago. Life had taught Marla to scrap together what pieces you could salvage. So she said, "And if you want to talk to Dr. Walters about birth control, that's fine. That's your business."
"Really?" Bethany's fork was poised halfway to her mouth.
"It's time for you to go in for a check-up anyway, and what you do in there is up to you. Like I said, I know I can't stop you from doing what you want to do. But I don't think you'd like to have a baby at 16. You'll make a stupendous mother someday, of course."
"Okay," Bethany said.
What did that even mean? Okay. How could Bethany just say okay and nothing more? She'd made a huge compromise, and all she got was okay.
Marla asked, "Should we stop at CVS? We could get some discount Cadbury eggs and cream soda?" It was something they always did, every year the week after Easter, the two of them.
"Okay," Bethany said as she chewed. "I'd be up for that. If that's what you want to do."
"Then that's what we'll do," Marla said, trying to remember exactly when Bethany started splitting I and you so completely that there was never any we. Except the we that meant Bethany and Andrew.
In the CVS, Bethany didn't feel like going through the paperbacks with her mom, laughing at the pictures of these perfect women with creamy white shoulders. That was something they used to do, maybe a few months ago, maybe even a year ago. It was one of those things that used to be fun but seemed childish now. She waited until her mom seemed interested in one and then said, "I'm going to look around," and walked fast enough to discourage her from following.
She couldn't figure out why she hadn't told her mom she had already started on birth control pills, that she'd gone to a clinic a few weeks ago. Why was this worse than admitting that she and Andrew were having sex? Not that she had exactly admitted that fact by saying "okay." At least, she didn't think she had. Not exactly. Perhaps her mom thought the "okay" just meant, "in case it happens in the future."
In case it happens because we are so passionately in love, Bethany thought. Going to the clinic by herself on that rainy Tuesday before anything had even happened seemed so premeditated, so unromantic. And now that action suddenly seemed like such a lump between her and her mom. Such a stupid detail to withhold—that trip to the clinic, which had felt so exciting but empty at the same time. Such a small detail compared to sex itself, which she had always considered the biggest mystery.
Bethany browsed through the makeup aisle and then turned the corner to see if her mom was still at the paperbacks. She was, but beside her stood a man in his early forties with a neatly trimmed beard. His skin was flushed and damp, like he'd just come from outside where he'd been biking or jogging or something.
"Sometimes I do," Marla told the man. "Sometimes I wish they were true. But then the whole idea of being suddenly swept away seems so silly."
"So you're not a romantic, then? Or you are?"
"I guess I was, once. Now I'm a realist. You?"
"If a realist means you've been hurt a few times but not enough times to be a pessimist, then yeah, that's what I am, too." The man held a book with a dragon on it, but it looked like an unnecessary prop for the lack of attention he was giving it. Really? This was his pick-up line?
Marla laughed, and the man, apparently encouraged, continued. "I belong to a book club. It's fun. We don't really read romances, more like Game of Thrones type stuff. You know, things like that. But the people are really nice and funny. You should come. If you ever read fantasy. Or if you wanted to."
"Oh, maybe. When do you meet?"
"The first Tuesday of each month. Do you Facebook? Can I look you up? I could send you the club information."
Under the harsh fluorescent lights, her mom looked too fragile—but even more scary, she looked transient, as if the ties that had held them together for the last sixteen years weren't as thick and binding as she'd thought. Maybe things were coming undone, frayed by the passage of time and now this silly, stupid man was pulling at the last threads.
Yes, Bethany had tried to get away, had used Andrew to pull her away. But now her mom was moving on without her.
"We're going to be late," Bethany said as she hurried toward the two of them.
"This is my daughter. Bethany."
The man said hi to Bethany, at first looking surprised, as if Bethany didn't fit into his calculations, but then Bethany could see his mind working, turning this problem over and over. If he could win over Bethany, it was one step closer to winning over her mom. If he could claim Bethany's approval, he could claim her mom's. He gave Bethany a big smile and held out his hand, which she didn't take. He returned it to his side, awkwardly.
"We won't be late," Marla said. She turned back to the man. "You can look me up. My name—"
"We will be late," Bethany said. "If we want to stop by the park and drop pennies into the wishing pond. Like we always do." They hadn't done it since last summer, Bethany realized as she said it, but last year hadn't been that long ago. Sure, her mom could give this man her name and they would still be on time for the appointment. She could give her name and they could drop pennies in the pond and still even be on time. There was time for all of it. But Bethany could feel the greedy little animal inside her screaming no. The greedy animal waited as her mom looked back and forth between Bethany and the man.
"No, that's okay. Thanks, though," her mom said to the man, who smiled in an annoyingly pitiful way.
"Are we ready?" her mom asked her, as if Bethany had not acted rudely and selfishly, as if she had not crushed this part of her mom just to see whether she could. As if her mom had known, the minute Bethany had been born, that this would be the result.
At the pond, Bethany would hold the dirty penny in her palm and sense her wishes swirl through the budding tree branches to brush across her face. Her and Andrew and happiness and forever and children and love. But these were words that belonged to carefree people.
She needed to know she commanded love, that she was loved far beyond all else.
She needed this part of her to shut up, the heavy, clingy part that needed so much.
She needed to know that when she turned away from her mom, her mom's whole world would drain empty. Always. Anything else was unthinkable.
The pennies would fall from their hands and sink into the silt at the bottom of the pond.