Wonderful Girl

[img_assist|nid=4339|title=”3 Mamaie” by Simona Josan, © 2005|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=113]Evie is a good daughter in some ways. When her stepfather keels over suddenly from a heart attack, she takes off two weeks from work to fly back to Iowa. She helps her mother organize the kitchen cabinet, separating the canned goods from the pasta boxes. She lets her weep and brings her Kleenex after Kleenex. She waters the plants whose leaves are brown and curling at the ends. She wears black to the funeral service, holding her mother’s hand, listening to the priest drone on about her step-dad and what a great man he was (as well as a dedicated Shriner) and she does not burst into hysterical laughter. She bows her head and doesn’t yank her hand away even though her mother grasps it tighter and tighter as if she’ll never let go, squeezing until Evie’s fingers tingle and turn cold. She calls the realtor to put their cramped and unhappy house on the market. She helps her mother sort through his junk and doesn’t correct her long, inaccurate, sepia colored reminisces.

“Do you want to take anything with you, honey?” her mother asks, holding up his round pocket watch, his WW II lighter, his fishing tackle box.

“No, thank you,” Evie says each time in a voice like someone refusing a second serving of mashed potatoes.

She even stays to search for a place to put her mother once the house sells, but her mother, in her vague manner, finds something wrong with every potential new home.

For instance:

They cruise by Sunny Vale Retirement Village, an apartment complex made of cheery yellow brick with red shutters and flowerboxes in the windows. Reasonable rent, ceiling fans, and a weekly Yahtzee game at the clubhouse. “Oh, there is no yard!” her mother says, tapping her fingers to her lips.

“ Who cares?” Evie says. Her mother blinks at her rapidly like a baby bird. Bewilderment and hurt ripples across her face. This makes Evie want to shake her or wrap her safely in a blanket.

“Why do you need a yard? Will you be sunbathing?” Evie’s new approach requires her to use sarcasm blended with a dash of autism. She’s hoping her refusal to react will force her mother to be more practical. But this is not how their relationship usually goes and it has put her mother out of whack. She looks at Evie like she is someone else’s child, one with fangs. She shouldn’t have been so clingy when she was younger, Evie thinks, each separation from her mother resembling an Irish wake. She shouldn’t have slept with her mother’s green shirt under her pillow because she missed her so much. At twelve, she should’ve shaved her head, gotten a nose piercing, and smoked cigarettes behind the school gym. Instead, she went to the library to check out books about misunderstood horses. She should’ve been a different person entirely.

Her mother looks out the car window. “Well, I think a garden…” her voice trails off, leaving a suspended silence that drives Evie to bite off her fingernails one by one.

Finally, Evie explains she really has to get back to work. Really. She has to leave. Soon. Now, if possible. She imagines dropping her mother off at the neighbor’s door with a note pinned to her blouse, “Please take care of me” and speeding off into the night, like someone released from a prison sentence. Instead, she tells her mother that she has to be back in Chicago the very next morning. It’s imperative.

Her mother nods her head slowly, like a hearing-impaired person learning to read lips. “Oh, I understand. You have things…”

Before she leaves, she tells her mom to call her any time, as much as she wants, day or night. Giddy with the knowledge that she will soon be gone, she even goes so far as to suggest that her mother could move to Chicago for a while. As soon as the words leave her mouth, Evie freezes, suddenly picturing her mother sitting on the sofa all day while Evie works, her hands folded in her lap, waiting patiently for her daughter to return home.

Her mother shakes her head. “Oh, no. I wouldn’t think of it.”

They say good-bye in the driveway next to the oil spot left by her step dad’s [step-dad’s] old wreck of a Plymouth. Her mother hugs her hard, for too long, an interminable amount of time, until Evie pushes her away. “I have to go, Mom.”

“Okay, my darling.” she gushes wildly, sounding like a lover.

Evie jumps in the car. She puts on her seat belt. Her mother continues to stand by the window until Evie rolls it down.

“I miss him,” her mother announces.

What can she miss, Evie wonders. He was a bad husband, full of rage and given to Tennessee Williams theatrics. He liked to throw things that would shatter spectacularly. He slammed doors. When introducing Evie to others, he referred to her as “the competition.” Her mother would laugh uneasily, trying to catch Evie’s eye, as if telling her silently, But you know how much I love you, right? Now, her mother waits for Evie to say something, but Evie’s brain is an empty cave. If she opens her mouth, bats will fly out. Instead, she rolls the window back up, puts the car in reverse, and drives away.

A wonderful daughter, yes.


The phone calls start. Her mother has taken Evie’s words to heart and calls at least ten times a day. Evie can let the machine pick up at home, but at work, she has to answer. Sometimes, she puts her mother on hold for half an hour at a time, hoping the theme from The Nutcracker playing over and over again will drive her to hang up. No such luck.

She tries to keep the calls brisk, the conversations short, and to remind her mother how busy Evie is. Busy, busy, busy. Except in real life, Evie’s nights consist of crossword puzzles, braiding and re-braiding her hair, cat tricks, TV, and paint-by-numbers. So she creates a crazy social life and a complicated divorce case at work involving necrophilia. She invents a night class on wine tasting and two new best friends who have forced her to join the Chicago Social Club. She joins an imaginary volleyball team that practices at the Y on Wednesday nights. She constructs such a rich and rewarding life that she begins to feel jealous of the self she’s made up. When her mother exclaims about an invitation Evie has pretended to get to an art opening, Evie snaps. “Well, it won’t be that fun.”

At work one Monday morning, she suggests to her boss, Matt Becker, Esquire, that maybe it’s time to change the office phone number. Ever alert in his red suspenders, MB asks, “Is someone stalking you?”

[img_assist|nid=4340|title=”Thief of Hearts” by Aloysius, © 2005|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=306]“Yes.” Evie tells him. “My mother.”

He steeples his hands under his chin. He is sympathetic but explains that, unfortunately, the phone number must remain the same.

“Then will you pretend to almost fire me?”

MB practices divorce and bankruptcy law. He understands the intricacies of relationships and has learned when to ask questions and when to button up. He has a second wife named Emma and a first child named Dexter and he never stares at Evie’s legs when she wears short skirts. The next time Evie’s mother calls, he picks up the line, speaks to her in a low, polite, and professional voice. The calls at work don’t stop completely, but they slow down to once or twice per day.

Then finally one Saturday night, Evie has a real event to attend. She’s been invited by a friend of an acquaintance to a party called “The Parent Trap.” The idea is to dress up as a mom or a dad, either someone famous or one of your own parents. People in Chicago are very clever that way. She hears clever conversations everywhere; in Starbucks, on the El, in the bathroom at work. She tries to join in, but her attempts are always slightly off, like a person who has stumbled into a conversation too late and laughs before the punch line has been delivered.

The phone rings just as she’s about to leave for the party. She stands in the doorway, her hand on the knob. “Evie, honey? It’s me.” She pauses. “Your mom.” She can see her mother clearly, standing by the yellow phone, the circle of light from the kitchen lamp casting her face in shadows, half-packed boxes towering around her. “The realtor called today and said something.” Another pause. “I think it was important but I couldn’t find the thing to write down the phone number and so now I’m worried he’s showing the house tomorrow and I just can’t…” Evie shuts the door, locks it, and hurries away. The sound of her mother’s voice echoes in her ears all the way down the long hallway.

In the elevator, she looks at her reflection in the silvery door. Her face appears distorted, like someone underwater. She surrounds her mouth with dark, dark lipstick and is startled by the results. She is all mouth. That is fine, because tonight, she is someone else entirely; someone brave, a girl with an attitude.

The party is filled with moms and dads. There are mom’s everywhere—Drag Queen Mom, a Mom with a beehive hairdo and bright pink lipstick, Martyr Mom with a fake wooden cross strapped to her back, Whistler’s Mother, a girl dressed like a cat. The dads include Mr. Cleaver, several 1950s’ dads in corduroy jackets with patched elbows and unlit pipes, dads in football jerseys with pot bellies made out of sofa cushions, sitcom dads, and a Father Christmas. Also, a man dressed as the Virgin Mary. “Get it?” he asks everyone. “Get it?”

The moms and dads bump into Evie, who can’t escape the front room. She finds herself repeating, “Oh, sorry, sorry. Whoops! Excuse me!” until finally, she’s able to wrench free by elbowing a Joan Crawford Mom carrying a handful of wire hangers.

One woman in a blue dress with puffed sleeves trails around holding a martini glass between sharp red fingernails, her face covered in white powder. Evie asks the woman what her mom is like. The woman coughs neatly into her hand. “She’s like, dead.” Evie takes a sip of her paper cup filled with warm pulpy orange juice and Smirnov vodka. She nods, unsure of what facial expression to wear.

The hostess Mom, with a black eye and an arm in a sling, circles around offering meatloaf, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on Wonder Bread, juice boxes, Little Debby cakes, and green beans.

For half the night, she is cornered by a frizzy-haired guy in a black turtleneck with a huge yellow construction paper question mark taped to his shirt. “I’m adopted,” he explains. He leans in until Evie can clearly see his nostril hairs. Tiny spittle projectiles fly when he talks. Evie considers rummaging through the hostess’ nearby dresser for sunglasses.

She doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Something too intricate and personal to untangle over the music. She catches sight of a very cute Dad leaning against the wall near the bathroom. It seems that she and the Dad are exchanging heated eye contact, but it’s hard to tell in the dim lights.

Adopted Guy has posed a question. Evie asks him to repeat it. “I said it’s an interesting idea. Do we have to turn into our parents? You know, like no matter how hard we try and rebel and not make the same dumb mistakes, we’re sort of predestined to fuck it up the same way anyway?”

Evie doesn’t know how to answer that question. She says, “Oh, hold on. I think I have something in my eye." She weaves her way over to cute Dad, who wears a long blond wig, a tie-dyed shirt, a suede vest with a peace emblem, and billowy-legged blue jeans. A knot of loud-talking girls gather near him. Evie squeezes by close enough to allow one of her breasts to brush his arm. She feels suddenly very brave and very drunk and it’s an exhilarating feeling, as though she might cause a scene.

“Mom? Mom, is that you?” Hippie Dad says, touching her arm.

Evie stops. “Son?” They’re going to have the “theatre school” conversation where they banter like two actors auditioning for Second City. While they talk, Evie imagines their wedding, their children; the interesting story they’ll recount years later about meeting at a parent party. He’ll tell their family, “As soon as I saw her, I knew she was the right Mom for our children.”

He has straight white teeth with a slight gap in the front. He probably drinks lots of milk. She could grow to love that in him. “Please tell me you’re not an accountant in real life,” she says.

“No, I don’t even own a brief case.” It turns out he’s studying to be a geneticist at the University of Illinois. He researches the mating habits of fruit flies. It’s more interesting than one would think. Luckily, he doesn’t go into detail. He has a fat, spotted mutt named Jack whose nose is flaking off at the moment. He’s taking Jack to the vet very soon. He asks Evie if she likes drive-in movies. She says yes, of course, yes! The important thing is to keep the conversation going. He reads and reads and reads and then takes naps and reads some more. He regrets not traveling to Prague with his best friend from undergrad when he had the chance (God, his thin wrists are so fucking attractive. Her mother once told her that men with thin wrists are better kissers because they’re more evolved. It’s something she read in a book). His favorite scene from any movie ever is the last few minutes of Manhattan when the Woody Allen character lists reasons not to blow his head off: the existence of the Marx Brothers, jazz, his lover’s face. He takes a breath. “But wait, what do you do?”

Evie considers making something up. She could be a private detective or the amateur photographer hired by the private detective. She says, “I work in a law firm.” His face falls. “But I am extremely unethical.” He perks up again. She confesses to reading the divorce files at work. She has access to them, technically, yes, but only to fit them alphabetically into the file cabinet. But often now, when Mark Becker, Esquire, goes to court or to lunch or to the dry cleaner’s to pick up his suit for the next day, Evie waves goodbye, counts to twenty, and then opens the files to read the personal information of the clients, all written in MB’s neatly blocked script; all the evidence needed for the divorce proceedings.

“What kind of evidence?” Her confession has not caused him to make a face like someone biting into a mealy apple. For this, too, she might love him.

“Evidence as to why his client should get everything accumulated over the course of the relationship. Including the toothbrushes.” She describes the diary the wife kept in Vitullo vs. Vitullo. It detailed the wife’s unrequited crush on the director of their church choir, and also how her husband kept old issues of Playboy underneath the bathroom sink, magazines their 10-year-old son could have found at any time. On March 15 of last year, Mr. Vitullo called Mrs. Vitullo a son of a bitch at Denny’s in front of the Sunday brunch crowd. He played his 78 of “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” so many times that the neighbors phoned the cops. The complaints went on for three more pages. Most files are like that, long laundry lists of small things. It’s not always huge catastrophes that split them apart, not torrid affairs or child abuse or alcoholism, but something else; a slow, mundane animosity that sprouts from knowing another person too intimately for too long.

The room has thinned to only a few bedraggled moms and dads milling around here and there with wigs askew and smeared lipstick. The hostess flips the lights on and off. “All parents please report home to check on the children.”

“I should go,” Evie takes a last hard sip of red wine, hoping it hasn’t turned her teeth cranberry colored. He nods.

“Just wait for me for one second,” she says and ducks into the bathroom.

Her face in the mirror is startling, too pale and there are dark purplish circles under the eyes. She doesn’t appear glamorous; she looks frightened, as if someone has just threatened to punch her. She narrows her eyes, practices a better smile, one belonging to a starlet. She rummages through the medicine cabinet and finds a pair of scissors. She pulls down a long section of hair at the front of her head and cuts it quickly. The hair springs back, short. Now she has bangs. Or a bang. She snips a section off the other side. The two sides are uneven. She tries again. Dark hair falls into the sink in question mark shapes. Someone knocks on the door. She takes a few last hacks. She hasn’t had bangs since was twelve and there’s a reason. They make her face look bare, her eyes even bigger, like a real life replica of one of those horrible children in a Walter Keane velvet painting. The person outside pounds the door. “Hurry up or you’re grounded!”

When she comes out of the bathroom, Hippie Dad has vanished into the night, lost, gone on the road with his band maybe. She knew it. She knew it. She can’t pull this off. She starts for the door and nearly bumps into him as he rounds the corner with two paper cups in his hands. “Your hair!” he exclaims, taking a step back.

“Let’s go,” she says. She walks away without glancing back, hoping, please God, that he’s following and that when she turns around, he will still be there with her. And miraculously, he is.

In the cab, Evie nods and tries to laugh at the right places as he’s telling her a story about his uncle who breeds Bichon Frise’s. She makes a hurried mental survey of the state of her apartment as she last left it. Did she pick her underwear up off the floor after her shower? Are there neon signs of weirdness in plain sight such as the paper dolls she bought on impulse last week and cut out while listening to the audio version of In Cold Blood narrated by Robert Blake?

The apartment won’t be too, too bad, because she’s taken to keeping it presentable, due to a recent Saturday late night marathon of a true-life crime series on A&E that showed colored photos of dead people’s homes. They didn’t reveal the bodies, but it was still deeply disturbing to witness the way some people lived; with garbage bags piled around or stacks of decade-old Better Homes and Gardens or pizza boxes; rooms that looked like the occupants had given up at some point and said screw it, I’ll just live with the dog shit on the floor. If Evie is found murdered in her apartment, she wants the place to at least look presentable. She imagines the detective shaking his big lovely head and saying, “What a shame that the life of such a nice, clean, well-organized girl had to come to an end such as this.” It’s a comforting way to live, picking up her underwear and socks, half-thinking about the detective and how impressed he’d be with her.

But now they are in front of her apartment. When Evie glances at the front of her building, she sees a fuzzy round figure sitting on the brick planter by the two doors. Her heart zigzags. Her mother! Her mother with her brown suitcase and sewing basket! But then the person moves and she sees it’s not her mother at all, but the old bald man from 2-C who appears periodically to smoke cigarettes and pace along the sidewalk in the dark.

Hippie Dad seems to be waiting for Evie to speak. In the dark of the cab, his face looks young and cavernous. “Isn’t that terrible?” he says.

As with Adopted Guy, Evie has lost the thread of his story. She shakes her head sympathetically. She hopes that’s the response he wants. “That is a shame.”

“I know. The entire face was just, like, gone.”

The cabbie says “I never trusted little dogs,” and Hippie Dad pays and they are on their way.

He walks up the stairs behind her. She jumps when he touches the small of her back as though to stop her if she starts to fall.

Once inside, they stand in the middle of the room, looking around her apartment together. She thought she was living wittily, being brave, starting over, no furniture to move besides a few things from college and an old brown sofa of her mom’s. Everything else has come from the Brown Elephant thrift store or been found on sidewalks, other people’s discarded furniture, including a wooden crate with “Bombay India” written in black ink on the side. She’s covered that in pictures cut from magazines; a collage of children, animals, women from the 50’s, a giant pair of lips, a cartoon man in a hat running from a speeding train. She has hung aprons up as curtains and nailed a rusty bicycle wheel rim to the wall for art. Now, she views her place for the first time as a stranger might. It doesn’t look interesting or eclectic at all. It looks sad and desperate to please, like a performing monkey in a tiny red hat.

Hippie Dad pulls off his wig. His hair is blond and curly and beautiful. He says, “I love your apartment. It’s so you.” He excuses himself to go to the bathroom.

The message light on the answering machine blinks three times in rapid succession, like a warning on a heart monitor. Evie throws a dishtowel over it and then unplugs the phone and tosses it in the oven.

She’s never had anyone stay over, with the exception of her ex-boyfriend from Iowa. That had been a disaster. The moment she saw his puffy, sweet face as he exited the airport terminal, she remembered why she couldn’t be with him–not someone so open and vulnerable, a person too much like herself or her mother to be of much help. As a couple, they could never make a decision, always deferring to the other person. Do you want to go see that movie? I don’t know. Do you? I don’t know. Do you want to just rent a movie? Only if you do. They’d stumble through life together in a series of indecisive moments that left them treading water in circles around each other until both were exhausted.

She feels very pleased with herself to have Hippie Dad in her apartment. She wants to tell her story to someone; have the person say, Do you know how dangerous that is? Did anyone see you leave with him? Did you even catch his last name? But it doesn’t feel dangerous. It feels like something she has to do.

They talk and talk and talk and Evie’s cat sits calmly on his lap. He pets the cat gently and absentmindedly. Evie tries not to interpret this motion to be a sign of what he’d be like in bed. They must tell each other everything, searching for some mystic parallels. Evie has to stop herself from crooning, Me too! every time he boldly claims that he loves something (the Ramones) or despises something (people who don’t know how to parallel park). Love the death penalty? Me too! Hate babies? Me too! She is not herself. All of her opinions have vanished in the night like so much smoke. She’s not even sure if she likes him.

It’s slipping away from them, the joking flirtation from the party. They start to cover mundane topics with the utmost seriousness. The winter hasn’t been so bad this year. No, it really hasn’t, has it?

“Wow, this is a really interesting space.” His eyes scan the room and he drums his fingers on his jeans. The more he talks, the more he slips into his dad hippie character.

She too seems to be acting more like her mother. She keeps jumping up to offer him things. Do you want chamomile tea? Are you hungry? I have cookies. Any second now, she’s going to lose herself completely and bring him a stiff drink, the newspaper, and offer to give him a foot massage.

“Would you like a glass of water?" He nods. She stands, a little wobbly in her heels, and goes into the kitchen. When she turns around, he wavers in the doorway, blocking the light from the living room. Then they’re kissing. "You’re tall," she says during a pause.

"It’s in my genetic make-up." He tugs at the collar of her dress. His mouth feels soft but not too soft, tongue wet but not too wet, and his arms around her waist urgent but not too urgent. She’s becoming distracted trying to remember which fairy tale this thought reminds her of, which in turn makes her think of the story of Hansel and Gretel and the wicked witch. And that reminds her of the oven and the phone in her own stove, a white and secret thing, waiting.

His mouth finds her ear. “So, what’s with the widow costume?” he whispers.

Evie feels her spine straighten, her fingers go cold.

When her mother called to say her stepdad had died, Evie felt a stabbing pain in the palm of her hand, where she’d always felt her sharpest grief. The pain wasn’t for him. She would miss him, probably, at some point, regret that they were never close, never said I love you or did any of the father-daughter things recommended by family therapists. Instead, when she heard that he was gone, she couldn’t stop thinking, Mom, mom, mom. She missed her so much in that moment.

She misses her still.

Evie steps out of her shoes and kicks them across the kitchen floor. She wishes there were someone to tell her what to do next. All that matters now is that he’s watching her. She’ll take him to her room. She will be someone else; someone who is not afraid of the dark or of being touched by another person. She will do whatever he wants. She will be amazing. Wonderful, even. A wonderful girl, at last. Aimee LaBrie’s short stories have been published in Beloit Fiction Journal, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Minnesota Review, and Eclipse, among others. "Ducklings," which appeared in Pleiades was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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