It was her silent affirmations that kept her from going completely insane. And only just barely. Becky was not cut out for this work. She didn’t deserve it.
She leaned back into the sofa. The top button of her jeans pressed into her waist and lodged itself into a gruesome belly fold — a fold that hadn’t been there before the baby. Becky lifted her eyes and gave her student — the slim and lithesome Skylar — a hateful glare.
“Better try that again,” Becky said and braced herself.
Skylar opened her mouth to draw a breath.
Becky clenched her teeth. There was simply no denying it. Standing there, in Becky’s almost-finished basement game room, under her luxurious and ridiculous curls — Becky couldn’t deny it — Skylar looked beautiful. Like a choir girl in some Hollywood movie about gorgeous choir girls.
But looks were all she had — the contemptible little witch.
Skylar belted out, no, screeched out a scale. It was only a simple scale! But Skylar ruined it, choked on it. Every muscle in Becky’s body cringed. She, a classically-trained voice performer, had to listen to this? This haughty and untalented little Homecoming Queen? She just did not deserve it.
“Stop,” Becky said.
Skylar’s evil, dolly mouth snapped shut.
Skylar took a deep nasal breath and turned her clear, dewy eyes toward the air ducts of Becky’s basement ceiling. No doubt she thought her teacher a ridiculous shrew: over-demanding and snooty; a perfectionist and termagant.
But so what? Wouldn’t Skylar be well served by a dose of perfectionism regarding anything other than the application of her vixen mascara and apple blossom scent?
Becky’s eyes fell to the dryer on the other side of the room. The machine was fully-exposed; not even hidden by a door. It served as a constant reminder that this was not the studio Becky imagined she would find herself in, when she hooked up with the beautiful guitar-playing rock-star of a man, Tommy, three years ago. This was certainly no recording studio, the unblinking drying machine told her. This was no gig. This was a basement game room, in a house they could barely afford — and an unfinished game room at that.
Becky imagined stuffing the gorgeous and ghastly Skylar into the drying machine, pressing the button and listening to whirl of hot air and the girl’s head thunk thunking soothingly against the metal walls. How had it come to this? Herself giving music lessons to a girl like that, all for thirty lousy dollars? It was absurd. But she and Tommy needed the money that Skylar’s delusional momma would pay; and so Becky gulped down her anger and envy and resentment and made herself say, “Take a breath and try again.”
The ever-vapid Skylar raised one eyebrow. An expression that asked without asking, “Is your temper tantrum finished? Are you ready to see my beauty and talent now?”
Becky sighed. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Skylar began bleating out a scale. When she reached the long note, the metal of the air duct vibrated, its frequency finally found.
“Stop,” Becky cried. “Just stop.” She plowed her hand through messy hair. “Jesus. Did you practice even once this week?”
Skylar stood perfectly composed and still. Her cherub-like lips turned slightly upward, hinting toward a smile. “Of course I did.”
“Becky,” Tom called from upstairs, “I can’t find a binky.”
“You can’t find your own head!” Becky snapped and immediately regretted it. Poor Tom couldn’t help it. “I’m in the middle of a lesson down here, Honey,” she added to soften the comment, but knew it wasn’t enough. Then, as if on cue, baby Nigel started crying. Becky closed her eyes and blew some air threw her nose.
“Skylar,” Becky said, opening her eyes. “I’ll be right back. I want to hear you running scales until I come back down.”
Skylar cast her blue eyes down at Becky, like some royal bird of prey. Looked at her over her button nose and under her kohl black eyelashes like a royal falcon; like an old king’s favorite pet: so serenely indignant, so elegantly pissed-off.
Becky threw herself forward to get out of the sofa. “I want those scales, Skylar, starting now!”
Skylar started the scales. Becky started up the stairs. For a brief second, half-way up, Becky could hear them all: Baby Nigel crying, ghastly Skylar screeching, and Tom, dear dear Tom, opening and closing drawers in desperate search of a binky. Becky realized this sad cacophony had somehow become the soundtrack of her life, and she wanted to cry, or die. Die or cry. Either, perhaps, or both.
By the time Becky reached the top of the basement stairs, Skylar had already stopped singing; had already dipped her hand into her jeans pocket, Becky had seen, and removed a tube of gloss. The silly, stupid thing. “Goddamn her,” Becky muttered emerging into a cramped kitchen.
Tommy handed the crying Nigel to Becky. Nigel immediately stopped crying.
Becky sat down in one of the decrepit kitchen chairs — cheap 15 years ago before it was handed-down to her from Aunt Jo — and felt her anger collapsing to despair, felt the torn vinyl of the seat cushion cutting into her thighs.
Nigel spit up on her shoulder.
“You’d better stay up here with the kid,” Tommy said. “I can help Skylar with the rest of her lesson.”
Tommy descended the stairs.
Becky pressed her cheek against Nigel’s head, smelled baby powder and puke, and waited to hear Skylar’s shrill scales. But the scales didn’t come. Instead she heard laughter: Skylar’s laughter and Tommy’s, like two old pals. Becky grimaced.
Becky stood up with Nigel and walked back to the baby’s room. She lay Nigel in the crib and grabbed a Pooh-bear rag, dabbed at the spittle Nigel left on her blouse.
The baby’s room had hard-wood floors and the register was open to guide up some heat. Tommy and Skylar’s gentle rolling laughter traveled through the register grate as well. “Oh, Tommy,” Skylar gleefully giggled, “you’re too much.”
Becky stamped her foot on the floor in warning and in rage, acutely aware that there were only six years between them, that Skylar no longer fell into the category of jail-bait. Nigel whimpered at the noise, but no one else seemed to care.
“But don’t you miss the band?” Skylar said, and Becky wondered if she would dare touch his arm with that saccharine concern tone in her voice.
“No,” he said gently.
“Really?” Skylar gushed, “You really could be a star.”
Tommy made a little laugh and Becky imagined he blushed. Would this girl, this trollop, this choir-girl strumpet ever stop?
“Oh. There will be time for that later,” he said.
“Really?” Skylar pressed. “You don’t need her. That’s for sure. You could leave her and become a star.”
And Tommy started to laugh. Not loudly and not meanly; but indulgently, as if at a frivolous child. “Skylar,” he said, “there’s more important things then being a star in my life now.”
And that was all it took. The bubble of hurt and envy, exasperation and rage around Becky’s heart popped. Just like that, it popped. And she felt her eyes go all mushy and soft.
Nigel started to fuss more loudly, and Becky grabbed the binky off the corner of the bassinet. She picked up Nigel and began to soothe him and to hum.
Skylar, apparently also able to hear clearly the other voices in the house, noticed Becky’s lullaby. Noticed immediately that she was being upstaged; that she was being out-sung, her seat of momentary power as the star in the house usurped. And as Becky walked toward the basement and down the stairs, Skylar desperately launched into that same tired and stale old scale. It was as hideous as ever.
But this time, Becky did not tell her to stop. This time Becky strode across the basement, baby Nigel in her arms and puke on her blouse, past that beautiful man who smiled at her from the couch, and poked Nigel’s binky right into Skylar’s mouth.