She needed jeans, Robin said, but in Saks she wandered off to the make-up counter. Maddie hung back near the escalator to give them both some breathing room. The first few days of her daughter’s spring break visit had been disappointing. On Saturday, Robin stayed out late with friends then slept past noon. She only emerged to eat a bowl of cereal, the milky dregs left in the sink for Maddie as though she were the family cat. In fact, she felt like Robin’s pet, alternately neglected and coddled, spoken to in patronizing tones. They were a family in transition, and although she understood this was normal, she grieved for the way things used to be. This trip to the mall was an olive branch of sorts, but she was beginning to think she was holding the shit end of the stick.
She checked her cell. Two messages from her new client, a former Mister America finalist, opening a gym called Body Language. It was the only language he spoke, apparently, because his copy changes, if she agreed to them, would render his brochure illiterate. She was about to return his call when she had the uneasy feeling she was being watched. At the Bobbi Brown counter across the way, a pink-smocked saleswoman was standing idle, looking for all the world like a jilted lover. Her hopeful smile wrenched something inside of Maddie. She dropped her phone into her purse and crossed over to the lipstick display, a grandstand of pastel rockets.
“Our spring colors,” said the saleswoman whose nametag read: Katie. Her tone and inflection placed her somewhere in Robin’s age range, though her heavy make-up made her appear much older. Under her watchful eye, Maddie selected a mauve lipstick from the display. She drew a line on the back of her hand; the sight of her wrinkly, dry skin with the bright stripe of lipstick depressed her.
“It’s absolutely perfect,” the kid said, leaning across the counter for a better look. “This season’s palette is all about softness and understatement.”
She replaced the lipstick. “On second thought, I think I’ll pass.”
She found her daughter at the Estee Lauder counter. Robin held out her arm. “Who does this remind you of?”
She sniffed the inside of her daughter’s wrist where the veins made a blue pitchfork. “My mother.” How tired she felt all of a sudden. On Christmas day, her parents had announced that they were separating after fifty-one years of marriage. Her first reaction was that they didn’t have the right; their marriage did not belong to them alone. But after she recovered from the shock, she recognized that wasn’t true.
Maddie became aware of the saleswoman, a voluptuous olive-skinned woman who looked to be in her early twenties, openly watching them–her lips parted, her eyes glazed–as though they were a YouTube presentation.
“I thought you needed jeans,” Maddie said, eager to leave.
“You were busy with your phone,” Robin said, in a lowered tone.
“I was waiting for you–”
“Let’s go then.” Robin walked away and she scrambled to catch up. They wended their way through the funhouse-like displays of glass counters and angled mirrors. Either Robin’s moods had become wildly unpredictable or else Maddie no longer knew her daughter. To lighten things up, she said, “I was looking at the spring colors. Supposedly, it’s all about softness and understatement.”
“What did you get?” Robin said.
“Nothing. I don’t wear much make-up.”
Robin looked at her closely. “Maybe you should.”
“Why tamper with perfection?” She tried to keep her tone light, but she was hurt. She stole a peek at herself in the magnified mirror at the Bobbi Brown counter as they passed. She did look tired, and, well, a bit faded, too. “Let’s get lunch,” she said.
“What do you mean, lunch? Let me look for a pair of jeans first, okay?” Robin said. “Isn’t that why we came in here?”
She didn’t trust herself to answer in a civilized way. She thought about how it felt to pass by Robin’s room every morning, to see the neatly made bed piled with calico pillows, and she bit her tongue.
Robin stopped to look through a long rack of jeans; the hangers shrieked against the metal rod. Maddie stood off to the side, feeling lightheaded. Low blood sugar, she figured, and fished inside her pocketbook for mints. She found a linty Lifesaver but couldn’t bring herself to put it in her mouth. At the bottom of her bag, her cell was blinking again. She thought of her desk piled up with half-finished projects and she began to perspire.
“Almost ready?” She looked at her watch.
“What’s your rush?” Robin said.
“Sorry,” she said. “I’ve got deadlines.”
“Don’t blame me. Shopping was your idea. Remember?” Robin pivoted with an armload of denim in the direction of a saleswoman with purple eyeglasses. “Excuse me, could you please tell me where the changing rooms are?” Robin’s tone was so sweet and courteous that she had trouble believing it was the same girl who had just snapped at her.
In silence, they walked in the direction the saleswoman indicated. Maddie fell onto the bench, her back to the three-way mirror, and dropped the shopping bags at her feet. Robin disappeared into one of the rooms, slamming the door behind her. In six days, her daughter would return to school and Maddie would be brokenhearted. No matter how many times she reminded herself of this, it didn’t seem possible.
Robin came out of the changing room wearing a pair of low-cut jeans. “What do you think?” She swiveled to look at her backside in the mirror. Her hipbones protruded above the waistband. Maddie did not understand this look. The hiphuggers she’d worn in her teens had accentuated the soft rise of a woman’s abdomen. They were sensuous and friendly. This look was hard, almost aggressively provocative.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Aren’t they uncomfortable?”
“If they were, I wouldn’t want to buy them.” Robin performed a deep knee bend.
“But your pubic hair is practically showing.” It was out before she had a chance to censor herself. “You asked for my opinion, and that’s it.”
“Forget it.” Robin straightened up with some difficulty. “I don’t even know why I asked. You’re too old to know what’s in style anyway.” She disappeared inside the changing room, slamming the door again.
She blinked back tears. She couldn’t believe it. Was she really going to cry? She pinched the inside corners of her eyes with her thumb and forefinger. Get a grip on yourself, she thought. She took a few deep breaths before opening her eyes. She stared at the louvered door in front of her until the slats blurred and her mind became a blank.
A moment later, the door opened and Robin came out in a pair of Levis like the pair Maddie wore. “You probably love these,” she said.
Maddie stared at her without expression.
“Don’t tell me you’re mad.”
“Okay, I won’t.”
“I’m sorry, okay? I take it back. You’re not too old.” Robin turned halfway and ran her hand over the back pocket. “These are okay. Can I get them?”
“Yeah, sure. Whatever.”
“I said I was sorry.” Robin returned to the changing room, shoulders slumped.
Maddie got up and bent over for her shopping bags; when she straightened she was confronted with a triple reflection of herself. She looked sallow and drawn, a dried husk of herself.
Robin was talking about her friend, Jenny Van Horn, again. They were eating tuna fish sandwiches at the kitchen table. A warm breeze came through the window, lifted their paper napkins. The girl worked on commission and was making tons of money at Cole Haan. That morning, Jenny had stopped at the house before work to show off her “new” 2006 red Trans Am.
Now, Robin sighed. “I wish I didn’t have to go back to school,” she said.
“Don’t tell me you’re jealous of Jenny.”
Robin crossed her arms over her chest; she reminded Maddie of the headstrong toddler she once was. At times, raising this girl, she’d felt as though she was taming a wild animal. Her goal had been to civilize her without breaking her admirable spirit. She was not sure she’d succeeded in either.
Robin said, “I think she’s brave for doing something different. Her job sounds fun. Her boss is young, twenty-six; he’s into the same bands. They go to concerts and stuff.”
She pushed back her chair and looked at her daughter. “All right, what’s going on?”
“Nothing.” Robin looked down at the table. After a moment, she said, “School’s harder than I expected.”
“What do you mean? Your grades were great last semester.”
“I busted my ass to get them. I couldn’t so much as blink or my grades would slip. It wasn’t like this in high school. All the teachers knew me as a good student. Now I have to keep proving myself.”
“That’s pretty much how life works,” she said with growing irritation. She was having trouble taking her daughter’s complaint seriously. She and Andrew had provided her with a bank account and a credit card, so she did not have to suffer the hardships they’d endured. He had risked his life working nights and weekends at Farrell Liquors in downtown Newark to pay his expenses at NJIT, while she had earned her rent and textbook money waiting tables in a humiliating wench’s costume at the Friar Tuck Catering Hall in Brooklyn. They’d both graduated with honors.
“Okay, listen.” She softened her tone; it didn’t take much to lose Robin’s attention these days. “I understand your frustration. But it’s the price you pay to stay in the game. Take this brochure I’m writing now–” She shifted in her chair; the mere mention of her half-finished project made her anxious. “The guy who hired me knows I can write because he’s seen my work, but I still have to show him that I can sell his particular business.”
“Doesn’t that suck? I mean to have this guy put you in his little box—” Robin pitched her voice higher—“where you have to perform like some kind of teeny tiny circus flea?”
“I don’t think of myself as being in a box.” She took a bite of her sandwich and realized she’d lost her appetite. She chewed and swallowed with difficulty. “Anyway, after I finish this guy’s job, I’m done with him. That’s the beauty of being a freelancer.”
“But, isn’t a freelancer just a flea who jumps from box to box?”
“Don’t you think Jenny’s a flea, too?” she snapped. “She’s got to punch a time clock every day. How else is she going to make the payments on that shiny red car?”
Robin’s eyes rolled back in her head. Maddie looked out the window to collect herself. All morning, two masons had been setting a stone façade on the new terrace. The older mason was shouting directions at the younger one, a stocky young man of about twenty, in a language she couldn’t identify. His tone was sharp-edged like a trowel. She understood from the start that they were father and son. We have more patience with strangers than our own children, she thought. She got up from the table.
“Where’re you going?” Robin said. She looked worried.
“Well, I guess I’m going back into my box to perform a few more back flips.”
“Oh, don’t be that way, Mom. I didn’t mean to insult you.”
“You didn’t. I’ve just got a lot of work to do.” It wasn’t true; she felt on the verge of tears again. She deposited her plate into the dishwasher then went into her study and closed the door.
Maddie was working when Andrew came home at six. He popped into her office, holding the mail. His sleeves were rolled back on his strong forearms and his hair looked raked through. The smell of his sweat and his spicy deodorant aroused her.
“Well, hello there, Mr. Freund.”
He didn’t look up from the mail. “You wouldn’t believe my day.”
“You look nice. I like you in that blue shirt.”
“Huh?” He was studying a phone bill like it was an odd-shaped puzzle piece he needed to fit into their muddled financial picture. The college tuition payments had thrown everything out of balance. She turned back to her keyboard.
“What’s for dinner?” he said after a moment.
“Don’t know. I’ve asked Robin to cook, so I can make some headway on this brochure.”
“Uh-oh, we’re in trouble.”
The affection in his tone made her turn to look at him.
“It’s nice having her home,” he said, looking her in the eye for a change. “It’s too quiet around here without her.”
“Yeah,” she said, not wanting to contradict him. For months, it seemed, they’d been talking to each other through static. With Robin home, they had a clearer connection. “Maybe we could go back to Boston with her,” she said. “You know, get our own dorm room.”
“Wouldn’t she just love that?” A smile of understanding passed between them. He went out to help Robin in the kitchen, and she returned to work. Through the half-opened door, she was able to follow their conversation in the silences between cabinet doors slamming and pots banging. Her husband and daughter were noisy people. She had learned to tiptoe and crouch and whisper from an early age. Her father’s newspaper deadlines had elbowed his family’s laughter and conversation right out of the house.
Robin and Andrew were talking about a reality TV show where a woman chooses a husband from a group of masked men, the premise being, she gathered, that beauty was skin deep. It was not a bad idea, but she could not bring herself to watch it. Now he groaned when Robin said that all men wore some kind of mask anyway, since they were so uncommunicative. She stopped typing to listen.
“You’re wrong. That’s women,” he said. “They say everything’s fine when it’s so obvious they’re pissed off at you. With men, you get what you see.”
Robin laughed. “That’s not good news.”
In the silence that followed Maddie thought about her parents, about their squabbles and jagged silences. Two months after their Christmas announcement, they sold their Upper East Side apartment and moved to separate ends of Manhattan. It all seemed to happen so fast, but as Andrew had reminded her, it had been brewing for years. In the relative peace that followed, she was able to admit they seemed happier apart. But Robin refused to believe it. “It’s not natural,” she’d said. “Your grandparents are supposed to live together. Forever.”
Something crashed in the kitchen. Her husband laughed, and then he said, “So are you seeing anyone at school?”
Maddie grimaced, anticipating her daughter’s stony silence, or worse, her smart-ass reply.
Robin said, “There is one guy I hang out with.”
“Oh, good,” he said. “That’s cool.” And then, he changed the subject to the Red Sox. What were their chances this season? Maybe he and Robin could take in a game before school was out?
Maddie shook her head, disgusted. What a coward he was. Why hadn’t he pressed for more details? Shouldn’t they know whom Robin was spending time with, especially if he was the one who was making her question the worth of a college education?
She turned back to her keyboard. It was getting late. Shadows fell across her desk. She switched on the halogen lamp and typed in its soft halo: State-of-the-art equipment will sculpt a new you in a matter of months. What happened to the old you? Did it live beneath the glossy surface like a bumpy, fly-specked layer of old paint? In the kitchen, the water had been running for so long, she wondered if they’d forgotten to turn off the tap.
She got up and went out to the kitchen where the smell of onions and peppers was so strong it was almost palpable. Robin was sautéing strips of beef in a frying pan while he set the table. They broke off their conversation and looked at her.
“How’s the brochure coming?” He folded a paper napkin in half.
“Not good.” She turned off the water. “Didn’t you hear this running?”
“Sorry.” Robin turned from the stove. “Are we making too much noise?”
“You could close your door,” he said.
She just shook her head and went to the refrigerator for a bottle of water. She expected them to resume their conversation–she hoped they would–but a heavy silence pervaded the room.
“Dinner will be ready in about ten minutes,” Robin said, touching her arm. “Why don’t you go back to the drawing board and try again?” Her daughter’s touch, Maddie knew, was meant to dissolve the tension between them.
“Thanks,” she said. “I will.”
“We’ll be quieter. Right, Dad?” Robin turned to her father. “He’s the big mouth in here.”
She turned to look at him, sipping her water.
“Me?” he said, breaking into a grin. “You screech when you talk. You sound like Minnie Mouse on crack.”
“Do not!” Robin said, throwing a dishtowel at his head. “You sound like … like … Goofy on Prozac, then.”
She slipped out of the room as they were snapping at each other with dishtowels. They didn’t register her leaving.
Maddie was working on Mister America’s brochure when Tiffany, the gynecologist’s nurse, called to say that her recent scan showed she had a low bone mass condition.
That’s not possible, Maddie argued; she was a long-distance runner and non-smoker; she drank calcium-fortified orange juice every morning.
“The results don’t lie,” Tiffany assured her in a haughty tone. “A lot of women your age have it.”
“Shouldn’t Dr. Butler be telling me this?” She had gotten the sense in the last five years (ever since she passed out of her childbearing years) that her gynecologist had lost interest in her. There was silence on the other end of the line. Outside her window, the older mason was pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with stones across the lawn to where his son was finishing up the façade on the new terrace. His tanned compact muscles bulged with the effort. All her life, she had assumed she would remain strong and robust into old age. There are no guarantees, she realized, and felt ashamed as though she had been caught believing in a fantasy as flimsy as the tooth fairy.
By evening, when she crawled into bed with Andrew, she was feeling fragile as though the diagnosis had penetrated her bones. Andrew lowered Scientific American and greeted her with a yawn. She couldn’t remember the last time they’d had sex, and she had no interest in it now. What was happening to her? She tugged his magazine from his hand, and tossed it on the floor.
“Hey! I wasn’t finished with that.” His scowl softened into a smile as she started to straddle him. “Who are you?” he said, pulling her down on top of him. “And, what have you done with my wife?”
She felt the heat of his skin and her body relaxed into his. He kissed and stroked her breasts until she grabbed his hand and guided it between her legs. A knock at the door made them jump apart.
“Mom? Are you in there? Can I borrow your blow dryer? Mine just broke.”
They looked at each other, smiling and shaking their heads at the familiar scene of coitus interruptus. She got out of bed and pulled on her bathrobe. “Hold that thought,” she told him. “I’ll be right back.”
It took no more than five minutes to disentangle her blow dryer from the clutter beneath her sink and bring it to Robin’s bathroom, but when she returned Andrew was fast asleep, a string of drool glistening on his cheek.
She completed the gym brochure. But now that she was free, Robin was off playing tennis with her friend James. She went to the kitchen to make a cup of Earl Grey, and as she waited for the water to boil, she counted up the hours she’d logged on the brochure and then translated those hours into dollars. A knock at the French doors made her jump. It was the mason, his clothes streaked with dirt and sweat. It was too late to duck; he’d spotted her. She opened the door.
“Mrs. Freund, we have surprise for you,” the mason said. His son looked on, hands deep in his pockets, with what seemed to be a mixture of embarrassment and expectation.
She blinked in the sunlight, confused.
“We have surprise. Please come.” The mason motioned with a dirty, callused hand. She had no choice but to follow them across the lawn in the direction of the terrace. They had been working there since eight that morning, the mason and his son, completing the terrace floor, a geometric pattern of irregular shaped bluestone. But, now he stopped short of the terrace, and stood before the herb garden.
“Here,” he said. “I use extra stone here.”
The perimeter of the diamond-shaped herb garden was now edged in bluestone. She raised her hand to her mouth, overcome. The mason took one look at her face and bent down to pry up one of the stones. “You don’t like it? It comes out easy. See? I take it all out. No problem.”
“No!” She grabbed his thick arm and tried to pull him up, but instead she knocked him off balance. He fell backward on the grass then grunting he struggled to his feet, eyes cast downward. She realized how difficult his life must be: the hard physical labor and the demanding wealthy customers.
“It’s so beautiful,” she said, embarrassed by her tears. “I’m just so … touched. Thank you.” She turned to the son in case he needed to interpret for his father. “It’s beautiful. I’ve been meaning to do something like this for years, but I just never found the time.” The son grinned and nodded at his father, though she felt her gratitude was inadequate.
She didn’t even know their names. Andrew had been in charge of the terrace project from the beginning. For the last three weeks, she’d left pitchers of iced tea on the steps, but not once had she stopped to compliment their work. She’d been in such a hurry to return to her own work, work that now seemed so pointless and uninspiring in comparison. Robin was right: she was a teeny tiny circus flea. She’d only settled for a freelancer’s life, because it fit so neatly into the crannies of family life. A flash of bitter sorrow took her by surprise. She realized that her daughter was pointing out the flaws in her life even as she was making plans to leave it.
Robin woke with a cold. The symptoms were mild–a runny nose, a dry cough, a scratchy throat–but Andrew rooted around in the attic for the old humidifier, and Maddie ran out to the drug store for Tylenol, tissues, antihistamines, and throat lozenges.
“College kids are especially vulnerable to infection,” the white-smocked pharmacist said, and then he went on to list a number of diseases and maladies including mononucleosis, lice infestation, and viral encephalitis, as she backed away from the counter.
On the way home, she stopped in the Rockridge Deli and bought a pint of chicken soup. She was surprised to hear herself telling the owner that it was for Robin, sick with a cold.
He said, “Tell Robbie her old friend Max says get well soon.” Then he tossed a few Bazookas into the bag with a wink. “She loves bubble gum.”
“Thanks,” she croaked, feeling something collapse inside of her. She pocketed the change and hurried out of the deli where nothing had changed in the last ten years, not Max, not his yellowish gray mustache, not the warped wide-planked floorboards, not even the green chalkboard announcing the day’s specials. Outside, she stood for a moment blinking in the bright sunlight, getting her bearings, before walking to her car.
She stood in Robin’s bedroom doorway watching her pack. The blow dryer cord, stretching from the wall outlet to the night table, prevented her entry like the velvet rope at a museum exhibit. She watched Robin shove her clothes into a long black duffel while chewing and snapping bubble gum. Even her new jeans with the price tag attached, she rolled into a ball and thrust deep into the bag.
The room, so neat just a week ago, was a jumble of old food, books, and clothing. Three bath towels were balled up on the dresser. The cordless phone was balanced on top of the headboard. Calico pillows littered the floor. She did her best to ignore these things. She also fought the urge to lecture Robin on the importance of higher education, sensing that the time for speechmaking had passed.
“Why are you just standing there, staring at me?” Robin said, zipping her duffel. “You’re making me nervous.”
“I’m worried about your cold,” she said. “You don’t have to go back today. Call James and tell him you’re not coming. I’ll drive you to the train tomorrow.”
“What difference is one day going to make? Anyway, I’m fine,” Robin said, nasally. “You and Dad have to relax. It’s just a cold. I had about four of them last winter you didn’t even know about, and I survived.”
“You should let people help you,” she said.
“No offense, Mom, but you should talk.”
“What does that mean?” she said, surprised. “I don’t need any help.”
Robin stepped over the blow dryer cord and hugged her mother. “You’re so tense,” she said. Her nasal congestion made it sound like dense. “You need to loosen up a little. Laugh more.”
“I laugh,” Maddie said. “Inside where nobody can hear.”
She went downstairs and found Andrew in the garage, digging through the Rubbermaid bins. A pile of sports equipment was arrayed on the oil-stained floor: a graphite tennis racket, a bright yellow snorkel, blue fins, white ice skates with black laces, a hockey stick wrapped at the handle with unraveling black electrical tape, and a purple bicycle helmet too small for any head in the current Freund household.
He looked up when the door opened. “Robin wants her roller blades,” he said.
“They’re in the basement on the shelf near your workbench.”
He straightened, rubbing his lower back. His Martha’s Vineyard sweatshirt was streaked with dirt. “We should get rid of some of this stuff,” he said. “Don’t you think?”
“Why? Robin might still want to use it.”
“This summer,” she said. “When she comes home.”
He began loading the equipment back into the bin. “I hate this,” he said.
“Okay,” she said. “We’ll get rid of it then.”
“Not that.” He forced the lid back into place. “I mean saying good-bye to her.”
She felt a flutter of panic, a moth’s wing brushing past her. I’m not enough for him, she thought. “This is just the way it is,” she said, sounding more upbeat than she felt. “Everyone goes through this.”
James arrived in his father’s old blue Lincoln, a boat of a car. He stopped at the end of the driveway and got out. Like a ship’s captain, he saluted Maddie and Andrew who were playing basketball at the other end of the driveway, passing the time in athletic forgetfulness. She invited James to play. The boy hesitated for just a moment then pocketed his keys and took the pass from Andrew. He played halfheartedly, it seemed to her. He let her take all his rebound shots, and he waited while Andrew brought the ball to the backcourt and dribbled for what seemed like an eternity before shooting.
They had known James since he was a kindergartener and snot-nosed and pigeon-toed. She could not imagine him in a relationship with their daughter. But when Robin came through the garage into the sunlight, carrying her duffel bag, James took one look at her and flubbed his shot. He rushed to take Robin’s bag from her, and Maddie was forced to reconsider what she knew to be true.
She and Andrew stood arm in arm waving good-bye as the formerly snot-nosed and pigeon-toed James drove off with their daughter.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Andrew said, still waving.
“I’m way ahead of you.”
“Jesus Christ.” He dropped his arm from her waist and started toward the garage. He stopped before going in. “Are you coming?”
“In a minute,” she said. But she didn’t move. Long after he’d gone inside, she remained beneath the basketball net, looking up at the darkening sky, at the high drifting clouds. She felt the same inexplicable sadness she felt looking at grainy old photographs, at time captured but not held back. A car passed on the road. Tallulah barked in the next yard. She held her body still—she barely breathed—as though it were possible to slow down time through the sheer force of will.