Janine came home while we were sitting in the kitchen. Ziggy excused himself to bed and Janine took his place at the table.
“Here.” I got up and retrieved a tea cup for her, and then poured some from the pot. “How was work?”
“All right.” She accepted the cup somewhat warily.
“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s a peace offering, not a trap.”
She was startled into laughter. “How did you know what I was thinking?”
“That’s what I was thinking earlier today when Claire made coffee. I was looking around for the box of arsenic.”
She put her hand over her mouth to keep quiet, then said, “You’re not like I remember.”
“What do you remember?”
She looked at me, tapping the side of her cup with her fingers. “I remember you being so quiet we thought maybe you were retarded.”
“I was just repressed,” I said.
“And now look at you.” She didn’t mean it in a good way. Her expression was kind of scathing, in fact. “I guess you’re not repressed anymore.”
“I might’ve gotten un-repressed sooner if I hadn’t been bullied mercilessly as a child,” I said, not bothering to add: by my own older sisters.
“Oh, like that would’ve helped?” She shook her head. “If ever there was a kid wearing a ‘kick me’ sign, it was you.”
“What are you saying?”
“It was obvious you were going to get picked on,” she said, without elaborating.
“Oh, you mean because other kids thought I was queer? Is that what you mean? And if I had come out sooner, that would have meant, what? Even worse bullying?”
She nodded. “Obviously.”
Something clicked. That was how she thought. That was how I must’ve thought once upon a time, too. When I was terrified people would look at me and know I was gay, isn’t that exactly what I was thinking? That if I made it obvious, things would be even worse?
But guess what: they weren’t worse. At least, not in my world. Wasn’t that the whole point of escaping small town suburbia in the first place? “If I was ripe to be bullied at school it was because I was softened up for it at home,” I said.
She didn’t seem to hear me blaming her for that. “And is that what turned you into what you are today? Now you’re some kind of counter-culture freak but I guess it’s cool because you’re supposedly famous.” She shrugged and gestured at me. “If you come to church tomorrow, let me tell you, I’m never going to hear the end of how I brought a devil-worshiper with me.”
“Oh come on. With red streaks in your hair, and your hair down to here? That’s the pure definition of freak in these parts. Like… people will hide their children’s faces.” She took a sip of the tea but she looked like what she really wanted was a cigarette. I could smell the smoke on her, but there was no sign that anyone smoked in the house. I wondered if she let herself smoke in her car, or on breaks from work.
“Does that mean you do or don’t want me to go to church with you?”
Her jaw hung open like that hadn’t been what she was expecting me to say. She eventually answered, “I wasn’t expecting you to.”
“And what about Claire?”
“Oh, jeez.” She rolled her eyes. “Mom expects a lot of things, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that trying to live up to all her expectations is impossible.”
“That isn’t even the half of it. How about the fact that she expects everyone to fail to live up to her expectations, so if you actually succeed at anything, you disappoint her?” She raised an eyebrow at me.
The familiar sinking feeling went down cold and uncomfortable, like when you swallow an ice cube by accident. “Yeah. I know what you mean.”
“Once I figured out there’s literally no pleasing her, and I stopped trying, things got better for me.” Her fingers fluttered nervously around the edge of the cup.
“Do you want a cigarette?”
“God, yes. Do you–?”
“I don’t actually smoke. But if you want to go outside I’ll come with you.”
She looked at me tiredly. “Okay. Come on.”
We put on coats and she led me through the dining room to the back deck, which I hadn’t noticed before. There wasn’t much of a yard because of how the hill behind the house turned steep, covered in pine trees–or some kind of evergreens, anyway. I’m a guitarist, not a botanist.
She had a stash of cigarettes out there in a cookie tin, the lid partly rusted shut, with a lighter. It was damp and chilly, but we sat with our backs against the house. There was no patio furniture or anything like that.
She took a couple of drags and I waited for her to start talking again.
“So when’d you quit trying to please her?” I prompted.
“When I decided to divorce Jake. Landon was a baby. I had thought, you know, having a grandchild was something she really wanted. I mean, how many times did she tell me I had to do this or that to get a husband who could provide for me and be a good father to my children, blah blah? That’s how it’s supposed to work. Be pretty, snare Mr. Right, get married, have kids.”
“It won’t surprise you she never said anything like that to me.”
“Yeah, of course not. But of course I snared Mr Wrong in her opinion, which meant I hadn’t been good enough or pretty enough or whatever, so there was endless criticism. And I think I was trying so hard to convince myself what she said was crap that I ignored that sometimes she was right.”
“Claire did have some experience with Mr. Wrong.”
“Yeah. Twice.” She took a deep drag of the cigarette and then blew smoke in the direction of the trees. “You know what I found out recently?”
“She got pregnant with Lili before she and dad were married.”
“Yeah, I knew that.”
She looked at me sharply, like how the hell did I know that? “Did Courtney tell you that?”
“No, Remo. I also know she lost her shot at a career as a Broadway singer when that happened.”
“Yeah. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?”
She crushed out the cigarette against the brick foundation of the house. “No, actually. No, it doesn’t. Why the hell would you teach your kids that they should get married and have kids if that wasn’t what you wanted to do yourself?”
“Um, because you convinced yourself that was what you wanted to do even though it wasn’t?”
She laughed bitterly. “Now that makes sense. Our mother is a stone cold bitch drowning in her own bile. Literally, I guess.”
“Is that what the pancreas does?”
“Hell if I know.” She heaved herself up to one knee and stood slowly. “God, look at me. I put on all this weight when I quit smoking. Sixty pounds. I could lose it again if I went back to smoking two packs a day, but I don’t want to die of lung cancer and I don’t want to give it to Landon, either.” She reached down to give me a hand up.
Before she let go of my hand, though, she asked, “Why are you here?”
I decided to give the answer I hadn’t before. “Because Ziggy said if I didn’t come, he’d have my balls. He seems to think if I didn’t show up, I’d regret it for the rest of my life.”
“And also because Remo asked me to. He could use the support.”
“You and he are close, huh?”
Where to start about that? If she didn’t know that we toured the country together or that he basically raised me when we were kids or that I was his son’s godfather…? I settled for saying, “Yeah. You could say that.”
She had a hand on the sliding door into the house but didn’t open it. “Look. I don’t want to seem like a bitch. It hasn’t been easy getting where I am. And I don’t mean being a single mom who’s one missed car payment away from having to move back in with my ex. I mean being a person who’s left a lot of bullshit and emotional baggage behind. To do it I’ve had to push a lot of shit away. Claire told me you’re a bigger deal than I thought. That’s great for you, but I still don’t want your money.”
It was cold out there and at that point I mostly just wanted to get back in bed with Ziggy and warm the hell up. But I recognized she was speaking from the heart. “Janine. I’m not here to make your life harder or more complicated. But money’s just money.”
“Money is never just money.”
I shrugged. “You said you have to draw a line somewhere. I’m not rich, not like Remo. But I’m paying for Courtney’s college education and if I’m going to try to be the good houseguest here or anything like that? I could at least help pay some house expenses. Let me buy a Christmas tree at least, if you want it. I could get some groceries.”
She didn’t say yes. But she didn’t say no, either. “I’ll think about it.”
Then we went inside and I had a lot to think about.