Sunday afternoon we got good news from the motel where Remo was staying: they’d have vacancy starting in the morning.
Around the time Landon, Ziggy, and me were doing our best to eat the rest of the donuts (while they were still fresh, of course), Janine started making noise about Landon needing to sleep in the living room.
“Why?” I asked. “He won’t bother us if he’s up in the top bunk. It’s not like we’re going to keep him awa–”
The horrified look she was giving me almost made me backpedal. I did, a little, I guess, by acknowledging her discomfort: “All we’ll do is sleep, you know.”
Apparently she hadn’t realized that Ziggy and I were not sleeping in separate beds. She looked back and forth between us. “You’d get in the same bed?”
Ziggy had some chocolate on his face from a chocolate-glazed donut and I resisted the urge to grab him and lick it off right there in front of her.
“Well, and why shouldn’t they,” Claire piped up suddenly from the kitchen doorway. “They’re small. And they’re–” She tapped her ring finger instead of saying something out loud.
“You have got to be kidding me,” Janine said. “I’m trying to raise my kid… right. On the straight and narrow, as it were.”
As it were. I shook my head. “It’s not contagious, you know.” Landon’s eyes were very wide and it was obvious he was listening hard to everything we were saying.
“I don’t mean the… way you are, I mean the… way you act.” She threw up her hands. Such a Catch-22, right? Can’t protect your kid from insidious, queer ideas if they’re listening to you talk about them, can you? “Okay, Landon, time for a nap.”
To everyone’s surprise, a sugared-up five-year-old agreed immediately. “Top bunk!” he cried, as he got down from the table and ran to the bedroom. I think he had concluded that the argument was over and that the naptime decree meant that him staying with us in the bedroom was won.
Janine came back a few minutes later. By then we had moved to the living room, where Remo was watching some football game on the television, but he had the sound all the way down and didn’t seem to be paying much attention to it.
“Look,” she said, standing to one side of the tube. “I’ve got no problem with you being gay per se. But do you have to be such weirdos about it?”
Before I could formulate any kind of an answer, Claire jumped in. “Jan, there is nothing weird about two people who love each other sharing a bed.”
“Oh, come on, mother. They’re, you know, they’re–” Janine sputtered a little. “These aren’t just any two people who just happen to be men.”
“You’re right, one of them’s my son, your brother.” Claire was standing behind the couch, across from me. She seemed to puff up in size like a badger or something getting ready to attack.
“But come on, the weird haircuts and everything. They’re trying to provoke a reaction,” Janine said.
I had a little flashback to something Colin had told me about how people reacted to his mohawk and neck tattoos, but I didn’t have much brainpower to devote to that thought because most of my head was just thinking, My son? She just said “my son.” She means me. What is going on here?
“And so you’ve decided you just have to react?” Claire’s tone of voice made me cringe, but I was used to being on the receiving end of her barbs and chain-yanking, not being defended by it. “You’ve appointed yourself the society police?”
“Yes, I damn well have,” Janine said. “After all, you taught us that’s a mother’s job, make absolutely sure your children have the right clothes on, the right haircuts, or god forbid they should leave the house with a hair out of place or carrying an extra pound.”
Claire wasn’t going to take that kind of accusation lightly. “What on earth are you talking about? I made sure you were the most admired girls in town! You should’ve heard all the people saying how beautiful you were!”
Janine got loud. “That’s exactly it! You only cared about what other people thought of us!”
“You are the one arguing that what other people think of appearances is very important!”
“You! You, mother, you never said we were beautiful, only that we were never beautiful enough!”
“Well, I didn’t want you to get swelled heads! Stop being such a drama queen. You knew you were beautiful.”
“You’re unbelievable! It was all about you! You were more worried about what other people thought of us than what we thought of ourselves!”
My mother and sister seemed to have forgotten that it was naptime. They were yelling and screaming with full force. Meanwhile, Remo, and me, and Ziggy, sat quiet as church mice, trying not to get caught in the crossfire. Or, I did until I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Look,” I said, standing up, “I don’t think–”
“You, stay out of this,” Janine warned.
“Out of what? You started out arguing about me and my hair.”
“And we moved on from that long ago.” She looked sour. “I thought you’d be on my side on this. She never praised us. Never.”
“Didn’t she? I thought she doted on you and Lilibeth.”
“Her form of doting was to control us. And now she’s going to die and so this is my last chance to tell her off about it!” Janine burst into tears.
Claire looked just as sour, but hers was a prim sort of sour, as if Janine’s tears were a faux pas she was trying to ignore. “Well, if I’d known I was in for the third degree, maybe I wouldn’t have come to stay here to begin with.”
“You’re unbelievable!” Janine fled the field of combat then, stomping up to her bedroom and slamming the door.
I was expecting Claire to look smug at that, but she had a sort of crestfallen air about her instead. Maybe between all her emotional blackmail and endless moving of the goalposts she’d confused herself about who to blame for what? I was plenty confused, anyway.
“Maybe we should give Janine some time to herself,” Remo suggested. “Claire, why don’t we go out and get a cup of coffee.”
She didn’t move from the spot where she stood, with her hands clasped. “Where? Every place is closed”
“There’s a Denny’s out on the highway. They never close.” He stood up and extended a hand. “Come on.”
“What about the boys?”
“We’ll stay here in case Landon wakes up from his nap,” I said.
She relented. “All right. I’ll get my coat.”
Remo ushered her out, her nose high in the air.
I turned to Ziggy. “What the fuck was that?”
He rubbed his face. “Your mother is clearly a… complicated person.”
“Ha, no kidding.” I rubbed my own face, trying to let go some of the tension. “I don’t really even know whether to believe her whole ‘when two people love each other’ line. I feel kind of like if Janine had been supportive of you and me, Claire might’ve taken the opposite tack.”
He nodded and squished in next to me in the arm chair. “That is possible. Her whole m.o. is basically control people by controlling the conversation. And she controls the conversation by constantly turning the tables.”
“Yeah, I can see that. But I’m finding it hard to believe she never praised Janine and Lilibeth.”
“Maybe not in a way that Janine could hear it. But you told me yourself, Claire’s an expert at the backhanded compliment.” He could mimic her voice: “‘Oh, Jan, your hair is so pretty and shiny, it’s too bad it won’t hold a curl. That dress really brings out the color of your eyes, if only you didn’t have to wear it so baggy to hide your love handles.’”
“Yeah, that’s exactly the kind of thing she’d say.”
Ziggy burrowed his arm around mine. “If you’re looking for a way to cut her some slack, think about this. Your mom lives in a state of constant anxiety.”
“Yeah, I expect having a terminal disease would do that.” Somehow that wasn’t really making it easier to forgive the way she acted, though.
“I think it’s probably not just the cancer.” He glanced around to make sure no one had come in to eavesdrop. “When you marry a cheater, you worry every single day that he’s cheating.”
“You think she cheated on Digger with Remo to get back at him…?”
“No, no, I’m not even talking about that. The preacher guy she married after divorcing Digger: think about it. She knew he was the type of guy who’d commit adultery because he did with her.”
“Oh. Yeah. I see what you mean. And let’s face it, she knew Digger was no prize. She was forced to marry him…” And yet she’d been attracted enough to him initially that they’d had sex to begin with… and they had three more kids after that. My head hurt trying to imagine what my parents’ actual relationship had been like. On-again/off-again barely began to describe it. Then again, maybe that’s what happens when you have two people who are constantly trying to control the emotions of the people around them, especially each other’s? The ups and downs must be even more extreme. “But just because she’s anxious is no excuse, is it?”
“No, but I’m just saying, when someone like her feels that insecure, she’ll do anything she can to try to feel secure again. To try to reassert control over her life. She can’t control her cancer, but she can control your sister’s emotions. A person develops a lot of toxic habits when they’re that anxious.”
Well, that certainly rang true, for me at least. I suddenly wondered if Ziggy was trying to give me a hint. “I think I’ve kicked a lot of my bad habits, though.”
Ziggy kissed me gently. “When you’re not anxious, you have. When you’re really anxious? You end up in a water tank on a hotel roof.”
He was right, of course.