|I'm Not Julia Roberts
By Laura Ruby
Published by Warner Books
January 2007; 0446578746; 272 pages
Songs to accompany your life: “Heart like a Raisin”; “The Propeller Beneath My Wings”; “Time and Time Again in a Bottle”; “I Want to Smack Your Hand”; “Crazy.”
The children were ugly. All scabbed knees and crooked teeth, lank ponytails and greasy bangs, stained purple mouths unhinged to the uvulas. They rushed at their parents and at one another, swinging heavy backpacks, pelting chalky pebbles, kicking out with their thick institutional shoes.
Lu stood away from the little clots of moms and the occasional dad, smoking a cigarette. She had quit some six months before, but when her husband told her that she would have to care for the boys all by herself for the week he was in Dallas, something thin and brittle inside her snapped. After four days with her nerves stretched colorless, smoking was the only thing keeping the cancerous thoughts from finding form on her tongue.
She smashed the butt under her boot while she eyed the school entrance, the endless stream of children draining from it. She watched as stout women in teddy bear sweatshirts tenderly clasped grape-sticky kids to their bosoms. Scraps of conversation floated around her.
“Britney had three hours of homework last night. What is with these teachers?”
“Is that the way you talk to me? Is it? You better watch that mouth!”
“I should be more patient with her. You know these Protestants, always going on about what the Bible says, as if anybody really knows. They don’t even believe Mary is a saint.”
Lupe Klein, neither Hispanic nor Jewish, raised a Lutheran, was tempted to say, “We don’t believe anyone’s a saint.” But perhaps she was wrong. Perhaps, Lu told herself, these ugly children did beautiful, thoughtful, saintly things—splinted the broken wings of baby robins, tended to ailing grandmas and -pas, gave their last pennies to the poor. Perhaps she was too angry and shallow, too roiled with resentment, to see the beauty beneath the ugliness. Perhaps she was the wicked one.
In front of her, a tall boy plucked a knot of hair from the scalp of a smaller boy. The small one smacked a palm to his head and howled as the tall one waggled the knot, its tiny white roots quivering.
Christ. We’re all doomed.
A woman standing next to her clucked her tongue. Lu thought it was an unconscious comment on the hair pulling, but the woman said, “Sometimes they keep them.”
Who keeps who where? “Excuse me?” Lu said.
The woman, who had spectacularly tidy hair, nodded toward the school doors. “Sometimes they keep certain classes after school. You know, if someone is pushing someone else in line, or something like that. There have been times I’ve waited ten or fifteen minutes.”
“Oh,” Lu said. “Right.”
“I’m Glynn,” the woman said.
Lu swallowed a sigh. “Lu.”
“My son’s in kindergarten. Afternoon session.” Glynn smiled encouragingly, but Lu offered no more information. She had discovered very quickly that the word stepmother had a negative effect on most of the women in the school yard, and she was too fragile to risk a response. Lu wasn’t sure what she would say if Ms. Tidy’s face tightened, if it fell, if she said, “Really?” and leaned in, eager for the whole sordid story.
Lu was spared the small talk when Britt found her. He muttered a stiff, “Hi,” through his glittering braces and trained his eyes on his own ankles.
“Hey, Britt,” Lu said, her voice sounding peppy and false. “How was your day?”
“Stupid,” he said. “Mrs. McGorney’s an asshole.”
Glynn and two other moms whipped around to stare, and Lu shot them a glare that was pure overcompensation. “A lot of people are,” she said. “Most of the time you just have to put up with it.”
Britt bobbed his head in a way that neither agreed nor disagreed, shrugged off his backpack just as Ollie waded through the throng of plaid skirts and wrinkled uniform trousers. As usual, he was crying, his upper lip blurred with snot. His untied shoelaces flapped.
“What now?” Britt growled under his breath.
Lu hushed him, though she had been thinking the same thing. She bent at the waist, bracing her hands on her knees. “What’s the matter, Ollie?”
“I forgot my pencil case,” he said, hiccuping through his tears. “My money was in it.” Ollie was wide through the cheeks and soft through the body. The only thing pointed about him was his chin, which he worked silently in his grief.
Lu closed her eyes. A thousand questions coursed through her head, the answers to which, she knew, would only frustrate and annoy her. Why did you take your money to school? Why did you put it in the pencil case? Why do you always insist on bringing things with you just so that you can leave them behind? “How about we go back and get your pencil case?”
This just made Ollie cry harder. “We can’t! They lock all the doors and you can’t get back in!”
“Then you’ll have to get your pencil case tomorrow.” Lu moved behind him and hefted the thirty-pound pack off his shoulders so that he could stand up straight.
Ollie stamped his foot. “But what if my money gets stolen!”
“How can your money get stolen if no one can get back into the school, you freaking moron?” Britt said.
“Let’s try to be civil, shall we?” Lu resisted, rather valiantly, she thought, the urge to smack Britt upside the head.
But the insult seemed to comfort Ollie somewhat, and he wiped his nose and cheeks with the back of his hand. “Can we go to school early tomorrow?” he said as they walked to the car. “So that I can be the first to go inside?”
“I think we can do that.” At eight, Ollie still hadn’t quite grasped the concept of time, and Lu was sure she could convince him that they were leaving early no matter what time they left. But then she was equally sure that as soon as he saw the line of children that had, inevitably, arrived before him, he would be flattened by a fresh wave of grief, and she would have to spend fifteen minutes consoling him before he would get out of the car.
Better to get up early.
Ollie’s plump little hand tugged at her sleeve. “Ice cream?”
“I have soccer practice,” Britt said, face suddenly tense with alarm.
“We can get ice cream and still get you to practice,” Lu said. Ice cream was soothing and peace promoting. Ice cream was magical. Ice cream was something you could use later. When you asked for ice cream, you got it. Now I’m asking you to put your dirty socks in the hamper.
“But he eats so slow!” Britt said. “Practice starts at three-fifteen! And I still have to change!”
Ollie glowered. “I want ice cream.”
“Mother fricking mother,” said Britt, drawing more glares. “I just want to get to fricking practice!” He thrust both arms in front of him as if the boat were sinking and he had no choice but to swim for it.
Lu’s tongue curled ominously around various threats, epithets, incantations, and she reached for her cigarettes.
“Loopy,” said Ollie, releasing her sleeve and pinching his nose, “those make you smell.”
They made it, just barely, to Britt’s practice (“Fricking A, toad, will you stop dripping that fricking ice cream all over my fricking uniform?”). All Lu wanted to do was get Ollie set up with some puzzle books so that she could sit down on the couch, Picky a soothing bun in her lap. She had read somewhere that stroking pets for ten minutes a day could lower blood pressure. She wanted to work her fingers in Picky’s tufted underbelly, unwind to his bumblebee buzzing, pet herself into a coma.
When they got back home, however, Devin was draped facedown across the couch, stupefied by MTV, and Picky was nowhere to be found.
Lu balanced an apple between Devin’s shoulder blades, sure she could count his ribs right through his T-shirt. A few months before, he’d gone vegan. “Where’s the cat?”
“Huh?” Devin did not take his eyes from the TV but deftly reached around and retrieved the apple, shined it on the couch cushion.
“My cat, Devin. Where’s my cat?”
“Dunno,” he said. “Around.”
Lu could feel the thump of bass drums in her feet. “Did you forget to turn off the stereo downstairs?”
“Shoop’s down there.”
Lu dragged a hand through her snarled hair, pulling on it painfully. When she was single, she never had knots. “Don’t you think you should join him?”
“He’s okay.” Devin’s eyes narrowed, and Lu turned to the TV, only to see a teen Barbie look-alike—openmouthed and glistening with sweat—grinding her hips at the camera. She wore her tiny pink panties over her jeans. Lu blinked. Were girls wearing their panties that way now? Had she been so traumatized by the transition from hip chick to mother hen that she hadn’t noticed that underwear was no longer under anything?
“Hey, Dev, what the fuck . . .” A pale and shaggy boy about Devin’s age stood in the doorway to the family room, scratching at his scalp. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t know anyone else was here.” Lu was relieved to recognize his look: psycho-punk with a Gen-Z edge. Long shaggy hair, tight black pants, and an eyebrow ring.
“Devin, why don’t you go downstairs with your friend?” Lu pointed to the soda cans, paper plates, sneakers, and other assorted litter, the slime trails of teenagers. “I’d like to make this room more habitable for humans.” She put her hands on her hips, going for authoritative yet cool. “And please, guys, the language? I’d like to see if I can keep Ollie from swearing like a rap star before he’s ten.”
Devin grunted and slid off the couch, grabbing one of the cans. The two boys stomped down the stairs to the basement, their reedy, warbling voices wafting up.
“Who’s the chick?”
“She’s all right. You think she’d do me?”
What the cat loves: the smell of Ward’s shoes, nail files, bathtubs, laser pointers, shrimp.
What the cat hates: vacuum cleaners, thunder and lightning, the tang of citrus, driving to the vet, big dogs, boys.
When they were little, they were adorable.
“Devin, Britt, and Ollie,” Ward had said that first date, unraveling the ready strip of photographs that all dads tote around. They were twelve, ten, and five, respectively.
“Devin, Britt, and Ollie,” Lu repeated. Whatever happened to Mike? Or John? Images of an old puppet show she had seen when she was a kid bounced through her thoughts. Kukla, Fran and Ollie.
She lifted the strip of photographs. “Kukla,” she said.
The boys were small, doe eyed, and elfin featured. Someone, their mother, Lu supposed, had coaxed each boy’s thick dark hair into sweet curls that would have undone Bill Sikes and Fagin alike. Ward saw them one evening a week and on weekends. Easy enough, he told Lu, because right after the divorce he had bought a house just a few blocks from the ex and her new husband. “The boys can just walk over.”
“Great!” said Lu, lighting a cigarette in a toast to conveniently located ex-wives. Her mother had warned her against dating divorced men, but Lu was in her mid-thirties and had just moved back to the Midwest. Who the hell else was she going to date?
To her surprise, her first meeting with the kids was so pleasantly uneventful that Lu was soon dining with Ward and his children every Wednesday, dropping by every weekend. Unlike some of the horror stories she’d heard, the boys were always polite to her, never calling her rude names, never dismissing her out of loyalty to their mother. Of course, during their longer weekend visits, Lu was often out showing shockingly overpriced condos to wealthy people, but still, those brief visitations were comfortable and reliable as a Volvo.
Then one evening—three years after they met, five months after their wedding, twelve hours after they bid on a Tudor just fifteen minutes away in historic Oak Park—the bell rang and Lu opened the door to find Devin and all of his belongings on the porch, his mother’s car peeling away from the curb. “Devin’s all settled in high school now,” Ward said. “How can I ask him to switch, leave all his friends? That would just upset him more than he is already.”
“He stares at my breasts, Ward.”
“It’s only for a few years.”
“I could be dead in a few years.”
It seemed to Lu that Devin had turned from an elf to a monosyllabic troll overnight. Something heavy and damp and odorous that the ex had thrown off like an old coat in a hot spell. And that wasn’t all she threw off. In a long and detailed letter sent with the boy, the ex announced that she could no longer take Britt to the orthodontist, citing scheduling conflicts with that office, and could no longer support Ollie’s psychotherapy, citing philosophical conflicts with modern psychology. Then there were the half days, vacation days, parent-teacher conferences, soccer practices, and sick days from school that she thought Ward could handle. Or perhaps Lu could help with? “I understand,” she wrote, “that a real estate agent’s hours are quite flexible.”
“Let me guess. Ontological conflicts with the concept of childhood? Theoretical conflicts with the idea of responsibility?”
“She has to work, Lu.” The ex was marketing director at Heartland’s Best Foods, maker of Ollie’s brand wheat bread. Lu wondered which had come first, the boy or the bread.
“And what am I? Chopped liver?” Lu said. “I am, aren’t I. Lu’s Best Liver.”
“Come on, Lu. I’ll take care of most of it.”
Most of it? The note had also mentioned that Britt’s history project—a diorama on the Crusades—was due on Tuesday, and he still hadn’t gone to the library. Lu’s hysteria mounted, and she could feel a pulse in her eyeballs. “There’s nothing like a little Loopy Liver to liven up your life!”
“What am I supposed to do? I called. I discussed. I yelled. They’re my kids, Lu. Tell me what choice I have.”
She stood there in the cramped kitchen, holding a bunch of mismatched silverware that she had been planning to give to Goodwill, and wondered how she could have been so thoroughly duped.
Her eyeballs kept her up at night, thrumming away into the dawn.
Ollie was perched at the kitchen table, delicately licking his ice-cream cone. He ate so slowly, it had melted all over his hand.
“Ollie, did you see the cat anywhere?”
“Stevie said a cat had babies under his porch. There are twenty babies. They don’t have any eyes.”
“I meant Picky. Did you see Picky?”
Ollie made a face. “I saw him drinking out of the toilet bowl this morning. Why does he do that? It’s gross.”
“Yeah, well, you pick your nose. That’s gross, too.”
“I do not pick my nose!”
Lu gave him a look and a napkin.
Picky, short for Piccolo, was a little gray pelt of a thing, a tiny scrap of biology that Lu had found huddled in the bottom of a garbage can at a New York City apartment building, back in her other life. He had stopped growing at six months, retaining the size and energy of an adolescent. Though he was close to seven years old, Lu still had to pluck him from the top of the screen door, where he often got stuck, splayed like a science experiment.
Picky was a living retreat for Lu, a handful of calming noises and familiar smells (his fur was loamy and sweet, like beets). When she got home from work, Picky would methodically clean each of her fingertips with his tongue, sanding away the limp handshakes, defiant keys, strange doorknobs, and stained countertops. And in this crowded house full of increasingly unfamiliar activities, loud noises, and unanticipated demands, Picky reminded her who she had been. Or at least reminded her that she had been someone else once.
When she first moved in, Ward complained of a slight allergy to cats; for Christmas, Lu had wrapped an economy-size package of Benadryl.
Lu opened the linen closet in the hallway, shoving aside shampoo bottles to peer behind them. One time, Picky had been trapped in that closet all day, and he’d been forced to pee in the bath towels. When she finally found him, he’d run from the closet, his harsh birdlike squawks berating her for her neglect.
Now, Lu neatly stacked the piles of towels on the floor, then gave up and started yanking them out and tossing them over her shoulder. No Picky, but under the stacks, stuck in a corner, a single envelope gone yellow with age.
“What’s that?” Ollie wanted to know.
“Not sure,” said Lu. She opened the envelope. Inside was an old Polaroid of the ex. Wearing only a nightie and panties. Hugely, majestically pregnant.
“What is it?” Ollie repeated. “Can I see?”
The ex stood there staring down at herself, her gauzy baby doll pulled up to reveal a basketball-size tummy, expression somewhere between pride and bewilderment. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, just a kid herself, beautiful in that way the young are, smooth and white and firm.
She looks like a doll, thought Lu. If dolls came knocked up.
“Loopy!” said Ollie, whining now. “Let me see!”
“Nothing to see,” said Lu, cramming the photo in her pocket. “People you don’t know.”
Ollie’s face had gone red and crumpled. “But I want—”
“Not now, Ollie. I’m trying to find Picky.” Lu dropped to her knees to dig through a jumble of old bath toys stowed on the last shelf. Who’d saved that picture? And what, exactly, was a person supposed to think about it? It was almost repulsive in its intimacy, in its careless, youthful sexiness. Was it a reminder? A lament?
Lu pulled out a plastic pony with ratted pink hair. “Where the hell could that cat be?”
Ollie, scowling, thwarted: “You’re not supposed to say H-E-double-toothpicks in front of children.”
Britt slammed into the house, trudging in dirt as well as major attitude. Lu was crawling around on the floor, looking for Picky under benches and footstools, the little tents made by the newspapers. Britt behaved as if Lu’s posture were normal.
“Fricking coach benched me,” he said, throwing open the refrigerator door.
Lu looked up from the newspapers. She could hear the rustle of plastic wrap and knew that when she checked later, she would find every leftover container open and a fingerful of the contents missing. “Why did he bench you?”
“How am I supposed to know why he benched me? He just benched me.”
Lu might have been more sympathetic had Britt not said something similar when he was suspended and nearly expelled from school a few months back. He had neglected to mention that he’d been caught stuffing copies of Playgirl into the desk of Mrs. Rubens, his English teacher. “I thought it would help her out,” he’d claimed, unfazed.
Britt slammed the fridge door shut, thought better of it, opened it again. “Fricking Mom didn’t even come to the game.”
“Isn’t fricking Mom still away?”
“What else is new?”
She thought of the photograph in her pocket and opened her mouth to defend the woman, then snapped it shut. Though she had found the ex a bit erratic and self-absorbed, she had made it a point to not have much quarrel with her. Until Devin showed up with his pillow, Ollie with his night terrors, and Britt with endless unfinished dioramas. Until Ward had announced his business trip in Dallas and the ex immediately hopped a junket to Vegas.
The ex had, in the last few years, grown progressively larger and, Lu believed, shorter. To her surprise, Lu was not pleased by the ex’s new bulk, her newly hatched jowls, the burgeoning buttocks, the downturned mouth creasing the fleshy face. The bulk just made the woman all the more solid, more formidable. Self-contained. Unmovable. Her face jutted out from her body like the prow of an ancient warship.
Lu hated her the way she’d hated her own mother years before, with a desperate, ineffectual, shrieky passion that bordered on adolescent.
Bordered? Ha! Prolonged exposure to the first wife caused emotional regression in the second, she was sure. Someone should study this. Soon she’d be sucking her thumb and screaming for a rattle.
But worse than hating the ex was that Lu had started to hate Ward for having married the woman some gazillion years before, for having chosen such a solipsistic person as a mate. What could that say about him? And then what did marrying Ward, choosing someone with such flawed taste, say about Lu herself?
There they were, the whole ahistorical, solipsistic lot of them, twirling pell-mell around their own universes like planets without suns. Not a grown-up in the bunch.
She threw the papers back to the floor. “Britt, have you seen the cat?”
He took out the milk, unscrewed the cap, and lifted the jug to his lips. “I just fricking got here.”
Where the cat wasn’t: in the cabinets or in the windows, under the beds or in the bathtubs. Not in the closets, dresser drawers, hampers, or bookshelves.
The basement ceiling, where several tiles had been punched from their metal fasteners and strewn about the floor. Lu looked up into the yawning hole and watched for furtive movements in the dark.
After Ollie finished his ice cream, he remembered the money irretrievably stowed in his pencil case and was swept away in a fresh wave of melancholy.
“It’s okay, Ollie. We’re going to leave early tomorrow, remember? You’ll get your money first thing. Now, how about another puzzle? This looks like a good one. . . . No? Do you want to play a game of cards?”
She felt a headache brewing in the back of her neck. Who would have known there were so many things to confront? Half-naked exes. Her patience gone missing. Her heart, dull as a fist.
Lu plunked the weeping Ollie in front of the TV and sneaked into the bathroom with the cordless phone and her cigarettes.
Lu’s sister, Annika, answered after fourteen rings. Because of some potent fertility drugs, Annika had one more moon-eyed baby than she had arms. Lu had stayed with Annika for those first chaotic weeks after the births and had found herself reeling around in a sympathetic mommy-fog for almost a month afterward. The sheer physical demands of her infant nieces had astonished and then terrified her. In comparison, Lu’s own complaints seemed about as consequential as a $25 parking ticket. Still, Lu didn’t know who else to call, who else wouldn’t hold it against her.
“Talk to me,” said Annika. Her tone was chipper, but her voice was ragged with exhaustion.
“Devin’s holed up in the basement with a boy named Shoop, probably scouting for porn on the Internet, Ollie’s sobbing in front of SpongeBob SquarePants, and Britt has to build a model of an Incan village by tomorrow.”
“Sounds like fun,” said Annika. “I’d join you, but I have an appointment to get my fingernails pulled.”
“And I can’t find Picky anywhere.”
“I’m sure he’s just hiding. And can you blame him?”
“No, I guess not,” Lu said. “Listen to me whine about myself. How are you?”
“How am I? Who am I? Who’s this ‘I’ that people keep talking about?”
“That doesn’t sound good,” Lu said.
Annika half coughed, half sighed into the phone. “Oh, they’re good. Good babies. Really. You know, they do sleep occasionally, and that’s something. It’s just that there are so very many of them. Thank God for the nanny. I’m obsessed with this nanny.”
“When did you get a nanny?”
“I didn’t tell you? I broke down and hired her a few days ago. Her name is Jewel, like the singer.”
“Does she sing?”
“No, but she can diaper a wriggling baby with one hand tied behind her back.” She sighed. “At least I have girls. At least girls don’t pee on you.”
Lu found herself saying, “Yeah, but girls have that period between eight and ten where their heads have grown to adult size but their bodies haven’t. You have to keep scrubbing the lip gloss off of them because it’s too damned disconcerting. Every girl in Ollie’s class looks like something out of a Victorian painting.” She winced, though Annika couldn’t see it. Why did she have to say stuff like this?
“That won’t happen for at least seven years,” Annika said. “By then, they’ll have some nice drugs that can take the edge off, but won’t upset your stomach.”
“There’s always cyanide.”
“Jesus. What’s going on over there?”
“Never mind. I can’t even talk about it. When I do, people look at me like I’m dangerous.”
“They’re afraid you’re going to gather up your stepkids and drown them like a litter of kittens. I mean, we’re a reductive people. No genetic investment, no real investment.”
Lu could almost see her sister with an invisible cigar, waggling her brows: Hey, Snow White, ever been to the woods? She looked at herself in the bathroom mirror, face drawn, cigarette cocked, frowned at the image. “They need so much, Annie. It’s not like the babies. It’s different. They can feed themselves and dress themselves, but all they have to do is stand there and you can see how much they need. And I’m such a moron that I didn’t think about that part.”
“Of course you didn’t think. If we actually thought about anything, who’d get on a plane? Who would have sex? Who would have their nipples pierced?” Annika’s voice took on a slightly hysterical edge. “And, not that I’m the best example right now, damn it to hell, but where’s their mother?”
“Their mother is molting. And she’s just getting bigger and stronger and freer. You should see her. She looks like a giant bird. Like a great white bird in a blue business suit.”
“She’s a bitch and I hate her.”
Lu dropped her cigarette in the toilet and watched it float round and round. “We all do.”
“I mean it, Lu, I totally fucking hate her.”
Lu could hear a snuffling sound, and she marveled again at the self-absorption that had prompted her to call Annika, whose ruined belly looked like the smirking face of a very old man.
“I’m sorry, Annie. I wasn’t thinking.”
“Oh, fuck it,” Annika said. “Fuck, fuck, fuck! I’m going to keep saying it, because I’m sure as hell never doing it again.”
“I shouldn’t have called.”
“Yes, you should. You have to.” More snuffling. “I need to know there are other women out there in the world so tired they’ve forgotten their own names. Do you know what your name is?”
“I think it’s Jennifer,” said Lu.
“There you go,” Annika said.
Lu cleared her throat, adopted the breezy tone of a sitcom mom. “It gets a little worse.”
“It better,” Annika barked. “This is my sanity we’re talking about.”
“You know that mole under my nose?”
“I have a hair growing out of it.”
Lu squeezed her eyes shut and listened to Annika breathe. “Well. I suppose I should start thinking about the Incas now since I’m pretty sure Britt hasn’t.”
“Incas. I’ll add that to my list,” said Annika. “Learn to diaper babies one-handed, learn to function on 2.3 hours of sleep per night, become expert on Incas. What the hell do you know about the Incas?”
“I know that they were into human sacrifice,” Lu said.
“Ha! Who isn’t?”
Renaming the dwarves: Itchy, Sticky, Snotty, Grubby, Mouthy, Truculent, Deliberately Obtuse.
It was Britt who had gifted her with the name “Loopy.”
At ten, he was like an amiable dog, eager to get in any car for any reason. Lu often took him along when she ran errands. One Saturday, they went to the bank. He watched as Lu signed all her checks, sounding out her full name. He pronounced it “Loop.”
“No, Britt. It’s Lupe. Lu-pay.”
“Loopy?” he said, and giggled. “Loopy! What kind of name is that?”
She could endure the brattiness of her richest clients but was always unprepared for the bluntness of grade schoolers. “Well, what kind of name is Britt?” Lu said, childishly imitating his tone.
“My grandfather’s name.”
“Oh.” Lu scratched at the bottom of her bag for a deposit slip. “My mother’s name is Sue, and her sister’s name is Jane. She got a little inventive when she had her own children. Just call me Lu. It’s easier.”
He thought a moment. “I like Loopy.”
This was at a time when all the people and all the books cautioned her to allow potential stepchildren to call her what they liked, to bestow their own special titles. She had been hoping for something a bit more dignified, not a name that, when written, encouraged a person to fill the double o’s with little cross-eyed pupils.
“How about Lulu?” she suggested.
“I like Loopy.”
“Luna? That’s ‘moon’ in Italian.”
“Loopy,” he said. Without warning, he began to wave his arms around and jog in a circle, a cross between a rain dance and a celebration of the Chinese New Year. Startled and embarrassed, Lu tossed furtive glances at the other patrons as Britt chanted her new name: “Loo-PEE, Loo-PEE, Loop-PEE . . .”
She plucked the hair from her mole and then all of the other stray hairs that seemed to be sprouting randomly from her skin, then realized that dinnertime was approaching and, in her yearning for her cat, she hadn’t given a thought to it.
Britt would eat anything sweet in any combination. Honey ham and carrots, a big hunk of cornbread. Twinkies with a side of peas that he would devour in a few huge, desperate bites.
Kid comfort food for Ollie. A hot dog or macaroni and cheese that he would throw up at two in the morning after some nightmare featuring giant sharks with wings or flaky-faced crazy people. He would poke her arm in the middle of the night and tell her that the crazy people were angry again, plucking at him with their crazy fingers.
Devin would declare a staggering, gut-wrenching hunger and leave his meatless meal untouched.
She sighed, trying to remember if she had been as unbalanced as her stepchildren when she was young. She thought not, but what did she really know? Her mother told her that she used to cozy up to complete strangers at the grocery store, helping elderly women pick out peaches, chatting with the suburban moms. This bizarre friendliness, her mother said, stopped after the divorce. “That’s when you got all stiff and strange and wouldn’t talk to anybody.”
That’s it, Lu thought, dinner could wait. She threw open the bathroom door, walked down the hallway, and attacked Ward’s closet. Maybe Picky had gotten in there somehow; she’d looked everywhere else. She knelt, tossing shoes over her shoulder, feeling along the floor way in the back.
The doorbell rang. Cursing, she stood and kicked the pile of shoes. Then she ran downstairs.
“Doorbell,” said Ollie from his perch on the couch, glassy eyes glued to the cartoons.
“Really?” Lu said. It was probably for Ollie, too, or for Britt. Living with kids meant that the doorbell was always ringing, and there was always somebody who wanted to come in, small and medium-size somebodies who were invariably hungry and thirsty and would need cheese sandwiches or some Kool-Aid or new batteries for the remote-control car, somebodies who scoured the house looking for the cat only to chase him under the bed.
She opened the door. A man who looked vaguely familiar stood there, grinning toothily. He was wearing a brown suit and carrying a dark red briefcase.
“Yes?” Lu said.
“Lu!” said the man, still grinning.
“Yes,” Lu said again, trying to place him. One of the kids’ friends’ parents? One of the neighbors? She was adrift in a sea of faces. She could never keep all of them straight.
“It’s Mike,” said the man. “Mike Ritchie. I’m a friend of Alan’s.”
Lu blinked. “Alan?”
“Beatrix’s husband,” said the man with the red briefcase. “She told me that you might be interested in an opportunity.” He eyed the screen door as if Lu were supposed to open it.
Lu could feel her left eye begin to twitch. “I’m sorry, did you say that Beatrix sent you?” Beatrix was Ward’s ex-wife.
The man shifted his briefcase from one hand to the other. “Beatrix and Alan work for me. As distributors for Energetics? I’m sure you’ve heard of us. We’re one of the top manufacturers of health care products.”
“But Beatrix works for a food company,” Lu said dumbly. She knew about the whole pyramid scheme, of course, and where Beatrix met Alan, but what did that have to do with Lu? What was this man doing here, on her doorstep, swinging his red briefcase?
“It’s pretty much Alan’s business, but Beatrix helps out,” the man said.
“Helps out. Okay,” Lu said. Her face was heating up, and she wondered if the man could see the flush rising in a pink wave across her cheeks.
“Now, I know that you sell real estate. Are you happy with that?”
“Happy?” Lu managed. “Yeah.”
“Ah,” said the man, Mike. “But not really happy.”
Who the hell was really happy? “I’m doing just fine.”
“But is fine enough?” said the man. “It’s a choice.”
“What’s a choice?”
“What you do with your life.”
Lu took a deep breath, suddenly so furious that her vision blurred around the edges. Wasn’t it enough that evidence of Beatrix was everywhere, in the children, in the photographs, all through the house? Did the ex really need to send envoys, too, these grinning dispatches from a distant empire? “I don’t think I’m interested in what you’re selling.”
The man’s grin grew even wider. “But that’s the beauty of it,” he said. “I’m not selling anything but opportunity.”
If he says something about opportunity knocking, I will commit ritual suicide, right here, right now. “I have a job. I like my job. I don’t want to do anything else.”
“You don’t want to make up to two thousand extra a month, part-time?” said the man. “I have to tell ya, not many people would want to miss that.” He held up his hand, palm facing the sky, as if holding out an invisible offering.
“I guess I’m one of the not many people,” she said, now grinning herself, the way a bear would grin, baring its teeth.
Lu could see the man struggling not to tell her off. He was that type, she knew, the telling-people-off type, the kind of person who would get mad if someone didn’t like the same movies he did. “Well,” said the man, “it’s your choice.”
“Yes, it is,” she said brightly.
He bristled at her tone. “The next time your boss comes down on you, don’t say that opportunity didn’t come knocking.”
She opened the screen door. “I would never go around knocking on people’s doors and pretend to be opportunity personified, okay?”
“Yeah, whatever, lady,” said the man, his plastic smile gone, turning to leave.
“Whatever?” Lu shouted. “You come here, invading my house, wasting my time, and then you say whatever when I don’t like it? Who the hell do you think you are?” She wanted to kick the man down the stairs.
“Nobody’s invading nothing,” said the man. “Christ. Have you been drinking or something?”
“No, but that’s a good idea,” said Lu. “Now get off my goddamn porch.”
Britt didn’t want to build the Incan village out of papier-mâché.
“Is this a philosophical or aesthetic problem?” Lu said, mostly to herself. She had splashed cool water on her face to calm down after the salesman left, but she was still breathing like an asthmatic.
“I want to build it out of Styrofoam,” Britt said. “Don’t they sell it at the crafts place? That place where we got the stuff for Babylon?”
“It’s six o’clock already. We don’t have time to go to the crafts store.”
“This fricking sucks, man!”
“Yeah,” said Lu. “It does. That’s why I asked you to start the project a month ago, when it was assigned. And reminded you about it every day this week.”
Britt rolled his eyes but said nothing, threw himself into a kitchen chair like an anchor into the sea. Devin shambled in, looking sly and pleased and secretive. Lu could only imagine what sexual mysteries he had cleared up for himself that afternoon.
“What’s for dinner, Loop?” he said.
“Whatever you can scrounge up,” Lu replied, wondering why he even bothered to ask. “I’m not doing anything until I find Picky.”
“Well,” said Devin, putting his hands on his hips just the way Lu always did, “where did you put him last?”
“Funny,” said Lu, surprised by the unusual display of personality.
Devin snorted. “Maybe he got out.”
“What do you mean?” said Lu. “Got out?”
“It’s possible, Loop-la-loop,” Britt said, braces flashing. “He was always looking out the screen door. He could have run away when we were leaving this morning. Or coming back this afternoon.” He leafed through his notebook. “For all we know, he’s in Indiana by now.”
“California. If I was a cat,” said Britt, “that’s where I’d go. Live outside all year round.”
“You’d go anywhere.” Devin pulled a box of cereal from a cabinet, keeping up appearances. “You’d go to Boise.”
Lu turned and looked out through the window into the yard, everything dark and matted and slick from a cold, wet spring. Picky, gone? She scanned the bushes and the trees for movement, shaking her head, astonished by this new possibility, and then astonished at her own astonishment. It had never occurred to her that he might not turn up, her talisman against despair. She had never really believed that a life, even a small one, could be wiped out so quickly, so cleanly, like a spill.
“Come on,” she said.
Britt closed the notebook. “Where are we going?”
“Help me, damn it!” Lu opened the back door and ran outside. “Picky!” she yelled. “Picky!” She ran around the yard like a dog on a line, circling, circling.
She could see Devin and Britt silhouetted in the doorway, watching her disintegrate with a queer sort of disaffection, as if this were precisely what they’d expected to happen, as if it were only a matter of time. It was Ollie who slid between them, opened the door, and sat on the porch steps, watching her ragged run slow to a jog, then a walk. She shuffled over and sat next to him on the steps, sucking wind. He waited until her breathing slowed, until she had wiped away the hot tears that had etched paths down her cheeks.
Ollie’s damp fingers entwined with hers. “I’m sorry about Picky.”
“Did you look in the toilet?”
Lu inhaled so swiftly that she gave a lame whistle, like a cooling teapot. “That’s where I’ll look next.”
“Okay. I’ll look with you. When you want to.”
She gave Ollie’s fingers a squeeze, feeling her own chin work at a hoary grief she wasn’t sure she had a right to. She looked around the yard, trying to be brave, to see it for what it was. But instead she pictured Peru in the days before the Spanish: the cities blazing with gold, the Inca lying with his favorite wife, and the maiden slouching toward the temple—the girl assigned to keep this sunny world safe.
Copyright © 2007 Laura Ruby
It's a delicate dance, being a blendee in the modern blended family, especially when one is expected to live up to standards set by a glamorous superstar with a million-watt smile. With three stepsons and her husband's embittered ex-wife to deal with, Lu Klein has a hard enough time living up to any standards. The ex, Beatrix, has challenges of her own dealing with her conniving teenage stepdaughter, Liv. Meanwhile, Liv's mother, Roxie, is discovering that extreme dating leaves a lot to be desired-like, for instance, the stability she had when she was still married to Liv's dad. For these women and the others balancing on the tightrope that is post-divorce parenting, life is a messy tangle of surly stepchildren, combative exes, and botched best efforts.(back to top)
She lives in Chicago with her husband and is the mother of two stepdaughters.