Meeting Mandy | Anna Villegas | The Piltdown Review

Meeting Mandy

Meeting Mandy

Janet has to keep reminding herself that she is, after all, the adult here. It doesn’t help the cause when the eyeliner pencil slips and gives her a good poke in the eye, which means she has to start from scratch in making herself up, or over, into a reasonable facsimile of a reasonably adult person. She doesn’t feel reasonable; she feels like throwing a temper tantrum or breaking a coffee cup—a wine glass would be classier, she knows—or even just pouting for an hour or two. But pouting is her least attractive pose. Tonight’s occasion, meeting Mandy, calls for an all-guns-on-deck mature but articulate and svelte appeal, the same approach Janet would recommend for meeting, say, an escaped lunatic wielding a Ginsu knife. Restraint is key. So she lets her eyes tear up to a witchy blood red, drops in some Visine, rinses her face, and starts over.

Claire, Janet’s own grown daughter, taught her the proper application of makeup. Upside down and backwards, Janet thinks, rubbing Oil of Olay into her papery eyelids, that just when a mother realizes she can no longer brave fluorescent lighting without assistance from Maybelline or L’Oréal, a daughter comes into self-conscious beauty demanding artificial augmentation. During her senior year of high school, Claire bought her mother’s makeup, or, more accurately, bought the makeup they’d shared. Driven by hormonal insecurities, Claire was extreme in her color choices. Her desire to spite convention and the football team’s captain (you’d be really beautiful, Claire, if you didn’t wear so much makeup) was breathtakingly brave, Janet had always thought, which is why, without editorial comment, she’d watched her daughter become the makeup queen of Downey High School. It often strangled her, reserving judgment when she knew she was right, but she promised herself that if gaudy makeup was the only antisocial behavior Claire could come up with, then Claire’s mother would embrace it, too. Despite Janet’s affirmations, confirmed by everyone who knew Claire, that this child was drop-dead stunningly perfect, Claire sprinkled her flawless cheeks with glitter, pasted teal eye shadow into canvas-quality layers, and outlined her lips with paint as darkly shining as boot black. Some time in Janet’s late forties, too many years single after divorce when she began to touch herself up here and there, thus was Claire able to leap to the rescue.

A bonding experience, Janet realizes now, a primal and feminine bonding experience. Leaning against the bathroom countertop to bring her face closer to the mirror, squinting to check the mascara she can’t see clearly without her glasses, she flushes with love for her daughter, fruit of her womb. Janet reassures herself that of course she will not be expected to feel anything even second-cousin-twice-removed from such love for Mandy. It just ain’t happening, she tells herself, thumbing a pixel of dropped mascara from her left cheek.

It just ain’t happening is one of Brian’s favorite expressions. Brian is her . . . the word doesn’t come easily, there are so many options, so she settles for the tacky mouthful of significant other. Her date, beau, boyfriend, even friend sometimes (when he is just too cocky in public and she’s the one making the introductions) of nearly four years, which happens to be the exact span of time that Mandy, Brian’s daughter and only child, has been in residence at college out of state. You get old enough, Janet thinks with satisfaction as she flattens the disrupted comforter on her bed so she can lay out her black dress and panty hose, and the language of propriety just doesn’t hold sway any more. What matters is that Brian is energetic and emotionally healthy (he’d be Janet’s numero uno model of reasonability, with just a few touch-ups here and there), loving and attentive, at fifty-three the modest owner of a full head of thick Einsteinian hair. Best of all, and Janet believes this without reservation, he thinks Janet is top-drawer. A real peach, Janet knows, and she is dutifully grateful.

As an adult of top-drawer status, Janet did not push the meeting of grown children when she and Brian realized theirs just might become a permanent relationship. Four years ago, with Claire and Mandy both away at college for the most part, it was easy to mouth such platitudes as it’s not their business, not now, or we don’t screen their dates, do we? Claire and Mandy were adults themselves, so the party line went, ergo didn’t need to seal approval upon their respective parents’ romances. Janet waves the blow-dryer about her dark hair, lifting the mop of curls with a careless aim of which Claire would disapprove, and wonders why her temples seem to have sprouted thirty grey strands of betrayal since she heard, a month ago, that Mandy was finally ready to meet her.

When one behaves with grace and tact (don’t push it, Brian, let Mandy say when she wants to meet me), one expects to be rewarded with an equal part of respect, at least. A woman well-versed in post-divorce parenting dynamics herself, having charted with scientific alertness Claire’s spectacularly repressed teenaged response to her parents’ amicable breakup, Janet followed her intuition, which prescribed a program of slow growth. Two years into an ostensibly committed relationship, she’d still not met Brian’s daughter who, admittedly, only came home for school breaks and then to divide her time between Brian’s ex-wife and Brian.

Claire had met Brian easily enough, spilling out of her car with a flock of college friends on a quick weekend drive-through. In cutoff blue jeans, dusted with camping dirt, her long dark hair snarled into a scrunchie, Claire behaved with generous politeness. Janet witnessed a how-do-you-do and pleased-to-meet-you exchange improvisational enough to break the ice sans overtones of resentment or suspicion. Since then, Claire and Brian have met, not exactly frequently, but enough for their banter to have taken on occasionally and with fine spirit the hard edge of volatile intellectual argument between two people whose mutual trust level allows all conjugations of fuck to be used without any intimation of offense.

At some point, when Mandy’s recalcitrance in meeting Janet began to seem intentional rather than inadvertent, when Brian couldn’t write off his daughter’s avoidance as lack of opportunity, Janet began to compose a number of scripts investigating possible character-driven plotlines. They ranged from conspiracy of the ex-wife to vilification of the potential stepmother to—this one notably disturbing to Janet—Elektral syndrome complicated by little-princess idealizations. Janet shoves the blow-dryer into the bathroom cupboard, wipes the shed grey hairs off the counter with a frayed purple hand towel, and straightens her bra straps. With her glasses on, she can see her makeup is as good as it’s going to get and, especially poignant at this moment, there’s no disguising the cellulite encroachment on the upper thighs.

She’s got forty-five minutes until Brian arrives to escort her to the French restaurant designated by Mandy as a sufficiently expensive scene for finally meeting Janet. Her bed, left untidied after Brian’s early morning departure (delayed, as usual, by the predawn lovemaking that after four years is a surprising and proud staple of their relationship), looks terribly inviting. Janet carefully rehangs her black dress, drapes her panty hose across the dresser top, and flops the flowered comforter straight: one, two, three. She cannot stop herself. She slides into the sheets and breathes in Brian’s smell. Nesting one pillow against her belly, clamping another over her head, she wonders if she could concoct a plausibly persuasive sick-at-the-last minute excuse. Chicken liver, she tells herself. Coward. And, when self-invoked shame and guilt don’t work to leaven the anticipatory gloom, she comes full circle: You’re the adult here, hon.

“Sleeping with your glasses on?”

Janet sits up and straightens her glasses.

“Sweet dreams?”

“Bri. Am I late?”

“Not yet.” Brian is tidily underdressed: khakis and a checkered shirt, one of Janet’s favorites. His hair is temporarily calmed, but Janet knows from experience that in five minutes, when it dries, it will be as unexpectedly enthusiastic as Brian typically is. He is reserved at this moment, though, sitting on the cedar chest at the foot of her bed, hands on knees.

“I’m moving now.” Janet stands, fluffs out her flattened curls, and reaches for her dress. She slips it over her head, straightens it down her hips, and finds a splotchy crust of some persistent foodstuff two inches up from the hem. “Oh, brother.”

“You have time.”

In the bathroom, daubing a dampened washcloth at the milk (it could be Ben & Jerry’s Vanilla Bean ice cream, Brian’s favorite, but it’s coming off, thanks be), Janet believes she’s having an out-of-body experience. Which is unsettling, especially tonight and especially because with Brian she is very much an in-body, aware-of-body woman. She finds herself wishing that tonight Brian had found her sleeping and just slipped into bed beside her, which he often does when work keeps him late, throwing restaurant reservations to the wind as he’s done more than once before. She’s learned to enjoy his impulsive disregard of timeliness, although Janet is a person who has rushed through most of her life getting there early so by the time the appointed hour arrives, her sense is the other party is late and she’s entrenched in self-righteous irritation. Brian fiddles and dawdles his way to deadlines with a calmness Janet envies; he is, in point of fact, rarely late. And rarely irritated, though Janet thinks she hears something faintly chiding in his voice when he appears in the bathroom door holding her hose and black flats.

“These?”

“Yep.” Janet takes the panty hose and shoes. Brian’s habit is to take a hug as soon as he sees her, whether they’ve been separated by a long out-of-town work week or an hour’s jaunt to Jiffy Lube. He’s not asked for one, not reached out to touch her, even once in the—what’s it been?—five minutes they’ve shared the same space. Janet tucks this fact into her file of reasons to be hypervigilant, and pushes the bathroom door gently shut. “I need to pee.” She also needs Brian not to see her in the ungainly pose necessitated by pulling on panty hose.

You look nice,” Brian says when Janet emerges.

“So do you, Bri.” She restrains herself from tousling his hair, then gives in and reaches for him.

Brian squeezes her quickly, tips his wristwatch face outward, and pats her shoulder with the universally dismissive tap-tap-tap that says end of emotional encounter. Janet can’t think of one time she’s ever tapped this signal on Brian’s shoulder.

“Jan, you taking a sweater?”

“You?”

“Jacket in the car.”

“Okay. Got it. Good to go?”

“Good to go.”

“Mandy’s meeting us there,” Brian tells her, making a smooth, confidently masculine lane change once they’re on the freeway.

This is news to Janet, who has been scrupulously uninvolved in making the night’s plans. Whether Mandy’s boyfriend is coming, what restaurant to choose, Friday or Saturday night, she hasn’t made a peep. In a quick aside to a totally different topic, when Brian had described how Mandy always got such a kick out of dressing up to eat at Simone’s, Janet had sweetly murmured her agreement. When Brian had given her the date and time for the meeting with Mandy, she’d recorded them in meticulous print in her Day Runner and then done her best to forget, just the way she’d bury the countdown to a root canal deep in her subconscious. Now a series of remembered foreshadowings so occupies her that she overlooks the gratitude she should feel when, finally, Brian takes his hand from the gearshift and grasps her knee, circling her kneecap with his thumb. Something that should have been a blip on the screen of Janet’s emotional life has, like a damp mop run over linoleum long concealed by a refrigerator, collected every bit of psychic gunk and goop accumulated over the four years she’s never met Mandy.

Even with Brian’s thumb reassuring her patella that it’s no deal breaker, Janet knows this particular deal—fond relations between grown daughter and dad’s girlfriend—went bad way back when it was reported to her by an objective observer that Brian’s ex-wife had to coach a petulant Mandy, home on Christmas break her sophomore year, to get used to it; get used to her. The reporter went on to describe how the ex-wife (Janet prefers her nameless) had, like some oracle escaped from a 1950s time capsule, predicted Janet’s encroachment into Brian’s free time, his house, his finances. The truth is that Brian has always given his time to her willfully, joyfully, and Janet has never been tempted to homestead either Brian’s house or his bank account. She has her own of each. What woman in her right adult mind would want to establish residence in a house where the entire kitchen has been tapestried in chicken wallpaper by the ex-wife? Chickens wearing aprons, chickens holding buckets of droopy sunflowers, chickens trailed by broods of little aproned chickens . . . Good god, Janet had thought to herself not so long ago as she wrestled with the trash compactor in Brian’s kitchen, Mandy’s been raised in a damn would-be chicken ranch; no wonder she has no manners.

You don’t know what kind of dialogue’s been going on between Mandy and her mother, Claire had had the presence of mind to caution Janet, using just those words, when Janet let slip her dread of the entire dinner thing. Claire had been right: other than circumstantial bits and pieces, Janet had no evidence that Mandy wasn’t just a purebred tool of the ex-wife, never mind that the ex-wife had been the one to scrap the marriage, new man in her wake. Replace mom and you replace me was the translation Claire had, sagely and soberly, offered to Janet. Janet remembers Brian’s description of Mandy, some years back, picking through his refrigerator, chirping her curiosity: What’s this? (Brownies wrapped in tin foil, Janet’s double-fudge special, Claire’s favorite recipe become Brian’s.) What’s this? (A quart of skim milk, Janet’s; Brian is lactose intolerant.) What’s this? (Slices of zucchini bread, with extra walnuts, bread Janet won’t eat but loves to bake because Brian does.) Brian thought the story was about sweetness and light; Janet heard in it Mata Hari on a mission for mother. Why couldn’t Mandy just ask straight out as Claire had done when she discovered Brian’s merlot in the fridge: Brian drinks red wine? Can I have a glass, Mom?

Two blocks from Simone’s, not a word from Brian the whole ride, Janet remembers Brian’s recounting Mandy’s curiosity about Janet’s house. Janet has committed the question to memory: What kind of house does she live in. Not what does she do (Janet is a supervisor for county social services: twenty-two years into her job and proud of it); not does she have any kids (just Claire); not how did you meet her (blind date courtesy of Lee Ann, the objective observer, longtime busybody and sincere friend of both Brian and Janet). But what kind of house does she live in, which made Janet uneasy then and now with its implication of a distinctly materialistic value system, one surely genetically encoded in the DNA endowed by the ex-wife, whose Williams Sonoma, Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, Lord & Taylor, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, and Ann Taylor catalogues arrive with weekly impertinence at the house Brian kept after she left for greener pastures. Janet lives in an impressively funky house, a little fifties bungalow with marred pine floors, missing baseboards, and questionable electrical outlets Brian is constantly bemoaning (Brian being a developer of subdivisions for high-end custom homes like his own). Her fondness for her house contributes largely to her refusal to move in with Brian, a request he makes of her regularly. Janet acknowledges, too, that she takes great pleasure in the metaphorical bird-flipping at the ex-wife expressed by their continued separate residences: Janet dislikes predictions about her behavior almost as much as she dislikes being late. And she just hates being stereotyped, which is, she is certain, at the heart of Mandy’s unnaturally prolonged resistance to meeting her.

The truth is, and it’s not a particularly complimentary truth for an adult to accept about herself, Janet is not innocent of harboring her own stubbornly dark reservations about breathing the same air as Mandy, who is the only creature walking the earth’s surface besides Janet whom Brian believes to be perfect. Janet has denied Brian’s testimonials to Janet’s own perfection so regularly that Brian has learned to append perfect for me to his declamations of love. Janet hasn’t, obviously, had an opportunity to overhear Mandy’s protests to her dad’s encomiums, but she suspects that even the most high-tech surveillance gadgets would not detect a murmur of modesty escaping the lips of Brian’s daughter, who’s been described to her—in almost as many words—as the best thing since sliced bread.

Trusting a partner’s perceptions as one does at the outset of an affair, wantonly assigning credibility to virtually everything Brian had said to her during their first year together, Janet has formulated (or had formulated for her) the imposing threat of a wonder child: blonde-pretty and high-achieving, artistic and upbeat, yet vulnerably dependent on Dad with a seductive pre-liberation femininity Janet finds startling and manipulative. She’s so young, Brian says. Or she’s hardly making any money. Or I just wanted to spare her. Just the sort of rationalizations with which Janet has never, or at least only once or twice and then with disastrous consequences, sugarcoated Claire’s behavior, no matter how rude. Teenage girls turned young women can be the most cruel and selfish predators on the planet, Janet knows for a fact, which is why Brian’s benevolent misreading of Mandy’s postponement of meeting Janet is doubly hair-raising. Either Brian is as dense as dirt (Janet knows he’s not) or the man is blinded by fatherly pride to the most obvious and outdated of womanly ploys: the broken-winged decoy feint (Janet believes this to true).

It’s a blessing Brian and Janet didn’t raise children together, she thinks as Brian pulls into the lot behind Simone’s, where each parking space is framed by flower beds extravagant with pink and red impatiens. She’s heard that marriages can disintegrate in the compost of opposing parenting notions: when two adults see the nurturing of offspring differently, the weeds of dissention overtake the garden. This analogy is inspired by the lushness of the impatiens crowding the car door, flowers Janet has never successfully cultivated, although she can and does grow the heck out of geraniums and marigolds. Had they ever procreated in a nuclear family of their own, she is sure she and Brian would have resorted to imported mediators to resolve decisions as obviously easy as bedtimes and sugared/sugar-free. Then, her logic becoming so screwy at this moment that Janet sees her unabated anxiety can easily escalate into teeth-gnashing and hair-pulling, well then, she and Brian would have long ago divorced and there would be no now-Brian to be loving the now-Janet. Still and all, hon, she tells herself, you don’t deserve this. You are an adult. You don’t deserve this.

“You’ve been dreading this. You didn’t ask for this.”

Brian’s uncanny ability to voice her thoughts chokes her mantra. He takes Janet’s elbow and steers her out of the impatiens, which she has unfortunately flattened in attempting to get her door open.

Janet is prim. “Look. You parked so close I couldn’t help it.”

“Jan. Meeting Mandy. Forget the plants.”

“It’s become difficult. I told you already. The longer it went, the longer it had to grow into an—”

“An issue?”

“I abhor that word.”

“You know I would have done anything, if there’d been anything to do.” Brian pulls his jacket from the hanger suspended in the car’s back seat. It’s his old tan corduroy sports jacket, nothing fancy, which gives Janet hope. It’s a jacket which just might be old enough to predate Mandy’s birth. Hah.

“Don’t patronize me, Brian. I’m an adult.”

“We shouldn’t be having this conversation again.”

“Right. Especially now. In the lobby of Simone’s and all.”

Brian stops, tugs at Janet’s elbow, turns her to face him. “I think you’re swell. You’re perfect—”

“Perfect for you. So I’ve heard, Brian.”

Brian is a man who lathers on love even—especially?—when he is the primary cause of distress and self-doubt. He is just clueless in his imagining that Janet might be inventing her own gloomy paranoia. She is, but not in the way he’s thinking. She’s okay with herself; she’s not okay with Mandy’s four-year (and two months, which is only one twenty-fourth of the entire time span, not a weighty enough proportion to be counted in a ballpark average) foot-dragging to Janet’s being okay with herself (hey, Bri, it’s cool; it’s up to Mandy); and she most certainly is not okay with Brian’s being okay with Mandy’s being okay to something that Janet most definitely has decided is not okay. Her head aches, and she hasn’t even had a drop of red wine. Yet.

“It’s going to be fine,” Brian soothes, holding the inner door of Simone’s open for her. “You’ll see that it’s nothing. You’re going to like each other.”

The oversized vase of red and white lilies shielding the dining room from the lobby is fittingly funereal. If she were a weak woman, which she’s not, Janet believes her knees would buckle at this moment, burdened as she is by the weight of all that Brian cannot comprehend about female subterfuge. Being a strong woman (and an adult to boot), she smiles her winsome best at the maître d’ and steps aside as Brian confirms their reservations. For three. How intimately triangular, Janet thinks, and prepares herself to be thrown to the lions.

Fifteen minutes into their dinner reservation, no sign of Mandy, dressed up or otherwise, one and one-half glasses of Perrier downed, Janet drills herself with Claire’s advice. Just reserve parts of yourself, Ma, and every so often say something nobody understands. Such wisdom from a child whose reaction to her mother’s dating after the barren inertia following divorce was to offer a thumbs-up way to go, Mom. Claire is a better candidate for this evening’s ordeal than Janet is. Her exuberance is rarely deflated by anxiety; she’s quite a bit like Brian in her capacity to ignore likely tragic outcomes. A lost pair of sunglasses, an acquaintance’s name forgotten, a tête-à-tête with a nubile archrival—Claire would stomp her way right through the quagmire, finding the footing of hard ground where a more cautious type would sink into uncertain quicksand. Claire’s undoubtedly right: most introductory social occasions require the revelation of approximately one third of one’s self, maybe rarely going the extreme of three-fifths amidst background chatter and a bad house band. Simone’s, though, is soft with just the faintest wave of some well-distributed classical piano strains and tastefully muted conversation certifying the most civil of participants. Claire would probably vote for her to display no more than a cheerful one-quarter Janet, not counting non sequiturs.

They’re sitting at a rectangular table set for three, Janet directly across from Brian, Mandy’s place setting to her right. Janet hadn’t known where to sit—what etiquette applied to seatings for such an affair—so when the maître d’ had pulled out a chair, Janet had looked to Brian. Brian, however, had turned to scan the entry for his daughter. So Janet had taken her seat with a ginger delicacy, the way a defendant would settle into the witness box, clumsy but alert.

“Do you want a glass of wine?” Brian asks.

Neither Brian nor Janet has ruffled a napkin or touched a utensil. Hands in laps, they’ve been avoiding eye contact by searching the diners and décor behind each other’s heads. Janet has fixed her attention on an older couple seated at the small table behind Brian’s right shoulder. She is enviously certain they are long married (to each other) and that their comfortably silent perusal of the tasteful one-page menu is the result of years and years of yoked child-rearing, career-assisting, and bilateral crisis management. The wife extends a long, slender finger and barely touches the back of her husband’s ringed hand. Janet watches his thumb capture the finger.

“Jan? Wine now?”

“Oh, sure.”

“What are you thinking?

“Bri.”

“You were lost in space. She’ll be here.”

“I’m sure she will.”

“Do you want a drink?”

“Drink?”

“Instead of wine. What they used to call cocktails.”

“I don’t think so. Unless you’re—”

“Dad!”

Brian stands so abruptly he almost tips his chair. The long-married husband and wife look up from their menus, smiling. They must recognize this scene and approve of it: a public greeting between an acceptably turned-out grown child and a fond parent, proof positive that all is right with the world. In the protective intervention of nostalgia, Janet remembers picking up Claire at the airport after Claire’s three-week excursion to Germany to visit an exchange-student friend. Her Doc Martened, dirty-jeaned daughter strode from the plane, backpack weighting her shoulder, her uncombed hair looped into a messy bun, her tired face ecstatic with homecoming. They’d both cried at reuniting after the longest separation in Claire’s life; each had known the person whom she held inside her arms to be the one soul on earth who knew and loved her best.

Brian and Mandy are hugging each other. Janet rises and fixes a smile though her lips feel stiff, as if they’d been novocained to numbness. Mandy, her face rounder than photographs suggest, stares at her from beyond Brian’s shoulder. Something Janet cannot read flits across the girl’s upturned face, a time-lapse sequence of twelve or thirteen different emotions. Janet hopes she is doing a better job of masking than is Mandy. She is, she reminds herself as she waits for the hug to end, supposed to be playing the long-suffering adult in this scene.

“This is Janet. Janet, Mandy.” Brian is beaming. All’s well that ends well, Brian has clearly concluded.

“It’s so nice to meet you,” Mandy bubbles, extending a hand.

“It’s nice to meet you too, Mandy,” Janet says. Their palms touch briefly. Janet thinks she has retracted hers first. She hopes so. She knows that mirroring is in order here; she stands waiting for Brian to pull out Mandy’s chair. With dread, she sees that he’s seating Mandy where he has been sitting, directly across from Janet. A conversation aid, he probably thinks, in his best business negotiating style. When Mandy sits, Janet does. Then she waits for cues.

“I’m sorry I’m late, Dad. I thought maybe Chris could come, but then it turned out he couldn’t.”

“Sweetie, no problem. We just got here. Didn’t we, Jan?”

“Just got here. No problem.”

“Chris is Mandy’s boyfriend.” Brian rests his arm against the back of Janet’s chair.

“Sure.” Janet reaches for her water. When wordless, drink, she’s thinking.

“He couldn’t find a fill-in.” Mandy smiles at Janet. Her eyes are bluer, her hair more blonde, her face indeed rounder than the snapshot magnetized to Brian’s fridge. She must resemble the ex-wife, Janet assesses. At the moment, she can see no likeness to Brian. “He’s a coach for the school district.”

“Oh.”

Mandy straightens the strap of her tiny silver purse against the back of her chair. She reaches for the Perrier bottle and refills Janet’s glass, then fills her own. The hostess come-on, Janet sees, and replaces her hands in her lap.

“How you been, sweetie?” Brian asks.

“Really busy, Dad. It seems like I’m going off in ten different directions all the time.”

Brian turns to Janet, triangulating. “Mandy’s got two jobs and—what is it, honey—a volunteer thing?”

Janet knows about the jobs. The volunteer thing is an internship with the school district, which is where Mandy met Chris, who works for the after-school sports program. Janet knows all this already, but if the script calls for feigned wonderment at this information, she can rise.

“An internship, actually. With the school district? That’s where Chris and I met.” Mandy’s voice is a girlish patois of deferential lilts and inquisitive upbeats; her sentences curl themselves into questions so that Janet finds she is bobbing her head to the rhythm of every three words.

“I will have that . . . cocktail, Brian.” Slightly drunk, Janet figures, she won’t be perceived as stupid, just sloppy. She’s already got a headache, so there’s no point in avoiding alcohol, either.

“Martini? Manhattan? How ’bout you, Mand, a Shirley Temple?”

Janet has never, in four years, seen Brian quite so—there’s no other honest word for it—so earnestly flirtatious. A good-ole-boy on speed, she recognizes. She’s not so sure it’s a sound idea for Brian to be drinking in his present state of mind.

“Dad.” Ah, Janet hears with a smug satisfaction, Mandy has indeed mastered the flat derogative. “I’d just like some wine.”

“Red or white?”

“Janet? What would you like? Should we get a bottle of white now? Dad favors red—”

“I’ll have that Manhattan, I think.”

“Mandy? You’ll have red with me?”

“Sure, Dad. Will you pick?”

“How about we let the waiter pick?”

“Great.”

As Brian talks wine with the sommelier, Janet realizes she may have lost ground in the battle of who can be nicer. Maybe inches; maybe yards. The communion symbolism of dining with Mandy is no doubt distorted by her choice of hard liquor; Mandy is watching Brian’s face, not Janet’s, anymore. What kind of a witch have you hooked up with, Dad, Janet decodes Mandy’s SOS to her father. They could even be touching feet under the table: Brian’s big feet tapping out an improbably good-hearted explanation for Janet’s incivility to Mandy’s painted toes peeking woefully from beneath their slick sandal straps.

None of this is fair, Janet thinks, gratefully taking the squat Manhattan glass from the waiter and sipping a little too fast. She feels like one of those female executives who explain in their self-congratulatory memoirs how being a woman in a man’s world has always meant that they’ve had to go the extra mile, work the extra hour, land the extra client, in short, how they’ve entered the fifty-yard sprint after running a cross-country marathon. Janet has never felt this particular persecution (being a capable woman in the workplace has always felt fairly natural, as far as she’s concerned), but she does recognize the aura of starting line burnout. She’s spent four years (and two months) personifying patience and good will, so it isn’t fair that she be judged solely on the basis of this dinner. Her record is without blemish, she wants to say to Mandy, unlike yours, young lady.

Janet’s a bit behind both Mandy and Brian, who have settled napkins into laps and begun to study menus. Janet’s a quick chooser; she’s always ready to order long before Brian, who likes to investigate where the snapper is from or what exactly goes into the bisque. So she knows she can catch up before the waiter returns with his gentle inquisition as to what madam will have. But even this—her quickness, their drawn-out debate—excludes her from familiarity in every sense of the word. She shifts her gaze to Mandy just in time to see the girl’s blue eyes shutter; she has been staring. Janet self-consciously combs back her hair from her forehead, smiles, and takes up her menu studiously, cramming.

Brian slides his glasses down his nose. “What about this lamb, Mand?”

“I was thinking the sand dabs.”

“Look good to you?”

“I think so.”

Janet sips again at her Manhattan (almost gone, but nobody’s noticing). To the upper left of her place setting a small square plate of something fried-looking has appeared. Surely it can’t be vegetable tempura, not in Simone’s, where deep-fried anything would appear to violate haute cuisine’s prohibitions against saturated fat consumption. Janet wonders if Brian will tell her—he’s eaten all of his, whatever it is. She twinges with jealousy. Mandy dusts her lips with a triangled tip of napkin. She knows what she’s eating.

“These are great, Jan,” Brian encourages, nodding toward her untouched plate of mystery. “Ginger in there somewhere. I think I had a lemon.”

“Aren’t they good?” Mandy nods too—why isn’t Janet eating hers.

Janet maneuvers a long strip, it seems to have a tail, between her lips. She crunches; she swallows. “Fish?”

“Oh! It’s anchovy! Isn’t it great?” Mandy has the effervescent confidence of a child who knows her scores are top-notch. In showy solidarity with Janet, she eats the last anchovy from her plate. She rolls her eyes. “This is so great, Dad.”

She’s used to getting what she wants, Janet deduces, whether it’s anchovy antipasto or a pat on the back. She is so unlike Claire with her slippy dress and her silver purse and her strappy sandals and her bubbling brook voice. Janet didn’t think girls came in this model any more. She is at a loss. She needs Claire right now, Claire who would no doubt say, denying Janet’s most basic needs but dead-on in the equity of her insight: Okay, Ma, she screwed up, but she’s trying now. Let her try.

“I think I’ll have the sand dabs too, Brian,” Janet offers.

“Good taste.” Brian winks at Mandy, squeezes Janet’s shoulder.

“You’re having the lamb, Brian?”

“Yep. I’ll go with the lamb. We’re one and two.”

“We’re set!” Mandy refills Janet’s water glass, even though it barely tolerates replenishing; Janet has been working solely on her Manhattan.

Janet doesn’t know if she should accept this repeated small grace silently as if a waiter had done it, or make a fuss and thank Mandy, thereby singling out her thoughtfulness. She picks at the seam of stitching bordering her napkin. She’d expected—not exactly a catfight, to use a dated idiom which seems to fit the previously imagined Mandy perfectly—more abrasion than she’s feeling. She expected fits and starts in the start-up of personalized animus and so had prepped herself in the icy stillness of which Claire claims she is a world-class practitioner. She’d not anticipated such giddiness, such hale and hearty cheerioing, such blondeness.

Somehow Mandy’s bland goodwill is so impersonal (Janet is aware of the illogic of her analysis) that it’s recalibrated years of offense (Janet’s) about years of hostility (Mandy’s) into just what Brian had said it was: no deal breaker. Either that or the child has stepped off the screen of some soap opera so deviously wrought that nobody knows her own identity. She looks as if she might have, the dress and hair are right, but Mandy just doesn’t project the aura of a villainess.

Brian tears a piece of French bread and centers it on Janet’s bread plate. He offers the basket to Mandy, who picks out a heel. Soup, salad, entrée, dessert, coffee: Janet counts five more chapters until dinner is over. At least the service is fairly prompt; if they didn’t have the food to discuss, conversational pickings would be mighty slim.

Brian reaches for the butter plate.

“Dad!” Mandy swats his hand away. Brian blushes.

“Janet, are you going to get Dad to start watching his cholesterol?

“Excuse me?” Janet thinks she’s jumped, actually lifted from her seat, but neither Brian nor Mandy seems to have seen her startle.

“Dad loves butter. How are you going to get him to eat better?”

Janet can’t read Mandy’s tone. “Well, I—it’s—actually, that’s something out of my control. Isn’t it?”

“But he needs to start watching what he eats. Dad, we want you to be more careful!”

Janet believes she can detect the ex-wife’s voice in Mandy’s playful chiding. Maybe it’s channeling from a living source; more likely it’s the way an adult child will, without a shred of conscious apprehension, transform from rebel on wheels into the spooky incarnation of a parent. Janet’s seen this very mimicry growing in Claire: Janet’s own words (her own worldview!) and gestures impersonated by the most devout student of her psyche there could ever be. She shouldn’t be surprised to find Mandy a dead ringer for her mother.

But why Mandy thinks at this moment she and Janet are close enough to be discussing a present adult as if he were some kind of livestock being fattened for the kill mystifies Janet. It’s true Brian eats like a Marine. (It’s true that Janet cannot resist spoiling him with her brownies, her raised waffles, her peach cobbler. Is Mandy criticizing her baking?) It’s also true that Janet regularly succeeds in foisting tofu, soy powder, nonfat turkey sausages, skinless chicken breasts, and lots and lots of spinach and broccoli on Brian, who accepts her menus with good temper. She would never, for example, deep fry an anchovy for Brian, she thinks with indignation. Who picked Simone’s?

Secretly Janet believes he finds it flattering that someone would go to the effort of monitoring his fat intake, one of those weird and intimate trades of middle-aged romance. Janet shops nonfat for Brian’s kitchen; Brian fixes electrical mishaps Janet doesn’t even know have occurred. She is vested in his longevity. She wants him around.

Can it be that Mandy, by enlisting Janet in Janet’s own cause, is appropriating her role?

“Here, Brian.” Janet slides her tempura look-alike onto Brian’s plate. “You and Mandy finish these. I think,” she combs Brian’s hair flat and rubs his neck, “I think I need to use the ladies’ room.”

She considers kissing his head, right on the hairline of his forehead the way she would if they were alone in her living room and she were passing by his chair, but she doesn’t. That would be, Claire would say, certainly over the top. Unwarranted. Beyond the pale. But deeply satisfying, just as giving in and scratching a patch of poison oak until the skin breaks is satisfying, even though the rash will fester and spread.

You’re a bad person, Janet mouths to her reflection in the restroom, where she has thankfully made her way without weaving. You’re not the fairest and you think bad thoughts. What if Mandy were your child? Would you want some woman sneaking off to the bathroom to escape Claire? Bite the bullet!

Holding her curls back with one hand, swabbing a damp towelette across her forehead with the other, Janet studies herself. The restroom light bulbs are flattering: no crow’s feet, no laugh lines, no grey hair. In the low-wattage light, Janet appears twenty years younger, young enough to be mother to a daughter two years old instead of twenty-two. The door opens behind her.

It’s the willowy grey-haired wife. She stands behind Janet, facing their reflections in the mirror. Taller than Janet, her face illuminated by grace, she smiles.

 “Your daughter is lovely,” she says, the tips of her slender fingers barely brushing Janet’s shoulder. “A lovely girl.”

Janet stands aside, shakes her head. “She’s—”

“My husband and I both saw the resemblance when she came in. We knew exactly which table would . . . which table she’d belong to.”

Janet’s fingers tighten around the damp towel. This is the crossroads to which all women come, she sees. Somewhere between the appetizer and the entrée, somewhere after the Manhattan but before the sauvignon where the lights will let you get away with bloody murder if you can stomach it, this is when the meal is decided.

You set another place at the table and choose: poison apple or sand dabs. If you’re an adult, you accept that there’s a place setting for Mandy here, that there’s enough of Brian for both of you. You leave the wicked queen to her own devices, or to the ex-wife’s, anyway. You love your Claire. You make her proud.

“Isn’t she, though,” Janet murmurs. “A lovely girl.”  

            
2018 Fall/Winter Fiction Contest—First Prize $500

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