Here’s what you don’t want to do: not say anything because you think the person doesn’t want to be reminded. Trust me, they’re reminded. Somewhere in their brain they’re reminded every second, because when someone in your family dies, it’s like part of you has disappeared, but also, they’re never really gone, because you always remember the stuff they said and little stuff they did. They’re more part of you than you think.
Anyway, just remember, you don’t need to tell the person any of your thoughts about what it must feel like, or how you’d feel if you were them, or how things will get better. That might be interesting, it might even be true, but it’s not the time. You can’t fix it for them, even a little bit. So just say you’re sorry and let them talk to you if they want. They may not want to talk about it just then, or you may not be the person they want to talk to. But maybe you are. Then the thing to do is just listen.
CHAPTER I, FLOWERED TOWELS AND A FLOOZY
I had cramps all night. Even in my dreams I had cramps. If I ever have a baby, it's going to be a piece of cake because I've had enough cramps to have about thirty babies by now. Sometimes I wonder if it’s even normal to have so much pain with your period, but I missed out when they explained all that back in sixth grade. The special evening when they showed the sex ed film about menstrual cycles and stuff, my mother wouldn’t let me go. She just said, “I don’t see why that’s necessary.” I told her our gym teacher said it was really important. But my mom’s never cared much about what gym teachers say.
The same thing happened when it was Meri’s turn to see that film. Did my mom think if we didn’t hear about stuff, it wouldn’t happen? Maybe.
When I did get my period, she sighed, “What a shame,” and handed me a box of Kotex. “Read the directions,” she added.
That was the beginning and end of sex ed in our house.
And if we complain about cramps to my mom, we don’t get any sympathy. She’s more concerned with our sheets than she is about us. She just says, "The Excedrin is in the medicine cabinet, the heating pad is in the linen closet. You're not the first girl to get her period you know, and remember, only use cold water on blood stains or they’ll set."
She doesn’t have to remind me of that, thank you very much, it’s Meri who just throws her stained stuff in the laundry, and God does my mother have a fit then—especially when it affects the good sheets. My mom’s a lunatic when it comes to linens.
Once she bought a “very expensive” shower curtain with a matching towel set in this flower pattern she loved—orange lilies with different shades of green foliage. And we were forbidden to use the towels because she never wanted to wash them or they’d fade. We only put them out when guests came, and the trick was to also give guests their own towels, and to put little paper hand towels on the counter. When the guests left, we’d refold the flowered towels and put them away. This worked for a couple of years actually, and the towels looked as new as ever until this last Christmas when my brother came home with a friend.
Hank was supposed to fly home from college on December twenty-third, but at the last minute he said he had a ride. Then he and this girl Daisy drove twenty hours straight in her Mustang and got to our house at about 9:00 at night.
They rang the doorbell when they arrived, so we had no idea it was them—no one in our family comes through the front door—we’re always supposed to enter through the garage and leave our shoes out there.
I was the one who answered, assuming it must be friends of mine looking to play ping-pong or pool in our basement. So I was surprised to see two strangers standing on the stoop—a hairy guy and an extremely beautiful girl. She looked older than me, with a brown felt hat that came down over her eyebrows and a sheepskin coat—the kind with long, curly wool at the cuffs and collar. I’d kill for a coat like that. I was just about to ask, "May I help you?" when my brother said, "Hey Sis!"
God! I almost didn't recognize my own brother. He looked totally different from when he’d left in August. He had a full beard and his hair was to his shoulders.
Just so you know, my brother and I got the short end of the stick when it comes to hair in our family. Our hair is dirty blonde while my dad and my sister—and also my mom, although she cheats—are what you call platinum blondes. Their hair is so blonde, it’s almost white. But at least my hair isn't falling out. Hank has a very receding hairline.
Anyway, on that night, he had really long hair, and he was wearing a Russian military coat that hung almost to the ground, and he had a big grin on his face like maybe he was stoned.
"Who is it?" my mother called from the family room.
"It's Hank! And he has a friend."
There was shuffling around as my parents and sister got up and I just knew my mother was folding her pink, purple, and black afghan and stashing it under a cushion— God forbid anyone see those colors in this house. Then they came into the foyer while I was taking Daisy's coat and hoping my brother would get his coat off too before my mother saw it. But no such luck.
My mother is great at acting like nothing is wrong when guests come. She kissed Hank as though he looked like one of the Hardy Boys, and Hank shook hands with my dad. But everyone's attention was really on Daisy. First of all, let me just say that Hank never mentioned his ride was with a girl. And even if he had, and he’d said she was beautiful, no one would’ve been prepared for how she actually looked. She was small—or petite, as my mom would say—and she had wavy black hair that went down past her butt—way past it. Her eyes were sapphire blue—you think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. And she had perfect skin, quite fair.
All my life my mother has told me that the most beautiful hair-eyes combination in the world is black hair with blue eyes, a fact driven home to her when she saw Elizabeth Taylor in the movie National Velvet in 1944. And now I had to admit she was right.
While we all watched, mesmerized, Daisy combed through her hair with her fingers, twisted it, and used a small pointed stick to pin it up off her neck, smiling at us nonchalantly the whole time. She had on an embroidered peasant blouse and old baggy jeans. When she lifted her arms, the two pieces of clothes parted and exposed her belly button.
Hank said, "Mom and Dad, this is my friend Daisy. She's pre-med. Listen, she’s gotta get to Wisconsin, but since we drove straight through, she's way too tired. I told her she can crash in the spare bed in my room."
Of course she can Hank, I thought, because Mom and Dad just had dual lobotomies, and now we have sleepovers with people of the opposite sex all the time...
"Is that okay, Mrs. Hoffman?” asked Daisy with a tiny voice and a hint of Texas drawl.
“Of course you’re welcome to stay, Daisy,” said my mother without looking at Hank. Then she added, “Vanessa, go up and change the sheets on your bed for Hank, and you and Daisy can share the guest room.”
I love my brother, but changing my sheets for him seemed really dumb. He’s a total slob and I knew he wouldn’t shower before going to bed. “I just changed my sheets two days ago,” I reminded her. “Hank doesn’t mind, do you Hank?”
“Really, Mom,” said Hank, “Daisy and I are fine in the same room.”
“Drop it, Hank,” said my dad in that tone that means drop it Hank.
“Vanessa, you heard me,” said my mother. “And don’t forget the towels,” she added in her sing-song, there's-nothing-wrong-with-this-picture voice.
While I went upstairs to do maid service, my father went to buy beer at 7-Eleven and my mom made sandwiches. I wouldn’t say she was exactly slamming cabinets, but I could definitely hear them shutting all the way up in my room. Here’s what my mother doesn’t love: unexpected guests, shabby clothes, long hair on my brother, and beards on anyone.
I made my bed perfectly—short sheeting it of course—and grabbed a nightgown and some clean clothes so I wouldn't have to return. I hung the flowered towels in the bathroom and took a set of pink towels—bath, hand, and wash cloth—and laid them folded on the end of one of the beds in the guest room a.k.a. Hank’s room. Then I went back downstairs.
My brother was just handing Daisy a beer and began opening his own. My dad was pouring himself a scotch. “Mr. Hoffman,” Daisy said, “If you wouldn’t mind, I’d rather have a scotch myself, I really don’t care for beer.” She lit a Marlboro and tipped the box toward me. I just smiled and shook my head . I asked her if she was from Texas or Wisconsin. “Austin,” she said, “but my mother’s new husband has a home on some lake near Milwaukee, so we’re having Christmas in the snow. I really do appreciate you letting me stay, Mrs. Hoffman, I’m just no good at driving on ice. Hank’s great at it though.”
“Isn’t he wonderful,” said my mother with zero enthusiasm. “Better call your family, Daisy, and let them know where you are before it gets too late.”
“Oh they don’t care,” she said waving her cigarette. “They never worry about me.”
“I’m sure that’s not true,” said my mother.
“Oh, it’s true. For all they know, I’m still in Texas,” she drawled.
“I wish my parents were like that,” sighed Meri, which was just what I was thinking.
“Be careful what you wish for,” said my mother with a tight little smile.
“What happened to your mom’s old husband?” asked Meri.
“Oh, he left us when I was pretty little. Try not to get married when you’re eighteen, it usually ends badly.” She gave Meri a wink.
“Do you like her new husband?” Meri continued—I guess she thought she was working for the National Enquirer.
“Well,” said Daisy, “he bought me a Mustang for a Christmas present. Can’t hold that against him.” She took a big sip of her scotch which even I could see was quite weak from all the water my dad put in it—he’s not that into girls drinking hard stuff. Daisy got up and poured another splash into her glass and sat back down.
“Why don’t you kids take Fritz for his walk now,” said my mother. I knew she meant me and Meri, but my brother jumped up and put his hand on the back of Daisy's chair saying, “Yeah, let’s stretch our legs a little, Dais.”
He followed me into the foyer to get the coats and asked me if Meri was cool.
“Definitely not,” I said.
Back in the kitchen he said, “Meri, you don’t want to go with us, do you? It’s freezing out there.” Meri always does everything Hank wants, plus he appealed to her lazy side, so she went into the family room and plopped in front of the TV. It being Christmas vacation, she didn’t have a bedtime.
As soon as we were outside my brother started to light up a joint. One thing about Hank, he’s not careful—we weren’t even at the end of the driveway.
“Come on Hank, let’s get down the street first. What if Mom looks out?” I felt a little whiny, but honestly, I didn’t want Christmas ruined. If our mom thought we used drugs, she’d be in bed for a week.
“Yeah, your mom’s kind of a trip, isn’t she? Kind of old fashioned,” said Daisy.
It was a perfectly astute observation, but it’s one thing if I complain about my mom, or my brother or Meri does, but I really don’t need to hear about her from some chick who just dropped out of nowhere, so I just asked, “Can we change the subject? How was the drive?”
“Totally cool," said Hank. "New car, good tapes, and we picked up some hitchhikers with this really great weed. They came with us as far as Chicago.” We were now three houses away from ours and he lit the joint and took a long hit and held it in. “So how’ve you been, Sis?” he asked as he exhaled and tried to pass me the number.
I held my hand up. “I’ll pass," I said. "I already smoked today.” That was a lie, but if the Murphys looked out, I really didn’t want them to see me passing a joint under their street light. “Guess what! I got my driver’s license." I said, heading toward the darkest part of the street and hoping they'd follow.
“Cool!! Hey listen, Daisy and I are gonna shack up tonight, so you have to switch rooms with me later, okay?”
“No, not okay. You will definitely get caught and I will definitely get in trouble, so figure something out that does not involve me. Like I said, I just got my driver’s license, I don’t plan on being grounded over Christmas vacation—but thanks for the offer.”
We walked all around the subdivision letting Fritz lift his leg on every mailbox. A lot of the houses were dark, but quite a few had their Christmas lights left on. There was some snow around and the clouds were moving fast, revealing stars and half a moon. They finished the joint and we all lit up cigarettes. I have Hank to thank for teaching me to smoke. It's really pretty handy having a big brother. He's seven years older than I am and growing up he taught me a lot of cool stuff like how to wrestle, play poker, shoot a rifle, throw a football, that sort of thing. For a while he was in military school and he taught me and Meri a bunch of self-defense moves and some drill songs. One went:
Little Audrey, mean as heck,
broke her little brother’s neck.
Mama said, ‘now that’s not nice.’
Audrey stabbed her with a knife.
But now he’s a pacifist so we don’t sing drill songs anymore.
As we walked, Hank and Daisy sort of fell behind without me noticing. When I turned around to see where they went they were making out in the middle of the street. Their mouths were open real far and Hank had to lean over quite a bit because, like I said, Daisy was pretty short. She was holding her hat on her head with one hand. Who names their kid Daisy, I wondered. Her parents never heard of Daisy Duck? Not to mention that daisies smell gross. Smell one, if you don’t believe me.
I was about a block ahead by the time they caught up with me.
I guess we were gone pretty long because my parents were in bed by the time we got back—or maybe they’d already burned out on my brother for one night—that happens to them a lot. Meri was still up though. She joined us in the kitchen when she heard us rustling around for food. Of course Hank and Daisy had the munchies. Hank went for a jar of pickled herring in cream sauce, and we all had some eggnog. Daisy poured a little scotch into hers, and then she joined Meri in polishing off a bag of Fig Newtons. “I wish my hair would grow as long as yours,” said Meri.
“And I wish my hair was the color of yours,” said Daisy.
Oh God, nothing I love more than a meeting of the Perfect Hair Club.
When we went to bed, Hank went in my room and Daisy and I went in the guest room. She asked to sleep in the bed closest to the door. I didn’t care, I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
Here’s something I hate: getting up right after I fall into a deep sleep. Meri had to shake me quite a bit, and at first I couldn’t figure out where I was. “Get up, Ness! Daisy is throwing up all over the bathroom. And she’s using the flowered towels!”
“Shhhh, shhhh!” I said, “Where’s Hank?”
“I can’t wake him up!”
“Okay, okay,” I said and followed her out of the room. The bathroom door was open, and the light was pouring into the hallway. So was the sound and smell of puking. Meri marched right past and into her room shutting her door. I stepped onto the cold white tile floor, opened the window, and closed myself in with the mess.
Daisy was on her knees with her head in the toilet bowl. She held her hair back with her left hand. There were tiny curls on her neck and she had little gold rings in her ears. She was wearing my brother’s gray t-shirt and a pair of his dirty socks—gross! Under her knees was one of the flowered towels and she was using another one to wipe her chin. A third towel had already been used to mop up what must’ve missed the toilet.
There wasn’t much to do but sit on the edge of the tub and wait, and that’s where I was when my mom opened the door. She just shook her head and said, “Oh for God’s sake.” Then she pulled a stack of old towels from the linen closet, put them on the counter, and went back to bed. Obviously, this wasn’t the time for a lecture—we could look forward to that tomorrow.
The puking and dry heaving seemed to go on forever, but finally Daisy stood up and dried her face. She seemed surprised to see me. “You’re Hank’s little sister,” she whispered—like I needed to be reminded. Then she stumbled out and found her way back to the guest room.
I held my breath while I gathered up the used towels and dumped them in the bathtub. Then I sprayed the toilet all over with Dow Bathroom Cleaner, washed my hands like crazy, and went back to bed leaving the bathroom window open and the door shut.
The next morning I pretended to be asleep when my mother came into the guest room. She had the hall light on, but otherwise it was still really dark. “Daisy,” she whispered, “Daisy? Daisy! How are you feeling? You were pretty sick last night. You kids should be a little more careful with alcohol.”
I could tell Daisy had her face in her pillow by the muffled way she answered. I think she said, “Go away, please.”
My mother persisted, “Daisy, I want you to get up and get dressed, dear, and get on the road. It’s best you’re not here when my girls wake up. How you students behave at school is one thing, but I’m not going to have them exposed to a lot of careless behavior in their own house. And let me tell you something, a beautiful girl like you should be a lot more careful with her looks. Alcohol and smoking are terrible for your skin. And what man really wants a girl who drinks so much? Honestly, you wouldn’t be welcome in this family with habits like that. One drink or two at the most is plenty—and not every evening either. And honestly, what kind of girl goes traipsing around between rooms at all hours of the night looking for some boy she barely knows? A floozy, that’s who. Is that the reputation you want, Daisy? I don’t think so.”
A floozy Mom? Seriously?
I could hear Daisy whimper a little. I think she whispered she was sorry.
“No need to cry. We all make mistakes. But today is a new day. The sun is coming up, and the sky is clear. Get in your car and drive to Wisconsin and think about what I said.”
“Hank is going to wonder where I went...” Daisy protested weakly.
“Hank will sleep in and I’ll tell him you wanted to get an early start. If you’re driving back to Texas together make a plan by phone, but you’re not to come back to this house unless you’re going to act appropriately. Girls are easily influenced at this age. You throwing up like that—I just hope it was a good education for them. But we have things to do today, Christmasy things, and I’m sure your family has the same. Each to their own, as the saying goes. Get up now, I’ll make you some toast to take in the car. I already carried the towels you ruined down to the laundry.”
“Yes Ma’am,” is all Daisy said.
I kept my eyes shut, and I guess I did fall back asleep because she was gone when I woke up at eight-thirty.
When Mom woke Hank up at ten he wanted to know what Daisy was doing. I was dressed and ready to finish my Christmas shopping, but I lingered in the bathroom so I could eavesdrop. It wasn’t hard, even with the door shut. When he heard Daisy had left, my brother slapped the headboard so hard it bounced against the wall. “What? Why didn’t somebody wake me up?”
“We thought you wanted to sleep,” my mother said matter-of-factly. “She said she had to get home and to wish you a Merry Christmas. Seriously, did you expect a pretty girl like that to hang around for someone who looks as straggly as you with that beard? For God’s sake if you’re going to keep that thing, at least trim it, would you? And same with that hair—it’s not very flattering you know. You just don’t have the kind of hair that looks good long. And that coat! What were you thinking? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. Do you ever look at yourself? I don’t want to see it again. Your nice corduroy jacket is hanging in the closet. Just wear that and some sweaters if you’re cold. Can I tell you something? You smell disgusting. Please shower and let’s have a nice Christmas, shall we?”
Later, when I strip the sheets off my bed, I keep my eyes shut. Some things you just don’t want to know about.