I imagine a host of sibling glares being fired back and forth like bullets:
Way to put me on the spot, jerk!
You’d better say yes or you’re going to make her feel bad!
I hate you so much right now, Emily!
She’s not as crazy as she seems, Josh!
Finally, she comes back. “He says he’d love to.”
“Great.” I bend down, making fish kisses at the beautiful teal betta I think I’m going to adopt. “Tell him to bring takeout from Poco India when he comes.”
I burst out laughing. “I’m kidding, oh my God. I’ll make lunch. Tell him to come over anytime after eleven.” I end the call and pick up the fish in the tiny plastic cup. “You are going to love your new family.”
Winnie and I head out with fish in hand to meet Mom for lunch. My mom moved to Portland from Eugene a few years ago, when I finished college and it became apparent that I was unlikely to move back home anytime soon. I’m far more my mother’s daughter than my father’s, personality-wise, but I look exactly like my dad: dark hair, dark eyes, dimple in the left cheek, wiry and not as tall as I’d like to be. Mom, on the other hand, is tall, blond, and curvy in all the best snuggly-mom ways.
My dad was a decent parent, I suppose, but the predominant emotion I got from him throughout my life was disappointment that I wasn’t sporty. A son would have been ideal, but a tomboy would have sufficed. He wanted someone to jog in the park with, and throw around a football with for a couple of hours. He wanted weekend-long sportsball tournaments, with shouting and maybe some unfriendly opposing-team fatherly shoving. Instead, he got a goofy chatterbox daughter who wanted to raise chickens, sang Captain and Tennille in the shower, and worked at the pumpkin patch every fall since she was ten because she liked dressing up as a scarecrow. If I wasn’t entirely bewildering to him, then I was surely more work than he’d signed up for.
My parents divorced when I was twenty and happily established with a life and friends in Portland. I’ll be honest: I wasn’t the least bit surprised. My response reveals me to be the monster I am because primarily I was irritated that I would have to make two separate stops when I went home, and when I visited Dad, Mom wouldn’t be the buffer of joy anymore.
But even though I knew I was technically an adult at twenty, I kept telling myself that Dad and I would bond when I was older … when I was out of college … that he’d be so proud at my wedding someday … that he’d make a great grandpa because he could play and then hand back the kid and return to the game without a wife glaring at him from across the room.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the cards. Dad died a few weeks before Christmas the year I turned twenty-five. He was at work, and, according to his longtime coworker Herb, Dad basically sat down at his desk and said, “I’m feeling tired,” fell unconscious, and never woke up.
A weird honesty developed between my mom and I after Dad died. I always knew that my parents didn’t have the tightest romantic bond, but I didn’t realize how flat they had been, either, to the point that they were essentially two strangers moving around the same house. The ways I’m like Mom—a little wacky, I admit—were totally exasperating to Dad. Mom and I are both huggers, maybe overly enthusiastic about the things we love, and terrible joke tellers. But where I love animals and costumes and seeing faces in clouds and singing in the shower, Mom favors making wild skirts out of bold fabrics, creating artwork out of colored glass, wearing flowers in her hair, quoting musicals, and dancing while mowing the front lawn in her red cowboy boots.
Dad couldn’t stand her eccentricities, even though they’re what attracted him in the first place. I remember clearly one fight they had in front of me where he told her, “I hate it when you act like a weirdo out in public. You’re so fucking embarrassing.”
I don’t know how to explain it. I was fourteen when he said that to her, and those last four words broke something in me. I saw myself and Mom from the outside in a way I hadn’t before, like Dad represented this mainstream ideal and she and I were these loud, bouncing yellow dots outside of the standard curve.
When I looked up at her, I’d expected her to be shattered by what he’d said. But instead, she looked at him pityingly, like she wanted to console him but knew it would be a wasted effort. Dad missed out on so much by not enjoying every second he had with her, and in the end, she was terribly disappointed that he was so dull. I learned a very important thing that day: my mom would never try to change for a man, and I wouldn’t, either.
She’s waiting for me at Barista when we walk up, but it’s apparent that she’s really been awaiting Winnie, because it’s a full two minutes of puppy voice and ear ruffling before I even get a glance. At least it gives me time to decide what I’m going to order.
Mom looks up just as the waitress delivers a muffin and latte to her. “Hey, Hazie.”
“You already ordered?”
“I was hungry.” With a hand bearing rings on every finger, Mom peels the paper wrapping away from the muffin, staring down at Winnie. “I bet I could drop this entire thing and she wouldn’t notice.”
I order a curry chicken salad and black coffee and look over at my dog. Mom’s right, she’s obsessed with the trio of speckled finches under the table next to us, casually pecking at sandwich crumbs. I can see Winnie’s insanity ratcheting higher with every peck.
A car honks, a couple passes by with Winnie’s favorite thing ever—a baby in a stroller—and nothing.
But then Mom drops a huge chunk of muffin and Winnie pounces on it in a flash as if she sensed some change in the atmospheric pressure. Her movement is so fast and predatory that the birds burst away, escaping into a tree.
Mom drops another piece of muffin.
“Knock it off, you’re ruining her.”
“She’s named Winnie the Poodle,” Mom reminds me. “Already ruined.”
“Because of you I can’t eat a single meal without her watching me like I’m dismantling a bomb. You’re making her fat.”
Mom leans down and kisses Winnie on the nose. “I’m making her happy. She loves me.” This time, Winnie catches the bite of muffin before it even lands on the sidewalk.
“You’re the worst.”
Mom sings to my dog, “Best, best, best.”
“Best,” I agree, thanking the waitress when she delivers my coffee. “By the way, Sassypants, I like your haircut.”
Mom reaches up, touching it like she forgot she had hair, without any self-consciousness whatsoever. She’s always worn it long, mostly because she does forget it’s there, and luckily it’s low maintenance: thick and straight. Now it’s trimmed so it lands just below her shoulders, and for the first time ever, there are some layers at the front.
I reach over, touching the ends. “Call me crazy but it looks like you actually had someone else cut it this time.”
“I couldn’t do layers like this,” she agrees. “Wendy has a girl who does her hair.” Wendy is Mom’s best friend, who moved up to Portland about ten years ago, and was another draw for Mom to relocate here. Wendy is a Republican first, a real estate agent second, and any time left over she devotes to hassling her husband, Tom, about being lazy. I love her because she’s basically family, but honestly I have no idea what she and Mom ever find to talk about. “I went to see her yesterday. I think her name was Bendy. Something like that.”
Delight fills me like sunshine. “Please let it be Bendy. That is fantastic.”
Mom frowns. “Wait. Brandy. I think I combined Brandy and Wendy.”
I laugh into a hot sip. “I think you did.”
“Anyway, I hadn’t cut it in forever, and Glenn seems to like it.”
I pause and then take another long, deliberate sip as Mom looks directly at me, her green eyes shining with mischief.
“Glenn, eh?” I pretend to twirl my mustache.
She hums and spins her rings.
“You’ve been seeing a lot of him lately.” Glenn Ngo is a podiatrist from Sedona, Arizona, and about four inches shorter than Mom. They met when she went in because her feet were killing her, and instead of telling her to stop wearing her cowboy boots, he just gave her some orthopedic inserts for them and then asked her out to dinner.