The blue dress clings. It should hang. The ruffles droop. They should poof. The bright blue of the dress clashes with my late summer sunburn. If I were the fashion police, I’d call this the American Flag Look.
Except it’s not the fourth of July, I’m the farthest thing from the fashion police, and today is my sister’s wedding day.
That’s her now, throwing up in the bathroom next door. She got wasted last night with some of her loser friends, who like her, all still live at home, can’t seem to finish college, or get a decent job. Okay, two of them work for their rich parents, and my sister sells tee-shirts at the mall.
That counts. I guess.
“Barb?” I yell toward the bathroom. “Everything okay?”
I hear a muffled noise that sounds like, “Yeah. . . I’m okay.”
I pile my hair on top of my head. For a moment I’m a blonde Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I try to ignore the blue glare of the dress my interior decorator mother, Bernice, picked out. Barbara and I refer to her as “Martha” (as in Martha Stewart). Of course, the dress has a matching shawl and purse made of satin. “Martha” made these herself because the ones at the dress shop looked like “chintzy Walmart garbage.”
While my sister is so hung over she is having trouble getting ready for her own wedding, my mother is upstairs ironing the hem of the wedding gown for the fifteenth time and rehemming my color-coordinating shawl because, “It’s so crooked it will make me nauseated to look at it all through the ceremony!”
I finish pinning my hair and reach for some cover up for the super-size zit at the end of my nose. My puffy-eyed sister opens the bathroom door, flipping the fan switch on.
“I feel like shit,” she proclaims. Our orange cat, Mensch, rubs his chin on Barbara’s leg. She ignores him. I reach down and scratch him behind his ears and then push him away. Let’s not have cat hair all over us, on top of everything else.
And, Barbara, of course, doesn’t look like shit. Except for her puffy, toffee-colored eyes, she looks, as usual, effortlessly beautiful. Perfectly shaped eyebrows she doesn’t have to pluck. High cheek bones and a small, straight nose. A totally zit-free face and perfect coloring, even after hours of vomiting—just the right shade of peach and lips just red enough not to need makeup.
It’s such a waste.
I take another quick glance at myself in the mirror. I’m too tall, too skinny, and too zitty.
“Barb, we’re running out of time. Let’s just get your hair up and make-up on so we can get you into your dress,” I say, trying not to respond to her drama. She’s famous for those productions. Take last night. Before she went out with her loser friends, she spilled champagne on the white outfit that she was wearing to the dress rehearsal dinner. She started to cry and scream: “I screw everything up. I’m not going to the stupid dress rehearsal dinner. I’ll just screw that up, too.” My mother and father were already gone, so I helped her find another dress. Her response to my assistance was, “Thank God for you, Maddie. You’re so together.” I felt like slapping my forehead like some drama queen myself and saying, “Do I have a choice?”
Anyway, now she is checking her breath by blowing into her cupped left hand. It’s time to get moving, and she’s worried about her bad breath? Her dress has about twenty-five tiny buttons and a bustle. She wanted to be “girlie and traditional” Ha! I have to get that girlie and traditional butt into that complicated dress.
“Do I smell?” She walks over to me and leans forward.
I’m 5’8” and she’s 5’2”. So all I inhale is her freshly washed hair, which smells like apples.
“No,” I say, and she really doesn’t, which I find amazing. I grab a brush and steer her into my desk chair in front of my full-length mirror.
“How am I going to get through this?” she asks, as I brush out the tangles in her damp hair.
“You just are,” I tell her.
“I feel pretty crappy right now. I guess if I need to puke, I’ll just do it into one of those huge containers of flowers by the aisle.” She sounds gleeful at the idea of making Mom mortified.
“No freaking out Martha today,” I say. Sometimes I feel better about Barbara when we make fun of Mom together. Like last night, Mom insisted that we all wear blue “because we are special members of the family.” She had my father in a light blue shirt with a light blue-and-white striped tie. She bought me a blue-and-white striped dress and for herself, a blue silk shirt and skirt that had white-striped banding all around the hem and the cuffs. When Mom pulled my striped number out, Barbara was standing behind her in the living room, rolling her eyes and putting her finger down her throat. Then she said to my mother, “I think we should all just go in jeans. And to make you happy, ‘cause you’re into this whole blue-and-white theme, we’ll all wear white tank tops.” My mother whirled around and looked at her like she just picked her nose and wiped it on her tee shirt. I shook my head at Barb and mouthed, “Stop,” but I was laughing, too. It’s dysfunctional, but it’s how we bond.
“You’ll be perfect,” I say as I finish her hair, and she grabs the foundation from the nearby bureau.
She puts tiny dots of rosy beige cream all over her already even complexion. “Maddie,” she says. “What will I do without you?”
I shake my head and take the foundation back, giving her the under-eye concealer. This, she actually needs.
All I can think as I watch her smear the concealer under her eyes is, “You’ll have to manage. I’m done.”
My sister wanted a very small wedding, which really pissed Martha off. My mother has an office in Manhattan. She’s done interior decorating for famous people like David Letterman. She also decorated a couple of soap opera actors’ apartments. She’s a legend in town, and I think she really took it hard when Barbara announced her plans. No elaborate, lace-and-chiffon table skirts or place settings. No showing off to the rest of her yenta friends to say, Maybe my screwed-up daughter can’t get into college or get a real job, but, look, she’s having this great big expensive wedding and marrying this perfect, nice, Jewish doctor.
Eventually, my sister caved. One day, a few weeks after Michael and Barbara got engaged, Barbara sat in the living room with a bunch of wedding magazines scattered all over the light blue-and-gold oriental rug. She chewed her nails and ripped out pictures of dresses, table settings, and flower arrangements, even wedding bands. She didn’t seem to be enjoying herself. Patience is not one of her virtues, and I think you need patience to plan a wedding. At the moment my sister made her aggravated noise: “Ahhhhrrrggg!” my mother wandered into the room. “How’s the planning going?” she asked. I was lounging on the couch, reading Seventeen. I peered up to watch the drama unfold.
At first my sister was stubborn. “Fine, mother. I am doing fine.”
My mother played it cool. “Okay. Well, good luck.”
My sister was still chewing her nails but had her thinking face on. Crinkled brow and scrunched nose.
My mother was half way to the kitchen when Barbara said, “Listen, I‘ll let you do this. But I have to have some say.”
My mother squealed and she’s not a squealer. They compromised on a small ceremony (just relatives, which turned out to be fifty-five people) with me as maid of honor and her friend, Lori, a bride’s maid and a large reception (about one fifty). Mom was thrilled and Barbara was glad to be rid of the extra hassle of planning a wedding.
This whole planning of the wedding thing has been a total nightmare and my sister, who used to be an I-can-pull-it-all-together-when-I-want-to drunk and even, at times, a nicer-than-the-sober-version-of-herself drunk, has now become a mean and ungrateful, nasty drunk. She orders me around and expects me to cover for her all the time. She used to be bitchy sometimes. Now she’s a bona fide bitch.
At her high school graduation, when I was ten years old, Barbara couldn’t get up for the brunch my mother had planned at our house. I rolled her out of bed. Got her in the shower. Sat her in the tub while I turned the shower on. Two years ago, for my Bat Mitzvah, Barbara was MIA two hours before we had to be at the temple. Michael called me on our private line to say he couldn’t find her. He thought she was with Jen Conrad (one of those loser high school friends) the night before and she hadn’t called him. Or maybe she was with Lori Cecci? Had she called home? He wanted to know. Had she come home? Could I tell everyone she had a crisis at work (at Twist?) and would meet theme at the temple? At the time, I was just like Michael, the whole “lets fix Barbara” thing, and so I said, “Of course. Absolutely!”
But now I have seen the light with Barbara. For a while Michael was the one saying we have to save her from herself. We have to stop covering up for her. In February, after a drunken Valentine’s dinner at Clemente’s where she started to do a strip tease for him at the table, he said to me when I met him in the basement to sneak her upstairs, “Maddie, it’s time to do something about Barbara. What if I hadn’t been with her tonight? She could have been raped. I have to do something.”
A few days later he dragged me to an Al-Anon meeting and even talked about doing an intervention. But then, he blew it. He got this nutty idea. If he got Barbara to marry him, then she’d “settle down”, and everything would stop being crazy.
He was wrong. And now I get it, but I’m the only one who does. I didn’t understand the problem until the Al-Anon meeting. The leader, a four hundred pound grey-haired woman who wheezed the whole time she spoke, said, “People who cover for alcoholics are really just as much of a mess as the alcoholic. Because stop and think about this: Why are you covering up for them? Don’t you realize that by covering up for them, you’re contributing to the problem? You’re enabling them not only to drink but to walk all over you. What does that say about you?”
I don’t think Michael heard that part. But I did. I didn’t understand everything. But one thing I got was that covering for Barbara was a bad thing to do.
Even though in my head I see a flashing neon stop sign, I can’t seem to stop covering for Barbara. Last night, she got so wasted, her friends called me. They wanted me to be there when they snuck her in through the basement. Then, I had to undress her and make sure she was breathing and then put her to bed. I wasn’t surprised to find myself doing this at 2 a.m., the night before her wedding. But I was surprised to feel annoyed. That was new. I used to just do it and not really notice how I felt.
I’m not sure why Barbara’s so screwed up or why we all seem to be so careful around her. When Barbara arrived at my Bat Mitzvah brunch two hours late, with mismatched shoes, large black sunglasses and only drank black coffee, my father put his arm around my sister and said quietly, “Long night?” as if she had been up all night writing a term paper. My mother told people that Barbara hadn’t been feeling well lately, and then gently steered her into the ladies room, took off the shoes and put some makeup under her eyes.
No one ever says she’s almost twenty-five and has never held a real job. No one says she dropped out of college and partied high school away. I remember the car ride home from the brunch. We all made excuses for her. None of us mentioned that she was hung over. My father said to my mother, “Barbara has her priorities screwed up. She should have been there on time.”
“She doesn’t have priorities.” My mother sounded tired.
They were silent for a moment and I volunteered. “It’s okay. At least she came.”
My mother turned around and patted my leg, “You’re very sweet, honey.”
My father sighed. “Barbara is just a free spirit. She can’t be tamed.”
Now my mother sounded annoyed when she replied, “Well, I think she’s immature. A late bloomer. Eventually, she’ll have to grow up.”
Eventually still hasn’t happened.
My sister has one true talent, and it’s actually an amazing one. She can sketch and paint. She tossed around the idea of art school at one time and constantly sketches in this journal she carries around. I mean, the thing that gets me is she’s really smart, obviously good at getting people to do what she wants, and very talented. So why has she let her life turn to crap?
Sometimes I wonder if her craziness has to do with my father. My parents married sixteen years ago when Barbara was eight. My mother was married before, to Barbara’s father. It’s a complicated story. My parents have only given me bits and pieces. My mother’s mother, Bubbie Helen, has filled in the bigger pieces of the story.
Three years ago I asked my Bubbie Helen to tell me the whole story. One night during Christmas Vacation, when Barbara and I went out to California to visit her, she did. It was a really cool night, and we sat on her front porch drinking iced-coffee. Barbara was already in bed.
“Your mother was married to a putz. It wasn’t good. She left him after a year of marriage and nine months pregnant. Even though she was only nineteen, she refused to be a victim.” Bubbie paused and took a long drink of coffee. Then she continued. “So, she moved back home and decided to go to college and become a lawyer. I had only been widowed one year, so I was happy to have the company.” Bubbie teared up. “We were very close.” She quickly wiped her eyes. “I was Mom’s Lamaze coach.”
“So how did Mom meet Dad?” I asked, intrigued with the vision in my head of young, pregnant “Martha”.
“Two years after Barbara was born, Bernice met your father in Central Park. Your mother and Barbara were eating hot dogs. Barbara started to choke, and if you can even believe this next part: your dad, a thirty-two year old bachelor, raced over and grabbed Barbara and administered the baby Heimlich on her. After it was determined she was okay, your mother (who was very shy) invited him to stay and have an ice cream with them. He hung around and played with Barbara all afternoon.” Bubbie looked far away as she told the story.
“Then what happened?” I asked her.
“Bernice and Stan didn’t exactly fall in love there. They actually became friends for about two years. I couldn’t figure out their relationship. Every Sunday, he would come over for dinner. I just loved having him over. He was intelligent and funny. A real character. Making us watch wrestling on TV. Cooking underdone pancakes on Sunday mornings. Then lecturing us on the importance of Physics. He made your mother very happy. But it didn’t seem romantic to me. He seemed like her buddy. I just think your mother wanted their relationship to be private.” Bubbie was on a roll now. She had a really peaceful look on her face. I just sat and listened.
“Sometimes he took care of Barbara when Bernice would have a late class. Stan and Barbara became so close over those years that Barb started to call him Dad. When your sister was eight, your parents married. You were born one year later. It was the highlight of those years. You were an easy, happy baby and everyone loved playing with you.” Bubbie turned and looked at me and suddenly didn’t look as peaceful. “Let’s go to bed.”
That story makes me think my parents must really love each other. When they argue, it’s mainly about Barbara. My mother plays bad cop while my father plays good cop. Mom will say, “Don’t stay out too late” when Barb goes out. Or she’ll say, “Don’t you want to do something with your life?” when Barb sleeps until 3 p.m. on her days off from selling tee-shirts at Twist. If my father’s around, he’ll say to my mom, “She’s young. Let her take her time to figure out her life.” Or he’ll say, “Barb is a grown up. Let her live her life the way she wants.” I don’t know what Barb feels about all of that. Once, in private, I heard my dad say to Mom, “We can’t make her grow up. She has to do that on her own.” My mother didn’t reply.
“For God’s sake Barb, the waste paper basket was right next to you!” My mother screams from the bathroom. “Did you have to vomit all over the $700 veil?”
We are in my mother’s bedroom and Mom is in the bathroom furiously scrubbing the veil in her sink. Barbara is standing in her dress bawling, makeup running. I am holding the bustle up with one hand and wiping Barbara’s face with a tissue with the other hand.
“Sorry, Mother. I guess I missed!” she spits back at her.
I am tired. Tired of my mother getting upset over the wrong thing. How come she doesn’t say: “For God’s sake. Barb, did you have to get trashed the night before your wedding?”
Instead we stand around screaming and crying over a veil.
Moments later, after I tuck Michael’s ring (designed by his father who owns a swank jewelry store in town) into my tiny, blue-beaded purse, we tumble into the white stretch limo and are on our way to meet Michael, my dad, and Michael’s parents at the temple. We are fifteen minutes away. My mother is discussing draperies with the limo driver (she constantly tries to recruit more customers, no matter the situation).
“Now, Mrs. Hickman, my wife wants to buy all these curtains and pillows. I tell her: You make it! Why do you have to buy them? Women used to make this stuff. Why does she have to buy it?” says the limo driver, who is a balding, wrinkled man with a toothy smile.
“George, is it?” My mother asks him. He nods, teeth gleaming. “George, your wife probably is a busy woman. She takes care of you and maybe the grandchildren–”
“Great grandchildren!” He announces as if they were a prize.
“Well, then, George, don’t you see how hard she works?” George nods vigorously. “Does she really have time to make drapes and pillows?” She stresses the word “drapes”. My mother refuses to say curtains.
“I guess not.” Poor George has been defeated by Martha.
“Let me give you my card.”
My sister and I look at each other and roll our eyes. She mouths to me, “Sucker!”
My sister busies herself with her compact, fixing her lipstick. It all somehow doesn’t seem real; my sister is getting married and leaving the house. It just doesn’t seem possible.
My mother closes the deal with George and turns back to us. She looks over at Barbara and says, “Did you bring any concealer?”
“Because you have circles under your eyes.”
I stare at my mother. And that’s because. . . ?
My sister looks into her mirror. “I already put some on.”
“Well,” my mother smoothes her dress. “You need more.”
“No, I don’t, Mother.” Barbara turns to me. “Do I need more concealer?”
I stare at her, not wanting to get involved. Not wanting to open my mouth for fear that I may scream, who gives a shit! You’re friggin’ hung over! Can we just say it already?
I say nothing because now they are going at it. I tune them out and stare out the window.
Luckily, I have been gone for most of the summer. I was a CIT at Jonah’s Rock—this “artsy fartsy” camp as my mother so charmingly referred to it. I’ve been going there since I was eleven. Bubbie sends me every year.
“Why don’t you want to intern in the city at cousin Hilda’s modeling agency?” she asked me all last year.
“Mom,” I had told her. “I don’t want to work for a modeling agency. I want to be a writer. I’m finally old enough to be a CIT for the Pub Shop.”
“What, in God’s name, is that?”
I had felt so frustrated with her. “It’s the publishing hut where kids get on computers and type out stories, poems, and plays. I get to be a counselor to other kids who want to write. It’s a great opportunity.”
I was not about to do some stupid, fake internship with stupid, bulimic and anorexic models hanging around.
“But the agency is well known and would look so good on your college transcript.” She so desperately doesn’t want me to turn out like Barbara.
I knew I’d have to sell this to her. “This will look great on my transcript for NYU. I know that many of my counselors went to school there.”
Mom couldn’t knock NYU. She caved.
Bubbie started sending me to Jonah’s Rock when she found me writing my first short story in the sixth grade. It was about a girl whose father died and her mother won’t cry about it. At the end the girl tells her mother, “It’s okay to cry.” And the mother does. “We should cultivate her talents,” Bubbie had told Mom. That was back when they were talking to each other. My mother never really said much about the camp until she came up one parents’ weekend when Erica Jong happened to be reading some of her poetry. Erica Jong is some feminist who writes, according to my mother, “smut.” Mom saw this lady and recognized her. She grabbed my father and me and marched us right out of the Pub Shop, muttering, “Pervert!” All the woman was doing was reading some harmless poetry about fruits and vegetables.
Bubbie lives in California, and I visit her for two weeks every summer and for Christmas vacation. Other than that, I don’t see her. She and my mother haven’t really spoken since I was about ten.
A couple of years ago I talked to Mom about Bubbie right before I left: “Why don’t you come?”
My mother threw me a dirty look and said, “Helen and I don’t get along and it has nothing to do with you.” I never asked again.
We used to have Bubbie come for all the high holidays when I was little, and my mother would be so mean to her the whole time. That one year when I was ten, Bubbie brought my mother a bottle of wine wrapped in this really shiny red and silver paper and a basket of mangoes and coconuts she had brought back from a trip to Hawaii. My mother took the bottle of wine and threw it out. Then they started to argue:
“How could you bring this into my house?” My mother’s voice was low and angry.
“Bernice, what’s the big deal? People bring wine as gifts all the time. So I am forbidden from bringing a gift to my daughter and her family?” Bubbie’s voice sounded light.
There was a long silence at this point. Then Mom said in the same low voice:
“You promised you’d never do this again. Get out of my house.”
And that was it.
For a year after the wine bottle incident, Mom would only let me talk with Bubbie on the phone. She never told me why. I went out to see Bubbie again. But no explanation was given for the year I didn’t see her.
The thing is I have a lot more in common with Bubbie than with my mother. Bubbie is a writer. Although when I say that, she says, “No, I’m not. I just write.” Years ago, she found God at a “Sufi Camp” and she suddenly felt the urge to write and couldn’t stop. She has been writing poetry ever since. Sometimes I wish she were my mother instead of old Martha Stewart. Bubbie pays attention to who I am. She doesn’t want to make me into something, and it totally sucks that she won’t be coming to the wedding.
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