"Don't get it, " I said as I heard the ringtone of our apartment phone. Call it a premonition, paranoia, but something about that sound severed every comfortable feeling I had managed to stitch around myself.
"It's a 281 number," my boyfriend Dane said, sautéing tofu in a pan, dumping in a can of organic tomato sauce. Dane was a vegan, which meant we used soy protein in place of ground beef in our chili. It was enough to make any native-born Texan cry, but for Dane's sake I was trying to get used to it. "I can see it on the caller ID."
281. Houston. Those three digits were enough to start me hyperventilating. "It's either my mother or my sister," I said desperately. "Let the machine pick up." I hadn't spoken to either of them in at least two years.
Pausing in the act of stirring a handful of frozen veggie crumbles into the sauce, Dane said, "You can't run away from your fears. Isn't that what you always tell your readers? "
I was an advice columnist for Vibe, a magazine about relationships and sex and urban culture. My column, called "Ask Miss Independent," had started at a student-run publication, and I had quickly developed a following. Upon graduating, I'd taken Miss Independent to Vibe, and they offered me a weekly feature. Most of my advice was posted publicly, but I also sent private paid-for replies to those who requested it. To supplement my income, I also did occasional freelancing for women's magazines.
"I'm not running away from my fears," I told Dane. "I'm running away from my relatives."
"Just pick it up, Ella. You always tell people to face their problems."
"Yes, but I prefer to ignore mine and let them fester." I sidled closer to the phone and recognized the number. "Oh God. It's Mom."
"Go on," Dane said. "What's the worst that could happen?"
I stared at the phone with fearful loathing. "In the space of thirty seconds, she could say something that would send me back to therapy indefinitely."
"If you don't find out what she wants," Dane said, "you'll worry about it all night."
I let out an explosive breath and snatched up the phone. "Hello?"
"Ella. This is an emergency!"
To my mother, Candy Varner, everything was an emergency. She was a shock-and-awe parent, the ultimate drama queen. But she had covered it up so adeptly that few people suspected what went on behind closed doors. She had demanded her daughters' collusion in the myth of our happy family life, and Tara and I had given it to her without question.
At times Mom wanted interaction with my younger sister and me, but she quickly became impatient and surly. We learned to watch for every sign that would indicate the fluctuations of her mood. We had been storm chasers, trying to stay close to the twister without getting swept up in it.
I headed to the living room, away from Dane and the clatter of pans. "How are you, Mom? What's going on?"
"I just told you. An emergency! Tara came to visit today. Just appeared with no warning. She has a baby."
"Her own baby?"
"What would she be doing with someone else's baby? Yes, it's hers. You didn't know she was pregnant? "
"No," I managed to say, groping for the back of the sofa. I propped myself against it, half-sitting, half-leaning. I felt sick to my stomach. "I didn't. We haven't been in touch."
"When was the last time you picked up the phone to call her? Have you thought about either of us, Ella? Your only family? Do we have any place on your list of priorities?"
I was struck mute, my heart pounding like a dryer full of wet sneakers as an awful-familiar feeling from my childhood settled over me. But I was no longer a child. Reminding myself that I was a woman with a college degree, a career, a steady boyfriend, and a circle of good friends, I managed to answer calmly, "I sent cards."
"They weren't sincere. That last Mother's Day card didn't say one word about all the things I did for you while you were growing up. All the happy times."
I clasped my hand to my forehead in the hopes that it would keep my brain from exploding. "Mom, is Tara there now?"
"Would I be calling you if she was? She—" My mother was cut off by the angry wail of an infant in the background. "Can you hear what I'm dealing with? She left it here, Ella! She's gone! What am I supposed to do?"
"Did she say when she was coming back?"
"And there was no guy with her? Did she say who the father was? "
"I don't think she knows. She has ruined her life, Ella. No man will ever want her after this."
"You might be surprised," I said. "A lot of unmarried women have babies nowadays."
"There's still a stigma. You know what I went through to keep that from happening to you and Tara."
"After your last husband," I said, "I think we would have preferred the stigma."
Her tone turned icy. "Roger was a good man. That marriage would have lasted if you and Tara had ever learned to get along with him. It wasn't my fault that my own children drove him away. He loved you girls, and you never gave him a chance."
I rolled my eyes. "Roger loved us a little too much, Mom."
"What do you mean?"
"We had to sleep with a chair wedged against the door to keep him out of our bedroom at night. And I don't think he was planning to straighten our covers."
"That's all in your own mind. No one believes you when you say things like that, Ella."
"Tara believes me."
"She doesn't remember anything about Roger," my mother informed me triumphantly. "Not anything at all."
"Does that strike you as normal, Mom? To have large episodes of your childhood blocked out completely? Don't you think she should remember something about Roger?"
"I think it's a sign that she's been doing drugs or drinking. Those things run on your father's side."
"It's also a sign of childhood trauma or abuse. Mom, are you sure Tara didn't just go to the store?"
"Yes, I'm sure. She left a goodbye note."
"Have you tried her cell phone?"
"Of course I did! She won't answer." My mother was nearly choking with impatience. "I gave up the best years of my life taking care of you. I'm not going through it again. I'm too young to have a grand-baby. I don't want anyone to know about this. You come get it before anyone sees him, Ella! Do something with this baby or I'll give it to Social Services."
I blanched as I heard the edge in her voice, knowing it wasn't an empty threat. "Don't do anything," I said. "Don't give the baby to anyone. I'll be there in a few hours."
"I'm going to have to cancel a date tonight," she said darkly.
"I'm sorry, Mom. I'm coming. I'm leaving right now. Just hold down the fort. Wait, okay?"
The phone clicked. I was anxious and trembling, the air-conditioned breeze glancing off my neck and making me shiver.
A baby, I thought miserably. Tara's baby.
I trudged into the kitchen. "Until this moment," I said, "I thought the worst thing that could happen tonight was your cooking."
Dane had taken the skillet off the burner. He was pouring something bright orange into a martini glass. Turning, he handed it to me, his green eyes warm with friendly sympathy. "Have some."
I took a swallow of gingery-sweet gruel and grimaced. "Thanks. I was just thinking I needed a good stiff slug of carrot juice." I set aside the glass. "But I'd better take it easy. I have to drive tonight."
As I looked into Dane's concerned face, the calmness of him, the sanity of him, was like being wrapped in a soft blanket. He was casually handsome, blond, and lean, with the perpetual toasted-and-salted scruffiness of someone who had just come in from the beach. Most of the time Dane dressed in denim and hemp and enviro-sandals, as if he were perpetually ready for a spontaneous trip to some equatorial region. If you'd asked Dane to describe his perfect vacation, it would have been some survivalist trek through an exotic jungle, equipped with only a nylon water bag and a pocket knife.
Although Dane had never met my mother or sister, I had told him a lot about them, furtively unearthing memories like fragile artifacts. It wasn't easy to talk about my past, any part of it. I had managed to trust Dane with the basics: my parents had divorced and my father had left us when I was five. All I heard of my dad after that was that he had gotten a new wife, new children, and there was no place for Tara and me in his second time around.
Regardless of his failure as a dad, I could hardly blame him for wanting to escape. It bothered me, however, that my father knew what kind of parent he had left us alone with. Maybe he reasoned that daughters were better off with their mothers. Maybe he had hoped my mother would get better over time. Or maybe he feared one or both of his daughters would turn out exactly like her, and that was not something he could handle.
There had been no significant man in my life until I had met Dane at the University of Texas. He was always gentle, reading my signals, never demanding too much. He made me feel safe for the first time ever.
And yet for all that, there was something missing between us, something that nagged at me like a pebble that had worked its way into my shoe. Whatever that missing thing was, it kept Dane and me from reaching absolute closeness.
As we stood in the apartment kitchen, Dane put a warm hand on my shoulder. The shaky-cold feeling began to subside. "From what I was able to hear," Dane said, "Tara dumped off a surprise baby with your mother, who's planning to sell it on eBay."
"Social Services," I said. "She hasn't thought of eBay yet."
"What does she expect you to do?"
"She wants me to take the baby off her hands," I said, wrapping my arms around myself. "I don't think she's given much thought to anything beyond that."
"No one knows where Tara is?"
I shook my head.
"Want me to go with you?" he asked gently.
"No," I said, almost before he could finish the question. "You have too much to do here." Dane had started his own environmental monitoring equipment company, and business was expanding almost too fast for him to handle. It would be difficult for him to take the time off. "Besides," I said, "I don't know how long it will take to find Tara, or what shape she'll be in when I do."
"What if you get stuck with this kid? No, let me rephrase—what are you going to do to avoid being stuck with this kid?"
"Maybe I could just bring it here for a few days? Just long enough
Dane was shaking his head firmly. "Don't bring it here, Ella. No babies."
I gave him a dark look. "What if it were a baby polar bear or a baby Galapagos penguin? I bet you'd want it then."
"I'd make an exception for endangered species," he allowed.
"This baby is endangered. It's with my mother."
"Go to Houston and take care of the situation. I'll be waiting for you when you come back." Dane paused and added firmly, "Alone." Turning to the stove, he picked up the pan of veggie sauce and dumped it over a bowl of whole-grain pasta. He sprinkled shredded soy cheese over the top. "Eat something before you go—this'll give you sustained energy."
"No, thanks," I said. "I've lost my appetite."
A wry grin crossed his lips. "Like hell you have. Ten minutes after you leave, you're heading to the drive-through window of the nearest Whataburger."
"You think I'd cheat on you?" I demanded with all the innocent outrage I could muster.
"With another guy, no. With a cheeseburger . . . in a heartbeat."
I had always hated the three-hour druve between Austin and Houston. But the long stretch of quiet time gave me the opportunity to sift through childhood memories, and try to figure out what had led Tara to have a baby she wasn't ready to care for.
I had realized early in life that too much of anything wasn't good for you, and that included beauty. I'd had the good luck to be born moderately pretty, with blue eyes and blond hair, and a milk-colored complexion that, when exposed to the cruel blaze of the Texas sun, went straight to sizzling-red. ("You have no melatonin," Dane had once marveled. "It's like you were meant to live in the library.") At five-four I was average height with decent measurements and good legs.
Tara, however, belonged in the realm of goddesses. It was as if nature, having done the necessary experimentation with me, had decided to create the piece de resistance. Tara had hit the genetic jackpot with her fine-chiseled features, luxuriant platinum hair, and pillowy lips that no amount of collagen could mimic. At five-ten, she was a long-stemmed size two and was often mistaken for a supermodel. The only reason Tara hadn't gone on that predestined career path was that even the minimal stores of discipline and ambition required of a model were beyond her.
For those and other reasons, I had never envied Tara. Her beauty, the sheer magnitude of it, simultaneously distanced people and invited them to take advantage of her. It caused people to assume she was stupid, and truth be told, it had not exactly driven Tara to prove her intellectual mettle. A gorgeous woman was never expected to be smart, and if she was, most people found it off-putting. There was only so much good fortune a normal person could forgive in another. So a surfeit of beauty had only earned trouble for my sister. When I'd last seen Tara, there had already been too many men in her life.
Just like our mother.
Some of Mom's boyfriends had been nice men. They had first seen her as a beautiful and vivacious woman, a single working mom who was devoted to her two daughters. Eventually, however, they came to under-stand what she was, a woman who badly needed love and yet was unable to return it . . . a woman who struggled to control and dominate the people who tried to get close to her. She drove them all away and brought in new ones, a constant and exhausting turnover of lovers and friends.
Her second husband, Steve, had only lasted four months before he'd filed for divorce. He'd been a kind and rational presence in our household, and even that short time of living with him had shown me that not all adults were like Mom. When he had said goodbye to Tara and me, he had told us regretfully that we were good girls, and he wished he could take us with him. But later Mom had said that Steve had left because of Tara and me. We would never have a family, she had added, if we didn't behave better.