“You’re both gross,” I say, taking an orange and walking up to my room.
After Park leaves, Celia comes up to my room and plops down on my bed. She flicks my wrist and says, “You wanna go to the movies tonight?”
I look up from my social studies book, surprised. This is awfully generous of her, seeing as how she’s been spending every spare minute with Park. She never has time for me anymore, but I’ll take what I can get. “I guess so,” I say. We can share a box of Milk Duds and a large popcorn, extra butter, and we can throw it at people who talk during the movie, the way we always do.
“Good,” she says, standing up. “I’ll tell Park to pick us up at eight.”
I deflate like an old birthday balloon. “Park’s coming too?”
“Well, yeah.” Celia looks mystified, like duh, of course he’s coming too.
“Oh. Well, maybe you two should just go by yourselves then.” I turn back to my social studies homework.
“What? Why? Don’t you like him, Annemarie?” Celia sits back down again.
“He’s all right.”
“Park is more than all right, Shug. Oh, Annemarie, he’s the best. He’s wonderful. You’ve just got to give him a chance, and then you’ll see.” She falls back onto the bed, and her hair fans out on my pillow. “I really want you to like him. It was his idea that we all go out tonight, you know.”
“Yeah. He wants to get to know you. I think I love him, Annemarie, I really do. I think this is real.”
I stare at her. This was the first she’d talked of love. “How do you know?”
“You just do.” She props her head up on one elbow, and says, “I love him so much it hurts sometimes.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Her face is soft and dreamy and full of secrets, and I know why Eli Parker loves my sister.
“Well, how do you know it’s not just puppy love?” I say meanly. Something in me wants to squash those stars in her eyes.
“It’s not.” She looks dreamier than ever.
“Do you think he loves you, too?” I already know the answer. Of course he loves her. I’d seen the way he looked at her, the same way every boy looked at her, including my boy. My Mark.
She thinks this over. And slowly Celia nods. “Yeah, I think he does. And I don’t know if it’d really matter if he didn’t.”
“Are you crazy? Of course it matters! I couldn’t love somebody who didn’t love me back a trillion times more.” A lie. Hadn’t I been loving Mark all this time and hadn’t he been not loving me back?
“You’ll understand one day, loving somebody so much you just want to be near them ’cause they make you feel so good.” Celia sits up and hugs her knees to her chest. She looks about six years old. “He makes me feel like I’m the only person in the room.”
“He loves you, Celia.”
She looks so pleased, I feel like Cruella DeVille for trying to steal that look in her eyes. “You really think so?”
“Yeah.” Of this, I am certain. Who could know my sister and not love her?
In the middle of the night I wake up to hear Mama and Daddy fighting. I try to fall back to sleep, but it’s useless. I get up instead. I make my way through the darkness, and it’s Mama’s voice that guides me. When I get to the stairs, I stop and rest my head against the wall. It sounds like the same old fight.
“I work, Gracie, that’s what I do.”
“Work, work, work. That’s all you ever do, right, Billy?”
“Darlin’, one of us has to.”
“And just what do you think I do?”
“You turn the TV off and on at a nursing home.”
“Damn you! Who do you think keeps this family together while you’re gone workin’?”
“To be honest, I don’t really see you overtaxin’ yourself. You let both of those girls run wild while you lay around like the Queen of friggin’ Sheba. Lord only knows where Celia spends her nights, and Annemarie never even leaves the house.”
This stings. I didn’t think anyone had noticed the way I was always at home. I can’t help it if everyone I know has taken up arms in the sexual revolution. You’d think he’d be relieved, grateful even.
Mama laughs bitterly. “Oh, please. It’s a little late for you to be taking an interest in the girls. Pardon me, Billy, it’s a little late for you to be taking an interest in our girls. Other girls, you’ve got interest aplenty. Why, you’ve got interest just shootin’ right out of you—”
“I’m not having this conversation with you, Gracie.”
“Oh yes, you are,” Mama hisses. Her voice drops low, and I can’t hear what she says next.
Then he says, “Frankly, I’m surprised you even noticed.” His voice is so cold I don’t recognize it as my daddy’s. “I’m surprised you were sober enough to notice anything at all.”
The sound of Mama’s hand across Daddy’s cheek slices through the air. It’s loud enough to make me jump.
“Don’t do that again, Gracie.” The quiet warning in his voice silences the whole house. So does the door he slams. I hear the car start, drive away. And then all I hear is Mama crying. My shoulders feel tight, and I just want to go back to sleep.
It wasn’t fair of Daddy to say that about Mama never being sober. Plenty of people drink. That doesn’t make them alcoholics. If that were true, Clementon would just be one big AA meeting. And it’s not like she drinks all the time. There’ll be times when she won’t drink anything for days. Mama will go to work and then she’ll come home, and sometimes she’ll even make supper. Or she’ll go out with Gail, or help me with my homework. I don’t really need her help anymore, but it’s nice to work together on something. It’s nice to have her help me. To sit with her in the dining room and have her hair fall across my cheek and breathe in her perfume. It’s like she’s a real mom.
And then Daddy will call and ruin everything. He’ll say he’s not coming home that weekend, or he will come home and they’ll fight the way they always do. Then she’ll drink. Sometimes it’s like there’s this well of sadness inside her, and she has to drink to fill it up. And then sometimes it’s like there’s a monster inside of her, and drinking’s the only thing that will calm it down. And sometimes she drinks just because.