“Charlie?” I answer.
“Hey,” he says. Charlie’s voice is gruff and gravelly. He spent his teenage years hiding cigarettes from us. When Rachel and I figured it out, sometime around when he was seventeen, we couldn’t believe it. Not only that he was smoking but that he didn’t tell us. We understood not telling Mom, but us? He wouldn’t even tell us? He stopped a few years ago. “Did I wake you?”
“No,” I say. “I’m awake. What’s going on? How are you?”
“I’m good,” he says. “I’m good. How about you?”
“Oh,” I say, breathing in deeply as I decide what I want to say and how I want to say it. “I’m fine,” I say. I guess I don’t want to say it at all.
“Well, that’s not what I heard. I heard you’re getting a D-I-V-O-R-C-E.”
“Rachel told you?”
“No,” Charlie says, starting to explain.
“Rachel had to have told you. No one else knows.”
“Chill out, Lo. Ryan told me.”
“You talked to Ryan?”
“He is my brother-in-law. I assumed it was OK to talk to him.”
“No, I just—”
“I called him, and he told me that you guys are getting D-I-V-O-R-C-E-D.”
“Why do you keep spelling it? And we’re not getting divorced. Did Ryan say that? Did he say we were getting a divorce?” I can hear that my voice sounds panicked and frantic.
“He said that you are taking a break. And when I asked if it was a trial separation, he said, ‘Sure.’”
“Well, it’s a bit more nuanced that that, you know? It’s not, like, a formal separation.”
“Lauren, do you know a single couple that has been separated and then got back together? They all get divorced.”
“What do you want, Charlie? Or are you just calling to make me want to die?”
“Well, two things. I wanted to call and see if you were OK. If there was anything I could do.”
“I’m fine. Thank you,” I say. “What was the second thing?”
“Well, this is where things get more complicated.”
“That sounds promising,” I say. I am now back in bed.
“Part of the reason I called Ryan in the first place was because Mom has decided to throw you a surprise party.”
This is just a weird joke he’s playing. “Hilarious,” I say.
“No, dude. I’m serious.”
“Why would she do that?” I’m now up and out of bed again. I pace the floor when I’m nervous.
“She feels like we don’t do enough traditional stuff, I guess. And she wanted to host a party.”
“At her house?”
“At her house.”
“And where do you come into all of this?”
“Well, she’s flying me in.”
“You’re flying in from Chicago just to go to my thirtieth birthday party?”
“Trust me, I wouldn’t do it if I was paying for the ticket.”
“You’re so sweet.”
“No, I mean, you hate birthdays. I know that. I tried to tell Mom. She won’t listen. And you’re lucky I caught her before she called Ryan herself. She told me she was going to call him tomorrow, so I told her I’d do it since I had been meaning to call him anyway. Which, it turns out, was a good thing, but I’m pretty sure you don’t want Mom to find out about this the way I just did.”
“Does Rachel know yet?”
“About the party?”
“I doubt it. Mom just told me a few hours ago. She said it all hinged on whether I could fly in and Ryan could get you to her place without you finding out, hence why I brought it up with him.”
“That must have been such an awkward conversation,” I say, something in me finally calming down. “With Ryan, I mean.”
“It wasn’t the best, no. He did ask about you, though.”
“Yeah, he asked how you were doing. And I had to be, like, ‘Bro, I didn’t even know you two broke up. How would I know?’”
We laugh for a bit, and then I feel the need to clarify. “We didn’t break up,” I say.
“Yeah, all right,” Charlie says. “Just listen. You gotta tell Mom before the party. She’s gonna wonder where Ryan is, and it’s gonna be all weird, and anyway, I wanted to give you the heads-up. I mean, you’ve got three weeks to do it. So that gives you some time.”
“Right,” I say. “Well, hey, that’s exciting that you’re coming home.”
“Yeah,” he says. “It will be nice to see you guys.” It’s quiet for a moment before he adds, “Also, Lauren, I get that you have Rachel and everything, but . . . you have me, too. I’m here for you, too. I love you, you know.”
The fact that my brother can be such a dick is part of the reason he’s able to make you feel so much better. When he says he loves you, he means it. When he says he’ll always be there for you, he means it.
“Thanks,” I say to him. “Thank you. I’ll be OK.”
“Are you kidding me? You’re gonna be fine,” he says, and it feels better than all the other times I’ve heard it.
We get off the phone, and I get back into bed. I turn off the light and grab a hold of Thumper and start to doze off, but my phone rings again. I know who it is before I even look at the screen.
“Hey, Rach,” I say.
“Mom is throwing you a surprise party,” she says. Her voice is not just laced with schadenfreude, it is made of it. Schadenfreude is all there is.
“I know,” I say. “I just talked to Charlie.”
“She’s flying Charlie home so he can be there.”
“I know,” I say. “I just talked to him.”
“She’s flying Grandma Lois out, too. And Uncle Fletcher.”
“Now, that I didn’t know.”
“Apparently, she wants everyone to meet her new boyfriend.”
“She has a new boyfriend?”
“Do you even call Mom anymore?”
Admittedly, I have not spoken to my mom in weeks. She lives thirty minutes away, but it’s very easy to avoid talking to someone if you never answer the phone.
“His name is Bill. He’s apparently a mechanic.”
“Is he her mechanic?”
“I don’t know,” Rachel says. “Why does that matter?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I just can’t see Mom, like, picking up her mechanic.”
“She says he’s hot.”
“Yeah, she says he’s hot.”
“This is all very weird.”
“Oh, it’s totally, amazingly, delightfully weird.”
“I’m going to bed,” I say. “I need to let my dreams sort out all of this.”
“OK,” Rachel says. “But you gotta tell Mom you’re separated, right? I mean, you have to before the party. Otherwise, this is going to be a disaster.”
“When was the last time Mom threw a party?” I ask Rachel.
“I have no idea. It was definitely the early nineties, though.”
“Precisely. So this is going to be a disaster no matter what I do.”
“Do you think she’ll have a punch bowl?”
“Isn’t it just like Mom to have punch bowl?”
And for some reason, this is the funniest thing I’ve heard all day. My mother will totally have a punch bowl.
“OK, I’m really going to sleep this time.”
“Streamers. I bet you there will be streamers.”
“I’m going to bed.”
“You want over/under on streamers?”
“I don’t think that makes sense. You have to have numbers in order for the over/under thing to work.”
“Oh, right. OK, five bucks says there are streamers.”