“Cut the innocent bullshit, Dez. You deserve this, and more. You run off and leave Mom like you didn’t give a shit about her, then just because you find out she’s sick you come running back like some fucking prodigal daughter.” Derrick turned to face her. “You knew that you were her favorite. You knew that she needed you, and you abandoned her.”
is bullshit. She sure as hell didn’t need me any more than she needed you. I never abandoned Mama, and you’re delusional.”
“Right. At least I care for Mama and let her know it by my actions as well as my words.” He made a noise of disgust. “You are a selfish bitch, Dez. You always were and apparently that’ll never change.”
“Tell me how you really feel, big brother.”
The truck pulled up to a high metalwork gate and she leaned out the window to give her name to the voice that crackled with distant authority from the speaker. With a well-oiled sigh, the gate slid open to let them in. Bracketed by miles of well-tended lawn and cameras masquerading as statuary, the driveway was the long and boring kind, designed to build anticipation until it propped you up on the hill where the mansion suddenly loomed in its salsa picante colors—brilliant reds, yellows, and greens—and strangely inviting ostentation. Dez bypassed the main house and navigated the truck down the small road leading to the dock at the rear of the mansion. Derrick was silent.
Before this, they’d fought over who would pick up their mother, not with shouting matches like in the old days but with deliberate attacks of silence and looks meant to make the other feel small or guilty or generally incapable. In the grudgingly declared truce, they both won the prize of driving to the McAllister mansion to retrieve Claudia and take her back to her relatively modest four-bedroom bungalow in Coconut Grove. Dez slid her brother another look. He sat back in his seat, apparently still absorbed in his paperwork. Hard to believe that they were even related sometimes. But, unfortunately, she had the scars to prove the relation.
It wasn’t that long ago that the four of them—Dez, Derrick, Claudia, and Warrick—used to come out to this very mansion and play with Claudia’s friends. On countless sunny days, Warrick had held Dez’s slight body as she splashed around in the water, telling her she could make it all the way down the length of the Olympic-sized pool, while her twin, their mother, and the McAllisters cheered her on. Their family of four was perfect. A successful and handsome papa, a fragile yet iron-willed beauty of a mother, and a smart twin brother who she could always borrow shorts, ties, and homework from. Then, thirteen years ago she did a double backflip and somersault out of the closet, and that was the end of that. Warrick pulled his love away from her, her mother’s frailty became more apparent, and, of course, the divorce happened.
They pulled up to the drive of a tiny house—a cottage, really—at the rear of the mansion. It was a cozy little place, straight out of someone’s gingerbread fairy tale. Two women sat on its porch drinking what looked like lemonades. Their heads lifted to watch Dez and Derrick get out of the truck and walk toward them.
The last of the day’s coolness had burnt away under the rays of the high noon sun. Even though it was hidden behind the much larger mansion, this little yard was lush and beautifully manicured with its abundance of multicolored bougainvillea and hibiscus exploding from every hedge. Creeping star jasmine clambered up and over the railing of the buttercup and white house. Beyond the tropical green yard and its profusion of flowers, the McAllister yacht floated, shimmering white and blue in the water, placid in her majesty and extravagant show of wealth.
The daughter of the house—a tall elfin creature with her slenderness, slightly pointed ears, and dark curls cut close to her head—pursed her lips, then winked as Dez drew closer. Money had always bought Paj McAllister everything she’d ever wanted—a good education, beautiful toys, a life of idleness and ease. For a moment, it had even bought her Dez, trapped her happily on Paj’s long leash in awe of her freedom, her extravagant parties, and good looks. Even Aunt Paul’s overindulgence and her professional parents’ solid upper-middle-class money could never buy her an entire island to vacation on—with the accompanying servants—or a sixteenth-birthday Porsche, or Lenny Kravitz’s company on her twenty-first birthday. Dez had eventually pulled herself out of that thrall, but she still thought of Paj as beautiful and worth a long evening’s attention. Despite (or perhaps because of) a belief in her own superiority, the McAllister girl was still kind. As Dez approached, she tilted her head back, baring her slender throat and the platinum Tiffany-heart charm necklace that sat below it. Her smile was dazzling.
“Professor Nichols said you were back, but I didn’t believe it.” Long slim legs and a curved bottom in khaki shorts flashed as she stood up to pull Dez into a quick hug. Her smell was pure sea air and the faintest hint of almond soap.
Beyond her sat Claudia, not at all put out that her young companion and former student just called her a liar. With her legs tucked under her and her jaw resting in the bed of her cupped palm, she looked just as relaxed and youthful as her twenty-four-year-old friend. She was thin, yes, and her once-beautifully-thick hair wasn’t quite so much now. It lay in fine curls against her skull, making her look vulnerable and small.
“Hello, loves.” She greeted her children with a slow smile.
Paj pulled herself from Dez’s embrace. “I’ll go tell Delores and Gael that you’re here.”
She didn’t need to tell her parents anything, but she met Dez’s eyes and saw her old friend’s need for privacy. Dez turned to watch her graceful shape flounce down the stone path toward the yacht.
“You look thin, Desiree.” Dez stirred as Claudia reached for her. “But you’re still my beautiful baby girl.” Heat bloomed in Dez’s cheeks as her mother tugged her down to the chair beside her and touched her face, flicking the sunglasses aside to look into the bruised brown gaze. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but I couldn’t.” She already seemed to know what her daughter was thinking. Dez shook her head, an automatic refusal to talk about this in front of anyone, especially her brother.
“I’m glad you’re back,” Claudia said. “Paj tells me that Jackie’s has a special on mother-daughter manicures and pedicures this week. Come with me. My treat.”
Dez shook her head again and choked on her forced laughter. On the wind, she heard Paj’s high, carrying voice, a warning that their private time was up.
“Sure, Mama. Whatever you want.”
After greeting and saying good-bye to the elder McAllisters, Dez and Derrick drove off with a drowsy Claudia in the backseat. She yawned and stretched herself full out on the gray leather, gratifyingly confident in her daughter’s driving abilities. At her house, she begged to be left alone to nap in peace. Dez took her brother home with his briefcase full of paperwork, then drove back to her mother’s house where she sat on the couch near Claudia’s bed and watched her sleep.
laudia was forty-nine today, beautifully middle-aged, although she didn’t seem to know it. “Fifty is middle age. I am
middle aged!” Her voice rose above Derrick’s laughter.
At eight-thirty in the morning, the house already buzzed with activity, radio playing, Claudia’s ambitious soprano accompanying the studio-recorded voice, the cheerful clanging of pots and pans in the kitchen, even Derrick’s loud and frequent laughter. Dez hugged her cup of morning coffee and took herself out of the way until she was all the way awake. That might be a few hours yet.
Was this how it had been when she was gone? Derrick and her mother cooking, sloughing off her absence like old skin on a healing wound? It cheered and depressed her at once, that her mother could still be happy, especially after all she’d been through. All she’d been through and told Dez nothing about. Nothing. Dez leaned on the railing, sipping her coffee and staring down at the shimmering blue of her mother’s pool. The caffeine woke her, but a small part of her preferred her mind insensate and numb, taking nothing in. Yesterday, Derrick’s words had meant to make her feel like shit. Today she actually did.
“Are you coming in to help us cook, love? Leisure suits you, but you’re not on vacation anymore.” A damp towel smacked her on the rump through her pajamas.
“I didn’t think you needed my help.” Dez balanced her nearly empty cup on the railing of the deck and tilted her head to look up at her mother.
“Not your help so much, darling, as your company.” Claudia draped her arm over her daughter’s back and pressed close. Her talc-and-lavender-blossom scent reminded Dez sharply of before, of her childhood, when questions were easily answered and her Aunt Paul was only a room away.
“I can handle that,” Dez said, swallowing past the lump in her throat.
“Good.” Claudia stepped away. “And be nice to your brother while you’re at it. He’s not that bad once you get to know him.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
The three of them made breakfast together, slipping easily into the rhythm of old times with their laughter and soft-edged criticisms of technique and execution. Dez only elbowed her brother once and it was almost an accident. After finishing up the obscenely large meal, they staggered away from the dining table, undoing too-tight buttons as they went. Claudia escaped to her bedroom for a nap while her children stayed to clean up the kitchen and begin the birthday dinner.
There, they didn’t have to talk. There was nothing to disagree about. They both knew what Claudia liked to eat and they both cooked very well. Spices and utensils changed hands, grunts and nods took the place of conversation, and soon the smells of harmony, of a well-made meal for a woman they both loved, filled the space.
People started coming in at around two in the afternoon. It wasn’t especially planned that way, but Dez could bet that her friends just woke up hungry, showered, shaved, and then showed up. Rémi still looked bleary-eyed from the night before.
“Hey, Dez.” She gave her friend a cursory pat on the shoulder before walking into the house. “Smells good in here.” When she saw Dez’s mother, her whole demeanor changed. “Ms. Nichols. You look lovely, as usual.” She swept off her hat before producing a bouquet of silver and scarlet roses from behind her back. “These are for you.”
“Thank you, Rémi. They’re lovely.” Claudia took the flowers, smiling.
“You bring out the kitty in me, Ms. N.”
Dez rolled her eyes. “You want to come help out in the kitchen or just sweet-talk my mother all afternoon?”
“Well, if you really want—”
Dez dragged her to the kitchen before she could say anything else. The Cornish hens were almost done. Their rich scent mingled with the gravy simmering on the stove and with the bread pudding warming on the sideboard.
“Did your mom do all this?”
“Hardly. She helped with breakfast. Dummy and I took care of dinner. If anybody falls over dead it’s his fault.”
“Good to know.” Rémi opened the fridge. “Any breakfast left?”
But Rémi quickly homed in on the freshly made bread that was still warm and exhaling its textured rosemary scent from where it sat on the counter. When Dez looked at her friend next she had the honey butter out of the fridge and was making herself a heart-attack sandwich with the bread and the bacon, egg, and grits she found on the backup stove near the rear kitchen door.
“When you’re done mooching you can mash these potatoes. People should start coming in about an hour.”
But the doorbell rang barely fifteen minutes later. It was one of Derrick’s friends—but not Victoria. That was one pair of C-cups that Dez wouldn’t mind seeing again. Claudia poked her head in the kitchen.
“I think your brother has a new girlfriend.”
Dez rolled her eyes. “It’s probably just some hooker he paid to come here and make nice.”
“Darling, don’t be mean,” her mother said, although she couldn’t quite hide her smile. Her head disappeared back into the living room.
“I wonder what skank he brought home this time?”
“Don’t be a bitch,” Rémi murmured around a mouthful of food from her seat on the counter. “You know he only runs with classy broads, unlike some other people in the family I won’t name.”
“What the hell do you mean by that? All my women are classy.” Then she decided to change her statement. “At least the ones I decide to bring home to my mama.”
“You think so?” Rémi snickered.
“Are you girls playing nice in here?” Nuria walked in looking perky and awake in her designer parent-meeting gear of a high-necked (but sheer) white blouse and a black mermaid-cut skirt that flirted around her knees as she walked.
“We always play well together, baby.” Rémi smirked and took another bite of her sandwich.
Nuria received her kiss from each woman before taking her turn at the fridge. “By the way, Sage and Phil won’t be coming. I think they’re in the middle of one of their marathon fuck sessions or something.”
“That’s cool. I’ll catch up with them some other time,” Dez said.
Nuria poured herself a glass of orange juice and leaned on the counter beside Rémi. “Your brother is a cutie, Dez. I keep forgetting about that until I see him again. Delicious.”