Authors: Jennifer Weiner
o patted her hair, freshly cut into a new, short feathered style, and checked her makeup, her single swipe of lipstick now augmented by mascara and foundation and rouge that she applied every morning. She could see the beginning of wrinkles, the way the skin of her eyelids seemed to have thinned and loosened. More than that, sometimes she’d catch a glimpse of her reflection and think she was seeing her mother.
, she thought, without much regret, as her sister came loping out of the station, shading her eyes as she looked first left, then right. Bethie was resplendent in a pale-brown suede jacket with fringe that hung to her knees, a coat that would be completely useless in the New England blizzard that was on its way. She had no scarf or mittens, at least none that Jo could see. She wore tight-fitting jeans that flared out at her ankles, a fuchsia-colored sweater with a capaciously cowled neckline, dangly earrings, twists of wire strung with beads and bits of feather, and a pair of brown leather platform pumps with wooden heels. Her hair, parted in the center, hung in waves to the center of her back,
and her weight seemed to have settled somewhere between the extremes of the lemon-water and Metrecal diets of her teenage years and the year or two after the abortion, where Jo was convinced that Bethie was piling on pounds deliberately, as a way of keeping men away. Her sister looked strong, at ease, comfortable in her own skin, even though their mother, Jo knew, was still riding her to lose twenty pounds. Jo blipped the station wagon’s horn twice. Bethie waved exuberantly and trotted toward the car, tossing her luggage, a tote bag made of brightly colored squares of exotic-looking cloth, into the back seat and hopping into the front.
“The family sedan!” she said, mock-admiring the station wagon. “Jo, I guess you’re in it for the long haul.”
Jo felt her chest get tight and her cheeks get hot and reminded herself not to take Bethie’s bait. “Of course I’m in it for the long haul. I have two kids.”
“A woman at Blue Hill Farm has two kids,” Bethie said. “Her husband was a total MCP. Male chauvinist pig,” Bethie said, before Jo could ask what an MCP was. “The kind of guy who comes home from the office and expects to be waited on hand and foot, as if she hadn’t been working all day long. She left him and took the kids with her, and she says she’s happier than she’s ever been in her life.”
“Lucky for me I’m not married to an MCP,” said Jo, mentally praying that Dave would not come home that night and immediately ask her for a beer, as was his habit. “Oh, here it comes,” said Jo, turning on the windshield wipers as the first flakes of snow hit the glass, grateful to change the subject. She tuned the radio to WTIC, which gave the weather every ten minutes. “I hope you packed enough to stay a while. They’re saying it’s going to be the biggest blizzard of the decade.”
“I love winter,” Bethie said in the dreamy, blissed-out voice that figured in Dave’s most savage imitations of Jo’s sister. The name of the commune where Bethie lived was Blue Hill Farm. Dave called it Space Mountain, and referred to Bethie’s fellow
residents as the Space Cadets. At a red light, Jo looked at her sister, who was staring out the window, examining the pedestrians as if she were observing life on Mars. Maybe that was how it felt, Jo told herself. The Connecticut suburbs were probably as strange to her as Jo might have found outer space.
When they were growing up, if you’d asked Jo what her sister would do with her life, Jo would have replied, without hesitation, that Bethie, sweet, pretty Bethie, apple of her mother’s eye, would get married and have children. But Bethie had gone her own way. In 1969, while Jo and Dave were sitting, rapt, in front of their television set, watching Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong take those first buoyant, bouncing steps on the moon, Bethie had been in San Francisco, shacked up with some guy named Francis.
, Sarah had sniffed, which meant
not one of us
When Jo found out that she was pregnant, Bethie was on Max Yasgur’s farm in the Catskills, wearing a string of beads, a handful of mud, and nothing else. In 1972, when Jo and Dave were debating walnut versus cherrywood dinette sets and just beginning to hear about the Watergate break-in, Bethie was in Italy, and when Missy arrived, Bethie was in Atlanta, on the commune. She’d shown up for Missy’s third birthday party with a crown of dried flowers in her hair and matching crowns for the birthday girl and her big sister, wearing a floor-length white dress of sheer, dotted Swiss cotton that turned out to be completely see-through in the sunshine. “I see London, I see France, I see your sister doesn’t wear underpants,” Dave had murmured, and Jo had pinched his elbow as her mother, tight-lipped, had escorted Bethie back inside.
“What do you hear from Mom?” Bethie asked Jo, with her face still turned toward the window.
“Same as usual. Work is hard, her feet hurt, and the car is still making that funny noise. She thinks the mechanics are ripping her off because she’s a woman.”
“She’s probably right,” Bethie said. Jo stifled a sigh. She was not unaware of the injustices in the world in general, or the
unfairness of how women were treated specifically, but her sister saw sexism, discrimination, and chauvinism everywhere, and was not shy about pointing it out.
My eyes have been opened
, she liked to say. At the synagogue Jo and Dave had joined, or back home at Adath Israel in Detroit, whenever the rabbi would refer, in the responsive readings, to God as “he,” Bethie would say “she,” loudly enough for people in nearby rows to hear it. The last time they’d visited Blue Hill Farm, Jo made Kim leave her beloved Barbie at home, knowing that bringing it would mean a lecture on the unattainable physical ideal the doll promoted, not to mention the dangers of the phthalates emitted by plastic toys. Whenever Sarah referred to her granddaughters’ beauty, Bethie would immediately chime in with praise of their intelligence or their humor . . . and the first time Bethie had visited in Avondale, she’d kept quiet the whole way to Jo’s house before asking, “Are there any African American people here? Anywhere? Anyone who isn’t white?” Dave had made some joke about how they were all on the other side of the tracks, and Bethie had smirked, and Jo hadn’t known what to say, because the truth was, Avondale, where she and Dave had decided to put down roots, was probably the least integrated place she’d ever lived. It was embarrassing. As a teenager, she’d wanted to change the world. She’d picketed and marched and sent what money she could to the voter-registration drives down South. Now, she lived on a street where not only was everyone white, no one else was Jewish, and the only African American and Hispanic kids her daughters went to school with were the ones bussed in from Hartford, as part of a program called ABC, for A Better Chance.
Jo tried to enjoy her time with her sister, to tell herself that she was glad that Bethie’s dangerous, wandering years were over, and that at least one of them had grown up to do the essential work of changing the world. She made an effort not to roll her eyes at the tofu casseroles and the gender-neutral wooden toys and the unceasing earnestness of the women who lived on the Farm. Most of all, she tried to forgive Bethie for her role in Jo’s
own choices, for getting high and getting pregnant, for needing Jo’s help and her money, for being, however inadvertently, a part of the reason Jo was currently the married mother of two. She tried not to think about the way Bethie hadn’t shown up for her wedding, and had hounded her after she’d finally met Dave, insisting that he wasn’t what Jo wanted, that Jo was not being true to herself.
Like I had that luxury
, Jo would think bitterly.
As if any woman like me does.
Jo knew that it wasn’t Bethie’s fault. Her sister hadn’t ruined Jo’s trip, or her life, on purpose. Jo knew that. But what she knew and how she felt were different. Jo had never gotten to see the world, and maybe if attending Shelley’s wedding hadn’t broken her heart she would have found the strength to resist Dave’s charms and move to New York City and try to make it as a writer, like she’d planned, instead of opting for the easy way out. It wasn’t Bethie’s fault, the way things had worked out, but Bethie was not entirely without blame, either, and it was hard to watch her sister flit around in love beads, with long hair, while Jo wore a girdle and a wedding ring; hard to watch Bethie move through the world exactly how she wanted, with no obligations or responsibilities, while Jo was stuck warming bottles and rinsing dirty diapers, emptying the refrigerator and filling it again.
There was also the way Bethie behaved around her, the sly questions, the way she would show up, smelling of sandalwood, dripping with sincerity, giving Jo a look that said
I know who you really are, and I know this isn’t what you really want.
Jo loved her daughters: solemn, smart Kim, who’d been named for Jo’s father, and graceful, fearless Missy. She loved the piping sound of their voices; she loved the feel of their plump thighs and arms and the sweet, musty way they smelled, like graham crackers and sun-warmed laundry. When the girls were toddlers she’d put a child’s seat over the rear fender of her three-speed Schwinn, and she’d ridden them all around town. She’d taken them sledding on the golf course near their house, and had taught them how to ski and skate, and had coached their soccer teams when they
were six and seven and eight, and gone to their classrooms every December to tell the kids about Chanukah (almost all of them were Christian and unaware that there were winter holidays other than Christmas or, in some cases, that there were religions other than their own). She couldn’t imagine not being a mother. She was happy and fulfilled. Or, at least, she was happy enough, fulfilled enough. And yet, every time she tried to explain herself to Bethie, her sister just looked at her with a smug twist of her lips, a sarcastic tilt of her eyebrows, an expression that said,
You might say you’re happy, but I know better.
Jo kept her sister at arm’s length. She saw her at Thanksgiving and Passover, when Sarah summoned them back to Michigan, and invited Bethie to Connecticut for the holidays Sarah ceded to her. She went to Atlanta for a week once every summer, and turned down any of Bethie’s additional requests for visits as often as she could without being obviously unfriendly or rude. She’d given in this time because her daughters had begged to see their aunt Bethie, and because the neighborhood ladies had formed a consciousness-raising group, of which Jo was a member. They talked about feminism, and marriage, and men; they read (or at least skimmed) books by Betty Friedan and Kate Millett. Jo had mentioned the group to Bethie, and for years, Bethie had been offering to come and lead it, to tell Jo’s friends about some of the issues the women on her commune discussed. “And you and I need to talk some things through,” she’d said, words that made Jo feel deeply uneasy, and had kept her making excuses. What if Bethie decided, in the name of feminism or authenticity or just making trouble, that she needed to let Dave know about Shelley?
Dave already knows
, she wanted to tell her sister.
Dave knows I was with women, so you wouldn’t be spilling the beans.
It was true, but still, a whispered confession after she and Dave had first made love was different from a blaring announcement, more than a decade into a marriage in which Dave’s big dreams had, so far, been thwarted, in which they’d become increasingly distant, and where the frequency of their sexual activities had gone from every
few days to every few weeks, with dry spells that had stretched for months after each girl’s birth.
In the car, her good suburban station wagon, Jo turned up the volume as the radio announcer began reading the list of school districts that had sent the kids home early. “I can’t wait to see the girls!” Bethie said.
“They can’t wait to see you,” Jo said. Kim and Missy, ages eight and six, adored their glamorous aunt Bethie, who wore stacks of beaded bracelets on her wrists, delicate, dangling earrings, and ropes of jade and amber around her neck, and who smelled like the essential oils that she dabbed under her ears.
My aunt Bethie lives on the moon
, Kim had written in a first-grade essay on My Favorite Person. Jo had sent it to Bethie, the text accompanied by a drawing where Bethie looked like a black crayoned crane, with swirls of brown hair and enormous red lips. Jo had explained to Kim, who seemed to have been born without a discernible sense of humor, that her aunt lived on a commune, not the moon. “What is a commune?” Kim had asked, and Jo explained, “It’s where lots of different people live together, like a family.”
Kim’s nose had crinkled in consideration before she’d nodded and gone back to the dining room to work on a book report that wouldn’t be due for three weeks.
“So how are you?” Bethie asked. The fringed purse that sat in her lap was the same suede as her jacket, and her sweater must have been made of angora, fluffs of which were already drifting through the station wagon’s interior and sticking to the fabric ceiling.
Here we go
, thought Jo. “I’m fine,” she said. She, too, wore jeans, their bottoms flared far less extravagantly than Bethie’s, and a cotton turtleneck, green with thin blue stripes. She’d always kept her hair short, but after the babies were born she’d had her hairdresser chop it all off and style it into kind of an Audrey Hepburn–Mia Farrow crop. She had modest gold studs in her ears—with babies, you couldn’t risk the kind of grabbable earrings her sister preferred, and Jo had never liked ostentatious jewelry,
but next to Bethie she felt as drab as a pigeon, a housewife with a capital
“Fine?” asked Bethie. “That’s it?”
“Fine is fine,” Jo said, forcing her lips into a smile. “Fine’s okay. I’m jogging.” For her birthday, Dave had gotten her Jim Fixx’s
The Complete Book of Running
and a pair of Nike shoes that she suspected he’d plucked off the shelf of one of the RePlay Sports stores. She’d laced up the shoes and barely made it to the end of the driveway before she realized how completely out of shape she’d become. She’d only gotten halfway around the block before doubling over with cramps, but she’d persisted, remembering how good it felt when her heart was pumping and her legs were burning and she was pushing herself farther than she thought she could go. She’d always played tennis whenever she could; she and Dave had skied and ice-skated, but she’d missed sports, and competition, and the way regular exercise made her feel. Now that the girls were in school, Jo ran five miles at a time, five days a week, racing in the Monday-night fun runs that the town held all through the summer and winning her age division more often than not. She played tennis on the town courts, and swam at the JCC in the wintertime, sharing lanes with her fellow housewives who were trying to shed the baby weight or keep the scale from creeping up as they left their twenties and thirties behind.