Mandy goes to the back door to shake out the dust mop.
It is winter.
Tonight they will go to Friendly’s for supper, once the house is clean, once Dad comes home.
There is no CYO basketball game tonight and Mandy is glad. She would not admit it, but it’s better to go to Friendly’s. She wouldn’t say that aloud, especially to the girls. Never never to the girls. Oh my God, never. But it’s so much better not to have to go to a basketball game. No one says she has to go to the basketball games. But she does have to go. The girls would notice. Mandy doesn’t suspect they’d miss her. Doesn’t think their fun would be in any way diminished by her absence. No. She goes to the games for the same reason she goes to the parties and sleepovers. She goes in order to keep up. Stay a part of things. This compulsion of hers, when she examines it closely and honestly, makes her angry with herself. That she needs—with such desperation—their approval, their attention, their inclusion. It leaves her feeling naked and breathless. But she can never say no. She begs for them while at the same time she is terrified of what they will give her. While she almost hates them, every now and then one of them tosses her something she can hold onto. Some kindness, a shared giggle, a party invitation, an afternoon together after school and she forgets the hard parts or it softens them enough so that the sharp edges don’t penetrate quite so deeply. She dismisses the worry, the fear, the humiliation. The unnameable longing.
But tonight there is no game. Only Friendly’s.
She shakes the dust from the dust mop. Her room is clean.
“Lara!” she calls down the hall.
“You done yet?” She wants to start the bathroom, but wants to make sure Lara will join her soon from cleaning her own room. Otherwise Mandy will end up doing most of it herself.
Mandy walks down the hall to Lara’s room, plunks down the dust mop.
“Come on. You’re going slow on purpose.”
“No I’m not!”
“Yeah, right. Just hurry.” She pauses in Lara’s doorway, watches her dust. She could not be moving more slowly. “How much more?”
“Just this,” she waves the dust rag around, “and dust mop.”
“Ok, I’ll go start the bathroom. But hurry.”
Mandy sprinkles powder cleanser in the tub, the toilet, the sink. She starts scrubbing. Soon, Lara joins her and they get the room done quickly. They move into the kitchen. Lara plugs the sink, runs water, squirts soap. Mandy turns the chairs upside-down on the table, gets the broom from the pantry. They move efficiently, old pros. They must be quick—Mom is running errands so they need to clean the living room, too.
Even though Mandy complains, there is something comforting about the Friday cleaning ritual. Partly because it starts with disorder and dirt and ends with an organized and perfected thing. But mostly it is comforting because they do it every week. One of those things on which she can depend.
Mandy and Lara run to the car. Laughing, they dive into the backseat. They huddle near each other, wait for the heater to kick in.
“How was your day, girls?” their Dad asks.
“Fine,” Mandy says right away.
“Mine was terrible!” Lara says, drawing out the word. “First of all, Mrs. Brown gave us a pop quiz in spelling. We didn’t even know she was going to give a quiz!”
“Well, duh. That’s why they call it ‘pop,’” says Mandy.
“Still. It was totally unfair. And then she gave us a ton of homework and it’s the weekend! Totally unfair. Plus I found out that Jenny Price is having a birthday party and she’s inviting boys. I am totally not going. They will ruin everything.”
Mandy feels envious of Lara’s problems. Her own life seems so much harder. So much more troubling and worrisome.
“What’s wrong with boys? I’m a boy,” Dad says.
“You’re a grown-up, Dad. Real boys are loud, they throw things, they tease all the girls. Forget it.”
“Fifth grade is a little young for a boy-girl party. What is Margie Price thinking?” Mom says.
“Oh, what’s the harm?” Dad says. “I’ll be more worried for eighth grade and ninth and tenth and until they’re thirty-five.”
“Thirty-five!” Lara says. “I’ll be old and married with kids by then, Dad!”
“Yeah. We’ll totally be married.”
“I’m not even going to let you start dating until you’re at least thirty-two!” he says.
“Dad!” both girls yell. Although neither is interested in dating boys yet, they are intrigued by the dark idea of them. A shadow that hovers in what they think of as their far, far future.
“Can we get sundaes?” Lara asks.
“We’ll see,” Mom says. Which usually means no, but I don’t want to deal with it right now.
It is six-thirty on a Friday and the restaurant is crowded. People in heavy coats cram the foyer. While they wait, shifting from foot to foot, Mandy and Lara debate what they will order, even though in the end they always get the same thing week after week. Mandy is caught up being happy, so giddy and pleased with the food they will eat soon and goofing around with Lara and in the aura of her parents quiet talking and smiling as they do with each other. She is caught up in contentment and a languid softness in her limbs, her easy breath, easy smile. She is so caught up in comfort, and ease in her own being, that when she sees the girls, their presence here—so out of place—confounds her. They sit at one of the big booths in a corner. Five of them. The core group of girls.
She looks away quickly. She hopes they have not seen her. Everything easy and soft has drained from inside her and she is now filled with a fluttering yet heavy feeling. She feels as though she might float away. She feels as though she will never be able to move because of her cinder block feet.
Her family’s table is ready. The hostess grabs four menus and leads them across the restaurant into the back. Far from the girls.
“You always get that,” Lara rolls her eyes but then orders the same thing she always orders.
And there in the back room of the restaurant, everything is good again. The drinks arrive and they talk about the day and wait for their supper—patiently, there is no rush—and Lara asks again about sundaes.
The food comes and Mandy is caught up in eating and talking and forgetting. When Nicole stands in front of their table, she wonders if she is a phantom.
“Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Logan. Hi, Mandy.” She says this so evenly and her small white teeth line up perfectly in her mouth.