[Today, we continue with Guard This House, a four-part portrait of a family told from four points of view. Each chapter occurs during one of the four seasons, and takes its title from one of the four celestial animals corresponding to the cardinal directions in Chinese Astronomy. Before you read the following, check out Part One and Part Two.]
THE RED BIRD – CHARLOTTE – SUMMER
I shade my eyes with my hand and scan the heads in the water. Ashley and her friends splash around the pool. Parents sit on the edge with their calves in the water and the butts of their jean shorts soaked. Brady, my sister Lynn’s new husband, makes animal balloons in a lame effort to redeem himself for buying only two bags of ice, when I had asked him to get three. And I had to set up the entire lunch buffet while directing him for 20 minutes on the phone to drive the two minutes into town. And Bethesda doesn’t take a genius to navigate.
This is the first big birthday party I’ve hosted since the divorce two years ago. Last year, I didn’t even have the cash to spare for napkins so I took Ashley to the zoo in the morning and her father took her for ice cream in the evening. He eventually got weekend custody so I picked up an extra receptionist job at the local hair salon, banked the cash directly into the Ashley Fund, and swore to throw her the perfect birthday. I’ve picked her up from school every day this week with a mommy made cookie from Wake ’n Bake to mark the countdown to this party
Suddenly a small wet thing wraps herself around my leg and I bend down to kiss my birthday girl. Ashley tells me she wants presents mama, and cake mama and did we buy enough noise makers for all her friends to take home? I assure her yes, we have enough and she’ll have the cake before she opens her presents. She tells me no, mama, she wants to open them now. I tell her we’ll dry off, then go inside. She bites her bottom lip and bursts into tears.
Hey Char, Brady says. Is she all right? Ashley flings her arm at me. I say stop it but she takes another swing. Brady grabs her arm and says behave. Ashley sinks to the ground by my feet. Her elbow is bright red and I tell Brady to get away from my daughter. How dare he speak to her like that? He could have killed her! I bend down to kiss the booboo. I coo to Ashley that this is her special day and we’ll open presents right now if she just stops crying, if she gives me a big smile. She sniffles and I rub her belly. Brady whispers to Lynn that Ashley needs to learn some discipline. I swing around to face them and ask what the hell he knows about kids. All the families stare at me. I tell Lynn that her husband should lower his voice around children. This is a goddamned birthday party. Lynn pales. Ashley frolics off and I stalk inside to arrange the presents.
Lynn follows me and says she understands that I’m having a rough time, but Brady was just trying to help. I tell her attacking my child isn’t helping. She says he barely touched her. I tell her to stop defending him. She’s supposed to be my sister. And not only has Brady officially ruined this party, he has also pitted us against each other. She tells me he isn’t starting World War Three and she’s not taking sides. She says Ashley won’t even remember it.
I tell Lynn that she obviously doesn’t understand motherhood; the point is that Ashley feels loved, cherished, and not abandoned so someday when she asks me about her birthday I can point at all the pictures of her in that tiara. Lynn says she didn’t know tiaras came in that size. I tell her Wal-Mart is full of surprises, but I guess she wouldn’t know that thanks to the doctor’s paycheck. I ask if that’s why she puts up with Brady. Lynn, I say. Do you really want to stay with a drunk?
Before the party, Brady asked me where I planned to set up the bar. I tried to tell him that real parents don’t drink on the job, especially with the recent drowning epidemics. Lynn’s subjecting herself to a life of dependence and eventual heartbreak. Didn’t Brady not even want to get married? I say I had tried to warn her about him, remember when I drove up with Ashley for the weekend? I explain that guys are little boys who will never grow into the men we want them to be.
Lynn says don’t project, not all men are like Tommy, not all men have a get me a beer, bitch attitude, not all men make their spouse move to Bethesda to live next to their mommy. I tell her I divorced Tommy. But only after pressuring him into having a kid, right? I bang my hands down on the table. I tell her Ashley is a gift. She says that I can’t just trade in a husband for a baby and that if I don’t fall in love with someone other than my child, I’ll spend the rest of my life a bitter bitch. And, she continues, your daughter will resent and manipulate you, if she doesn’t already.
Ashley runs inside with a sea of dripping kids behind her. They all sit on my carpeted floor around the presents and Ashley sits in her throne. I hand out towels. The parents stand around the room chit chatting. A husband rubs his wife’s back. Wife turns around and buries her face into Husband’s neck. Husband leans down and kisses the top of Wife’s shoulder. I can almost feel Tommy kiss mine and then I realize that he never did. I look up for Ashley. I need her. But she stands on her throne and starts singing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and the kids are insanely clapping and swaying. Lynn and Brady stand with another couple against the wall, whispering low. I can’t step over the presents and kids to get to Ashley so I hug myself and watch her tear through the silver wrapping paper.
The first big gift is from me. It’s a Mysize Barbie. Ashley hugs it to her chest until Brady picks up the biggest present from the pack and places it at her feet. The other parents turn to watch. I smile and get out my camera and think bribing lying bastard. Brady pats Ashley’s head and tells her he picked it out special for her. He probably didn’t even go to the store. She giggles and screeches smiling up for my camera. I don’t want her to take it. The wrapping falls. Click. It’s a Barbie mobile. She hugs the car, smothering it with her pudgy little body. Click. She stands up, throws my present onto the ground and climbs into the seat. Click. She gives me the thumbs up and tells me to take another picture with Uncle Brady. I want to jump over the kids and presents and take her away from him but everyone’s watching me again. Click. The kids crowd around the mini car. Van Morrison comes on the radio. Brady backs off to stand next to my sister. I watch him mouth “my brown eyed girl” into Lynn’s ear and they rock back and forth. I sit down on the floor, exhausted, and watch Ashley open her presents in the little car, refusing to get out. Someone hands me a pad of paper and a pen but I don’t have the strength to write down the gift-givers’ names, at least not his.
Ashley says Cake time mama. I go to the kitchen and Brady follows me. When I open the fridge he taps my back and asks me if I need any help. I turn and face him with the vanilla cake heavy on my forearms and say that I’m fine, he’s helped enough. When I put the cake on the table, he reaches to help peel off the foil. I grab his hand and tell him no. He backs off. I let go. We both look at the imprint on his arm.
I tell him he should go back to his wife, in fact the two of them should just go back home. I’m sure they both miss dreary bumfuck Massachusetts. He corrects me: Framingham. I tear open the package of candles and say same thing. He tells me to grow up, I can’t hate him forever, he’s in love with my sister. Yeah, I say, we’ll see how long that lasts. I shove a candle in the cake. He says I’ve judged him from the second he walked in the door and didn’t hug him. I tell him I had hamburger buns in my hands. And, he continues, all he’s been trying to do help. No, I say. You backseat parent, dillydally making errands, and bribe my kid.
He tells me he knows I’ve been going through a rough time since the divorce and so he wanted to get Ashley something special. I tell him he doesn’t know a thing about me or my kid. He says, what was I supposed to do Charlotte, ask you for Lynn’s hand in marriage? Would that have made you happy? I thrust another candle in the cake.
No, I say. What would have made me happy is a brother in law who doesn’t fuck up my birthday party.
Well, he says. Good thing today isn’t your birthday.
An hour later the house smells like chlorine and looks like the morning after Christmas. Brady and Lynn leave with the other guests, headed back north with a stop over in Manhattan to stay at the Temple, our mom’s house. The phone rings twice and it’s my youngest sister Brielle and my brother Nicholas, calling to sing happy birthday to Ashley. Nicholas didn’t want to fly all the way from Santa Fe and our parents were too busy helping Brielle pack up for college. But if they were here it would be different. Nicholas would hold Ashley over his head and Brielle would tickle her stomach and my parents would do the dishes with Lynn and me and we’d take a picture and I’d feel like a family.
Part Four Continues Next Thursday
Jamie Carr is a junior at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. Her writing has been published in The Lettered Olive and Polyphony. She’s spent summers studying poetry and fiction at the University of Virginia, Emerson College, and with her college in Spoleto, Italy. A native of Manhattan, she plans to attend an MFA program and eventually move back to New York.