“I don’t have a camera.”
“You have a phone though. Everyone has a phone,” Sleeping Beauty says, narrowing her eyes.
“I actually don’t have a phone,” I say, patting my pockets. I nod at the boy at the table next to us who is now staring at us with unconcealed interest, his Mickey Mouse–shaped PB&J sandwich hovering in the air. “Maybe that kid will want one.”
“I doubt it, they want to meet Anna and Elsa now. I’m left with the creepy dads.”
“Sorry to hear that.” I push my sunglasses up on my nose. Sleeping Beauty plays with the packets of sugar, shuffling them in the pot so that the Sweet’N Low is mixed in with the brown sugar and the stevia, but she doesn’t show any signs of leaving.
“Look, I don’t want to be rude, but I really just came here for the waffles,” I say, pointing to my plate.
“Well, there’s no need to be a bitch about it.” Her voice is lower now, grittier, as she pushes her chair back and stands up.
“You know the hotel manager asked me to talk to you because you always look so sad that you’re, like, freaking out the other customers. They’ve had meetings about how to handle you.”
She waits for me to say something, and when I don’t, she sticks her middle finger up at me before walking away. The kid at the next table stares after her, his jaw slack and his eyes wide.
* * *
? ? ?
I return to the house dragging a seven-foot Christmas tree behind me, even though it’s too early in November to have bought one. The encounter with Sleeping Beauty has cheered me up, and it might even be something my mom would find funny if I can tell it right. I’m feeling something close to exhilaration after our fight, as if it could have finally cleared the heavy air that’s been hanging between us since I came back to Anaheim. Perhaps I can even show her a tiny bit more of myself, loosen my grip slightly. At the very least, this is familiar territory for us. We’ve both always been on our best behavior after our very worst, and I figure that if everything plays out like it used to, there will be no need for apologies and, in fact, no need to mention this ever again.
When I was sixteen, during one of our worst fights, my mom told me she’d been pregnant with twins but that I had killed my twin in the womb before we were born. I asked my on-set tutor about it, and it turns out that the other fetus would have died early from natural causes, and that I may have absorbed her fetal tissue due to the fact that we were sharing a womb with limited space and disposal options. The phenomenon has a name, vanishing twin syndrome, but to hear my mom tell it, I took up too much space before I was even born. I’ve never told anyone else the story, and not because I was traumatized by it or anything, but because I know exactly how it sounds. It wouldn’t be fair to define anyone by such an appalling moment, let alone your own mother.
I nod at my parents’ other neighbor, Donna, who is leaving her house dressed head to toe in velour, and I drag the tree up the porch, dropping pine needles as I heave it into the hallway. My dad stands just outside the kitchen with his hands in the pockets of his corduroys. I lean the tree against the wall, and he just stares at me for a moment, looking uncomfortable. My mother comes into view, and I can see that she’s been crying. I take a deep breath and try to stem the resentment already building in my chest.
“I meant to ask you, did you see that Donna got a new dog?” I say, making my face as open as possible to show I’ve forgiven her. “I think it’s a rescue, or maybe she was saying she rescued it from her daughter. The one with the OxyContin problem. Also, is it just me or has she had something done to her lips?”
* * *
? ? ?
My parents lock themselves in the kitchen as Esme and I dress the Christmas tree, filling each branch with garish, flashing baubles, each more hideous than the one before it. My dad found a crate of decorations in the attic, and when he brought them down, I had to try very hard not to think about the first Christmas I didn’t come back, or any of the ones after that. I would like to say that I’ve thought about it before, but I would probably be lying.
As we work, I hum Christmas songs to drown out the sound of my parents arguing, even though Esme is still refusing to talk to me. It’s a throwback to when we were younger, back when our parents’ arguments used to be loud and fiery instead of ice cold, always when they thought we were sleeping. Esme would wake up and climb onto the foot of my bed, turning to face the wall so that her forehead was pressed against it. While our parents fought over my mother spending twelve pounds on a moisturizer, or going out dancing with her friends when the water bill still hadn’t been paid, I would make up stories or songs about a pirate-fighting mermaid called Patrice to distract her. Esme was young then, only eight when I left, and I think I thought of her as mine for a while.
I steal glances at her while we decorate, and it strikes me as so strange that I don’t know this serious, dark-haired teenager any more than I know my parents’ next-door neighbor. She has rings of violet underneath her eyes and a small gap between her front teeth that she must either love or despise.
As a result of what has been happening in the kitchen, dinner consists of defrosted hash browns and boiled hot dogs, with a watery pile of spinach in the middle. Esme takes one look at her plate and announces that she needs to lie down in her room. She’s usually the definition of polite, so this is entirely unprecedented. There is this moment where my dad stares helplessly at my mom but they let her get away with it, and I can see how it starts, how someone can slip through your fingers even when you care so much it hurts.
I settle down next to my mom on the sofa for an episode of Real Housewives. My dad hands me the tray with the poppies on it by mistake, and my mom and I wordlessly swap before we start to eat. I open with the spinach and work my way to the hot dogs, leaving the hash browns until last because they’re the best part. I really like hash browns. How can my mom say that I’m not happy?
“Grace . . .” My dad cuts across the show at a pivotal moment and I frown at him slightly. My mom mutes the TV.
“I know your mother tried to talk to you earlier, and I wanted to say that I support her 110 percent. Whatever she said, I agree.” He seems like he’s in physical pain with the effort of having to involve himself in this, but it’s still not enough for my mom, who makes a small sound.
“Great, me too. We are all on exactly the same page then,” I say brightly. My mom keeps her eyes fixed expectantly on my dad. I frown at the TV but they don’t turn the sound back on even though the show has restarted. We stay frozen like this in a silent showdown for a couple more minutes. I could do this forever, but I also kind of want to know how the episode ends.
“What was the scale?” I ask eventually. My dad just looks at me, confused, but my mom shakes her head because she knows what’s coming.
“You said 110 percent but I have no idea what the scale was. It devalues the whole system. What about 500 percent? You could even support her a million percent if you tried really hard.” I think I can hear Esme snort from her bedroom down the hall, but maybe I’m imagining it.
“Grace,” my mom snaps, and I sink back into the sofa.
“I don’t want to have to remind you that I bought you this house. So this is actually my home,” I say, hating myself more with every word that comes out of my mouth.
“You guys can obviously stay as long as you want,” I add graciously.
“Grace, please,” my dad says, and I feel horrible because I think he’s going to cry. Sometimes I wish he could just figure out how to repress his emotions like the rest of us.
“This is ridiculous,” my mom says, throwing her hands in the air. “You can’t pretend that your life there never existed. That it doesn’t still exist—”
“Mom,” I interrupt, and then I count to five in my head. “Can we talk about something else?”
I walk over to the TV and turn the sound on manually. One of the Real Housewives is upset that her friend said she had an alcohol problem. I let her voice wash over me as my heart rate returns to something close to normal. It never occurred to me before, but maybe this is what people outside of LA and New York do to meditate.
“You know, I heard something today about the Independent Film Awards,” my mom says after a moment. I keep my eyes trained on the TV, even as my heart rate picks up.
“Where did you hear about that in Anaheim?”
“It’s a figure of speech, Grace. I saw it on Facebook. Anyway, Able Yorke is being honored. They’re giving him a lifetime achievement award for his commitment to the industry. I thought you’d want to know.”
I swallow hard but I don’t lift my eyes from the TV.