I peel back the left corner of the linen tablecloth and peer at the cheap wooden table, scratched and worn, hidden underneath.
I am happy, at least, to be in public. Sometimes when I surround myself with strangers who wear diamonds to dinner, I feel better. There is a sort of relief that comes with new faces. I place my hands underneath my sticky bare thighs to stop myself from fidgeting before my mother notices. She always tells me, “Seventeen is far too old to be fiddling with your fingers,” but I hate when she says it. I hate being reminded of all that I can’t fix.
I stare at my mother’s hand. Her bare fingers are wrapped around the stem of her wine glass a little too tightly. She had taken off her wedding ring a few months before the incident, as soon as her psychic told her it had bad energy. I hadn’t thought much of it then; the psychic claimed something new had bad energy every time my mother went‚Äîher running shoes, her nail polish, her house. I just assumed that energy spoiled with time, and after twenty years it was the ring’s turn to go bad. Not the marriage’s.
The waiter approaches our table. He clears his throat and strokes his red beard.
“How are we this evening?” he asks. He bows his head as he greets us.
My mother smiles, exposing all of her teeth, even her cavity with the gold filling. “Just fine, aren’t we darling?” she says, looking at me for confirmation, but I just stare at my reflection glittering off the empty plate.
“Now tell me,” the waiter says as he pours us our water. He only looks at my mother. “Are you two twins or sisters?” My mother laughs a little too loudly, and they hold eye contact for a little too long. I start picking apart the laminated plastic covering the specials menu.
We haven’t talked at dinner for a while. Usually I don’t mind the silence. Usually I like to listen to the symphony of plates clattering, teeth clinking, whispers of other people’s lives. But suddenly, our quiet clings to me, the way hot sand sticks to salty skin, and I ache to wash it off.
“Where’s Dad tonight?” I ask, tentatively, the question that has been echoing through me, escaping in little more than a whisper. Wrinkles erupt on my mother’s nose as she scrunches it like a used candy wrapper. I imagine him alone, digging through the frozen food in his fridge. I imagine him at a strip club. I imagine him asleep in a Lower East side motel.
“He’s not here, and that’s all that matters.” As her voice cuts into me, I sense something cruel in the groove of her lips, the curve of her chin, and suddenly I don’t know whose side I’m on. The waiter sets down our food and leaves without attempting conversation. The restaurant’s music grates against my ears. The salad has too much dressing.
“I have an idea,” my mother leans towards me, and her breath feels hot and damp. “We haven’t been down to the beach in a while. You used to love it when you were younger.” She pauses for a moment and places her bony hand on my side of the table. I look at it and lean back onto my chair, my spine curved. She quickly moves her hand to her lap.
“Your dad and I used to take you to the beach all the time. He would put you on his shoulders, and I would take pictures of you two. We would splash each other in the water and run after seagulls.” Her voice is wispy and dream-like. “We never go anymore,” she says. And I realize that she doesn’t remember or maybe is merely choosing to forget.
I remember we went one time when I was a child. I remember the hot tar sticking to my feet, the sharp words, the itchy seaweed plastered on my ankles, the clenched fists. Hot breath reeking of disdain and dead love, cool sand wedged between my toes, etched into the lines of my palms. “Yes. We used to go all the time,” I say shakily.
I’m still picking the croutons out of my salad when she pays the check.
I follow as she gets up and walks out the door. The night sky tastes salty, and the wind burns my eyes.
“So I think if we leave now, we can arrive in Newport by sunrise,” she says, her words spinning in puffs of cool air.
“Newport?” I ask.
“Yes. The beach in Rhode Island. Remember? We used to go all time.” She looks at me, but her unshielded desperation forces me to turn away.
“Of course, how could I forget? ” I notice a wavering in my voice, syllables of false words sticking to the inside of my throat.
“Traffic won’t be bad. We could even have breakfast in Providence, eat at the same place we always did.” She smiles, pressing together her orange lips, the color of neon signs and smoggy sunsets. In the strained silence, I can hear her yearning for me to forget the truth, begging for me to pretend.
“The place with the pancakes as big as my face?” I ask, and if I really try, I can almost imagine it.
“Bigger than your face.” She laughs.
I slouch into our midnight blue car. My mother presses hard onto the gas, our car jerking a little, and we drive past maple trees and brownstones. We speed toward our apartment, a dark home and empty bed, just like I always knew we would.
At a red light she looks at me. Her eyes are bright and, in the dark, she looks younger, like the type of person who would take photos of her family at the beach.
“Did you have a good childhood?” she asks. We sit in silence.
“Yes,” I say. “The best.”