Love is a four letter word that is used too much to mean too little. It can be a noun and a verb, conjugated, symbolized and trivialized. It can be and not be at the same time. It isn’t a living thing, like a plant or an animal, but it can die without care. I’ve been told that love and hate are kindred spirits and the absence of love is indifference. I wonder what it is called when you live with love that is dying.
“Dusty!” Mom rapped on the bedroom door. “Telephone!”
“Got it!” I hollered as I picked up the cordless extension.
Maybe Dad had changed his mind and would take me up to Victoria, Canada for the weekend like we had planned all last summer but never got around to doing. He moved into a condo in Des Moines after the divorce, then it was this, then that had to be done, and of course, work. “Hello….” it wasn’t my Dad, but my best friend. “Hi, Slinky.”
We both sigh. She knows that my disappointment is nothing personal. I dropped my sci-fi book on the floor and scrunched down on the bed. “Did your Mom yell at you for wearing eyeliner to school?”
“Nah, just the same-o parent lecture #104. You know, ‘Don’t make yourself look like a hooker, you’re a young lady, blah blah blah.'”
“I told you she’d let you, and she probably thinks it’s great, too. Your sister wore make-up when she was in the seventh grade. Next thing you’ll be wearing dresses instead of jeans.” I’m the jeans and sweatshirt sort of person. I didn’t mean to dig at Slinky, she’s my best friend and all, but lately she’s been more interested in the way she looks, teen TV and the latest new boy singer than going to see a movie. That’s a major change.
“Well, I’m not stocking up on short skirts and crop tops,” she shot back. “Did your Dad call, yet?”
“No. It’s like he’s divorced me, too.” I gazed at the clock. Two-thirty. Too late now, anyway. I pick up my cell and text Fran, ‘wrkin hard?’ “I guess he’s got a hot date with Sylvia. She had her Designed-for-You clothing line exhibited at the Trade Center today.”
My cell chimes. It’s Fran again.
Fran texts back: “YES! You?”
I answer ‘hardly’ while Slinky asks pointedly,
“Why didn’t you go?”
“Because I didn’t want to. I turned down a yard clean-up with Fran and Dean because I wanted to be ready to go with my Dad, a-lone, to Canada, like he promised.” Get real! I wanted to say. As if I wanted to hang out with my Dad and his girlfriend. Sometimes Slinky can be exasperating, but then I think about how we’ve been friends since kindergarten. We have a lot of history, like how we got our nicknames. I don’t think of her as “Susan” Hillard because her Dad nicknamed her “Slinky” when she was four. She collected slinkies; small, medium, large, metal ones, plastic colored ones that looked like undulating, disconnected robot arms looking for a body to hook up with. She even named every one of them.
Me, I don’t mind being named after my mother’s grandmother, “Elizabeth Marie”, but when I was five, I saw an awesome sunset. The summer sky blazed with colors of fire. My Dad told me the dust in the atmosphere colored the clouds, and a fairy streaked my curly, auburn hair with some of those red highlights. I kept repeating a zillion times how I loved the dusty sky, making Dad laugh. After that, I wouldn’t answer to Elizabeth anymore, and Slinky always said she thought it was great how I had made everyone call me Dusty.
“So go with me tonight. The youth group is having a hayride at Marymoor Park. My Mom will take us and you could spend the night and we’ll do Southcenter tomorrow.”
“No can do. My Mom’s got a date and I already told Frank I’m staying home tonight, and he has to babysit his little bratty stepbrother, so they’re coming over. So what else is new, huh?” I know Frank rubs her the wrong way, but I kind of understand that he sometimes says something nice in a mean sort of way.
“So tell Frank,” she always spits out his name, “that you’ve got other plans.”
“It’ll probably rain, anyway. It usually does the end of October.” I shift the phone to my other ear.
“Dusty Conner, what’s wrong with you? You never want to do anything anymore.”
“Nothing’s wrong with me, Slinky, just because I don’t want to haul my butt around in the rain with a bunch of kids I don’t know!”
“It’s not supposed to rain. I checked on line Weatherbug. And you know me, don’t you?”
“Let’s just go to the mall tomorrow, okay? We can check out the bookstores. I think there’s a new sci-fi anthology out.”
There was a little hostile silence, and because I really didn’t want Slinky to be mad at me I hurried to add, “We’ll do Nordstrom first.”
“All right, Dusty. I’ll see you.”
“Hey! Have a good time and take a raincoat.”
I still had a drop of hope that Dad would call. It would be nice to do some of the things that we used to do, like one-on-one basketball, working Saturday afternoons in the garden or getting a DVD and popping popcorn while Mom worked late at her gallery. It’s a lot different now that he has his condo in Des Moines, no yard, or basketball hoop, but he still has a television.
I stared a long time at the phosphorescent stars of Ursa Major stenciled on my ceiling. Mom, Dad and I had worked on it one whole Sunday afternoon last year, the weekend before Dad moved out. Maybe somewhere, another place, another time, in another galaxy, there’s no such thing as a divorce. Families stay together, forever. The way it should be.
I hear Mom coming down the hall and count eleven footsteps until she reaches my door.
“May I come in?” It’s nice the way she always asks me if she can come into my room.
“Sure.” I hope she isn’t going to launch into any psychological probing, a seek and find mission to repair all damage done by The Divorce.
She stands with her hands behind her and smiles when she presents a multi-colored scarf to me.
“My new art form. Hand-dyed.”
“Beauteous!” It really is beautiful. It is has a rainbow of colors and silky fringe. “Oh, Mom! It’s just the right length and the colors! It’s perfect!”
“Yes, I thought you liked vibrant colors. It goes well with jeans, especially.” Her eyes crinkle when she laughs.
I loop the scarf around my neck and smooth it down.
She takes a step toward me, gesturing over her shoulder. “Would you like to shoot baskets? If you don’t start practicing soon, you’ll have a hard time making the team this year.”
I shrug. “I’m not trying out.”
“What?” she demands, then takes a deep breath. “But I thought you and Slinky were going out for the junior varsity.”
“Slinky’s trying for cheerleader.” I pick at the dirt beneath my nails with the corner of a bookmarker.
“Why does that make a difference to you?” She waits at the foot of my bed, hands clenched and perched on her hips.
“It doesn’t.” I look her straight in the eyes. “I’m not interested anymore in sport, that’s all.”
When Mom chews her lower lip, it’s a sure sign the old gears are churning. “Why don’t we go for a walk to Dairy Queen. I’ll buy you a root beer float and I’ll get a yogurt.”
“Nah, I’ve got some homework to do and,” she was just about to interrupt me, “fold the laundry. I want to get a few things done before ‘Frankenstein’ gets here.”
The phone rang. We looked at the telephone like it had grown two heads.
“Answer it, Dusty,” she waved at it with a chuckle.
My stomach flip-flopped when I heard my Dad’s voice. “Hi, honey, are you busy?”
“No, Dad, not at all.” I sat up and bounced, jiggling the books on the bed and upsetting my stuffed animals, making Mom smile.
“Would you like to go out to dinner?”
“All right! Where?”
“Sylvia knows this great Italian restaurant where you can get pizza, I can have spaghetti and she can have fettuccine. You could wear something nice, Elizabeth, maybe a dress? I’ll pick you up at seven.”
I’m absolutely fed up having Sylvia always in my face, and I don’t like this threesome. “Oh, darn, Dad, I forgot! I made plans with Frank.”
“The same Frank that watches our TV whether or not we’re there?”
“You know, Dad, it isn’t your TV anymore.”
“Thanks for reminding me, Elizabeth,” he says in a real calm, sarcastic way.
“Dad, are we going to Victoria next weekend? You promised after cancelling out the last three times.”
“Yes, and I’m sorry, Elizabeth. It’s just…”
“Dad, my name’s Dusty.”
A lot can be interpreted from silence and heavy breathing. Maybe he’s just as annoyed as I am. “I’ve got to go, Dusty. Change your mind and go to dinner with us.”
“Sorry, Dad, but I promised Frank, and I don’t like to break my promises. It’s not really considerate, you know?”
“Yes, I know, and I get your point. Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Bye.” I hung up, paying particular attention to arranging the phone and tidying up some papers. Mom stood quietly staring at me until I looked up.
“That was pretty tacky, young lady.”
“You’re the one that always says a little bit of honesty goes a long way.”
As she sits on the edge of the bed and reaches out to tweak my toe, I move over and cross my legs, wishing I had earplugs to block out her voice. “Okay, let’s be honest. It’s been a difficult year for all of us adjusting to the divorce. It isn’t your fault your father and I don’t get along, but you can’t wish it away and make us a family again. Some things you have to accept and take the good with the bad. Including Sylvia.”
My insides quivered, but if she wants honesty, I’d give her my version. “No one ever asked me how I felt, so I guess you guys don’t care much about my opinions.”
“That’s not true, Dusty.” Her voice was warm, but I knew I had zinged her by the hurt look in her eyes. “We care very much.”
“You know, Mom,” I turned over on my side, further away from her, “you shouldn’t say ‘we’ anymore. ‘We’ aren’t anymore.”
I felt her eyes on the back of my neck for a long time. “Good point. I guess that’s the way it is, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, that’s the way it is.” I sat up, locking my arms around my knees. “I told Slinky I’d go to the mall with her tomorrow, if that’s all right with you.”
She stood up and looked out the window for a moment. “Sure. Just one more thing, Dusty.”
It’s always one more thing isn’t it?
“It’s normal for you to feel angry, but you can’t stop caring about people, even if you’re mad at them. You’re someone who cares, cares a lot for people. Think about it, okay?”
She left. Think about it! That’s all I seemed to do anymore. Ever since Sylvia showed up, weekends with Dad alone were a memory. I pressed my face into my cuddly stuffed bear, Sparky. Where do these tears come from, when you don’t even want to cry?
I threw the stupid stuffed bear down. I had other things to do anyway. I got up and washed my face, grabbed a bag of Cheetos™ and labored through Algebra.
Mom had dinner cooked for me, a small steak, baked potato and salad. She blathered on about this and that and some new guy she was dating. I managed to ask, “Can I eat in the den?”
“Oh, I suppose.” She handed me a napkin, which I dutifully placed on my lap as I clicked on the TV remote control. Mom had to raise her voice over a commercial. “Dallas is coming over to help me with a project. We will be in my studio. Here,” she tossed me a box of Junior Mints.™ “I believe you requested these.”
“Yeah, thanks.” I slip the mints beneath a pillow.
Dallas? Sounds like a real geek. “Okay. Have a good time.” I glanced up. “You look nice.”
“Thanks. What time is Frank supposed to be here?”
The doorbell chimed. “Right now,” I answered, grinning back at her.
“I’ll let him in.”
When Frank’s mother and stepfather go to the 5th Ave. Theatre, he gets stuck babysitting his six-year old stepbrother, Billy. They both come into the den. “Hey, Dusty!” screeched Billy, plopping down beside me. “The Time Machine is on Disney Channel tonight!”
He’s a nice kid, most of the time. “Watch it downstairs then. Here,” I slip my hand under the pillow and pull out the mints to hand him, “pig-out.”
Frank plops his hulk of a body down on the other side of me, stretching his long legs out and crossing his arms behind his head. At seventeen, he’s almost six feet tall, and his jeans are riding up to show his goofy striped socks. “What’s on?”
“Rerun of ‘Star Trek, The Next Generation: The Measure of A Man’ about Data and whether he is or isn’t a real living being, with rights.”
“Oh.” He rolls his green eyes. Frank likes the channel with old movies, but it’s understood that I get to watch my favorite program before his. During the commercials, I clean up the kitchen and Frank checks on Billy downstairs.
Usually, I don’t talk much to Frank, but I can ask him about anything, especially since he feels he’s an expert on being a kid of divorced parents. “Hey, Franko, did you always get along with your stepmother?”
He yawned before replying and scratched his sandy blond hair. “Neah, she’s a real nag. You’d think her life depended on me taking out the trash at the precise moment she looks down and sees the garbage multiplying over the rim, spewing all over the floor, into the living room, taking over the entire house! Man, woman and child eaten alive by garbage!” He flings his arms wide and rolls his eyes, really a grotesque creature himself. “Yes! Mad-son Frankenstein drives stepmother to drink! Diabolical plot to destroy innocent woman!”
I catch my breath from laughing so hard as I sit down again beside him. “You’d drive anyone insane, Frank. Really.”
“Well, take my word,” he draws out his words in a low, ominous undertone, “you best watch your p’s and q’s or you’ll not see your father for a fortnight!”
Suddenly, Frank’s not all that funny. “Why do you say that?” I sit up straight and look at him in the eyes.
“Because my lovely,” he furrows his eyebrows, digging into his sinister role, “if it’s between you and the other woman, the choice lies on her side, not yours. Take heed, and tread carefully around the other, for she controls your fate!”
“Oh, shut up, Frank.” He can be real tiresome and I’m glad my program finally comes on. We both settle down into our spots on the couch, like two birds nesting, and resume munching our popcorn while watching the opening credits roll by.
“So, gone to the movies with Dean lately?” Frank eyes me steadily.
“No, he’s been busy with yard work, his newspaper route and,” I pause significantly, “Fran.” I feel badly all of a sudden because I don’t want Frank to get the idea that I am jealous of Fran. Dean and I have been friends since grade school, and for the last two years, Fran and I have become close friends at school. We’re really a threesome. Well, more like a foursome counting Annie, when she’s not volunteering for a community project. Dean proved himself to be cool-headed and capable when, in seventh grade, Collin was assaulted by some cowardly thugs and Dean did CPR on him. The four of us, me, Fran, Dean and Annie, do a lot of volunteer work and do yard work for pay. We are, you might say, a dynamic team.
“Fran and Dean. Hmmm.” He waggles his eyebrows. “Beauty and the Brain.”
“Yeah, they are a lot alike. Dean thinks he’ll probably go into medicine.”
“Oh, yeah, he’d make a good nurse.”
“Oh, so you’ve been on Facebook lately, have you?” Dean has been harassed by some guys intimating he is gay. “You know that Tyler got suspended for posting those awful rumors? I told Dean that his Dad could sue Tyler’s parents for invasion of privacy. But Dean says it’s enough Tyler got suspended. I’m not sure I could be so magnanimous about something that mean. I was furious when a picture of Fran had been posted on Facebook that made it seem like she was smoking and drinking and wasn’t. I certainly was glad that the ones who did it got their just desserts and were caught and suspended. “Dean’s really a nice person.”
Frank contorts his mouth before replying, “Dean is a little different, shall we say?” Frank reaches over and tugs on my scarf. “This new?”
Irritated, I bat his hand away. I shouldn’t have to defend or define my friend to anyone. “Do you have any friends, Frankenstein?”
“Yeah, one. You.” He smiles as he unwinds onto his feet. “Gotta check on the brat.”
Billy fell asleep on the floor in front of the TV. Frank carried him upstairs and put him in my bed. My Mom and her ‘friend’ Dallas came into the kitchen chattering about a new technique for dying material. I made us all some hot chocolate while Frank set up the Scrabble board for a ruthless game that went on until Mr. Morris came at ten-thirty to take Frank and Billy home. He stood in the hallway dripping wet, handing umbrellas to the boys. “What a rain! Just started about ten minutes ago,” he boomed, shaking droplets from his mass of auburn hair. No question about where Billy got genes for red hair.
Frank jabbed my shoulder as he went out the door. “Later.”
As I got ready for bed, I thought about Slinky, hoping with all my heart that she had fun tonight. Even though I love the chatter of rain on the roof as I drift off to sleep, I wouldn’t want to find out that Slinky’s hayride got rained on, spoiling her plans. I’d never hear the end of it tomorrow.