It was the 15th of the August of 1999, the morning before the wedding of Benjamin Kern and Maitreya Scheffer, ceremony and celebration to be hosted by the bride’s parents at their home in Bethel, Vermont, with a potluck dinner. Irritating, said Pearl’s mother Maureen, as she cut and arranged store-bought filo in the caverns of an oiled muffin tin. Maureen was making six dozen spanakopita tartlets with resentment—she believed the gentry should provide for the townspeople, not the other way around, and that given the combined income of Maitreya’s parents (architect and dentist) as well as the family money that one of them came from (undisclosed, and therefore suspicious), a potluck at a wedding was a thing of whimsy rather than necessity, and an inconvenience to all the attendees. Acceptable in the 70s, but people have lives, now, she said.
Pearl’s mother was potentially the most judgmental psychotherapist of all time, though, other than her mother, she did not intimately know any other psychotherapists. Pearl was 18 years old, and this was her final week in Bethel before college, before her future, a word she liked to picture in undulating typeface, like the title of a late-night horror movie on TV. She sat on her stool, picking dried tomato seeds off the wood counter, watching her mother shake and curse the papery pieces of dough. A murky terror spread at the bottom part of her stomach, below her hip bones. Do you want to help? Maureen asked. Maureen was cooking in her nightgown, an embroidered cotton caftan, stained and holey, and the sun shone in at an angle, making a strip of the fabric transparent, so that Pearl could see, in disconcerting clarity, the shape and texture of her rugged brown nipples. She watched her wipe her hair from her face with her wrist, her fingers limp and shining, trying to free an errant strand that was caught in the corner of her mouth, before being handed a cheesecloth and a bowl of spinach with instructions to squeeze out the moisture.
There was the sound of tinkling bells at the front door and the scraping of paws against the floors of the entranceway. Her mother yelled, Jim, get in here, and her father entered sweating, like he always did after he took the dog for a walk, no matter the weather. There were moist, dark splotches on his blue linen shirt.
We’re making the spanakopita, Maureen said, with raised eyebrows so that her husband knew how she felt about the task. They don’t deserve you, he replied. Jim loved Maureen. He drew her into him and kissed her temple and she grimaced from the sweat and pushed him away.
Pearl squeezed the spinach, and chlorophyll-tinged water dripped into the bowl. Do you think I should spit in it, Maureen asked, with the face she used to make jokes. They should be so lucky, said Jim.
Once, Jim and Maureen had separated, for eight months, when Pearl was eleven. Her father went to Nepal. Her mother employed a college student to watch her in the evenings after dinner and on Saturday mornings. The college student wore a gray sweatshirt and jeans and smoked cigarettes in the yard. Later, in her idle twenties, Pearl would spend hours searching thrift stores for that kind of sweatshirt, the feel and fit she remembered the babysitter wearing. Susan. Susan was there when she got her first period. She had taken her out for ice cream and bought her earrings. Susan told Maureen about the period and her mother had peeked into the den that night, where she was watching TV, with glistening eyes and red swollen spots on the ridges of her cheeks. Her mother was having an affair. Though if you are separated is it called an affair? She didn’t know which came first, her father escaping to Nepal or the person her mother was meeting. Her mother had offered her therapy with an old grad school colleague, to talk about what was going on, but Pearl had refused. She remembered Maureen laughing all the time, thinner than usual.
Jim chopped at Pearl’s shoulders, imitating a masseuse. You okay, kiddo? She nodded. She felt blown up and sticky. Each time he whapped her she felt a jolt of nausea rise at the base of her throat.
Maureen said they needed to leave by two, so her father stripped his clothes off in the living room and walked to the outdoor shower. He was a Catholic now, and needed an hour for prayer every day. Her mother liked to say that most ascetics got up early for their prayers, so that the monastery (by this she meant Pearl and herself) did not need to wait on them. In reply her father usually bowed, and said I’m so grateful for you, or something like that.
Pearl watched Maureen mix the wrung-out spinach with feta and olive oil and lemon juice, drop spoonfuls in the pastry-lined cups, fold the edges of the filo in and then twist the tops, so they resembled drawstring purses. Once they went in the oven her mother cried because they were so ugly then pulled at her face and apologized for putting her daughter, once again, in the position of having to ameliorate her neuroses. It’s not the pot luck I mind, it’s the expectations that come from the pot luck, she said, wiping her nose on the shoulder of her caftan. Whew, she shook her head, Feels good.
Her mother was toweled and on her way to the bath when Pearl asked if she could tell her something. She could sense that she felt both titillated and disturbed at the notion that she wanted to confide in her; Maureen spoke openly, too openly, about how she and Pearl had issues with communication, how even when her daughter was five years old it was impossible to get her ‘out of her shell’, how she attributed her silence to those years when she was finishing her PhD and completing her residency hours, when she was trying so hard to hold on to, or for god’s sake formulate, a sense of self, and was not as available as she should have been.
Pearl gripped handfuls of the loosely stuffed couch, her head hanging. Oh, Darn, Maureen said, after she told her, so gently that she began to cry despite herself. Her mother put a goose- pimply arm around her and she could feel the soft scratch of her unshaven underarm hair against her shoulder blade. Tears dripped onto her thighs. Chi, their geriatric dog, emptied its bladder on the Turkish rug, the color deepening from a light dusty red to a saturated burgundy. She could feel a sweaty excitement emanating from Maureen. I’m so glad you told me, she said. I’m honored.
Maureen prided herself on ‘getting things done’ and so after her shower they made an appointment for Monday, and then dressed for the wedding. Can you imagine what would have happened in the old days? she said. Maureen wore a taupe sheath beneath a gauze over- layer, her auburn hair curled and held up with a jeweled comb. You would have been done for, she said. She was chipper, as though she had effectively completed a chore: paid a bill, or removed a stain. Pearl wore the puffy taffeta skirt and tank top she had worn for the Honor’s Society dinner. Everything felt tight, she felt like Violet in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, filling up with juice from the gum she chewed. When she asked her mother if she could keep it a secret from her father, Maureen had looked at her with sympathetic therapeutic distance and said, I don’t think I can do that, lovebug. Just for tonight, then, said Pearl, and her mother agreed, and then at her insistence, promised. Would you like to tell me about the pertinent parties, she asked, making her voice deliberately casual, concentrating on sliding a butter knife around the edges of the tartlets. Pearl shook her head no.
Maureen was a part of a local matron society for Maitreya, the bride, they were doing something with the flowers, so the three of them got to the wedding site early, while people were still setting up. Her father went for a walk in the woods to pray, or so he said. What if he’s just masturbating, her mother had once asked her, joking, but she must have looked very disturbed, because Maureen had apologized, and hurried out of the room. Pearl took the spanakopita tartlets, plump and nestled in two ceramic baking pans (the couple-to-be had requested that, if at all possible, the serving dishes not be the disposable aluminum kind, that it might be nicer if the dishes had a sense of family, of history, and please, no plastic) to the tent and handed them to a woman in a white shirt and black pants who was checking the offerings from a list and directing a staff of several college-age-looking students to arrange everything on a long banquet table.
The floor of the tent was covered in straw, except for the gleam of the roll-out dance floor. Next to the dance floor was a platform draped in blue gingham, like an old country fair, where the band was setting up. A lanky blonde man tuned a guitar, a pretty woman with tattoos, dyed black hair and bright blue eyes sat on a stool and strummed a mandolin, a short Bob Dylan-y figure set up a configuration of basins and drums, and a chubby, bearded, redheaded man plucked at an upright bass. The bassist said a joke, which Pearl could not hear, to the mandolin player who rolled her eyes and pursed her lips. The guitar player, glaring, said something in response, and the mandolin player looked down, her face flushed and dark.
Pearl wandered to the back of the tent, where there were three generators buzzing and blowing. The tent sat on the middle plateau of a hill. At the top of the hill were two pillars set up for the ceremony. At the base of the hill there was a large field, a circle of stones, and a one- story-tall pile of wood for the bonfire which would follow the party. The house was also at the top of the hill, south of the pillars, an old clapboard house. A farmhouse? A big house, white with black shutters on a flat front. Both the house and the hill overlooked a vast undulating valley of Vermont forest, misty, cool and bright. In 23 years the view would be dappled with patches of taupe, where housing developments sprouted like clusters of mushrooms.
The redheaded bass player poked his head out of the back of the tent. Oh hey, he said to Pearl. She nodded at him and smiled and felt around in the pockets of her skirt for lint balls. I love the pockets, Maureen had said when they bought it in New York on a mother-daughter shopping trip to celebrate her admission into college. Do you mind if I smoke, he asked, and held up a Parliament. She shook her head. Can I have one, she asked him, and he looked around for a moment from left to right as though to see who was listening and asked, How old are you? I’m eighteen, she told him, which she was, though saying you’re eighteen always feels like you’re lying. Sure, he said grinning, as though he didn’t believe her but didn’t mind, and handed her one.
Why do I find that kind of redheaded man so perennially attractive, she asked herself, years later, looking at one.
In an hour, most of the guests had arrived, and the college students circulated canapes and glasses of red and white wine. Maureen stood on the green grass hill, surveying the scene. She was warning herself not to drink too much, but she had already had one large glass of Chardonnay and knew, from that feeling of tugging dissatisfaction, that the beast was inside. There were small clusters of people gathering, and she envisioned a reverse staging of that Manet painting, in which all the men were nude and all the women were clothed. She had reintroduced alcohol after she went to Europe three years ago because she had come to believe there was something essential about the camaraderie and civilization of drinking.
Most of the time she was able to keep it on a tight leash – nothing in the house, preplanning dinners out, pacing, pacing. Three months ago, after one of her patients threatened to kill her, and had gotten physically quite close to her and she had to call the orderlies, Jim had found her in the bushes on the edge of their property. But she had reeled it in after that.
She heard Edna calling her name and saw her coming toward her with her slightly stiff and friendly walk. Edna had wet-looking curls and a voice that seemed permanently caught in the upper back of her throat, which came off as self-conscious if you didn’t know her. She was a scientist, she did research at a big pharmaceutical company—their daughters were the same age, she was part of that influx of people that comes with being a parent, some of whom you shook off after the first few years, some of whom were now Maureen’s closest friends.
Children could always be discussed, they were a parallel project, each to be launched into the world. Maureen had felt slightly awkward when Pearl got her acceptance to Columbia,
knowing that Edna’s daughter Katrina was rejected from Dartmouth despite her double legacy, but they moved past that. Katrina was going to Amherst, a wonderful school. Besides, Maureen didn’t take any credit for Pearl, Pearl did what Pearl wanted, she tried to be a trampoline for her, something protective to bounce off of, an assist, if you will, to help her leap higher. Sexy Bitch, Edna whispered, goosing her. What, she asked, when she saw the look on Maureen’s face.
The women onto the grass. Oh, Fuck, Edna said, followed by, But it will be fine, and Maureen said, It will be fine, we have an appointment on Monday, it will be fine. Who did this, said Edna, and Jim sat down beside them with a tumbler. Who did what? he asked. Whiskey already, Edna commented, and Maureen said, He drinks like a Catholic now, too, but then saw Jim wince slightly and amended herself, saying, Jim will nurse that all night. Jim swirled his ice. I like to stick to one drink, he said. I like to go where the wind takes me, said Maureen. Who did what, Jim repeated.
The redheaded bassist went to Middlebury, the whole band did. Ethan’s cousins with, uh, Maya, he said. Maitreya? Pearl asked. Good thing I’m not the frontman, he said, and pulled a piece of straw from Pearl’s hair. You want a drink? he asked her, and she said whatever he was having. Long Island Iced Tea then, he said, and she nodded. He looked at her with a mixture of scorn and concern and told her he was joking. Pearl narrowed her eyes at him. Why should I know about drinks, I’m only eighteen, she said. Some day she would press men like this down with her thumb, they would flatten like clay in stop-motion videos, she would own them. Sorry, he said. I actually like really girly drinks, I won’t turn down a cosmo with the ladies. He laughed and pulled at the hem of the cowboy shirt which had climbed up his belly.
A small gray bunny edged out from the wood, shaking like grass in the breeze. Pearl shivered, she had a scarf in the car, she should go and get it. She looked over to the field where vehicles were being parked and saw the McMann family decamping from their minivan. Last to come out was Liam. Liam had long dark hair that he was forever tucking behind his ears. He was very tall, and had the loping walk and hunch of someone uncomfortable with his size. He looked like he was wearing his father’s suit, he was too skinny for it, he looked silly. Close-up he had big doglike eyes and a hanging jaw. Liam was a skateboarder and a committed stoner and when he spoke it sounded like there was too much saliva in the bottom of his mouth.
Pearl had imagined the bottom of his mouth, where his lower teeth were, as a little pool where his saliva accumulated and sloshed. She had wondered if it would feel extra wet when they kissed, but it hadn’t.
He had headphones over his ears and was holding a Discman. At the party six weeks ago they made fun of Dave Mathews together. She had taken ecstasy, which she suspected was ineffectual, and smoked weed, and snorted a little ketamine. She had thrown herself at him, he had been surprised. She winced at the memory of it, he probably wasn’t even interested, only acquiescent, he hadn’t called her since, as far as she knew, and she wouldn’t call him, she didn’t even care about him. From the distance, she watched his sister, who was actually his cousin and not his sister, really, poke him, and he pulled the headphones off. Do you like crazy girls, Pearl had asked him, artificially emboldened, in the purple light of Ronnie Applebaum’s basement, and he had said, I guess so, yeah.
Pearl shuddered. She couldn’t tell if the cigarette lessened or aggravated her nausea. Liam’s parents had been killed in an armed robbery when he was three years old and his mother’s sister had taken him in. Apparently, the police had found him hiding in the closet. She knew this from her mother, but none of her peers ever talked about it, she didn’t know if they knew. Women don’t keep secrets, she had heard this statement repeated by male comedians and television shows, and as though to prove them all wrong, Pearl did. Later she realized she kept secrets because her mother could not. ‘Still waters’, Maureen called her. Liam wanted to be an artist, he drew very complicated, tiny drawings, he filled whole pages, he lost himself in miniscule birds and dragons and women and swords and fires and marching militias. In ten years, after college and some requisite bumming around, he would move to Mexico City, where he would join an expatriate community, ride motorcycles, and eventually open a gallery. His life, whenever Pearl looked him up, would look so picturesque. So free.
Screwdrivers, said the bass player, handing her a slim glass. She tried to hold her breath and drink as much as she could as quickly as possible. He told her his name was Gabe. Of course it is, she said, and he furrowed his eyebrows and asked her what she meant.
Maureen sat on the hill of the lawn, her gauze over-layer draping and revealing her body— one arm resting on her bent knee, her other leg extended. Her group now consisted of Edna, Jim, Jenna (one of the bridesmaids, in a vintage prairie gown), Sandy (a fellow mother who announced on arrival that her daughter got off the waitlist at Swarthmore), Kim (new to town, yoga teacher and nurse, they were all courting Kim), Alex (a tortured, funny, horrible man, independently wealthy, alcoholic, miserable, and a local mainstay), and Alex’s third wife, whatever her name was, a landscape developer (my gardener, Alex called her, revoltingly).
Maureen was telling them all about Pearl’s Microtia, how Pearl was born with one fully functioning right ear, and a little nub where the left ear should be. I think it was my fault, said Maureen. No it wasn’t, said Jim, craning to look at the crowd gathering in the folding chairs up at the top of the hill for the ceremony. We should probably make our way, he said. In a minute, Maureen said, offended that he would let his anxiety about social norms interrupt her telling of this important contextual trauma. We started surgeries when she was three. She ended up having four surgeries. Four surgeries, when you’re under four years old. I just think it affected her sense of…I don’t know. Causality. She welled up with tears. Daphne, Maitreya’s younger sister approached the group. Are you alright Maureen, she asked. At twenty Daphne had a conciliatory warmth that she would grow into as she aged; she wanted to be an elementary school teacher, she would be. Pearl’s pregnant, Maureen said. Oh, shit, said Daphne. Maureen, said Jim.
Pearl asked Gabe for another cigarette. The girl with the dyed black hair and the tattoos poked her head out from the tent and called him inside. She looked at Pearl and then back at Gabe, accusingly. Gabe shrugged and smiled, embarrassed, and Pearl’s face burned. He went back in the tent while she smoked. The cigarette felt like punishment, she liked it, she put the heater close to her ankle. A bit closer. She made brief contact, then pulled it back, she actually didn’t like pain like that, she didn’t know why she did all these little things she didn’t mean, she had read her mother’s copy of Reviving Ophelia too many times. She heard her father calling her, put the cigarette out, drank the rest of the screwdriver, hid the glass behind one of the generators and walked to the side of the tent. When Jim saw her he stopped, told her the ceremony was starting, then turned around and walked away. He looked at his feet, not up at the sky. Oh, she thought, He knows.
This was the first wedding Pearl had attended since her aunt’s when she was a toddler, and she had been secretly elated when the invitation came in the mail. Weddings again, her mother said. We’ll do the weddings, then we’ll do the funerals. She stared at the back of Liam’s head, grease separating his locks of hair. He could feel her looking at him and twisted around and she bowed her head and blushed. You smell like smoke, Maureen had whispered to her when she sat down. So nasty. Pearl’s butt began to fall asleep in the hard dip of the seat. Did you tell dad? she asked her. I said I would, Maureen said, I don’t keep things from your father. But you promised not tonight, said Pearl. What does it matter, really honey—oh, she’s coming, she said. Sit down mom, Pearl tugged at her dress, but then realized that everyone was standing. They did that for the bride, she guessed.
In retrospect, the wedding was very Vermont. Maitreya wore a cotton swiss dot dress and a flower wreath with vines that trailed down her back. The messianic high school English Teacher was the officiant, ordained by the Universal Church, a church on the internet, which everyone laughed about. There was some Judaism, some Buddhism, some Wicca, and a woman with a small guitar. Pearl couldn’t hear much, but it didn’t matter. She was on the outside, just a neighborhood kid. She didn’t know what Maitreya knew, which was how much Maitreya’s father hated Ben, his future son-in-law. She didn’t know what Ben knew, which was that Maitreya had drunkenly joked at her wedding shower about this being a ‘starter marriage’ and his mother had overheard. She didn’t know what God or Time knew, which was that in two years Ben would be diagnosed with testicular cancer, stretching their relationship for an additional half-decade, before they called it quits, overcome with gratitude that they had waited to have children.
When they moved to the reception Pearl went to sit with her mother and father, but then realized to her mortification that she had been placed at a different table that included Liam and his sister, two younger cousins of the bride (also a brother and a sister, juniors in high school), Katrina, who she had known forever, and a few other young people, including Clay, the son of Kim, the nurse and yoga teacher who had recently moved to their town. Clay was twenty years old with a stiff, wiry blonde peak of hair that swept up from his face, and a deep tan. Her mother and her friends all swooned over Clay—they thought he was so handsome, in a discomfiting way that made Pearl feel dirty even looking at him. He wore a button down and shorts, had said, What’s up, man, to Liam, nothing to anyone else, sat diagonally on his chair so that his body didn’t fully face the table, and kept flipping his cell phone open and closed.
Each table had been furnished with a bottle of Wild Turkey, and nobody had thought to remove the one from theirs. They hid it under a chair in case an adult came by and saw it, and took turns going to the bar for soda to mix with it. Most of their parents still monitored their sugar, so the soda was almost as illicit as the alcohol. They made the drinks very weak because they weren’t stupid and they didn’t like the taste. After too many trips the bartenders gave them full bottles of Coke and 7 up to take back with them. The alcohol was helpful, it blurred the dangers and mortifications of the room, it was like padding, it made Pearl feel safe. She fixed her eyes on Katrina, Edna’s daughter and her childhood friend, and directed her attention completely to her, something Katrina felt both flattered by and resentful of, as they weren’t real friends anymore. Katrina had an auto-immune disease and didn’t drink, but she made it her job to fill the glasses under the table. Whenever Liam approached Pearl would look at her plate. Leila, Liam’s sister, called her name, and Pearl looked up and saw her holding the sleeve of Liam’s suit, who was pulling away. Hi Pearl, she said, laughing.
The first dance was to a bluegrass version of At Last. Aren’t they college sweethearts?, Edna asked Maureen. Not exactly a long wait. You know what it’s like when you’re young, said Maureen. She grew weepy. I think I did it wrong, she said, Pearl, I mean, I think I fucked up with her. She doesn’t trust me. It’s because of—she said. She stopped speaking—the band had transitioned to a rendition of Prince’s 1999 and the dance floor was filling. One of the groomsman, who wore an untucked djelba beneath his suit, long hair pulled back into a diminutive braid, and an old-fashioned hat with a flat narrow brim, cut in on the bride and groom and whisked Maitreya away. It was supposed to be a fun gesture, but it was disturbing—they danced together more naturally than the married couple had done, Maitreya laughed, his hand edged up her back. She loves him, Jim said, resting his hand on Maureen’s shoulder, and Maureen laid her head down on his hand, because she was pleased that he saw it, too.
Pearl told Katrina about the redheaded bass player, and they both made their way near the stage, jokily dancing with each other in a spot where they were sure he could see them, stroking each other’s hair, laughing, pretending to be sexy. Katrina was wearing a small, tight dress, she had finally gotten off the steroids and had lost her protruding belly. On the dance floor the girls felt a foreign, wild confidence, a feeling that would prove slippery for both of them for the rest of their lives—showing up every once and a while, without prediction or will, and then disappearing again, seemingly when most needed. For Katrina, this uneven confidence would mean that she preferred being alone, enjoyed word games, had cats and plants and eventually a partner with whom she could be quiet with. Once her self- consciousness was identified, she protected it, and herself, from the world. For Pearl, it would mean something different—more of a throwing herself into and yanking herself out of situations, followed by periods of self-hatred and depression. Their table was summoned to fill their plates at the buffet, and the girls left the dance floor. They were the last table called, and all the spanakopita had been eaten. People kept complimenting me about how they were the hit of the dinner and I told them they were all Pearl, her mother said to her later, which was ridiculous, as she had only squeezed the spinach, and Maureen had redone it, claiming it was not dry enough.
After eating and taking part in the dancing—Shout, Respect, and That Thing, which she danced to with her mother, who had taken her to a Lauryn Hill concert, and loved to go on and on about her love of Lauryn Hill in a proprietary way, Pearl vomited, gargled with the mouthwash that was provided in the very elegant porta-potty trailers, wiped her face and redid her makeup. Her skin was stiff and waxy from the cold.
For the bonfire Maitreya changed into a big white summer cashmere dress with white sneakers and cuddled with the bridesmaids, who wore Brandeis sweatshirts over their gowns. Ben had the makings of a politician, he wore a fleece vest over his shirt sleeves and went from group to group, thanking them for coming, checking in about their ailing relatives or new business ventures. Maitreya reflected that he would always be like this—he would never be able to forgo public appearance in favor of her, she would always be expected to take care of herself, and it was fine, she was independent, it was fine, though when Andrew, the groomsman with the long hair who had cut in with her on the dance floor, when he had
looked at her with a steady gaze, when he had whispered, How are you, into her ear, she had felt her insides flush with a warm, heavy sadness, and had bitten her lip to keep herself from crying. The college students, bahas over their catering outfits, manned several carts around the fire—a popcorn cart, a hot chocolate cart, a cart with warm nuts and jerky. There were coolers with beer and ginger ale, and most of the tables had brought down their bottles of Wild Turkey.
Pearl wandered over to the group her mother was sitting with, which included her father, her mother’s book club friends, and Alex, the alcoholic, the mean son of the industrial magnates, who wafted an air of sadistic aristocracy, the kind of person who reports torturing animals in their youth as an amusing or revealing fact. Pearl was attracted to and repelled by Alex, which later, she realized, every woman was. He had the blunt appeal of a sadist; someone who wants to do things to you, pull your hair, choke you, bind your laconic flesh, and is not afraid to let that desire, somehow, be known. In fifteen years, Alex, in a cloud of cocaine, would sail his catamaran down toward the Caribbean. He would be proclaimed lost at sea, though his children suspected he still lived somewhere on an island, wanting to, attempting to be, reborn. He had been a very bad father.
But at this moment, in 1999, Alex was still drinking, not yet addicted to drugs, and not yet outed for the abuses they learned of years later. He was lying with his back to the fire, leaning on one elb0w. I heard you got knocked up kid, he said to Pearl. Edna slapped him on the shoulder and said, What the fuck, dude. Pearl looked toward Jim, who looked down, and at her mother. Her mother was drunk, she rolled on her back around to Alex and lightly kicked him on the shin, but from Pearl’s perspective it came across as more of a flirtation than censure. She’s not knocked up, we have an appointment on Monday, she’s having a routine medical procedure, she said. Her mother’s bony body was arched and displayed, an aged seraphim in a religious frieze, one arm extended. Alex the sadist reached over and tickled her armpit and she contracted like a raw shrimp meeting a hot frying pan.
Pearl said it quietly at first. What did you say honey, said Edna, who was looking at Alex and Maureen with disgust, and was the only person Pearl liked at that moment. I said I’m going to keep it, she said. You’re what, said Edna, who nudged Maureen with her foot. Maureen stopped giggling and sat up. I’m going to keep it, Pearl said. No you’re not, said her mother, with a wave of her hand, as though she was a five year old and had proposed having ice cream instead of dinner. Yes I am, Pearl said. I’m going to keep it.
Jim looked into the bonfire. They must have cleared a whole plot of trees, or paid for scrap lumber for this, it was so much wood. It seemed almost funereal, the blaze, like an ending rather than a beginning-a purification or expelling, expunging, clarification rather than a send-off. It looked sacrificial. It was too late for children he noted with relief. There was a sinister draw to the fire-he couldn’t be sure that in the throes of the bacchanalia someone wouldn’t throw a little pristine girl in. He and Maureen had gotten married during a music festival by a man who claimed he was a preacher. Jim had dropped acid with him the night prior. They did the paperwork in 1980, right before Pearl was born. During the ceremony this afternoon he had been thinking about the sacrament of marriage, and wondering if he could convince Maureen to renew their vows in the church. But she would laugh at him if he proposed that. Union. What would bring about union? His priest had recently told him that whatever brought about union was godly, and whatever encouraged separation was ungodly.
There was a woman with a baby strapped to her chest, bobbing back and forth, drinking a beer, surrounded by a group of flannelled thirty-somethings. He would watch her, watch them, make sure they didn’t drink too much and get too close to the fire, or sacrifice the baby to the flames. But that was his head, those were his thoughts, those were the thoughts he was trying to purify, that wasn’t them, it was him. It was a root beer she was drinking, he saw when he squinted, she would protect the baby, he trusted her, she held a kindly, protective hand around the baby’s head. He needed to trust people more, he needed to bring about union, his wary-ness is what separated him from the mother and the baby, his trust is what would unite them.
Jim, said Maureen. Do you hear this? Both his wife and his daughter looked at him with the same expression on their faces. The accusing look made their eyes round, their jaws were low and set. There were tear streaks running down Pearl’s face. Alex, Edna, and the rest of the group was quiet and looking at him. Alex wasn’t explicitly leering but his face was never far off from a leer. He and Maureen had a thing at one time, they probably wanted to do it again, why couldn’t everyone think about being more good, all these people, so morally lazy, so fascinated with their own whims, they all went around like children with stomachaches from eating too much junk, thinking that if they satisfied every little desire they would be happy, wondering why happiness proved so elusive.
Why shouldn’t she have it, he said, and it was as though he had had pulled down his pants and exposed himself. Edna and Maureen recoiled. Alex laughed. The nerdy accountant who they weren’t really talking to but was hanging around their group said, I guess I’ll be going now, and made little ‘I’m skeddaddling’ gestures, so fucking dorky, Jim wanted to kill him.
The fire made it all feel much more chaotic. Everyone’s face was painted with flickering shadows, they all looked like little demons.
Maureen said, Jim, do you want to shackle our daughter to a life of poverty? Are you Pro-Life now? I don’t even know you anymore, are you kidding me?
I don’t have to have an abortion just because you did, mom. Pearl felt engorged and powerful. They were scrambling, the women were crumpled, Alex looked on at her impressed, her father was nodding in the weird way that he did, to show that he was being thoughtful.
Are you trying to shame me? I’m not ashamed. You’re going to ruin your life just to say Fuck You to me.
I would help, said Jim. I like babies.
You’re an asshole, Jim, said Maureen. Fuck this, she said, and began to walk away. Her heel dug deeply into some dirt, and when she lifted her foot the shoe remained. She thrashed her body in frustration, took the shoe that had not sunk into the mud off, dug out the other one, and threw both into the fire. Woah, said Alex, and Maureen charged at him, but Edna intercepted. There was a dangerous pile of Bud Lite cans surrounding him. Edna whispered something to Maureen, and Maureen’s body relaxed. She turned, with tears in her eyes.
Pearlina, listen honey, I’m sorry I told—
Everyone? Pearl cut in.
Yes. I’m sorry. Can we talk about this in the morning?
We can, said Pearl, but I won’t change my mind. And she wouldn’t change her mind she would refuse to change her mind, she wouldn’t let her mother win this one, she hated her right now, she was so weak and grasping, she had only told everyone so that she could be the center of attention, she just wanted to gossip about her own daughter, turn her into a conversation topic, she would never be like her, and she would start by having a baby.
Edna steered Maureen away. Jim hugged Pearl and kissed her on the head. He sniffed then said, Oh, kiddo, come on, you smell like a brewery, he said, and dropped his arms. You can’t do that. He shook his head at her.
An expression of betrayal passed over Pearl’s face, and Jim knew he had lost her for the evening, knew he had ruined what he was building with her. That wasn’t union, he thought to himself, that was separation. But wasn’t separation sometimes necessary? She was his child, he had to guide her, guidance inferred separation. There was Fetal Alcohol Syndrome to think about. He offered to take her home but she shook her head, and backed away from him like a nervous animal.
As Pearl stepped back she felt a hand wrap around her ankle. When she looked down, she saw Alex in the pose he had not stirred from, propped on one arm. She had not shaved her legs because her skirt was so long, she remembered that, or perhaps she remembered it because he stroked his thumb up her ankle and she could feel the bristles bend under his touch.
Hey kid, he said. Who’s the father?
Nobody, she said, and she shook her ankle loose and ran away, really ran, it felt good to run and get away from them. She ran around to the other side of the bonfire where she saw Katrina and the redheaded bassist. He was running his hand up and down the smooth inside of Katrina’s forearm. Funny, when you’re an adult, if someone were to touch you like that you would know you were about to fuck, but when you’re a teenager you’re still wondering what it might mean. Do you want to try to three-way kiss, said Pearl. After they pulled their mouths away, laughing, Pearl saw Liam staring at her, his face half-lit by the fire.
She led Katrina and the bass player, who they kept calling Bass Player, even as he was saying, Gabe, call me Gabe, into the woods to a clearing. Pearl felt like a pied piper, her anger gave her a kind of charisma, she said, Bass Player, take off your shirt, and he did and she laid it on the ground to protect her and Katrina’s knees. Oh my lord, he said, and then after a few minutes told them he was cold. On the way to the van they passed the lead singer and the woman with the mandolin shouting at each other, and the lead singer, when he saw them, said, Jailbait, much? And Pearl had yelled, We’re eighteen, over her shoulder, and the bass player had said, Don’t talk to him, he’s mean.
The van was empty, the equipment still set up in the tent, and the bass player lay on his back and they took turns on top of him. Pearl wasn’t interested in orgasms in sex, (she had not yet had one) she had never masturbated, she didn’t like touching her own vagina, but there was a certain pounding that she liked, like scratching a hard to reach itch, and she couldn’t get deep enough on him to feel it. You can come in me, I’m on the pill, she said, but he pulled out and came into his hand. Then he started to cry.
I’ll stay with him, said Katrina, who was the kind of person who loved when people cried or vomited or were seething with rage—loved to be the back-stroker, the confidante, the soother. She would be a good mother, like her own, like Edna, thought Pearl, as she stepped out of the van and looked up into the sky, the stars obscured by clouds. A mother.
Hey, said a voice from the darkness. She saw the burning end of a spliff before she made out it was Liam. You want some, he asked, and she took a drag. Are you pregnant, he asked her, and explained that her mom had told his mom and his mom had told Leila and Leila had told him. It’s not yours, she said, quickly. Cool, he said. Yeah I was a little worried. There was a pause, he stood there bobbing his head for a while, he sang a line of some song that Pearl didn’t recognize and couldn’t make out the words of. She thought she could hear his breath rattling through the saliva in his mouth. You look really beautiful tonight, he said, and Pearl was surprised to realize in that moment that he wanted to have an emotional moment with her, that he was struggling for the right thing to say. Why did she think they were all in charge and all so cynical and so knowing? I think I’m gonna keep it, she said. Yeah, he said, that’s cool.
There was more silence, and Pearl shivered. Do you want my jacket, he asked her, and Pearl nodded, then asked if he would hold her. He put his jacket around her and they found one of the big rocks on the property that Liam and his buddy had pushed around for 10 dollars an hour last summer. He sat against it and she sat between his legs. I mean, you’ve got time, he said.
What do you mean, she asked him. His jacket smelled of men’s cologne and marijuana. Pearl was remembering herself on the dance floor with Katrina, thinking about her father and Alex and her mother’s friends watching her, she was burning with shame, she wasn’t even like that, she was trying something on, why did things have to happen and then be memories forever, not only for you, but for everyone. Everyone could hold that idea of who you were, it was sickening.
I mean my dad didn’t start his business until he was like 36. So like, your kid would be eighteen by then, he said. Seventeen, probably, she said, but yeah.
Pearl reached around to his crotch, but he stopped her hand. Sorry, he said, Can we just sit here? She nodded and swallowed the tears that came stupidly to her eyes.
In the future, she would purposefully blur Liam and the Bass Player so effectively in her mind that despite the facts that she very well knew, she would convince herself that either could have been the father.
She would refuse to go to Maureen’s midwife friends—the women she had known since childhood, she didn’t want them prodding her in that way. She would go to a hospital, with big machines. You’re so lucky, Pearl would say to her daughter, at the pro-choice marches she would take her to, because we have money and family, and so you can have a happy mother pursuing her dreams, and other people don’t have that.
I’m a virgin, the Bass Player told Katrina in the back of the van, Or I was. That was my first time. He put his face in his hands and tried to will more tears to come. Katrina felt around the van for her thong. Her first time had been when she was fourteen, with a boy who worked at the gas station. She had been grateful for the sickness, she told her therapist, because it had allowed her to realign with her parents, reject her bad friends—it forced her to give up all the molten, conflicting pressures of adolescence—that seemingly obligatory testing. Katrina tried to think about the Bass Player’s feelings. What did men even think about sex? My girlfriend and I are supposed to be saving ourselves for marriage, he said. How am I supposed to marry her now? I don’t think it was your fault, she said to him. He sniffed in agreement, then closed his eyes and began to mutter to himself, fingering his cross, negotiating, she presumed, some contractual stipulations of the covenant he and his girlfriend had made with their own personal savior.
You did the absolute right thing, Maureen said, rubbing Pearl’s back, three days after the wedding, as she let out great guttural sobs at the reconciliation scene between Marianne Dashwood and Colonel Brandon in Ang Lee’s film of Sense and Sensibility, which her mother rented from the video store for the day that she took the pill. Only a pill, Maureen kept saying. She misinterpreted Pearl’s fit; it wasn’t about the thwarted possibility of a baby, which, no longer drunk and angry, she knew she did not want, but actually about the happiness of Colonel Brandon and Marianne, and how Pearl predicted that she would never have such love, such happiness. Though at the time Pearl also thought she was crying about the lost potential of a baby, because a lost baby, and not the vague, projected disappointment of her future, was something one was permitted to cry about. Do you think I’m going to Hell, she had asked of Jim, dramatically, and Jim had looked at her a long time, rolling his fingers over his mala beads, which he preferred to a rosary, before he told her no.
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