The next morning at breakfast, Julie’s father reminded her he was flying to Cincinnati for some sort of health food conference she couldn’t remember ever having heard of.
“Well, I hope you haven’t forgotten the Woolseys,” Gail said, glancing up from the paper.
“The Woolseys?” Julie pretended to be mystified.
“You never listen, do you?” Gail laid down the paper and poured herself a second cup of coffee. “My friend, Mona, who I grew up with, and her daughter, Diana? I told you about them the other day.” Her spoon clinked noisily against the side of the cup as she stirred in sugar and cream. “They’re from Texas, but they’re visiting family on the East Coast. The daughter’s your age. We’re all going to my concert tonight.”
“Well, I can’t go,” Julie said. “I promised the Mclntyres I’d babysit. I’m sorry, Mom. I’m really sorry. I just can’t let them down.”
The last place Diana Woolsey wanted to be was stuck in a car with her mother, driving to Vermont. The trip from Saratoga (where they had been staying with her grandparents) took three hours and the whole time she didn’t talk, though Mona kept making bright comments like: “It’ll be interesting for you to get to know Julie,” or: “Gail’s so talented; you’re gonna just love hearing her play.”
Why would I? thought Diana, who wanted to be home in Austin, Texas, with her own friends and not on the East Coast, going to family reunions and visiting people she didn’t give a shit about. She was a tall, leggy girl with swift dark eyes that were often full of judgment, and a face whose harsh beauty didn’t much appeal to boys her age. Four months ago, on her sixteenth birthday, her life had totally changed: her parents had given her a car of her own to drive, a brand new, pale gold Chevy Tahoe that she thought was the most beautiful thing in the world. Suddenly she wasn’t chained to her mother, she was free, independent, allowed — because of her good grades — to more or less come and go as she pleased. And with that freedom came a sense of superiority, a growing suspicion that her parents didn’t know quite as much as they pretended to. She had always assumed that her father, Harry, who was brilliant but hated anyone intruding on his thoughts, was a little on the dim side. It was her mother who was the disappointment, good-natured Mona who’d led Diana through childhood with a quiet explanation for every kink and setback and strange event, who’d seemed so cool with her job writing for the local paper, who everyone said was smart but who, Diana now realized, was just a silly shallow woman with a penchant for wearing clothes that were too young for her and making dumb remarks, like: “Cigarettes are hard to give up.”
Diana particularly hated it when her mother danced to music behind the wheel of the car (as she had this afternoon, stopped at a light in the middle of Amherst in front of a bunch of students), wriggling her arms and shoulders in a way that made Diana want to curl up and die of embarrassment. She wished she herself could drive, but legally you had to be twenty-one to operate a rental. When they pulled off the main road onto a dirt one and stopped in front of a rambling wooden house, Diana decided to stay where she was, not get out of the car. “Well, here we are,” Mona said cheerfully. She undid her seatbelt, peered out the window. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
A pale brown Weimaraner trotted across the front lawn to the car, not barking or making any kind of a sound, but appearing somewhat scary with his strange, almost mystical blue eyes. A screen door slammed and a tall blond woman in a jade green dress walked swiftly toward them. Mona jumped from the car and ran into the woman’s arms. They hugged with closed eyes, thumped one another on the back. When they pulled apart, they kept their arms around each other and Mona gestured to Diana with her free hand.
“Come here and meet Gail!”
Diana got out as slowly as if she had chains on her feet. She trudged over to Gail who looked her up and down with a slow smile and said, “Well, aren’t you beautiful! Just like your mom when she was your age.” Diana gave a frozen little smirk. What was she supposed to say to that? She didn’t have the distance from Mona to appreciate her looks, though she knew people found her striking with her dark hair and high cheekbones and flashing eyes. To her Mona was Mona, a nagging force in her life, an irritant like a pebble in her shoe, or the grind of a guilty conscience.
They took their bags from the car and entered the house, which was low-ceilinged and cozy with Berber rugs and big comfy chairs and flowering plants on all the tables. There was the smell of something sweet and gingery — herbs, or maybe candles. “I’m sorry, Julie’s not here right now,” Gail said. “She had to babysit, so she won’t be coming to the concert with us.”
That was fine with Diana, who enjoyed making new friends about as much as she enjoyed studying for a physics exam. Plus, the sight of Julie’s room — which was where she would be sleeping — told her this person was out of control. Clothes and shoes all over the floor, bed unmade and soiled-looking, bureau drawers hanging open, spewing socks, jewelry, underwear. “Julie’s not the tidiest,” Gail moaned, removing laundry from the other bed so Diana could put her bag down. She smiled apologetically and left her to unpack. Diana stepped over a pair of rumpled shorts and some magazines and peered out the window, where she saw a garden planted with roses and tall orange lilies. A small cabin — Gail’s studio she found out later — sat at the end of a smooth lawn. Behind the cabin the woods began, and even from this distance Diana could hear the gurgling of a stream. She thought she had never in her life seen so much green. The green of fresh-cut grass, of big droopy leaves, of moss-covered stones, of forests with soft, beckoning paths. Rich smells wafted up from the garden and above the whole shimmering tableau hung a stillness as deep and mysterious as the sacred quiet of a cathedral.
They drove through that green stillness to Gail’s concert, which was held in a hall whose vaulted wooden ceiling reminded Diana of an inverted ark. Large windows were thrown open to the night. Everyone in the audience (except for Mona, whose hair was dyed the red brown of an Irish Setter) seemed to have milk white hair and to sit in deep concentration as the music floated in sharp, precise notes over their heads. Diana couldn’t stop wriggling. She glimpsed the small smile of contentment on Mona’s face and hated her more than ever. What bad thing had she done to get stuck here in a room full of dried-out old farts listening to a bunch of dreary old Bach cantatas on a Friday night? Her stomach clenched and a glistening tear of self-pity drifted down her cheek. She held herself stiff-shouldered and erect, a martyr on a bed of nails, wanting Mona to see how unhappy she was, but instead Mona started crying herself, big silent tears that she brushed away with the backs of her hands like a child. “It’s just that it’s so beautiful,” she whispered tremulously to Diana.
After the concert they helped Gail lug her cello across the dark lawn to the car. She was so elated from playing that she babbled like the brook behind her studio. “That’s where Julie is,” she said as they flew past a house with lit-up windows and a dog that darted out at them, barking. “Oh, why don’t we stop and say hello?” Mona cried, and Gail jammed on the brakes so suddenly that Diana, sitting in back with the cello, had to throw her arms out to keep from being flung against the seat. Mona and Gail opened their doors. “I’m not going in there,” Diana announced flatly.
“Why not?” said Mona, who already had one foot out and was allowing the dog to sniff her knee.
“I wouldn’t want my mother stopping by if I were babysitting.”
“She’s right,” Gail said, snapping her belt back on and pressing her foot down on the accelerator. Mona had to slam the door fast, the dog chasing them again as they sped up the dirt road. Ten minutes later they were home. “I always get so revved up after a concert,” Gail said as she led the way into the house. “I’ll never be able to sleep tonight.”
Diana went upstairs, brushed her teeth, fell into bed. Through the closed door she could hear the murmur of the two women talking downstairs. Bzzz. Bzzz. Bzzz. And then Gail’s voice saying very distinctly: “Frank’s gotten so fat, I don’t really want to sleep with him anymore.” Diana squooshed the pillow over her head. She didn’t want to think of Gail’s sex life. But despite herself, she had a mental image of Gail pushing away her fat husband, touching him with far less love than she had for her cello. It was too hot to keep the pillow over her head for long. She threw it off and heard her mother’s laugh float up the stairs, followed by Gail shushing the dog, or perhaps shushing Mona, because after that there was silence.
Tune in next week for PART 4: IAN’S PARTY