The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater
a continuing fiction
© S. Moss-Ward, 2010
All rights reserved. This may not be reproduced, except with permission.
“C’mon, Bee,” Ben had said. “It’s not like I died.” But in a way it was. This is what I discussed with Dr. Burger for the next few weeks.
“It’s a loss for you,” she said, and then I started to cry, which made me feel really lame and immature. Dr. Burger leaned forward with a box of tissues, and I extracted a clump. “It will take some time to adjust, Barbara. Right now it feels as if Ben has deserted you.”
“I feel like something terrible happened to him,” I sniffled. “I know it’s stupid, and I should be happy for him, going to a great new school and all.”
“But you don’t feel happy,” said Dr. Burger.
I blew my nose noisily. “It’s really just like he died…at least I think this is what it would be like if anyone I knew….I mean, anyone I know…had died.” I looked blearily at Dr. Burger, sitting there in her dorky brown pantsuit, sensible low-heeled shoes, and flower-print scarf, wondering if she thought I was dramatizing way too much.
“Then you have to give yourself time to grieve,” she said.
Afterwards I felt oddly calm, so maybe it was a good thing that I had had a meltdown in Dr. Burger’s office. There wasn’t anyone else I could talk to about the situation, certainly not my parents.
Sometimes Maxine tried to find out what happened in my therapy sessions and I was always sketchy, because it was, like, totally none of her business. When we sat knitting after dinner, she’d make casual inquiries—“So how’s it going in therapy?”—and I’d say “it’s going.” Then Maxine would say, “Oh, that’s good. Do you think it’s helping you?” and I’d say, “Maybe.” It had been her idea that I go into therapy, anyway. She told me my problems were beyond her.
My problems? This was a conclusion my parents had reached, seeing as I had no friends except for Ben, and was somewhat overweight. Apparently to them being fat and basically friendless is the same as having a psychological disorder. Even though I’d pointed out that I’d never complained about anything, including the ridiculous quasi-education I was being subjected to at Cianci Academy, and had sucked up the fact that I was stuck in high school hell until I turned eighteen. As it turned out, though, I kind of liked talking to Dr. Burger and bouncing stuff off her. I liked her because she seemed genuinely interested in my life, and didn’t treat me as if I was some kind of sorry loser.
I think Dr. Burger helped me get used to the idea of a future without Ben. Suddenly, it was almost as if he’d already left, even though we saw each other a lot until school ended at the beginning of June. But there was now this barrier in place, like a big glass wall. We still emailed and texted somewhat, but it was highly superficial. I dealt with the situation pretty well overall, I thought. At least Ben had no idea of my devastation.
Then it was summer. Ben had a clerical job in this father’s law office, and, like a Stepford son, went downtown every morning wearing khakis, a Lacoste shirt, and loafers. One late afternoon, when I saw him get off the bus, I crossed to the other side of the street and walked fast in the opposite direction. I couldn’t actually believe I was avoiding the person who’d been my best and only friend, but that’s what I did. He had so totally defected. It was really sad that he had entirely vacated the premises of what summer vacation really meant—relaxing, reading for fun, making cool plans, maybe taking a little day trip to somewhere interesting, like Boston, or Mystic, or the beach.
My summer job was pretty “lite”—babysitting for two little sisters, Mackenzie and Madison Fleischmann, after the carpool dropped them off from day camp at five p.m., until their parents, both doctors, came home around seven. They lived just down the street, so it took about three seconds to get to their house. This meant I had the whole day before meeting the Fleischmann girls to do whatever, which was mostly sleeping very late, surfing the Web and doing email, walking to the Rochambeau branch of the library and finding interesting books—I’d decided to read at least thirty novels over the summer—and doing the occasional errand for the parents. I’d started knitting a blue-and-green mitered square afghan for Ben to take to boarding school in September, but after a while I lost interest, so I put it aside. For most of June I didn’t knit anything at all.
Instead, after dinner I just sat with my mother as she worked on her latest project—a set of white lace café curtains and a swag valance, for the window over the kitchen sink—and read, or watched Netflix movies or tv.
After a couple of weeks of this new routine, Maxine asked, “What’s with the not knitting?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’m just not in the mood to be sitting with a pile of wool in my lap.”
“So knit cotton, or one of those new bamboo or soy yarns.” That’s what she did when the weather was hot. The curtains were made of very fine flax.
“I’m not in the mood.”
“Then you should study for the SAT. Have you looked into taking a Kaplan course?”
“No.” The thought made me inwardly retch. I decided, at that moment, to tell her to back off.
“There’s something I want to tell you,” we both said at the same time, and then we laughed a little.
“Bread and butter.”
“Bread and butter.”
“You go first.” I gestured grandly towards Maxine.
“Well…all right. There’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while,” she began dreamily, as if she were reading a story out loud that began once upon a time.
I looked down at my hands, neatly folded in my lap. Being June, it was too hot to wear the sweater tent, so I’d helped myself to one of Guy’s old sweatshirts. It said BROWN in white letters, which I thought was an interesting concept, sort of like spelling the word “red” in black letters. It made you think about word meanings or the lack thereof. The sweatshirt, a men’s size extra-extra-large, had had very long sleeves that I’d had to partly hack off, because rolling them up didn’t work well. It would be an understatement to say that this garment looked seriously shabby.
Maxine said, in a weirdly joyous voice, “I’m going to take a little vacation.”
“Oh?” Why was she presenting this as if it were some humongous deal? She and Guy had occasionally taken vacations, with or without me. When they’d gone by themselves, my grandma, who lived in Brooklyn, would come to stay, or I’d be sent to her house. Not for a while, though, come to think of it. “Where are you going?”
“Maine,” she said. “There’s a craft school in Deer Isle that runs courses on weaving. I’ve always wanted to learn to weave, and I’ve been accepted, and I’ll be leaving next weekend.”
So this was her grand plan. Yawn. I mean, I’m all for her doing what she wants to do, but why all the drama?
“You’re going alone?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, now sounding kind of edgy. “This is something just for me, something I’m doing for myself. Will you be ok with your father? You know how absent-minded he is—you’ll be on your own a lot.”
“I hope you can figure out something productive to do while I’m away.”
I ignored the comment. “How long for?” I asked.
“I’m not really sure. At least two weeks, perhaps longer if I go somewhere else afterwards.”
I couldn’t imagine where she’d go afterwards, but just then it didn’t seem to be worth asking. I was already thinking of how nice it would be to have the whole house to myself all day, since Guy would most likely be at his office, writing or researching. I smiled a huge smile. “Have a great vacation,” I said. “Learning to weave sounds really cool.”
“What were you about to ask me,” asked Maxine, “when we both talked at the same time?”
“Well…here’s the thing,” I said, keeping my voice light and upbeat. “And I’ve been thinking about if for a while, too. It’s that I really don’t like calling you Maxine. It doesn’t feel right. I’d really rather call you Mom.”
She stared at me for a few seconds. “Is this something you dreamed up with your therapist?” Her voice had returned to its usual level of repressed emotion.
“Actually not. I started thinking about this on the day I turned sixteen, when you said I should call you Maxine. It didn’t feel right then, and it doesn’t feel right now. I kept expecting I’d get used to it after a while, but that hasn’t happened.”
“You are so reactionary,” my mother said. She looked extremely pissed. “But if that’s how you feel, there’s nothing I can do about it. So go ahead, call me Mom, or Mother.” She shrugged and surveyed her knitting. “I never thought I’d …,” she muttered.
“Never mind. It doesn’t matter.” She was intently examining the curtain, which was about half done. It covered her lap like a big white skirt.
“Thanks, Mom,” I said, and left.
I went into the upstairs bathroom and undressed without looking in the mirror. My dumpy clothes lay in a mound on the floor, looking like they needed to be burned rather than washed. Then I stepped on the scale. The reading was the same as it had been in the morning. It had taken me by surprise, as I ‘d made no effort to diet. But since Ben and I had stopped our after-school routine a few weeks earlier, I’d lost eight pounds. And, since I’d continued to wear the customary sack-like outfits, neither my mother nor Guy had noticed. This was very good, I thought. I would continue to melt away, and one day I’d completely take them by surprise.
There was a knock on the door. “Babar,” said Guy, using his “pet” name for me, “are you going to be in there for a while?”
I stepped off the scale. “Maybe, Dad,” I said. I heard him clomp away down the hall. It always amazed me that in a house which featured three bathrooms—one for each resident—one of my parents always seemed to need the bathroom I’d chosen. I would have vacated if Guy hadn’t called me Babar, a nickname that might have been cute for five minutes when I was a pudgy baby. Now it was just one more annoying thing to endure. I made a mental note to take the bull by the horns, and have a little chat with my father about this when Maxine--I mean, my mother--was weaving her heart out in Maine.