The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater
a continuing fiction
© S. Moss-Ward, 2010
All rights reserved. This may not be reproduced, except with permission.
Here’s the totally bizarre and surprising thing: as soon as my mother left, a deep feeling of relaxation washed over the house. Everything felt fresh. It made me think that something had been wrong for, like, forever, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what that something was. I mean, it was my mother’s house, too. In fact, it’s mostly my mother’s house, since her knitted stuff is everywhere—bedspreads in the bedrooms, afghans and throw pillows in the livingroom, curtains in the kitchen, and even a small knitted rug on the floor in front of the kitchen sink. It’s like our house is wearing one ginormous sweater that she’s never stopped knitting, and instead of a number on our mailbox we have a label that says “Hand Knits by Maxine.”
My mother is basically a good person. She can be incredibly aggravating, of course, but I always felt she was dedicated to me, to Guy, to our little family. Her knitting was proof of that—why put in the time unless she really loved the people who’d benefit from the work? But without her, everything felt happier and lighter. How weird was that? I couldn’t help thinking that if my mom had any idea of the positive change she’d caused by simply not being there, she’d be totally ballistically enraged.
For the first week of her so-called vacation “just for me” she phoned, like, every evening “to check in.” “We’re fine,” I told her, for what seemed like the nine zillionth time, although she’d been gone for maybe five days. I passed the phone to my dad. He and I were at the dining room table, which was covered with open and mostly empty (except for some crusts) pizza boxes, the accumulation of several days’ dinners. Plus the pizza dinner we were currently eating. We were doing “a study in comparative pizzaology,” as he called it. Every night so far we’d ordered in from a different local place. Tonight’s was a Quattro Stagione from Fellini’s, on Wickendon Street.
“Everything’s fine,” he said. “Having a good time? Well of course there's a period of adjustment. Listen, here’s Barbara.” He passed the phone back to me, like it was a hot potato. I looked at him cross-eyed. Why couldn’t he talk to her for more than a few seconds?
“How are you?” I asked, while nibbling as quietly as I could from a truly delicious slice that was covered with shaved prosciutto and oozing mozzarella.
“Tired,” she sighed. “It was such a long drive and I’ve been feeling almost jet-lagged since I got here. I wish I could go to sleep for a couple of days. And on top of that, there’s a lot I have to learn in this workshop. There’s even homework!”
“Mom,” I said. “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” I thought that sounded both casual and wise at the same time. “Just try to have fun,” I told her. “After all, it’s a dream vacation. Just. For. You,” I emphasized.
I put Guy back on. “Everything’s under control, Maxine,” he said, winking at me and making silly faces. I was drinking a twenty-four ounce diet Coke from a supersize cup with a bendy straw, and when I laughed it seemed like most of the soda sprayed all over and went up my nose.
“Don’t worry about anything at all,” Dad said. “Try to enjoy your time alone, ok? Yes, love you, too.”
After that she called less often. “She must be having a great time,” Guy and I told each other.
Another surprising thing—my dad was at home more than I expected. That basically killed my original plan of floating around the house doing whatever while he was thinking deep thoughts in his office. On the other hand, it was more fun and interesting than I’d imagined. He actually talked to me about meaningful stuff, like his work, and we started eating brunch together on weekdays, since, it turned out, without Maxine around to organize everything, we both liked to stay up late and get up late. And he did the cooking.
“I make very good scrambled eggs, don’t you think, Babar?”
I put on a stern face. “Dad,” I said, “this has to stop!”
“What? You don’t like my scrambled eggs?”
“It’s not the eggs,” I said. “You just can’t call me Babar any more, ok? I really hate that name.”
“Oh come on,” he said. “It’s been my name for you forever.”
“Well… I’ve hated it forever! I find it insulting. I don’t like being compared to a picture-book elephant.”
“Ok,” he said slowly, as if he were really thinking it through, which I doubted. “I see your point.” And the whole big deal was over, just like that. My dad is good in this way, unlike my mother, who simmers inwardly and never lets go.
We were quiet for a while, eating our eggs and toast. Then he said, in a manner I’d term ‘cautiously polite’: “If I can’t call you Babar, may I call you Bee?” I nodded yes because my mouth was full.
“So I’ve been wondering, Bee,” he continued, “You’re looking different to me recently. Is it possible you’ve grown taller?”
I put down my fork and went to the doorway between the kitchen and dining room where there were measuring marks for my height from, like, when I had first learned to walk. The last time I’d been measured was in sixth grade. Of course I was way taller now. I backed onto the door frame and commanded, “Tape measure, sir!”
He took it from the junk drawer in the kitchen. I placed my heel on one end, and he zipped the other up the wall and made a mark at the end with a pencil. “Mon dieu!” he said, smacking his forehead in super-exaggerated surprise. “How did you grow so fast?”
“The last time you measured me I was twelve,” I reminded him. “So how tall am I, anyway?”
“Five feet nine inches! Wow! Soon you’ll be towering over me!” He’s six-foot-one.
“I hope not!”
For about a month, though, I suspected I’d recently grown taller instead of wider. I thought that might account for the way my body was reshaping itself. My jeans had become looser around the hips, and my stomach no longer muffin-topped over the waistband, like a pregnant woman’s belly.
“You do look different, Bee,” he said. “You know…I’d be willing to bet that you’ve lost some weight. Though it’s hard to tell what you look like underneath your rather …um…oversized…um…coverings.”
“I think you may be on to something,” I agreed.
Then he asked two interesting questions. The first was would I go to a department party with him on Saturday? It was at someone’s house in Little Compton, in honor of visiting faculty members who were returning home.
The second was, if he gave me some money, would I buy myself some new clothes? Not that he objected to my usual attire, but given as how I seemed to be slimming down, maybe I could actually use some things in smaller sizes?
I said I would consider both of these proposals and get back to him.
That would be fine, he said.
About five minutes later I told him yes, and yes.
The next day Guy gave me a bunch of money and I moseyed over to the consignment shop on Hope Street. The owner, a harpy who could have been the twin sister of Monsieur Corbeau, of Cianci Academy Honors French fame—Maître Corbeau, sur un arbre perché, Tenait en son bec un fromage—followed me around the store like I was a criminal looking to pilfer her—let’s be totally honest—used merchandise. I was the only customer in the place, of course, so that made it easy for her to breathe down my neck.
There was a lot of interesting stuff, actually, or else I would have left sooner rather than later, because Madame Corbeau creeped me out so totally. Anyway, I ended up buying several items, including a long purple-blue tie-dyed skirt with an eyelet lace cotton petticoat underneath, and an olive green cashmere twinset—a tank top and a beaded matching cardigan. Also a Kelly bag in tangerine leather. I handed over the money haughtily, barely making eye contact, so she would realize her assumptions about my intentions were totally false.
I wore these clothes to the party, and traded the tank-like Doc Martens for a pair of ninety-nine cent flip-flops (purple) purchased at the CVS drugstore across from the consignment shop, along with a bottle of purple nail polish for my fingers and toes.
“Nice colors,” said my dad, as I folded myself into his sunflower yellow Beetle, carefully arranging the skirt so that it didn’t catch in the door, which he gallantly held open for me. “So lively. Your nails. Your outfit. Your hair-ribbon! (I’d tied my ponytail with some gold lacy ribbon I’d saved from a candy box years ago.) Everything!”
“Thanks, Dad,” I said. I figured he was being complimentary because lately he’d never seen me wear anything except my fugly jeans and immense tops.
“You might not quite understand this, Bee,” he said, after we’d been driving a while, “and please don’t take it the wrong way…but it’s kind of painful for me to see you hide yourself in those, um, oversized clothes you usually wear. Especially now that I see how cute you look in your pretty new things.”
I was tempted to respond sarcastically, because frankly, my dad’s comment was so ridiculously sexist and conventional. But I sensed that he was, in his weird way, really trying to be kind. So I put a lid on the snarkiness. “It’s just the way people my age dress now,” I explained carefully, as if talking to someone whose first language isn’t English. “You know, very casual and random, kind of eclectic, kind of anything goes. ” I realized this sounded either horribly patronizing or else defensive and lame, but I didn’t want to get into a microanalysis of my body issues and destroy the calm of our car ride.
“Well, my dear, I see people just about your age in my classes every day, and it strikes me that most of them make an effort to wear things that are a little less, um, drapey—know what I mean?”
“Yes,” I said, feeling a sullenness enter my voice. “Can we talk about something else, ok?”
Instead we said nothing for a while. I watched the landscape roll past, like a beautiful movie. We were near the ocean and there were lots of rippling fields that seemed to flow down to the shore and the blue-green ocean beyond; we passed postcard villages of antique houses, shingled with white trim, surrounded by thickly-planted gardens.
“Listen, I don’t mean to sound critical,” my dad said. “Let’s just forget what I said and enjoy the party.” He reached across to me and patted my hand, then pulled the Beetle into a long graveled driveway that was mobbed by cars. Far ahead I could see a large house, and a lot of people.
“I’m glad you agreed to come with me, Bee,” Dad said. He looked so totally absent-minded professor, with his frizzy hair and bushy mustache, his ridiculous straw pith-helmet sunhat, his blue-and-white striped shirt buttoned the wrong way (I fixed it for him as soon as I noticed!), his humongous turquoise-and-silver Navajo belt-buckle holding up blue jeans, and Teva sandals on his abnormally white feet. Maybe a couple of years ago I’d have rather died than be seen in public with him, but somehow none of that mattered now, because I had a feeling inside of me that said I don’t care what other people think! I felt like he was my dad and I was his daughter, and we could be friends and have fun, as well as just being related. We didn’t need to impress anyone else or try to be different from who we are.
A few days later, when I told Dr. Burger about this realization, which seemed to me like a small flash of insight, she smiled in a thoughtful way. Then she said, “It’s good to see that you’re gaining confidence, Barbara.”
“I guess,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “What exactly do you mean by that?”
“Oh,” said Dr. Burger. “I think you already answered that question.” And then she smiled some more. Sometimes she could be more aggravating than my mother.