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Perfect fifths, p.12
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       Perfect Fifths, p.12

           Megan Mccafferty
 
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  “That makes perfect sense. Princeton was precisely the type of high-end, upscale, affluential community targeted by Wally D’s/Papa D’s Retailtainment Corp. But a venture like the Be You Tea Shoppe was doomed in this economy. All the Shoppes will close by the end of this year.”

  “Wow. That’s too bad.”

  “Yeah. Too bad.”

  “You seem oddly pleased by your sister’s failure.”

  “I’ve got mixed feelings on the subject of my sister’s failure.”

  “Elaborate.”

  “On the one hand, I was very proud of Bethany and how hard she’s worked to turn this strangely anachronistic concept into a hip, profitable business. It was really doing well until, you know, the global economy collapsed. I mean, in an age when eight-year-old girls could go to a spa and get a Teeny-Weeny Tweeny Bikini Wax, who knew there’d be a market for girls happy to hang out and have tea parties and get mani-pedis with their moms? Or their grandmothers? But now, well, such luxuries are considered gauche. Which is a shame because working outside the home gave Bethany a sense of purpose and self-confidence that, quite frankly, shocked the hell out of me.”

  “How so?”

  “I’ll be the first to admit that I always saw my sister as being … well…”

  “Shallow?”

  “Yeah, shallow. No depth. Talking about the weather could strain the limits of her intellectual terrain. Or so I thought. Because it turns out my sister is perhaps one of the most complicated people I know.”

  “Go on.”

  “In her adult life, there’s always been a certain duality to her personality. She could be at once completely reasonable and—though this isn’t PC to say, I’m going to say it anyway—like, retarded.”

  “Jessica …”

  “Hey, I would have apologized before I said that, but I didn’t want to give up a dollar. But seriously, Marcus, I’ve sometimes wondered if there’s an insidious mini– monster virus snacking on her brain cells. Remember the ten-thousand-square-foot biodegradable dot commune? Or when she wanted to hire strippers to sell a product called Donut Ho’s?”

  “I see your point.”

  “But walking out on G-Money took balls. I was so proud of her. So many of her friends stay in unhappy marriages because they’re so afraid their lives will fall apart. Bethany really saw it as an opportunity to rebuild. And I’ve always admired how she’s raised Marin, now more than ever. Like when she and G-Money were still together, she got a lot of shit from the MILFs—remember the Only the Best MILFs?—for not having another kid.”

  “I thought lots of families in the city have only one.”

  “Oh no, not in Bethany’s circle, where four is the new two. Or, as I like to put it, four is the new stretch Hummer. It used to be that the poorest families had the most children so they could be put to work on the farm or whatever. But now mass procreation is the must-do. It’s, like, the ultimate marker of economic success and prosperity. ‘Even in a worldwide recession, we can afford private school for four kids! Can you?’”

  “That’s messed up.”

  “You have no idea. Bethany made it pretty clear that she’s done with one. Marin satisfies all her maternal urges, which has made her a pariah among the MILFs. Like, they cannot understand why she wanted to bother with this business of hers when she got the brown-stone and wife and child support in the settlement to still keep up with everything OTB.”

  “Only the Best.”

  “Right. Only now in these uncertain financial times, OTB is less ostentatious and more sanctimonious. When the MILFs aren’t bragging about their kids—’Darwin is the only child in his preschool who can request paper, not plastic in six languages’—they’re bitching about them—‘Curie’s orphan obsession has gotten totally out of hand; we have to sponsor yet another starving child from Appalachia’—in a way that’s even more smug and annoying than the in-your-face praise. They don’t seem all that interested in doing or talking about anything else.”

  “And Bethany?”

  “To my surprise, she’s totally over it. You know what she said to me? That every opening of a Be You Tea Shoppe was like having another kid. And I knew what she meant. That she’s grateful to be a mother and wouldn’t trade Marin for anything else in the world, but was eager—is still eager—to do something else with her life.”

  “So what’s the problem?”

  “I just wish she had chosen an industry that didn’t promote a superficial value system that serves to only undermine her own daughter’s sense of well-being.”

  “Don’t most little girls pretend to be grown-ups? Didn’t you play with makeup and costumes when you were little?”

  “Sure I did. But I played with my mother’s or Bethany’s hand-me-downs. It wasn’t all corporatized and out of control. At least Bethany drew the line at letting crazy mothers pay for the removal of their prepubescent daughters’ nonexistent pubic hair. But what she considers harmless fun is still… I don’t know … troubling to me. I mean, what six-to-nine-year-old needs lip plumpers and lowlights?”

  “Plumpers? Lowlights? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

  “Right! Exactly! You’re a man, so your brain isn’t cluttered with this superficial garbage. I didn’t feel such intense pressure to pretty up and dumb down until I hit middle school. Today’s girls start conforming to sexist stereotypes much, much earlier than that. Do you know what youth market analysts call this phenomenon? The HIM Effect. The Hormones in the Milk Effect. Girls are growing up so much faster. It’s depressing that girls Marin’s age—and younger!—are already wasting so much brain space worrying about their looks when they could be doing something far more worthwhile with their time and energy. Do you think the boys in Marin’s class are so preoccupied with their appearance? No way!”

  “They’re too busy beating the shit out of one another.”

  “You’re right! Maybe when conspicuous consumption is back in style, Bethany can exploit male aggression and tap into the boys’ six-to-nine starter market. ’Roids ‘R’ Us! Get Juiced! Try the Andro Stack Wacky Pack!”

  “You’ve put a lot of thought into this.”

  “More than you know. Marin is so smart and sharp in a way that, quite frankly, kind of scares me, because I don’t want to see her lose the spark that makes her special. She’s one of the coolest people I know, by far the most levelheaded person in the family.”

  “She was always a bit of a sage, wasn’t she?”

  “Absolutely! She can just cut through all the bullshit and get right to the truth of the matter.”

  “I remember one time—she must have been around four years old—she was talking about wanting to invent a robot sister doll. And when I told her it had already been invented, she said, ‘Darn. By the time I’m old, everything will be done already’ And I could only agree with her, feeling exactly the same way in my twenties as she did at four.”

  “You’re not serious.”

  “I am.”

  “Stop it. No, you’re not.”

  “Yes, I am. What are you talking about?”

  [Coughing.]

  “What is it, Jessica? Are you okay?”

  “Uh, yeah. It’s just…”

  “What?”

  “You weren’t there for that conversation.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “That was a conversation I had with Marin. Not you.”

  “You’re wrong. I remember that conversation clearly.”

  “You remember reading about that conversation in my journal.”

  “What?!”

  “I wrote about that conversation with Marin in my journal. One of the two notebooks I kept during your orientation week at Princeton, you know, the week before we—”

  “Whaaaaa—?”

  “The notebooks I wanted you to read to help you understand why … you know …”

  “I remember the notebooks. But I also remember having been there for that story—or at least I thought I was there for that
story.”

  “You’re confusing my history with your own.”

  “Are you… sure?”

  “I’m positive.”

  “I … I think you’re right… I …”

  [Pause.]

  “Don’t worry about it, Marcus.”

  “That’s just really … unnerving. It makes me question how many of my memories might be stolen from someone else.”

  “You loom large in Marin’s memory, so you must have had a few meaningful conversations that actually did occur.”

  “I … ?”

  “She still asks about you sometimes.”

  “Really? What does she ask?”

  “Oh, uh. Just… how you’re doing. That sort of thing.”

  “And what do you say?”

  “I say I don’t know how you’re doing because we’re not together anymore.”

  “And what does she respond to that?”

  “She … uh …”

  “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked that.”

  “You shouldn’t have apologized. I will gladly take a dollar from you now.”

  “Fair’s fair. Here you go.”

  “Thank you. It’s a fair question, Marcus, and I’ll answer it. Marin wants to know why we can’t still be friends, even if we aren’t boyfriend and girlfriend anymore, because her mom and dad got divorced but still talk to each other. And I tell her that sometimes it’s just not possible to go back to being friends, but you appreciate the relationship for what it once was. That breakups are sad but part of growing up.”

  “You’ve always been so honest with her.”

  “I’m honest because I’m not a very good liar.” [Cough.]

  “I know that.”

  [Pause.]

  “Are Bethany and G-Money involved in new relationships?”

  “Uh, yeah. Why do you ask?”

  “I imagine it would be easier to make the transition to friendship if you’ve already moved on to someone else.”

  “I imagine it would.”

  [Pause.]

  “It’s kind of funny, actually.”

  “What?”

  “Well… Bethany got back together with a high school boyfriend.”

  “I-ROC Jerry? The one who only listened to Def Leppard?”

  “Oh my God. I told you about I-ROC Jerry?”

  “In the notebook. Either that or I’m coopting another one of your memories as my own.”

  “He’s E-Car Jerry now, the most successful distributor of eco-friendly personal transport on the East Coast.”

  “No shit.”

  “Yes shit. In fact, I think he sold Leonardo DiCaprio a private jet that runs entirely on human waste.”

  “Ha.”

  “Thank you. So anyway, my sister was newly divorced, hadn’t gone on a date since 1994, and started trawling the Internets for ex-lovers. One e-mail led to another e-mail, which led to a face-to-face reunion over coffee and …”

  “The rest is romantic history.”

  “Uh, right.”

  [Extended pause.]

  “I’ll be happy to provide Marin with a status update.”

  “You can tell her I’m doing just great and that I think about her, too.”

  “You do?”

  “Of course I do.”

  “Really?”

  “Yes, Jessica; I think about it all.”

  four

  (happy enough)

  “So … How are your parents, Marcus? Your dad?”

  “Thanks for asking. That’s … nice.”

  “I wasn’t asking to be nice. I don’t do things just to be nice.”

  “Right. Because Jessica Darling would never live up to her last name by doing anything just for the sake of being—bleurg!—nice.”

  “I asked because I want to know.”

  “I was joking, Jessica. My dad is fine. Although he seems to think that surviving prostate cancer gives him a license to ride his motorcycle like a reckless maniac. But what can I do? I’m just his son, right? I can tell him that he’s a danger to himself and everyone else on the road, but he doesn’t have to listen to me.”

  “Yikes.”

  “Yikes is right. But overall, my parents are happy, I guess. At least that’s what they tell me on the phone. I don’t see much of them since they moved.”

  “My mom told me when their house was up for sale. She actually asked me whether it would be appropriate for her to offer her services as an accredited home-staging professional.”

  “Oh, man. At least she asked.”

  “‘At a discount, Jessica! I or one of my associates would provide the Fluties the full Darling’s Designs for Leaving experience at a fraction of the price.’”

  “You sound exactly like your mother when you do that. I mean, I haven’t heard her speak in years, but wow. Your impression. It’s eerie.”

  “I’ve had years of practice.”

  “I’m sure your mother meant well.”

  “I know she meant well. My mother always means well; she never intentionally tries to mortify me. In this case, I think she saw it as a way to help out your parents, to do them a favor to make up for …”

  “For what?”

  “For any [cough] stress our relationship might have caused you, and them [sniffle] by extension.”

  “Hmmmm.”

  “But they obviously sold the house without the benefit of the full Darling’s Designs for Leaving experience, as my mother put it. Where are they now?”

  “They spend summers at my brother’s campground in Maine, swimming, fishing, spoiling their grandchildren. They spend winters in a stucco bungalow located in an over-fifty-five community in Key West. I can’t believe I have parents old enough to retire to Florida. What are yours up to?”

  “My parents? After thirty-whatever years together, they’ve discovered the key to marital bliss.”

  “What’s that?”

  “Never spending enough time together to get on each other’s nerves.”

  “Come on, Jessica.”

  “I’m not being judgmental here.”

  “It sounds like you are.”

  “I’m not. I’m not judging them. I mean, I used to, you know, think it was pretty dysfunctional that my parents got along better when they never saw each other. But… uh … until I’ve been married as long as they have, I’m in no position to say what’s a healthy relationship and what’s not. So big whoop, when my mom is at her office, my dad is at home. When my mom is at home, my dad is on his bike. Is it weird that when they do choose to spend time together, it’s rarely at the condo but on a cruise ship thousands of miles away? Maybe. Maybe it is really, really weird. But it works for them, and they seem happy enough, so …”

  “Where do they go? Anywhere interesting?”

  “Places that no one in their right mind would ever go to for a vacation.”

  “Like where? Iraq? Somalia?”

  “Like Canada.”

  “Canada? What’s so bad about Canada?”

  “There’s nothing, like, intrinsically bad abooot Canada. But it is cold. I don’t know; it’s just not the first place I think of when I think of a vacation. The country I considered fleeing to during the right-wing reign of terror? Yes. Vacation destination? Not so much.”

  “Norway used to be my top choice for expat escape fantasies. It consistently ranks number one in the world for overall quality of life.”

  “Have you been there?”

  “Of course not. That’s what makes it the ideal escape fantasy. I don’t know enough about it to be discouraged by the imperfections.”

  “Like how it’s dark, like, half the year?”

  “A quarter. Between November and January. But who minds staying inside in the dark for three months when all the women look like Britt Ekland and all the men look like Dolph Lundgren?”

  “Wooooooow. College has done wonders for you, Marcus.”

  “How so?”

  “You’re far better equipped to drop inane pop culture refer
ences than you were three years ago. Nice work with the Ivan Drago reference.”

  “Hey, I figure lowbrow is my only way to go. How can I possibly compete with someone who oh-so-casually name-checks Jacques Lacan, Oliver Sacks, and Lord Byron?”

  “Aha! So you do know what a Lacanian theorist is!”

  “Er, yes.”

  “You don’t need to be so modest, Marcus. And I’ll bet you watched Rocky IV in a senior seminar at Princeton.”

  “How did you know? Popcorn Flicks and Hollywood’s Promotion of Cold War Stereotypes in Reagan-Era America. I got an A.”

  “Oh, I’m sure you did. Ha. Unfortunately, any points gained for creativity are deducted for accuracy because Dolph Lundgren isn’t Norwegian.”

  “What?”

  “He’s a Swede, Marcus. And for the record, so is Britt Ekland.”

  “They are?”

  “Definitely. But it’s okay. You can blame Byron for the error.”

  “I will, thank you. Damn you, Byron! And I suppose you know from Swedes from all those years living in the former bowling alley.”

  “I still live in the former bowling alley of the Swedish American Men’s Athletic Club. And yes, it has made me an expert in Swedish trivia.”

  “I thought you had to move out after a year.”

  “We were supposed to leave when Manda’s aunt returned from Europe with her family. She’s on the lease but hasn’t come back to the U.S., so we’re still there.”

  “You still live with Manda?”

  [Cough.] “Oh, no, no, no. I haven’t talked to Manda in, uh, ages … [Cough.] A very long time. I actually see more of Sara and Scotty—you know they got married, right?”

  “I didn’t.”

  “Well, they did. After Destino and before the twins, Donatella and Dolce.”

  “Donatella and Dolce?”

  “Named after the designers, of course.”

  “They’ve got three kids?”

  “Oh yeah, and a long list of D-names for hypothetical fertilizations, divided by categories.”

  “Categories?”

  “The actor D-names, like Demi and Denzel. The sports-page D-names, like Deion and Danica. The stripper D-names, like Diamond and Desire. The stripper D-names that are also cities, like Dallas and Dakota.”

 
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