When I was small, strangers would squat down to my eye level and say, "You're such a cute little girl. I bet you'll be beautiful just like your mother."
And she was beautiful with her long, dark hair and hazel eyes and slim figure that could take in all the hot chocolate with whip cream and fries anybody could ever want and not gain a pound. I also knew that I would never be like her after a while. I took more after dad than her. It's not that dad was ugly, he wasn't. It's just that nobody really looked at him while everybody seemed to notice her.
As I grew older, I began to notice things. People would compliment her on having the best centerpiece, the perfect recipe, the most fashionable dress. They would talk about how organized and talented she was, especially helping dad with campaigns before I was born. But I also noticed that outside of political functions she didn't really socialize with a lot of the other women and that often she preferred talking to the other men at a party. Once we went shopping for food and a woman I didn't know confronted her and told her to leave her husband alone. "I don't have any idea what you're talking about. I just went with him as a friend," my mom said.
One night, I asked her about it. She was looking into the mirror, giving her hair one hundred strokes before going to sleep.
My mom rolled her eyes and sighed in exasperation. "People like that . . . They're jealous of how pretty I am. Count your blessings that you will never have to deal with that," she said to me before she turned back to the mirror and finished combing her hair.
She was always saying things like that.
Whenever dad was on the road, campaigning for Uncle Lex (I call him that even though he's not really my uncle), we'd get phone calls where they never left messages on the machine or would hang up the instant I said hello. My mom would often volunteer to organize parties and other social events like museum openings, often spending long nights out helping to set up locations, decorations and catering. Sometimes I'd wake up at two or three in the morning, awakened by her giggling and stumbling to the bedroom. The next morning, she'd brag about what an event it was.
When she wasn't planning the event of the century, she would often go out riding and tending her horses for hours. She once told me that it was something she loved to do ever since she was a child. Every couple months, she would enter and win prizes at various equestrian events. I would be in the stands watching her along with my nanny. Considering how busy she was, I didn't understand why she developed then dropped all sorts of hobbies like tennis or swimming or badminton. I once said so and all she would do was smile at me like she knew a joke whose punch line I would never understand.
Lydia, my nanny, was the one who packed my lunches, kissed my boo-boos and looked over my homework. She was there to scold me when I tried to watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre late one night. She left when I was twelve. I miss her. I once talked to Uncle Lex about it. He said he knew how I felt.
I was a sophomore in high school when I first met Todd. He was a senior basketball player. He was tall, dark-haired and when he smiled, I'd have to lean against a wall for support because I was this close to swooning from the sheer prettiness. I wasn't a popular girl in school but I wasn't a total pariah either. Having a mother that a lot of the guys in my class thought was seriously hot kept them from teasing me and having a high-powered and respectable father made sure that a lot of people's parents didn't want to piss him off. Me, well, I just tried to keep under the radar.
I shared chemistry class with him and we were lab partners. He wasn't a raging snot like some jocks can be. He was actually pretty funny, almost too funny; I'd have to elbow him occasionally to get him to concentrate on the experiments. Still, I liked him. I liked him a lot so I asked him if he'd like to study at my house. If I had known what was going to happen, I would never have taken him home.
The day I took him home, I thought mom had gone out again so I had him sit down in the living room while I got chips and salsa. When I walked back in, I noticed that he was looking out the glass doors and my mom was climbing out of the pool. She was in a red bikini. She saw Todd, flashed him her trademark smile and started toweling herself off in front of him. I put down the bowls on the table, a bit on the loud side. He spun his head back to me and said, "Who's that?"
"Actually, that's my mom."
She walked into the house with the towel wrapped around her hip. "Hello . . . I'm Clara's mother." She held out her hand to him. I noticed that the handshake lingered.
She turned to me and said, "You know who he reminds me of?"
I shook my head. "No, who?"
"Your uncle Clark, of course."
I looked at Todd. There was a vague resemblance in that he was the same type but other than that . . . The way mom was looking at him was really bothering me like . . .she was interested or something.
"Uncle Clark?" Todd said.
"He's an old family friend. He's not really an uncle," I said. "Mom, we were trying to study."
"Oh, you always do well on tests," she said. She turned to him and said, "Staying for dinner? Our cook makes the best chicken mole."
Todd looked confused, looking first at my mom then me. "I wouldn't want to . . ."
"You won't be intruding. In fact, with my husband off managing Lex Luthor's bid for the Senate, it's good to have a man about the house." With that, my mom went to her bedroom.
"Come on," I said. "I'm going to see if you remember what the difference between exothermic and endothermic is."
My mother had changed into a red silk sleeveless dress and put her hair up for dinner. She seated herself next to him while I sat across from the both of them. "So . . . Todd, what kind of sport do you play? You look very athletic," she said.
I rolled my eyes. God, Mom, stop schmoozing.
Todd smiled, flattered. "Basketball. We might go all the way to the championships this year."
"That's great," she said, nodding in approval. "Why don't you show me some of your moves after dinner? We have a hoop above the garage."
"Mom, the test is tomorrow."
"Oh, that's too bad," she said before turning back to Todd. "All right, when is the next game?"
"Thursday at Redlands High. Why?" said Todd.
The phone near the refrigerator in the kitchen rang. I got up and left the dining room to pick it up. "Hello?"
"Hey, how's my favorite girl?"
"Hi, Dad!" He always tried to call every night. In the background, I could hear the TV. It was always either CNN or ESPN.
"I just called to say that I'll be back on Friday. I miss you and your mom. What's for dinner? Hotel food is just awful."
"It's always awful. It's chicken mole with rice and steamed vegetables."
"Sounds good. Anything I should know about?"
"I have a chemistry test tomorrow and a friend of mine's over for dinner."
"Who, Amy?" he said referring to my best friend. "Or a friend I should know about?"
"Um, ah . . . Todd."
"Todd, huh? I think I'd like to meet this Todd. Is your mom there?"'
I looked out the door and watched mom crinkle her nose in amusement, throw her head back and laugh at one of his jokes. "Yeah . . . she is. I'll get her."
Later that night as I walked Todd to his car, he turned to me and said, "Clara, are you mad at me?"
"After dinner, you got really quiet. Did I do something wrong?"
"I'm just tired. Todd?"
"Don't take my mom too seriously. She's like this with everyone. She's a bit of a flirt."
"Well . . . OK."
"I'll see you tomorrow, Todd. Remember, in chemistry, a mole isn't an animal."
I was sitting in the stands with my friend Amy, watching Todd and his teammates play basketball against the Redlands High team. Even though dad would sometimes have Uncle Clark over to shoot some hoops, I never really developed that much of an interest. Still, Todd looked cute in that uniform so I tried taking a few pictures of him with my digital camera.
Amy elbowed me in the ribs and said, "Clara, is that your mom?"
I looked to see her walking toward the stands and frowned. "She never . . . Excuse me."
I ran up to her. She never came to any of my track meets except for the one time the limousine dad was riding in got into an accident on the freeway. I could only think that something terrible had happened. Maybe his plane had crashed or maybe . . . "Mom, is something wrong?"
"No, no, nothing has happened. I just promised your friend I'd watch one of his games. Mind if I sit next to you?"
"I guess it's OK. I thought you had some sort of riding contest to go to."
She shrugged. "Oh, I took out Raphael for a warm-up earlier today and for some reason, I just didn't feel comfortable entering him into the contest. Besides, it's not like I need another trophy for riding."
As mom sat next to me, Amy gave me a WTF look. I shrugged.
I was always happy when dad came home. He'd come home, all smiles and enthusiasm about being back. He'd talk about what was going on and how hard it was to keep everyone in line and everything in order. What was great about him coming home was that everything would be normal or close as it ever got to normal. We'd have dinner together as a family the days he was at home. Mom wouldn't go out so much.
That night at the dinner table, we sat down to rib-eye steak with a red wine reduction sauce, mashed potatoes with gravy and butternut squash soup.
"Dad, I saw you on the news," I said.
"You're were standing behind Uncle Lex while he was making a speech."
"Good eye." He flashed me a smile.
"So, will Lex be stopping by soon?" said mom.
"He'll be busy campaigning right up to election day and if he wins, then our plan is that we're going to have a hundred days to push through a lot of his agenda before the `honeymoon' phase ends. So, probably not until Christmas."
"That's too bad. I do so miss him. How about Clark?"
"Well, he's been . . . moonlighting a lot lately so . . . I can't say," he said. He turned towards me. "So, who is this Todd?" He ate a spoonful of mashed potatoes with gravy.
"He's Clara's classmate," said mom.
"He's my lab partner in chemistry class," I said. "He also plays varsity basketball."
"I'd like to meet this guy. Anyway, how did you do on the chemistry test?"
"I got a 98."
"Good, just keep your mind on the school work. Have you ever considered law school?"
"Dad . . . Just because you went to law school, grandma's a judge and auntie's a DA, doesn't mean I have to do it, too."
"Just a suggestion. Never say never."
"How long will you be here?" mom said.
"I'll be here all next week. I'll be working late but I'll be coming home every night. After that, it depends on the campaign."
Unfortunately by next Wednesday, he got a call telling him to go out on the road again.
I was sitting at my usual lunch table when I heard, "Got those photos you wanted."
I looked up to see Amy waving some black and white photos of the basketball team she had developed for her photography class. I took them from her and flipped through them. Quite a few of them showed Todd. "Oh, cool. How did you get so close?"
"I didn't. I have a zoom lens."
As I slipped through the stack, I took out a picture of Todd out and looked at it. "Amy, you've seen my Uncle Clark, right?"
"Well, once, why?"
"Do you think that Todd looks like him?" I held up a photo of Todd smiling.
Amy thought for a second. "Well, kinda, except Todd's more skinny and you uncle's more buff. Todd's hair is darker and it's got that wave thing going so . . . Why?"
"My mom said he looked like him."
"So . . ."
"My dad, my mom and my uncle all used to go to the same school. My uncle and my mom used to like each other."
Amy made a face. "That must make things weird whenever they have him over."
"Not really. They broke up in high school. My dad and mom only really got interested in each other in college."
"And the relevance?"
"I don't know. I had him over at the house last week and he saw her coming out of the pool. I nearly gave him a cup so he could drool into it. She seemed to really enjoy the attention. Maybe it reminds my mom of how much he liked her back then."
Amy waved it off like a fly was bothering her. "All guys are like that. A woman in a swimsuit will always gets a guy's attention. It doesn't mean anything. As for your mom, she probably does find it fun that someone like Todd thinks she's hot now that she's hella old."
"She's not old. She's not fifty yet."
Amy shrugged. "How are things between you and Todd?"
"I haven't told him I liked him yet."
"I don't know what to say. I feel so embarrassed. It doesn't help that the Eileen is totally crushing on him, too."
Amy patted me on the shoulder. "Just ask him to a movie or something. Guys are really `duh' and Todd's not exactly the brightest."
Amy took a bite of her burrito and made a face. "Ugh, what the hell is this?"
I looked at the wrapper. "It says it's an organic tofu burrito."
"Yes, Clara?" she said as she stood in front of the bathroom mirror.
"I'm curious. What do you do when you like someone?"
"You mean as a boyfriend?"
"Yeah, like that."
My mom smiled and started putting on some foundation. "Well, usually the boys would approach me so it's not a problem I've really had to deal with. But I'll give you some tips to get them to notice you."
"If you want a little attention, you have to be a little unpredictable, show him the cold shoulder once in a while. It makes him wonder what he did wrong. See if mentioning some other boy's name raises his interest. If they get the idea that there's competition, it makes them a little more attentive if they know that someone might just come snatch you up if they hesitate. Guys sometimes need to be pushed to act . . . You can flirt by complimenting him on what he does and encourage him in whatever endeavor he happens to set his mind to. Smile at him and ask him to help you with your homework. Boys love to be chivalrous and help, it makes them feel really special." She finished applying her foundation and started doing her eye shadow.
"Mom, I already study with Todd and I don't feel comfortable doing all that."
My mom frowned and sighed as she did her mascara. "Well, considering all the time you've spent with him, maybe it's just hopeless. After all, you can't force him to feel something that isn't there. You can't help how somebody feels about you."
"But . . ."
"Clara, I'm just trying to save you a lot of pain. If you have to pry open his eyes to get him to look at you, well, why bother when they'll just snap shut again?" She put on her bright red lipstick, blotted her lips and smiled to make sure none of it got on her teeth. "I'm going to be late for the fund raiser. Don't wait up for me."
"Um, Todd, since you got a B+ on the chemistry test, I was thinking that we could go get pizza to celebrate," I said as we walked down the hall. LAME, I thought, LAME. But seriously it was the only thing I could come up with that didn't seem stalkerish.
"Yeah, sounds cool."
"How about Saturday?"
"Sure, when do you want me to pick you up?"
"How about 11:30?"
"You want the meat monster mania deep dish special, right?"
He flashed a toothy, brilliant smile.
"So . . . how did it go?" said Amy.
"Well, I found out he can eat a meat monster mania deep dish pizza all by himself."
"You didn't eat any?"
"I got myself a vegetarian slice. That thing's a massive pile of grease."
"Never mind the pizza. How was he?"
"He was nice but he didn't make any moves. I did ask him if he'd like to go out again some time and he said yes."
"Maybe you two could go to a horror movie next time. It'll give you both an excuse to grab each other."
"He already knows I don't scare at horror films. I've already told him how much I like stuff like `The Broken' and `The Apostate.'"
"Maybe you two could have a horror movie marathon or something if he likes that kind of stuff."
"Maybe . . . How are things with Ricardo?" I said, referring to the on-again, off-again relationship Amy had with her quasi-boyfriend.
"Meh, he's being a flake. I need to dump him once and for all."
"Hey, are you going to the game after school?"
"I can't. I have to go to work at the animal hospital."
"Todd, is something bothering you?" I said as I measured out 100 ml of concentrated hydrochloric acid in the beaker.
"Why do you ask?"
"You've been pretty quiet these past few weeks. Something wrong?"
"Nothing really." He took the beaker of acid and added it to the mystery solution we were given, which turned cloudy.
"So . . . The repertory movie theater is showing a zombie movie marathon on Saturday. Interested?" Damn it, I thought, I know it's the 21st century and all but it wouldn't kill him to make an advance for once.
"I can't . . . Actually, I'm going out that day."
"I'm going out with this girl who doesn't go to this school. She's actually a bit older . . . and her family wouldn't approve."
I raised an eyebrow. "How much older are we talking about? College age or Mrs. Robinson older?"
"I don't want to really talk about it much. I hope you're not mad. How about Sunday?"
"Mom?" I said. I noticed that she was wearing a pink top and jeans, the usual getup she had whenever she went to the stables, instead of dressing up like she usually did for meeting the local bigwigs.
"Are you going to the stables?"
"Yes. I just wanted to get some exercise."
"I'll be out today. I told Todd I . . ."
The phone rang. I blinked at the sound and said, "I'll get it."
"Hello," I said to the phone.
"I'm sorry but I can't make it today."
"I . . . have a really bad hangover."
"I'm sorry but a movie marathon will just make it worse."
"Can't say I'm thrilled. A hangover?"
"I'll make it up to you. I promise."
"All right. Just don't turn into a raging alcoholic."
"Who was that, Clara?"
"Todd . . . he said he can't go to the movies with me. He's not feeling well," I said, not wanting to spell out what was wrong with him.
"That's too bad. Why don't you take your friend, what's her name . . . Amy instead?"
"She's working today. Remember I told you a while back she got a weekend job to pay for her car insurance?"
"Sorry, I guess I wasn't paying attention. See you later."
Later that night, I was watching some new anime on The Adult Swim when I got a call on my cell phone. "Hello?"
"Hey, it's Amy."
"Hi, Amy, what's up?"
"I was working at the animal clinic today."
"You know the area around there, right?"
"Yeah," I said, thinking about the nearby fast food joints, the no-tell motels, the gas station across the way.
"I'm out taking a cigarette break when I see Todd coming out of the entrance to one of those motels. I get curious so I hunker behind a car so he doesn't see me. I'm thinking, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit. I run to my car, pop the trunk, and got my camera. A minute later, I see . . ."
"You see . . ."
"I see this woman wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap and a muffler. She obviously doesn't want to be noticed. I didn't get a good look at her face. I wish I had my camera with me. I think Todd's involved with an older woman. I can't imagine they'd go to a hotel if it was just someone from school."
"Damn," I said.
"Sorry," Amy said. "I didn't want you to be dating Todd if he's getting horizontal with someone else. Not mad, are you?"
"No, I'd rather know. It's just depressing, that's all."
"Want to sleep over next Friday. I don't have to be in at the clinic until the afternoon."
"Yeah, I'd like that."
It was early Friday evening when I started driving to Amy's condo, which was closer to the heart of Metropolis. While waiting at a red light, I saw Todd's car go the opposite direction.
I pulled out my cell phone. "Amy?"
"What was the woman wearing when she was walking out of the motel?"
"I think it was a pair of jeans and a pink pullover top."
"Amy, I think I'm going to be late. I'll talk to you later." I clicked off the phone and turned around.
Even though I was half expecting it, I still couldn't believe that Todd's car was a couple blocks from my house. I parked behind it and started walking towards my house. What am I doing, I thought. I'm making Amy wait. I'm . . . Still, I had to know.
I walked into the house and shut the door as quietly as possible. In the house, I heard two people giggling and flirting. I slipped off my shoes and began padding my way toward the source of the noise.
I walked down the hall towards my parents' bedroom and saw the door was partially ajar. I peeked in and saw . . . enough to kick the door fully open.
"What are you doing here?" said my mom as Todd gasped like a fish and rolled off of her.
For a second I couldn't say anything because I just couldn't move anything . . . not my feet, my hands, my mouth . . . Todd was trying to get his clothes back on while my mom was looking at me, then Todd, then me again with her mouth in a perfect "o." Then I screamed and ran towards the door and out of the house. "Please, Clara, wait."
I seriously don't remember much about the drive to Amy's house. I guess I should be glad I didn't get into some accident that totaled the car or kill someone. I knocked on the front door and Amy said, "What's wrong?"
I tried to say what happened but I ended up hyperventilating instead. "Oh, shit," Amy said as she brought me in, shut the door, sat me down and found a paper bag to breathe in. She rubbed my back, trying to get me to calm down.
"What happened?" she said.
"I found out who Todd's girlfriend is."
"Really? Why are you so upset?"
"It's my mom."
"You serious? Todd and your mom? Oh, man."
"They were in the bedroom." I finally started to cry.
Amy's mom came out of the kitchen. "Hey, what's wrong?"
Amy said, "Todd was mean to her. We're going upstairs to talk about it, OK."
"Are you sure I can't do anything?"
"Let me handle it," Amy said.
Once we were in her room, she said, "Hey, it's going to be OK. Really. My dad did the same thing to us. It's rough but we managed to get through it."
"But it took a long time, huh?"
"Yeah. A long, long time."
"Thanks, Amy, you're the best." I gave her a hug even though she wasn't exactly a "huggy" person.
"Amy!" shouted Amy's mom.
"Mom, I'm kinda busy up here!"
"Clara's mom wants to talk to her. She says it's urgent."
She motioned for me to sit on the couch while she stood in the center of the living room, looking down at me. It's how she always began her lectures. "I'm sorry that your feelings were hurt. I didn't mean for that to happen."
"I don't want to talk to you about it."
"Clara, I'm still your mother!"
"You don't act like it. You knew I liked him! And doing this behind dad's back . . . In your bedroom!"
"I hope you won't hurt your father by telling him about this."
"I'm not the one who cheated on him."
"You don't understand how I feel at all."
"What do you mean by that?"
She started to sniffle. "I know that I haven't been the best mother to you but I need you to understand a few things . . . I get lonely when your father isn't home and you know how often he's out on the road."
My mind boggled. "It's not an excuse. How can you say you're lonely? You're at all these parties and you're right in the middle of things. You know tons of people."
"Knowing people's names and numbers so you can ask them to contribute money to whatever campaign your father is running isn't the same as being their friend. They're talking to you, not because they want to talk to you but because you are Peter Ross' wife. You have to play the part of the perfect political wife every single night. You don't know how difficult it is to be constantly judged because people have this image of you. When you're more my age, you'll see how hard life is."
"Why Todd? How did this happen?"
"He's the one who came on to me. I can't help how he feels. It was the day after your dad broke his promise about staying the week. I went riding like I always do when I feel when Todd came by the riding stables. He was applying for a job there. He started to compliment me on my riding and asked if he could watch me. I was weak and felt flattered so I said yes. He didn't expect so much from me. When he smiled, he looked so much like . . . Well, things just happened."
"Things like that just don't happen. I know for a fact you went to a motel room with him before I caught you."
"What? Who told you?"
"It doesn't matter!"
My mom scrunched her face in the ugly way that she always does when she doesn't get her way. "So you can't forgive me for this one screw up despite everything I've done for this family."
A voice said, "No, a screw up is getting into a fender bender. A screw up is getting drunk and dancing on top of the couch with a lampshade on your head. A screw up is accidentally dumping the Thanksgiving turkey on the kitchen floor. This is way beyond a screw up."
We both froze and saw dad standing in the doorway of the kitchen.
"How much did you hear?" she said.
"Enough to know you cheated on me. I was trying to surprise you guys by coming in through the back door. I guess you guys had a bigger surprise for me." He had two shopping bags full of presents that he let fall to the floor.
I ran to dad and hugged him. "Dad!"
He hugged me back and said, "Go upstairs, baby. I have to talk to your mom."
That night was like some sort of Dante's Inferno. They screamed at each other like they had never done before. I heard stuff like:
"You think I don't know about the others?" my dad yelled.
"I SETTLED for you. I should've held out for so much better."
"Yeah, yeah. I know all about your stupid fixation on Clark. You decided that since Clark doesn't love you, it's OK to take it out on me. I'm sick of being your punching bag. Get it through your head, Clark's happy now, a lot happier than when you were on that stupid roller coaster of angst in high school."
"You wouldn't be half the man you are now without me."
"When I'm around you, I don't even feel like a man."
It went on for hours. I watched TV with the volume up until the arguing stopped. I turned off the TV. I heard the door slam and the wheels of a car burn rubber. I walked down the stairs.
"Yeah, baby?" he said, lying back in his recliner. Instead of his usual upbeat, chipper self; he looked defeated and listless.
"What's going to happen with you and mom?"
Dad made a face. "I don't know"
"Is she coming back?"
"Go to sleep, Clara."
"Clara, I'm sorry," said Todd as he walked up to me in the parking lot. I already managed to get Amy as my lab partner instead of him.
"I don't want to hear it."
"I don't want to lose you as a friend."
"That's tough shit, Todd! My mom's left the house and my dad's a mess. Thank you very freaking much." I opened the car door and sat in the car and put on my seat belt. I wanted to close the door but he was holding it open. "Let go of the door, Todd!"
"Please forgive me. I'll do anything, just . . ."
"Are you afraid you'll flunk without me?"
"No! I miss you."
"You lied to my face. You blew me off so many times. You ruined my parents' marriage and NOW you want to be friends with me. The hell with you. I can't even invite you over to my house or introduce you to my dad. If that's your idea of friendship then I don't want it. Now let go of the door!" I tried to keep from screaming all this by gritting my teeth together. I didn't want to broadcast my shame for the world to hear.
He stepped back and let go of the door. He looked sad enough but I was too mad to care.
I didn't talk to him for the rest of the school year. After he graduated, I never saw him again.
Soon afterwards, my mother filed for divorce. My dad and I kept the house but she took her car and lot of the cash. I asked to stay with my dad and the judge ruled in our favor while giving my mom liberal visitation rights. Her visits were sporadic and became fewer and fewer as time went on. After a while, even her calls tapered off to the point I only heard from her on holidays.
My father and I managed to make do. After the campaign for Lex Luthor's bid for the Senate seat wound down, he started working less and stuck to a more normal schedule. To make the alimony payments, we had to let go of the cook. It was OK, though. Turns out that my dad wasn't too bad in the kitchen though I don't seem him ever becoming an Iron Chef. After I left for University of Metropolis, he started dating. After some horrible disasters, I think he's found a winner in an old high school friend of his. I'm crossing my fingers for him.
Last time I heard, my mother was living in Europe with a nouveau riche tycoon who bought his title and his estate from a nobleman who was up to his eyeballs in debt. I occasionally see her in the entertainment magazines and yes, even the Inquisitor. I see pictures of them sunning themselves on the beach at Cannes and walking down the red carpet at various events. If you squint, the guy does look a little like Uncle Clark.
I was in London during spring break of my college freshman year when I saw her walking down the street. She just kept on walking past me with her new lover holding an umbrella to shield her from the light rain. She was looking at him and laughing at some private joke between the two of them. I didn't call out to her and soon she turned a corner and disappeared.
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