It is the little piece of folded paper Frankie found in the back pocket of Margot’s favorite pair of jeans six weeks ago that calls for a cigarette and this extra pluck of courage. She lights up, willing the smoke to hotbox the car, to consume her. For this next act, she must feel hidden. The cedar-like smell seeps into the cloth seats and settles on her. Lingers. She doesn’t smoke the cigarette, just lets it burn, and it is a relief to be bathed in its secondhand qualities. Her husband—and he still is her husband—would be pissed to know she does this, and that knowledge is almost as good as any nicotine.
It feels so good that as soon as the first goes out, she lights another.
Frankie looks out on to the tidy, duplex-lined street named for a flower. Women push babies up the sidewalk, clothed in name-brand workout jackets and CrossFit trainers, dog leashes wrapped around their miniature wrists and the padded handles of strollers. She watches them park in the driveways, bring in mail, brown paper bags of groceries, more children sticky with peacekeeping candy bars, their husbands’ dry cleaning. These women with their endless arms.
A small thrashing part of her congratulates them on keeping it all together when they could just as soon let those bags fall to the ground—purple cabbage bumping its way down the hill, the dozen eggs blinking open on the concrete—and walk away. They could let slip the leashes, watch the babies go the way of the cabbage.
Sitting there, Frankie tries to hold on to a self that she still knows: mother, ex-smoker, lover of all shades of blue and the rare luxury of freshly churned butter, but there are newer, darker aspects she can’t yet identify, layered with grief, guilt, and rage. To sift them out and individualize them would unravel the known elements, so she lets the mess lie. And in the lying, a flicker. Her own bare flesh stippled in sunlight. Hands not her husband’s, the press of the fingers against her mouth. Their ridges and salt.
She isn’t careful. Ash floats from the cigarette and lands on the seat. Frankie licks her thumb and wipes at it, smearing a gray streak across the tan fabric. The car is barely a year old, and she still has so many payments left that she will now make alone. Her eyes flit back outside.
Nothing stays new, she wants to tell the women, though she’s sure they already know. Not their cars or clothes or bodies, not their children, fat and smiling, still happy. Still in want of them.
Six weeks ago, she had crept into Margot’s room, pulling the door open with the knob twisted far to the right so that the catch wouldn’t click and alert her daughter or the friend who’d slept over. Every surface was covered with something—fashion scarves and mislaid jackets. Scattered textbooks. Lip stain in shades Frankie would not have been allowed to wear at her daughter’s age, one the gleaming crimson of newly plucked cranberry.
Margot slept beautifully, of course, flung wide over the small bed—covers tangled between legs and one brown arm trailing over the edge, the other resting across her friend’s stomach. Marissa was long and dark and beautiful too, wrapped in a yellow gossamer gown Frankie wasn’t aware girls still wore for sleep. Margot wore an oversized T-shirt and a pair of her father’s old briefs, ignoring years of camisoles and matching pajama sets crammed at the back of her nightstand. She snored, her face half-buried in her pillow, mouth open in a ring of moisture. Her one visible eyelid fluttered, crusted with sleep that hinted of late-night talks. Frankie remembered what it was like: whispering about the pros and cons of false eyelashes and girls at school with false faces and how many sit-ups equaled one slice of cafeteria pizza and which teachers were fucking which other teachers and boys’ names they said before sleep and would they one day be fucked too and would they like it? She and her friends used to compare their bodies in the mirror, side by side, so they would know what normal was. Frankie wondered if girls still did this, still deadened their arms and touched themselves as if testing unfamiliar fruit.
To look on Margot in the filtered sun was like holding your breath underwater. A tightness in the chest, a small amount of panic, but bigger than that was the wonder at how light the body could be, held up by all that matter. The feel of it touching you everywhere at once—the soles of your feet, the inside of your nose. How you, suspended in the deep, could truly feel your heart working. That was how Frankie felt, watching her daughter sleep. A little afraid, a little hurt. Exhilarated. She wanted to kiss the sloped forehead under which all those attributes that made her daughter too bright and difficult convened and pulsed.
Even in sleep, Margot projected warning: Do not touch me.
Frankie slipped from the room as quietly as she had entered it, went back to her chair in the kitchen. She wanted a cigarette, but instead had a third cup of coffee, dark Arabian roast flavored with honey and cinnamon. She thought of the crepes she would make for her daughter and the friend, a peace offering in the only language in which she was absolutely fluent. In the fridge were heavy cream and strawberries she’d gotten from the farmer’s market that morning, sweet-smelling and dense red. The counter was floured and the griddle set on the stove, all of it waiting only for the girls to awaken. She needed to be busy, to fill the space with hearthy smells. To set her hands to useful work.
They didn’t wake for nearly an hour. In that time, the cordless rang twice, summoning her to check the caller ID before answering the first, from her mother, and not answering the second, from her husband. The message light blinked like an active tracking device.
At noon, she heard movement, the muted, musical signature of girls in the thrall of serious conversation. Frankie pressed herself to the wall between the rooms to feel the hum of their words coming through, to know their vibrational setting, but she couldn’t feel it. She wasn’t tuned in. She peeled herself away and waited by the stove, hands clasped above the warm bowl of her belly. The girls appeared some minutes later still in their sleeping things, Margot’s hair wrapped and Marissa’s combed down and gleaming, her daughter flicking those precious crusts from the corners of her eyes. Frankie found herself suddenly overwhelmed by the girl, a creature once of her own body and now nearly eighteen and too big to sit on her lap or let go of a grudge easily. What a gorgeous thing she’d made. She tried to remember what it was like before her daughter despised her, the small years when she was revered as a Mother-God, and said, “Good morning!” though it wasn’t anymore.
Margot’s face creased as she crossed to the kitchen counter to riffle through the bread box, presenting her back to her mother.
“I’m making crepes,” Frankie tried again, indicating the griddle. She felt like a game-show hostess, grandstanding to highlight all the prizes her daughter could win if only she could stomach one unbearable act of kindness. If she would just let Frankie feed her.
Margot selected an everything bagel from the box. “We don’t want crepes.” She still did not look at her mother. Her friend leaned against the doorframe, one arm wrapped around herself, looking steadfastly out the window like a politician, Nothing to see here, business as usual. What was a three-month-long cold war between a mother and daughter except standard operating procedure? Margot sliced through the bagel, bread catching on the knife like skin, and popped half in the toaster. She started eating the other half, tearing off chunks and chewing sloppily. She didn’t bother to wipe the crumbs from her mouth.
“Can you drive us to the mall?” she asked. “We’ve got a project.” She kept her tone even, but Frankie saw the slight slitting of her eyes, heard the dare in her voice, and her whole face like the bread knife, full of serrated edges. Frankie would not have tolerated this behavior if not for her daughter’s blamelessness, if this was just another instance of teenage impudence and not a result of Frankie’s own mistake. Margot knew this, too. The temptation of No was sweet, was perhaps deserved, but Frankie resisted. She knew what was owed.
“Sure, no problem! Get dressed and I’ll drop you off. Need some cash?”
“No thanks. Dad gave me some last week.” Her father, the good guy—or Poor Charles, as she’d heard whispered at the bakery and over rows of thyme-stuffed sausages at the butcher’s, once the story got out.
“Good! That’s great!” Frankie said, her voice so bright it was sickening.
The bagel popped from the toaster and Margot seized it, ignoring her singed fingertips, and thrust the half at her friend, who shuffled it from hand to hand until Margot gave her a paper towel to wrap it in. They left the kitchen as quickly as they’d entered, back to the place Frankie couldn’t go. She was struck dumb by the swiftness with which people could leave. How used to doors closing a person could get, to saying good-bye or not saying it at all and wishing later that you had.
After she’d returned to the house alone and put the griddle away and silence again settled itself on the tops of the fan blades, Frankie busied herself with Margot’s laundry. Margot liked coming home to the folded stacks on her unmade bed, still warm. She liked to bury her face in the T-shirts and soak up the dryer sheet smell, a scent of manufactured lilac and of being small and wild and un-responsible. Frankie liked picturing her daughter this way, so she kept performing the chore.
She stuffed all the errant clothes into a basket, picked up the jeans that she hadn’t wanted to pay for because, brand new, they were already ripped, faded, and snagged. She thrust her hands into the pockets automatically, searching for forgotten gum or pens or crinkled dollar bills. Up came the square of paper, torn at the creases from being folded and refolded too many times. Frankie let it lie on her palm, holding it out from her body as if offering it the chance to fly away. Then she opened it.
There were two sets of handwriting: her daughter’s flowery, the confused mix of print and cursive most people took up after the third grade; the second writer pressed heavily on the page, their letters swaggering forward like bulls let free from their enclosures. There were only three lines of text—of which only one, the question, was her daughter’s. The note was mostly in French, and seemed innocuous for the fact that Frankie couldn’t understand it. All the French she knew related to culinary school: roux, mise en place; to her brief dream she would be one of the next great chefs, have her own restaurant, Michelin graced. This fantasy before Margot, before her husband’s dream of a more available wife won out. Frankie squinted at the writing. Temple. Lights. Love? She could have almost let it go. Almost would have, except for those deliberate periods between the English words: Every. Single. Time.
She abandoned the laundry and took the note to her husband’s study, which he had made clear how inconvenient it was for him to have to leave. His work. Very important. His productivity would suffer without reliable access to a computer and he was paying all the bills, was she satisfied with herself? If Frankie could have afforded to replace it, she would have taken a hammer to the thing. Instead, she booted it up, and through its ordered slowness, the warbling dial-up, she imagined a white-napkined table set with vases of pale peonies, creamy bowls of lobster bisque, seared lamb with mint jelly, caramelized pearl onions small enough to pinch whole between her teeth. It took fifteen minutes to connect to Netscape, and another ten to approximate the words:
I would worship in the temple of your body / With the lights on?
Every. Single. Time.
After some minutes, Frankie stood, went back to Margot’s room, and put the tattered note back into the tattered pocket. She added the jeans to the dirty clothes in the basket, set the cycle, left it all in the wash.
The girls sat on the edge of the fountain. During school, kids called Margot and Marissa M&M, which they accepted without complaint, neither admitting the small relief in having even this dumb rationale for being constantly confused for the other. Marissa kept watch, and Margot propped back on one arm, occasionally dipping her free hand into the cool, dirty water. The coins winked up at her through the slow ripple, silver and bronze and moss. At every lull in pedestrians, she sank her hand to the bottom, fingers scrabbling against mildew-slick tile, and swiped up a handful of them. She kept only the quarters. The girls chatted while they fished.
You and Drew make up yet? / Forget him. I’ve moved on. And Margot had. She had realized early on that evidence of her own desirability was almost all she needed to be turned on, and when Drew had figured it out, she’d lost it to him earlier that year, after they’d hit the one-month mark. But she wasn’t sentimental. She knew what they’d had was common, and men had been looking at Margot since she was six years old, so she could recognize it when she saw it. There was always someone else. Sometimes, someone better.
Arm in arm, their pockets jangling, the girls strolled to the ice cream shop and bought two giant waffle cones, one blueberry cheesecake and the other strawberry. The parlor boy, dull-eyed and monosyllabic, didn’t comment on the wet change or its chlorine smell. He made minimum wage, gave free cones to his friends and girls he thought might date him; they weren’t the first to exchange fountain money for goods and services. Marissa ate her cone guiltily, wolfing it down to make the evidence disappear, but Margot relished hers, eating with a spoon, letting the ice cream melt on her tongue.
After her father had left, leaning over her bed to kiss her good-bye as if she were a child, Margot decided she would no longer feel sorry for anything. He coming back? Marissa had asked when Margot described the scene. Probably. She didn’t think they’d get divorced; that wasn’t her father’s style. He liked to demonstrate, to make examples. Margot thought he was just punishing Frankie, not so much for the betrayal itself as for his own limited imagination that she could betray him. I hope he doesn’t, she’d said, and at the time had meant it.
She was punishing Frankie, too, but not for what her mother thought. Margot didn’t care about the local gossip, the word infidelity traded among the old neighbor ladies like it was foreign currency, like their own husbands hadn’t been creeping around on them since just after the marriage certificate was signed. Like they’d never thought about stepping out themselves. They gathered to pierce Frankie with their eyes whenever they could—another’s shame being the truest spectator sport—and wonder aloud how a woman getting so large in the middle could keep a first man, let alone catch a second. That poor child, they’d whispered loud enough for Margot to hear, living in a broken home. She didn’t care about that either.
Margot was mad because her mother had chickened out, hadn’t actually slept with the other man, and because Frankie had told her husband about the little that had happened when no one would otherwise have known. Her mother had let herself be shamed, like a bad pet, her eyes cast down in response to the neighbors’ satisfied viciousness, and now she followed after Margot constantly, ready to lick the floor beneath her feet. Despite her new vow, it was hardest not to feel sorry for Frankie, but Margot was getting better at it. After all, her mother had done this to herself.
She remembered, once, when Frankie made them squid ink pasta during one of her wistful moods, going to five different markets for the ingredients, spending hours in the kitchen, steam curling her hair, the pots and pans heaped gluey in the sink. As they sat down to dinner, her father accepted his plate in silence, then made a comment he must have felt confident he could pass off as light. Wouldn’t it have been easier on you to make a salad? he’d asked, and ruined the flavor for them all. Her mother had not replied, but left half her plate unfinished. Margot had been disgusted with her father, and with Frankie for allowing it. Disgusted with herself because she sometimes agreed with him.
In all of this, Margot was mostly mad that her mother had wanted something and didn’t take it, and the consequences were the same.
Could this happen to her one day, some man make her small inside her own body? Margot posed the question to Marissa, who remained tight-lipped on the subject of Frankie. They had made it a fast rule not to talk about each other’s mothers, only listen. This mandate would serve them well, rewarding each girl with the other’s loyalty long after their high school years. Margot finished her cone, and Marissa only said, kindly and with knowing, Enough moping.
They browsed the stores, trying on outfits they knew they wouldn’t buy, fingering the cheap fabrics with reverence for who they could become once wearing them. Margot left clothes in heaps in the corners of the dressing rooms, all off their hangers and twisted inside out. In one well-lit stall, she ignored the plastic sign that proclaimed all garments must be tried on over underwear, and pulled on a teal leopard-print thong. She strutted around the small space, a distance of two long-legged strides, in just the underwear and a beauty pageant smile. She twirled in place until she thunked down, dizzy, among the crocheted halters, denim cut-offs, and hippie skirts like white wilted flowers. She was of that special age where she knew both nothing and everything, and no matter where or at whom she looked, she saw her own reflection glimmering back like a skim of oil. She could be anyone, still.
Margot pressed the fabric hard between her legs so that some of herself remained, then peeled the underwear off and dressed, and, once outside, threw them back into the plastic bin with the rest of the animal skins—the tigers, the giraffes, the diamond-backed boas. She bought a bracelet that resembled a Slinky and a dollar lip gloss in a small, clear tube. Cupcake, it was called, and went on wet and pink. At the food court, Margot stuffed herself so that later that night, the two of them alone, she could push her mother’s meal around the plate.
After she called Frankie to pick them up and Marissa went to the bathroom to pee and change her tampon, Margot leaned against the bank of payphones and stuck her hands deep into her pockets, trying to look unbothered and attractively aloof. She knew a girl was vulnerable alone. The stolen quarters tapped against her fingers. She had two left, enough for one more call.
She inserted the coins into the slot and dialed the number she had looked up in the phonebook and memorized lying on her bed one slow Saturday night. On the third ring, the wife answered, her voice like a slant of light, full of dust and gorgeous for it. Hello? the wife said, and Margot, as usual, said nothing, only held the phone tightly against her ear to catch the woman’s breathing and imagine the blue-white beginnings of her teeth. Each tick of silence before the inevitable dial tone was almost a religious experience, confirming to Margot that she herself existed, and afterward, once she’d hung up, a soft yowling place inside of her would quiet.
The spring heat swelled and shimmered, conjuring all manner of kindred sticky things—lemonade, pine sap, swarms of early gnats. Female arachnids spread huge in the bushes, waiting for prey or for mates that might fulfill both needs. Mother and daughter caged around each other, and Frankie found herself listening in on Margot’s calls: someone on Senior Yearbook Committee was “a little bitch”; the latest boyfriend was the newest ex; Margot’s AP English teacher kept apple snails named for the Three Musketeers; she wished she had bigger breasts and slimmer thighs; her father promised to come home soon. Information revealed itself to Frankie in slow, sure ways. But it was never the specific thing Frankie wanted to know.
In the weeks since its discovery, the note entered Frankie’s consciousness while she pretended not to examine Margot, while she cooked and missed her husband’s calls and as she lay in bed alone, damp against the sheets. Was that the most romantic thing a person had ever said to her daughter and had it worked itself inside of her? Had she let the boy worship? Days later, when Frankie relented and answered her husband’s calls, he was sobbing, or performing it, unused to things not proceeding by his script. He said, “You should be begging me back. You were unfaithful,” and that was true, but in the loss of herself, Frankie had time to ponder other wonders—like where had that faith funneled to and why did people deal with it so blindly? Why, following creeds of country, God, or capitalism, did no one ever bother to look beyond the words? The other man sometimes dashed across Frankie’s thoughts, important only in the way he’d made her feel. He’d been younger. Smaller than her, but able to handle her weight; he’d confessed to enjoying it. And though she hadn’t slept with the man, she had liked knowing that she could. He’d taken Frankie in as she lay upon the quilt of the hotel bed as if splayed in a web, wholly pleasing to his eight eyes, unconcerned she might devour him.
Frankie wanted to caution her daughter, there were things worth more than words. Instead, she asked, “How’s French going?” unable to tamp her curiosity down. Margot lifted back into her body—that temple—and flicked her eyes, and in the gesture Frankie could sense her delight. Margot was pleased. She knew her mother was listening at doors, and felt gratified in refusing to let her in. She said, “I’m not taking French,” and battened the wall between them.
For yearbook, Margot solicited her mother for pickups three times during the school week and every other Saturday as the year came to an end. She and nine other seniors rearranged the desks in the English classroom and brainstormed over special features and superlatives, on how to insert their own cliques into the pages as much as possible without arousing suspicion. Margot would usually have found these activities beneath her, the organization and teamwork required too taxing, but under Mr. Klein’s direction, she found herself up to the task—spearheading better layouts, nixing overplayed ideas and corny catchphrases, keeping things in line. Margot liked the power she felt in bending other kids to her will, liked that this hadn’t even been her thing but she had made it so. She liked that Mr. Klein liked it.
He was maybe in his late thirties, but well before the time he would go to seed, his angular face covered in a blond scruff that contrasted with the academic parting of his curls. He sometimes wore waistcoats to teach, dark blue and double-breasted, and Margot overheard boys calling him queer. But Mr. Klein was a romantic, a writer working on his manuscript and dreaming of Paris, the place, he’d told her, where all serious writers must go. Margot had recognized the look in him early. Knew if she wanted, she could take this, too. She started returning his gaze.
His daughter was a freshman, and sometimes hung around their Yearbook meetings while she waited for her father to drive them home. The entire time, she’d sigh conspicuously and pretend to be busy playing with her Nano Baby whenever he attempted to address her. Margot liked to study her, when she could, to separate Mr. Klein’s features so she might understand the wife’s. She wanted the daughter to like her, to want to befriend her, though she knew Mr. Klein wouldn’t like it. During regular school hours, Margot sometimes lingered near the girl’s locker, and one day caught her as she vented to a friend about her mother.
“She thinks I’m too young to go to Prom this year, can you fucking imagine?”
“That’s all they ever say!” her friend agreed.
Mr. Klein’s daughter slammed her locker door. “She really
is the worst. Just because she was too lame to get invited to Prom as a freshman, she wants to ruin it for me.”
This made Margot feel tender toward the girl, having just been of that powerless age, and she thought, maybe this was a way in; she could commiserate, give the younger girl some hope. Margot stepped closer, clearing her throat, and both girls turned to her with their eyebrows raised.
“It does get easier,” Margot said, deepening her voice into what she hoped was a mature but appealing tone. “You know, with your mother—” but the look the daughter gave, one of bald disdain, cut across her before she could say anything of use.
“Do I know you?” the girl asked, and laughed with her friend, and after that, Margot refused to acknowledge the daughter, telling Marissa, sagely, You could only help those that would help themselves. Mr. Klein never spoke to Margot about his daughter directly, but whenever she was alluded to, Margot tacked on “little idiot” in her head.
After their second-to-last Yearbook meeting, Mr. Klein followed the students out of the building to the place their parents would pick them up. The other kids, mostly girls, chattered nonstop, excited about their progress, Prom, and the Grad Bash trip to Disney, concerned with only high school things. He shuffled along with his hands in his pockets, dawdling, encouraging Margot to do the same. When he spoke, he directed his voice slightly up and away from her, as if conversing with the clouds. “It isn’t you, calling my house?”
Margot shot him one of the looks she’d lately been reserving for Frankie. “Of course not,” she said, both embarrassed and offended. “Do you think I’m a child?” The beat of silence was tight. “I wouldn’t call.”
“Good,” he said, smiling now in a way her father might, when he thought he’d convinced her that one of his ideas was actually her own. “We have to be careful.” He let his hand briefly brush the curve of her hip—why did only she have to be careful—before clapping them together and addressing the larger group. “Excellent work today, team! Our dinner’s in just three days and we’ll toast to all your hard work.”
Frankie, parked at the curb, watched her daughter drift toward her, Margot’s slender body tense, familiar in its anger. The teacher threw a hand up in greeting as they approached.
“You must be Mrs.—”
“Just Frankie, please. Nice to meet you.”
“Of course! Charmed. Your daughter is a pleasure to teach, very bright.” He clapped his hands again—a nervous tic, it seemed—and stepped back. “Well, good work, clochette! Don’t forget, we’ll meet here at 3 p.m. on Saturday for dinner preparations,” and with that, he flashed a last smile at Frankie and bounded away.
Margot slung her bag into the backseat. “Like I don’t have anything else to do with my time,” she grumbled, as she climbed into the front and buckled her seatbelt, but Frankie was stuck on the phrase that slid from the man’s mouth, easy as a lie. She knew about the dinner; one week earlier, Margot had asked if her mother would provide a dish—Something French.
“Clochette?” Frankie asked, and Margot was too distracted to be sarcastic.
“It means ‘little bell.’ He nicknames everyone in Yearbook. ‘Team-building,’ he says.” Her daughter rolled her eyes, and with the venom of that gesture—the gravity Frankie had discerned between Margot’s body and the teacher’s—something awful began to tick inside of her.
“Is…everyone’s nickname like that?” She didn’t know how to ask something like this; didn’t want to have to ask it.
Margot looked at her mother like she wished she’d disappear. “Mom, why would everyone’s nickname be like that? It defeats the purpose.” She looked out the window, toward the school, toward him. “No. That one’s just for me.”
The French dish and the French word. The note. Everything Frankie had wanted to know clicked alarmingly into place. And with it a sadness, a luminous fury. A helplessness. She saw her daughter vanished, swallowed up by all that she could not prove.
Full up on righteousness and smoke, Frankie now steps from her car and walks up the street in the midmorning light toward the teacher’s house, his door a somber blue that even she cannot love. For the moment, she is nothing but a creature of time, suspended in the motion of her body, no thought beyond the knocking.
The door opens, and Frankie must adjust her gaze. Instead of a polished wife, she finds a daughter, the girl amber-eyed and suspicious, no older, Frankie guesses, than fourteen. Her hair is dark and shining and slick as wine. “Can I help you?” she says, though it’s clear she’d rather not.
Frankie is not prepared for this. “I’m a friend of your mother’s,” she hears herself saying, an explanation that doesn’t satisfy the girl. The daughter hesitates and then narrows her eyes, something sly glowing behind them, something a little cruel that Frankie can recognize. “She’s not home,” she says. “What’s your name?” And Frankie, startled into honesty by the girl’s authority, tells her.
The girl shifts from behind the door. “Wait…I know who you are,” she says, and Frankie is relieved that someone might tell her. “You’re that girl’s mother,” and here her lip curls. “The little pet.” She tilts her head, stares Frankie head to toe. “What do you want?”
Frankie knew what she wanted, and that she couldn’t have it without severe risk. She wanted to protect her daughter, who would deny, deny, deny—who would hate her; who would soon be eighteen and would leave. She wanted the teacher dead, she wanted everyone—his wife and his daughter, the whole city—to know what he’d done, and she wanted to call her own husband to tell him, finally, that her mistake had not been the other man but her inability to admit she no longer loved him.
“Oh,” the daughter says. In Frankie’s silence, she has come to her own conclusion, and confirmation ebbs across her face. “You’re the one who calls.”
“I’m sorry?” Frankie asks, and the girl sneers.
“Don’t pretend,” she says, and Frankie understands what this daughter believes—that she is her father’s distraction, French-worship in her name. “I guess you might as well come in.” She steps back, and Frankie hesitates for just a moment before she goes inside.
In the air-conditioned dimness of the living room, the girl is almost giddy, going on about all that she suspected, her features complicated by the dancing light from an aquarium in the corner of the fussy little room, cramped with dark-stained shelves, books, and brass knickknacks, the teacher’s vanity, Frankie assumes. The girl’s mother is out shopping with the teacher, helping him prepare for the celebration dinner—real china, sparkling cider—and they’ll be back soon.
“Are you here to tell her?” the daughter asks, and Frankie can sense that some part of the girl wants this, that she’s convinced herself there must be retribution for whatever crimes mothers commit against their daughters.
“Would you want me to?”
The girl scratches her arm. Looks away. “It’s better to know,” she says defensively. “Maybe if she wasn’t so concerned with my life, she already would.” Frankie wonders if she means it, if this near-universal disdain a daughter can feel for a mother might be necessary for the appreciation that comes later, if this is what it takes to love. If she can just understand this girl, maybe she can decode her own.
Frankie inches closer—this daughter smells of green apple and rain and something slightly sour. She considers how easy it would be to let her hand fall to the girl’s shoulder, let her fingers trail down the arm and trace the concave places that held those scents. It would only be fair: a biblical retribution, one daughter for another, her fingers continuing as she lays the girl back and searches out the warmth between her legs. Frankie reaches out her hand.
The phone rings, shattering the moment, and the girl’s expression changes again. Now she looks wary, and a little ashamed, as if she realizes that, in her resentment, she’s gone too far. She tells Frankie to wait and disappears into the adjacent room.
In her absence, Frankie recoils, catching herself on the edge of the tank, the light carving up her face. She stares into it, unseeing, at first. She feels like a monster, but what recourse does she have? If she confronts the teacher, she loses; if she doesn’t, the same. But Frankie is not the teacher; she can’t do the worst thing she could do, and with this realization she regains a semblance of herself. She remembers what she’s good at; that sometimes, it’s a mother’s burden to settle.
Inside the aquarium, the teacher’s snails are placid and small as plums. Now cooled, her anger suffuses her with prophecy and Frankie knows what happens next.
Margot waits outside for her mother, watching the evening disperse in bold orange and pink, a shawl of purple creeping at the edges of the sky. She’s eaten, but feels an emptiness she won’t learn to recognize until later as the expansion of herself—a good sign, but easy to mistake. Her mother had dropped her off at three, as planned, with two warm dishes in her arms, and she and some others helped decorate, strung up balloons and folded paper flowers into a centerpiece. She had watched Mr. Klein carry in tablecloths and cutlery, how he, brushing past his wife, leaned in and kissed the tip of her ear. The wife—attractive, as Margot had suspected—had swatted him away but was clearly pleased, and Margot found herself not jealous, but merely sad. Already too comfortable with being a phase.
During the dinner, Mr. Klein let his hand linger each time he passed a dish. The third time, Margot yanked her hand away, violently, as if burned, and the blue bowl toppled and shattered against the floor. “Not to worry,” he repeated, too jovial, jumping up to grab towels. Other students scurried to snatch the roasted vegetables from the tile, but Margot didn’t help them. There was no apology on her lips, and after this, the teacher made too many jokes, talked too much. He didn’t touch her.
Her mother pulls up and Margot sees her first. She watches Frankie inside the car as she taps the steering wheel, adjusts the rearview so that she is peering at herself. From here, her mother looks young—could be any of the girls, making sure the face she’s wearing is the one the world wants—and at this thought, Frankie suddenly breaks through, not just a mother, but a whole person. Separate and full of awe. It dawns on Margot that, old as she is, it’s her mother’s first time on this earth, too. Against her will, she softens.
She remembers when she used to let her mother pack her lunches, brown paper sacks full of foods other kids had never heard of—endives, rambutan, tiny ramekins of fish roe to spread on pumpernickel toast. The kids, being mostly animal, were cruel at that age, intolerant of what they hadn’t been taught to understand. She remembers Frankie slicing beets, fresh from the oven and steaming, their juice staining the tips of her fingers pink. I don’t want those, she’d told her mother, though she liked them, and Frankie had asked her why. Other kids got peanut butter, cheese and deli meats, instant mashed potatoes from the lunch line. Margot said: They look like body parts. Frankie had set the knife down and faced her daughter. Her eyes went wide. But they are! she had exclaimed. And if anyone bothers you, you tell them, “In my house, we eat the hearts of our enemies.”
When Margot thumps into the front seat, Frankie turns slightly toward her, her fingers still drumming away. “Did you have fun? Did your teacher like his special dish?” Frankie tries not to appear too eager. She’d made puff pastry filled with spinach and brie for the kids and told her daughter the smaller meal was for the teacher, a gift of gratitude. She knew the gesture would go unnoticed by her daughter, the girl inclined to think her mother always did too much. Before long, the teacher or his wife would notice the snails were missing, and the daughter would tell them about her visit. It would take him a moment, but then suddenly, with great horror, he’d realize what she’d done. Frankie can’t help but grin at this vision; after all, what can the teacher say?
Margot refuses to talk about Mr. Klein, does not tell Frankie that he sucked the shells until his mouth had glistened. She opens the glovebox and retrieves the cigarettes she’s known all along have been there, her mother too sheepish to say a word. Margot takes one out and sticks it between her lips to light it, then without looking, extends it to her mother. After a pause, Frankie takes it, puts it to her own mouth. She inhales.
Dantiel W. Moniz is the author of the forthcoming story collection MILK BLOOD HEAT and has received fellowships and residencies from Hedgebrook and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She won the 2018 Alice Hoffman Prize for Fiction.
Image: Watanabe Seitei, Shell fish illustration from Bijutsu Sekai, 1893-1896.