Claire pulled the woolen blanket tighter around her legs, hiding the ratty, torn sweats she’d put on. “You want some pancakes?”
Meg sat down on the wooden Adirondack chair across from the swing. “No, thanks. I’m still trying to metabolize last night’s cake.”
“You sure left the party early.” Claire hoped she sounded casual and not hurt.
“It was a nice party. Your friend Gina has a great sense of humor.”
“Yeah, she does.”
“It must be hard on her—watching your wedding so soon after her own divorce.”
Claire nodded. “She’s going through a really difficult time.”
“It’s always hard to find out you married the wrong man.”
“They were married for fifteen years. Just because they got divorced doesn’t mean he was the wrong man to marry.”
Meg looked at her. “I would say it meant exactly that.”
“Eric really played a number on you, didn’t he?”
Claire took a sip of coffee. It occurred to her to drop the whole thing, to do what she’d always done around Meg—shut up and pretend it didn’t hurt. Then she remembered her conversation with Bobby. Slowly, she said, “You didn’t answer my question: How come you left the shower early?”
“It wasn’t that early. How were your presents?”
“They were great. Thank you for the Cuisinart, by the way. Now: Why did you leave early?”
Meg closed her eyes, then slowly opened them. She looked . . . scared.
It shocked Claire so much she straightened. “Meg?”
“It was the M&M game,” she answered. “I tried to be a good sport and play the game, but I barely know you, so I said something wrong. I still don’t know what the hell it was.”
“You said I loved well but not easily.”
“I don’t think it’s true, that’s all, and it hurt my feelings.”
“It’s true for me,” Meg said.
Claire leaned forward. They were finally circling something that mattered. “Sometimes it’s hard to love you, Meg.”
“Believe me, I know.” She laughed, but it was a bitter, throaty sound.
“You judge people—me—so harshly. Your opinions are like bullwhips. Every one leaves a bloody mark.”
“People, yes. But you? I don’t judge you.”
“I flunked out of college. I dropped out of cosmetology school. I never left Hayden. I dress poorly. I had a child out of wedlock with a man whom I discovered was already married. Now I’m marrying a three-time loser and I’m too stupid to protect myself with a prenuptial agreement. Stop me when it sounds familiar.”
Meg frowned. “Have I hung all that on you?”
“Like a suit of armor. I can’t talk to you without feeling like a poor-white-trash loser. And, of course, you’re rich and perfect.”
“That part is true.” Meg saw that her attempt at humor failed. “My therapist thinks I have control issues.”
“Well, duh. You’re a lot like Mama, you know. You both need to run the show.”
“The difference is, she’s psychotic. I’m neurotic. But God knows she handed down bad luck with men.” Meghann looked at her. “Have you broken the curse?”
Even yesterday, Claire would have been angered by the question. Now, she understood it. Claire’s legacy from Mama was a belief that sooner or later love walked out on you. Meg had inherited something else entirely: She didn’t believe in love at all. “I have, Meg. Honestly.”
Meg smiled, but there was a sadness in her eyes. “I wish I had your faith.”
For once, Claire felt like the stronger sister. “I know love is real. It’s in every moment I share with Ali and Dad. Maybe if . . . you’d had a father, you’d be able to believe in it.” Claire saw the way her sister went pale; she knew she’d gone too far.
“You were lucky to have Sam,” Meg said slowly.
Claire couldn’t help thinking about the summer Dad had tried to be there for Meg. It had been a nightmare. Meg and Sam had had screaming fights about who loved Claire more, who knew what was best for her. It had been Claire herself who’d ended the worst of the battles. She’d cried out to Meg, Quit yelling at my daddy. That was the first time she’d seen her sister cry. The next day, Meg had gone. Years later, she’d finally called Claire. By then, Meg was in college and had her own life.
“He wanted to be there for you, too,” Claire said gently.
“He wasn’t my father.”
They fell silent after that. The quiet bothered Claire, compelled her to stack up words between them, but she didn’t know what to say.
She was saved by the phone. When it rang, she jumped up and ran inside the house to answer it.
“Hold for Eliana Sullivan, please.”
Claire heard Meg come up behind her. She mouthed: Mama.
“This should be good,” Meg said, pouring herself a cup of coffee.
“Hello?” Mama said. “Hello?”
“Hey, Mama, it’s me, Claire.”
Mama laughed, that throaty, carefully sexy sound she’d cultivated over the years. “I believe I know which of my own daughters I called, Claire.”
“Of course,” Claire answered, although Mama confused the two of them all the time. Her memories were completely interchangeable. When called on it, Mama would say airily, Whatever; y’all were thick as thieves back then. How’m I supposed to keep every little detail straight?
“Well, honey, speak up. M’houseboy said you left me a message. What’s goin’ on?”
Claire hated the faux Southern accent. Every elongated vowel reminded her that she was ultimately “the audience” to Mama. “I called to tell you I’m getting married.”
“Well, I’ll be damned. I thought for sure you were going to die an old maid.”
“So, who is he?”
“You’ll love him, Mama. He’s a nice Texas boy.”
“Boy? I thought that was your sister’s way.”
Claire actually laughed. “He’s a man, Mama. Thirty-seven years old.”
“How much money does he make?”
“That isn’t important to me.”
“Broke, huh? Well, I’ll give you my best advice, honey. It’s easier to marry the rich ones, but what the hell. Congratulations. When’s the wedding?”
“Saturday the twenty-third.”
“Of June? You mean this comin’ Saturday?”
“That’s what I mean. You would have had plenty of notice if you’d called me back.”
“I was doing Shakespeare in the park. With Charlie Sheen, I might add.”
“Now, honey. You know I have to take care of my fans. They’re my life’s blood. Did you see my picture in People, by the way? Just me and Jules Asner, sharin’ a little girl talk.”
“I missed that. Sorry.”
“I gave you a subscription. What do y’all do, just let it sit around?”
“I’ve been busy with the wedding plans.”
“Oh. Right. Well, Saturday’s difficult for me, honey. How about the first weekend in August?”
Claire rolled her eyes. “As interested as I am in your schedule, Mama, the invitations have already gone out. Meg’s busy planning the big day. It’s too late to change the date.”
Mama laughed. “Meg is planning your wedding? Honey, that’s like asking the pope to plan a bar mitzvah.”
“The wedding is Saturday. I hope you’ll be able to attend.” There she was, getting stiff and formal again, her usual reaction to stress.
Meghann handed her an aspirin.
Claire couldn’t help smiling.
“She gives me a migraine every time,” Meg said. “Is she still babbling?”
Claire nodded, whispered, “I think I heard the name Anna Nicole Smith.”
Meg grinned. “Another nice Southern girl with intimacy issues.”
“Claire?” Mama said sharply. “Are you listening to me?”
“Of course, Mama. Every word is a pearl.”
“What time on Saturday? I asked you twice.”
“The wedding is at seven P.M. Reception to follow.”
Mama sighed. “Saturday. I’ve been waitin’ three months for my hair appointment with José. Maybe he can take me early.”
Claire couldn’t take any more. “I’ve got to run, Mama. I’ll be at the Hayden Episcopal Church at seven this Saturday. I hope you can make it, but I’ll certainly understand if you’re too busy.”
“I am busy. But how often does a woman’s daughter get married?”
“In our family, not often.”
“Tell me straight up, honey. D’you think this one’ll last? I’d hate to give up my hair appointment for—”
“I’ve got to go, Mama. Bye.”
“Okay, honey. Me, too. And congratulations. I couldn’t be happier for you.”
“Thanks, Mama. Bye.”
Claire tried to smile as she looked up at Meghann. “Saturday’s a bad day for her.”
“What? An audition for the $25,000 Pyramid?”
“A hair appointment with José.”
“We should have sent her the invite after it was over.”
“I don’t know why I keep expecting something different from her.”
Meg shook her head. “Yeah, I know. Even a mother alligator sticks around the eggs.”
“Mama would make herself an omelette.”
They actually laughed at that.
Claire looked out the window. Sunlight streamed onto her yard, made the flowers glow. She took peace from that view; it reminded her of all that was right with her world. It was best to forget about Mama. “Let’s talk about the wedding plans,” she said at last.
“Perfect. Maybe we could go over the menu.”
Claire straightened. “Of course. I was thinking about those foot-long submarine sandwiches. They really feed a lot of people, and the men love them. Gina’s potato salad is a perfect side dish.”
Meghann was staring at her. “Potato salad and submarine sandwiches. That would be . . .” She paused. “Delicious.”
“Did I? I think I took a breath.”
“I know that pause. It’s judgment talking.”
“No. No. I had just talked to a girlfriend of mine. Carla. She’s a struggling chef—just graduated—and she’s broke. Can’t pay her rent. She offered to do up some hors d’oeuvres for cost plus a tiny amount. She needs the word of mouth; you know how it is. But don’t worry. I’ll be happy to go to Safeway for the food, if that’s what you’d rather do.”
Claire frowned. “Would it really help your friend out? Catering the reception?”
“It would, but that’s not what matters. What I care about is that you get the wedding you want.”