The oven beeper went off. Mama pulled the cookie sheet from the oven and dished up the plates. Tonight’s ahi special was served with marinated roasted bell peppers, grilled zucchini, and homemade polenta. "What are you all staring at?" Just then Lauren and Rosa came into the kitchen. Mama handed them plates. When the waitresses left, Mama said airily, "I’ve been thinking about changing the menu for years. Change is a good thing. Your papa–God rest his soul–always said I could do anything with the menu except take off the lasagna." She made a shooing gesture with her hands. "Now quit standing around like log bumps and go out there. Lauren could use your help. Mira, go get more tomatoes."
When Livvy and Mira left, Mama laughed. "Come here," she said to Angie, opening her arms. "Your papa," she whispered, "he would be so proud of you."
Angie held her tightly. "He’d be proud of us."
Late that night, when the final burst of guests had been served, and their dinner plates cleared away to make room for tiramisu and bowls full of rich zabaglione with fresh raspberries, Mama came out of the kitchen to see how her food had been received.
The guests, most of whom had known Maria for years, clapped at her arrival. Mr. Fortense yelled out, "Fabulous food!"
Mama smiled. "Thank you. And come back soon. Tomorrow I make asparagus-potato gnocchi with fresh tomatoes. It will make you weep." She looked at Angie. "It is my brilliant baby daughter’s favorite dish."
WHEN THE LAST CUSTOMERS FINALLY LEFT AT TENTHIRTY, Lauren was exhausted. The tables had been full all night. A couple of times there had been lines at the door, even. Poor Rosa couldn’t possibly keep up. For the first hour or so, Lauren had been going so fast she felt nervous and queasy. Then Angie’s sister had shown up. Like an angel, Livvy swept in on a cloud of laughter and eased Lauren’s burden.
Now Lauren stood by the reservation desk. Rosa had gone home at least an hour ago and the women were all in the kitchen. For the first time all night, Lauren could draw a relaxed breath. She pulled her tip money out of her apron pocket and counted it.
She’d earned sixty-one dollars tonight. Suddenly it didn’t matter that her feet hurt, her hands ached, and she had cramps. She was rich. A few more nights like this and she’d have all her application money.
She took off her apron and headed for the kitchen. She was halfway there when the swinging door burst open.
Livvy walked out first. Mira was right behind her. Though they looked nothing alike, there was no doubt they were sisters. Their gestures mirrored each other. They both had the same husky laugh as Angie. From another room, it was hard to tell their voices apart.
A sound clicked through the restaurant. The rich, velvety voice of Frank Sinatra snapped off.
Mira and Livvy stopped in tandem, cocked their heads.
Another song started. Loud. The sound of it was so unexpected it took Lauren a second to recognize it.
I had a friend was a big baseball player
back in high school
Livvy let out a whoop and pushed her hands high in the air. She immediately started to dance with Mira, who moved awkwardly, as if she were getting electroshock treatments.
"I haven’t danced since … jeez, I can’t remember the last time I danced," Mira yelled to her sister over the music.
Livvy laughed. "That’s obvious, big sister. You look like Elaine in that Seinfeld episode. You have got to get out more."
Mira bumped her sister, hip to hip.
Lauren watched in awe. These two sisters who had barely spoken all night were like different people now.
The door burst open again. Angie came dancing out with her mother behind her, holding her. "Conga line," someone yelled.
Livvy and Mira fell in behind, holding on to one another. The four of them danced around the empty tables, pausing now and then to kick out their heels or throw back their heads.
It was incredibly dorky. Like something off some old people’s TV show.
And heartbreakingly cool.
Lauren’s stomach tightened. She didn’t know how to react. All she knew was that she didn’t belong here. She was an employee.
This was family.
She started to back away, edge toward the door.
"Oh no, you don’t," Angie cried out.
Lauren stopped in her tracks, looked up. The conga line had broken up.
Mira and Livvy were dancing together. Maria stood in the corner, watching her daughters with a smile.
Angie rushed toward Lauren. "You can’t leave yet. It’s a party."
Angie grabbed her hand, grinned at her.
The word–belong–was lost.
The music changed. "Crocodile Rock" blared through the speakers.
"Elton!" Livvy yelled. "We saw him at the Tacoma Dome, remember?"
And the dancing started again.
"Dance," Angie said, and before Lauren knew it she was in the middle of the crowd of women, dancing. By the third song–Billy Joel’s "Uptown Girl"–Lauren was laughing as loudly as the rest of them.
For the next half an hour or so, she was enfolded in the warm raucousness of a loving family. They laughed, they danced, they talked endlessly about how busy the restaurant had been. Lauren loved every minute of it, and when the party broke up near midnight, she honestly hated to go home.
But there was no choice, of course. She offered to take the bus–an offer that was rejected almost instantly. Angie ushered her out to the car. They talked all the way and laughed often, but finally Lauren was home.
She trudged up the gloomy stairs toward her apartment, shifting her heavy backpack from one tired shoulder to the other.
The door to the apartment was open.
Inside, gray smoke hung in strands along the stained acoustical tile ceiling. Cigarette butts lay heaped in ashtrays on the coffee table and scattered here and there across the floor. An empty bottle of gin rolled slowly back and forth on the wobbly dining table, finally clunking onto the linoleum floor.
Lauren recognized the signs: two kinds of butts, and beer bottles on the kitchen counter. It didn’t take a forensic team to analyze the crime scene. It was familiar territory.
Mom had picked up some loser (they were all losers) from the tavern and brought him home.
They were in her mother’s bedroom now. She recognized the thumping rhythm of her mother’s old Hollywood bed frame. Clang-clang-thump. Clang-clangthump.
She hurried into her bedroom and closed the door. Moving quietly, not wanting anyone to know she was home, she grabbed her day planner and flipped it open. On today’s date she wrote: DeSaria Party. She didn’t ever want to forget it. She wanted to be able to look down at those two words and remember how tonight had felt.
She went into the bathroom and got ready for bed in record speed. The last thing she wanted was to bump into Him in the hallway.
She ran back to her room and slammed the door shut. Crawling into bed, she pulled the covers to her chin and stared up at the ceiling.
Memories of tonight filled her mind. A strange emotion came with the images; part happiness, part loss. She couldn’t untangle it.
It was just a restaurant, she reminded herself. A place of employment.
Angie was her boss, not her–
There it was, the truth of the matter, the pea under her mattress. She’d felt alone for so long, and now– irrationally–she felt as if she belonged somewhere.
Even if it was a lie, which it certainly was, it felt better than the cold emptiness that was the truth.
She tried to stop thinking about it, to stop playing and replaying their conversations in her mind, but she couldn’t let it go. At the end of the night, when they’d all been crowded around the fireplace, talking and laughing, Lauren had loosened up enough to tell the one joke she knew. Mira and Angie had laughed long and hard; Maria had said, "This make no sense. Why would the man say such a thing?" The question had made them all laugh harder, and Lauren most of all.
Remembering it made her want to cry.
OCTOBER RUSHED PAST, BUT IN NOVEMBER, LIFE seemed to move slowly again. One day bled into the next. It rained constantly, sometimes in howling, sheeting storms that turned the ocean into a whirlpool of sound and fury. More often than not, though, the moisture fell in beaded drops from a bloated, tired-looking sky.
For the past two weeks Lauren had been home as little as possible. That man was always there, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes and stinking up the air with his loserdom. Of course Mom was in love with him. He was precisely her type.
Lauren made a point of working at the restaurant almost every night and all day on weekends. Even though they’d hired another waitress, Lauren tried to keep her hours steady. When she wasn’t working, she was at the school library or hanging out with David.
The only downside to earning all this money and improving her already stellar grades was that she was exhausted. Right now it was taking every scrap of her determination to stay awake in class. In the front of the room, Mr. Goldman was waxing poetic about the way Jackson Pollock used color.
To Lauren, the painting looked like something an angry child would make if handed a box of paints.
That was practically all she was taking this year. She hadn’t realized earlier, when she’d poured the heat on her accelerated studies, that by her senior year she’d have almost all of her requirements out of the way. As it was, she could technically graduate at the end of this semester. Trigonometry was the only class she had that mattered, and it wasn’t even required for graduation.
When the bell rang, she slapped her book shut and shot out of her seat, moving into the laughing, shoving, talking crowd of students around her.
At the flagpole, she found David playing hacky sack with the guys. When he saw her, his face lit up. He reached for her and pulled her into his arms. For the first time all day she wasn’t tired.
"I’m starving," someone said.
Lauren looped an arm around David as he followed the crowd down the street to the Hamburger Haven that was their regular hangout.
Marci Morford dropped some money in the jukebox. Afroman’s "Crazy Rap" immediately started to play.
Everyone groaned, and then laughed. Anna Lyons launched into a story about Mrs. Fiore, the home economics teacher, which got everyone arguing about how sucky it was to have to do actual homework in a skate class.
Lauren ordered a strawberry milkshake, a bacon burger, and fries.
It felt good to have money in her pocket. For years she’d pretended never to be hungry. Now she ate all the time.
"Jeez, Lo," Irene Herman laughed. "Way to pack it down. Do you have a buck I can borrow?"
"No problem." Lauren pulled a few dollars out of her jeans and handed it to her friend. "I know you want a milkshake, too."
That got everyone talking about how much they could eat.
"Hey," Kim said after a while, "did you guys get the notice about the California schools?"
Lauren looked up. "What notice?"
"They’re having a big thing in Portland this weekend."
Portland. An hour and a half away. Lauren’s heartbeat picked up. "That’s cool." She slipped her hand into David’s, squeezing gently. "We can go together," she said, looking at him.
David looked crestfallen. "I’m going to my grandma’s this weekend," he said. "In Indiana. There’s no way I can cancel. It’s their anniversary party." He looked around the table. "Can one of you guys give Lauren a ride?"