Well-trained golden retriever versus scrappy miniature dachshund. That was the difference between my two daughters, and it was never more obvious than when we were talking about their father. That August night as I drove Tristan to work with both of them in the car, it would have sounded to anybody else like we were discussing Tristan’s hair. But when we got right down to it, everything always came back to Nick.
“Did you ask Daddy if I could cut it?” Tristan said.
“I did,” I said.
“He said no, right?”
“He said he’d think about it.”
“That means no,” Max said from the backseat. “You’re done,
I glanced in the rearview mirror at my ten-year-old’s dark paintbrush-like tails, sticking out from her head while the rest of her hair straggled down to her shoulders. We hadn’t even begun to discuss
that do. “I really wish I could cut it,” Tristan said. “All I ever do is put it up in a ponytail anyway.”
The tendril of wistfulness in her voice was as close to arguing as Tristan ever came.
I pulled up to a Stop sign and looked at her. Brush handle in her mouth, she secured a thick, deep-brown bundle of hair with one hand and snapped what we Soltani girls called a pony holder into place with the other. She executed the whole thing the way she did every task: neatly and with graceful resignation. I had to agree I’d seen her do it for at least ten of her sixteen years. She pulled the tail tight and let it splash against her cheek as she leaned over to return the brush to its precise place in her purse.
“I’d miss your ponytail,” I said. “It’s you.” I grinned into the rearview.
“Now, Max, honey, we need to talk about yours.”
Max pointed to the intersection where we were still idling. “Mom, there’s, like, nobody coming.”
“I knew that,” I said.
She cocked one eyebrow, a trick she’d learned recently.
“I did know,” I said.
Tristan wound her arms around her lithe, long legs as she perched her feet on the edge of the seat.
“He said he’d think about it, baby girl,” I said. “And that doesn’t always mean no. He had to think about it before he let you get a job, and that turned out to be a yes.”
“There’s a way big difference between working on the boardwalk and getting a haircut,” Max said.
There’s nobody like a ten-year-old to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator. Must be something about the recent introduction to fractions in the fourth grade.
“Daddy’s afraid you might regret it if you cut it,” I said to Tristan.
“They like it long for dance, right?”
“Yeah,” Max said, “you gotta do that tight-bun thing that makes your eyes go all slanty.” I didn’t have to look at her to know she was demonstrating.
The pizza places and hoagy shops on Garfield Parkway, which led to the boardwalk, were revving up for suppertime, but I was lucky enough to snag a parking space.
“We’ll talk to Daddy about it when he gets home tonight,” I said.
“We’ll have plenty of time since you’re only working a couple of hours to fill in for Sondra.” I brushed my fingers against her cheek. “Maybe we’ll soften him up with some ice cream.”
“Chocolate chip cookie dough,” Max said. “Aunt Pete’s gonna want pistachio, but that stuff is foul.”
I expected Tristan to answer “butter pecan” or at least wrinkle her nose at Max. But Tristan gazed through the windshield as if she were gathering up Bethany Beach details, the snippets of sunburned faces and beach toys in shop windows. Her dark chocolate eyes hinted at
I felt myself melt. “I didn’t know it was that important to you, honey,” I said. “Okay, we’ll definitely talk to Daddy.”
“That’s gonna mean whipping cream, sprinkles—the works,” Max said.
“It’s okay,” Tristan said. “We can just forget about it.”
She nodded and swept up her purse.
“Daddy’ll be here to pick you up at nine,” I said. “Maybe Max and I will still buy some ice cream after my meeting—in case you change your mind.”
Tristan paused, fingers on the door handle, and said, “I don’t think I will.”
She climbed out, and I leaned across the seat before she could close the door. “I love you, baby girl,” I said.
As I watched her thread her way through the crowd, green purse with its blue T swaying from her shoulder, her grace erased the image of lanky adolescence I swore I’d seen in her just yesterday. It was one of those mom moments when I realized there was nothing left of my baby except my view of her. It left me momentarily sad.
Max hoisted herself over the seat and buckled into Tristan’s. Her sleeveless pink hoodie shouted ANGEL IN DISGUISE in bright green letters across her chest. No bra was in my ten-year-old’s immediate future. She was still an unselfconscious girl-child. But there were moments, like now, when she was thoroughly
Nick, sizing up the situation like a little computer. High speed, of course. Her small, dark eyes crinkled from beneath puffy lids, like his, and her mouth went straight across, curving up at the corners. Only there was no predicting what was going to come out of Max’s mouth.
“I don’t get it,” she said.
“What don’t you get?”
“Why Dad even cares about how we wear our hair.” She gave the familiar husky grunt. “Why should we take beauty tips from him when he hardly even has any hair? It’s like this short.”
I felt the corners of my mouth already twitching a warning. It was a sure sign that Max was about to take me somewhere I could never resist going. I put the Blazer in gear and backed out.
“It’s not really about the hair.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about Daddy not wanting Tristan to make a decision she’s going to regret.”
“It’s just hair. It’ll grow back.”
“Okay,” I said. “How ’bout we get you a buzz cut, then?”
“Right.” I tugged at one of her rakish tails. “There isn’t enough ice cream in the world that would make that okay.”
“Men are just weird.”
I couldn’t hold back the deep laugh Nick always said sounded devious. I never planned it. It sneaked up on me like an imp. The laugh never seemed to surprise Max, though. It was as if she waited
for it, licking her little chops.
“Why do you think men are weird?” I said.
“Because they’re not like us.”
“You noticed, did you?”
“Not like they get beards, and we don’t—”
“I mean, du-uh.”
“It’s like…” I could feel her eyes sparking at me. “Give me a topic.”
“Okay. Boys are all—hog the remote control. And girls are…”
“Oh, okay. Give me a second.”
Max started in on the Jeopardy! theme.
“I have it. Girls are all—read People magazine.”
Max cocked the practiced eyebrow.
“It’s true,” I said. “Boys get their information by flipping the
channels, and girls go straight to the source.”
“What-ev-er. Okay, boys are go in the kitchen and blow your nose on a paper towel during a sad movie.”
“And girls are use up a whole box of Kleenex.”
“Boys are point out all the things that are, like, fake in an action movie.”
“I’ve got a great one for this: girls watch romantic movies and wish life was really like that.”
“I don’t,” Max said.
My imp within couldn’t pass up the chance.
“There’s not some cute li’l fifth-grade boy you have a crush on?” I said.
“Well, now that you mention it,” she said, “I’m totally crushing on Justin Dalberg. I’m just waiting for him to ask me out.”
I jerked us to a stop inside the church parking lot. “Tell me you’re kidding. You are, aren’t you?”
A chuckle rumbled from Max’s throat. “Got you, Mom.”
“You are bad.” I tugged her face into my chest by both ponytails.
Max was one of the few people my imp appeared for. The imp in her drew it out.
Max scanned the lot with narrowed eyes while I parked.
“There’s Mrs. Godfried’s car. I hope she didn’t bring the Quantum Quartet.”
“Her kids. They’re, like, all scientific.”
“Do you even know what quantum means?” I said.
Max shook her head, setting the tails in motion. “It’s something nerdy that nobody understands except the kids who are so smart they’re weird.”
Rebecca’s sons—Noah, Isaiah, Daniel, and Matthias—were the youngest nerds I’d ever known. Bless their hearts; they even wore little bow ties to church.
“They’re just a little bit…proper,” I said, reigning in my imp.
“They’re just a little bit—”
“So…have a good time playing with the kids.” I hopped down out of the Blazer, wishing as I had every time in the four months I’d had it that Nick had either gotten me a step bar or let me have the little Volkswagen Beetle I wanted. My mother’s old nickname for me—Squatty Body—was apt.
“It’s gonna be all boys. Again. Justin sits there and plays with his Game Boy, like, the entire time. The Quantums—”
“We went there already,” I said. I hugged her shoulders as we made our way to the door of the fellowship hall. “When’s Ashley coming home from her vacation?”
“Not for forever. I don’t see why Dad won’t let me stay home with Aunt Pete. It’s not like she’s gonna try to burn the house down again.”
“She didn’t try to burn the house down.”
“Dad said she did.”
“He was just a little bit cranky that day.”
Max dragged herself off to the kids’ play area. Even she knew
when to leave a subject alone.
“Aunt Pete tried to burn the house down, Serena?”
I turned to see Lissa Dalberg behind me, flushed face obviously amused. Everything about my best friend bounced, except her twelveyear- old son, Justin, of Game Boy fame, who appeared to be as excited about “playing with the kids” as Max was. When Lissa nudged him off in that direction, he looked as if he’d rather be shot.
“You heard that, huh?” I said.
Lissa looped her arm through mine, skin clammy in the August heat. Even with the ocean breeze, the temperature was a muggy ninety degrees.
“So did Nick’s aunt try to burn the house down?”
“That’s the way Nicky tells it,” I said. “She was cooking bacon, and a little grease fire started. It wasn’t her fault. She was distracted because she found her false teeth in the freezer.”
“Oh, now that clears it up.”
“Is this that Mentoring for Moms thing?”
I looked back to see a woman approaching us, and I felt my eyes bulge a little. I’d never seen anybody quite like her in our church parking lot. Looking directly at me with blue eyes made startling by her leath- ery skin, she shook back her bangs, which were colored an impossible shade of blond. She folded her tattooed arms against her black tank top—although between the bracelets and the collection of gold
neck chains she might as well have been wearing long sleeves and a turtleneck.
“So is this the group?” she said. Her voice was a cigarette alto I could have filed my nails on.
Lissa recovered first. It was one of those things they must learn in pastors’ wives school.
“This is it,” she said to the woman. “And this is our leader, Serena
Soltani.” Lissa put out a manicured hand. “And you are?”
“Name’s Hazel.” The woman pumped Lissa’s arm, but her too blue eyes were fixed on me. “So you’re Mighty Mom?”
“Serena’s a wonderful mother. Her Tristan and Max are—”
“You have two boys?” Hazel said.
“Talk about a little gender confusion.”
“This is only our second meeting, and already Serena has helped
us all so much—”
“That’s what I need—help,” Hazel said. Her voice was reminding me more and more of gravel in a clothes dryer. “So how does this work? Do you preach or just say stuff out of the Bible? I’ll warn you,
I don’t know diddly about the Bible.”
She didn’t look as if she had any desire to learn. But there was something earnest in those blue eyes. I couldn’t look away from her.
“Actually, it’s more of a discussion format,” Lissa said. She opened the door and waved an arm through for Hazel. “We each have a chance to talk about our challenges, and then Serena addresses them, sometimes from her own experience. Her children are the poster kids for—”
“Good,” Hazel said and elbowed past us. “That’s what I need. My kids are out of control. I need help before I kill them.”
The look on Rebecca Godfried’s face when Hazel crossed the room was priceless. Whenever Rebecca got even a whiff of anything “unchristian,” she drew her mouth into a raisin. With multipierced ears and the biker-chick attire, Hazel must have seemed like more than a whiff to Rebecca. Lissa carried two bags of snacks into the kitchen. As the leader, I had to stay. Besides, I had never known Rebecca Godfried to be speechless before. My imp really wanted to see what happened next. As the rest of the moms trickled in, they all did double takes of Hazel. A couple of them slipped into the kitchen, obviously in pursuit of the lowdown on the new woman. Lissa had never had so much help putting store-bought cookies on a plate. Christine Michaels, the advertising executive whose only child was six months old, looked baffled as she glanced from me to Hazel to the customary notepad where she wrote things down.