I love you, but…

I love you but | Allison Whittenberg | Raising Mothers

Maybe it was a mental thing, but I forgot my little half brother’s goodie bag.  I’d left it in the breakfast nook.

Despite my block, I knocked on the door anyway.  (My father, in the year and a half since he’d moved, hadn’t gotten around to giving me a key.  But to be fair to him, I hadn’t asked either.)

The weather had turned a bit.  The sun wasn’t as bright and shiny. It was even doing that annoying spit rain.   Lily, the nanny, greeted me,  let me in, then slipped out of the way.

When I first learned my father’s new wife was expecting, the thought that there’s no way they’re sticking me with babysitting duties when they wanted a Saturday night to themselves crossed my mind. I vowed to stay firm to this, since neither my dad nor his new wife, Sabine (I used to like that name), ever assisted when mom was sick.  All I had was Reid and (some of) Mom’s friends.

At any rate, I never got a chance to grandstand.  They hired a girl, a college grad named Lily who had majored in Early Childhood education and had CPR training. The next time I saw Lily passing me, she headed to the garden with my half brother strapped to her chest in a backward facing contraption.

So far during my visits, I hadn’t caught my stepmother Sabine with the Bjorn, but, hey, the baby was only twelve weeks old.  Let’s not rush things. There was also something about the mayonnaise-colored sofa and clean pale colored walls that told me they were not going to have too many more children.

So supermom – one down, two, or three to go – was not Sabine’s bag.  I didn’t hold that against her.  There was no law that stated that every woman had to go for the Ziploc bags and single serving Tupperware or the Target brand diapers with the dots and baby wipes.  What bothered me was that if she wasn’t interested in nesting, why did she have to go after (or not fend off) my dad?

I made my way through to the living room and waited by the window. They appeared together holding hands:  Dad, in a denim shirt and cargo shorts that hit him at the knees (he was trying to look younger). Sabine, in a pale blue silk shirt and creased slacks (she was angling for the opposite effect.)  To lessen the sting, I tried to focus on the half of the couple I was biologically related to.  My dad had prominent bone structure: high defined cheekbones and a strong, square jawline. I had always been told that I had his face, complete with the overrated architectural cheekbones.

“Hi, Lizzy,” Dad said, “There’s some stuff on the table.  Help yourself.” I looked back toward the kitchen.  There was a display of muffins bigger than my fist, a pitcher of cranberry juice, a glass bowl of fruit salad. “I already ate,” I told him. It was a 45 minute ride over to my father’s place.  I was still full from the waffles, so what I said it wasn’t a lie, but, I was sure to my dad, it sounded like one.

“How’s Reid?” Dad asked. “Good,” I answered. Dad smiled and a silence followed. “My mom’s fine too.”  I wanted to go further and say, “You know, your first wife.”  But I measured out how much I let my inner bitch shine through. More silence.

“What happened to your eye?” Dad asked. “I fell.”  Sabine leveled her eyes on me. “Sure, you did,” she said, and I could ignore her no more. The slow burn raw hate I felt for her came to the surface.  First of all, she dispelled the myth the mistress had to be more gorgeous than the wife – Sabine wasn’t.  I couldn’t think of anyone outside of my dad who, in his right mind, would pine over Sabine’s long horse face and practiced, poised air. And what was the deal with her wardrobe?  She was a decade younger than my mother – nearly my age, but she didn’t dress like it.  She was fond of Loft rather than Express.  Never Hot Topic. Ann Taylor, usually.

“It looks like you burned your hair,” Dad said, commenting on how I’d put a few crimson streaks in my hair. Sabine smiled with just a touch of mischief.  “That’s the style, Bret.”  Dad’s smile was large and guileless. “We’re about to go out a little later. You’re welcome to join us.”  “I have to work today, Dad.”   “Oh,” he said.  “You’re still at the ice cream place?”  I smiled.  He was close. “Frozen yogurt,” I said.

Over on the end table, a cell phone started jumping. “You’re vibrating,” I told Dad.  Dad scooped it up and took the call in another room.  My eyes followed him, sending out a silent SOS.  I did not want to be alone with Sabine.  She eyed me now like prey.

“It seems that we have a minute, Lizzy.” “A minute?” I asked. She nodded and offered me a seat and some food again. I took her up on the first part of her proposition.  They had purchased this house fully furnished.  On this L-shaped sofa, Sabine crowded me, planting herself right next to my square. If she could have read my mind right then, she would have found that I was marveling at the fact that there was barely any horizontalness to her face.  It reminded me of a shoe box.

“I’m going to say this to you candidly,” she began. “Generally, nice girls don’t put themselves out there like you do.”  I sighed. “How am I putting myself out there, Sabine?” “You know how, Lizzy.” “No, I most certainly do not, Sabine.” “Think for minute,” she said. “I am.  Just what am I putting out there?” I asked. She shot me a sharp look. “He moved in.  How do you think that looks?”

I tried to keep a steady expression, intent not to betray my emotions to her.  “You don’t know me very well, do you?” I asked.  “No.  I don’t.” “Then why, Sabine, are saying this to me?” “Three quarters of a million teenage girls will become pregnant this year,” Sabine said with a voice bright and triumphant with this information.  “Do you know how many abortions there are in this country?”

And like that it was on.  Her trying to one up me.  Me trying to floor her.  Neither one of us making any headway. “You’re coming in late.  My mother was sick for months, and Reid—”

“I know I didn’t raise you,” she said. “I’m saying what your father may be too embarrassed to tell you.” I stood up and pointed at her. “So this is coming from my Dad?  Is that what you’re telling me?” She laughed shortly. “Lizzy, make up your mind. Do you want to be treated like a child or an adult?”

I looked at her and it all bubbled to the surface. I couldn’t deny it anymore. Briefly, I thought: maybe I could kill her.  Given her personality, she probably has other enemies besides me, so maybe the authorities won’t put two and two together. Out loud all I said was, “Sabine, you don’t know anything about Reid or me or Reid and me and so far you are the one who’s talking in circles.”

“All right.  All right.  I don’t like where this is going. A word to the wise is sufficient, but if you don’t want to listen to reason, I won’t waste my time trying to make you,” she said.  She spoke fast, her words coming out like bullets.  “I’ll leave you with this. I would never disrespect my mother’s house the way you’re doing.  He’s five years older than you.”

“Oh, really, Sabine.  Well, let me tell you what I would never do.  I wouldn’t marry a man 15 years my senior who left his wife on the eve of her cancer diagnosis.”


Allison Whittenberg is a poet and novelist (LIFE IS FINE, SWEET THANG, HOLLYWOOD AND MAINE, TUTORED all from Random House and THE SANE ASYLUM from Beatdom). She lives in Philadelphia.

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