Hi, it's me.
I'll be home in a minute if you want to talk.
I have to tell you something and I don't want to do it in person. You're not going to like it.
Did you break something of mine? Sleep with Mike? Lose the money for this week's rent?
No, hell no, and no. Nothing like that.
Well, if it's none of those things, I don't see why you're wasting your phone credit. I'll be home soon and we'll talk about it.
That was a blatant lie, Tara thought glumly, watching Alicia pace back and forth like an enraged animal.
"I just can't understand why you talked to her." Alicia's dark eyes glittered. "Have you forgotten what she did? Do you think that this time it'll be different and she might give you a try?"
"No. I saw her standing there and I wanted to talk to her. I needed to know that she was okay. It's been a while." Tara wished that she hadn't started the conversation; Alicia's vehemence bothered her.
Alicia snorted. "Is she okay? Did she do her little pity act; Woeful Weeping Willow? She does it so well."
"She seems different. She didn't mention anything that happened."
"Great," Alicia said. "I guess we'll all join her in denial land and pretend she didn't get off with a stranger while you waited for her to get her act together."
"Hey, don't talk about Willow like that," Tara said. "I can't say that what she did made me happy, but that's okay. It was her way of telling me that she wasn't interested."
"It was her way of showing that she's a self-obsessed bitch," Alicia muttered.
Tara felt that if the conversation went any further she would scream. "Forget it," she said. "I thought that you'd help me figure out what to do. If you just want to insult her, feel free. I don't want to be around you while you do, though." She began to walk off but her flat mate grabbed her arm.
"I'm sorry," Alicia said heavily. "Really. I have a tendency to get all protective big sister with you." She sighed. "Do you want to be with Willow, even after what happened?"
Tara swallowed. "If you think that I..."
"Yes or no?"
"Yes," Tara said. "I didn't stop."
As Tara walked to rehearsal, she considered the haste with which she had agreed to perform with the band. It had created a series of inconveniences and indignities that she could have done without.
The sky was a watery grey and the ground felt soft and unstable. She hated winter. The only time she enjoyed it was when she could stay home and vegetate in front of the TV while the rain fell outside. She wished she could hibernate and cease her everyday existence for the next few months.
When she arrived, the band began the arduous process of deciding on a set list. Usually, Tara was agreeable with the others' preferences. This time, to the surprise of the girls in the band, she didn't sit back quietly during the vote. Knowing that Willow would be seeing the performance made her feel nervous, and every suggestion made her cringe. She enjoyed giving Beth a taste of how challenging the Maclay temperament could be to deal with.
"Tara," Beth said, when they were alone in the kitchen, refilling the snacks, "can I just say - as a friend and relative - that being assertive doesn't suit you? Maybe you should tone it down a little."
"What?" Tara came close to dropping the plate she was holding. "What the hell, Beth?"
"I mean, you've got this attitude now. And I'm not only speaking for myself when I say it's difficult." Beth sniffed.
She's clearly enjoying this, Tara thought. "Sorry for being a burden," she said sarcastically.
"I mean, we're all accepting of your lifestyle. But you should consider who you're hurting the most when you act like this."
Tara mentally crossed Beth off the short list of sane family members she had. "Who?"
"Beth, I'll say this once: my life is my business. If I enjoyed hearing poignant speeches about my lifestyle choices, I would have stayed with my father." She gestured at her cousin. "You moved here knowing that you'd be living near me and that I'd be living the way I wanted to. Don't you dare pretend that you're saying this for my benefit."
Beth shrugged. "Fine, do what you want. But don't come crying to me when things get ugly."
After Alicia had forced her hair into an unnatural form, Tara started to worry. "What if she didn't want to come in the first place? I hope she doesn't feel obligated because I invited her."
Alicia began to apply makeup on herself. "I'm more worried about myself. I don't think Cousin Peppy is going to be too happy to see me again." She smothered her face with powder and looked worriedly at Tara.
Tara thought back to the one and only meeting of her cousin and flat mate. It had included a daring outfit on Alicia's part, a string of well-intended words about pre-marital sex from Beth, and a thrown drink.
"If Beth does something to offend you, I'll help you out," Tara said. "I may look like the shy retiring type, but I can throw a mean punch."
"It's the lesbian thing," Alicia said, nodding. "Your hands and wrists are strong."
Tara started to retort but Alicia held out a hand. "Don't worry about Willow being there, Tara. If she dares to say or do anything to upset you, I will use my heterosexual, strong legs to kick her out the door."
They smiled at each other. "Wow, this is monumental. Our first tender moment in weeks." Tara reached out to hug her flat mate.
"We might just make it as friends, after all. Now let's get going. We have a lot of work to do to get you sleeping with the enemy."
When we arrived at Beth's house, Alicia clung to my arm.
"I'm scared," she whined. "Why can't I hear any music playing? Aren't parties all about the music?"
"I'm sure there's music. Maybe it's down to a neighbor-friendly volume." I patted her shoulder. "Trust me, Ali, I'm not clamoring to go in there either."
She turned to me with wide eyes. "Let's leave! Screw the gig. I don't want to watch Beth trying to be a pop star. We could go to Mike's sister's party and booze it up instead."
I gave her a stern look. "We have to do this. Come on. Breathe in. Exhale. Lift your shoulders. Feel the confidence."
"You owe me, Maclay. It's the eve of the new millennium and we're probably going to be watching fireworks on TV."
We walked into the house and were greeted by an exuberant Beth, who wore a plastered smile and a party hat. "Hello, girls," she squealed. "Ready for some fun?"
I tried not to wince. "Beth, the place looks great." We air kissed. "Can we help with anything?"
"No, Mom has it covered." A giggle escaped her glossy lips. If I didn't know better, I would have assumed she'd been drinking.
"Aunt Barbara is here?"
Alicia gave me a look. It wasn't hard to interpret that it meant 'Let's get out of here.'
"Oops! I forgot to tell you," Beth said, slapping her forehead. "They decided that since I couldn't make it down for Christmas, they'd join us for the New Year. They flew up yesterday morning."
"Beth, who exactly do you mean by 'they'?"
"Come and see," she said, reaching out for my hand. Alicia followed us meekly into the kitchen.
I saw my father seated at the table. He looked like he'd aged a lot since the last time we saw each other. I felt my stomach tip.
"Hello, Dad." I tried to flatten the hairdo that Alicia had worked so painstakingly on.
"Tara." He stood up to greet me and I almost laughed at the formality. "You're looking well."
"Thank you. It's good to see you." I reached out automatically, and he stepped back. I'd forgotten how much he hated to be touched.
"I'm just going to go sit in the lounge," Alicia whispered.
"Was that your friend?" my father asked. I hated the amount of emphasis he put on the word friend. It sounded so bad from his lips.
"She's my flat mate, Dad. We rent an apartment about fifteen minutes away." How do I tell him that Alicia is straight without sounding defensive? Why do I even have to?
"Where are you staying?" I asked.
"We're all staying here. Beth is sleeping on the sofa, I'm in the spare room and her parents are using her room." His eyes traced my face and body, resting on my eyes. "It's been a while. What do you do at the moment, Tara?"
I astounded myself by not stuttering as I explained my job. It was difficult to refrain from punctuating my sentences with 'Sir'; when I left home I had made a firm decision to never use the title again.
When I finished speaking, I realized that I hadn't asked about him. "How's Donnie doing? How are things there?" This time, my self-forbidden word was 'home.'
"He's in school. He wants to become an engineer."
I nodded. "That's great. I'm glad he's happy."
An awkward silence pervaded the kitchen.
"So," Beth's father, who had pretended to be busy at the sink, began, "I'm really looking forward to hearing Beth's band. I hear you're in it, Tara."
"Sure, I sing in the band." I glanced at Beth, who rolled her eyes. It wasn't worth arguing over the band's origins. "I'm going to go say hello to Nicole and Jenny. They're in the band, too."
As I walked away I could hear them whispering. I felt a bolt of anger shoot through my body.
"They think we're lesbian lovers," I informed Alicia when I found her in the lounge.
She studied my face. "Was it horrible? I can't believe Beth would invite them without telling you."
"It's okay. I wish she had told me; I could have worried about seeing them instead of about seeing Willow. They're much worse."
"She hasn't showed yet. I've been watching out for her."
I avoided my family from that point on. Alicia and I managed to have a decent time, drinking shots with some college guys who claimed to be part of Beth's calculus group.
I don't mean to sound vulgar or over-confident, but by the time Willow arrived, I was ready for her. The shock of seeing my father had made her presence trivial.
"Hi," I said warmly. "Thanks for coming, Willow. I didn't know if you would."
Her eyes exhibited the same fear mine had hours before. "I wouldn't miss the chance to hear you sing. Besides, I figured it might be fun."
"I don't know about that," I replied.
To her credit, Alicia was kind to Willow. "It's good to see you," she said. "I assume that at tonight's gathering you'll be joining me and Tara in the dark side. The dark side includes but is not limited to left-wing voters, homosexuals, alcohol imbibers, sexually-active people..." she trailed off. "Actually, that's all it includes at the moment. But welcome."
"Thanks, Alicia. Sounds like my kind of group."
The three of us sat together and talked for over an hour. Every time I saw a glimpse of my father, uncle or aunt, I flinched. I was sure that they were angry at me for avoiding them, but I couldn't bring myself to do so.
At one point, Willow, who had been watching me stare across the room, touched my arm. "Is everything okay?" she asked. "Are you nervous about singing soon?"
"No, that's not it." I glanced at Alicia and she shrugged. "My family is here. I didn't know they were coming and it's a little awkward. I haven't seen my father in a long time."
"Oh." Willow sat up as though she was being monitored. "Which one is he?"
I'd told her bits and pieces of my family history when we were friends. "Over there, by the bookshelf."
She seemed to drink in his features. "There are no similarities between the two of you," she said decidedly.
"Amen," Alicia concurred.
"Has he, uh, said anything?" Willow started to fidget. Whatever I'd told her about my father clearly disturbed her.
"No, not so much." I smiled, noticing her concerned expression.
By the time we got around to playing, I felt calm - which was strange, considering that I was performing for both my father and Willow. For the first time, I was playing guitar as well as singing at a concert. I ran my fingers over the strings and closed my eyes, focussing on the chords I needed to remember.
I sang the solo on one of my favorite jazz songs. The melody was alternate, nearly discordant, and the edges of the notes seemed to stun everyone into watching me sing.
Willow watched intently from the crowd. I wondered what she was thinking; her face was completely neutral.
My gaze flickered to my father. He was eating peanuts out of a plastic cup. He nodded when he noticed me looking at him.
It was only 11pm when we finished and I didn't know how I'd last the night. As the adrenaline from the performance dripped away, I was left feeling exhausted and restless. "Do you really think this party is going to go much later than midnight?" I asked.
"What, you've got a hot date after that?" Alicia teased.
"No… maybe we could leave."
Willow liked the idea. "I'm up for the leaving. We could go to the beach and freeze our butts off as we do our own countdown to the New Year."
"Nice idea," Alicia said. "I'll take some of Beth's alcohol with us."
Willow leaned closer to me and spoke in a near whisper. "Tara, will your family be angry? You barely spoke to them all night."
"It's okay; I'll make up for it by spending time with them tomorrow. I'm going to go in and say goodbye to them."
The thought of going to the beach with Willow made my heart pound. I knew that it wouldn't be private, and that we wouldn't be able to talk about what had happened, but I believed it would be significant nonetheless.
"Go ahead. We'll be waiting for you."
I'd seen Beth go into the kitchen after the performance. I walked in and saw her sitting at the table with her mother.
Beth folded her arms. "He went to bed. He wasn't feeling so good."
"I hope he's okay." I wondered if he was really sick or if Beth was giving me a hard time.
"Maybe if you'd talked to him during the evening you would know, Tara," my aunt said.
There was no justification I could give for having ignored them. Telling them the truth - that it was too hard for me to be around them - was not going to be the right approach. "I'm sorry."
Beth narrowed her eyes at me. "You don't care the slightest bitty bit about your family, do you? Your dad's been worried sick about you every day since you've been gone."
I knew that Willow and Alicia could hear this and I felt so embarrassed. "I care about my family. I miss you guys. It's hard to be away sometimes."
"So why don't you go back?" Beth hissed. "There's a house that needs taking care of. Donny and your Dad have to do everything while you're here, living..."
"Beth, now's not the time," my aunt said, nudging her.
"Why is it okay for you to live away, Beth? I don't see you back there, having milk and cookies after finishing your after-school chores." As I said this, I realized that I had performed with Beth for the last time.
She looked at me with hatred. "My father has a wife to take care of him. Your father has nothing. Are you honestly telling me that you don't feel guilty? Because you should, Tara."
"No, I don't. I haven't done anything wrong," I said softly, and walked out of the kitchen.