Some people are like a venereal disease. Not that I know what one is like firsthand, thanks, but I did have to sit through health class. My point is, these people are the product of a moment of fun in your past, a wild and crazy passion that you look back on with longing and regret. And just when you think they’re gone for good, they return to irritate the hell out of you.
Jared Steele is one of those people.
Down the hallway, someone turns on the radio, and Jared’s soulful voice drifts through my bedroom doorway:
Daddy’s girl, was that red Miata the price of your heart?
You know you can’t—
“Off! Turn it off!” I put my hands over my ears as Kristen runs over and slams my bedroom door shut.
Slumping against my bed, I glimpse the key to my red Miata, which is currently parked in the garage. My nails dig into my palms as I wait for the surge of rage to pass.
It’s not as though Jared’s ever said “Daddy’s Girl”—or any of the other anti-love songs on his hugely successful album—is about me. At least not publicly. I know this because although I try to avoid the hundreds of interviews he’s given, somehow I manage to read them all. But among those of us Jared left behind in southern Connecticut, the truth is a much-whispered but never-confirmed rumor. I’m Jared’s “Daddy’s Girl,” and he got the ultimate revenge, with whipped cream, sprinkles and several Grammy nominations on top.
For good measure, Kristen yells at my sister and her friends to keep it down. As for me, I take a deep breath and pick up my guitar. I need to clear my head or distract myself. Both if I can manage it.
“So, Claire.” Kristen coughs in an exaggerated fashion, trying to pretend the last thirty seconds didn’t happen. “About this new song of yours.”
This is why she’s awesome and my best friend.
Unfortunately, I am not so awesome. After a few minutes of plucking away at an alleged melody, I let out a small scream and bang my head against the footboard. “It’s not coming together. I suck.”
Kristen hits me with one of my slippers. “How long have you been working on it—two days? Give it time. This is about your mom. You can’t just pluck a tune out of thin air.”
“Some people can.” Some people. Meaning Jared. I have memories of sitting on the floor of his bedroom while he provided soundtracks to our conversations. Even his random nonsense could be amazing.
Groaning, I set the guitar down and throw myself on my bed in despair.
Kristen points a finger at me in an aha kind of way. “You and your mother were a case study in the tangled knots of love and power struggles. Maybe you can’t write a song about being twisted up in your emotions because you’re still too twisted up in your emotions to write clearly?”
I hug my down comforter. “First of all, ‘a tangled knot of love and power struggles’? That doesn’t even make sense. Second of all, twisted is the point. That should help the song be honest or something.”
Kristen goes back to uploading the video she took of my band, Stabbing Shakespeare, to our website. “Honesty is good, but maybe the song’s too heavy. Why not stick to the I-hate-Jared tunes? You honestly kick ass at those.”
“Aren’t they getting old?”
“A classic ‘Jared Steele sucks lime-green donkey balls’ tune will never get old. Not with me. And as your manager, you should take my advice. Stabbing Shakespeare is all about the ‘Jared Steele sucks.’”
I slide off the bed and grab my guitar again. “You’re our manager now? I thought you were my therapist.” Actually, Kristen’s father is a psychologist, but she’s been reading his books for years. She claims it’s to help me survive my post-Jared high school life without gratuitous amounts of bloodshed.
“The best managers are probably both.” Kristen presses a couple buttons on my laptop. “Ta-da! Here we are, from last week’s talent show.”
I brace myself as I watch, but Kristen’s right—Stabbing Shakespeare kicks ass, especially on those driving I-hate-Jared songs. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have room to improve.
As she gleefully points out the audience reaction, I concentrate on our performance. The sound is crappy, thanks to Kristen shooting the video on her phone, but even so I can hear how we rushed through the beginning of our first song until our nerves calmed down. So typical.
I turn my attention next to my band members, looking for ways we could improve our visual performance, too. We’re an odd mix. Tiny Alex is lost behind her drums in the auditorium’s poor lighting, but Nate is jumping all over the place, a crazy ball of energy with his bass. Erica, in contrast, serenely strums away, lost in her playing. Every now and then I peek at myself, stuck between Erica and Nate, pretending I have the charisma and stage presence to pull off this act.
I’m pretty sure I don’t. I’m the front person for the band only by default.
Yet despite these flaws, I know we’re good. Really good. Too good to just play at stupid school talent shows or at drunken parties. Good enough that I am determined that one day, one of the songs I write about Jared will get as much play as his songs about me. Only unlike his nasty breakup songs, my songs will be truthful. After all, the truths I have on Jared are so scathing that I don’t need to make up lies about him.
Speaking of which, for the record, I did not dump Jared for a new car. That’s just the most blatant lie on his stupid lying album.
The video ends abruptly and Kristen closes the laptop. “Not bad.”
I bite my lip. Kristen might make an excellent wannabe therapist, but she doesn’t have a trained ear like I do. She didn’t notice how Erica’s high E was slightly flat, or how Alex skipped a beat during the intro, or how I timed my breath badly on the bridge and couldn’t extend the vocals long enough.
She doesn’t want to notice, either. She wants to be our cheerleader, which is yet another reason she rocks and why I need her around. I can be critical enough for both of us. But we will never, ever excel if I’m not. Never, ever be able to compete with Jared.
It’s ridiculous of me to even try. I know. What are the odds of two musicians from the same small town both making it to superstar status? My band will never catch up to him, yet I can’t shake the dream. The sting of his success is all the more painful since it comes at my expense.
But I’ve been over this territory so often that talking about it bores even me, and I soften my thoughts so Kristen doesn’t start on me about the perils of perfectionism. “No, it wasn’t bad, but we can always improve. And I still think we need new, quality material. We’ve been playing mostly the same songs since Erica and I started the band. We’re not going to get better if we don’t stretch ourselves.”
I don’t know when I turned into my piano teacher, but that’s what she always says whenever she challenges me with more difficult pieces. It frustrated me when I was younger, but I get it now.
On that thought, my fingers crawl back to their respective frets, trying to work through this mother-daughter song again.
Kristen chucks the other slipper at me. So much for hiding my thoughts. “Okay, Ms. Morose, let it go. Have you considered that maybe the one-year anniversary of your mother’s death is not the best time to be working on a song about her? That maybe you need a time when you can be more emotionally distant?”
“News flash: there will never be a time when I’m more emotionally distant.” I glance down at my wrist and the diamonds on it sparkle in the late afternoon sunlight.
When she’d decided to go off the chemo, my mom had insisted on giving me and my sister each one of her beloved tennis bracelets. She had two that she used to wear together all the time. Now we wear them all the time.
The bracelet works for April because she’s a lot like my mom was. But it doesn’t really work for me. It clashes with my style the way, well, the way I clash with everything and everyone in my family. Be it the vinyl record albums decorating my bedroom walls, the bright purple-and-green polish on my nails or the collection of band T-shirts in my drawers, everything about me screams that I am the un-Winslow child—the bad seed, although no one says that aloud. No, it’s far more proper to just fret about my wasted potential.
But if I take my tennis bracelet off before April takes hers off, it’s like me finally admitting that I really was the worse daughter, a public acknowledgement of the knowing glances exchanged by the rest of my family behind their closed doors.
Of course, if I were half the rebel everyone thinks I am, I’d have tossed the bracelet by now. But I can’t. I won’t. I miss my mom. So it stays on, and five thousand dollars’ worth of diamonds shimmer on a wrist that doesn’t appreciate them.
“I’m sure your mom didn’t expect you to wear that every day for the rest of your life.” Ever astute, Kristen swats my bracelet.
“We don’t know that, and it’s just as likely that she did. I mean, she expected my bed to be made every day so I wouldn’t embarrass her in front of the housekeeper. Reasonable expectations were not my parents’ forte.”
Hence, why my mom also once expected me to dump my boyfriend, and oh-so-rebellious me went ahead and did it. Eventually. Because when your mom has cancer you will do whatever it takes to make her happy, even if you’re the “bad” daughter. You will remember the effort she made to ensure sure you got the cupcakes with the blue sprinkles on your birthday, and how she once spent an entire day with you at the library helping you research that awful term paper you had to do in eighth grade. You’ll think about the gross homemade chicken soup she forced you to eat when you were sick, and how she held your hand when the ER doctor stitched up your busted lip. You will do anything to make that woman’s life easier, even if it means overlooking all the ways she made your life difficult.
And then, if you’re like me, the boyfriend you dumped for your mom’s sake will write a nasty song or two or three about what a bitch you were for doing that, and you’ll realize your mom was right and you made a good decision.
That alone is reason to keep the bracelet on—as a reminder that maybe she knew what she was talking about on occasion and I should have listened to her more often.
“Claire?” Kristen snaps her fingers in my face and I nearly hit the ceiling.
“Did you say something?”
She laughs, but her face is filled with concern. “Are you okay?”
I blink and force a smile. “Yeah, sorry. I spaced out thinking about the song. What did you say?”
“Just that I have to go. The parental units texted.”
I check the clock and realize it’s nearing dinnertime. “Right.”
As I watch Kristen drive off a few minutes later, April appears in the foyer, clearing her throat. Two years younger than me, she’s already my height. Plus, she’s mastered the art of the oh-so-superior expression. As a result, most people assume she’s actually the older one.
She thinks that’s awesome. I think it means she’ll get wrinkles first.
“Yes?” I cross my arms and mimic her look.
April tosses her long hair over her shoulder. “You need to lay off the noise making. Gayle and I are trying to finish our group project upstairs. Can’t you take your guitar to the basement or something while you still can?”
I raise my eyebrows. “What do you mean while I still can?”
“You know, before we move? Dad’s putting the house up for sale?”
I gape at her. “We’re moving?”
She returns my dumbfounded expression with one of her own. “Oh, my God. Did you really just ask that? Maybe if you ever had dinner with us anymore you would have known.” April spins around and stomps out of the foyer, but her voice echoes off the marble floor. “You are so clueless, Claire!”
I yell at her to shut up, but the words are a reflex. I’m frozen, unsure what bothers me more—the idea that we’re moving, or that no one bothered to share this not-so-unimportant piece of information with me at a time when they knew I could hear it. Why now? Is it because of my mom’s death, or something else?
My stomach knots as I pad down the hallway and knock on my dad’s office door. Without waiting for an answer, I push open the heavy, paneled door and step inside.
He’s hanging up the phone as I enter. “Yes? What is it?”
Feeling rude for barging in like this, I dig my toes into the cushy carpet. “April told me you’re selling the house. Is that true?”
My dad looks up sharply. Then he beckons me toward his desk and reclines in his chair. “This isn’t news at this point. I’ve been working on the arrangements for two weeks now.”
“It’s news to me.” It’s always news to me. I should be used to being the last to know things around here, but really, I’m not sure you actually can get used to that sort of treatment.
“I’m downsizing,” my dad says. “I’m looking at condos.”
I nod dumbly, too stunned for speech. My dad’s voice is mostly devoid of emotion as he tells me his plans. He’s either approaching this as he does everything, like a simple business decision, or he’s trying to hide how much it bothers him. I suspect it’s the second. My dad does not do downsizing any more than my sister does non-designer purses. Although I knew things weren’t good since his company folded recently, it had never occurred to me how bad it could be. Or how much of my dad’s money might be tied up in his company’s investments, from what it sounds like.
Trying not to outwardly freak, I put on my best unconcerned face and regain my wits. “Yeah, sure. We’ll adjust. And since I’m going to college in the fall, you and April will be even less cramped. It’s not like three people need all this space.”
My dad’s mask slips a little. His cheek twitches. “Actually, Claire, sit down. I’ve been putting this conversation off, but we need to talk about college.”
My eyes open wide. On second thought, maybe now is precisely the time to freak.
So I sit, and from the depths of a leather wingback chair, I learn a valuable lesson. I learn there are worse fates than having your ex-boyfriend write a chart-topping song that turns you into the most infamous Miata-driving girl in the country.
For example, your ex-boyfriend could write a chart-topping song about you, and your dad could have invested your college money in a fund that has since run dry.
Did I say worse fates? I meant far, far worse fates.
Minutes pass. The clock on the far wall ticks obnoxiously loudly, and my dad keeps talking, but I don’t hear a word. I feel sick to my stomach, and all I can do is think that I’m living a bad country song. You know, the one about how your mom died, your college fund left you and not even your red Miata can drive you out of utter loserdom. That one.
I have three weeks until graduation and suddenly no longer anything to look forward to.