Mom was the other shoe, but the other shoe is gone now. Perhaps she’s marching off by herself somewhere, in the other realm, exploring uncharted lands single-footedly. I like to think, sometimes, that maybe she’s having fun on her own, that she doesn’t miss us and so won’t be bothered still by the tedious proceedings of our lives. Clouds must be lighter to walk on than pavement. But even on pavement she was the leading foot, and I guess we fell out of line when she ceased to step.
I am the shoelace, now, that pulls together the parts of what remains. I know I am the shoelace because when I see the girls at school lacing up their sneakers, I think, there is Jamie on one side and there is Dad on the other. The girls at school are always lacing up their shoes, especially the younger ones in Jamie’s year, because they tie loose butterfly knots and the knots come undone. I watch them and I want them to pull harder, so that the sides touch over the dividing tongue. I lace my own shoes tight. I lace them so tight my feet hurt by the time I get home. I lace and lace but there are always gaps where the tongue peeks through.
Home has become a habit. Dad is tired most of the time. The crease lines around his eyes that got there from laughter are sagging from disuse, and a new crease has set into the space between his eyebrows that I want to iron out. He sits at his computer in his foldable office chair in the living room, which is also the dining room and also the room he calls his office, of our apartment, working out the details of the fund management business he is trying to start. He thinks he is a failure. I tell him not to think that.
The strength comes, perhaps, from the memory that it was once different and the hope that it will be the same if I just string harder and close the gaps. I remember one night when my palms were sweaty and the plate slipped, and Dad said “butterfingers” and Jamie laughed and laughed and helped me clean up the mess of mashed potatoes and even the gravy. I stretch myself because I want moments like that again.
Jamie is usually sitting at her computer when I go in to bring her her dinner in the evenings. She takes dinner in her room because she doesn’t have time to eat with us. I don’t know what it is she’s working on that she can’t leave her computer. When I ask, she starts yelling about privacy. Sometimes when I go in to bring her her dinner, Jamie is banging on the drum-set Dad couldn’t afford to buy. She wanted to learn percussion, so Dad bought her the whole set – the base, the symbol stand, the snares, and the big vertical one that you strike by stepping on a pedal with your foot. Sometimes when Jamie is banging on them, I tell her that maybe she should use those things that you put on the ends of drumsticks to make the banging a little quieter. I am thinking about Ed and Louise downstairs who are old and are always taking naps. Jamie tells me that she won’t get the full effect with the mufflers and that I don’t understand anything about music, so I should just leave and please shut the door. She bangs louder as I try to explain about Ed and Louise and I can see that it is no use, so I leave and shut the door.
We don’t see Jamie very often because she only comes out of her room to make trips to the refrigerator in the kitchen. The refrigerator is about three feet from her door-handle. When we moved into the apartment a few years ago, Jamie wanted the master bedroom. It has a small walk-in closet and a bathroom attached to it, so I guess there is really no reason for her to come out. Dad’s room is the smallest because he wanted me to have the big window. He said it would be good if I put my desk by the window so that I can have lots of light when I study. Studying is important, he says, so I try hard at it when I can. Dad and I share the bathroom in the hallway.
I see Dad in the mornings. He gets up before we go to school and makes eggs. He tries to make them a different way every morning so that he can know how we like them. Sometimes he makes pancakes because he’s heard that all the younger generation like pancakes and will eat them for breakfast. Dad is always preparing a variety of things for Jamie, but I don’t see why he keeps doing it because she never eats anything he makes. “Everything you cook is too salty.” Jamie likes snack bars and the diet bars that some of the girls carry around at school. “Even your pancakes are salty.”
I don’t see Jamie at school very often because she’s two grades below me and we’re usually in different wings. But I noticed that some days our lunch periods overlap so I’ve started to keep an eye out for her. Like today, she walks in talking to a girl with a red bandana tied around her neck. I think Jamie sees me but she says something to the girl and they start walking away, so I shout “Jamie!” and the girl with the red bandana turns around. I walk over to them, carrying my lunch tray with a glass of milk that I’ve filled too much to the top. All this time, I’m thinking, I’m going to spill the milk, I’m going to spill the milk. The girl with the red bandana raises her thin eyebrows at me. “Nice sweater,” she says. She catches Jamie’s eye and smiles. Jamie is looking down. “Thanks,” I say. I ask them if they want to have lunch with me, but they say they are having lunch with friends, so I go over by the window with the big oak tree and notice the milk on my sweater as I sit down.
After we get home, after dinner, Dad and Jamie are fighting again. I’m in my room trying to fall asleep when they bump into each other in the kitchen.
Bumping into anyone in the kitchen is inevitable because Dad is always making tea which means the kettle is always boiling. Sometimes it just goes on whistling and shouting because Jamie thinks Dad will get it and Dad thinks I will take care of it but I am in the shower trying to untangle my mess of hair. So they scramble for it at once, and the confrontation is of course inevitable.
And we are all making trips to the kitchen because we are all needing food. Sometimes when I go into the kitchen I forget what it was I came to get, so I stand there and look at the magnets on the refrigerator. Most of them, Mom bought when she was alive. We don’t use them for anything anymore because none of us really makes grocery lists or daily notes or family announcements. The magnets are just there, stuck to the refrigerator.
So Dad and Jamie start fighting again and I curl up under the covers because it’s cold. Dad is asking Jamie how was her day and I hear the refrigerator door stick as Jamie pulls it and says he forgot to buy her tuna again. Dad says that well he’s sorry but maybe the world doesn’t revolve around her. The refrigerator door shuts with a suctioning noise. “Well maybe if you knew how to be a better parent, you would actually remember for once.” I search under the covers for Tipsy, the bunny Mom gave me when I was three. His ears are flopping down as usual. I can imagine Dad shaking his head and sighing. His eyes look sad. Jamie’s door slams.
Tipsy is looking at me like I should go and do something. So I get up in my pajamas and walk over to the living room/dining room/Dad’s office and find Dad sitting in his foldable chair with his head in his hands. I pick up one of the old magazines on the coffee table and sit down on the couch. It is one of Jamie’s. I turn over pages while looking at Dad. It is the first time I notice that his hair is graying. “I think you’re a good parent.” Dad lifts his head up out of his hands and sighs. “You know, Liz. Sometimes I really just want to give up.” I set the magazine back on the table. Dad has his head in his hands again.
I go into Jamie’s room and she’s looking at some sort of old photo album that she flips shut when I walk in. I ask Jamie what is she looking at and she tells me it’s none of my business, so I am quiet for awhile. Then I ask her if she wants to have a midnight meal. We used to have midnight meals, Jamie and me, when we were little and used to play chef. We also used to have a house, then, and we would sneak downstairs after lying with our eyes open in the dark for hours to make sure everyone was asleep. We’d sneak downstairs and start pulling out all the pots and pans we needed for our meal. Somewhere in the midst of our preparations, our clanging and banging would wake Mom up and she’d come into the kitchen to see what we were up to. “We’re making a midnight meal!” we’d tell her. We knew it was too late for her to stop us, so she’d begin clanging and banging with us, and we’d be happy to have someone who knew the ways around the kitchen. So now when I ask Jamie does she want to have a midnight meal, she lifts her head up off the pillow. She blinks. What would we make, she wants to know. I am thinking about strings. “Spaghetti,” I say. Jamie shrugs. “If you make it I’ll eat it.”
I go into the kitchen and try to think where to begin. Pots and pans. Noodles, long strings of noodles. Boiling water. Tomato sauce in a saucepan. Milk. I stir and wait and wait and knock on Jamie’s door to tell her I’m done. I start spooning all the spaghetti onto a plate and mixing it with the sauce I’ve made.
Jamie comes out of her room to get a bowl and a fork and watches me finish evening out the sauce in the spaghetti. I bring the plate over to the dining table and ask Dad would he like to join us for a midnight meal. Jamie has followed in front of me at this point and is sitting at the table with her bowl. My palms are sweaty.
Dad is at his work again, hiding all the sadness I must have imagined in a look almost of anger. He has not heard my question so I open my mouth to ask him again if he would like to join us for midnight meal, when Jamie tells me to just serve the spaghetti already. Dad’s brows furrow as he types faster and faster on his keypad. Jamie’s fork is rapping impatiently against her ceramic plate and I cringe slightly at its metal scrape. The lights seem to flicker. Another metal scrape.
Another excruciating hair-raising metal scrape.
The plate flies and I don’t even notice until it hits the wall on the opposite side. Then I flail my arms out to catch it but it has already landed and the sauce is everywhere, sliding down the wall and seeping into the carpet. Jamie has stopped rapping her fork against her plate and is looking at Dad, who has looked up from his work.
Dad gets up from his foldable chair and comes over to observe the mess for a moment. He brings a fist up to his eyes to rub them in a tired way.
“Butterfingers,” he says. He rubs his eyes again.
Jamie takes a minute to make sure she’s heard right, then her laugh is almost immediate. She has expected him to say something about the stain it will leave in the carpet. She has expected a mess. Jamie laughs and Dad’s weak smile boldens. “Such a butterfingers!” Jamie is practically shaking from laughter now and I’ve forgotten all about the spilled spaghetti, until Dad comes over to help clean it up, and Jamie bends down to scoop some up with her hands. I retrieve the plate from where it has flown and hold it out as we reassemble the strings of spaghetti, Jamie on one side and Dad on the other, then Dad on one side, Jamie on the other.