The Summer I Turned Pretty Page 4

"Then quit. If you put your mind to it, I know you can." If he put his mind to it, I knew he could do anything.

"Maybe I don't want to."

"You should, Conrad. Smoking is so bad for you."

"What will you give me if I do?" he asked teasingly. He held the cigarette in the air, above his beer can.

The air felt different all of a sudden. It felt charged, electric, like I had been zapped by a thunderbolt. I let go of the edge and started to tread water, away from him. It felt like forever before I spoke. "Nothing," I said. "You should quit for yourself."

"You're right," he said, and the moment was over. He stood up and ground his cigarette out on the top of the can. "Good night, Belly. Don't stay out here too late .You never know what kind of monsters come out at night."

Everything felt normal again. I splashed water at his legs as he walked away. "Screw you," I said to his back. A long time ago Conrad and Jeremiah and Steven convinced me that there was a child killer on the loose, the kind who liked chubby little girls with brown hair and grayish-blue eyes.

"Wait! Are you quitting or not?" I yelled.

He didn't answer me. He just laughed. I could tell by the way his shoulders shook as he closed the gate.

After he left, I fell back into the water and floated. I could feel my heart beating through my ears. It thudded quick-quick-quick like a metronome. Conrad was different. I'd sensed something even at dinner, before he'd told me about Aubrey. He had changed. And yet, the way he affected me was still the same. It felt just exactly the same. It felt like I was at the top of the Grizzly at Kings Dominion, right about to go down the first hill.

Chapter ten

"Belly, have you called your dad yet?" my mother asked me. "No."

"I think you should call him and tell him how you're doing."

I rolled my eyes. "I doubt he's sitting at home worrying about it." "Still."

"Well, have you made Steven call him?" I countered.

"No, I haven't," she said, her tone level. "Your dad and Steven are about to spend two weeks together looking at colleges. You, on the other hand, won't get to see him until the end of summer."

Why did she have to be so reasonable? Everything was that way with her. My mother was the only person I knew who could have a reasonable divorce.

My mother got up and handed me the phone. "Call your father," she said, leaving the room. She always left the room when I called my father, like she was giving me privacy. As if there were some secrets I needed to tell my father that I couldn't tell him in front of her.

I didn't call him. I put the phone back in its cradle. He should be the one calling me; not the other way around. He was the father; I was just the kid. And anyway, dads didn't belong in the summer house. Not my father and not Mr. Fisher. Sure, they'd come to visit, but it wasn't their place. They didn't belong to it. Not the way we all did, the mothers and us kids.

Chapter eleven


We were playing cards outside on the porch, and my mother and Susannah were drinking margaritas and playing their own card game. The sun was starting to go down, and soon the mothers would have to go inside and boil corn and hot dogs. But not yet. First they played cards.

"Laurel, why do you call my mom Beck when everyone else calls her Susannah?" Jeremiah wanted to know. He and my brother, Steven, were a team, and they were losing. Card games bored Jeremiah, and he was always looking for something more interesting to do, to talk about.

"Because her maiden name is Beck," my mother explained, grinding out a cigarette. They only smoked when they were together, so it was a special occasion. My mother said smoking with Susannah made her feel young again. I said it would shorten her life span by years but she waved off my worries and called me a doomsdayer.

"What's a maiden name?" Jeremiah asked. My brother tapped Jeremiah's hand of cards to get him back into the game, but Jeremiah ignored him.

"It's a lady's name before she gets married, dipwad," said Conrad.

"Don't call him dipwad, Conrad," Susannah said automatically, sorting through her hand.

"But why does she have to change her name at all?" Jeremiah wondered.

"She doesn't. I didn't. My name is Laurel Dunne, same as the day I was born. Nice, huh?" My mother liked to feel superior to Susannah for not changing her name. "After all, why should a woman have to change her name for a man? She shouldn't."

"Laurel, please shut up," said Susannah, throwing a few cards down onto the table. "Gin."

My mother sighed, and threw her cards down too. "I don't want to play gin anymore. Let's play something else. Let's play go fish with these guys."

"Sore loser," Susannah said.

"Mom, we're not playing go fish. We're playing hearts, and you can't play because you always try to cheat," I said. Conrad was my partner, and I was pretty sure we were going to win. I had picked him on purpose. Conrad was good at winning. He was the fastest swimmer, the best boogie boarder, and he always, always won at cards.

Susannah clapped her hands together and laughed. "Laur, this girl is you all over again."

My mother said, "No, Belly's her father's daughter," and they exchanged this secret look that made me want to say, "What, what?" But I knew my mother would never say. She was a secret-keeper, always had been. And I guessed I did look like my father: I had his eyes that turned up at the corners, a little girl version of his nose, his chin that jutted out. All I had of my mother was her hands.

Then the moment was over and Susannah smiled at me and said, "You're absolutely right, Belly. Your mother does cheat. She's always cheated at hearts. Cheaters never prosper, children."

Susannah was always calling us children, but the thing was, I didn't even mind. Normally I would. But the way Susannah said it, it didn't seem like a bad thing, not like we were small and babyish. Instead it sounded like we had our whole lives in front of us.

Chapter twelve

Mr. Fisher would pop in throughout the summer, an occasional weekend and always the first week of August. He was a banker, and getting away for any real length of time was, according to him, simply impossible. And anyway, it was better without him there, when it was just us. When Mr. Fisher came to town, which wasn't very often, I stood up a little straighter. Everyone did. Well, except Susannah and my mother, of course. The funny thing was, my mother had known Mr. Fisher for as long as Susannah had--the three of them had gone to college together, and their school was small.

Susannah always told me to call Mr. Fisher "Adam," but I could never do it. It just didn't sound right. Mr. Fisher was what sounded right, so that's what I called him, and that's what Steven called him too. I think something about him inspired people to call him that, and not just kids, either. I think he preferred it that way.

He'd arrive at dinnertime on Friday night, and we'd wait for him. Susannah would fix his favorite drink and have it ready, ginger and Maker's Mark. My mother teased her for waiting on him, but Susannah didn't mind. My mother teased Mr. Fisher, too, in fact. He teased her right back. Maybe teasing isn't the right word. It was more like bickering. They bickered a lot, but they smiled, too. It was funny: My mother and father had rarely argued, but they hadn't smiled that much either.

I guess Mr. Fisher was good-looking, for a dad. He was better-looking than my father anyway, but he was also vainer than him. I don't know that he was as good-looking as Susannah was beautiful, but that might've just been because I loved Susannah more than almost anyone, and who could ever measure up to a person like that? Sometimes it's like people are a million times more beautiful to you in your mind. It's like you see them through a special lens--but maybe if it's how you see them, that's how they really are. It's like the whole tree falling in the forest thing.

Mr. Fisher gave us kids a twenty anytime we went anywhere. Conrad was always in charge of it. "For ice cream," he'd say. "Buy yourselves something sweet." Something sweet. It was always something sweet. Conrad worshipped him. His dad was his hero. For a long time, anyway. Longer than most people. I think my dad stopped being my hero when I saw him with one of his PhD students after he and my mother separated. She wasn't even pretty.

It would be easy to blame my dad for the whole thing--the divorce, the new apartment. But if I blamed anyone, it was my mother. Why did she have to be so calm, so placid? At least my father cried. At least he was in pain. My mother said nothing, revealed nothing. Our family broke up, and she just went on. It wasn't right.

When we got home from the beach that summer, my dad had already moved out--his first-edition Heming ways, his chess set, his Billy Joel CDs, Claude. Claude was his cat, and he belonged to my dad in a way that he didn't to anyone else. It was only right that he took Claude. Still, I was sad. In a way, Claude being gone was almost worse than my dad, because Claude was so permanent in the way he lived in our house, the way he inhabited every single space. It was like he owned the place.

My dad took me out for lunch to Applebee's, and he said, apologetically, "I'm sorry I took Claude. Do you miss him?" He had Russian dressing on his beard, newly grown out, for most of the lunch. It was annoying. The beard was annoying; the lunch was annoying.

"No," I said. I couldn't look up from my French onion soup. "He's yours anyway."

So my father got Claude, and my mother got Steven and me. It worked out for everyone. We saw my father most weekends. We'd stay at his new apartment that smelled like mildew, no matter how much incense he lit.

I hated incense, and so did my mother. It made me sneeze. I think it made my father feel independent and exotic to light all the incense he wanted, in his new pad, as he called it. As soon as I walked into the apartment, I said accusingly, "Have you been lighting incense in here?" Had he forgotten about my allergy already?

Guiltily, my father admitted that yes, he had lit some; incense, but he wouldn't do it anymore. He still did, though. He did it when I wasn't there, out the window, but I could still smell the stuff.

It was a two-bedroom apartment; he slept in the master bedroom, and I slept in the other one in a little twin bed with pink sheets. My brother slept on the pullout couch. Which, I was actually jealous of, because he got to stay up watching TV. All my room had was a bed and a white dresser set that I barely even used. Only one drawer had clothes in it. The rest were empty. There was a bookshelf too, with books my father had bought for me. My father was always buying me books. He kept hoping I'd turn out smart like him, someone who loved words, loved to read. I did like to read, but not the way he wanted me to. Not in the way of being, like, a scholar. I liked novels, not nonfiction. And I hated those scratchy pink sheets. If he had asked me, I would have told him yellow, not pink.

He did try, though. In his own way, he tried. He bought a secondhand piano and crammed it into the dining room, just for me. So I could still practice even when I stayed over there, he said. I hardly did, though-- the piano was out of tune, and I never had the heart to tell him.

It's part of why I longed for summer. It meant I didn't have to stay at my father's sad little apartment. It wasn't that I didn't like seeing him: I did. I missed him so much. But that apartment, it was depressing. I wished I could see him at our house. Our real house. I wished it could be like it used to be. And since my mother had us most of the summer, he took Steven and me on a trip when we got back. Usually it was to Florida to see our grandmother. We called her Granna. It was a depressing trip too--Granna spent the whole time trying to convince him to get back together with my mother, whom she adored. "Have you talked with Laurel lately?" she'd ask, even way long after the divorce.

I hated hearing her nag him about it; it wasn't like it was in his control anyway. It was humiliating, because it was my mother who had split up with him. It was she who had precipitated the divorce, had pushed the whole thing, I knew that much for sure. My father would have been perfectly content carrying on, living in our blue two-story with Claude and all his books. My dad once told me that Winston Churchill said that Russia was a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. According to my dad, Churchill had been talking about my mother. This was before the divorce, and he said it half-bitterly, half-respectfully. Because even when he hated her, he admired her.

I think he would have stayed with her forever, trying to figure out the mystery. He was a puzzle solver, the kind of person who likes theorems, theories. X always had to equal something. It couldn't just be X.

To me, my mother wasn't that mysterious. She was my mother. Always reasonable, always sure of herself. To me, she was about as mysterious as a glass of water. She knew what she wanted; she knew what she didn't want. And that was to be married to my father. I wasn't sure if it was that she fell out of love or if it was that she just never was. In love, I mean.

When we were at Granna's, my mother took off on one of her trips. She'd go to far-off places like Hungary or Alaska. She always went alone. She took pictures, but I never asked to look at them, and she never asked if I wanted to.

Chapter thirteen

I was sitting in an Adirondack chair eating toast and reading a magazine when my mother came out and joined me. She had that serious look on her face, her look of purpose, the one she got when she wanted to have one of her mother-daughter talks. I dreaded those talks the same way I dreaded my period.

"What are you doing today?" she asked me casually.

I stuffed the rest of my toast into my mouth. "This?"

"Maybe you could get started on your summer reading for AP English," she said, reaching over and brushing some crumbs off my chin.

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