The rickety house looks daunting enough. But the fact that her paternal scatter-brained aunt is inside, waiting to accept her as a guest for the summer (three months!), is even more daunting.
Francoise’s mom, Bebette, sets the last of her daughter’s belongings on the driveway side of the lawn. She is a curvy woman with a graying bob and full lips. Her eyes are large and coffee brown. She looks at her 17-year-old daughter.
“Ma, I really —”
“Wi, I know. You don’t want to be here,” she cuts her off. “But she is family.”
Francoise suppresses the urge to sigh and pushes herself off their 2004 tan Honda Civic. She hugs her mom.
Her aunt, Susie Hank, steps out of her Pennsylvania home onto her slightly slanted porch, eyeing the two on the gravel driveway.
Francoise hasn’t seen the woman in three years. She looks fuller, as if she finally came to her senses, tossed the Paleo diet to the side and visited the local diner more often than what was good for her. Her hair is wavy and long, dropping down to the middle of her back, but it looks like it needs a good washing — nails scratching away the grime and product-buildup — and a pampered, over-lathered massage.
She had lived with her long-time partner, Allen, in Ardmore for twelve years when he suddenly up and moved to Miami with a sophisticated communications professor, who had a ridiculous obsession with plaid home decor and clothing, earlier in the year, leaving Susie a wreck. Francoise’s father and sister tried to console her, but she was doing her own thing — getting back into her writing and avoiding family gatherings at holidays. From what Francoise sees, Susie is seemingly okay, but not quite.
Francoise can feel Bebette’s slight hesitance in leaving her only child with Susie oozing out of her pores, but the delight she would get from living child-free for three months seems to outweigh the risk of something horrific actually happening.
“I thought you were coming Friday?” Susie asks, coming down the three creaking wood steps.
“Today is Friday,” Bebette says, picking up the strap of Francoise’s blue and orange duffel bag and heaving it over her shoulder.
The confused look on Susie’s face makes Francoise grip the handle of her black suitcase as if she is trying to suck some sort of strength out from it. She lugs it behind her, stopping briefly beside Bebette when she stops to hug Susanna.
“How are you? It’s been so long,” Bebette says and Francoise senses that a good part of Bebette (maybe sixty-five percent) doesn’t really care and is just trying to get back to New York.
Susie pats Bebette’s back and steps aside, looking Francoise up and down. “You grew.”
“That’s what people do,” Francoise says and then purses her lips, realizing her sarcasm is dripping with acidity. She doesn’t need the look from her mom to tell her that she’s being rude.
Susie smirks and hugs her niece. “Snarky too, huh?” She smiles at Bebette. “Anything to drink? Water? Cranberry juice?” She pauses. “I have some wine coolers.”
Bebette’s brows jump. “It’s not even noon, Susanna.” She chuckles quietly and clutches Francoise’s shoulder. “I’ll call you when I get home.”
“You’re leaving me already?”
She hugs her. “Ou knonnen moun blan,” Bebette whispers in her ear. “Fè atansyon.”
Francoise’s body tenses up a bit. “You know white people. Be careful.” She is annoyed. If her own mother is telling her to be careful, why is she leaving her here as a babysitter for Susie? Does a 48-year-old woman living in suburbia really need a babysitter, a younger one at that?
They watch Bebette get in her car and make a three-point turn, heading in the direction they’d just come from. Francoise pretends there wasn’t an overeager squeal of tires as her mother drove off.
“Come on,” Susie says, taking some of her niece’s things with her into the house, Francoise following.
She realizes then that where her aunt lives is more like an apartment inside a townhouse, which she shares with other tenants living in their own apartments. They climb up a flight of chipped, brown stairs, and Susie opens a chipped white door. The smell is the first thing Francoise notices — a mix of cat litter, African incense candles, and spiced meat. The second is the thick tapestry hanging by the small window blocked by a variety of terra cotta pots with the kinds of plants that take care of themselves and appreciate if one cares to remember to water them occasionally.
“I like the tapestry,” Francoise says.
“From my great grandmother,” Susie replies, heading straight for the kitchen.
Francoise really doesn’t know about her paternal family line beyond her dad. Her grandparents passed away when her father was young. The most she’s known is that they are descendants from a Native American tribe, but blood was “mixed” with European culture.
Susie’s gray American bobtail saunters into the living room, eyeing Francoise for a moment and continuing on her way toward her hideout underneath the beige sofa. She’s a bit heavy so it takes her a several seconds to accomplish this, filling the room with soft purrs of effort.
“This is your room,” calls her aunt.
Francoise follows her voice and finds her in a tiny bedroom crammed with dozens of Native American and Guatemalan tchotchkes wedged between novels and seated by fat research and reference books among the two floor-to-ceiling ebony bookshelves. Somehow, there’s a full-sized bed in the corner of the room by the window covered with a red and orange duvet.
“I bought that yesterday,” she says and then shrugs. “It gets chilly at night, and I like to put the air on high.”
Francoise nods. “It’s pretty.”
“Are you hungry?” She is already leading her to the narrow kitchen. She removes a glass lid with condensation from a silver pot and shows Francoise the contents.
She forces a smile and looking her aunt in the eye. “Starving.”
Francoise doesn’t mean to stare at her plate, but she tries to focus on Susie’s story about her trip to Guatemala as she drives a spoon of the watery meatloaf toward her mouth.
“The women there were great,” Susie continues. “The clinic was so rich with—” She stops to look at her niece. “How is it?”
“Did Allen do the cooking?”
How quickly Susie’s eyes flash from excitement about the Guatemalan women she’d met to malice shocks Francoise. Bebette always warned her to keep her frekan mouth shut. She stands up, her lips in a tight thin line, and snatches Francoise’s plate, the excess meat juices spills over the faux bamboo placemats.
“Don’t eat then!”
Francoise faintly feels like an orphan, abandoned by her mother and left with a reckless aunt who enjoys eating runny meats.
Heavy breathing wakes Francoise in the middle of the night. She is on her side, forearms underneath her pillow supporting her head. She assumes it’s the cat and decides to ignore it, but then a high-pitched whine follows. She groans to herself and shrugs the duvet to the side, a sharp gust of artificial air smacking her back. She shivers and shuffles around the bed, nearly knocking her knee against the wooden bedframe.
Fucking cramped room.
She walks down the hall, past the also tiny bathroom, and the sound gets louder. It’s coming from Susie’s room.
The sound stops. “Could you leave?”
Francoise is taken aback. I’ll gladly leave, she thinks. “Are you okay?” she decides to say. “What are you doing?” She is tempted to push the door open, but she restrains herself.
“Go to sleep!”
Francoise stands there a couple more seconds before turning and leaving. She snuggles between the sheets, tucking the duvet around her body, looking like a puffed up, 3-D silhouette. Go to sleep! Before wafting into a dreamless sleep, her aunt’s voice breaks in her mind.
Francoise refuses — refuses — to believe that her aunt is waking her up by banging a wooden spoon against a saucepan.
This is a dream. Go back to sleep. This can’t be real.
“You must be going deaf!” she shouts.
Francoise sighs. This is quite real. She rolls over and sees her aunt fully dressed in a floral skirt, yellow blouse, and sandals. “We’re going to the market. Get dressed. I want to leave before —”
There are three knocks at the front door and then the doorbell is pressed twice. Another three knocks.
“Who is that?” Francoise asks, sitting up. There’s a faint ringing in her ear.
“A neighbor I’d rather not know.” She leaves the room. Francoise pushes the duvet aside and gets up. She throws on a light sweater and walks to the living room to see a thin little woman with sunken in eye sockets, her green bug-like eyes jutting out, and a spiky platinum pixie cut. Her jaw twitches as if she is chewing the tiniest piece of gum.
She looks at Francoise, and a grin emerges. “Hello.”
“Tindy, this is my niece, Francoise.”
Tindy allows her mouth to tremble for a moment before she speaks. “That… that is such a beautiful name. It is very nice to meet you.” She extends her frail arm out and shakes Francoise’s hand. She looks at Susie. “You two should join us for breakfast.”
Francoise gets the feeling that Susie doesn’t like Tindy very much, but she’d rather have something edible.
After Francoise showers and Susie endures Tindy’s telling of recent events in her life (she took in a Mexican man who is gradually losing his sight and struggling to cut a deal with his insurance), they go to Tindy’s apartment two doors over. It smells like a step above IHOP, and Francoise is glad that Tindy, how ever annoying, came by.
They eat egg whites with spinach, turkey bacon, and grits. This isn’t what Francoise is used to, but she’ll take it over damp meat any day. Tindy goes on about the Mexican man — he is currently at the post office sending letters to his family in Toluca — and how she suspects her husband is cheating on her.
“She’s insane,” Susie says when Francoise asks what Tindy’s deal is. “She has problems.”
Francoise is just surprised that Susie seems to have a life (and “friends”) outside of Allen. “She just seems overwhelmed.”
“That’s one way to put it.” Susie is driving toward the supermarket. Francoise wants to ask why her aunt bothers doing this if she can’t cook, but maybe she’s learning. I can’t even cook, she thinks, so let me shut up.
They make their way toward the shopping plaza. Francoise loops the strap of her small satchel over her head and lets it hang on her shoulder as Susie gets out. Susie reaches in the back seat for her worn, chestnut-colored bag and sun hat. She shuts the door and jumps, for there is a white lanky man standing at the back of the car staring right at her.
“How are you, Susanna?” He has dozens of liver spots on his arms, and orange freckles litter his T-zone.
Susie nods, a tight-lipped smile silently telling him to fuck off, and grips the strap of her bag. “I’m well, Robert. How have you been?”
His grin widens. He lifts the structureless hat off his head and wipes his brow, setting the hat atop his balding head again. “It’s really… Shucks, it’s really good to see you, Anna-Banana.”
Francoise wants to burst out laughing, but she can feel her aunt’s wrath radiating toward her. So, instead, she bites down on her tongue.
Susie’s eyes squint at him. He reaches over to hug her, and she lets him. She throws a sidelong glance at Francoise. Francoise coughs loudly, and Robert backs away slowly. He looks down at Susie and is about to kiss her when Susie whips her head to the side, so quick that he plants a sloppy wet one by her ear.
“We should probably get going,” Susie starts and takes hold of Francoise’s arm.
“Wait, wait,” he says with a chuckle. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to this beautiful young woman here?”
“This is my brother’s daughter, Francoise.”
“I’ve never heard of that one before,” he replies and offers his hand. “I’m Robert. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Francoise.” Her name leaving his lips is like silk.
As if sensing she was going to make moves to leave him now, Robert speaks before Susie can gather the breath to speak. “Where are you heading off to now?”
“Running errands,” Susie says politely, the snarkiness oddly absent in her voice.
Robert nods and looks around the small plaza. “Lovely.”
“Well, it was nice meeting you,” Francoise says abruptly, attempting to save her aunt and get on her good side.
Robert nods. “Pleasure,” he looks at Susie with sultry, heavy eyes. “We’ll have dinner sometime, Anna—”
“Mhmm, bye!” Susie calls and grabs Francoise. She hauls her behind her, and they stalk off toward the bargain book store. Francoise looks back and sees him looking right at them. With his hat pulled low over his eyes, he has a smirk playing on his lips. She feels her heart do a weird flop and she turns around, half-eager to enter the bookstore.
The two spend an hour or so in the warehouse, Susie roaming the historical fiction crates and Francoise browsing the magazine and self-help sections. They gather together at the cashier and pay for the books, leaving the store weighed down by tote bags decorated with cutesy puns. They drop the three bags into the trunk of the car and settle inside. Susie fiddles with the knob, looking for a station to listen to as Francoise scrolls through her news feed on her iPhone.
“What do you think of him?” Susie asks.
Francoise stops scrolling and looks up, slowly turning her head toward her aunt.
Susie’s eyes are staring out through the windshield as her fingers turn the knob. She decides on a station playing smooth, bluesy fifties music. She starts the car and backs out of the spot.
“Of your friend?”
“He’s not my friend.”
Francoise locks her phone and lets it fall in her lap. She listens to Ain’t Got No Home for a moment before speaking. “He’s… friendly.”
“See how he tried to slobber me with those lips?”
Francoise is surprised by the loud laugh that escapes her. “Yeah.” Susie doesn’t say anything, and Francoise nods her head, hungry for more information. “Did you used to date him?”
“I wouldn’t say ‘date.’ We had a few dinners together, and I thought he was a friend.”
“So he was your boyfriend.”
“No,” Susie snaps. She looks left and right for oncoming cars and pulls into the main road, heading toward Suburban Square to pick up groceries. “He stupidly thought those dinners were, like, I don’t know, something more.” She shrugs and sucks her teeth. “He has problems.”
“You say that about Tindy.”
“Yeah, well…” she mutters and stops at the crosswalk.
“You’ve told him that you don’t like him like that, right?”
“I don’t like him in any way,” Susie clarifies and presses the gas a couple of seconds after the light turns. “Tindy introduced us, and we ran into each other at the market and he asked me out to dinner.” She shrugs again, sheepishly this time. “I didn’t know he was crazy. Anyway, he flirted a lot with me and, just for the sake of it, I flirted back. What’s the harm in that?”
Francoise stares at her, hoping that her aunt will slap her forehead, chuckle, and say, “Of course you’re right! I should apologize and set everything straight.” But she continues driving. “You led him on,” she tells her.
“No, he just read me wrong,” Susie defends herself and turns right into the plaza’s parking. The sun lazily emerges from the clouds as she pulls in between a black SUV and a scratched-up red two-door. She reaches back for her bag and looks at Francoise. “I told him after a few dinners, after he physically tried to flirt, that I wasn’t interested.”
They step out and walk to the entrance of the large supermarket, grabbing a cart by the electronic doors.
“He stopped talking to me for a while until Tindy invited me to dinner one night and he was there. Oh, the awkwardness was hysterical. You wouldn’t believe it.”
“What happened? Did you talk to him?” she asks, eager for more.
“We both were a little tipsy that night and we spoke and…”
Francoise can’t help but gasp. “You had sex with him!”
A pair of blue eyes belonging to an older woman snag onto Francoise, flickering between she and Susie. Her gray brows knit together, scowling at them. Susie rolls her eyes at the woman and pushes the cart toward the fruit and vegetable section.
“I’m human, he’s human — what’s the problem?”
Francoise doesn’t really understand that concept. She’s never had a boyfriend; although, she’s had her share of boy toys in the past — none that her mother knew about, of course. After running into Robert, she wonders if Susie was all fucked up because of the lack of sex with Allen. Was that why he shacked up with Plaid Lady?
“It was a mistake, nonetheless,” Susie continues. “We stopped talking to each other for a while and well, here we are today.” She grabs a bunch of still-green bananas. She hesitates, her hand hovering over the cart.
Francoise watches her. “What?”
Susie shakes her head, slowly settling the bananas in the top rack in the cart and pushing the cart forward.
When they get home, they unpack the tote bags of groceries with “A Fine Romance” playing throughout the apartment. Susie’s cat watches them, and Francoise attempts to pick her up but decides against it after feeling some strain in her arms and back. Francoise then retreats to her room, pulling a Janet Fitch novel from her duffel bag. She isn’t reading for more than twenty minutes when she hears Susie call, “I’ll be right back! I’m gonna run errands.” The door shuts quickly and the car starts outside, pulling away.
Why didn’t she take me with her? Closing the book, she hops off the bed, passing the cat, which follows her to the living room, and they sit before the TV, flipping the channels. They watch cooking shows and syndicated reruns passively until Francoise feels exhausted from today. She returns to her bed and lies on her side.
She wakes up to the sound of clattering cookware, sizzling, and popping. She frowns, not in the mood for Susie’s theatrics and bad cooking, and flips onto her back, eyes fluttering shut. An hour into the second part of her nap, an enticing smell drifts past her nose. She catches hints of basil, garlic, and tomato. She sits up, unbelieving.
She finds Susie inspecting what looks like lasagna. The kitchen smells delightful, making Francoise’s stomach grumble painfully. “Did you make this?”
Susie turns and smiles.
Her niece frowns in turn. This is weird. But Francoise helps Susie set the table in the living room, and Susie even offers her a glass of red wine. Francoise thinks she’ll need something stronger if this lasagna is shit, but the smell is too good.
“Is it meatless?” she asks, pulling in the chair as she sits.
Susie serves her a hearty square from the casserole dish. “Meatless lasagna shouldn’t be a thing.” She cuts a piece for her and adds a basic spring mix to her plate. “It’s turkey sausage lasagna.”
Francoise chuckles and waits for Susie to serve herself before she starts to eat. Francoise doesn’t want to believe how delicious it is. It’s a little sweet from the turkey sausage. There isn’t too much sauce. Excess mozzarella cheese stretches between each layer.
“Oh, my God,” she mumbles, hurrying to take another bite. “Did you go to some cooking crash course?”
“I can cook, smart-ass,” she says with a smirk. “It’s just a pain.”
“So you settle for liquidy meat,” she confirms.
Susie gives her a look. “I wonder where you get this mouth from.”
She can’t pinpoint it either. Her dad can be snarky at times, but her mom shuts it down real quick. “You have to teach me how to make this. Or cook in general. I avoid the kitchen.”
“You’re here all summer. I’ll see what I can do.”
They grow quiet, the silverware clinking against the plates for a couple of minutes.
“I went to see Robert.”
Francoise looks up from her plate. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” she says and stuffs salad in her mouth. “It was just weird seeing him earlier.”
Francoise wants to ask more, remind her that she hates him and he is very weird. But she lets her have this and goes for a second helping of lasagna.
Still, she is incredibly surprised when, the next morning, she finds Robert sitting at the table and Susie serving him breakfast.
“Good morning, Francoise,” he greets. He is wearing the same misshapen hat, a faded red polo shirt, and khaki shorts.
Her eyes drop to his feet. And Crocs. The man is wearing Crocs. She meets his gaze again, forcing a smile. “Morning.”
“We were thinking of going to a book discussion later today,” Susie says, piling his plate with scrambled eggs.
We. As if this is normal. As if Robert’s being here is an everyday occurrence. As if he is the new Allen.
Francoise watches him squeeze ketchup onto his eggs and dash hot sauce on his sausage. She isn’t hungry anymore and she rather spend her time reading and maybe Skyping with her friends back in the city, but it would be nice to go out.
Apparently, Susie is part of a reading club and this month they’re discussing Sula. Francoise’s never read the book, but their discussion is thought-provoking and causes ongoing debates. She focuses on that instead of the private looks exchanged between Susie and Robert.
For the next two weeks, Robert accompanies them to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the shopping plaza, frequent grocery runs, and the movies. During dinner one night, Tindy comes over, and Susie looks like she is actually enjoying her company. Susie is becoming undone, Francoise notices.
But this is a good thing, she thinks as she watches her laugh at Robert’s joke that is not entirely funny. She catches where a missing tooth is supposed to be far back in her mouth. She hasn’t laughed like that since Francoise arrived. Susie was a yo-yo with Allen, wound-up and unable to move freely. And funny how all Robert had to do was give her attention, take the string between his forefinger and thumb and tug a little.
The following evening, they go to one of Tindy’s yoga classes.
“I’m really… really worried,” Tindy says to Francoise. She is still yapping on about the Mexican man living with her. It’s been forty-five minutes. They are two purple mats away from Susie and Robert, breathing deeply in downward dog.
Francoise feels her body vibrating as she struggles to keep still. Out of her peripheral vision, she can see Susie struggling to get the pose just right. Francoise eyeballs Robert. He stands from his teal green mat and rubs her back, almost coaxing her to straighten it and really embrace the pose.
“Look up!” Tindy cries. Her voice sounds like a crow’s cry. Everyone follows her, heads popping out like those of turtles from their shells. “Breathe!” She lowers her voice. “Those insurance… insurance people are relentless… Jump up!” There’s a shuffling in the room, and everyone is in a squat for a second before standing up slowly, zombies rising from a deep sleep. “I wish I could rob a bank and give the money to him.”
Francoise looks over again and sees Robert and Susie giggling about something. “Maybe you should,” she says absentmindedly, eyes still on the new couple.
“There’s a writing workshop at the library on Friday,” Susie says. “You should come.”
The three are at steakhouse restaurant not too far from Susie’s. Francoise sits across from the two.
“Oh, I won’t be able to go,” Robert replies.
“I never said what time it’s going to be.”
Francoise pretends she doesn’t sense the sudden tension.
“I just have some things to do all day.”
Susie looks out the window then. Francoise tries not to acknowledge how quickly Susie gets frustrated.
“I’ll take you out on Sunday for brunch,” he adds.
Except he doesn’t. And Susie spends the day cooking. For dinner, they have hasselback potatoes, grilled chicken breasts, and steamed asparagus.
Another few weeks fly by, and Susie seems to sink into her old routine. Francoise isn’t having overly moist meat again. She calls her mother.
“She met someone?”
“But he’s being a dick.”
“Sorry.” She sighs. “It was okay and now he’s just not calling her back. He’s suddenly so busy. Is this how guys are?”
Bebette doesn’t know the answer to that. She’s found a man who stays and knows better than to ignore her.
After the phone call, Francoise finds her aunt in the living room with her cat, hunched over her laptop with her wire-rimmed reading glasses on. “What are you doing?”
“Trying to see if he’s emailed me.”
This is sad. “Can we go out?” She forcibly adds a chipper tone. “Hey, let’s catch a movie. We can get popcorn or nachos.”
“Do you know how to drive?”
“Well, you can always call a cab.” She pauses. “Or, well, I can try to get Rob —”
“Don’t say his name!” Francoise cries. “Don’t fucking dare.” She breathes deeply. “Susanna, he left! That’s it! He had his last sex run with you and left.” She won’t let the teary look in Susie’s eyes stop her. “This isn’t going to be Allen all over again. Robert sucks. He’s a douchebag and a coward. Don’t give him the satisfaction of seeing you like this. Get off your ass.” She bites her lip. “Please.”
Susie stares for a while. She lifts off the sofa, taking her heavy cat, and goes into her room, shutting the door behind her.
The next morning, Francoise wakes up early. She prays that she doesn’t burn the entire townhouse down, but she attempts at making eggs with bacon and hash browns. She sets the table and makes a pot of coffee. Susie wakes up and quietly joins her at the table.
“Susie, you’re a badass bitch. You went to Guatemala. You published books. You pretend to care about Tindy. No man can take that from you.”
“You need to stop cursing,” she scorns, but she is smiling. She takes a bite from her plate. “These eggs taste terrible, Francoise.”