“So tell me, is your mother still a nut?” Zelda asks us and crosses her eyes at us.
We are sitting in a booth at Friendly’s. It is our favorite restaurant, but it has nothing to do with the food and everything to do with the ice-cream at the end of the meal. Poor Zelda must really love us because she tells us that she’d rather have a triple root-canal than come to this dump. On her first visit here she wouldn’t even touch the menu, and said that plastic was for bank cards and not bill of fare. But this is her third time with us at Friendly’s and now she is holding the menu in her buttery hands and trying to decide between the Forbidden Fudge Brownie and the Watermelon Roll. But there is nothing to debate. I know that she will get the brownie sundae just like I know she’d give anything for our mother not to be a nut.
“She’s getting better. I can already tell. She’s not as jumpy, not as jumpy at all,” Jack says, twirling the wrapper from his straw into a paper snake.
It’s true. Our mother is much calmer these days. The doctor put her on some kind of medication. The first two kinds made her eyes look like there needed to be a VACANCY sign stuck to her forehead. One of them left her so disoriented that she asked me to help her with the laundry, said she couldn’t remember which socks went together. On that one, little flecks of dried saliva stuck to the corners of her mouth and she constantly drank and complained of being thirsty; on that one, she reminded me of those kindergarten glue-eaters, all spacey and strange.
But this other medicine seems to be working. She still complains of cotton mouth and being sleepy all the time, but she’s more like the mom from Before. When it starts to thunder or even rain, she doesn’t flinch to see it, only looks and continues whatever she’s doing.
“Yeah, she’s definitely better,” I say. I do not tell Zelda about mom’s medication. She’s already told us that shrinks are nothing more than crazy people playing G-d with our minds. But if this were true, our mother wouldn’t be getting better. She’d still be on all fours with a toothbrush, popping sleeping pills every night.
The waitress comes to take our plates away and we give our ice-cream orders. Zelda exhales sharply and says, “I’ll have the low-cal watermelon roll,” like she is asking to eat Styrofoam and not sherbet.
“Why don’t you just get what you want? Why are you mean like that to yourself?” Jack asks, dropping water onto his paper snake. It unravels, like it always does, twisting and turning on his paper placemat.
Zelda smiles from the corner of her dark eyes and says “Darling, one does not get to look this good without work.”
“Like your boob job?” Jack asks.
She laughs and looks down at the cleavage popping out from her tight red blouse. “Exactly, like my boob job.” She pats them and I think of poodles in a plush carrier. “Now enough about me, I have something for the birthday girl.” She raises her dark eyebrows at me and removes a silver package from her purse.
“My birthday’s not until next month,” I say but grab the ribbon-strewn box anyway.
“Details, details,” she says and winks at Jack who is already jumping up and down in his seat.
I rip open the box. Inside is a black camera. It is the kind professionals use on photo shoots for models, at Sears where they do your family portrait—like we used to when we were still a family of four.
“Now you can keep working on that secret project of yours. It’s a Nikon—top of the line. I got you a tripod too. It’s back in the car. I didn’t want to schlep it into this dump,” Zelda says, loud enough for the family behind us to turn around.
I jump up from the other side of the table and run to Zelda. “Thank you, Zelda. Thank you.” I give Jack a look that makes his bug eyes dilate.
“What? I didn’t tell mom,” Jack says and adds, “You were doing just the past, Amelia. You need to add pictures of today too.”
“Yes, like us.” Zelda reaches her hands across the table at Jack. “Come on, scoot out and take a picture of us in this lovely dive.”
“Ooh, and Vinny and mom too—lots and lots of them!” Jack says and prances to her side of the booth.
I tell them to say cheese, but Jack is the only one who cooperates. Zelda is pouting, a bitter taste in her mouth from what Jack has just said. “Please, that landlord is the reason your mother is at the shrink in the first place.”
Jack pushes himself away from Zelda’s embrace and backs out from the booth, bumping into me. The waitress is carrying all three of our desserts, but isn’t prepared for the traffic of us in the aisle. She loses her balance and two of our dishes go flying. One of them is Jack’s Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Sundae; the other one is Zelda’s low-cal sherbet.
Zelda tells the waitress not to worry. “I’ll have the Forbidden Fudge Brownie, instead.”
We do not point out Zelda’s hypocrisy. Jack is too steeped in anger to speak and I am too busy trying to figure out how I am no longer on Zelda’s side. For all my love of the Finer Things, I’d rather have Mr. McGee with our mother any day over all the rich suitors in the world. I am thinking that maybe Zelda is wrong, that love is not like a light switch we can turn on and off whenever we like. It is more like the sun, a force that nourishes the deepest parts of us. And there is no control really because without it, we die.
“Jesus, what bug crawled up your ass?” she asks Jack and fingers the diamond Jewish star pendant around her neck.
Jack’s voice is wobbly when he says that Mr. McGee is a gift from G-d for our mother, that dad sent him to her. He is half-barking, half-squeaking when he tells Zelda that our mother was suffering for a long time and that this shrink is not a shrink at all but a psychiatrist, an MD who is trained to help people suffering from post-traumatic stress. He says he’s researched mom’s condition at the library and knows more about it than Zelda does. He adds that it’s serious and needs to be treated and Mr. McGee is sweet and kind enough to see this and at least do something about it instead of ignorantly judging between boob jobs and face lifts.
“Look smarty pants, I’m on your team. I want the same thing as you. I want her to be happy too,” Zelda says this like we are discussing the weather, like it is no big deal. But her eyes are filled with unshed tears. She looks at me and says “I’m a mother. I worry. That’s my job. Things could happen, and then what? Where would she be?”
“What things?” I ask.
“Female things,” she whispers to me. Jack throws his tiny hands against his face. “You know? I mean, I haven’t seen any birth control around those drawers, have you?” She juts her scrawny neck my way. “What if she, G-d forbid, gets a bun in the oven?” She winks a heavily-shadowed eye at me. “Is the landlord thinking of that?”
The waitress arrives with Jack and Zelda’s sundaes.
“You don’t need to worry about that. Vinny uses condoms,” Jack says before digging into his ice-cream.
The waitress turns a fresh shade of pink before turning away with a painful grin.
Zelda and I stare at Jack and then at each other. I raise my eyebrows and shake my head. I do not know how my midget of a brother knows so much about Mr. McGee’s privates and I’d like to keep it this way. Zelda turns her attention to her sundae. Clearly, she’d prefer not to know either.