Her mouth filled the screen. Purple lip gloss, clear braces.
"Still think I'm too young?"
She leaned over, the fixed lens of the camera catching a tiny smattering of blemishes on her cheek, like a comet's spray. Her hair had been bleached white, with long blond roots, and most of it was pulled back and up into a chunky ponytail above the three plastic hoops climbing the rim of her ear.
The song began to play, Beyoncé. I love to love you, baby. She stepped aside, revealing her room in all its messy glory. Above the bed was a painting; the central image was a daisy. A large lava lamp bubbled and gooed on the nightstand.
She was giggling offstage. Suddenly, the screen was a swirl of green plaid. Filmstrips of color in knife pleats. Her short skirt swayed along with her round hips. A little roll of ivory fat nestled above the waistband. She wore a white tank top, which she took off, her hands quickly finding the cups of her black bra. The breasts inside were small, and at first she covered them with her palms, fingers splayed like scallop shells. Then she unhooked the bra in the front and they popped out as if on springs. Her hands did a little fan dance as they reached below her hemline and lifted up her skirt.
She'd done all of this for his benefit. To please him. To prove him wrong. She reached out for the little toy baseball bat and the next part was hard to watch, even if you knew what was coming.
Except it wasn't.
Two parties. Both of Elizabeth Bergamot's children had parties to go to. Jake, the eldest—his longish brown hair suddenly grazing his collarbones, his eyes the color of muddled mint—was on his own that night, of course. His party was up in the Bronx, in Riverdale, somewhere near his school. He was fifteen and a half the previous Friday. It was pretty ridiculous that the Bergamots continued to celebrate this increasingly minor milestone—his half birthday—with half a cake and half a present. Richard, Liz's husband, had started the whole business ten years earlier, when he'd surprised them both by bringing home half a deck of cards that year, the other twenty-six miraculously appearing overnight under the boy's pillow.
"He's five and a half on Cinco de Mayo," Richard had said, by way of explanation. "Is there a better cause for celebration?"
Since the gesture was so touching, so sweet and fatherly, and Richard was a Californian by birth, Liz had trusted him on the import of such things, Mexican things. Plus, it seemed fun—a fun family tradition! It was what Liz had always hungered after despite generations of contrary evidence: relatives as respite, home as haven, a retreat from the rest of the dangerous, damaging world.
Last Friday, this Cinco de Mayo, Jake got half a set of car keys in the morning over his Lucky Charms. The true key to the kingdom was to be delivered, along with tuition for driver's ed, on his actual birthday, in November.
But for tonight's party, Jake would have to rely on some cocktail of public transportation—bus, subway, bus, subway, subway, cab—although there was always the possibility that some other love-addled mom like Liz would drive him home. Liz herself was otherwise occupied. It was his job to figure it out.
As Liz watched him hunch over his breakfast (two bowls of cereal, a yogurt, and a peanut butter sandwich), it seemed to her that Jake had grown several inches in just those seven days. The curve of his back was so long. It was as if, suddenly, three extra vertebrae had been added to the staircase of his spine. These days, it often seemed to Liz that Jake grew before her eyes, like kudzu maybe, the way he had as an infant, when Richard, a still awe-stricken young father, used to take pictures of him as he slept, in an effort to document the phenomenon, as if Jake were Bigfoot or a UFO.
As for the other kid—Coco, her baby—she would require parental accompaniment to her midget soirée: a six-year-old's birthday, at the Plaza Hotel, no less; a sleepover! For Liz's whole life, prior to drinks in the Oak Room last year when Richard was interviewing for his gig at the university, she had been inside the Plaza only when she was in Midtown and in need of a public restroom.
As Coco's designated lady-in-waiting, she saw tonight as her night to howl. This year Coco was in kindergarten for the second time, a condition of her admission to Wildwood Lower when they moved to the city. A private school. An apartment in Manhattan. The Plaza. Born and raised in the Bronx, in Co-op City, Liz couldn't always believe her new life.
In Ithaca, where they'd lived pretty fucking happily the last ten years—Richard and his meteoric rise at Cornell, Liz's dipping in and out of the Art History Department, the campus's dramatically stunning landscape, the low-key community vibe— irrepressible little Coco had been the life of the party. Here in New York, Coco was both a bad influence and intensely popular.
In the last seven months she had had more invitations, and to swankier spots (boat rides around Manhattan, screenings at Soho House, grab-what-you-cans at Dylan's Candy Bar) than Liz had received in her entire lifetime. Coco was one of three adopted Chinese daughters in her class—one of whom was also named Coco. Their Coco was now Coco B., the way Liz had been Elizabeth C. (née Cohen) all her grade-school life. The whole purpose of naming Coco "Coco" had been to avoid the initial, and yet there, like a wart at the end of a nose, it was. Poor Jake had been Jake B. so long and so often, in Ithaca, and now in New York, that some of the kids at Wildwood Upper had taken to calling him Jacoby—like those ambulance-chaser lawyers who, Liz was amazed to find, after all these years still ran their ads in the subways: "Hit by a truck? Call Jacoby and Meyers." (What if you just felt like you'd been hit by a truck? Liz wondered. What if you just felt like you'd been hit by a truck day after day? Could you call Jacoby and Meyers then?)
Tall, thin Jake was lanky now, with shoulders. Men's shoulders. When did he get such shoulders? Liz wondered, as he sidled past her to put his cereal bowl in the sink in the galley kitchen, where she was pouring her second cup of coffee. And then, when he brushed past her again, Liz resisted the urge to touch them.
Instead, as he grabbed his backpack, called out, "Bye, guys," and hurried down the long, skinny hallway that led to the apartment's front door, she mentally dropped a dollar in the "shrink" jar, the imaginary fund she kept for the future therapy Jake would require as a result of her outsize adoration.
"Bye-bye, sweetie! Have a great day," Liz yelled down the hall.
"Hang tough, slugger," said Richard from the other room, perhaps ironically. One couldn't always tell.
Jake was rushing to meet his friends at the Ninety-sixth Street subway station and he apparently did not have time to kiss her goodbye. The commute was very convenient, although this would change when they moved again in the summer.
Right now, Jake and a bunch of other Wildwood high schoolers from the Upper West Side schlepped up to the lush and lovely Riverdale campus en masse, and Liz was grateful he was part of a crowd. "I travel with the guys, Mom," he said, not in annoyance per se, but to reassure her, whenever Liz gave voice to some quasi-ridiculous worry. What if you get mugged? What if terrorists attack again?
In Ithaca, where they'd lived most of his life, Jake biked on his own from fourth grade onward, from school to Collegetown to Ithaca Falls. He'd take Ithaca transit, just like Nabokov had, whenever he ventured up the hill to meet Richard for lunch on campus, placing his little silver two-wheeler on the rack on the bus's front bumper alongside the big ones belonging to the college students and the earthier, crunchy professors (the ones who lived "off the grid"). In Ithaca, Jake had often been on his own, unless Liz was ferrying a Boy Scout troop full of his friends to the cool, blue stage of the lake for swim practice, and none of them, not Richard, not Jake, not Liz, had ever given this healthy independence a second thought.
Jake was fifteen and a half last Friday, which meant almost sixteen.
As the door slammed behind him, that fact hit her, as it did every once in a while, out of the blue.
"Richard," Liz said, walking out into the hall, still in the old KISS T-shirt she liked to sleep in and her pajama bottoms. "Do you think that the way I feel about Jakey being a teenager is similar to what it's like to awaken from being drugged and find that an organ trafficker has stolen your kidney?"
"That's exactly what I was thinking," said Richard. He was standing in the living room, at the dining table he used as his desk, sorting through piles of papers, cutting a ridiculously handsome figure, Liz thought, for that hour of the morning. No matter the level of dishabille the rest of the household suffered—Liz sometimes wearing the T-shirt she'd slept in to take Coco to school—Richard looked fine: freshly shaven, crisp white shirt, sports coat, black jeans, green eyes bright, his silvering hair cut close to his well-formed head. Making order out of chaos.
Excerpted from This Beautiful Life Helen Schulman. Copyright 2011 by Helen Schulman. Reprinted with permission of HarperCollins.