Friday, May 13, 2011

On Baby-Sitters Club Super Mystery #last: Chapter 2

Okay, so first, a note: The characters, places, and situations created for the Baby-Sitters Club series are the property of Ann M. Martin and Scholastic. (If they were mine, you know someone would have told Mr. and Mrs. Pike where babies come from by now.) Everything that isn't real life and isn't Ann M.'s is mine, and if you violate my copyright, I will cut you. On with the show.

In our last episode, Mary Anne and Dawn had a rather awkward reunion.

Chapter 2.
Mary Anne.

Los Sombreros hadn’t changed even a little bit. It was comforting. We even managed to track down our old table—still all the way in the back, to the right—and do our best to cram ourselves around it. It seemed to work better when we were teenagers, either because we were smaller then or because we had no problem piling into each other’s laps. I think our record might have been eleven, including boyfriends and one visiting cousin, which involved a lot of squeezing and stacking.

Of course, it had all started with just the four of us—Kristy, Claudia, Stacey, and me—brought together by what Kristy still insists on calling her Big Idea (capital B, capital I): a club of baby-sitters. A baby-sitters club, if you will. From an entrepreneurial standpoint, it was brilliant: Call one phone number and quadruple your chances of finding an available baby-sitter, if you weren’t squeamish about leaving your kids under the supervision of a thirteen-year-old. Over time—and in response to increasing demand—we expanded: Dawn came in when she moved to town, and Mallory and Jessi joined as junior members for parents who didn’t mind leaving their kids under the supervision of eleven-year-olds. More came and went over time, but this group, these seven girls, was the real thing.

At the head of our table sat, not unexpectedly, Kristy Thomas, who was staring down the length of the table as if assessing the chip-basket-to-diner ratio and finding it lacking. She had been the president of the club, if for no other reason than her own insistence, and I can’t say she didn’t carry the role well. No one I’ve met has had a better sense of organization, a stronger drive, or a louder voice. Or her own bullhorn. The third of four children and the only girl, Kristy was left to more or less fend for herself after her father bailed and her mother had to go back to work, and I think it left her with a bit of a chip on her shoulder, even after her mother remarried and Kristy suddenly acquired a larger and more complexly blended family.

From around age ten, Kristy’s style hadn’t deviated from what we called The Uniform: jeans, turtleneck, sweatshirt (sometimes an actual sweater, if she was feeling fancy), tennis shoes, and a ponytail. For club meetings, she’d add a visor to appear more official (or more like a blackjack dealer—no telling). For softball games, it would be a baseball cap. Sometimes it had a dog on it. Claudia and Stacey used to get onto her about her style. Eventually they stopped bothering.

Tonight, though, she looked like she’d made some effort: She was wearing a cowl-neck sweater, dark jeans, and a really cute pair of suede heels that I’m almost certain came from Shannon’s boutique—“Shannon” being Shannon Kilbourne, Kristy’s “roommate” (uh-huh) of three years. They sure as hell didn’t come from Kristy’s closet, anyway. Her hair was in a ponytail. The woman was a high-school health teacher and softball coach; I guess some habits die hard.

Next to Kristy, digging into the queso, sat Claudia Kishi. She had always been the artsy type—more freestyle than academic in just about every aspect of her life, and a really spectacular painter and sculptor. She grew up in a fairly strict Japanese-American family with a banker for a father, a librarian for a mother, and a certified genius for an older sister. She herself struggled with school and was eventually diagnosed with dyslexia, which didn’t stop her family and even her friends from treating her like she was practically developmentally delayed. Her creative talents, however, were undeniable, and I’d been happy to hear through the grapevine that she’d taken them south to an art school in Georgia and put them to good use.

In our club days, Claudia had been known for her out-there fashion choices—it wasn’t uncommon to see her in big, baggy pants with suspenders over a polka-dot bodysuit, with sequined red tennis shoes and mismatched earrings (a candy bar in one ear and a soda can in the other) that she’d made herself, and she’d tell us it was her Andy Warhol theme, and we all thought she was totally cool and edgy. She was the stuff. She was dibbly fresh. Claudia also was known for her voracious appetite for sweets, with candy and snacks squirreled away around her room that she’d pull out from a shoebox under the bed or from under a hat in the closet and pass around. Despite this, her figure was great and her skin was flawless. She was gorgeous, and at the time we thought she looked terribly exotic, although later we realized she just looked Asian.

With all of that in mind, I’d been kind of shocked to hear that she was working quite successfully in Chicago as a stylist and accessories buyer. But sitting at dinner, it was obvious she had recovered from the style choices of her youth—she was wearing a loose, short dress in a green and blue Pucci print and towering blue suede pumps. Her still-spectacular figure and still-perfect skin belied the sheer volume of tortilla chips and top-shelf margaritas she was putting away. (My outfit that night, a bright-blue shift dress and cropped beige blazer over beige heels, had been selected after a phone consultation with Claudia.)

Across from Claudia sat Stacey McGill (now Stacey Hoffman, after the investment banker she met on her first job out of college and married six months later). She and Claudia had been inseparable best friends, back before Stacey moved back to New York in high school and seemed to lose interest in friends back home. Claudia had made a few trips to visit her but ultimately came back saying that Stacey’s new life “wasn’t really her scene,” although she never went into more specifics than that. Stacey grew up in New York City and moved to Stoneybrook because of her diabetes, for some reason I was never able to discern. (And she does have diabetes. I’m sure it’s important, because it keeps coming up.) She’d been back and forth to the city several times following her parents’ divorce, but her move our junior year of high school ended up sticking, and contact dwindled after that. News trickled in by way of her mother—studying economics at Skidmore, working as a research analyst, married—but it was sparse and, frankly, our collective interest in Stacey had dwindled.

We’d always identified Stacey’s look as “New York sophisticated.” (In our defense, most of had at that point never actually been to New York.) That usually meant something black—black leggings, a black sweater, a black oversized whatever. It would also sometimes include such sophisticated accents as sequined sweatshirts, plastic shoes, rainbow-colored jewelry, and headbands. Her long, blonde hair was always permed, usually as a gift from her mother to assuage her guilt over the divorce.

That evening, she’d breezed in looking just as gorgeous as she had at every meeting—this time with her cloud of hair tamed into a sleek golden blowout and her earrings looking nothing like zoo animals. And while her navy blue bandage dress might have been a bit fancier than Los Sombreros normally called for, it flattered her slim figure like it was made for her (which it may well have been). She kept fiddling with the silver cuff bracelet on her left wrist and glancing at Claudia as if hoping to make eye contact, but Claudia was intent either on the bottom of her margarita glass or on anything but Stacey.

Mallory Pike sat next to Stacey, gazing longingly at her smooth hair. Mallory had always been a bit of a bookish and awkward kid, the oldest of eight children, usually struggling for attention among a houseful of louder, more dynamic kids. She’d split her time largely between the club, her responsibilities as caretaker to her younger siblings, and her own considerable talents and dreams of writing children’s books. Now she seemed rather like a taller version of the eleven-year-old she had been, still living in her parents’ garage apartment and looking after their newest surprise set of twins while she worked on her second novel. (Her first, an unexpectedly racy young-adult romance thriller, was self-published and sold 113 copies.)

Poor Mallory had never really been the fashion plate. Her outfits—because she had more important things to concentrate on, she would sometimes say—tended toward various cuts and washes of jeans topped with the kind of t-shirt you get for free for applying to college or donating to NPR. I half-expected her to show up tonight in same, but she surprised me with a knee-length corduroy skirt and turtleneck. She still hadn’t managed to find a flattering cut for her wildly curly hair, but she’d traded the retirement-villa glasses for a more naughty-librarian style, which worked for her. She seemed to be avoiding the chips and salsa, but whenever she opened her mouth to speak or sip her drink, I thought I caught a flash of Invisalign.

Part of her problem may have been that she was sitting next to Jessi. Back in our club days, Jessi Ramsey had been a promising ballerina, devoting much of her time to the dance studio, but she and Mallory had come together over a love of baby-sitting, an affection for their younger siblings—for Jessi, a sister named Becca and a baby brother named Squirt—and a bit of awe of us older girls. Because we always caught Jessi on the way to or from a dance class, we usually saw her in a leotard with a long sweatshirt and leggings and ballet flats, or a leotard with drawstring pants and a t-shirt and ballet flats, or a leotard with a short skirt and a sweater and ballet flats, with her hair up in a tight bun.

None of us, with the occasional exception of Dawn, had seen Jessi since she moved out to San Francisco with her boyfriend Quint to dance with Alonzo King. Working off of my old memories, I nearly looked right past the Jessi who walked into Los Sombreros that night. She seemed entirely self-possessed and at ease, comfortable with the people around her. If it weren’t for her lanky frame and tall dancer’s posture, we might not have recognized her walking in wearing skinny jeans, tall boots, and a long, clingy sweater. Her hair was down around her shoulders and curly—I didn’t even know she had curly hair. Poor Mallory had looked like she’d lost her best friend, her confidant and partner in prepubescent awkwardness.

Dawn sat across from Mallory, in her same old familiar seat next to my old familiar seat. I almost expected her to order her old familiar veggie quesadilla (not likely now, of course) with extra pico or something equally Californian. Back in the day, everything about Dawn had seemed cool and Californian—her tan, her hair, her vegetarian diet. We’d dubbed her style “California casual.” (Once again, none of us had actually been to California.) She was always a fan of those Californian staples of Laura Ashley florals, oversized shirts, and jeans and sweatshirts—sometimes with a very Californian straw hat

Questionable style inclinations notwithstanding, Dawn had been what I needed in my life—someone new, different, foreign, crunchy, vegetarian, an island of (what I perceived as) coolness within easier reach than Claudia or Stacey. More than anyone else, she’d been the one to help me come out of my shell, speak honestly with my father, and ultimately move past the kilts and pigtails (not realizing that “schoolgirl” was just a short step away from “naughty schoolgirl,” which would have raised my stock considerably). Living with her as sisters had come naturally, even after she moved back to California to live with her father.

Now things were far less comfortable, and Dawn seemed unfamiliar next to me, pushing food around on a plate of lettuce and guacamole. She looked good—tan and blonde as ever. Stick thin, though, angular and bony, probably from the lack of anything even marginally delicious in her life. I thought the bean sprouts and millet were bad enough without going fully raw-food vegan. Her outfit—crocheted dress, long vest, headband, Jerusalem cruisers—looked almost self-consciously hippie, but it was a decidedly more California look than the florals of yore. And it fit well with her new life, with her kids, her natural-foods store, and her husband she’d met at an ashram during the summer solstice. More important, she’d seemed really happy when she walked in, hugging the friends of her childhood.

At the far end of the table, Kristy cleared her throat and tapped the bottom of her water glass gingerly on the table. “Should I call this reunion of the Baby-Sitters Club to order?”

The laughter that rippled through us was an icebreaker. “I’d like to propose a toast,” Kristy continued. “To Sharon and Richard, back together again.”

“To Sharon and Richard,” we chorused, raising our glasses. I glanced sideways at Dawn, and while she seemed to be glancing sideways at me, neither of us could get up the nerve to actually turn her head and pursue full eye contact.

“So let’s hear about the ceremony,” Stacey called down to us. “What kind of party do you throw for a renewal of vows?”

“We’re trying—” Dawn began.

“It’s like a—” I began. We paused, glanced at each other, chuckled nervously.

“We’re trying to give it a wedding-y feel without trying to throw another wedding,” Dawn said, “since they’ve each had, you know, two of those. But we wanted to make a big deal. Mom’s wearing a dress, not a gown, and it isn’t white, because, you know, who’d buy that?” Chuckles all around.

“Dad’s wearing a suit, probably because that’s the only thing he owns anyway,” I added. More chuckles. “We’ve got flowers and a really pretty little chapel. And cake and dancing at the reception.”

“I think the reception is going to be the best part,” Dawn said.

“Definitely.” I chanced another look, and we exchanged tight smiles.

“I think the cake is going to be the best part,” Claudia said to a roll of laughter. She was looking at Dawn and me with brows knitted curiously, and I suspected that we hadn’t been able to hide our tension from her. She never missed much. We hadn’t exactly advertised the circumstances under which Sharon and my father ended up needing to renew their vows, and we would have to work harder to hide the fact that there was anything worth advertising.

“Maybe two cakes,” I suggested, turning my attention back to the table. “A not-bride’s cake and a not-groom’s cake.”

“As long as at least one of them is chocolate,” Claudia put in. “I’ve never understood the appeal of wedding cake. What kind of flavor is ‘almond’?”

“Isn’t there some story about putting a piece of wedding cake under your pillow and dreaming about the man you’ll marry?” Mallory said. “Maybe that’s why it tastes so lousy—so you won’t feel bad about not eating it.”

The joke wasn’t close to worthy of the uproarious laugh it got, but we all needed it. We needed to laugh away the time apart and the changes that come with age and the experiences we’d had without any of the other girls around to share with. If a reasonably funny joke about wedding cake was what it took to make Claudia smile at Stacey and Jessi compliment Mallory on her glasses, and to make Dawn whisper to me, “Guess we need to cancel the almond cake,” I’d take a dozen of them.

Coming up: Jessi Ramsey comes to understand the consequences of the choices she makes.

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