Reach for the Stars
by Courtney Chatellier
“Any money you make, they’re just going to give you less financial aid next year,” Erin’s mom says as they pull out of the A&P plaza. Smokes 4 Less and Perfect Nails II roll past her window. Erin starts to say that the money is beside the point, then reconsiders. They have the money from her first stepdad’s wrongful death suit (hunting accident), but whether it’s a lot, or just enough to get by—well, it’s “subjective,” as her mom likes to say. There’s also the fact that her mom isn’t technically working. (“I am working!” she says, when Erin asks why. “I am watching the markets. I am doing my exercises.”) In relation to her long breaks between jobs, Erin’s mom always says that the worst thing in the world is to be trapped in a job you hate, and although Erin is pretty sure she can think of a few worse things, the point is: her mom doesn’t want either of them to settle.
They drive past houses with white porch railings and houses with white picket fences and houses with American flags jutting out.
“That’s okay, because they actually don’t declare the servers’ tips,” Erin says, improvising.
“Huh.” Her mom lowers her glossy black sunglasses over her eyes, as if she’s already thinking about something else. The market, perhaps. Or Mark, Erin’s most recent ex-stepdad. The sunglasses are Prada, from the Neiman Marcus in Greenwich—part of the doctrine of not settling has to do with what her mom calls “investing in yourself”—but she can also be weirdly frugal, like when Erin had to beg her to throw out the L. L. Bean chinos with the period stains her mom claimed were “barely visible.” And so even when they go to the mall, and her mom says she can buy whatever she wants, usually Erin gets so anxious that she can’t even try something on unless it’s seventy percent off.
Sometimes, it’s just easier to settle.
Except that lately, she’s been thinking about clothes: not her own, exactly, but those of a Vassar student who in Erin’s imagination both is and isn’t her. Even though it feels treacherous, she knows that these hypothetical clothes—the Sevens jeans and DKNY tops and Michael Stars tees that will spark a transfiguration into her true self—can only be hers if she purchases them with her own money.
There’s also the more immediate problem of time, the menacing blankness of the weeks ahead. Unlike the upstate New York town where they lived when her mom was married to Ter, Erin’s second-most-recent-ex-stepdad—which actually isn’t that far from here—this one at least has sidewalks, a thrift store, a Blockbuster. There’s even a smaller, independent video store across the intersection from the Blockbuster. But no one walks anywhere, except for the small, spindly woman Erin has already spotted twice, trekking along the edges of Route 44, her antennaed headphones and safety goggles and hiking pole giving her the uncanny look of a giant insect, and if Erin weren’t leaving for college at the end of the summer, she thinks, she would probably turn into that woman eventually.
They pull into the Colonial Manor complex and park in front of their new condo, the hood of the Volvo coming to rest inches from Erin’s bedroom window, where the books she’s lined up on the sill form a white, anonymous wall.
“I just hope they don’t pool tips.” Erin’s mom turns off the ignition. “You can make a lot of money waiting tables, but not if you have to pick up slack for a bunch of losers.”
“Oh. Yeah, no.” Naively, Erin realizes now, she didn’t think to ask this at the interview. “I’m pretty sure the manager said they don’t.”
The next day, Erin finds out that the restaurant does declare the servers’ tips, even the cash tips. But no, fortunately it’s not a “pooled house.” She learns this from Alex, who is a “senior server,” though younger than the manager who interviewed her, maybe twenty-seven or twenty-eight.
Alex raises his eyebrows. “That’s true.” He has dark curly hair and bony shoulders and is the same height as Erin. “So you’re going to be trailing Nicole for your training shift. Make sure you do the checklist for Day One. Oh—and do everything Nicole tells you,” he adds sternly.
While they wait for Nicole’s first table to be sat, Erin learns that Nicole is half Polish, that she’s planning to go to journalism school, and that her boyfriend lives in New York City, which she keeps referring to as “the city.” In her left nostril there’s a tiny stud that Erin suspects is a real diamond.
Maybe Nicole will be her friend, Erin thinks, and the prospect is thrilling—almost unnervingly so. She stuffs the thought into a back corner of her brain, from which it emits a kind of warmth even while she’s thinking about something else.
“We should probably talk about points of service,” Nicole says, glancing at Erin’s folder. Erin is about to respond by saying something complimentary about journalism school, before segueing into a discussion of her own interest in the New Journalism, when one of the hostesses comes over and tells them they have a four-top on thirty-four. Erin follows Nicole to a table where a middle-aged couple and their two junior high school-aged sons gaze silently at the laminated menus. All of them, including the mother, have variants of the same hairstyle, a spiky crew cut with bleached tips.
“Welcome to Ottavio’s Family Bistro! I’m Nicole, and I’ll be taking care of you tonight. And this is—I’m sorry, what’s your name again? Erin! Erin is shadowing me. I’ll just give you a quick sec to look over the menu, but you let us know if you have any questions.”
The couple beams at Nicole, and it occurs to Erin that perhaps no one so beautiful has ever been nice to them before.
Soon they have another new table. Nicole tells Erin to watch as she taps a rapid series of neon squares on the computer screen in their station. She says something about “dupes” and “firing mains.” At Nicole’s urging, Erin “greets” table thirty-one, a group of broad-shouldered men in baseball caps, but none of them looks up or seems to notice her, and after that Nicole says she can go back to just shadowing. One of the hostesses dims the lights every few minutes, keeping pace with the setting sun. The overlapping sounds of silverware and conversation and Italian opera music swell to a thick conglomerate roar. Erin no longer has any idea what Nicole is saying when she bends down to talk close to her customers’ faces. Each time they pass another server, she tries to make eye contact and smile, but no one reciprocates.
At some point Nicole turns to her and says, “Babe, can you go ask Jorge for more ice for station four?”
Before Erin has time to respond, Nicole dashes toward the kitchen. For a moment, it’s a relief to be untethered. Then a muted panic sets in, as Erin realizes she has no idea who Jorge is, or how to locate him, or what will happen if she fails to do so in time. Looking across the bar she sees, at a different server station, four clear plastic water pitchers filled mostly with ice.
She has a pitcher in each hand when she hears someone snarl, “What’s your section?”
Some of the ice water sloshes onto the front of Erin’s pants. She turns to face a girl with oily skin and red curly hair piled on top of her head in a messy bun full of glittery butterfly clips.
“I don’t know. I’m trailing Nicole.”
“Oh.” The girl crosses her arms and leans back, squinting at Erin. “I’m Alice. Nicole’s in three. Nicole’s always in three on Thursdays.” Alice smirks, as if this comment is rife with subtext. Then she leans forward again, bringing her face so close that Erin can see the crumbs of mascara in the corners of her eyes. “You know, you’re not supposed to use this station unless you’re working the back. But you’re new, you didn’t know.”
Erin nods. Alice’s face is still inches away from her own, her eyes darting around. Erin considers asking her to identify Jorge. Instead, still holding the water pitchers, she shrugs and walks away before Alice can say anything else, and an unsettling thought takes hold: although it’s her first night, what if tonight isn’t an anomaly? What if, even within this bustling environment, she is destined to remain lonely and mute?
It occurs to her that she could simply leave—who would notice?—but she should at least tell Nicole, whom she finds in the blindingly well-lit kitchen talking, where one of the line cooks is saying something to her in Spanish. “Papi!” Nicole says, raising her eyebrows with feigned astonishment and laughing in a way that sounds flirtatious, but also classy, and Erin wonders if this is something that can be learned, or more like an innate ability. But before she has time to approach Nicole and tell her that maybe waitressing isn’t for her, after all, Paul, the head chef, bellows, “Pasta gets cold in thirty fucking seconds, where is everyone?” He rings the bell rapidly five times. Nicole grabs two salads from the pass window and disappears through the swinging doors. More plates amass in the window. The moment when Erin might have walked out seems to have passed. She picks up two dishes, fanning them in her left hand the way she’s been watching people do it all night, spikes the ticket with her free hand, and picks up a third plate. She’s eighty percent sure she knows where table fifty-two is.
Her attention to not dropping the plates consumes her so completely that she doesn’t see Alex until she’s setting down the last one.
“Very nice,” he says. He holds up his arm, taps his bicep through his white shirt and grins. Erin notices his dimples. A busboy cuts between her and the table and for a moment she’s almost stepping on Alex’s feet. Alex brings his hand to her waist in a way that feels both intimate and professional, secretive and flagrant. When the busboy moves away with the rest of fifty-two’s appetizer plates, she slips past the table, out of Alex’s section. Behind her she hears him saying, “Bon appetit! Mangia!” and then a man’s voice saying, “Thank you, Alex, baby,” and as she’s walking back to Nicole’s section she has the distinct, electrifying feeling of being watched, and even though she suspects that Alex might weigh less than she does, she suddenly imagines in luscious depth what it would be like to make out with him.
She wakes to the instructor’s voice. Now reach it up. Stretch it high. Doing great. All right. Ahaha!
Normally she stays in her room while her mom does her workout, but the tape just started and she has to pee. She cracks the door and looks across the living room. Her mom’s back is to her, and on the TV the instructor, with his round face and furry beard and bouncing movements, reminds Erin of a hamster on a wheel.
Just stretching. We’re getting into shape today. Reach for the stars. You can do it. You can do anything you want!
But he also looks sort of like Mark, and it occurs to Erin that, in a sense, it’s Mark’s fault that they’re here. Because the worst thing in the world (in addition to settling, or being stuck in a job you hate) is running into your ex-husband at Hannaford’s, every time her mom gets divorced, they have to move at least two, preferably three counties over. It’s not surprising that things didn’t work out with Mark: her mom always goes for men whose names sound like verbs. Phil, Cary, Ter, Mark. And yet, disappointingly, they never seem to be doing much. Mark, for instance, had quit acting by the time Erin’s mom sold him the house in Darien where they’d all ended up living for three years. He’d almost had a big break, once—a scene in a Leonardo DiCaprio movie where he had two lines—but after that he kept getting typecast as scowling, peripheral villains, and when he’d had enough of playing Unnamed Confederate Soldier and Nazi Guard #2, he’d quit, and by the time he was dating Erin’s mom, he was working on something called an “e-commerce site.” Also, he had “passive income,” which Erin’s mom spoke of with reverence, but which sounded to Erin to be of a piece with his total absence of a personality.
Admittedly, Mark was a step up from Ter—Ter with the gross cats that Erin’s mom denied being allergic to, and Carly, his awkward, chubby daughter, whom Erin’s mom was always trying to get her to hang out with, even though Carly was almost three years younger than her.
What enthusiasm we’ve got here, huh?
The instructor laughs, and the video cuts to a woman in a pink leotard who smiles self-consciously while pulsing in a squat, and then Erin’s mom, in her oversized T-shirt and stretched-out leggings and no bra, her frizzy, box-dyed hair sticking sweatily to her forehead, laughs too.
Erin allows her bedroom door to not slam, exactly, but close loudly enough to register her open-ended disapproval. “I thought you were sending out your résumé today.”
Her mom glances over her shoulder, as if expecting to find someone other than Erin standing there. “Says the girl who sleeps till noon!”
“It’s like, eleven-thirty.”
“I mean, I did work last night.” Erin rubs her thumb over an uneven part of the doorframe and watches as a splinter of wood separates from its coating of paint. She considers asking her mom what she expects her to do all day in this random town, with its conceited, ironic name—Pleasant Valley!—and then imagines her mom’s astonished, stupid response: Anything you want!
“I’m going to look at a house later if you want to come along.”
Now get those legs up a little higher. In, up. Great, you got it. Super!
“Why are you looking at a house? We just got here.”
“Well! This isn’t supposed to be permanent!” Erin’s mom makes a swirling gesture with her wrists, as though to indicate the unpacked boxes in the corners of the room, or the entire condo, or maybe life itself.
“So why are we here?”
“It’s important”—her mom waves her arms over her head, mirroring the instructor—“to keep your options open.”
Erin takes a deep breath. “That makes no sense.”
Her mom sits down on the floor, starts batting her legs in the air. “You have to make sure it’s the right fit before you put down roots!”
“Um, okay. I think I’ll just stay here today.”
The instructor gazes out from the TV, counting down from eight, his own voice growing choppy and breathless. Smiling faintly, and without taking her eyes off him, her mom says, “Suit yourself!”
The first customers don’t come in until almost one, and the hostess seats them in Alex’s section. Erin finds him in the kitchen, sitting on the metal counter and talking in Spanish through the pass window to one of the line cooks. When she tells him he has a table he smiles and says, “You can take them.”
He shrugs cheerfully, turns back to the line cook.
When the new schedule was posted two weeks ago and Erin saw that she had all lunch shifts, it seemed like a bad sign, like maybe she was on probation—it’s not lost on her that she would probably be making a lot more money if the restaurant did pool tips—but the fact that she and Alex are the only servers on Wednesday lunch almost compensates for how little money she’s making.
She comes back to the kitchen to get a bread basket.
“You’re going to college, right?”
Erin looks at Alex, surprised. “I haven’t started yet. This fall.”
He asks her what school, and when she says Vassar, says, “Wow. That is truly impressive.” He says something to the line cook, who raises his eyebrows at Erin and nods appreciatively, and her heart lifts as she considers for the first time that maybe it is truly impressive, even though it’s not an Ivy, and she privately considered it her “safety school” before she was rejected from everywhere else.
“And it’s so close, you’ll be able to live at home,” Alex adds. “Save some money.”
She’s about to say that she would literally rather die than keep living with her mom after this summer, then realizes that she never actually thought about it in terms of money. It occurs to her that Alex was probably on his own already by the time he was her age. For the rest of the shift she avoids him, even though she can think of nothing other than how much she wants to talk to him. The insurmountable obstacle is that everything she might say will only offer further proof of her triviality and shallowness.
After she drops the check at their last table, she goes to the hostess stand and starts spraying the dinner menus with Windex. When she catches a glimpse of Alex approaching, it takes a strenuous but rewarding effort not to look up or seem to notice until he’s standing right next to her.
“So what do you do for fun?”
He stands with his arms folded across his chest, his head cocked to the side. He reminds her of the street-wise older boy in a Charles Dickens novel.
“I actually just moved here?” The pleasure of Alex’s attention is almost but not completely canceled out by having to scrape the empty sides of her life for an answer. “So the people I went to school with mostly live in Massachusetts and Connecticut. We moved around a lot. Because of my mom’s job. Or, like, lack thereof, usually. She does real estate, mostly.”
Alex nods. He looks at her in a steadying way. “What about your dad?”
“He’s not really—like, I had a stepdad? He died. But like, a while ago. It’s okay.”
“Oh. That sounds really hard.”
The way that his voice drops and softens makes her want to collapse to the floor.
“It’s really okay. I was four, so I don’t really remember him, and I don’t think my mom was too happy when they were together.” She looks down at the menu in front of her and picks at a dry, cloudy smudge with her thumb nail. “At first it was kind of fun, living in a new place every couple of years. My mom is really opposed to, like, ‘settling.’ But—I don’t know. I wouldn’t say my mom is selfish. I just wonder what it would be like to have a normal family sometimes, and like, actually live in a place.” She glances at Alex, who’s looking at the floor now with a deep, intense expression. “Actually, now that we’re here, we’re sort of close to the town where I went to sixth through eighth grade, and I saw some of those people at a graduation party. It was pretty fun, but I don’t know if a lot of people even remembered me. I mean, I also didn’t remember some of them. Like this kid who was kind of chubby when we were in middle school—he got really tall and skinny and grew his hair out, so I didn’t recognize him. It was so funny. And then he offered me coke? I guess he kind of has a problem, but I felt like, I can’t not do this, you know what I mean?”
“Oh, yeah? That’s really interesting. Wait, hang on.” Across the room, a man in a suit at their last table waves a credit card over his head.
With anyone else, Erin thinks, she would feel weird about what she just said, but with Alex it didn’t seem random or boring. She wonders why she wasted the last two hours not talking to him.
The man in the suit and the woman he was sitting with walk to the front with Alex. On their way out the door, the man shakes Alex’s hand and says, “Always a pleasure.”
“Thanks, man. You have a beautiful day.” The door closes behind them. Alex looks at Erin. “You’re free the rest of the day, right?”
Erin pretends to think about this. Beyond the glass doors, the sky is achingly blue, and she can feel, like the pulse of music on the other side of a wall, the life that she is supposed to be living.
“Yeah, I don’t have plans.”
Alex studies her face, smiles. “You’re funny.” He takes his phone out of his apron and glances at it before snapping it shut. “I can get a guy to come by with some stuff if you want to smoke or do that other stuff that you like.”
“Yeah? You’re down?”
“The thing is, we have to take your car. I don’t really have a car right now.”
“No, it’s just my mom’s car. I can’t smoke in her car. I mean I guess I could just say that, like, I wasn’t the one who was smoking, but it’s probably, I don’t know, not a great idea?”
“No problem.” Alex flips his phone open again. “I know the perfect spot we could go to.”
They park at the edge of a field. When she steps out of the car, the grass is hot and dry around Erin’s ankles, and the carefree, spontaneous nature of this day—and who knows, maybe it’s not just this day, maybe this is what life is really turning out to be like, after all—seems to travel up her legs, an electric current.
Alex comes to her side of the car and lights the joint he rolled on the drive. “Yeah, so do you know what you want to study and everything?”
“Nice.” Alex passes her the joint. “You’re gonna be a teacher.”
Erin thinks about correcting him—whatever she’s going to be, it’s definitely not an English teacher—but she likes the way they’re standing, side by side, their heads almost touching. She brings the joint that was just touching Alex’s lips to her own lips.
“Yeah, when I save enough money, I’m gonna go back to school, too,” Alex says. “Get my business degree. Gotta get my financials together. That’s the foundation, you know what I mean?”
Erin nods, as if it’s something she thinks about all the time. In the afternoon light she notices for the first time the crow’s feet fanning from the corners of Alex’s eyes, and wonders if she’s misjudged his age, and what this means. But soon the thought is just a vague discordant note, dissolving into the rich symphony of what this day is becoming. After they finish the joint, she follows Alex down seemingly endless rows of cars in the grass. When they get to a freshly painted red barn it looks like people are waiting in line to pay to get in, and she focuses on keeping a relaxed facial expression as she and Alex walk straight past them and around to the side. Once inside the fairgrounds they stroll past a magician who isn’t doing any magic, just yelling in a European accent at the crowd gathered around him, and down an avenue of food stalls where the air is crisp and fried dough-scented. Behind the food stalls, a skyline of glowing, tilting, clattering rides juts out, and distant screams rise and fall through the air.
If her mode of being so far this summer has been one of emptiness, this is what it’s like to be full.
Leaving the food stalls they walk up a grassy slope toward a row of barns. When they get to the rabbit hutches, Erin wants to stop and look but Alex keeps going, leading her quickly through the shade of a barn where the velvety faces of brown cows turn as they pass, and outside again and across the grass to the last barn, where a black and white goat bleats and follows them along its fence. At the edge of an empty stall that smells richly of hay and manure Alex asks her for the car key. He takes a plastic bag out of his pocket, runs the key up the inside of the bag, raises the tip of the key to his nose, and inhales sharply. Then he takes another scoop and holds it up for Erin.
Just like the other time she did this, the moment she lifts her head a wave of heat seems to rise up inside her that is wild and dangerous—and, at the same time, a perfect match for the glittering prowess of her brain.
They lean their elbows against the splintery railing.
“You talk to Alice, right?” Alex scrapes the bottom of his black waiter shoe against the bottom rung.
“Yeah, we talk sometimes,” Erin says.
“I don’t know what she’s said to you, but I’m not a bad father.” Alex turns to look at her, his eyes bright.
“Yeah, no.” The goat snuffles its nose in the hay. As Erin’s mind envelops this new information, a lurching sadness, but also a greater understanding of the human condition, seems to take hold in her. “You’re definitely not a bad father!”
“Like, I work, I save money, I try to be a good person.” He shakes his head. “She thinks we have to be together because she read a child psychology book. But I disagree. I think if your parents are going to be, like, hating each other in front of you, how is that helping? If you’re a little kid and your parents are fighting all the time, like what’s the point?”
“Totally,” Erin says. Simultaneously, it occurs to her that they are definitely not going to make out; that she has been expecting them to, ever since they left the restaurant; and that, regardless, this is one of the best days of her life.
“You’re really mature,” Alex says, nodding. “Like, for your age.”
“Thanks.” Erin looks at the goat, prancing now to the other side of its enclosure, and something complex and inexpressible starts to arrange itself in her head. “Sometimes it feels like I’ve had a long life.”
Alex tells her that he knows exactly what she means, and that it’s something he knew he had in common with her, even when they first met. He talks for a while about his own family. How his mom came over the border when she was pregnant with him, and then left him with her cousin to go back to be with his sister. When she finally made it back, he was twelve and didn’t recognize her, but they’re really close now. The longer he talks, the less Erin believes they actually have anything in common, and yet she senses within herself a capacity for listening that’s almost infinite, as if she could hold his entire life story in her head, and maybe that’s the closest you ever get to understanding another person anyway. They do another bump and start talking about work. Alex tries to explain to her why she has the lowest cover average and the lowest take-home average out of all the servers. That it has to do with how long her tables sit, their insufficient drink orders, her resistance to dropping a check before a table is cleared. Although she can see he’s right, she still feels compelled to mention the thing Nicole told her in training. That it’s not a “turn-and-burn” kind of place, that you don’t want people to feel like you’re rushing them out the door. Alex shakes his head vigorously. He tells her that she’s still really young but that, eventually, if she stays in the industry, she’ll figure out the truth. How shit really works.
“How shit really works?” she repeats, her pulse quickening at the edge of this occult knowledge.
Alex smiles, shakes his head again, like maybe he can’t say. Then he glances around the barn, brings his mouth close to her ear and says, in a low voice: “Every place is a turn-and-burn kind of place.”
On the way out Erin buys a piece of funnel cake and breaks off little pieces to push around in her mouth until they turn into mush and then liquid. There’s a poignancy, a sadness to this afternoon’s drawing to a close, mitigated by the faint possibility that maybe, once inside the car, she and Alex are going to make out, after all. As she follows him through the labyrinth of carnival games, she has the sensation of an invisible energy field separating them from all the other people walking by. She’s about to ask Alex if he feels it, too, when a man with gray hair under a red baseball cap barks at the side of her head, “I’ll guess your weight within three pounds, your age within two years, your birthday within two months!” She whips her head around and asks, “What about something I don’t know?” The man smiles—but not in a friendly way, she thinks—and then moves on, shouting his lines at somebody else. And that’s when she sees them. Up ahead, slipping in and out of view through the crowd. The family: a father, a mother, and a teenage girl in a white, spaghetti-strap dress. She realizes that she saw them somewhere earlier, but she can’t think of where, and she wonders why this crucial information is eluding her now. The daughter is pretty, Erin decides, even though she can only see the back of her head. And the mother’s hair is frizzy, kind of like her mom’s hair, but even from this distance it’s obvious that this woman is making an effort, wearing a khaki-colored dress with a belt around the waist. And even if the father is a little heavyset, and not very tall, and seems—again, just judging by the back of his head—like he’s probably not very attractive, he still gives off an impression of stability and competence. For a few seconds Erin imagines that she’s the girl, and that those are her parents, and that somehow, miraculously, at least for one day, they’re all having a really nice time together.
The perfect tripartite family stops. They turn to look at the game with the fishbowls and the ping-pong balls. She and Alex are getting closer to them, and something in Erin’s brain clicks into place. The woman in the khaki dress fades like one of those optical illusions—do you see the duck or the rabbit?—into Erin’s mom. A second later, the pudgy man whose waist she’s hugging materializes into Ter.
Erin stops in the middle of the concrete path. “Oh my god. That’s my mom. That’s my mom and like, my ex-ex-stepdad.”
“Oh, word?” Alex keeps walking.
She grabs his arm, pulling him back. “That’s them,” she hisses, pointing.
Alex squints. “That’s, like, your sister?” His eyes dance across Carly’s suntanned, newly slender shoulders.
The magnitude of her mom’s dishonesty—of her hypocrisy!—breaks slowly over Erin. (This is why they moved here? So her mom could settle? For Ter?) Even as she feels her legs driving her forward with a vengeful momentum, she considers grabbing Alex’s hand and running—back past the animal stalls, back across the field, back to her mom’s Volvo—and then driving home, and never saying anything about any of it.
She comes to stand in front of them, this family configuration in which she has no desire to take part—not that anyone bothered to ask—and her mom’s arm drops away from Ter, and her mouth momentarily falls open, but her eyes, hidden behind her Prada sunglasses, reveal nothing.
The other families waiting for the fishbowl game rearrange themselves, subtracting her mom and Ter and Carly from the line.
Ter looks the way Erin remembers: his face pink and bumpy, his black polo shirt covered in cat hair. His small blue eyes dart between Erin and her mom. “Well—look at you!” He smiles tentatively, as though maybe he thinks there’s a chance that Erin’s mom planned this. Erin glares at him as he forages for a compliment. “Well—look at her, Kath,” he says, nudging Erin’s mom’s arm with his elbow. “She’s glowing.”
Her mom removes her sunglasses and looks at her, and Erin thinks again that maybe she’d like to turn and run. Instead, she takes a huge bite of funnel cake.
“And who’s this young man?” Ter says, apparently without sarcasm, extending a hand. Reviving, Alex not only takes it but claps Ter on the shoulder.
“Alex. Great to meet you.” Looking at Erin’s mom he adds, “And you too, ma’am. I mean, miss.”
Carly laughs. Alex beams at her.
Erin wants to punch all of them. Forcing herself to swallow the lump of funnel cake, she says to her mom, “Can I talk to you?”
Her mom pulls at the sleeve of her khaki dress and Erin notices the sweat stains in the tan fabric. “Of course, baby.”
“Like—now? Privately? Can we just go?”
Her mom blinks at her. Then she sighs, turns to Ter and Carly. “I guess this is my ride!” She squeezes Ter’s hand, gives Carly a hug.
As they walk away, Erin hears Ter asking Alex if he needs a lift. She pictures Alex in the back seat of Ter’s station wagon, his eyes meeting Carly’s in the rearview mirror. For a second, she longs to be back in the barn. Back inside that moment when this day still could have turned into anything. Or at least get one more bump of coke before saying everything she knows she wants to say to her mom, only the words seem to be slipping away from her now. Her mom is saying something about taking it slow, and about finding the right moment to tell her, but Erin isn’t listening. The sky turns pink and gold as they pick their way through dozens of rows of cars, and each individual tree at the edge of the field seems to glow, irradiated. It’s Erin’s mom who finally sees the Volvo in a spot that seems not even close to where Erin remembers parking. Erin passes her the key. Before she opens the passenger door, she takes one more look back at the entrance to the fairgrounds. An even longer line of people is waiting to get in now—fewer families, more bands of teenagers—and the ambient knowledge that she really is leaving soon takes on weight and mass in her chest. At the same time, a sort of understanding of her mom’s choices flickers sharply into view. But just as quickly, it vanishes, leaving in its wake only the bracing certainty that, whatever happens in the vast unknown of her adult life, at least she can say for sure that she’s never going to settle.
Courtney Chatellier is a writer living in Queens. She grew up in New York’s Hudson Valley and completed her Bachelor’s degree at New York University and PhD in English and American Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center. She currently teaches writing at NYU and is at work on her first novel.