We step out of the hot, white sun and follow our mother through the revolving doors into Simpsons. A blast of frigid air welcomes us. She struts along the wide aisle. “Keep up, girls!” she trills, her accent almost British, so different from the flat Canadian tone she uses at home.
She hadn’t planned on bringing us, but when my sister heard “shopping downtown,” she’d tantrummed. Facedown on the floor, she’d clenched mother’s ankles, above her new white platform sandals, flailed her legs, and howled herself hoarse. Our mother had tried to shake her loose, but Cecily dug in and clawed at her leg. Mother had checked her watch and relented. But that meant that I had to come too. To help mind Cecily and keep her under control.
In the cosmetics department, our mother removes lipsticks one by one from the display case, streaking the colors on the inside of her arm, comparing how they complement her ivory skin.
A sales lady approaches. “What a stunning family you are.”
Our mother beams, all three of us in matching white eyelet sundresses. My sister offers a toothy grin. Our mother tousles her hair. “This one’s the beauty,” she says, “and my other daughter,” she pushes me forward, “the brains.”
I try not to scowl.
Our mother settles on Hot Pink. Smiles at her reflection in the countertop mirror; dabs, then applies smooth strokes, and presses her lips gently together.
“Perfect,” she says. Her mouth glistens.
We move toward the exit, pausing in the perfume section where she sprays the Opium tester liberally on her wrists, neck, and chest.
“Me too!” Cecily says, and receives a little squirt from the bottle.
Our mother lifts a questioning eyebrow at me. I shake my head, suppressing a cough, choked by the scent.
“How about the park?” our mother says in the car.
“Yay!” My sister claps.
She never takes us to the park. On the way, we pull into the parking lot of a variety store and our mother gives us a whole quarter each.
“Choose a treat, but make it snappy.” She lights a cigarette and exhales a plume of smoke out the open window.
We drive into the park entrance by the tennis courts, not the one by the swimming pool that my sister and I use when we come on our bikes.
“Off you go. Go play,” our mother says and points to the deserted swing set far in the distance, well behind the courts. She perches on a bench between two weeping willows. “I’ll wait for you here where there’s shade.”
We head to the swings, each clutching our brown paper bags bulging with penny candy: jawbreakers, candy necklaces, pixie sticks, and wax lips. All our favorites.
Cecily places hers on a grassy spot between the poles, jumps on a swing, and pumps her legs vigorously.
“Up! Up! Up!” she sings to herself. “Up and away!”
The brick red paint on the seats is chipped and peeling, revealing cracked, splintered wood. I sit down carefully on the swing next to hers, fearful of slivers, and sway gently back and forth, feet on the ground. Swinging makes me dizzy.
A man has joined our mother on the bench; their heads bend together. I squint, but can’t make him out. Our mother leans closer and touches his arm. I don’t like the man being there with her.
“Wheee!” My sister leaps from her swing, lands neatly in a crouch in the dirt. The chains rattle, the seat bangs the pole in her wake. Her face is pink, but not the dazzling red-pink of our mother’s new lipstick.
“I’m thirsty,” she whines. “I want to go home.” She grabs her candy and tears off toward our mother and the man. I lag behind and slip a SweeTart in my mouth. My lips pucker from the sourness as it dissolves on my tongue.
My sister is nestled between them on the bench. She offers the man a strawberry Twizzler. As I approach, our mother stands and smooths the skirt of her dress. “There you are!” Her mouth has the shape of a smile, but anger sparks her eyes. “Etta, this is Roger. My friend Gail’s husband? We just bumped into each other. You remember Gail?”
I do not. Roger is skinny with a pale reddish mustache and sideburns. His thinning hair is combed to one side. His face is scattered with freckles and his teeth are yellow and crooked.
On the car ride home, I have a bad feeling. Kind of mad. Kind of scared. I think of the man’s voice I thought I heard in the house, late one night, when our father was away.