The whole thing started with a jar of strawberry jam.
Mom had served us pancakes for breakfast that morning. I always smothered mine in maple syrup. Clarissa was more meticulous. She liked to spread hers with jam, roll it up, slice it in half, and sprinkle the top with powdered sugar. She called this concoction a crêpe. I called it a waste of time.
In one hole and out the other, am I right?
Point is, my sister was the most finicky eater you could ever imagine. Her pancakes always had to be cut right down the middle. Her jam always had to be strawberry-flavored, no exceptions. That’s why it came as a surprise when she skipped over her usual fancy ass flapjack-burrito treatment that morning.
“Aren’t you going to put anything on that?” I asked.
“Can’t,” she said. “I’m on a diet.”
Mom raised an eyebrow. “A diet? You’re just skin and bones, sweetie. You don’t need to lose any weight.”
“You’re always on a diet,” Clarissa pointed out.
She was right. Mom would sip on coffee throughout the day and eat a small salad for dinner every night. The only time I ever saw her eat a full meal, if you could call it that, was the night I went into the kitchen for a glass of water and caught her gorging on cookies.
Talk about awkward.
Mom had been an aspiring model when she was in her early twenties. She never walked the runways of Milan, but she did manage to get into a couple of J.C. Penny catalogue ads. Staying thin had been part of the job description. She told us she knew of supermodels that lived off nothing but carrots and cotton balls dipped in orange juice. Mom eventually gave up modeling to raise a family, but she stayed on her low-calorie diet long after trading in photo shoots for dirty diapers. I guess old eating habits die hard.
“Besides,” Clarissa continued, “Miss Dubrosse says I need to lose some weight.”
Darcey Dubrosse was Clarissa’s ballet teacher and Mom’s longtime rival. She had been a famous prima ballerina in her youth, and Clarissa worshiped her like a god.
“If Miss Dubrosse jetéd off a bridge, would you jeté off too?” Mom would often joke with obvious irritation.
Miss Dubrosse was known for two things: her fire-engine red hair, and her red-hot temper. Her critiques could be cruel and she often sent her students home crying. Mom only put up with her because she was supposedly the best in the valley. Truth be told, she scared me a little. Her sharp, angular face reminded me of a dragon. I once saw her fingernails up close and I swear to god they were filed into points. I wouldn’t be surprised if deep down inside, Darcey Dubrosse was really an ancient reptilian monster that clawed its way into a human host.
“I should have known Darcey was behind this,” Mom said. She reached across the table and grabbed the jar of strawberry jam. “So you gained a couple of pounds this summer, big deal. You’re a growing girl. You need to eat.” She dug a spoon into the jar.
“Mo-ther, what are you doing?” Clarissa smacked the spoon away from her plate. “Stop it. I’m old enough to make my own decisions.”
“I never said you weren’t, sweetheart. I’m just concerned about your health.”
“My health?,” Clarissa laughed, “What a load of crock. You just want me to get fat so you can watch me fall on my face when I’m onstage. I see right through you, Mother. You’re jealous.”
I nearly choked on my pancake.
It wasn’t like Clarissa to talk smack. Mom must have been pretty shocked too, because she lost her grip on the jar. It rolled off the table and shattered on the floor. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, Clarissa went in for the clincher.
“It’s not my fault your modeling career never took off. It’s your fault. You’re the one who got knocked up. If you’d been focusing on your career instead of screwing around with boys, maybe you wouldn’t have become the pathetic no-name housewife you are today.”
Dear god. If that didn’t get my sister grounded, I didn’t know what would.
Mom sat in stunned silence. The dining room was so quiet I could hear the clock ticking on the wall. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Tick, Clarissa has officially lost her mind, tock. Finally, Mom cleared her throat.
“I won’t lie to you, Clarissa. When I found out I was pregnant I was devastated. But you know what? Raising the two of you has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. There are some things that are more important than being famous, you know.”
That was it? I couldn’t believe it. I say the word “fuck” and get grounded for a week. Clarissa verbally assaults our mom and gets a heart-felt pep talk.
“This isn’t about being famous, Mother. This is about believing in myself. I believe I have what it takes to make it big. I guess you don’t.”
“Clarissa, I never said…”
“Stop it. Just stop it. I’m sick of talking about this.” Clarissa pushed her plate towards me. “Here, Sam. You can have my pancake. I’ve lost my appetite.” She stomped out of the dining room and slammed the door behind her.
Mom sank back into her seat. She breathed out a long, heavy sigh of exasperation. Most of the time she looked younger than her age, but at that moment she looked positively ancient.
“Sam, go get the paper towels. I need to get this jam off the rug before it stains.”
She never did get that stain out.