I knew I was being difficult, not to mention petulant. I also knew I'd go to the meeting and put on my best face, because being difficult and petulant was about as bad as I got when it came to my mother. After all, I was the nice one.
"Well," she said now, in her small voice. "I could call Lindy and tell her you just can't do it, if you like. I'm happy to do that."
"No," I said as I finally reached the top of the parking lot, putting on my blinker. "It's okay. I'll go."
I'd been modeling for as long as I could remember. Actually, it was even before that. I'd done my first shoot when I was nine months old, wearing onesies for a SmartMart Sunday circular, a job I'd gotten when my mother, her sitter having fallen through, had to bring me along to one of my sister Whitney's go-sees. The woman hiring asked her if I was available, my mother said yes, and that was that.
The whole modeling thing had started, though, with Kirsten. She was eight when a talent agent caught up with my mom and dad in the parking lot after her ballet recital, offering them a card and saying they should give him a call. My father had laughed, assuming it was a scam, but my mom was intrigued enough to take Kirsten in for an appointment. The agent had immediately set her up for an audition for a local car-dealership commercial, which she didn't get, followed by a print ad for Easter festivities at the Lakeview Mall, which she did. My modeling career began with onesies, but Kirsten could claim bunnies, or at least one very big one, leaning over to put a shiny egg in her basket as she, in a puffy white dress, smiled into the camera.
Once Kirsten started getting regular work, Whitney wanted to try it as well, and soon they were both making the rounds, often even going up for the same jobs, which only added to the natural friction between them. Their looks, though, were as distinct and different as their temperaments. Whitney was the beauty, with the perfect bone structure and haunting eyes, while Kirsten was somehow able to convey her bubbly personality with just one look. Whitney did better in print, but Kirsten popped on screen. And so on.
Because of this, by the time I started modeling, my family was well known on the local circuit, which consisted mostly of print ads for department and discount stores and regionally cast and shot commercials. While my dad chose to take a hands-off approach to us working—as he did to everything even vaguely girly, from Tampax to broken hearts—my mother thrived on it. She loved ferrying us to jobs, talking business with Lindy on the phone and gathering pictures to update our books. But when she was asked about it, she always pointed out first that it was our choice, not hers. "I would have been happy to have them making mud pies in the backyard," I'd heard her tell people a million times. "But this is what they wanted to do."
In truth, though, my mother loved the modeling, too, even if she didn't want to admit it. But I believed it was even more than that. In some way, I thought that it had saved her.
Not at first, of course. Initially, for her, our modeling was just a fun hobby, something for her to do when she wasn't having to work at my dad's office, which we joked was the most fertile place on the planet, as the secretaries were always getting pregnant, leaving it to my mom to answer the phones until he found a replacement. But then, the year I turned nine, my grandmother died, and something changed.
My own memories of my grandmother are distant, muted, based more on photographs I'd seen than on any real events. My mom was an only child and very close to her own mother, even though they lived on opposite coasts and saw each other only a few times a year. They talked on the phone almost every morning, usually while my mom had her midmorning cup of coffee. Like clockwork, if you came into the kitchen around ten thirty, you'd find her in the chair facing the window, stirring cream into a mug, the phone cocked between her ear and shoulder. To me, it always sounded like the most boring of conversations, solely about people I'd never met, or whatever my mom had cooked the night before, or even my own life, which sounded deadly dull, as well, relayed this way. For my mom, though, it was different. Crucial. How much so, we didn't realize until after my grandmother was gone.
It wasn't like my mom had ever been some pillar of strength. She was a quiet woman, soft-spoken, with a kind face—the sort of person you'd look for if you were out in public somewhere and something bad happened, an instant comfort. I'd always relied on my mom to be just that, exactly as she always had been, which was why the change in her in the weeks following my grandmother's funeral was so strange. She just got… quieter. Still. There was suddenly something haunted and tired about her face, so obvious that even I, at nine, could see it. At first, my dad just assured us that it was the normal grief process, that my mother was tired, and she'd be fine. But as time went on, she didn't get better. Instead she started sleeping later, and then later, until she sometimes didn't get out of bed at all. When she was up, I'd sometimes come into the kitchen midmorning to find her sitting in that same chair, empty mug in her hands, looking out the window.
"Mom," I'd say, and she wouldn't respond, so I'd say it again. Sometimes it took three times before she'd slowly begin to turn her head, but when she did I would suddenly feel scared, like I didn't want to see her face after all. Like in those few moments, she might have changed again, shifting deeper into someone I didn't recognize.
My sisters remembered this time better than I did, as they were older and therefore privy to more information. And in typical fashion, they each had their own way of dealing with it. It fell to Kirsten to take care of things around the house, like cleaning and making our lunches, when my mom wasn't up to it, which she did with her usual bravado, as if nothing was wrong at all. Whitney, on the other hand, I often found outside my mother's half-closed bedroom door, listening or peering in, but she'd always move on when I saw her, not meeting my eyes. As the youngest, I wasn't sure how to react, other than to just try not to make trouble or ask too many questions.
My mother's condition quickly grew to dictate our lives. It was the barometer by which we judged everything. In my mind, it all came down to the first glimpse I had of her each morning. If she was up and dressed at a decent hour and making breakfast, things would be okay. But if she wasn't and I found my dad in the kitchen instead, doing his best with cold cereal and toast, or even worse, if neither of them was in sight, I knew it was not going to be a good day. Maybe it was a rudimentary system, but it worked, more or less. And it wasn't like I had a lot else to go on.
"Your mother isn't feeling well," was all my dad would say when we asked after her as we sat around the dining-room table, my mother's place glaringly empty, or when she didn't emerge from her room all day, the only view of her a lump under the covers, barely visible in a sliver of light from the drawn shades. "We all just need to do the best we can to make things easy for her until she feels better. Okay?"