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"Don't get it, " I said as I heard the ringtone of our apartment phone. Call it a premonition, paranoia, but something about that sound severed every comfortable feeling I had managed to stitch around myself.
"It's a 281 number," my boyfriend Dane said, sautéing tofu in a pan, dumping in a can of organic tomato sauce. Dane was a vegan, which meant we used soy protein in place of ground beef in our chili. It was enough to make any native-born Texan cry, but for Dane's sake I was trying to get used to it. "I can see it on the caller ID."
281. Houston. Those three digits were enough to start me hyperventilating. "It's either my mother or my sister," I said desperately. "Let the machine pick up." I hadn't spoken to either of them in at least two years.
Pausing in the act of stirring a handful of frozen veggie crumbles into the sauce, Dane said, "You can't run away from your fears. Isn't that what you always tell your readers? "
I was an advice columnist for Vibe, a magazine about relationships and sex and urban culture. My column, called "Ask Miss Independent," had started at a student-run publication, and I had quickly developed a following. Upon graduating, I'd taken Miss Independent to Vibe, and they offered me a weekly feature. Most of my advice was posted publicly, but I also sent private paid-for replies to those who requested it. To supplement my income, I also did occasional freelancing for women's magazines.
"I'm not running away from my fears," I told Dane. "I'm running away from my relatives."
"Just pick it up, Ella. You always tell people to face their problems."
"Yes, but I prefer to ignore mine and let them fester." I sidled closer to the phone and recognized the number. "Oh God. It's Mom."
"Go on," Dane said. "What's the worst that could happen?"
I stared at the phone with fearful loathing. "In the space of thirty seconds, she could say something that would send me back to therapy indefinitely."
"If you don't find out what she wants," Dane said, "you'll worry about it all night."
I let out an explosive breath and snatched up the phone. "Hello?"
"Ella. This is an emergency!"
To my mother, Candy Varner, everything was an emergency. She was a shock-and-awe parent, the ultimate drama queen. But she had covered it up so adeptly that few people suspected what went on behind closed doors. She had demanded her daughters' collusion in the myth of our happy family life, and Tara and I had given it to her without question.
At times Mom wanted interaction with my younger sister and me, but she quickly became impatient and surly. We learned to watch for every sign that would indicate the fluctuations of her mood. We had been storm chasers, trying to stay close to the twister without getting swept up in it.
I headed to the living room, away from Dane and the clatter of pans. "How are you, Mom? What's going on?"
"I just told you. An emergency! Tara came to visit today. Just appeared with no warning. She has a baby."
"Her own baby?"
"What would she be doing with someone else's baby? Yes, it's hers. You didn't know she was pregnant? "
"No," I managed to say, groping for the back of the sofa. I propped myself against it, half-sitting, half-leaning. I felt sick to my stomach. "I didn't. We haven't been in touch."
"When was the last time you picked up the phone to call her? Have you thought about either of us, Ella? Your only family? Do we have any place on your list of priorities?"
I was struck mute, my heart pounding like a dryer full of wet sneakers as an awful-familiar feeling from my childhood settled over me. But I was no longer a child. Reminding myself that I was a woman with a college degree, a career, a steady boyfriend, and a circle of good friends, I managed to answer calmly, "I sent cards."
"They weren't sincere. That last Mother's Day card didn't say one word about all the things I did for you while you were growing up. All the happy times."
I clasped my hand to my forehead in the hopes that it would keep my brain from exploding. "Mom, is Tara there now?"
"Would I be calling you if she was? She—" My mother was cut off by the angry wail of an infant in the background. "Can you hear what I'm dealing with? She left it here, Ella! She's gone! What am I supposed to do?"
"Did she say when she was coming back?"
"And there was no guy with her? Did she say who the father was? "
"I don't think she knows. She has ruined her life, Ella. No man will ever want her after this."
"You might be surprised," I said. "A lot of unmarried women have babies nowadays."
"There's still a stigma. You know what I went through to keep that from happening to you and Tara."
"After your last husband," I said, "I think we would have preferred the stigma."
Her tone turned icy. "Roger was a good man. That marriage would have lasted if you and Tara had ever learned to get along with him. It wasn't my fault that my own children drove him away. He loved you girls, and you never gave him a chance."
I rolled my eyes. "Roger loved us a little too much, Mom."
"What do you mean?"
"We had to sleep with a chair wedged against the door to keep him out of our bedroom at night. And I don't think he was planning to straighten our covers."