It was 6:00 am when Tamara’s mother shouted, “Clean up your mess before our guests come!” Tamara pretended to stay asleep. Why did she to have to wake up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday?
Tamara’s door flung open. Her mother’s bleach-blond hair was blinding.
“Tamara. Now. We only have a few hours, and other than the mess in the living room we both know how long it takes for you to shape yourself into something presentable,” said her mother.
Tamara knew she wasn’t going to win this battle. As if she were tearing off a bandage, she yanked off her covers and pulled herself out of the haven of comfort that was her bed.
The “mess” Tamara’s mother was referring to was actually just a stack of calculus worksheets. Tamara had always enjoyed math; she loved finding patterns and making sense of things. Her mother took no interest in her Tamara’s talent. Tamara’s mother took pride in keeping an immaculate, magazine-worthy living room, hosting lavish luncheons and dinner parties, and maintaining the honor of the van Vankelspiel name, especially after her husband had left the family. Tamara knew that Ms. van Vankelspiel had always wanted a daughter so that she could dress her up, go shopping with her, get mani-pedis together--all the things mothers and daughters were supposed to do. Now that Tamara was fourteen, bonding over any of those activities seemed unlikely.
On Tamara’s fifth birthday, Ms. van Vankelspiel took Tamara to a beauty salon. Little Tamara didn’t exactly know what this place was, but she knew she was being pushed into a chair. Strange women started pulling at her hair and prodding her face. Pretty soon Tamara was covered in makeup, and her hair was in a ponytail so high and tight that it hurt her scalp.
“Look at you! You’re so mature now,” said her mother. But Tamara didn’t want to look mature. She wanted to estimate the number of jelly beans in the candy store and win that giant, fluffy, brown teddy bear with the buttons and the bow tie, just like Daddy had taught her. Tamara figured that there were about seventy jelly beans at the base of the jar...multiply that by 45-ish, and…
“3150!” Tamara shouted.
“Tamara, keep your voice down. You’re a lady now, remember?”
Now Tamara was seated on the couch in the dress her mother had picked out for her. The dress was the exact same shade of pink as the fake flowers in the vase on the coffee table. It was stiff, just like the recently upholstered cushions. And just like all the furniture and decor in the living room, the dress made Tamara feel exposed; one thread out of place and she would never hear the end of it from her mother. Why did she have to pretend to enjoy this?
Tamara looked around at the idyllic environment her mother had concocted. Sun filtered through a large bay window, illuminating the warm oak of the tables. The pillows were plumped and evenly spaced on the couches and chairs. Antique plates lined the shelves. The patterns looked like plastered smiles. There was a small stack of books on the coffee table, artfully selected because the books’ jackets matched the color scheme of the room. Nobody would ever actually read them. Their family portraits hung in a corner on the wall, but Tamara’s father’s face had been replaced with a landscape of a mountain range. A pristine, white rug held the room’s ensemble together.
Never before had Tamara felt so uncomfortable in a place designed to be so relaxing.
Most of the guests arrived on time. The ones who were even more pompous than her mother came “fashionably late.” Ms. van Vankelspiel gave each guest a European-style air-kiss.
“Tamara, you look lovely,” said one of her mother’s older friends. Tamara didn’t know the woman’s name. “That dress really accentuates your womanly features.”
“Thanks,” said Tamara, through gritted teeth. Everything was a comment on her appearance. She had “filled out,” as her mother’s guests liked to say. She was also apparently taller and had healthier hair, but needed to stand straighter because that’s what young ladies are supposed to do.
It wasn’t fun to listen to other people’s conversations, either. Surprise, surprise--someone was now head of the party-planning committee at their country club. Someone else was promoted to assistant to the regional manager of their company’s marketing department. Tamara tried to inch her way up the stairs to the refuge of her room. Somehow, Ms. van Vankelspiel’s glare pierced through the throng of guests. The escape would have to wait.
Tamara made her way to the punch bowl, and pretended to be interested in a skinny, crisply-dressed woman bragging about her son.
“Edward is editor-in-chief of his school’s newspaper this year. He’s following in his father’s footsteps!”
Tamara smiled and nodded as she filled her cup to the brim with the deep red drink. It was all smiles and laughs, small talk disguised as something more, until the cup of punch just slipped, spiralling out of Tamara’s hand, falling, falling, her heart stopping, liquid arcing into indescribable shapes, spilling all over the white rug.
The room was quiet. Everyone stared at the big splotch of pink on the once-white rug.
“No matter! I’ve got towels,” said Ms. van Vankelspiel, her voice an octave higher than normal. Realizing that they weren’t helping by just gaping at the mess, Ms. van Vankelspiel’s guests rushed to help. In the flurry, Ms. van Vankelspiel grabbed Tamara by the arm and led her into the supply closet off of the kitchen.
“What was that?” asked Ms. van Vankelspiel.
“It was an accident.”
“Oh, please. What kind of person fills their cup to the top and walks near a white rug? My god, Tamara, I shouldn’t have to be telling you this. You’re a young lady!”
“Don’t call me that!”
“Oh, so you want to me a young man now, is that it?”
“You know what I mean!”
“Tamara,” her mother said with a sigh, “you have so few responsibilities. I don’t understand why you can’t at least pretend to be enjoying yourself at this party.”
“Oh, right. Because I’m genuinely fascinated hearing your friends talk about their promotions and their country clubs and editor-in-chief sons.”
“Tamara, I’m trying to prepare you for the real world. No one will want to date you if your head is always buried in a textbook.”
“If you’re such an expert on relationships, why is Dad off with someone else?”
Tamara’s mother froze. For a second, her face seemed to crumple, a flash of vulnerability. Ms. van Vankelspiel let out a sigh, turned around, and returned to her guests. Tamara was alone in the dark of the closet. She huddled in the corner. For the first time, Tamara noticed the heaping, precarious piles of papers and photos, memories shoved away beneath clean-pressed laundry and designer dresses. Tamara crawled to a teetering stack of photos and picked up the one from the top, careful not to let the others fall. The picture was of her parents, smiling. Tamara’s mother was wearing a flowery sundress, something Tamara had never seen her mother wear before. And of course there was Tamara’s father, in his spectacles. Tamara thought back to the jab she had made at her mother, and a stinging sensation of guilt overcame her. She sat in disbelief as the noise of the gathering went on.