not waving but drowning

fiction by Cher Bibler

Jane Austen is my mother’s best friend. She is always making witty remarks that only my mother can hear. Mother will give a little snort of derisive laughter and you’ll look at her wondering What now? and she’ll shrug her shoulders and tell you to never mind. As though you are too dense to understand the jokes she and Jane Austen share.

Every now and then she can’t help herself and will blurt out Jane’s latest caustic remark and my father will glare at her over his newspaper and tell us to call the psychiatrist and tell him to come cart my mother away.

Mother doesn’t really have a psychiatrist. She and Jane are of the opinion that it’s my father who really needs one.

My mother is a very pretty woman with dark hair and soft brown eyes that never quite focus on you. She has kept her figure and wears a careless assortment of clothes, gypsy-like. Men are always looking at her but she doesn’t realize it, or if she does it’s because she’s chuckling at some snide remark Jane has just made about that unfortunate fellow.

She and Jane have a very low opinion of men.

My father couldn’t care less about Jane Austen, but I suppose he must know how Jane feels about him. She tells my mom she never should’ve married him. But Mother says it’s only because she (Jane) never married so she doesn’t understand marriage’ that she thinks the best love is the kind that’s never fulfilled, that humans make a mess of everything they get involved in, including love.

She assured my brother Wickham and me that we were well worth the sacrifice of putting up with our father and that Jane is just jealous because she never had kids of her own.

My father is the kind of person who never relaxes. He always has to be doing something important. He owns a garden store and during the busy months we barely see him; he works long hours and tells us it’s because someone has to pay the bills. As though we are frittering away faster than he can earn it.

We live in a rambling old house right on the Sandusky river. When we bought it, it was pretty much of a wreck but my mother wanted it because it has a big side porch overlooking the river and she thought it would be the perfect place to write (she is a writer), so my father bought it. Being in the garden business, he felt it had to be the best landscaped house in town, and immediately began to renovate the shrubbery beds. Mother made him put in a few climbing roses and other undisciplined plants he doesn’t usually mess with, and it was just the right touch. Sometimes we get out the old real estate pictures (not good to begin with) from when we bought the house and compare. My dad is very proud of the house. The inside isn’t fixed up too much and is furnished with mismatched antiques and my mother’s collection of books. It’s very comfortable.

People are always raving about the house because it’s so old and they think it has some sort of charm you can’t get with new ones. My mother’s publisher is one of the worst, though you have to take what he says with a grain of salt (he complements you about everything). He came one day to talk her into giving a reading at school. She isn’t a very good speaker and hates doing that sort of thing but she has to because it sells books. She writes poetry, mostly, and poetry is very hard to sell.

He is a little in love with her.

“Diane,” he said to her, “you don’t know how I envy you here, on the river. I think of you and this peaceful place when I’m cooped up in my classroom;” (he is a college professor and a publisher on the side) “you have paradise here.”

Although he is only saying that as he looks into those brown eyes that never return their full attention, something most men seem to find irresistible (Why? Why aren’t they attracted to you when they think you’re listening to them?).

“Lydia,” he said to me, remembering somehow that I was there, too, “you have to convince her to come speak at Essex. They want her very badly, it would be a great honor.”

I was eating potato chips as I watched them. “Sure, Mom,” I agreed, “it’ll be fun. I can go with you and meet all those college boys.” They are always in awe of me, with my famous mother. She thinks it’s cute.

It’s usually Jane Austen, though, who talks her into these things. Jane is very vain and dearly loves an audience. My mother will send her publisher home and say Definitely NO and Jane will work on her till she changes her mind and calls him up to tell him. Then Jane gives her endless ideas for her speech. She blurts them out over supper, or after you’ve gone to bed and are half asleep.

She’ll look at you doubtfully and say, “Jane thinks I should tell the story about the time I ran over the policeman. What do you think, dear?”

You have to talk her out of most of them.

* * *

When her publisher called and said he was coming, it threw my mother into two days of worrying about how the house looked and what she should feed him, though I’m not sure why. He’s a strange person, always pretending to be real buddy-buddy with you. He gets on my nerves. She went out and bought these little herb flavored buns at the bakery and 3 bottles of white wine. No one ever drinks wine at our house any other time, but she says college professors like it.

She even folded napkins into little fans. Jane laughed at her the whole time, but it didn’t stop her. She got a little irritated at Jane once and snapped, “Well, we can’t all be so perfect, can we?”

Jane helps Mother with everything she does, except her writing. Mother is very adamant about that. She writes in her bedroom and shuts the door, and tells Jane to go watch tv or something. “I don’t need you for this,” she says.

I think that’s why she writes so much poetry, because it’s something Jane didn’t do. She wants to be judged on her own merit, and poetry is her domain.

She was cutting cheese into little squares when her publisher drove up. It’s not like she’s some big time author. Her last book probably sold fifty copies. They had to get some kind of grant to pay for it.

“No,” she said to Jane, “I’m not going to call it Swiss if it’s Gruyere.”

She tried to talk my brother, Wick, into sticking around to make an appearance, but he wouldn’t have any part of it. He can’t figure out why she tries to impress people. He disappeared upstairs.

I ran out the back door to the car, where Mother’s publisher was just getting out.

“Hi, Lydia,” he said, looking me over. “Well, well, you’re getting to be quite a little woman.”

Just the remark to warm me right up. Some people can be so tactless.

“She says to come sit on the porch,” I told him coldly.

He bent into his seedy old car and dug out his everconstant briefcase. “That sounds nice,” he said. “How are you doing in school? Still blowing them away in algebra?”

“No,” I said. It was history anyways. Two years back I’d won a stupid award and some people will never forget it, even if they can’t quite remember what it was for.

He grinned at me as we walked to the house. “I don’t believe you. You’re too modest, just like your mother. I suppose you’ve got a new boyfriend or two by now?”

As if I’d confide in you, buster.

He laughed because he thought I was embarrassed.

“I’ll bet the boys are hanging around you like flies on molasses,” he added.

“Right,” I replied. “Those sticky things.”

He settled himself into a big wicker rocker my mother had painted dark green in an attempt to match up the various pieces cluttered on the porch. She used a brush to paint it with, and it took days to finish.

Mother came out with a glass of wine in each hand. “Kevin!” she said. “How well you look.”

He stood up quickly and stepped forward t take a glass. He looked at her as though she was some sort of renegade goddess.

She sent me for the cheese.

He had papers spread out when I got back, showing her the gushy letter of invitation he’d received, and some obligatorily complimentary reviews.

She looked painfully at the potato chips I’d added to the tray and the demure little glass of wine I’d poured for myself. I don’t really like the stuff, but I can get away with anything when she’s trying to impress people.

We were on the second bottle of wine when my dad showed up. You could hear the back door slam through the house and then his heavy footfalls. “Diane?” he called.

She didn’t answer for a minute, as if hoping he’d disappear. Then simply, “Out here.”

He was asking about the mail when he spotted the wine and cheese and little herb flavored buns. He narrowed his eyes as he took in Kevin. This was a necessary evil, or unnecessary, depending on your point of view.

“Lydia,” said my mother graciously, as though my father were Fred Astaire and had made his usual debonair entrance, “go get your father a glass.”

My brother Wick was in the kitchen foraging for something to eat. “Hey, don’t take the rest of those chips,” I said.

“When’s that professor guy leaving?” he asked. “I’m hungry.”

I snatched the potato chip bag from his grasp. “Last time they ended up going out to eat and didn’t come home till midnight.”

He groaned, “Oh great. Start up the tv dinners.”

“No way,” I replied. “We’re ordering pizza.”

I took Dad the glass.

After his first dismay, he’d rebounded smoothly. I don’t know how he could’ve forgotten the guy was coming, with Mom cleaning house and driving us all crazy, but he had. This was typical of him. He didn’t think too much of her writing career or her oddball friends. But he’s a natural born talker; unlike my mother he can talk to anyone anywhere about anything, which I guess is an asset when you’re in business.

He was in the middle of telling the history of the family who used to live in our house (local bluebloods), an old story for me, so I settled down politely with my chips and a fresh glass of wine – well, it was really Mountain Dew (it tastes better), but I wanted my mother to think it was still wine. I had switched after my first glass.

My father paused in his monologue to attempt one of his rare awkward compliments to my mother (always made when we have company), “This is good cheese,” he said, chewing it slowly so as to savor its taste. “What kind is it?”

Mother’s lips twitched a little. “Swiss,” she said.

I watched her as my father talked. She seemed to shrink into an almost nonexistence when he entered a room. Her personality wasn’t strong enough to compete, but she didn’t seem to mind. She just sat and stared past them, into the yard. I knew she wasn’t listening to the conversation by her facial expressions. She was listening to Jane Austen. She always listens to Jane when my father’s around.

* * *

Once my mother said to me, “You believe in romantic love, don’t you, Lydia?” She said this incredulously as though exploring a totally new idea. “I mean, you think you’re going to meet some perfect man, like a knight on horseback, who will come and sweep you away.”

There was no answer to this, so I didn’t say anything.

She thought about it for a minute.

“I used to believe in it, too,” she said.

* * *

It was later when my father was upstairs changing to go out and I was clearing the dishes off the porch that I found my mother in the kitchen kissing her publisher. I stood in the doorway for a second, surprised; I considered backing away and pretending I hadn’t seen it, but this trait isn’t in my personality so I cleared my throat and said Excuse me in a casual tone as if I found my mother locked in mens’ arms everyday.

He let go of her fast and his face turned a deep red.

“Just put them in the sink, honey, and I’ll wash them up tomorrow,” said Mother calmly as though nothing unusual had happened. She reached up to see if her hair had gotten messed up.

I was thinking what my dad would say when he found out.

Kevin said, “I’ll go find those contracts in the car,” and disappeared out the back door.

“The potato chips are all gone,” I said. “I guess Wick must’ve polished them off.”

I added sarcastically, “ I didn’t even think you liked him.”

She looked vaguely at her reflection in the teapot, checking her makeup. She shrugged her shoulders.

“He makes me sick,” I said. “He’s such a twerp.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “They all are.”

I watched her for a minute. She rearranged the wineglasses in the sink and stacked the plates all together. I shrugged my shoulders and laughed a little. “Whatever you say.”

She looked out the window past the yard at the little woods which separates our house from the houses of mere mortals. It was just beginning to get dark and the early summer air was fragrant and fresh. Jane Austen said something that made her smile a little and she looked at me for a second, briefly, intensely, then smiled again, conspiratorially.

“It’s this gorgeous night,” she said, and repeated what Jane had told her. “This exquisite weather. I enjoy it all over me, from top to toe, from right to left, Longitudinally, Perpendicularly, Diagonally…”