Comfort food, p.20
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       Comfort Food, p.20

           Kate Jacobs
 
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  She very much wanted to get things back on track, get Gary the facilitatorback to coaching them through renditions of the hokey-pokey or somethingequally frivolous.

  “No,” said Aimee. The rest of the group, even Carmen, who exulted in defying and tormenting Gus, squirmed in their seats. It wasn’t like her, Aimee knew, to resist but she was just so tired of making everything better for Sabrina. We could all be as happy-go-lucky if everyone was picking up the pieces behind us. And it’s not like anyone was handing out medals for it.

  “Aimee!” hissed Gus. She heard a loud rip of paper from across the room and knew immediately that Hannah was opening a bag of candy. The crinklingsound told her the drug of choice today was caramels.

  They were making everyone anxious.

  “I’ll switch,” said Troy, who was sitting on Gus’s other side. He was already out of his seat.

  “No,” said Gus, in a tone that left no room for discussion. “I want Aimee and Sabrina to switch.” She could hear the collective intake of breath, the furtive unwrapping coming from Hannah’s direction. Troy hovered for a moment, then sat, then stood up again. Gus studiously ignored Gary, knowinghe was watching her every move.

  “I am not giving up my seat to her,” Aimee said. “I refuse.”

  “What are you doing, behaving this way?” Gus spoke in a low voice, only to Aimee, without turning her head toward her.

  “I like my chair,” said Aimee. “You’re not even looking at me.” She sounded sulky, so unlike herself.

  “You’re a grown woman.”

  “Sabrina’s an adult, too.”

  “Aimee, really, just move for your sister. It’s no big deal.”

  “No!” Aimee stood up and shouted. “No! Why are you always like this? What happened to you? ”

  “Can I be excused?” It was Troy, still standing, a look of alarm on his face. “I, uh, need to ... go. Uh, to the restroom.”

  “I could use some air myself,” said Oliver.

  “Me, too,” mumbled Hannah, doing more caramel chewing than talking.

  “Me three.” Well, it had to be even worse than it felt when even Carmen wasn’t enjoying the spectacle, thought Gus. She was mortified.

  “Okay, everyone, there’s a lot going on here,” said Gary, making the time-outsignal with his hands. “We’re going to take a group break and meet up again later, at two PM in the conference room here. Grab some lunch, take a walk, have a talk. Lots of talking, people.”

  Oliver approached Gus, looking concerned. “Want to join me for a little stroll?”

  She shook her head. “No, no, I can’t. It appears to be time for a Simpson family meeting. I want to meet upstairs with my girls.”

  There was no conversation in the elevator: just three women riding in stony silence. Aimee and Sabrina followed their mother to her room, which had seemed so spacious earlier but now felt cramped and uncomfortable. Gus’s cell phone, which she’d left in her room during the morning’s festivities,gave out a chirp to let her know she had a message. She ignored it.

  “Sit down,” she said. “We can order up some lunch.”

  But Aimee was pacing the patch of carpet near the bathroom.

  “Aimee, please sit,” implored Gus.

  “You don’t have to control everything, Mom! If I want to sit, I’ll sit.”

  “What’s all this?” Gus was genuinely confused. “I always let both of you do whatever you want.”

  “Let? Let? That’s the problem.” Aimee ran her fingers through her brown hair and let out a groan of frustration. “We’re not little kids here. Or, I’m not, anyway.”

  “Why are you so pissed off? I’m the one she’s smothering.” Sabrina sat cross-legged on the bed, her arms folded. “You’ve always been a miserable bitch, Aimee. You’re the anti-joy.”

  “No, you’re the one who’s always running over to Mom, taking up all of her time. You suck the oxygen out of every room you’re in,” said Aimee. “I’m sick of it. Aren’t you sick of it?” She turned her attention to Gus, who was trying to sneak a peek at her cell, which had continued to beep. What was odd was that most of the people who would call on her personal cell phone were already at the resort with her.

  “I don’t understand what’s going on with the two of you or why it’s comingup now,” Gus said. “Is this about being on the show?”

  “I never wanted to be on television,” Aimee said. “That’s you. That’s all you.”

  “It’s not easy when your mom is famous,” agreed Sabrina.

  “Don’t be ridiculous,” said Gus. “This has never been an issue before.”

  “Not for you,” Sabrina said. “You’d never guess how many people want to know me because they want to get to you.”

  “But you’re a lovely young girl.”

  “I’m not a kid, Mom,” Sabrina said. “I’m twenty-five.”

  “Yes, of course, dear.”

  “Please don’t condescend to me,” insisted Sabrina. “Really, I’m not a child.”

  “You don’t act like an adult.” Aimee sounded triumphant.

  “Is that what you do? Play the adult?” Sabrina grabbed a pillow and squeezed it into her lap. “Unlike you, I don’t think that means being the black hole of happiness.”

  “You’re not happy,” said Aimee. “You just pretend.”

  “Well, then we’re all a bunch of fakers,” Sabrina said, motioning toward Gus.

  “What on earth are the two of you talking about?” Gus’s body was tense, her jaw clenched. “I can’t believe all this childish bickering. What, in God’s name, do you want?”

  “I want you,” said Aimee softly. “Call me sometime and don’t ask about Sabrina.”

  “I do that, darling,” Gus said. “You never want to talk to me.”

  “No, you don’t,” Aimee said. “It’s always about something else.”

  “Aimee, you’ve always been so self-sufficient,” said Gus. “Independent. I’ve always counted on you because of it.”

  “Aaaahhhh!” Aimee screamed and hollered as tears began to fall. Gus felt almost light-headed with confusion and alarm.

  “You know what I want? I want Dad. I want it like it used to be. We were happy then.”

  “Things were better then,” agreed Sabrina. “You were different.”

  “We were all different,” said Gus. “Don’t you think I want him, too?” She could sense, even before it happened, the trembling in her bottom lip, the way the fears and memories rushed to the edge, eager to spill out. Stuff it down, she told herself, stuff it down. Because she knew the truth of what she had always known: once the pain started, it might never stop. And she couldn’t risk it.

  She rushed over to soothe Aimee, not merely to comfort her but also to distract her from her own emotions. It’s what she’d always done in the past. Taking care.

  “Everyone used to be nice to us because our dad was dead.” Sabrina looked worriedly in her sister’s direction, as though she’d be in trouble for revealing their shared secrets. Never tell Mom, Aimee had always said, she doesn’t need the stress. You be happy and I’ll be good. That’s what she’d told Sabrina when they whispered, late at night, their words floating over the tape running down the middle of their bedroom floor.

  We can make it okay, she’d said, if you act happy and I’m good.

  Gus brought Aimee over to the bed and guided her to sit next to Sabrina. She could see, of course, that physically they were grown women, but those were simply wrappers around them. She could much more clearly see the chubby thumb-suckers they once had been. The way they had waited on the stairs the night of the accident, long after the babysitter should have put them to sleep, Sabrina dozing and clinging to her sister, Aimee playing tough. It was all just tucked away inside.

  “Then people treated us differently because you were on TV,” continued Sabrina. “It’s weird having a famous mother. I just wish we could be a normalfamily.”

  “We are normal,” said Gus. “We’re unique.”

&n
bsp; “We haven’t been normal since Dad died,” Aimee said, hiccupping a bit from her tears. “We hardly ever talk about him, do you know that?”

  “That’s not true, Aimee! We did all that grief counseling.”

  “It’s not the same,” she said. “We talked to some outsider whom you paid.”

  “We can’t let you know the bad stuff,” whispered Sabrina. “Gotta stay upbeat.”

  Gus felt physically ill. She’d been expert at scraped knees and college applications and bad boyfriends, and she’d been justifiably proud of how she supported the family after Christopher died. But seeing her beautiful daughterscrying before her was too much.

  “That’s not true,” said Gus. “My whole world revolves around you two.”

  “No,” Sabrina said glumly. “We’re just stuck in your orbit. I told you I didn’t want Troy around but you didn’t care.”

  “I do care,” said Gus, “and that’s why I asked him on the show. You love him, I know you do.”

  “You talk a lot, Mom,” Sabrina said. “Yabber, yabber, yabber. Always tellingeveryone what to do as if you have some secret recipe for happiness. Well, I can’t be happy all of the time. And it doesn’t make it easy to tell you about the bad stuff.”

  “So what do you want to tell me?” cried out Gus, though inside, her heart was breaking. Of all the things that had hurt over the years, her daughters’ criticisms cut deep. She’d spent her entire life trying not to let them down. How strange, she thought, to be known publicly for being so nurturing and yet fail to comfort her own children. She felt naked. Disappointed.

  Her instinct was to end the conversation, change the subject, and do something with her hands to keep busy. Let’s bake a pie, she could imagine herself saying if they were at the house. Don’t we all love banana cream? And they would have gone along. Glossed over things. It’s what the Simpsonsdid. What they all did. She could see that now.

  “I thought we were doing so well,” she confided, reaching out. She held each of her daughters by the hand and squeezed gently.

  “Okay, girls,” she said, taking a deep breath and not caring that she’d begun to cry. “Lay it on and start at the beginning. We’re going to figure this out. I don’t know how. But we will.”

  They sat there, holding one another on the bed and sniffling a bit, burstingto talk and yet not knowing where to start. Over on the desk, Gus’s cell began to ring, at the same time as there was a knock at the door. A voice called Gus’s name.

  It was Alan.

  19

  He’d rehearsed What he Was going to say for the last hour. I’ve got good news, he’d say, and then hit her with the bad. Or perhaps he ought to just come right out with it. Alan had hired and fired, but he’d never had to do anything quite like this. Hell, he’d never had anything like this happento him before.

  “Hello, girls,” he said, stepping into the room when Aimee opened the door. “I need a few minutes with your mother, please.”

  They’d clearly been crying; maybe they’d heard it from someone else?

  “We’re doing some family stuff right now, Alan, though it’s nice to see you, as always.” Gus was pleasant but cool. She and Alan had been in limitedcontact since her lunch with him almost two months ago. And the Octopus Incident had truly altered her impression of Alan.

  “It’s imperative we talk immediately.”

  “Alan, if this is about that game of tag this morning, I can assure no one was being particularly mean to Carmen,” said Gus. “Whatever she might have told you.”

  “Uh, okay,” he said. “I haven’t seen Carmen yet but no doubt I’ll hear all about it. That’s not what I’m here to discuss.”

  Gus looked from Aimee to Sabrina to Alan, who all waited expectantly; she felt a strong sense of déjà vu.

  “A family shouldn’t have secrets,” she told Alan. “You can talk to me in front of the girls.”

  “Up to you,” he said.

  And that’s when the thought hit Gus: Alan was here to fire her. Carmenwas getting the show to cook up all the overcomplicated dishes she wanted to. That’s how it was going to come down: Carmen was sleeping with Alan and now Alan was going to crown her CookingChannel’s Foodie Queen. Well, it didn’t matter, did it? Gus was more than set, thank you very much. She’d tucked her pennies away with care. And now she could take her daughters and go get Hannah and say a firm goodbye to Gary Rose and his silly pseudo-therapies.

  “I know what you’re going to say,” said Gus. “So don’t bother.”

  “You do?” Alan appeared visibly relieved. “Did you get the call?”

  “So that’s why my phone has been ringing?” Gus picked up her cell phone from the desk and flipped it open.

  “18 missed calls” was displayed on the screen.

  “Couldn’t wait to tell me, could you?”

  “I just phoned once, but I didn’t leave a message.”

  “That would have been tacky,” Gus said. “Don’t you think?”

  “Yes, I do,” said Alan. “Look, I’m really sorry. I feel responsible in a way.”

  “In a way?” Gus was incredulous. “That’s rich.”

  Alan laughed bitterly. “Or something,” he said. “It’s happened to me, too.”

  “Oh, please, Alan,” said Gus. “I don’t think it’s quite the same.”

  “No, it isn’t,” he said. “I still own the channel. That’s cushioned the blow.”

  Gus appraised Alan closely. “I could just quit, make it easy.”

  “What? First off, we have a contract. And second of all, what are you going to live on?” Alan looked around the room, then picked up the ice bucket and handed it to Sabrina, motioning that she should get some ice. Aimee joined her, hoping to give her mother some privacy with Alan.

  “It’s the shock, that’s all,” he said. “Let’s get you a drink.”

  Rummaging through the minibar, he pulled out a selection of tiny bottles.

  “What’s your poison?”

  “Don’t be ridiculous,” said Gus. “Those things cost a jillion dollars.”

  “It’s on the CookingChannel,” Alan said with a flourish. "C’mon, I’ll make it a double.”

  “I thought I’d at least get a going-away party and a cake,” spat out Gus. “After twelve years it’s a drink from the minibar and the old heave-ho?”

  “A triple,” Alan said, as Sabrina came back with the ice. “Drinks all around.”

  “We’re celebrating,” Gus said to her daughter, feeling woozy even though she hadn’t had a drop. “Alan is firing me but I’m quitting first.”

  "What?” said Aimee and Sabrina in unison.

  “What the hell? Gus, have you seen the news today?”

  “Hardly, Alan,” Gus said, a bit primly. “I’ve been running around on the lawn in capri pants. By your decree.”

  “I only insisted on a weekend retreat, Gus,” he said. “The capri pants were optional.”

  “I always thought I’d write a rather sentimental resignation letter,” she was saying, more to herself than to anyone. “Something handwritten, about how much I’ve loved the CookingChannel and how it’s changed my life. But that it was time to move on. Kisses and hugs and all of that.”

  “Did your mother hit her head out there this morning?” Alan asked Sabrina.

  “It’s been a rough day in general,” said Aimee.

  “We’d have a clip show, all the bloopers. The kettle fire, of course.” Gus continued to talk. “That would have been fun.”

  “Focus, Gus, focus!” Alan was shouting. He put a tumbler filled with an amber liquid in her hand. “Whiskey. Now drink up.”

  “Why not, right, girls?” Gus tilted her head and gulped down the entire thing.

  “Holy crap,” said Alan. “Slow down there, cowgirl.”

  “You can’t tell me what to do anymore,” said Gus. “You are not, as they say, the boss of me. Anymore.”

  “Yes, I am,” Alan said. He grabbed the remote control and flicked on a twenty-four
-hour news channel, which had a “Breaking News” graphic flashing on the screen.

  “Looks like a lot of your favorite TV and Hollywood stars are out of a heckuvalot of cash,” the perky newscaster in a blond helmet/hairstyle was saying. “Turns out that popular money manager David Fazio was a con artist. Federal agents have been investigating—” Alan pressed the mute button.

  “You’re not out of a job, Augusta.” He soberly poured her another glass of whiskey. “You’re out of a lot of money. And so am I.”

  “I beg your pardon?”

  Aimee adjusted the TV to closed captioning, so she could read what the announcer was saying. It appeared that her mother’s investment manager had stolen from an impressive list of trusting celebrities. He, and the cash, had vanished.

  “Here’s the deal: David Fazio has taken all our money and is sitting on a beach in Brazil with a floozy in a thong.” Alan added more ice to his glass.

  “What?”

  “Maybe she’s a brunette,” Alan said drily. “Maybe it’s the French Riviera. Either way, he’s run off with our cash.”

  “Go slower,” Gus said, sinking into a chair. “Though I’m quite sure you’re mistaken. Last year I got a twenty percent return.”

  “So did a lot of people. That return wasn’t from your money being invested,” Alan said. “It was simply taken from the new dumb schmuck investors who wanted to work with the guy who was the money manager to the stars.”

  “I’m, I’m . . .” Gus found herself at a loss for words. Aimee came over and stood behind her, rubbing her shoulders.

  “Your money isn’t sitting in a bank somewhere, Gus, nor mine, either,” he said. “It never was. He’s been using it, spending it, all along.”

  “But the statements . . .”

  “Fake,” Alan said, coming around with little bottles to top up everyone’s drinks.

  “Alan, I’ve been David’s client since you introduced us. And he’s beaten the stock market every year. I had some trouble reaching him this morning but this news makes no sense,” she said.

  “Fazio played us all,” he explained. “He used our funds to try and attract new clients with expensive parties and flashy dinners, then, once he had their money, too, he took it all.”

 
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