The Hard Way

Julie Luongo

Forge Books

Beach Bar with Tequila

(Watercolor on Paper, 1990)

The death of Lucy’s father marked the moment when three women began their lives as new people. Lucy heroically forged ahead, imagining her dad cheering her along. Her sister, nineteen years Lucy’s senior, fell gloriously apart. And their mother, after the grief, started dating a dynamic entrepreneur. It was the sort of coupling that everyone looked at and said involuntarily, "Of course."

Lucy was the collegiate quasi-feminist who was studying journalism and demanded to be called a "woman." Nancy, her sister, was the black-clad pharmacist who lit a candle each night in remembrance and cried herself to sleep. And Margaret, their mother, was the global excursionist who was renewed by adoration and basked in the extravagance of new love.

Margaret, in what Lucy figured was a postcoital moment of sentiment, decided to rent a place in Mexico for Christmas break. She and Eli, the new boyfriend, would stay two weeks— his kids would come for Hanukkah and hers for Christmas. "It couldn’t have worked out more perfectly," Margaret told Lucy, "the holidays butting up against each other this year."

"Thank Jesus," Lucy said, "and those tricky Romans for their acute sense of timing."

"Nancy’s coming, without Bob, just for a couple days. But you’re on break, right? I can book your ticket for the whole week?"

The thought of Nancy without Bob was unsettling to Lucy. She only knew them as a unit. A matched, however mismatched, set. NancyanBob. BobanNancy. It had recently occurred to her that her sister might be gay. This was a default theory Lucy and her roommate Jayne brewed when Lucy admitted that she couldn’t conjure an image of BobanNancy ever having an intimate, sexual moment. Her own sexual moments were no inspiration, but still, she couldn’t even place NancyanBob in one of her awkward fumblings that passed for sex.

Amorphous, dumpy Bob and compact, muscular Nancy. They didn’t make sense. Jayne was bisexual and said she could imagine Nancy having sex, only it was with her. She was forever categorizing people as "doable" or "avoidable." So, instead of studying for their economics exam, Jayne and Lucy began the saga of BobanNancy’s elaborate cover-up scheme.

Bob and Nancy married in the 1970s, when being gay was something newspapermen accused politicians of as if it were akin to being a murderer. So, under this pressure, they married and happily conducted their private affairs.

The only problem Lucy had with this theory was, if they were cohorts of that sort, then they’d most likely be better friends than they were. They would share stories. "I almost slipped at work and said that Sharon and I were in Barbados," Nancy would tell Bob over a cup of morning coffee. "I covered up by saying ‘sharing an eye . . . for beauty, Bob and I really enjoyed the sunsets in Barbados.’ " Bob would laugh, rub his stubby hands together, and tell her that no one would ever suspect a thing.

Nancy’s considerable grieving over their father’s death confused Lucy even further about the forces that motivated her sister. Nancy would call Lucy at college and wail into the phone, "I just miss him so much."

The first time Nancy called crying like this, Lucy asked, "Who?" It had been over a year, which Lucy knew was not a mile marker of any significance when it came to the personal process of grieving. She was ashamed of herself. Why did she feel okay about his death? Why didn’t she know her sister better? Why did she wish her sister had called someone else?

Nancy called repeatedly to cry to Lucy, who was usually typing furiously to make deadline for the campus newspaper or finish a report due the next day. The phone crimped between her shoulder and ear, she would say, "Uh-huh . . . I know . . . uh-huh . . . I know," only half listening.

Jayne would mouth "Nancy?" and, not cruelly, more inquisitively, put her fists to her cheeks in the universal sign for boo hoo.

Lucy would nod and roll her eyes. Sometimes she would motion for Jayne to take the phone from her while she ran to the bathroom. Jayne would dutifully "uh-huh" and "I know" in Lucy’s stead.

* * * 

Lucy arrived at the airport in Mexico to a grand reception by Carlo, the cabdriver Lucy’s mother hired for the week. He was holding Lucy’s high school photo and smiling that island smile that said, "Welcome home, finally."

"Oh, Lulu," Carlo said in his heavy accent, calling her by her childhood nickname, "shoo are so mush prettier than this pick-ja." Lucy adored compliments, so she and Carlo were instant friends.

Lucy’s college weight gain had been a topic of conversation and open speculation among her family, and she hadn’t been expecting to hear any compliments on this vacation. In fact, she was glad a stranger was there to greet her.

She had unnecessarily braced herself for repeats of the past year:

At her father’s funeral, her mother had said tentatively, "You look . . . healthy."

"It’s just college weight," Nancy had said, making it clear what everyone was thinking. "You’ll take it off."

That Christmas, her mother had said, "It’s not as easy as you thought. You really have to watch what you eat. And get out there and move around a bit."

Her sister, with a sniffle, had said, "Daddy used to gain weight like that."

The truth was that Lucy liked the extra weight. She was more the milk-fed farmer’s daughter than she was the Czechoslovakian immigrant anyway. But she played along and listened to their suggestions, and then ate whatever she wanted. It wasn’t too much of a strain to pretend she had the same standard of beauty as everyone else.

They were constantly cheering her on to "get moving." But she’d always been something of a drowsy child, which suited everyone just fine back then. But even Lucy had a sport; hers was tennis. On the ride to the bungalow, she asked Carlo if it was possible to schedule a daily match with someone at the tennis club. His cousin would make the arrangements, he said.

Then he got on his radio and spoke in Spanish for a few minutes about la gordita who wanted jugar al tenis.

That would please her mother and Nancy, she thought. It was her preemptive strike against the inevitable bombing she was to get for her pants, which were stretched across her butt, and the oversized button-up she hadn’t buttoned up too high so as to show off her cleavage. It was the feature that benefited the most from the extra weight.
 
* * * 

Lucy had met Eli only once before, for dinner at the best restaurant near Lucy’s college in Philadelphia the night before he and her mother flew to Athens. She arrived at the bungalow expecting to find the two of them leaning close, holding hands, and sipping champagne, which was their standard position the evening Lucy spent with them. In fact, Lucy realized that she only ever pictured Eli and her mother eating in that restaurant. Lucy often wondered why her mother didn’t look as "healthy" as she did with all of that eating. But her mother, at sixty-one, was as trim and beautiful as ever.

What she arrived to was a house of sullen thirty- and fortysomethings hosted by teenagers in their sixties. Her mother and Eli were in the kitchen—Margaret was cutting cheese and Eli was unwrapping poppy-seed crackers. They were giggling and grab-assing, from what Lucy could tell from her mother’s swivels and jerks behind the counter that separated them from the sitting area.

To Lucy’s shock, Eli’s adult children were still in tow. Son, Ezra, daughter, Maura, and her husband, Joe, were glowering in the living room, ignoring each other and the antics in the kitchen, watching local news. Why would they care? Lucy wondered. Who watched local news on vacation? The woman on TV was speaking muy ápidamente about a fight that had broken out in her neighborhood. Lucy figured they all understood Spanish, because they were so engrossed that no one stood to greet Lucy when Margaret introduced her. But Margaret was unfazed. She just happily hustled Lucy off to the bedroom she was sharing with Nancy.

"Settle in, dear, and come out for cocktails," her mother said as she pushed her into the room and shut the door.

Lucy heard the news droning and her mother saying, "Eli, don’t you dare," followed by muffled giggles.

Nancy was sitting at the end of one of the twin beds, face puffy and eyes red.

"Isn’t it just awful?" Nancy rose and embraced Lucy.

Lucy had never felt much sisterly camaraderie with Nancy. There was the age difference and the impenetrable Nancyan- Bob alliance. But she hugged her and asked, "What?"

Nancy looked at her, stricken. "Oh, you’ll see. The way Mother and Eli carry on. It’s disgraceful."

"What are they doing?" Lucy had an image of her mother topless on the beach alongside Eli in a thong, passing a joint back and forth, drunkenly cursing at small children.

"They’re just so . . ." Nancy burst into tears again, plopped her butt on the edge of her twin bed, and buried her nose and mouth in a crumpled tissue.

"Unhygienic? Drug crazed? Unsuited?" Lucy ventured.

"How would Daddy feel if he saw this?" Nancy asked.

"Happy to be alive?"

Nancy glared at Lucy. "She and Aristotle Onassis are carrying on like—"

"Lovers?"

"Mom’s just lonely. This is the product of that and nothing else."

"First of all," Lucy said, "if Eli resembles anyone famous it’s Mel Brooks, which is an insult to Mel Brooks. Secondly, if Dad could see this, he’d probably say what everyone else is saying, which is ‘yeah, that makes sense.’ "

Nancy stiffened. Lucy knew she was supposed to be her sister’s ally. But she barely knew this blubbering thirty-nine-year old woman sitting on the tropical-print bedspread who was begrudging her mother happiness and begrudging herself a nice vacation.

"You’ll see," Nancy sniffed. "I’ve only been here a day and I give you that long to abhor his kids and Mother’s antics."

"Let’s just have a good time." Lucy put her arm around her sister’s taut body, stiff with overworked muscles and tension.

"Just us, and forget everyone else."

Nancy smiled a little, and Lucy was fully convinced that it meant Nancy was imagining her next step in the plot against her mother and Eli. "That would be nice," Nancy said, "but I’m probably going to change my ticket."

There it was. The plot. Lucy thought she should be so lucky to have Nancy leave. So she just shrugged, stood, and unpacked. Lucy stuffed bathing suits and beach wraps into a musty drawer.

"And those kids," Nancy said. "Eli and Mother wanted us to overlap." Nancy went to the connecting bathroom and splashed water on her face. "They should have checked with us, but Mother said she thought it would be fun."

"What are they like?" Lucy asked.

"The daughter is the worst. Very unkind to Mother. Her husband is nice enough. Drinks a lot and doesn’t say much.

And the boy, Ezra, is a complete waste. Never married. College instructor. He might be gay."

"What makes you say that?" Lucy listened with renewed interest. She thought she might make some headway with her admittedly wild theory about NancyanBob.

"He’s sort of effete in that academic way. And he reminds me of someone I know who’s gay," Nancy said.

"Oh?" Lucy tried to sound casual. "Who?"

"What difference does it make?" Nancy huffed. "You wouldn’t know him anyway."

Lucy wasn’t any closer to understanding this steaming creature that was her sister. Her half-joking speculations about sexual orientation aside, she really did want to know about this gay acquaintance of Nancy’s. Or any friend, for that matter. Her sister had become someone Lucy knew only through her histrionics: "This is terrible . . . that is awful . . . you should have seen . . . can you believe . . . ?" Lucy knew Nancy’s annoyances well enough. She pictured her huddled with Bob in her far too-big-for-two house, huffing about the injustices meted out to her that day. "The cashier shorted me five cents. I just stood there with my hand out and waited. . . . I do not have the cannoli for tonight because I got to the bakery and they told me that the woman who makes the filling was in the hospital. I told the girl I ordered them a week ago. Couldn’t they have gotten them from another bakery? . . . If they block the driveway again I am suing them!"

Lucy thought of her sister as one of those hateful women who lost her looks and took it out on everyone because she thought she was being slighted for it. Lucy scolded herself for this decidedly unfeminist thought. Plus, it couldn’t even be true. Nancy hadn’t lost her looks. Damn, another unfeminist though. Lucy was terrible at being a feminist. She was considering abandoning it. She read a women’s magazine on the plane and felt like shrilly defending the regular women of the world who didn’t have time to take oatmeal baths and ponder the erotic secrets of the Orient in order to please their men. But she didn’t like either scenario—being the defender or the half-wit.

While she was revamping her opinions about things, she decided to abandon the homosexual theory about Nancyan-Bob. She was being far too generous to her sister by making her life somewhat interesting via this scenario. Nancy was really just a fuming little beast whose superpower seemed to be the perception of mythic injustices.

"Lulu," Nancy said, watching Lucy dress, "you’re not wearing a bikini, are you?"

"I was going to," Lucy said, tying a wrap around her waist.

"Still can’t shake those extra pounds? Have you been drinking a lot of beer?"

"I’m going to play tennis tomorrow." Lucy pulled a purple tank top out of her drawer and slipped it over her bikini top.

"Beer will put it on faster than a diet of chips and burgers." Nancy was energized by her zeal for developing a weight loss plan for Lucy. "There are some great new drugs out now. I’ve seen a lot of women lose with them."

"You think it could be the beer?" Lucy said mildly, just to keep Nancy interested in the topic. It was a safe distraction—better than Eli and Mom or, God forbid, Dad. Nancy controlled her own little world through the strict management of her weight. Diet, exercise, pills—these were topics Lucy found women with no other discernible interests could discuss with passion and expertise. As her sister prattled on about success stories, Lucy wondered what could be accomplished if women stopped obsessing about diet and exercise. Total world domination? It was possible.

"Tennis is a good idea." Nancy looked Lucy up and down. "Now, let’s go make the best of this situation," she said, as if it were her idea, and banged out of the bedroom.

* * * 

Margaret and Eli were sitting on the bamboo-framed loveseat. A pitcher of something white and frothy was sweating on the glass-topped coffee table. Joe and Maura were on the matching sofa, and Ezra was on the remaining chair with his feet up on the footstool. Nancy stood with her arms folded and Lucy dragged two chairs from the dining table to form a circle with the rest. Nancy harrumphed and sat.

"You’re welcome," Lucy said brightly.

"So, how was your trip?" her mother asked while Eli rose and poured two more drinks.

"Well, I suppose it was much like yours." She smiled at the dour adult children of her host for a beat and then said, "Utterly terrifying."

She was faced with silence. Her mother was looking at Eli. He was pouring Nancy a drink, which she declined. And the others were staring into their glasses.

"It’s really the only reason to fly, though," Lucy continued. "For the adrenaline rush during takeoff and landing."

No one agreed or disagreed.

"And that three-hundred-pound gorilla we were transporting had our tiny plane listing dangerously to the left," Lucy deadpanned to see if anyone was listening.

More silence.

"And the wrecked planes on the runway didn’t inspire confidence."

"So, despite their best attempts," Eli said, "you made it anyway," and her mother laughed.

A little slow on the uptake, but she was grateful to them. Lucy figured that she was more like her mother, and Eli, for that matter, than she liked to admit. The three of them would forge ahead, make jokes, and tell stories just as if they were all having a great time. It was something she’d occasionally despised in her mother. As a child she thought her mother’s brightness was a denial of Lucy’s misery. Evidence of her inability to empathize. But now it seemed more like a clever survival mechanism. Or maybe it was an overriding philosophy to be happy in each present moment. Either way, Lucy appreciated it

"Your mother told us there are more paintings of you than would fill the Met." Maura said this with an acid tone and raised eyebrows while giving Lucy an obvious once-over.

Similar signs of disbelief over Lucy’s past as an artist’s model were common with the very beautiful, which Maura certainly was. If Lucy was a sheepdog, Maura was a mink. A bejeweled one at that. Maura reminded Lucy of the Tibetan women who sewed all of their jewels and gold pieces into their clothes to show their wealth. She was weighted down with gold and platinum. She had so much sparkling ice on her that Lucy wasn’t surprised she was so cold. And she had the kind of skin, olive and smooth, that Lucy thought only an airbrush could accomplish. She wasn’t sure if even a magnifying glass would show a pore. Maura had delicate, angular features and silky hair. Lucy longed for silky hair. She smoothed her frizz down in an unconscious gesture.

"Probably a smaller museum than the Met," Lucy said.

"My parents," Nancy said, as if she were pitting them against Maura’s, "sponsored an artist when Lulu was young."

Lucy cringed at the nickname. It was worse than being a Muffy or a Babs. Lulu. Skip to my Loo. Yes, folks, skip to the toilet.

"Painted nude, as a child?" Maura said, and wrinkled her little nose.

This was getting worse. Lucy could just imagine the conversations they’d been having about her. "I was cherubic, "Lucy said as a joke. No one laughed and she felt her skin flush.

Maura drummed her fingers on the bamboo arm of the sofa and cut her eyes at Lucy. She didn’t seem to realize that she was doing this, so Lucy took a sip of her drink and emerged from behind her glass with froth on her upper lip. Maura averted her eyes.

"If you know art, you have heard of this artist," Nancy said, sounding like a schoolmarm. "Do you?" She didn’t wait for a response. "He lived with Mum and Daddy until Lucy was born."

Mum and Daddy? Lucy wondered if Nancy had been watching too much Masterpiece Theatre.

"My father," Nancy continued, "was a preeminent professor of art."

Preeminent? Good grief.

"Daddy," Maura said, ignoring Nancy and addressing her father, "what ever happened to the portrait of Mother you commissioned?"

"Right, Margaret, you found that artist for us," Eli said, turning to Lucy’s mother. "What was his name?"

At that, Ezra, who until that point appeared to be napping, leaped out of his chair in one fluid motion. "I’m going for a walk," he announced. He grabbed his baseball cap from a peg on the wall and was out the door.

Lucy jumped up. "I’d love to get the lay of the land. I’m going to tag along," she said to no one in particular.

* * * 

Lucy hadn’t consciously wanted to befriend Ezra. She just wanted to remove herself from the my-father’s-better-thanyours war Nancy and Maura had started. It was bound to reach epic proportions before the lovebirds noticed and did something to diffuse the bombs. Plus, Lucy didn’t think she could stand another mention of Lulu. She already had that song in her head—a continuous loop—Skip to my loo my dar-lin’. Skip to my loo my dar-lin’. Skip to my loo my dar-lin’. It just got faster and faster.

Ezra was thirty-five, which Lucy, at twenty, thought should have looked older than this man-boy appeared. His hair was black and hung in shiny loose mullet curls out of the back of his baseball cap. He walked in a droopy, round-shouldered lope. It didn’t take long to see that Eli’s adult children suffered from the kind of arrested adolescence that came with extreme wealth. She was going to be vacationing with overgrown teens. Lucy suddenly felt like the oldest one of the group.

Lucy and Ezra ended up at a beach bar for happy hour, which started at three in the afternoon and went until midnight. Happy, indeed. The bar was still fairly empty as the two hoisted themselves onto well-worn bar stools.

"I’ve always loved the name Ezra," Lucy said, which was true, but alas was not much of a conversation starter. It was the best she could do. They’d covered the basics on the walk, and now she was searching for some common ground of the "oh, I’ve always hated my name" variety. Then she’d curse him with the skip-to-my-WC-my-darlin’ song.

"They named me Ezra so Dad could pass his monogrammed stuff on to me." He smiled at the bartender, asked her name, started a tab, and they were off. Common ground: drinking!

Nearby, two tanned sea dogs were playing the ring swing game. It was a simple concept. There was a metal ring on a string and a hook on a post. Lucy watched the men play. They stood a few feet away from the hook then swung the ring toward it. Swing and hook, swing and hook, swing and a miss. "Ohh." Lucy sighed in defeat and she and Ezra both took a swig of their tequila drinks.

The ring reminded Lucy of the brass ring on the carousel in Asbury Park. It was where they used to go on rainy days at the Jersey shore. The carousel was inside a cavernous, round building that had elaborate murals both inside and out. When Lucy picked her horse, she only cared that it was within view of the sleeping giantess that was painted on the inside wall of the building—green, scaly, and dressed in rags. Her head rested on a red, heart-shaped pillow. Lucy had never seen a giantess. It was only after Lucy was older and she went back to Asbury Park that she realized the pillow was actually blood surrounding the giantess’s head and the background was filled with retreating villagers, their torches and pitchforks raised in victory.

Kate, Lucy’s best friend, had always joined them at the shore. They would lean out from their steeds and try to pull two rings at a turn to increase their chances of getting the brass one. Halfway around, they’d discard the plain steel rings into the reject bucket and position themselves to pull again.

When Lucy’s mother would finish a chapter of her book, she’d sit back on the bench and call out, "This is the last ride, girls." Lucy and Kate knew if they got the brass ring on that turn, then they could convince her to stay. And if they stayed for one more ride, it would turn into one more chapter’s worth of rides. More evidence that Lucy didn’t mind her mother’s obliviousness when it benefited her.
 
* * *

You hold it like this," said Jimmy. Ezra called their "ring swing" teacher Jimmy Buff, because he looked like Jimmy Buffett, only bigger. Much bigger. Lucy wasn’t sure if it was the drinks or a happy distraction from talking to her, but Ezra came alive with their new friends. He instantly made up nicknames for both men and spoke with authority about boats and obscure ports of call. He reminded Lucy of Jayne, who was the only young, active alcoholic she knew. Sullen one minute, charming the next. She was really beginning to like him.

Jimmy pinched the ring between his thumb and index finger. He handed it to Lucy first to try. It felt like a treasure, like fortune, pure luck.

Jimmy’s opponent, "the Skipper," as Ezra dubbed him, loudly disagreed. "Don’t hold it like that. I’ll show you." Skipper leaned conspiratorially over Lucy. "Look at the gum on the floor and swing it over that, just to the right." He must have been a bowler before he took to the sea.

Lucy was slightly off balance by that point. Nevertheless, she positioned herself behind the white line painted on the bar floor. She held the ring taut at the end of the string. She closed

one eye, looked at the gum on the floor, and swung the ring toward the hook. "Score one for the good guys," Lucy yelled.

Skipper gave her a high five. "We got a shark here," he said, walking to the hook to retrieve the ring for her. "And you go again." He swung the ring back to her.

Lucy hooked another, then threw an "air hook" that came right back to her. While Ezra took his turn, Lucy, Skipper, and Jimmy all did a shot.

On Lucy’s next turn, Skipper stood behind her with one hand on her hip and the other guiding her arm. He turned to Ezra and said, "You don’t mind, do ya, Gilligan?"

"Touché," Ezra said into his rum and Coke on hearing his new nickname. He and Jimmy were deep into what seemed to be a passionate conversation about drinking. It was serious business. Ezra looked up, then waved his hand to dismiss Skipper’s question. "I only mind if you do that to me on my turn."

Normally Lucy would have protested this exchange, saying that even if she and Ezra were together he certainly wouldn’t have claim on her body and on and on. But she was rethinking her feminist tendencies. Okay, she was abandoning them. She wasn’t completely sure that they’d let her back in the club, but she was on vacation. And there was no such thing as a "party woman." Plus, she was not above a little ring toss coaching by a slightly paunchy but handsome yacht owner. No siree.

Ezra slid off his bar stool and lurched toward them. "Let’s make this interesting."

"What are the stakes?" Skipper asked, taking the stool next to Jimmy.

"Drinks?" Lucy asked to no one in particular, concentrating on the hook, on the trajectory, on the gum spot on the floor, on not falling over.

"Too late," Skipper boomed. "All drinks are on me, for everyone!" There was a couple at the other side of the bar and they raised their glasses to him. "Happy anniversary," he called over.

Ezra brightened at the mention of free drinks. He pulled off his hat, looked at the front, bu, and said, "How about this? Dad’s alma mater." He shrugged and added, "I have a few of them."

Lucy offered her cheap white shell necklace that she’d grabbed as an afterthought on her way out the door to catch her plane. She got one every year at the shore. This one was from the summer after her father died. "Lord of the Ring gets this," she said, pulling on it.

Jimmy and Skipper stayed out of it, and everyone was too drunk to notice.

Lucy beat Ezra, then Skipper beat Lucy, then Jimmy and Skipper battled.

"Has my sister been horrible to you?" Lucy closed the paper umbrella from her drink and placed it on the sticky bar with the others.

"I can’t really blame her." Ezra was still drinking tequila and juice, quickly.

"Our parents seem to be happy together," Lucy reasoned. "So who are we to judge?"

Ezra took a thoughtful pull on his swizzle straw. "We’re the ones . . ." he started, then looked flat at her. He poked his straw in her direction to punctuate his words. ". . . who can foresee the cost of this happiness."

"Which is?"

Ezra jammed the straw back through his ice-stuffed drink. "My mom’s bound to find out. And then he’ll have to choose." He spoke into his cup. "My mom would never tolerate it."

There was more. He went on. He liked to talk, as it turned out. There was something about Margaret being a nice lady and all. But Lucy was stuck at "My mom’s bound to find out." And the giantess inside Lucy rolled over onto her lungs, her heart, her stomach. Her mother was the other woman. And without asking, Lucy was sure that her mother was fully aware of this. Of course she was.

Then Lucy saw the three of them in their new roles. Her mother as the other woman, her sister as her shrill defender, and Lucy as the nude child model who waggled her wide can into jolly strangers who bought her drinks.

"Lonely." That word her sister spoke lodged in her heart. It was the soft spot where the giantess lay her head. Lucy smoothed her hair and said, to no one in particular, "Let’s make the best of it." And then Ezra said,"How about another game? Tiebreaker?"

And Lucy nodded as if it would sort things out for them.

Excerpted from The Hard Way by Julie Luongo

Copyright © 2008 by Julie Luongo

Published in May 2008 by Tor-Forge

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.