Whenever my mother had a migraine, she had us write a list of things we were afraid of on yellow legal pads. When we finished we pushed them under her locked bedroom door. My younger sister, Lesley (she had me call her Lola), who acted like my older sister, could crank out a list in sixty seconds flat. I cheated off her list sometimes. By the time I was eleven, I didn’t need to cheat. Things I was afraid of came as easily to me as mosquitos in July.
Giving an oral book report
A boy’s tongue in my mouth
The ugly callous on my finger from holding my pencil wrong
Burning down the house by forgetting to blow out a candle
Our lists stayed under the door until our mother felt well enough to read them, but not well enough to come out of her darkened room to cook, clean or talk to us. Neither my sister nor I became Mom stand-ins. We ate chips, drank soda, never turned out the lights, lied to the neighbors, forged our mother’s signature, used the same bath towel for weeks. I got ringworm from using towels that never dried. Our lists came back with red circles around the ones she agreed we should be afraid of and blue circles around the ones that were, as she wrote in the margin, nothing to be afraid of. Now and then she would write next to a red circle: Yes, good to be afraid of this!
My mother would love how technology has made my list keeping easier. If something happens to one of my devices, like when my phone fell into the toilet 'cause I had it in the back pocket of my jeans, my lists are in the cloud (which I call Wendall). I also keep a list in the tiny Moleskine notebook Lola gave me at the fake funeral we held two months ago.
We are sure our mother isn’t dead dead, but we haven’t heard from her in five years. We could both use the money in the account she set up for us when we were little kids. She was a good saver. It’s not a lot of money. My boyfriend Russell thought the fake funeral was creepy and sat on the floor the whole night, back against the wall, grooming his beard. Lola’s husband Andy, who thought this funeral was necessary so my sister and I could move on, talked a lot. Neither of them has ever met Wendall.
Lola calls our inheritance the Migraine Loot. Andy did the legal footwork to see what we had to do to declare someone who didn’t want to be in touch dead.
My brother-in-law is a copywriter for an ad agency. He works on a big pharmaceutical account, which helps pay for their one-bedroom apartment in Murray Hill. Whenever I go over there I see a lot of office girls ducking in and out of apartment buildings and narrow, dark bars. Andy writes copy for that pill that helps you give up smoking, but causes you to think about and/or try to commit suicide before you get around to stopping. When Lola met him he had applied to ten law schools, got into one, but didn’t go.
I tap a couple of additions onto today’s list while I spoon out leftover Chinese for breakfast. Last night Russell asked me to marry him. This is the second time he has proposed. Last time was four months ago after we split a bottle of red wine. I am putting proposal and no ring on my list. I don’t want him to see me doing it.
Russell runs his hands over me while I am standing at the sink. He smells good. He is just out of the bathtub, which is in our kitchen. He helps me put the plywood board over the tub. We pick up the dishes and pans that are stashed on the floor. We keep them clean on a pink mat. I finish the gluten-free noodles, wipe my fingers on Russell’s towel and push off for work, slamming the front door behind me.
“Think about it, Brie.” I hear Russell through the door. He sounds like he is underwater. “Love you.”
“Lola and Andy are coming over for dinner tonight,” I call back through the door. I knock twice on our door and fly crookedly down the four flights of stairs. Russell wants to get married. I imagine a red circle.
On the bus up Madison Avenue to my office, I continue working on today’s list. The bus is a double long, swaying cow. My boss Adele Winslow (not her real last name) is head of Special Events at the Ritz Hotel. Adele works me like crazy. Texts me all the time. Leaves me long voicemails in the middle of the night. I run all over the city for her. She doesn’t leave the office much anymore. She might be seventy.
The second day on the job in between puffs on an empty cigarette holder, she said, “You don’t dress right. I can fix that. You don’t have any experience. I can get you that. But you know how to talk to clients. Even I can’t teach that. And I have never seen anyone.” She stopped and slid her eyes over to her gay assistant, Rolphe, who was leaning against Adele’s dressing table desk like he had just run a marathon. “Anyone who can remember a guest list and seating chart for ten tables. And remember the email addresses for the florist and the music coordinator after one day. One day. Is someone I have to have.”
The next day Adele took me shopping at Intermix. She said, “I’m going to invest in you. We’ll call it an advance. You will pay me back. Or I will eat it, since you won’t last six months.”
I’ve lasted a year and a half, and Lola loves my new Eurotrash look. Adele hasn’t asked for her money back, but Russell and I keep some cash in the wooden box where he stores his pot, just in case she changes her mind. Russell says she won’t. He likes Adele. She calls him BB—Brie’s Bear. And when she can’t reach me, Adele calls Russell’s cell. He’s easy with her and pretends to take a message. I used to have that on my list—Adele changes her mind—but I took it off.
I hide my lists from Russell. I told him about them before we moved in together. He said he already knew. How? Did Lola tell him? Her way of becoming his friend? I said it was like a diary. Lola has been on me to stop too. Russell thinks I am over this. I went to therapy for a while to get over this, but I could only afford group therapy. Both Rolphe and Adele gave me names of counselors like they were giving me names of new restaurants in Chelsea. I didn’t say anything to them about the lists. I think I said I want to talk about stuff. Adele puffed, “Of course you do!” like I had passed a test with flying colors and was now one of them. Out-loud F-ed up.
Group was on Tuesday nights. It was four men and four women and five of them had been in the same group for seven years. Or seven of them for five years. I knew enough after three months to tell them I stopped writing the lists, thanks for your help. But it took me another couple of months to be sure that the one really handsome guy was too fucked up for me. I didn’t feel I was cheating on Russell. I was exploring. The guy had no idea I was into him. Well, maybe he did; hard to tell.
By leaving group, I’ve potentially saved seven years of hearing the same childhood stories—nightmares, lies, promises to do better, to be better—from the same eight people. I’m sure I would have lied too. I would have said my mother went to California to work as a script supervisor on a movie. I might have added she was pretty enough to be in the movies, not just sitting next to the director catching mistakes. I would tell them some truths. She was tall with red hair that curled around her face. She had dimples.
Lola thinks therapy is a waste of time. She hasn’t written lists in a long time. She and Andy went to an all-day workshop at the Sheraton one Saturday and tried to get Russell and me to go. Russell read her text: Declutter your Emotions. Come w/ us. “Lola is one trippy girl,” he said, shaking his head.
I text Lola: 2-nite 6:30? She doesn’t respond, which is odd. She sleeps with her phone under her pillow and when it’s not in her hand, it’s tucked in her bra.
I didn’t tell Adele that I left group. I like getting off work early every Tuesday by powering down and saying group. I mean, who lies about stopping therapy? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
I read my list over, faster, top to bottom. The way I imagine Wendall used to read it. On a second read, I strike out several lines and write, nothing to be afraid of here. I don’t delete them though. Next to others, I put red checks. Since no one is editing my list, I tend to keep most things in the good-to-be-afraid-of category.
Not getting a raise
Being homeless when I am seventy-five
Getting cancer from microwaves
The bus wheezes. I look up and watch six people climb inside. I recognize one of the women. She was in group. What’s her name? Paula, Pauline, Pat. She lurches by me. Patricia! Too late to ask her if the cute guy is still going, if his OCD is still keeping him from getting a good job and a girlfriend.
I check to see if my phone’s ringer is on. I am waiting for the chime that says Lola has responded. You can’t push Lola.
When we were kids, Lola liked to steal things. Once when she was in third grade, she wore Wendall’s engagement ring to school and the teacher wrote Wendall a note. I intercepted the note and told Lola never to do it again.
My father was in and out of the house. When he was in, Wendall snatched her wedding ring from the dish, where it lay like a horseshoe on a spike, and put it on. When he was out, she dumped the ring back in the dish. When he was out, we watched David Letterman every night, drinking RC Cola (one of the cost-saving strategies our father employed). On Friday nights we smoked her cigarettes to kick off the weekend. I didn’t really like to smoke, but Lola was keen on it so I acted like I was too. We made elaborate plans if our father came home and caught us; plans to diffuse the smell of smoke with Jean Naté, to suck on mints we had collected from the bottom of the Chinese take-out bags. Or use the travel-size lavender room spray Lola had stolen from our piano teacher Mrs. Lantz’ bathroom.
A terrorist on the bus sitting next to me
Fish bone getting stuck in my throat at a party
Not saying sorry
A really bad haircut
Algebra—doesn’t apply anymore but still
Lola texts: I’ll check with Andy. I don’t text back. That’s how to get on her bad side. Lola says our mother was lazy. At the fake-funeral, Lola said, “If Mom had migraines—if—she made them last twice as long so she could sleep all day.” Andy had nodded like he was testifying in court. I thought about saying how Wendall would paint her nails with a polish so light it looked like her nails had been in the refrigerator too long. And how she listened to classical music on the radio with the curtains down and the lights off.
Adele texts: Stop at florist. Make sure on budget. Remind her I hate lilies. Go to ATM. Bring triple espresso. I text ok and wonder why Rolphe can’t get the money and the caffeine.
The other night I didn’t stand up for Wendall. Maybe Lola doesn’t make lists anymore, but if I said one positive thing about Wendall, Lola would have ticked off all the bad things she did to us like she had them written on the palm of her hand.
I had a Wendall-size migraine once. I get headaches, but this one was bad. I had just graduated from New Rochelle Community College and got a job working for the government, the General Services Administration—the agency that makes sure all government offices get toilet paper. I inputted numbers all day long. My job was to compare the Northeast region’s on-time procurement rate to the Southeast region. The second week I got a headache. I was so sick I couldn’t call out to Lola, who was asleep on the other twin bed. When I didn’t get up the next morning Lola leaned over and said, “What’s up?” I told her about the pain over my right eyebrow, the stabbing in the back of my head and the lights. She interrupted me when I said I was going to throw up.
“Stop. I get it.” She slapped a cold washcloth on my forehead and said, “Tomorrow you have to go to work. You don’t have any sick days. They’re going to dock you.” She kicked the trashcan closer to my bed. “Throw up in this.”
The florist isn’t open yet so I sit down to wait. Madison Avenue in this stretch of the 70s has nice benches. I check to see if there are any bubbles under my last text to Lola. No.
On our first date, Russell and I walked around the Village for two hours. Neither of us lived down there, but we both liked it. Lola texted me twice while we were walking to ask how it was going. Russell told me his father was a fireman and that he grew up on Staten Island. His mother sold Avon products. When we got to Bleeker Street, he said let’s get a drink. We stood outside Five Guys. He said his mother spent all the money his father had saved for his college. She wasn’t making her quota so she bought the product herself and hid it in their garage. Still, Russell was the first person in his family to go to college. (He’s in debt.) After we got back to Lola’s and my apartment, he didn’t come in. He did something funny with my hair, fluffing it up in the back, and said, see you soon. When he was at the elevator, I leaned out the door and asked if his father got mad at his mother for stealing his college money. “Nah. It wasn’t stealing. He took her to swap meets on Saturdays. They tried to sell the make-up.”
The florist opens and I set them straight about the lilies and the budget and am back on the bus in fifteen minutes, on my way to check in with the PR team for the Green Cascade Event. Adele likes to do her part for the enviro. But the girls on the 18th floor are too busy to go over the seating plan because they’re planning a bachelorette weekend.
When I was sixteen, Lola almost fifteen, our father took us out to dinner one night in June. We went to a fancy restaurant called The Club. He hadn’t been around much since Easter. In and out. Mostly out. Wendall’s ring was in the dish for all of May. It was that longest-day-of-the-year and he let me drive his red Plymouth Breeze. Lola complained the whole way about sitting in the backseat. My father was not a handsome man, but everyone paid attention to him right away. At gas stations, in stores, if he ever came to school I am sure my teachers would have given him attention, and here at this restaurant, everyone wanted to please him. We glided by two other couples in line. I ordered a shrimp cocktail and when I was about to take my first bite he said he and my mother were separating. I balanced bits of cracked ice on the tiny three-pronged fork and slurped them into my mouth. The ice tasted mildew-y. That dinner was my first business meeting.
On the way home I let Lola sit up front. Halfway there, she turned to me in the backseat and, smiling, showed me the salt and pepper shakers she had stolen. My father had fallen in love with someone else. When we got home, we stood barefoot in the bathtub with our clothes on. We ran the water full blast so Wendall couldn’t hear us talking. Lola said he couldn’t stand the migraines. I said that wasn’t it. I think he just moved on. Fell in love with someone we hadn’t even met. We wouldn’t meet Spencer until three years after they were married and had a little girl.
Realizing my blouse is see-through after I’ve left home
Burping in my boss’ office
Not being able to get pregnant
My father’s other daughter getting married before me
Forgetting the nice barbeques we had as a family
I get home five minutes before Russell. He drags in. His John Lennon glasses have splotches. I take them off and wipe them clean. He leans in and nuzzles me. I get goose bumps. He goes into the living room and sits down heavily.
“Heavy code day,” he says. He takes out his weed and starts to roll a joint.
I text Lola: What time r u coming over? We can kick it.
She texts back: Not coming. Busy.
I made Wendall’s carrot soup, I text back.
Why do you have to call her that?
I text back: Because she’s dead. She died. I hit send and wait. Then add: We had a funeral. Because Wendall’s my name for what’s left.
Mom never made carrot soup. Lola puts the red no-entry emoji at the end of her message.
Yes she did! I delete the exclaim and push send. Is Lola pretending or doesn’t she remember the soup? It was a production. There were five phases: chop, grate, blend, cook, chill. Russell helped me with the chopping. Wendall had an old blender. The chopping took forever and the grating of the misshapen ginger roots was endless. Now I have a fast, sharp blender. It wasn’t that expensive.
Russell dumps the last of the carrots into an aluminum bowl and says, “Let’s get married.” I feel my face get hot. I tell him about how we’ll eat the soup hot the first night, cold the second with a dollop of sour cream in the center. Then it will show up in our lunch bags. Room temperature by the time we open the square plastic container with the snap-closing pink top. He must think I’m a jerk. He walks out of kitchen.
“Lola’s not coming,” I call to Russell. “She forgot,” I lie.
He comes back into the kitchen. “Okay. Let’s eat. I’m starved.”
I ladle the soup into small white bowls I can’t afford but bought yesterday at Pottery Barn on Lexington. I set the soup down and realize they’re cereal bowls. I want to cry about the wrong bowls. I silence my phone.
“You okay, Brie?”
“Sure, fine. Let’s eat.” I pull out two navy cloth napkins from a built-in drawer behind the table.
“Did you write a list today? You seem—”
I interrupt him. “Yes! Yes, I did. Satisfied?” I push the drawer with my hip. It’s stuck and won’t close.
Russell catches me by the arm. “I have a list, Brie. Everyone has a list.”
“Everyone has a list? Not like mine.”
“Exactly like yours.”
“Do you have a list?” I stand close to him.
“What’s on it?”
Russell sits down on the kitchen chair and balances his forearms on his knees. He stares at the floor.
“I will fall out of love with you.”
I should cry. Tears should be gushing down my face. I want to tell Russell I will try every day not to let him fall out of love with me, but instead I grab a pen from the counter, scribble what he said on an index card, circle it in red and hand it to him. I wish Lola were here so I could show her Wendall wasn’t a bad mother. She got some things right like carrot soup.
Buffy Shutt lives and works in Los Angeles. She spent most of her adult life marketing movies. She writes poetry and short stories. She has published one novel and co-authored a book of non-fiction with her college roommate and still best friend. A two time 2017 Pushcart nominee, her recent work has appeared in Red Fez, Bird’s Thumb, and the Magnolia Review, which awarded her their Ink Award.