When Bernsie and I were sophomores in high school, a very, very tragic thing happened.
It was a Tuesday night and Bernsie came over after school to help me with my Algebra homework and hang out for a little while. We were drinking root beer floats on our living room floor, watching the Red Sox destroy the Yankees. Neither of us had a very good grasp of the game, but we both harbored violent crushes on Tim Wakefield, who was pitching that night. George, a self-important senior, was pretending to do his Calculus homework to appease the nagging of Kitty Shields. Instead, he was actually watching the game, mocking us for our incomprehension of a double-play, and occasionally flicking rubber bands at the back of our heads. I swear, my brother carried an endless supply in his cargo pants pockets at all times.
“Cut it out, Georgie,” I shrieked after taking a particularly nasty snap to the back of my neck. My seven-year-old brother Gabriel laughed so wildly he spilled his grape juice all over Kitty’s precious Persian rug.
A sibling spat ensued, with George and Gabe inevitably teaming up against me. “Look what you made him do!” George said indignantly, scooping the spoiled baby of our family up from the floor. “It’s your fault, Grace!”
When Kitty enters a room, everyone freezes. And that’s what happened that night, when my mother burst into the living room—temper flaring, bangle bracelets clattering, and perfume wafting. My mother heightened the collective stress levels of her three children in one bold movement. At the Shields’ house, we call this movement the Kitty Cross. It’s a pinched mouth, narrowed gaze, a lowered eyebrow, and a slow arm-cross all in one. It’s absolutely terrifying.
“What is going on in here?”
George, Gabe and I gulped simultaneously. Even Bernsie, reasonably new to the Kitty Cross, stiffened under its awesome power.
“Go,” I whispered to my best friend. Without looking, I grabbed her backpack and thrust it into her arms. Then I shooed her toward the nearest exit. “Save yourself.”
Except it wasn’t Bernsie’s backpack I picked up, which I learned during homeroom the next day. When our eyes connected across the room during attendance, I knew right away. Instead of her English homework, Bernsie extracted my beloved notebook from the bag and waved it at me, a look of total revulsion coloring her features. My stomach dropped out of my body. I don’t have to ask to know Bernsie had read every word. Panic set in just as the bell rang for first period, so I bolted across the room in three huge strides—an impressive feat for my short legs.
My mind reeled at the contents of the Book of Lists. There was definitely a list about Bernsie in there somewhere; definitely a handful of Pros & Cons of different boys in our grade; an embarrassing compendium of my Top Ten Jackie Chan Flicks; a full page where I rated how my first name sounded with the last names of every boy in our class; an inventory listing of every toy I owned; and the lists I composed just after my dad died. Those are the worst of all of them.
“Um, hi,” I said stiffly. I’d never felt awkward around Bernsie before, and now I suddenly regretted ever composing every single list in that book. The lists had helped me through many a difficult time in my childhood, but if I lost Bernsie as a friend—well, none of that seemed worth it anymore. None of it.
“Alright, Grace,” Bernsie said. “Here’s the deal.”
Stopping to talk here in homeroom was definitely a breach of routine. Usually right about now, Bernsie and I strolled together to our trigonometry class and discussed what snacks we’d eat while watching SNICK on Saturday night. We were going to be late for class if we stayed here too long. I found I didn’t care.
I gulped, bracing myself against her inevitable tirade.
“You’re going to throw away the Pros and Cons of Bernadette Shaw, got it?”
I nod. Any minute now, she’ll explode.
“And never Pro and Con me again. Ever. Pinky swear?”
I wrangled my shaking pinky around her offered finger.
“You’re going to take this book—” She stood up and shoved it into my arms. “And never show it to me again. We’re going to pretend I know nothing about the crazy that’s inside of it. I’m just going to assume that it’s the only reason you’re not in a psychiatric ward somewhere.”
Confused, I grimaced at my best friend.
“Oh, and Grace?”
“Yeah?” I swallowed hard. Here it comes.
“From now on?” She said, planting her hands on her hips. “You’re my bitch.”
In what seems like seconds, I’m out of my Mark-scented work clothes and standing inside Big City, a local bar and pool hall. I let Bernsie choose my outfit—some silky top I bought on a whim with a pair of boot-cut jeans that make my butt look “amazing,” or so she says. We’re supposed to be playing pool with Bernsie’s co-workers from Mass General, Too-Tall Talia and Maddening Maggie. Those aren’t the names on their nurses’ badges or anything, they’re just the ones I have for them. Silently, in my head.
Anyway, since I can’t play pool to save my life, I’m mostly watching my dear friend ogle men for me while perfecting her pool hustling skills. It doesn’t take long before Bernsie’s putting me to work.
“I will pay you five dollars to order a Passionate Screw from that bartender,” she says mischievously. “To go.” I’m not really in the mood for Bernsie’s stupid games but there’s no escaping them.
“Yeah-yeah-yeah!” Maggie chimes in. “Ask for a sippy cup!”
“That’s not even a real drink order,” I protest. It’s pointless.
“Yes it is. Look,” Bernsie waves a menu in front of my face. “Right here, see? Passionate Screw. Yum. Now, go and do it.”
“No, you crazy mess,” I wrestle with Bernsie for possession of my arm. “Let go of me or I’ll karate chop you.”
“You don’t know karate,” Bernsie points out with infuriating accuracy. “So stop trying to sound impressive.”
“Excuse me, I watch a lot of Jackie Chan movies—oh, knock it off!” I shake my arm free of her grip. “I’ll do it, okay?”
“He’s cu-ute,” she sing-songs, stretching one syllable into many. “And his hair is amazing.”
Again, Bernsie isn’t wrong. The bartender in question has a lengthy list of initial Pros going for him: a kind, clean-shaven face; a nice, average build; a smile that lights up his blue eyes; a neat, short haircut; and a pair of well-defined arms. And in true Bernsie-fashion, she’s pointed out a man with stylish glasses, the frames of which complement his features perfectly. At least she knows what I like—something she calls the “Hot-Geek” thing.
Based on my visual data alone, I can see only one Con—a nervous tick that will drive me mad. He’s a hair-tucker. Son of a bitch.
I really don’t try to be picky. I just call things how I see them.
For Bernsie’s benefit, I soldier onward. In the time it takes me to pass around the pool table and cross the open floor to the bar counter, my target has tucked that stray strand of hair behind his ear three—or four—no, five times. Trying not to notice, I write and rehearse my speech. Tonight, I’ll leave coy behind and go for the direct approach.
“Hi.” I step right in front of him. It’s not busy, even for a Wednesday, so there’s no need to wait in line. “Can I ask you a favor?” Tuck.
“Let me guess,” my new buddy grins, lighting up those eyes. He is cute, hair-tucking aside. I blush suddenly, logging that as a Pro. “You want a drink?”
“Well, yeah,” I roll my eyes. “But there’s a back story to this one.”
“All right,” he says sportingly. Tuck. “Let’s hear it.”
I tell him about Bernsie and the five dollars, barely uttering the words Passionate Screw without melting into a puddle on the floor in front of him. “Oh, and by the way,” I add, taking a peek over my shoulder at my spying friends. Mostly to avoid witnessing an eighth hair tuck. “I need my Passionate Screw to go.”
“I’m Brendan,” he says suddenly, shaking my hand. At least he can’t tuck his hair when his hands are occupied, right? “That Passionate Screw is on the house.”
When I triumphantly hand the sippy cup containing my embarrassing drink order to Bernsie, she’s impressed. “For me? You shouldn’t have.”
After years of weepy drunkenness—see Reasons Grace Shields Doesn’t Touch Alcohol—I don’t drink anymore. Bernsie knows she’s my designated drinker for the evening. For always, really. Trying to negotiate a pool cue while holding a sippy cup in one hand, she looks ridiculous. Still, she successfully shoots the eight-ball into the right corner pocket, wins her second game against Maggie, and takes a long victory sip through the straw.
“No-no-no!” Maggie yells in frustration.
“Ah,” Bernsie sighs. “Delicious.”
“Pay up, you lush,” I tease. Bernsie begrudgingly retrieves a five-dollar bill from the back pocket of her stylish, skinny jeans and slaps it into my outstretched hand. “Thank you.”
“No problem,” she says with delight. “That guy makes one hell of a drink. Did he charge you?”
“Of course not. What am I, an amateur?”
“Uh oh! What’s this?” Bernsie turns her sippy cup around, using her free hand to gesture à la Vanna White. “I believe we’ve got a bartender’s number here on this cup.”
Blushing, I sneak a glance over my shoulder at Brendan, occupied with a large group of bar patrons ordering beer. Tuck. I give Bernsie a pitiful look, scrunching up my nose, and then sigh deeply. One more look, maybe he won’t… Tuck.
“It’s okay, Bernsie. You keep it.”
“Why? What’s wrong with this one?”
“Hair tucker,” I sigh, picking up a spare pool cue. Bernsie shakes her head, giving me her disapproving scowl. I ignore her. “Ready to get your butt whooped?”
“Yeah-yeah-yeah!” Maggie cheers from across the table.
“She’s on your team,” I say out of the corner of my mouth.
“Even so,” Bernsie whispers back. “You’re going down, bitch!”
By the time my cell phone rings from the pocket of my khakis, Too-Tall Talia—really, she’s about six-feet tall—and I are trailing by five balls to Bernsie and Maddening Maggie, who needs to stop saying everything three times. It’s a pathetic display, but with Bernsie playing, I’m not surprised. All the same, I’m happy for the distraction of a phone call.
“Play through my turn, Talia,” I call over my shoulder, and up eight or nine inches, as I stroll past the bar and into the hallway. With the music playing overhead and about fifteen televisions tuned into ESPN, the whole place is pretty noisy, but I can hear a bit better standing in front of the restrooms. Crossing my arms, I answer the call from George.
“Hey, Spacey,” he says without skipping a beat. He sounds happy, which means he wants something from me. “Whatcha up to?”
“The usual. Letting Bernsie kick my ass at pool.”
“God, I love a woman that can shoot pool,” says my disgusting brother.
“Don’t make me karate chop you, George Shields.”
“All right, all right,” he laughs. “So how are you, baby sister?”
“Cut it out. What’s up?”
“Why do you assume something’s up?”
“Don’t play games with me,” I sigh. “What do you need?”
“A place to stay for a few days. Maybe a few weeks. Just until I find a new apartment.”
“Why?!” I never should have told him that Bernsie and I were renting a three-bedroom apartment. Never, never, never.
“Come on, Grace, I’m your big brother. Help me out,” George breathes into the phone. He doesn’t really talk on the phone; he exhales words. Trust me, it’s an accurate description. “Please?”
George only says please when he’s really desperate. Son of a bitch. My inner Good Samaritan urges me to cave. The nagging voice of my mother, reminding me that Family is important, Grace, pushes me over the edge.
“All right,” I groan. “But only for a few weeks—max.”
It’s not that I don’t want to help my brother; it’s just that he annoys the ever-living piss out of me. As a career. The only person more annoying than George is my younger brother Gabriel. Call me crazy, but being the female filling between a pair of stuck-up, egotistical alpha-males is not an ideal birth order.
“Thanks, Grace. I owe you one,” George sighs heavily. He owes me a lot of “ones.” And he can start by paying up all the quarters he promised me for running his miscellaneous errands as a child. Hey, Grace. Run upstairs and get my belt, okay? I’ll give you a quarter! What a misguided childhood I led.
“No problem, buddy, but what happened?”
“Asshole landlord said I was too messy,” he scoffs. “Something about health code violations or some shit. Can you believe that?”
Based on my only visit to that hell-hole, I can believe it. But I’m not the antagonizing family member here. “So he evicted you?” No response. “How messy, George?” Still nothing. I’ll try my Mom voice and hope the wrath of Kitty Shields will inspire fear into his heathen soul. “George?”
“The usual,” he admits. Memories of his horrific childhood bedroom flood my mind. All those fast-food bags and porno magazines. I’m going to be sick. “But I’ll keep it clean while I’m at your place, I promise.”
“I’m watching you, Shields,” I say, as Bernsie shoots another perfect combo to win her third straight game of pool. We poor suckers don’t stand a chance. “And exactly when do you need to move in?”
“Tomorrow?” he asks hopefully. I pause, taking a moment to inhale deeply and chant my mantra. I will not kill my brother. I will not kill my freaking brother. “Please don’t kill me. I have to be out in the morning and I have nowhere else to go.”
“How about home? I’m sure Kitty would take you back with open arms.”
“Grace,” he breathes. “I can’t move back in with my mother. I’m 28 years old.” I don’t exactly have any sympathy for him on this. He’s our mother’s favorite child, so it’s not like life would be tough on him there. After a moment of silence he adds, “Do you know what that would do to my social life?”
“God forbid the ladies stop fawning all over you.” I tap my foot impatiently, trying to think of an alternative for him. How is this my problem, again? But when he sighs with defeat, I know I’m done for. I grit my teeth. Pushover. “All right, buddy. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Love you, Spacey Gracie.”
“Love you, Georgie Porgie,” I roll my eyes at Bernsie, who’s just joined me in the hallway for a victory dance. She catches my tone, shakes her head and mouths “Now what?” as I hang up the phone. Son of a bitch, all right.