“Rainbow, how are you?” My mother asks as she ladles some tofu surprise onto my plate. My mother is a vegetarian and serves the best meatless dishes I’ve ever tasted in my life. If I could cook vegetarian food like that, I would be happy as a clam. Now if she would just call me Rayne instead of Rainbow, I wouldn’t have anything to complain about. I don’t think that’s going to happen.
It is Saturday night, and I’m having dinner at her house in Berkeley. Lyle and Paris were supposed to come as well, but obviously, that didn’t happen. It’s not the house I grew up in, but it’s still home. My mother bought it after Libby went to college, right before the Bay Area became such a hot place to buy land. If she were to sell her house now, she would triple if not quadruple her investment. The décor is stuck in a time warp because my mother bought the place from a hippie, of course. The carpet is orange, the furniture is yellowish with floral patterns and such. There are Dali-esque prints on the walls and posters of the Grateful Dead. I don’t mind that my mother is still a hippie, but I wish she had better taste in décor. Surprisingly, she eschews the hippie clothing fashion and wears tailored clothing that looks smart on her. Tonight, she is wearing a taupe pantsuit that is flattering to her slender figure. She doesn’t look old enough to be my mother which is disconcerting. She smiles and pours me more dandelion wine.
“Fine, Mom,” I say, eating as fast as I can. “I’m in a therapy group for posttraumatic stress. Did I tell you that?”
“You mentioned it. How’s it going?” My mother’s face creases into a smile. She has been after me to get into therapy ever since the other murders. I have been resistant up until now.
“Not so good,” I say softly, setting down my fork. I am unsure whether I should tell her the next part because she’s been so worried about me lately, but I want her take on it. “You know the two murders that have been in the news lately? The daughter of the Godiva CEO and the maid? Um, they were in my group.
”Oh, no!” Mom is distressed. “You’re involved in that?”
“Not directly. The cops aren’t even sure the therapy group has anything to do with the murders.”
“I have a friend who lives in Marin,” Mom says earnestly, leaning forward. I don’t question that as she has friends everywhere. “She knew the Stevenson girl; they lived in the same neighborhood. Apparently, my friend saw her the night she was murdered.”
“What?” I sit up, my eyes widen with interest. “Tell me what your friend said.”
“Stella Reed, you know her? She’s the one who divorced her husband when she caught him in bed with their yoga instructor. Anyway, Stella saw that girl arguing with someone outside her house the night of the murder. Stella couldn’t hear what was going on, but then the girl got into the other person’s car, and they zoomed away.”
“Did Stella see if it was a man or woman?” I have a hard time believing that the papers missed this, but perhaps the police managed to keep it quiet.
“She thought it was a woman, but she couldn’t be sure. She only heard that Stevenson girl’s voice because the other person kept his or her voice down. Stella didn’t think too much about it until she found out that girl had been murdered, and that was when the cops came around the neighborhood questioning everybody. She told them what she saw. They thanked her politely and moved on.”
“Why didn’t I see this in the news?” I ask skeptically. “I’ve been keeping up to date with the cases.”
“She refused to talk to any press. They made a circus out of her divorce, and she’s had an aversion to them ever since.” I vaguely remember her case in the papers because her ex-husband is a high-profile guy in North Beach, and the jackals had circled the wagons as his paramour was less than half his age.
“Did she say anything else?” I am not optimistic that anything will come from this information. How many of us observe what is in front of our faces? How many of us know that we are witnessing something important and make note of it?
“She didn’t see the girl come home again that night, and she goes to bed rather late. She has insomnia, you see, ever since she caught her husband.”
“I don’t think that’s a big deal,” I object. “The girl was a teenager. They tend to stay out all night.”
“You never did,” my mother reminds me.
“Not that you know of,” I retort. I pick up my fork and start eating again. She has made a curry that is out of this world. I try not to eat too much as I want to save room for dessert.
“Stella was up until three in the morning, then dozed off and on for the next three hours. She didn’t hear a peep from next door until Mr. Stevenson left at seven in the morning. Did you know that he’s started to date casually? And his wife not even dead four months yet.” My mother shakes her head. As much as she is for peace and love, she is also for decency and compassion.
“He gives great interview,” I comment, shoveling in the food. Ever since I regained my ability to hold down food, I have been eating with a vengeance. I have to watch it or I will regain every ounce of the twenty pounds that I have lost, and my sister will disown me again. “He comes across as sincere.”
“He’s not,” my mother snorts. She tries to keep a Zen-like image for people who don’t know her well, but for those of us close to her, she tends to be more earthy. “I met him at a function once, and he snubbed me until he saw that I was friends with the owner of Chez Panisse.” Chez Panisse is an upscale San Francisco restaurant. As I said, my mother has friends everywhere. “Then when he saw me talking to Michael Tilson Thomas, he almost knocked over the person next to him to get near us.” My mother wrinkles her nose as she imparts this information. Even if she is friends with the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, she’s not a snob. She appreciates the talents of her various friends, but is not overwhelmed by them.
Mr. Stevenson sounds like many other nouveau riche in that he doesn’t give a damn about anything other than pedigree and prestige. I know I’m being judgmental as I’ve never met the man, but I have a prejudice against the insanely rich, so I’m not the best person to ask about his behavior. My mother tries to take the more benevolent view as she truly hates to say anything negative of anyone. She thinks Mr. Stevenson is more misguided and insensitive than outright nasty. Someone as cosseted as he has been is surely bound to come up short in the morals department. To me, that’s as lame as saying anyone with a rough childhood can’t overcome it. My mom gently points out that for all his wealth and fame, it’s obvious that Mr. Stevenson is not a happy man. Even before his wife’s death, he was cheating on her. Janice. His wife. What a plain name. You’d think she’d have changed it once she became the queen of chocolate.
I have no patience for my mother’s sympathy. With all his money, he should be able to buy himself a fleet of therapists to ‘cure’ whatever is ailing him. My mother thinks he might actually be in therapy, but she’s certain that he’s dating someone. That’s the rumor on the street, anyway. It never fails to amaze me how much dirt my mother knows. She’s like the CIA, gathering covert data without the knowledge of the parties involved. She doesn’t even have to leave the house because people bring information to her. And it’s not as if she snoops, either. She just has a knack for digging up dirt. I’m surprised it hasn’t gotten her into serious trouble; however, another talent of hers is keeping her mouth shut. She views confessionals much like a priest; what you tell her is sacred unless you are a danger to yourself or others. I guess that makes her more like a therapist than a priest.
I move on to the topic of my therapy group. I give her the low-down on the group, including the clinic’s name and the name of the facilitator. My mother thinks a minute, then slowly reveals her information. She knows that the police are watching the clinic because of ‘illegals’, but that doesn’t really shed any light on the murders. She thinks Carol Sayers sounds familiar, but she can’t quite place it. I am impatient for her to dish the dirt, but I’m also ready for dessert, so I set down my fork in expectation. Mom picks up on the hint and immediately pops into the kitchen. She pops back out with a chocolate cake. I send up a quick prayer of thanks that she’s not vegan as I’ve yet to have a delicious vegan dessert. She cuts me a thick slice before cutting one of her own that is equally thick.
Once we are happily applying ourselves to the cake, my mother continues. It seems the clinic is in debt up to its ears and barely staving off bankruptcy. They are late on their rent every month, and if it weren’t for an understanding landlord, they would be out on the streets already. I look at her in admiration; as I said, my mother knows everything. I shovel in more cake, vowing that I will stop eating like a cow, soon. My sister’s wedding is looming, and it seems a shame to waste the pounds lost. I wouldn’t mind gaining back five, but I’m not going to try to do so. My mother mulls over the clinic, Carol, therapy in her mind, but can come up with no other information. We move on to other subjects. My mother toys with her cake, something clearly on her mind. Finally, she confides that she’s at her wits’ end with my sister. This is big news as my mother has always cut my sister more slack than I think she deserves
“It’s this email she sent me. Apparently, her fiancé’s mother is wearing an elaborate dress that puts everything I own to shame. Liberty thinks I am the way I am to annoy her, and she’s requested that I don’t, ‘show up stoned, drunk on dandelion wine, or wearing patchouli oil.’ It’s as if she’s ashamed of me.” The corners to my mother’s lips turn down as she relates the latest from my sister. “I understand more what you were saying about her emails to you. I just want to reach through my monitor and shake her.”
“I know what you mean. She can be such a pain in the ass.” While I’m commiserating with my mother, I can’t help feeling a bit smug as well. For years, I have been complaining to her how unreasonable Libby is, and for years, my mother has defended my sister ardently. This is the first time I’ve ever heard her say something negative about Libby.
“I raised her better than that, Rainbow, didn’t I?” Self-doubt laces my mother’s voice, and it pains me to hear her talk this way. I have the urge to smack my sister upside the head. “What happened that she became so superficial?”
“I think it’s just the way she’s built,” I say, shrugging my shoulders. “She’s been that way since she could talk. Remember how she used to label people? Round, square, rectangle, oval. It was very clear that the round people were the inferior ones. Not much has changed for our Libby in the last twenty years.”
My mother sighs even though she knows I’m right. She cuts each of us a tiny sliver of cake, which tastes even better than the first slice. She is sad that my sister hasn’t outgrown her rigidity and that she’s more uptight than ever. I inform her that Libby is more than gainfully employed, about to be married, and she’ll probably have her first kid within a year. Hell, she’ll probably own the entire state of New York in a few years if she wants. I’m the one she should worry about, not Libby. To which my mother responds that she does worry about me but for different reasons. She says she’s proud that I hold a steady job, that I have friends and family who love me and whom I love in return, that I stand by my friends, and that I love life. What she’s worried about is my dissatisfaction with myself which leads me to do silly things like trying to solve murders. Her words, not mine. She is about to go on, but the look on my face lets her know it’s time to change the subject. She asks how Paris is.
“Not great.” I briefly fill her in on what’s happening with Paris, how he’s in Memphis to visit his dying sister. I tell her about his last call in which he laments about his mother praying for him when she isn’t praying for Mary’s recovery. Not only that, Mr. Jenson glowers at Paris and refuses to speak to him other than to grunt a greeting. Mr. Jenson will answer a direct question, but never with more than a word or two. Paris is desperate to get out of there, but refuses to leave his sister.
“Poor woman,” my mother comments. “She hasn’t had an easy life, has she?”
“She doesn’t have to take it out on Paris,” I retort, feeling a prickle of irritation that my mother would take Mrs. Jenson’s side.
“It has to be hard for her,” Mom shrugs, standing up to clear the table. “As a mother, you have certain expectations for your children. When they don’t fulfill them, you’re bound to be disappointed.” I suddenly realize that since I was almost killed, my mother hasn’t called me ‘man’ or ‘dude’ as she used to. I wonder if the two are related, but don’t know quite how to ask.
We move to the kitchen to wash the dishes as we continue our discussion. I believe that children are not an extension of their parents and should not be treated as such. My mother counters that it’s only natural for parents to be disappointed when their children turn out differently than themselves. Parents work so hard instilling their values in their children, it’s painful to see those values thrown back in their faces. My mother is not saying it’s right for parents to force children to be like themselves in every way, but she can be more compassionate towards parents than I am able to be. Now, I appreciate the way my parents handled differences when we were younger, but my mother rightly reminds me that I hated family meetings in which we had to spill our guts over any dissension until we came to some sort of resolution. At the time, I thought it was highly un-American and practically barbaric.
Once we are done with the dishes, my mother brews us up some tea which we take to the living room. Herbal, not green or black. My mother fishes her pipe out from under the sofa, goes to the bathroom to prepare it, returns and lights up. After a few hits, she holds it out to me. I shake my head. I don’t mind a hit now and then, but I’m not in the mood. I like looking at her pipe, though. It’s small, hand-held, and made with swirly-colored glass. She holds the smoke deep in her lungs before exhaling. A general feeling of goodwill wafts over me as I watch my mother smoke. There’s nothing like good company and good food to ease the troubled mind.