Mostly I learned that men are disappointing. That they promise the moon, but then don't bring home enough money for groceries. I overheard Mom say that Dad might lose his job because his boss was doing something called "downsizing."
"Layoffs?" Betty asked. Twist, tug, twist, tug.
"Apparently," Mom said. "They're letting all the junior engineers go."
"Shit on a shingle."
"You said it."
"What will you do?" Twist, tug.
"Hell if I know."
Betty tugged on my hair once more and let it uncoil from her index finger.
I stayed statue quiet, ear hustling. They were silent for a few minutes, and Betty switched to scratching my scalp, sending pollywogs of ecstasy squiggling down my neck. Mom got up and fetched two more Tab sodas from the fridge and cracked them open, handing one to Betty. Mom plunked back down onto the sofa and put her feet up on the sagging ottoman. She sighed so hard it sounded like she was deflating.
"Honestly, Betty, I don't think marriage is all it's cracked up to be. I'm thirty and feel like ninety."
Betty shifted her heavy legs, unsticking them from the Naugahyde and stretching them out lengthwise. She attempted a forward bend, but couldn't reach her hands much past her knees. She grunted with effort and sat back up. She pushed aside the curtains and looked out the window.
"You think being single is all rainbows and unicorns?"
Mom blew a wedge of smoke out one side of her mouth and dropped her stub into an empty pink soda can where it hissed out. "At the rate this is going," Mom said, "I'd be happy to change places."
Betty turned back and looked directly at Mom, to make sure she had her full attention. "Sometimes it's lonely."
"It's better to be lonely alone than lonely married."
Betty cocked an eyebrow at Mom as if to say she wanted proof. Mom launched into Exhibit A—the time she was returning from a walk with me in the buggy, and Dad hollered down to her from the upstairs window to come quick. Terrified something was wrong with Matthew, she left me in the buggy on the sidewalk and streaked into the house and up the stairs, only to find the crisis was a diaper that needed changing.
Mom's voice turned indignant. "Isn't child rearing supposed to be fifty-fifty?"
Betty let out a low commiserating whistle. I wanted to ask if Mom ever went back outside for me in the buggy, but knew it wasn't the time to remind them I was listening.
"Betty, listen to me. Don't marry anyone without first asking one crucial question."
Betty's fingers froze in my hair temporarily, waiting for the secret to marital bliss.
"Ask if he's willing to change diapers. Depending on his answer, he'll treat you as his equal, or his employee."
I lifted my head like a cat to prod Betty's fingertips and remind her of her job. Her fingers automatically hooked a strand of my hair and began winding it into a knot. I knew that I was not to repeat anything that was said on the couch. It made me feel a little squirmy to eavesdrop on them, but I liked the head scratching too much to pull myself away.
I must have fallen asleep under the bouncy horse, because I didn't remember how I got into bed when Mom pushed open my bedroom door with such force it slammed into the wall, jarring me awake. She yanked open dresser drawers, and tossed fistfuls of my clothing into a white suitcase with satiny orange lining. I sat up and tried to adjust my focus, but she was moving so fast she stayed blurry.
"Five minutes," she said, standing still for a second. "I'm going to get your brother. Be dressed by the time I get back."
Mom whizzed out of my room. It was dark outside. My body felt like concrete, and I didn't want to go out into the cold. Mom had done this before. She'd shake us awake in the middle of the night, hurry us into snow pants and hats and mittens, and run down the stairs screaming that she was going to run away. Dad would let her scurry around the house packing until she tired herself out, then he'd eventually get her to sit next to him on the couch to talk.
This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.