A Britta and Lise Story
The summer passed, hot and sticky, and with the requisite Popsicles and
swimming suits and long, lazy sea-scented days and with it came Brit's
revelation and just like that, she wasn't going back to school.
Camp ended when July did, she bid good-bye to the tots in her care and that
was when our carefully planned and lovingly detailed life began to fray a
bit. The seams were tight, but the forces against them were strong.
Without a schedule, the hours she kept, the activities she did, went haywire.
I drifted between worry and nagging and forced serenity, as well as hope
that she would use the time usefully, find something that interested her.
I tried to help. I left in the morning with the highest spirits I could,
leaving tidbits of advice and nuggets of support, but still...
Most afternoons I found her sprawled with the computer, eyes glazed,
defensive if I asked even gently about looking for jobs.
There were evenings she bit her nails and fretted.
And then some mornings Brit didn't get up.
She did what she had to in the way of housework, she did what she needed to
get by. I hovered on the edge of taking over, waiting for signals I wasn't
sure I could read. We loved each other, and secure in that knowledge I
convinced myself that weathering this storm would just....happen. Brit drifted
so easily between high-functioning and near despair, as we tried to shape her
next step, that I hovered, worried about all the wrongs things.
That's what I see when I look back.
So I give you for an opening scene our little half a house, and we zoom
closer into our bedroom at the top of the house, ceiling sloped under the
roof. We loved how romantic that was when we moved in. There's a knothole
in the third beam that looks like Gertrude Stein and it still smells woodsy
when it rains.
Brit lay staring at Gertrude, eyes half-closed, barely listening to me. I
let my mind drift for a minute into hers, imagined myself lying where she
was, under the fragrant pine, imagined myself listening to my own voice,
heard it drone in and out over the familiar topic.
This was our dance.
"Not going back to school IS your decision," I said patiently. "And it's a
valid one, but not doing anything is NOT."
She shrugged. "I'm doing stuff."
I raised my eyebrows. "Like what?"
She threw an arm over her eyes. "I really don't want to talk about it."
I sat down on the bed next to her, pushed my fingers through her hair, didn't
try to move her hand from her face. After a few minutes she sat up and
wrapped both arms around my neck.
"You need a job," I told her one night, having flicked off the computer and
more or less demanded her attention. "In part because I'm not going to
support us both. Not because I don't love you, but because I DO love you.
You are a capable, competent, very smart adult. You are more than able to
find work. You just need to do so."
"I don't know what I want to do!"
And so it went on.
We scanned the Help Wanted section of the local paper at night, I with a red
pen and Britta with a furrowed brow, lips white and pressed together.
"There's nothing I want to do that I'm qualified for," she would bleat.
The time I had to bite my lip to keep from snapping - "Whose fault is THAT?"
I decided we were going about this the wrong way.
I drew a deep breath, consciously calmed myself. "Britâ....we're not getting
anywhere. You need a job."
"School wouldn't have even started yet," she scowled. "It's still August."
"Sitting around the house isn't good for you," I lectured.
"Chill out, I'll find out eventually. I guess," she amended. She rolled her
eyes. "Can we do something else now?"
"Brit," I said sharply. "I'm trying to help you."
"I don't want to look any more tonight!" she yelled suddenly. "I'm sick of
"Stop it." I lowered my voice as much as she'd raised hers, a method that
usually wound her down. Instead she stood up, threw down the newspaper and
glared at me.
I regarded her without reacting. "Sit down and calm down."
She narrowed her eyes. "Not until you put those damned job listings away."
"I don't want to do this anymore!" She burst into tears, went so far as to
actually stamp her foot, and turned on her heel to complete the act with a
full storming off.
I caught her wrist before she could finalize the dance and pulled her back
toward me, catching her off balance and sending her onto my lap. I wrapped
both arms around her.
She struggled for a few moments, all elbows and knees and angles, then
stopped and sat on my knee, rigid but quiet.
I tousled her hair, feeling we'd been at war too long. "We need to find you
a job," I told her and felt her stiffen further.
"I KNOW," she whispered hoarsely. "I know, I know, I know."
"And I know you're unhappy like this," I countered, freeing a hand to stroke
through her hair.
"So?" she mumbled.
"So I don't like to see you unhappy."
I cuddled her for another minute, waiting for her to relax. Giving up, I
kissed her temple and nudged her off my lap. "Pick up the paper," I told
She scooped it off the ground, held it out to me. "Can I go to bed now?" she
asked. Her tired eyes were rimmed with red.
"Go ahead," I said, sighed, and deposited the paper in the trash.
She looked round-eyed at me. "It's an unemployment agency?"
I shook my head. "More like a headhunter. It doesn't matter; they can help
you find a job. Britta," I cut her off as she started to interrupt. "You
NEED to make some headway here."
She slumped in her chair. "So you call them."
I poured coffee into two mugs. "Sit up. And it's YOUR job; you need to call
them. They need information from you. Come on. You know how to sell
yourself. You can do it."
She prodded the flakes in her cereal bowl. "I don't know what to say."
I opened my mouth, then closed it. I was too close to snapping at her again.
I willed my voice back down, kissed her forehead. "Take the day to think
about it," I said. "Make some notes. We can talk about it later." I
checked my watch. I was going to be late again. Brit having no schedule was
bad for us both.
"I want to see some progress by the time I get home," I called to her, but I
heard the unmistakable flick and whine of the computer turning on as I locked
the front door.
"I did think about it!" She squealed as I marched her out of the den. "You
said to think about it!"
"You've been on the computer all day," I shot back at her. "I told you to be
productive. Britta!" I said more harshly than I intended as she yanked her
arm out of my grip and took several steps back.
I took a deep breath. "Brit."
"Leave me alone." She traced a pattern in the carpet with one bare foot.
"What have you been doing all day?" I demanded.
She shrugged, eyes on the floor.
"Look at me."
"I don't know things!"
"Brit, this isn't funny!"
"I KNOW that! Don't you think I know that? I'm not stupid. I know you think
I am," she challenged, voice rising, high and thin.
"You only are if you really believe that," I responded. "Don't be
"See? I told you. I'm not going back to school and you CAN'T make me," she
"You don't have to go back to school, but you DO have to do something," I
said for what felt like the millionth time. "And I am good and tired of
being shouted at, for that matter! I know you're frustrated but that's no
"NOTHING'S a good enough excuse for you," she scowled.
"And you can stop answering back while you're at it," I added, growing
annoyed. "Britta, I am trying to help you here. I love you. You just need
to find a-"
"Will you STOP saying that!" she shrieked. Before I could react she grabbed
the day's newspaper, still in its plastic wrapper, and shook it at me. "I
didn't look! So WHAT?" And she hurled it.
I wouldn't say she threw it at me; I ducked anyway, instinctively, just as
the rolled up paper hit the opposite wall with considerable force, knocking a
picture to the ground.
Britta stared, looking shocked at what she'd done.
I blinked a few times, trying to regain my composure.
I took her arm, pulled her to the couch.
"I'm sorry," she stammered. She did look sorry now. Sorry and stunned. I
took her between my knees before sympathy could cloud my judgment.
"You've been asking for this all week," I told her honestly. Her sweatpants
drooped off her hips; it was short work to drop them to the floor. She
rarely got fully dressed anymore unless I pushed her. I tipped her across my
lap, pushed her t-shirt out of the way.
I heard, and felt, her sharp intake of breath at the first strong smack. I
didn't give her long before it was joined by a fast flurry of others. She
didn't fight, but lay miserably across my lap, whimpering from the start.
"You've been a mess for a month. And I've been patient. But it has to stop.
And, Brit, throwing things......"
"I'm sorry," she wept. "I didn't mean too....I never...."
"I know," I said quietly. "I know that's not like you. It's going to be okay....
¦you're going to get back on track."
I steeled myself to her cries; it was difficult as always to turn myself away
from the strong instinct to hold, to soothe, to comfort. I pushed myself to
finish what I knew I had to do.
The flesh under my hand turned rosy, then an angrier shade. Brit wept and I
paused occasionally, stroking her back, trying to center her. She was much
more wound up than usual.
"This is hard, I know, but there's also a solution, and we will find it
together," I told her firmly, winded a bit from the exertion and my concern
She was crying hard long before she normally would have, strung out and still
in a sort of shock from her uncharacteristic actions. She was nearly at the
hiccupping stage, gasping through her sobs, before I stopped.
I rested my stinging palm against the warm flesh of her backside. "If you
ever throw anything again, at me or anyone, I'll give you a spanking that
will make this one seem like a love tap," I finished severely.
She just sobbed; her whole body shook; her back was cold and damp with sweat
as I rubbed, trying to calm her down. She clutched fistfuls of the old sofa,
weeping into the fabric until I lifted her and resettled her limp form
against my breast. I hadn't seen her this out of control in a while; if
anything, her behavior had been more mild, quieter, since her decision. It
had been a semi-conscious decision to let the storm brew, but now I wondered
if I'd waited too long to push the explosion.
I rocked her, instincts as familiar and as primitive as ever. I loved her,
and if I could protect her by sealing us both in this room, wrapped in each
I kissed the top of her head. Her cries came from deep in her throat; she
was wearing herself out. It's hard to cry that hard for that long. She made
a good effort; by the time she wound down she could barely open her swollen
eyes and I had to half-carry her upstairs. She fell asleep on her stomach
across the covers and slept heavily while I lay awake, stretched out beside
her, stroking one bare arm, not sure if she could feel it, but there anyway.
I stayed home most of the next morning. Brit was sore, congested, weary.
For once I didn't protest her staying in bed. She'd awaked halfway through
the night, uncomfortable and almost too tired to sleep; I watched her fall
asleep as the sun rose. She slept best in the morning sometimes, contrary to
most people's rhythms. I sat with her, walked her through breakfast, urged
her outside for a few minutes of sunshine, and let her go back to bed. She
needs time to process things; I kissed her good-bye, bid her rest, reminded
her of a few light household tasks to keep her busy, and left for an
afternoon of work.
I didn't bring the employment agent up again for a couple of days. The
weekend came, and we spent it regrouping. I made a point of not opening the
paper. We worked in the garden for hours. It made me ridiculously happy to
hear the familiar tinkle of Brit's laugh again, as she crouched over the
tomato plants, weeding and straightening, patting the dirt with her fingers.
She sat back on her haunches and held out her thumb to me. A bright ladybug
crawled across its surface. "Look what I found!" She regarded it with
delight, then tipped it into my cupped hands for safekeeping. "Be careful,"
she admonished me. "Or it'll fly away."
And she returned to her tomatoes.
"You're going to call tomorrow," I'd told her Sunday afternoon, prudently
giving her enough time to prepare and not enough time to stress. Or that was
my goal. Now, Monday morning, I propped the card against the telephone and
kissed her good-bye. I'd woken her somewhat reluctantly; her shadowed eyes
were testimony to a less than satisfactory night of sleep. "Call early and
get it over with," I advised. I checked my watch. They should be open in
less than an hour.
"You'll do great," I promised her. She trailed me to the door, twined her
arms around my waist.
"No more postponing," I told her softly. "You can do it."
"Okay," she said faintly. I stroked her cheek with the back of my hand. It
was baby soft against my fingers.
She didn't ask me: Do I have to? So I didn't answer, just stole one last kiss
I didn't see her when I came in that night. I dropped my keys off, put down
my purse, willed my breathing toward calm. She wasn't in the house; all the
outdoor lights were off. I rubbed my eyes, more tired than I'd realized.
I was standing at the kitchen sink, imitating normalcy, when I caught a
glimpse of her, blond head shining silver in the moonlight, sitting small and
sad on the bottom step of the deck.
I descended the stairs silently. If she heard my approach, she didn't ackno
I sat down next to her. Her head was turned away; I studied her profile,
illuminated gently in the dim glow of the neighbors' porch lamps.
"Want to talk about it?"
She shook her head. Her nose tilted upwards, the elfin proportions of her
face rendered more dramatic in that faint, eerie light peculiar to the end of
the summer. I watched her quietly, remembered touching that small upturned
nose, tracing it with the pad of my thumb the first time we'd...
"Brit, I love you," I said quietly.
She didn't turn around. "I didn't make the call," she whispered.
I put a hand up tentatively, stroked the back of her head. "I know."
"I wanted to. I almost did, I just got so nervous that I...I was going to."
"It's going to be okay. You can do it."
"You can. You took the first step today."
"I didn't do anything today," she said bitterly.
"Brit..." She hadn't moved since I'd sat down, her body stiffly curved and
hunched away from mine, holding her head rigid as I petted her hair. I moved
my hand to rub at the tension in her shoulders. "Listen to me," I said
quietly, hating the knots and misery in her muscles, willing them kneaded
away. "You DID take the first step. I know you didn't call. But getting
ready to call, almost calling...that's different from just not bothering to
do anything at all. From not getting out of bed," I reminded her gently.
From this angle I could just see a tear, iridescent and solitary, trace a
path down one smooth cheek.
"It's going to be okay," I repeated. "We're going to fix it. It's going to
She didn't answer but she leaned back and I wrapped both arms around her,
taking her weight against me. The top of her head rested under my chin and I
could smell the clean fragrance of her hair and feel its softness. Silently
our hands linked across her stomach. There were tears in my eyes too; I
couldn't wrap my mind around how quickly things had deteriorated. I had been
so sure leaving it up to her would be best. I nuzzled against the soft pale
locks, pressing my lips to the familiar strands. She slumped heavily,
weariness in every bone.
And so we sat cradled in the warm darkness, punctured only with brief bursts
of firefly light and cricket song, and Brit whispering "I love you too."
I stripped the sheets off the bed before eight.
"It is," I conceded. "And it's your last day of unemployment. Get up."
She gave me a wounded look, eyes still heavy with sleep. It had been a job
to get her calmed and sleeping last night; she glared now, clearly expecting
more gentle treatment.
I held my hand out to her.
"I'm taking over the job search as of today. All you have to do is get up,
get dressed, and follow me."
"It's MY job," she muttered.
"You had your chance," I told her.
She slipped her hand in mine, reluctantly. I pulled her off the bed, into my
arms with residual momentum. I hugged her tightly, relieved to feel her body
warm and pliant against mine. I tilted her head away to kiss her and noted
that her eyes were slightly less shadowed, the puffiness underneath somewhat
She had slept last night.
"Wear those khakis I like," I suggested once I'd hassled her through a
shower, as she prowled through her immense closet, damp-haired and making
noises of tired protest.
"They have to be ironed," she glared. There was enough Wounded Deer in the
large blue eyes to point up my cruelty: she'd been wearing sweats for weeks
and I expected pants?
"I ironed them," I informed her and whisked them off the rod. "Get dressed."
Half an hour later she sat neatly attired and scowling in the front seat of
the Jeep, half an eye on my maneuverings of wheel and pedal. "Where are we
going, anyway," she asked, tone flat enough to keep question marks at bay.
"Sit up," I told her without looking over and was pleased to see her
straighten her back a bit.
She exhaled with frustration.
"Smith's?" she squeaked in dismay a few minutes later, when I pulled the car
into a wide parking lot. Early morning shoppers milled around the sidewalks.
I nodded. "I took the liberty of calling and inquiring about openings. They
have one, they want a quick interview and references but...they're
short-handed and you can start right away."
"Right away like when?" She asked suspiciously.
I reached across her to open the passenger door. "Right away like today."
"Lise!" Her mouth dropped in a perfectly surprised O. I took advantage of
her shock to get out of the car, close my side and come around to hers. I
pulled the door open. "Let's go."
Wordlessly she shook her head.
"Brit. You love Smith's. You'll get discounts on books, you get to TALK
about books, and more importantly, it's a job."
Her lower lip trembled.
I leaned in and pressed my cheek against hers. Her skin was so soft. She
smelled faintly of toothpaste and the leafy, citrus scent of her shampoo.
Her eyelids drooped a little. It was still early. I kissed her and drew
"You're going," I told her firmly. "You gave me the responsibility and I got
you a job, and you're going to work at it."
"And if I don't like it?" she said in a small voice.
"Then no one is stopping you from getting another one. But you're GOING to
work, Britta. Wherever, however, whatever you want to do, this is what
you're going to do in the meantime. It's a decent job with a decent salary,
it's convenient, and that's it," I said.
"What, Taco Bell had no openings?" she sauced.
I raised my eyebrows. "That can be our next stop," I offered.
I stayed like that, leaning into the car, one arm resting across the top of
the door, effectively blocking any escape path. I didn't think she wanted to
escape though, and as for paths...she had lost course of hers too far back.
Brit looked at me, looked at the store, looked back at me.
"Come in with me?"
"Of course," I said.
"I'm going to work a few days a week and build up the time," she told me that
night as we cleaned up after dinner. "Then we'll see how it goes."
I wasn't foolish enough to think that was it. She put up a fuss when I made
noises about bed; she declared extreme hunger and thirst; she strew wet
towels across the bathroom to see where that would get her (nowhere good);
she finally slumped, tired and overwhelmed, against me in bed.
"Are you finished now?"
She ignored me.
I flicked off the bedside lamp, kissed her head. "Go to sleep. We both have
an early start tomorrow."
I heard her little humph of exasperation and swatted her, eliciting a yelp.
She wriggled to get comfortable, exhaled against my neck, kicked a bit under
the light to prove her point. Finally she drifted off to sleep, one arm
flung across my waist, breathing sweetly into the pillow next to my ear. I
waited, feeling her body rise and fall evenly against mine, and finally
closed my own eyes...but not before I caught sight, in the faint glow of the
still full moon, shining through the window, of Britta's khaki pants, freshly
ironed and hanging neatly from the closet door.
For Dice, who demanded.