Gert was sweating. She had started sweating from inside her terrycloth robe as her mother set up the ironing board to press her “good” cotton dress for the birthday party. But once she had finished ironing it and pulled the still-warm fabric over Gert’s outstretched arms and head, smoothing the skirt down around her legs, the sweating had intensified. “There,” Gert’s mother had muttered, more to herself than to Gert, “That’s not too shabby, is it?”
Gert had lain down on her bed beneath the ceiling fan, careful not to wrinkle the pink brushed cotton skirt as she tried in vain to cool herself. The heat outside was oppressive, terrible. She stared at the blades of the fan as they rotated in mindless circles, wishing she could create an earthquake or a mudslide or a flood with the power of her mind. Anything to stop her having to attend this party.
“It’s a party!” Gert’s mother had said incredulously, when Gert expressed reservations. “You know, kids, fun, parties…the stuff you’re supposed to be into?”
“But I don’t even know any of her friends,” Gert protested. “I’ll be the only person there who doesn’t go to her school.”
“She’s your cousin, it’s her birthday, you’re going,” Gert’s mother had said dismissively. “There’s a lot worse things in life than having to go to a party, believe me.”
Now Gert sat in the backseat of her mother’s ancient Honda being driven to her cousin’s house, her Friends of the Library tote bag beside her on the seat with her overnight things inside. The party wasn’t a sleepover but Gert’s mother had arranged for her to spend the night so that she and her new boyfriend could go camping. Gert’s mother had never been camping in her life but the new boyfriend was “outdoorsy,” as she explained it to her friends over the phone. “He’s very outdoorsy,” she laughed. “He makes jerky out of deer meat!”
Gert’s mother had the air conditioner blasting in the Honda as she wound it through the side streets to her sister’s house, but Gert still felt clammy and damp beneath the pink dress. She pulled the collar away from her neck and tried to blow down her front, but it did nothing to staunch the sweat. Gert felt it trickling down her side into the waistband of her underpants. Her mother peered out the windshield at the sky. “I hope it doesn’t rain,” she said dubiously. “The last thing I need is to get stuck sleeping in a mud puddle.” She put on her signal and steered the Honda up a slight hill into the subdivision. “Did you pack your toothbrush?”
“Yes,” Gert said absently, looking out the window at an elderly man with a tiny dog on a leash. His socks were pulled up nearly to his knees. He stood on the sidewalk fumbling with a plastic baggie, looking irritated.
Gert’s mother pulled into the driveway, put the Honda in park and turned to look at Gert. “I’m not coming in,” she said. “I’ll get stuck for an hour if I do. Be a good girl and help your auntie if she needs it, OK? She’ll bring you back tomorrow.” She pursed out her lips for a kiss.
Gert let herself through the front door and stood in the dark foyer, listening. She could hear giggling and strains of boy band music coming from her cousin’s room upstairs. She felt exhausted and dizzy at the thought of mounting the cream-carpeted stairs, entering the room full of girls, having to remember everyone’s name. Feigning interest in the particulars about the band (yes I like Jon the best too he’s definitely the cutest). Keeping her arms down all night so none of the girls could see the half moons of damp on her dress. Trying to figure out when to roll her eyes and when to laugh.
“‘Lo?” came a voice from the kitchen. “That you, Nance?”
It was Gert’s Uncle Terry. She didn’t know him well. He drove a truck and was away from home for long stretches of time. He wasn’t a regular fixture at most holidays, and when he did make an appearance he tended to hover around the edges of the gathering, nursing a long-neck beer and fidgeting with his moustache.
Gert walked down the hall to the kitchen. “Hey Uncle Terry,” she said, in what she hoped was a bright voice. “It’s just me.”
Terry looked up from his newspaper. “Hey Gert.”
They studied one another briefly.
“Your aunt went out to get pizzas,” Terry informed her, looking back down at the paper. “The other girls are upstairs.”
“OK,” Gert said. She didn’t move back towards the hall but simply stood there and shifted the nylon strap of her tote bag to her other wrist. She seemed to have made an unconscious decision to put off the inevitable for as long as possible.
Having delivered the pertinent information, Terry seemed unsure what to do next.
“You want a coke or something?” he said finally. Gert nodded and Terry pointed to the refrigerator. “Help yourself,” he told her. “I’ll have one, too.”
Gert delivered Terry’s soda and sat down at the table opposite him. His face changed expression to one that was familiar to Gert, having seen it on other grownups before. It was a look that was just barely clinging to a shred of optimism that they would be able to quickly deal with the kid in front of them and then get back to doing whatever it was they really wanted to do.
“So,” Terry said, cracking the tab on his coke loudly.
“So,” Gert said.
“How’s school?” he asked.
“It’s summer,” Gert pointed out politely.
Terry chuckled mildly and took a swig of his coke. “Right,” he said. “I knew that.”
Gert shrugged and drank some of her coke. The can was already running with condensation.
Terry scratched at his moustache with his index finger and lowered his voice conspiratorially. “You must think adults are pretty full of shit, am I right?”
Gert was surprised but not shocked at the question and his curse word. “I don’t know. Sometimes.”
Terry smiled. “Well we are, even if we try not to be. Guess some of us try harder than others.” He folded up the section of the paper he was reading, creasing it with his thumb and index finger. There was a slight thud and resultant screams of laughter from the second floor. Uncle Terry gestured up with his coke. “Don’t you want to go be with the other girls?”
Gert considered her response carefully. “No,” she said, her tongue thick with sugar. Gert’s mom did not permit soft drinks at their house. “Not really.”
“And why’s that?” Terry asked.
“My mother made me come,” Gert told him. “I don’t know anyone.”
“You know your cousin,” Terry offered.
“She doesn’t like me,” Gert said. She said this fully expecting Uncle Terry to refute it, but he only raised his eyebrows briefly, then drained the last of his coke and set it off to one side.
“Well I wouldn’t worry about that if I was you,” he said dismissively. “She doesn’t like me either.”
Gert smiled. “Do you like her?” she asked, though she hadn’t realized she was wondering this until she said it.
Terry leaned back slightly in his chair. “I don’t know,” he said, and now his expression defied interpretation. “Sometimes.”
“I like your dress,” Terry told her. Gert made a face. “What, it’s a nice dress!” he said. “Girls are supposed to want to hear they look nice, I thought.”
“It’s hot,” Gert told him patiently. “Would you want to wear a big stupid dress with a slip on under it when it’s a million degrees outside?”
Terry nodded. “No I guess that’s a fair point,” he said. “I take it your mother made you.” Gert nodded and took another swig of soda.
Terry reached over into a wicker basket of junk mail and rubber bands and pulled a deck of cards out. He started shuffling them in a practiced manner Gert had only ever seen in the movies. She watched as Terry began to deal himself a hand of solitaire.
“Did you ever know that your mother and I used to be boyfriend and girlfriend?” he said suddenly.
“Seriously?” Gert said, incredulous.
“Yes ma’am,” said Terry, seeming to enjoy the expression of disbelief on her face. “Once upon a time.”
“What happened?” asked Gert. “I mean, how come you broke up?”
Terry shrugged and dealt himself a card from the deck. “Your grandma didn’t think I was good enough for her.”
Gert was confused. “But you were good enough for Aunt Nancy?”
He smiled and began to straighten his card piles. “Well it’s like I said before. Adults can sometimes be full of shit.” Before Gert could ask just which adults he meant—her grandmother or her aunt (or himself?)–she heard the back door open and the jangle of her aunt’s keys. Terry’s attention turned suddenly, fully, to his card game. Gert got up from the table, picked up her tote bag and her coke and pushed back her chair.
“See you,” she said to Terry. Gert steered herself slowly towards the party upstairs, resigned to the fate of the evening and to the dawning idea that some things might only ever be partially understood, and even then maybe only piece by piece.
“Not if I see you first,” she heard Uncle Terry say. He did not look up from his cards.