small and tasteful

Abby Johnson, Vassar College


On the thirty-first day of my parent’s divorce, my mother went to the grocery store and came back in love. His name was Jeff and he was five foot six, which according to Mom wasn’t ideal but it was workable and also at her age it was really the personality that mattered, plus she was only five foot four so pictures would be fine and she never wore heels that were more than an inch anyways. He was a Gemini and worked in a hospital, not as a doctor but in upper level management so it was fine. Jeff had two kids– one from a previous marriage and one from a previous one night stand. He was close to the boy, Nate, but not so much to the girl, Angela. He told my mother that they should go out because he knew a great little Italian place and she agreed because she loved fresh pasta.

Mom came home in a tizzy and leaned down on the counter and said, it’s just been so long, Eliza, since I talked to a nice man. I mean your father, he was nice but he was also always so dark. Like would it kill the man to smile once in a while? But, she sighed, Jeff is nice.

She held out her finger and sighed again, this time clearly imagining the engagement ring that a nice man would pick out.

She didn’t have to imagine for too long. Four months later, at the same dumb Italian place (which had great free bread which made up for that one bout of food poisoning, Mom said), Jeff got down on his one nice knee and proposed with a ring that was small but in a tasteful way. Mom said yes, of course. Jeff smiled and said, I’ve never been happier. They agreed to get married as soon as they could put together a wedding (small and tasteful, just like the ring) and they agreed that they would invite their ex spouses because weren’t they all grown ups. That night I heard them having sex and it sounded small and tasteful.

Mom and Jeff were engaged for six months and decided to get married on July 4th.

There’ll be fireworks, Jeff said, and I won’t even have to pay the bill!

He slapped his knee really hard because it was funny how much he wanted to avoid spending money on this thing. Every time Mom gave him an estimate, he would ask but could it be lower? But then he would say please and my mom just could be a sucker for a man who said please.

She started saying please a lot more too. Please, she said, watch Nate and Angela so Jeff and I can have a night off. Please, she said, don’t tell your father that Jeff and I called off the engagement. It was only for two days. Please, she said, don’t let me find any more condoms in your room, Eliza.

It had just been the one box of condoms and I hadn’t even used them. Jacob Morrison had given them to me because we had been dating for a while (at least as long as Mom and Jeff) and he wanted us to have materials for whenever we did decide we were ready. Some people kept extra plastic water bottles around in case of emergency; Jacob Morrison kept extra condoms around in case of sexual emergency. I hadn’t used them yet and the box was unopened because I liked kissing Jacob Morrison but he had very cold palms and I didn’t think he was the kind of guy I wanted to have sex with. But still, I wasn’t sure if I was the kind of girl who got to tell boys she didn’t want to have sex with them.

Either way, Mom flipped a major shit when she found the box.

You’re too young to be having sex, she said, you’re only fifteen.

You lost your virginity at fourteen in a baseball dugout, I said back and she said, Your father needs to keep his mouth shut.

My parents were highschool sweethearts, hence the divorce.

I’m your mother and I say no, she said.

It’s my body. You’re pro choice! I said, because she was or at least she was until Jeff because Jeff was a Republican and she didn’t want to make a fuss about something as icky as politics.

Eliza, keep your legs crossed, she said. End of discussion.

Later that night I ran into Jeff in the kitchen and he tried to start to say something about a woman’s gift being her virginity and my entire body squirmed.

Jeff, mind your own business, I said.

My mom had two bridal showers and I was expected to go to both of them even though we didn’t really like each other all that much at that moment.

Can’t you wear something a little nicer, Mom said.

She was wearing a hot pink gauzy veil and it made her look old and sad.

I told her so and she told me that if I didn’t shape up my attitude that I wouldn’t get to come and I said, fine.

Because it was fine.

But then she realized that I didn’t want to come so she said I had to come and then she sighed and said, I just don’t know why you have to be so mean to me.

And I said, because I don’t even know who you are anymore.

You know what, she said, right back at you.

Then she broke a nail and called her therapist and cried and possibly called me some not so nice names but I went upstairs to give her her privacy so I couldn’t exactly hear.

She called me back downstairs right before the bridal shower started and said, I understand being a teenager is hard and I’m here for you.

Her words were stiff and I knew her therapist, who had a very nasal voice, had told her to say that because she sounded especially nasally.

Mom’s sister, Beth came and she was very excited. Beth had gained a lot of weight and then lost all of it as part of a local competition and then gained a lot of it back. That was mostly what Mom and Beth talked about.

Beth and Mom used to fight a lot but then both their mom and dad died in a car accident so Mom decided she wouldn’t argue anymore.

I have Jeff, Mom said, but Beth just has me.

Beth liked to call me at random times on my phone and a lot of the time I didn’t pick up and then I felt guilty but I still didn’t want to call back because I was never really sure what to say.

The thing that nobody talked about with Beth was that she had this one boyfriend and they had been dating for a long time and then they had a baby but the baby died really soon after he was born and then the boyfriend left and Beth said her stomach never stopped hurting.

At the end of the bridal shower, my mom went upstairs to take a nap because Beth insisted that she and I could handle cleaning up. I threw everything on my side of the room to clean in the trash but Beth took each piece of wrapping paper and folded them out very carefully.

You never know what you wished you had saved, Beth said, handing the pieces to me.

I rolled my eyes and reached my hand out onto the paper, smoothing a wrinkle against my palm.

The night before the rehearsal dinner I had sex with Samson who worked at the pizza place. I had thought Samson was cute and he was really smart because he was only seventeen but he took classes at the community college. I was there with my friend Lila and he came over and at first I thought he was into Lila because everyone said she was amazing at blow jobs but then he gave me his number. So I texted him and he invited me over to his house.

Where are your parents? I asked.

They go away a lot, he said.

Wow, I said. They must really trust you.

He didn’t say anything. Instead, he gave me a beer and I took a very small sip so I wouldn’t cough. Mom didn’t like beer but Jeff did and she drank it and told me she just took very small sips like it was medicine.

What’s it like taking college classes?

It’s cool. A lot longer papers. Like I can write a paper so fast compared to all the jerks from my high school and I’ll probably be making like twice as much as they are in a couple years.

Wow, I said.

Yeah, he said. Do you want to watch a movie?

I said okay and we watched Planet of the Apes, the old one. Samson laughed at parts that I didn’t think were funny but I didn’t want to say anything just in case they were funny and I didn’t get the joke.

During the movie, Samson put his arm around me and I liked it, even when I could kind of feel the sweat from his armpit. It felt nice and grownup and I took a few more small sips of beer.

After the movie Samson and I talked and it wasn’t anything that interesting but it was interesting that he wanted to keep talking because Jacob and I always ran out of things to say to one another.

Samson kept moving his head closer to mine until finally he kissed me. That was nice too and somehow I knew that Samson had done this before even though I couldn’t tell exactly how I knew. But I knew.

We kissed for a while and then did some other stuff.

All of a sudden, Samson stopped and walked over to his backpack. He pulled out a condom.

You wanna? He said and held the silver packet up.

Um, I said. I don’t know.

It’s really fun, he said.

He wiggled his eyebrows and it made my stomach turn but I thought, when would someone smart and cute want to have sex with me again?

Will it hurt? I said.

It did hurt but not like I expected it to.

Afterwards, Samson asked me if I wanted to watch another Planet of the Apes movie.

Okay, I said.

This time he didn’t put his arm around me and I thought about going home, but it didn’t occur to me that I could just get up and walk out until after the movie was over and he showed me the door.  

The rehearsal dinner was in the basement of the JCC even though Jeff wasn’t Jewish. Mom kept calling him a reverse Shiksa until Jeff told Mom to shut up. My mom had gone to highschool with the public relations associate at the JCC so she got it on a discount and she told Jeff that. She also said, Jeff I gave up a lot in this wedding because you asked me to. And he shrugged because, as I noticed a while ago, Jeff actually isn’t that nice. But Mom still wanted to marry him. Go figure.

Mom had invited Dad to the rehearsal dinner. Dad came because he wanted to support me.

I can’t believe she’s getting married already, he said but he didn’t say it like he was jealous. He said it like he moved out of a building the day before it burned down.

Yeah, I said.

Jeff came over and shook my dad’s hand really vigorously even though they had met before.

We’ve got quite a girl here, Jeff said, which was as creepy and weird as it sounded.

My dad nodded and for a second I thought that they were both going to try and hug me or something but Jeff got called away by his nephew and my dad decided he needed another drink so I just stood there by myself for a couple of minutes and wondered if anyone thought my dress was too short.

I wish I had a date but it would have been too weird to invite Samson and it would have been too mean to invite Jacob. I should have brought a friend at least, I thought. Then we could have stood together and whispered about how noticeably drunk Jeff was and also so was his family but it was a party so I couldn’t tell if it was bad or not.

My mom stood up and gave a toast which was very nice. She said she loved Jeff and was very grateful for him. Then she also said some very nice things about me.

Eliza, she said, I love Jeff but you are the love of my life and I’m so glad you’re here to share my special day. I would do anything for you.

Everyone said aw and they clapped and they looked at me and I mouthed I love you and I felt good but also kind of sad because I didn’t know if I would do anything for her.

Jeff stood up, very drunk, and said something dumb about how having a rehearsal dinner was a waste of money because they had both already done this before so what did they have to rehearse for? Then he said I love you to my mom but it was too late.

It was kind of awkward after and then my mom asked Jeff to go outside with her and I snuck out because I wanted to know if the wedding was still happening and also because I was bored.  

You can’t embarrass me like that, Mom said.

Jeff said, okay, okay. I love you and you look very hot.

I grimaced.

Mom said, you can’t get drunk like this.

I know, Jeff said.

You’ve been very nice to me, Mom said.

She repeated it twice and then I went inside.

The day of the wedding I woke up late because I had stayed at my dad’s house and he had these really intense noise machines that always kept me up late but then I usually didn’t wake up on time either. It was pointless but it seemed mean to tell him that.

When I got to the church Mom had already changed into her dress. It wasn’t white exactly, but it was in the neighborhood of white. It went to her knees and it had lace and it kind of squished her boobs but not in an entirely bad way.

It was just me and Mom and Beth. I hadn’t seen Jeff at all and I was glad.

Mom, I said, you don’t have to do this. We can just leave and it’ll be fine. Jeff will understand.

Oh, honey, she said. I know this must seem confusing but I’ll be happy with Jeff.

He makes you happy? I said.

He makes me secure.

She paused.

When you’re a woman past a certain age, it’s very hard to feel heard if you don’t have a someone.


I know, she said. It’s sad but it’s true and Jeff loves me.

I don’t think he does, I thought but I didn’t say it out loud because she was wearing the dress already.

Then my mom took my hand and Beth’s hand and she squeezed them both and she walked out to marry not-so-nice nice Jeff. We watched her go and then, because it didn’t really seem like we had a choice, we followed.

Abby Johnson hails from Rochester, NY and is currently a student at Vassar College where she studies English and women’s studies. She is one of the fiction editors of the Vassar Review and her work has appeared in Glass Mountain and been featured in Geva Theatre’s Young Writers Festival.