Fourth of July

“I don’t want to argue with you again”. Her mother sitting at the dressing table fiddling with false eyelashes that were really too large for her face, both in length and width. “It’s just a barbeque, just down there in the clubhouse. It’s all been redone and it’s all the people you know” her daughter whined. “Used to know. Used to know honey, before, and now I don’t know them. We don’t hang with those people anymore.” A false eyelash on the tip of an impeccable fingernail. When she’d made her pick at Forever Nailed they had explained that this shape of dip nails is called stiletto. Stiletto. It’s how something far off in her memory felt, something sharp and painful; almost lost. In a distant part of her booze-riddled recollections, the something was keen and deadly but like the eyelashes, sticky and false. The eyelashes may be a mistake, she pondered. But she had read that today’s European women wear falsh lashes. Ever on trend, it was worth a try to look cool, young and hip. The stiletto nails weren’t helping but finally there they were, false eyelashes mostly in place. A distraction from the wrinkles.

Standing behind watching her mom as she fiddled with the rest of her makeup, Jessica flipped her hair and sighed deep, breathy and long. “Mom you know it’s ok, why are you being such a bitch about this?” Pencil sharp the lipline almost wavering, she answers low “used to know honey, used to know. It means I don’t trust them, don’t want to see them again. Especially with so many strangers hanging out in the complex for the Fourth. I just don’t trust those people to not be weird with us. You need to come with me to Chris and Elaine’s and enjoy the fireworks from the city. It’s better there than the view from the shore.”

Fourteen years old and calling her Mom a bitch. And getting away with it, duly noted for future reference. Fourteen years old and spoilt and selfish and shaping up to be quite the piece of work. She flounced out and missed the swig her Mom takes in between touching up the eyelashes and reapplying lip liner. It steadies her hand she tells herself.

Dibbling at her ’phone Jessica is seething. “Bitch” she hisses, a rehearsal of sorts so’s she’s ready for the next time. Checking out her Instagram stats isn’t helping and she’s bored with the dumb TikTok videos. In a brief moment of sense, she ponders that there’s only so many pratfalls and bottox gone-wrongs that she can be bothered to watch. Instead she checks out Twitch but the gaming stuff is too boring. Her mind slips back to the 4th of July barbecue down by the pool later today. All the people she knows in this dump will be there. It’s the old ones her mom is so bothered about but Jessica doesn’t know why. What it was that happened here when she was staying with dad in Laguna.

Sprawled on her bed, ’phone in hand she’s chewing her lip, defiant and unrepentent. She’s got nothing in common with Chris and Elaine. They’re her mom’s friends. Realtors, and Jessica is convinced they’re only interested in her mom’s money. To be fair there’s a lot of it and her mom’s drinking is turning her into a great target for sleazeballs like Chris and Elaine. The conversations always start with how much some dude made when Chris and Elaine helped flip a unit or property. And they go on all the time at her mom about the condo’s value. They so miss the point. And though they fuss over mom, they ignore Jessica or offer her junk snacks in the way of people with no kids. They’ve no clue that kids are the same as them. Kids haven’t done as much, but they can be just as dangerous. At least Jessica can. She remembers the patronising tone, the way creepy Chris watches her and how they both want her to just stay in front of the tv while they get her mom even more drunk. As if. They usually stay over with them because mom can’t drive if she’s blind drink. In the mornings though mom always wants to get home, get back to the shore and out of the city. Back to her space.

Jessica didn’t do Tinder very often but she figured there might be something interesting. A few swipes and it was clear that it was mostly dweeby creeps flicking right. Saddos. But whoa, here was something, a boy with curly black hair and a weird smile. Hard looking eyes and he was her age. And here, here in the same complex. And at the pool going crazy like her. His profile looked ok. Santa Monica High School. Swimmer. Samohi honours. And he’s already swiped right. Why not. Swipe right. And there it is, a match.

The eyelashes sort of in place, her mom came out of the bedroom, slightly too made up and in distress. Jessica noted crooked eyelashes, overly smudged red lips and vodka magic. Then she saw that her mother had tears in her eyes. She shows Jessica the phone message: Have to bail. Covid. Bummer. Next time. “I called. They’re cancelling. Elaine’s tested positive for Covid so they’re staying home, so we’re staying home too I guess.” As she turned away, Jessica didn’t really get that it was such a big deal, but she reached out to her mother and held her tight. “Mom that’s ok. It’s cool. We can just, you know, hang out here,” adding “Mom are you listening, we’ll hang out here, we’ll just hang out at the pool. It’ll be cool.” Jessica heard her mom’s answer: “I guess so. We can just keep out of their way. We can take the food we were going to take to Chris and Elaine.” The vodka was definitely doing its job. Her mom sniffed and picked a stray eyelash from her daughter’s hair. “I guess I don’t need these by the pool.” “No mom, you don’t”.

Jessica watched her mother bump into the couch as she headed back to her room. A few minutes later she came back minus the eyelashes and with her streaked face tidied up. They went down in the elevator together holding salads and snacks, Jessica picturing the young boy and her mother picturing the older men and women she wanted to avoid. She sniffed and squared her shoulders. She gave the fortified marguerita mix she was carrying a reassuring shake and they headed over to the pool complex.

It was already busy with a gaggle of heavy, red-faced men playing chef on the dozen barbeques. Lighter fluid, smoke and testosterone. The barbeques are a permanent feature of this secure clubhouse and pool area. They sit safe behind high walls and a security guard or two who follow tight rules for cross-checked passes and id’s. Jessica and her Mom are part of an ooze of money and ego, where fear hides in the spaces where neither fits. Money’s stink mingles uncomfortably with the stink of burning meat and slow drying tanning oils. Jessica’s mom has on massive sunglasses and turns her head from side to side slow and cool to check out the space. She’s looking for a little clique of people, the ones she dreads seeing and, glancing across the pool along the rows of sunbeds, she sees none of them and sighs in relief. Someone offers her a glass of wine and she smiles, “actually a glass is all I need,” as she gives the bottle in her hand another little shake. Care to join me?” “Sure,” a tall grey haired man in a cowboy hat replies. “I’m a functioning alcoholic, I’ll bet we have lots to talk about.” And she’s off.

Later amidst the stench of expired fireworks and carbonising fat, her mother was nowhere to be seen. Jessica had found Miguel by the jacuzzi and spent most of the afternoon there, either in the bubbles or just nearby. They’d walked over to the barbeque and agreed that they were both vegans, even though neither was. The talk about Samohi had been ok, sort of, but the line on his parents’ cars, their other place in Pacific Palisades and some new dog they’d bought only went so far. Jessica was more than bored now, so much so that she was worrying about her mom.

Miguel in tow still on about his dog, she found the sunbed where they’d left their red, white and blue wraps and their red, white and blue towels. Only one wrap. She saw the empty marguerita mix bottle on its side underneath the lounger, but no sign of her mom or of the weirdos she had been so keen to avoid. “Whaddya wanna do?” Jessica turned and Miguel hastily added “you know, your mom. Do you want to go find her? She was with that guy in the hat, talking ya know and drinking. My dad’s over there. D’ya wanna ask him?” Jessica had already heard enough about Mr Bigshot Perez and his import export business and had no interest in talking to him. “No, it’s fine, I wanna go look for her.”

Moving from the pool area to the basement of the garage where they could hear raised voices, the sound of wretching interrupted whatever argument was going on. A slightly high pitched male voice was cursing. Jessica just knew that the short fat man ahead of her was one of the men her mom had wanted to avoid. As he leant against a purple Rolls Royce Ghost, Jessica sees that he has a livid red mark on the side of his face and that he’s definitely not happy. She got it. Barrel bellied and irritated he’s looking about for someone to take over, someone he doesn’t know and who definitely doesn’t know his wife or his friends.

He saw the youngsters approaching, a cute girl anxious, a boy on the fading edge of adolescence, reluctant. Miguel also noted the red mark and the scowl. Slightly uneasy he caught hold of Jessica’s arm as they saw vomit from a woman in a red, white and blue wrap splash up against the purple. “Aw, c’mon now, not the car” whined fatso. He tried to reach for her, to move her closer to the structure’s wall and its opening onto the bushes. She shoved him away, swayed a little and picked at remnants of semidigested cornchips lingering in the lime green sequins of her halterneck top. There was vomit in her hair too which had partially fallen from its topknot. The man is trying to engage her, his voice wheedling, “Jessica, Jessica isn’t it?” he says, his breath beery and his face sweaty. Miguel backs off and Jessica alarmed, wipes at her face and catches her breath. She holds her ground and stares him out. With a disdainful glance at the drooling wreck leaning against his almost immaculate car, he curtly says “Ok. You want it like that. Take care of your mother. And get my car cleaned up” before waddling back to the party, cursing under his breath.

Miguel followed him as Jessica tried to get her mom fully upright. “Bastard” she hissed through an acid laced cough. And Jessica asked “Mom what happened, how does that asshole know my name. I’ve never met the guy.” “I guess I talked about you a lot back then.” Her mother by now upright and leaning against the car, shook her head and took the towel Miguel had brought for mopping up. She handed the towel back to the boy who wiped the car down, awkward and focused on his task. He draped the grubby towel over the patch of vomit and mumbled a goodbye as he backed away. “Mom, what’s all this about? Who was that guy?” The two of them still and alone in the basement of the garage breathing the stench of vomit and engines. Her mom now sober and very pale stepped away from the car and the mess. She linked her arm into her daughter’s, wincing and feeling anew the intensity of the slap she’d given fatso. “Not this time” she remembered saying. Turning to Jessica, suddenly prim she said, “I told you, we don’t hang with them anymore. I told you we can’t trust them. And I told him, times have changed. Happy Fourth of July honey.”

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