Evenings With Olivia
The whispers began before the moving van left the driveway.
“I didn’t see a sofa. Did you see a sofa, Ellen?”
“No, I didn’t,” my mother replied.
She and Mrs. Elger stood at the window above our kitchen sink, jockeying for position and taking mental photographs of every item unloaded from the moving van parked in the driveway next door.
“How can she not have a sofa?”
Mom let out a half grunt, half sigh. The same sound she made when I had the audacity to appear at the dinner table with dirt under my fingernails.
Our new neighbor watched as the two moving men brought the last of her boxes inside. She handed the taller of the two some folded cash and then said something which caused them to look at each other, smile, and nod vigorously. She disappeared inside the house, the screen door banging behind her, and returned a few moments later with three bottles of beer. Together they sat, on the steps, sipping beers and laughing.
Mrs. Elger fixed her face like she’d just discovered a bug in her salad.
Mom grunted, sighed. “She’s from New York,” she said, as if that explained it all.
I didn’t care where she was from. I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.
We found out how Ms. Stugar (“Pronounced like sugar, but with a T,” she’d say with a flirty smile) got along without a sofa the very next day when my mother and I went calling with a homemade pound cake. The answer was all over the sitting room floor; bean bags and plush pillows, circling a black, braided rug.
Mom looked as if she were asked to remove all of her clothing instead of just her shoes as Ms. Stugar invited us to sit on the floor. That was the second strike. The first was when my mother asked if there might be coffee to go along with the pound cake, itself a sugary excuse to get all the dirt there was to get on Grady Court’s new resident, and Ms. Stugar replied, “There might be if I drank the stuff.”
Watching Mom negotiate the pillows in her knee-length, A-line, skirt was amusing. I chose to simply plop down on the nearest bean bag; my legs folded Indian-style, not caring that I was also wearing a skirt. Mom was too busy making sure her own panties weren’t showing to reprimand me. When Ms. Stugar returned, carrying a tray with a kettle, three tea cups, and a sugar bowl, her red hair was tied atop her head with a yellow ribbon.
As Mom covertly pried, I watched as the ribbon twisted through her hair, swirled together like sunset. Later, while my mother reported her findings to Mrs. Elger, I sat in the other room and ignored phrases like “friends with coloreds and Jews.” Instead, I thought back to Ms. Stugar’s reply when mother asked, “What kind of tea is this?”
“A family blend passed down from my grandmother. She swore it works wonder for your sex drive. “
It didn’t take long for everything about Ms. Stugar to become the neighborhood’s favorite topic of conversations. The fact that she wore jeans was plain weird and her shorts were always too short. According to my mother, the white Christmas lights she hung in the backyard were tacky. I thought they were magical. I’d sit in my bedroom window and pretend not to watch as she sat at a small wooden table along the fence.
Sometimes she’d sit with her bare feet propped up on the edge of the table, smoking cigarettes she rolled herself, and listen to music I’d never heard before. Other nights she’d bring out a black typewriter and work on her book.
“What kind of book are you writing?”
She looked up from the machine. “What’s that, Lanie Bug?”
It was the first time she’d called me that and the nickname took me by surprise. I almost forgot my question.
“Mom says you’re writing a book. What is it about?”
“The sins of man. Would you like to read it?”
“I don’t know. I might be too young.”
“Well, how old are you?”
“Oh, Lanie Bug, by the time I was your age I knew more about sin than should be allowed.”
Almost every evening, after dinner, I’d go sit in the backyard with Ms. Stugar – despite my mother’s grunts and sighs. Before long I’d read everything she’d written and waited impatiently to read the new pages as soon as they were ripped from the typewriter.
“Oh, Ms. Stugar…”
“I mean, Olivia, this is so good!”
“You don’t think it’s too sappy? The part where they say goodbye in the rain?”
“No. No way. Not at all. That’s my favorite part so far.”
“Let’s hope my agent feels the same way,” she said, sliding a fresh sheet of paper into the typewriter.
For my fifteenth birthday Olivia gave me a pair of jeans. They were my first. Mom didn’t like it, but she didn’t say anything. I think she was afraid of Olivia. She gossiped about her just as much as, if not more than, everyone else in the neighborhood, but underneath the judgment I sensed fear. Olivia had been places and done things. Her house was filled with pictures of her with political figures and celebrities. She’d lived in other countries, spoke three languages, and seemed to know a little about everything. She knew what the neighborhood thought of her, and she didn’t care.
Mom wasn’t used to that. Once she and the other mothers in the neighborhood passed judgment, people conformed. Conformity wasn’t in Olivia’s vocabulary. As Olivia became the woman in my life that explained boys to me, taught me to knit and how to plant a vegetable garden, my mother also became jealous.
Olivia became the mother I’d longed for and when I got the signed advance copy of her book; the story of a young girl who defies the labels placed on her by family and leaves to make her own mark on the world, I knew I’d become her muse.