It was sweltering. Beth was wearing a pink, lightweight, long scarf made of cotton gauze, twisted and double looped around her neck but now the room seemed warmer and even more humid, despite the ocean breeze and the ceiling fan but mostly because of her Aunt Maggie's opinions. So she unwound it, pulled it off and horrified them with her cleavage.
Maggie inhaled with a great gasp. Maggie and Susan were markedly less endowed.
Her mother giggled and said, "She got those from Tom's side of the family, I guess.
"Gee za ree, honey! What's happened to you?" Beth thought her aunt's eyes were going to burst forth and join the olives. "You know, this is Sullivans Island and you just can't go around like that!"
"Like what?" Susan said.
"Like, like...you know! With your tatas almost showing!"
"My what? Did you say my tatas?" Beth started to laugh but stopped when she saw how serious her aunt was. "Um, Aunt Maggie, this is how everyone dresses these days. Little tanks layered up, long scarves, tight jeans . . . it's how we dress. It's okay. Really. I can show you on Facebook."
Beth looked around. Her mother's face was confused. She had always trusted Beth's sense of propriety in matters of clothes and so forth. It wasn't as though she had come home tattooed all up and down her arms. Or with twenty little rings pierced through her lips and nose. But Beth decided her mother had bowed to Aunt Maggie's judgment too. They should see what goes on in the world, Beth thought. And even though Beth thought Maggie could be an old fashioned, out of touch, world-class prude, her face and neck got hot. She was pretty sure her skin matched her hair.
"I'm sure you're right, Beth, honey." Maggie said. "I just don't want people to get the wrong impression of you, that's all."
"What? Did Sullivans Island suddenly become some kind of Islamic fundamentalist country or something?"
"No, sweetheart," Maggie said and Beth loathed Maggie calling her sweetheart like you cannot imagine. "But you know, ahem," Maggie cleared her throat and Susan and Beth hated that gesture of hers because it was always the precursor to her reminding you that you were a big stupid idiot, "your Uncle Grant always says that the bait you use determines the kind of fish you catch, right? That's all."
Now Beth's anger was on the rise.
"Well, I didn't come here to fish. I put my life on hold and came here to watch this house so you two can go do your thing. How about instead of insulting me someone says thank you, Beth, for giving up a year of your life?"
There was complete silence at the table then. The only sound was the clicking of the ceiling fan, which seemed to grow louder by the second. Beth had been rude and knew she had better quickly make amends.
"Look, Aunt Maggie, I'm sorry but here's how it is. My hair is a little crazy, I know it, but it's only color, for Pete's sake. And humidity doesn't help. And my top? I dress like everyone else my age. Believe me! You all are like a lot older than me and maybe, just maybe, a little conservative? No one in Boston ever looked at me funny. Well, not anyone I knew anyway. I swear. Anyway, thanks for lunch. I'm gonna go unpack now and walk Lola on the beach."
She left the table and put her plate in the dishwasher. Silence.
"Awesome tuna salad, Aunt Maggie. I'll see y'all in about half an hour?"
"Just a minute, miss," Mom said. "Sit down."
Whenever Susan said just a minute, miss, Beth knew the ice on which she was skating had grown thin. So she sat and Lola settled back down at her feet.
"Your Aunt Maggie and I thought long and hard about who to ask to watch the house and you were the only candidate who made sense to us. Above all your cousins and everyone we could think of, you are the most responsible and you have good common sense."
"Your momma is right," Maggie said.
"And, we are a family, which means we come to each other in our hour of need. I won't have you coming in here with a chip on your shoulder like you are so put upon to do this for me and for your aunt. It isn't nice. So let's drop the martyr attitude right now. I mean, I have done everything for you I ever possibly could, so let's be fair. It's one year, not the rest of your life."
"Fine. Look, I know all this and I appreciate how you feel but I don't feel like getting pecked to death the minute I get here either. I mean, I'm almost twenty-three, right? Can I please have some respect as an adult?"
"If you want us to treat you like an adult, then perhaps..."
"Hold on, Maggie," Susan said and it was a good thing she did or Beth might have grabbed a sharp object and done her worst. "Beth's right. You know. She is. Maybe we were a little harsh?"
Maggie sighed as only their mother, according to legend, had ever been able to do and looked from her sister's face to Beth's.
"I'm sorry, Beth. I don't know what's the matter with me. I am so glad you're here. I am. And I know everything's going to be fine. You go on and unpack and walk that precious dog of yours. She is housebroken, isn't she?"
"Yes. She's housebroken." Beth accidentally made a guttural sound, picked up Lola and left the room.
The fact was that Lola was not entirely housebroken and there would be hell to pay if Maggie's rugs got ruined. Beth made a mental note to double up on Lola's outside schedule wondering again how she got suckered into this.
Upstairs, Beth dropped Lola on the bed and Lola settled down to watch her. She hung up her clothes, arranged her ten pairs of flip-flops and four pairs of shoes on the racks in the closet, stacked her books on the floor and made a pile of laundry to wash later on. It was remarkable to her that she could unpack almost four years of her life in under an hour.
"Want to go see the Atlantic Ocean?" she said to Lola.
Lola lifted her tiny head from the bed and then plopped down again, staring at Beth through the fringes of her long eyebrows. Lola, having had enough action for one day, was bone tired from her trip and needed a long nap.
"Okay," she said, "you rest right there, don't move and I'll be right back."
It was just like having a baby, Beth thought, but a very hairy one that would never give her any sass. She changed into a T-shirt with a high neck to calm her aunt's nerves. Downstairs she found them in the kitchen, lunch cleared away and everything tidy as could be. They had moved on to the next item on their agenda. Maggie was painting Eiffel Towers on plastic wine glasses, but Eiffel Towers that appeared to be dancing.
"Isn't it unbelievable that you went from writing that Geechee Girl Remembers column to teaching in Paris?"
They stopped talking when Beth came in.