Continued from: Earworm: Part 16 — The Place
Starling Osmond was sprawled across a beach towel in her back yard. She was on her stomach, her head buried in her arms, the sun simmering baby oil from her back. She didn’t lube up with the baby oil for a stark, bronze color, she just liked the feeling of rays penetrating her skin, feeling her nerves wince as if sinking into a hot bath. A portable radio played beside her head, and her fingers would occasionally dance across her radio’s tuning knob, searching for an acceptable song. INXS cut through the static. That would have to do for now. She sat upright—time for a flop-over—and reached for her bottle of Sprite. As she took a sip, she glanced through the chain-link fence separating her family’s property from the yard next door.
In the other yard, a young mother held her arms spread, waiting for her son to walk to her. The child waddled in that awkward, toddler manner. “Come on, William, come to Mommy,” the mother said. The child reached his mother and fell into her arms. “Good job, William,” the mother said.
Starling stood from her towel. It was as good a time as any to get up, stretch her legs, get her blood flowing. She walked to the fence, watching the mother back up and urge her child to walk again. The mother couldn’t have been much older than Starling. Three, four years at the most, making her, what, about twenty-two? Twenty-three? The child fell into his mother’s arms. The woman cheered.
Starling called over the fence, “Gonna be a regular track star, huh?”
The mother gasped, looking up at Starling.
Starling smiled, trying to ease the shock from the woman’s face. A face that looked very young, but very tired. A woman trapped in her own plainness, as if she feared to set free her underlying beauty.
The same could be said about Starling. You’d be simply stunning if you’d just stop dressing yourself down, her mother often said—her mother being one of those people that shoehorned the word simply into almost any sentence. But it wasn’t that Starling liked to dress herself down, she just didn’t care to dress herself up. Old, worn clothes were comfortable, and her long chestnut hair was fine just falling down her shoulders in wavy, tangled tresses. Hairspray and blow dryers may have become a staple of the 1990’s culture, but Starling left them to people that had the time and ambition to use them. Starling was a throwback to two decades prior, and, knowing that the fashion cycle went round and round, she liked to think of herself as ahead of her time. She didn’t have time to tease her hair into a wiry fence jutting up from her scalp. She had too many places to go, people to see. There was beer to drink and pot to smoke in the basements of friends’ houses, lost in the haze, sitting, staring at wood paneling and ugly furniture, letting some guy feel her up and down while they giggled at the strip of peeling wallpaper that was supposed to look like a brick chimney. No, Starling’s beauty came on her own terms. Starling was what some deemed, “a natural beauty.” She was said to, “get prettier as you get to know her.” She wasn’t sure if these were compliments or insults, and more importantly, she didn’t care. It was, after all, tough to insult Starling Osmond. Her reaction to everything being a hawking laugh that made it unclear if she found someone incredibly funny or incredibly dumb.
The mother on the other side of the fence returned Starling’s smile with a small smile of her own. The gesture conveyed the opposite sentiment it was supposed to. It was sad and lonely. “Yeah,” the mother said, “His father’s hoping for a running back, but I don’t think he’ll have the size.”
Starling nodded, glancing around the mother’s lawn, eyeing the scattered toys, horseshoe pits, the grill with random pieces of charcoal at its feet. “I don’t think we’ve met yet,” she said, looking back at the woman. She then offered her powerful laugh, “Ha. Don’t you love when people say, I don’t think we’ve met yet, when they know damn well that they’ve never met you?”
The mother regarded her in silence.
Starling cleared her throat and said, “Yeah, I was away at school when you moved in. I’m Starling,” she jerked her head toward her house, “Bob and Rita’s daughter.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Starling,” the woman said, smiling a grin that revealed teeth this time. “I’m Emily Dey,” she said. “And this is William.” Emily grinned, looking down at the child holding onto her fingers.
“He’s cute,” Starling said. “How old is he?”
Starling nodded, as if she knew anything about the development of toddlers, and the age of thirteen months meant something to her. After a brief pause, again regarding the different artifacts in the yard, Starling said, “Is the radio too loud?” She cocked her thumb in the direction of the portable radio with the clothes hanger antenna.
“Oh, no,” Emily said, still looking at her son with the instinctual affection of a mother to child, “I like the company of the songs.”
“Where’s your husband?”
“Playing golf,” Emily said with the carry of a sigh. “He grew up in this town and he still has a solid group of high school buddies around.”
Starling burst out her laugh, “Ha. Yeah, there’s no moving out of Remington.”
“Guess not,” Emily said with another sigh.
“Where’re you from?”
“The Boston area,” Emily said, looking up at Starling. It was there that Starling saw the source of the woman’s underlying beauty. The woman’s eyes were haunting. Or haunted. They were dark and deep. Mysterious was the best way to describe them. Those eyes were also the source of that seeming sadness.
“How did you meet—” Starling paused, allowing Emily to provide the name of her husband.
“—Glenn?” Starling finished.
“My family used to come to Half Moon Pond every summer. I met Glenn there, and…” Emily shrugged, letting Starling’s imagination fill in the story of a young teenage girl visiting a lake with her family and finding a summer fling. First kiss. First time a boy’s hands crawled on her like an eager creature.
“And you were caught in the black hole that is Remington.” Starling said.
“Something like that.”
Starling watched Emily and her son regard each other. The son with the same haunting—haunted—eyes as his mother. “If you ever need a babysitter…” Starling said, letting the unfinished invitation dangle in the air.
“Oh, thanks, that’s nice,” Emily said. “But I really don’t get out much.”
“Well, hey,” Starling said, “If you ever want to, you know, hang out. We hang down at the Bridge Beach a lot. Do you smoke?”
“Cigarettes?” Emily asked with naiveté.
“Ha. No.” Starling held her hand to her lips, taking a toke from an invisible roach.
Emily recognized the gesture and shook her head.
Starling realized it was probably the first time the woman was ever asked that question. “Ha. There goes that babysitting job,” Starling said. “But, hey, the other’s wouldn’t smoke around little William here.”
Emily smiled her sadness. “Thanks,” she said.
“All right,” Starling said, feeling guilty, as if this young mother suddenly viewed her as some pot-smoking delinquent. “Well, it was nice to meet you.”
“Nice meeting you, too,” Emily said.
“And you, too, William,” Starling called in the high voice people use with young children.
Emily looked at her child. “You want to say goodbye, William?” The child reached toward his mother’s lips. “I guess not,” she said to the toddler.
“See-ya,” Starling said, edging away from the fence.
“Goodbye,” Emily said. After a brief pause, as Starling was returning to her campsite, Emily added, “And thanks for the invite to the lake.”
Starling stopped and turned. “No problem,” she said with a smile—her own source of underlying beauty—and she went back to the beach towel and the static beats of the radio.
Continued in: Earworm: Part 18 — The Game