|Rowena's Page, Rowena Gets a Life.||Rowena Tries To Help Her Sister, Part 11|
Rowena pulled up to a red light. “Why are we going to Maralynne's New Year's party?” she asked. “Why do I do these things?”
“You're a dutiful sister,” said Sammy, “and Maralynne is lonely.”
“Dutiful,” Rowena said. “If she had half the power over men that she has over her sister, she could at least have a boyfriend of her own and not have to go after mine, and visiting her with you would not be such an ordeal. Or if she had only twice as much power over me as she does have over them, we wouldn't have to do this at all.”
Sammy smiled. “If she had that much control over men, we'd still have to go because I'd be dragging you.”
Rowena looked at him. “You're a big help,” she said, trying to sound annoyed. Sammy grinned and reached to stroke her hair. “It's just—I can think of so many places I'd rather go for New Year's Eve. Including nowhere.”
“There's nowhere you'd rather go?”
“That didn't come out right,” she said. Sammy laughed. The light changed and Rowena started forward.
“Should I make a resolution?” she asked.
“There's this book I want you to read; remind me to loan it to you,” Maralynne said. “As soon as I have a minute I'll put it with your stuff. Now, let's see.” She picked out a guest, apparently at random, and planted Rowena in front of her.
“This is Tammy,” Maralynne said. She usually introduced one friend and then left Rowena to fend for herself. “Tammy, this is my sister, Rowena.”
“Hi,” Rowena said. Tammy giggled.
“Tammy's the Girl Next Door,” Maralynne told her.
“Next door?” Rowena asked. “Really?”
“She's the Girl Next Door type,” Maralynne said, a little impatiently. “I'm the Siren and she's the Girl Next Door.”
“Tammy's got an audition for a role as a Homecoming Queen,” Maralynne said. Tammy giggled again. Her giggle was high-pitched and, Rowena thought, irritating.
“Well. Good luck.”
“She means, ‘break a leg,’” Maralynne explained. “She doesn't know anything.” Tammy nodded understandingly.
“Thank you.” Another giggle. Rowena thought for a moment that Tammy was going to say something else, but after staring at Rowena a while she managed only to giggle once more.
“And that's Sammy.” Maralynne did not, Rowena noted, add the phrase, “my sister's boyfriend.” But she ignored this, and stood smiling politely until it seemed an acceptable time to move on.
“She's not so ugly,” she heard Tammy say. “Or mean.”
She felt Sammy's hand on her back. “Let's see about some food,” he said.
They went to Maralynne's table and eyed the offerings there. Raw vegetables, roughly cut, were slowly turning brown among bowls and bowls full of potato chips, corn chips, pretzels, onion crackers, wheat crackers, cheese crackers, and mixed nuts. Squeezed between these items were bottles of liquor and soda pop, several kinds of dip, a pile of paper plates (wedged up at an angle) and plastic cups.
“You know,” said Rowena in an undertone, “I have a funny feeling there isn't going to be any real food here.”
“Wouldn't be surprised,” Sammy said.
“Why,” asked Rowena, “if she didn't want to cook or anything—why did she have everybody bring chips and stuff?” Rowena, as requested, had brought soda.
“It's party food,” suggested Sammy. “And no dishes to wash.”
“Bingo,” Rowena said. She tried not to remember the hours she'd spent helping Maralynne clean up for the party. Instead she smiled at a friend of her sister's who stood by the table seizing chips one by one, dipping them with a jab, crunching them rapidly and staring a moment at the spread before pouncing at the next morsel. “Hi,” Rowena hazarded. “I'm Maralynne's sister, Rowena.”
The woman nodded, accepting this. She swallowed. “Gwen,” she said. Her hand darted out and snatched up a corn chip. “You smoke?”
Gwen scooped up some salsa and shoved the laden chip into her mouth. “I just quit.”
“Well—congratulations and good luck.”
“I started knitting,” Gwen said. She clasped her hands and regarded Rowena with darting eyes. “Maralynne said she'd hit me if I brought my knitting here.”
“Oh, I don't think—”
Gwen unclasped her hands and grabbed a handful of nuts. “It's her fault if I get fat,” she said.
“Gwen the hen! How are ya?”
A woman in a bright red blouse barrelled into the room. “Mmph!” said Gwen as the newcomer hugged her. The hand holding Gwen's pretzel stuck out awkwardly in the air. She was released abruptly and her friend stood grinning.
“So how's the nicotine level, Carcinogen Gwen? Don't eat the cauliflower—it's covered with pesticides! And the orange dye in the cheese crackers—uh, uh.”
“Meet Maralynne's sister?” asked Gwen hastily.
“No. What's your name, Tina?”
“Rowena. And this is Sammy.”
“Rowena, right; I knew it was something like that.” She turned to Sammy. “And you're the guy they're fighting over, right?”
“Pam, really.” Gwen turned to Rowena. “Don't mind her. She's a standup comic and she doesn't know when she's not working.”
“I'm Rowena's boyfriend,” Sammy said civilly.
“See there, Gwen Again? Nobody's offended.” Pam reached for a bottle of vodka as a very thin young woman entered, eyed the table nervously, then turned and left.
“Maralynne!” Rowena heard her call. “You got any diet water?”
“Diet water?” Rowena asked, forgetting herself.
“Cathy,” said Gwen helpfully. Cathy's voice floated back to them, high and fretful.
“That's got that lemon flavoring in it. You know I'm on a diet.”
Rowena found herself looking at the bottles on the table. “It's zero calorie,” she heard her sister say.
“They round it to zero.” Cathy was exasperated. “How can it be zero when there's stuff in it?”
Rowena picked up a wheat cracker and scooped French Onion onto it. She wondered if all Maralynne's friends were unwell one way or another. She wondered how she was going to survive her sister's party herself.
There was a knock at the door, and a moment later Rowena, reaching for a cup, heard her sister exclaim, “Madame Zelda! Come in!”
“Oh, wow,” said Gwen, and left for the living room. Rowena looked to Sammy for help, but his face was blank with surprise. “Zel-duh,” said Pam, unconcerned. “Good old Zelduh.”
Rowena wondered how her sister had managed to keep this little surprise to herself. She stayed where she was and waited, certain that this time Maralynne would hunt her down wherever she went and see to it that she got an introduction.
She did not want to meet her sister's psychic.
“It won't be that bad,” Sammy said.
“But she's—she's not just an ordinary fake, you know; she's been encouraging Maralynne to do all kinds of stupid—I think she's even encouraged this obsession Maralynne has with you.”
“Very stupid, that,” Sammy observed.
“You know what I mean.” Rowena pulled her hair up onto her head, then let it go. “I'm sure she has. There was that time Maralynne wanted to know your middle name and I wouldn't tell her because I knew it was for Numerology and she—”
Rowena stopped. Coming towards her was Maralynne leading a woman who could only have been Madame Zelda.
“This is my sister, Rowena,” Maralynne said. “And that's Sammy, and that's Pam. This,” she continued importantly, “is Madame Zelda.”
“'Meetcha, Zelduh,” said Pam. Maralynne scowled at her.
“Ah,” Madame Zelda said. “You are ze funny one.”
“See? Isn't she great?”
“'Course I'm the funny one,” said Pam. But she looked impressed—impressed and pleased.
Madame Zelda turned to Rowena. She wore long, multicolored flowing robes, a long, flowing head scarf, and strange eye makeup. “And ze sister,” she said. She put her hand out. Rowena reluctantly shook it—and found herself captured. “H'mmm,” Madame Zelda said, holding her palm to the light and squinting at it. “I see a disappointment for you.”
“Really,” Rowena said, thinking that she was already having it. “Just one? In my whole life?” Madame Zelda looked at her.
“You will quarrel with the one who is closest to you. But you will find another who will comfort you and with whom you can be happy.”
Rowena looked at her squarely. “At the moment, you're closest to me,” she said.
“That is not what I meant.”
“No? 'Cause it's damn accurate that way.”
“You have a strong personality,” Madame Zelda said, without consulting the palm. “And you will live a long life.” She let go.
“Me next,” said Pam. But Madame Zelda had already taken hold of Sammy. Rowena moved just slightly to make sure Madame Zelda wouldn't forget she was there.
Madame Zelda told Sammy that he would have a long happy life with a special woman and he said that he intended to. “Any kids?” asked Maralynne. Madame Zelda looked at Sammy, presumably for some kind of clue, and then looked back at his hand.
“I see—fatherhood,” she said. “I see the possibility of fatherhood.”
“Wow,” Rowena deadpanned. She knew she was being rude but she said it anyway. “A possibility. How 'bout that.”
“Now do me,” said Pam. Rowena and Sammy left them to it.
“Is she the entertainment?” Sammy asked.
“Maybe we're supposed to be hers,” Rowena said. She dropped onto Maralynne's couch. “Some party,” she said. “I don't think I'll play along.”
Sammy sat beside her. “She could just be here to drum up business,” he said. “Maybe she's even here because she likes the hostess.”
“Who seems to have invited her to tell you to leave me for her.” Rowena put her forehead into her palms. “Some sister,” she said.
“It's not as if I'm going to do it,” Sammy said.
“It's still a royal pain. To say the least.”
The doorbell rang. Maralynne, instead of leaving Madame Zelda and answering it herself, put her head into the room and called, “Rowena! Answer the door!”
Rowena looked at her. “You're the one who knows everybody.”
Maralynne ran over, grabbed her arm and hauled. “But it might be The Guys.”
Rowena went, reluctantly; it was either that or cause a scene and possibly lose a limb. “What guys?”
“The guys from upstairs. Eddie, he's a Sagittarius, and what's-his-name, James, the Aries.” She pushed Rowena at the door. “Either one would be perfect.”
“For what?” asked Rowena suspiciously.
“For you. Open the door.”
“Maralynne, I am not dumping Sammy in favor of what's-his-name. I am sick and tired—”
“How rude!” Maralynne said, and opened the door herself.
“Hello, Maralynne,” said Chester shyly. He was holding a bouquet and a plastic shopping bag. “I've got the sour cream potato chips and the garlic crackers and the champagne you asked for.” He held out the flowers. “And these are for you.”
“Hi,” said Maralynne, defeated. She took the gifts, said, “Thanks,” and left. Rowena put on a smile.
“Hello, Chester,” she said, moving aside to let him enter. “Glad you could come.”
“Are you really?” he asked, stepping a bit nervously in. Rowena smiled; compared to the rest of Maralynne's guests, Chester seemed mercifully normal.
“I really am,” she said.
Rowena and Sammy spent much of the evening talking to Chester, who kept gazing off to where Maralynne laughed with various of her other guests. If Chester tried to meander over in her direction, Maralynne meandered more quickly away. Rowena couldn't help feeling sorry for him, especially since she found him to be more tolerable company than Maralynne's other friends. She understood very little of his technical talk—and much of his talk was technical—but he was still more tolerable company than Maralynne's other friends. At one point she left to refill Sammy's glass and—and to sidle up to her sister.
“Why don't you pay Chester a little attention?” she asked.
“Chester?” Maralynne said. She shrugged. “I only asked him so's he'd see me with all the other guys.”
Rowena looked around. “What other guys?”
“Oh, the Sagittarius and the Aries I told you about, and there was this Taurus who—”
“Maralynne. I don't see them.”
“They'll be here. Except for the Libra I asked; he said he might come over after everybody left so he could have me to himself.” Maralynne tossed her hair.
“Ah. You mean he's not willing to meet your friends or talk to you; he only wants you for sex.”
“Rowena! What a thing to say! I'll have you know I'm fascinating.”
“Maralynne, listen. Why don't you just be nice to Chester, or polite at least, and—”
“Stop talking about him. And don't tell anybody I invited him; I said you did.”
“Where are those guys?” Maralynne demanded.
“I told you, Maralynne.” Pam appeared from nowhere, a glass of red wine in her hand. “No beer, no guys.”
“But Madame Zelda said, no beer.”
“How old are these guys?” Rowena wanted to know. Her sister looked at her blankly. Rowena picked up a pretzel, then Sammy's drink, and left, taking with her the suspicion that Madame Zelda simply did not like young beer-drinkers.
Returning to Sammy she made a detour which allowed her to place herself, quite abruptly, directly in front of Madame Zelda, who had been managing to stay about as far away from Rowena as was possible in Maralynne's apartment.
“Listen,” Rowena said. “I don't know if Maralynne is paying you to be here, or if you're just hoping to recruit more New Age zombies, or what, but—”
“You are impatient,” Madame Zelda said. “My advice to you is to learn patience. Also you must learn to open your mind.”
“Really,” said Rowena. “Well, it seems to me—”
“For a full reading you must make an appointment,” Madame Zelda said. “Now, if you will excuse me . . .”
“Wait!” Rowena said. But Madame Zelda sidestepped her deftly and swiftly glided to Maralynne's side. Rowena, her hands full, could only stand and watch. And then bring Sammy his drink.
She could think of many reasons for Madame Zelda to leave the party early. She could leave because Maralynne hadn't paid her that much, because she was hungry—Rowena herself was famished and had a headache—because the party wasn't very good, or because Rowena was too much of a threat. She kept hoping Madame Zelda would leave for some reason before midnight came. But a minute or so before 12 she was still there, gathered with everyone else around Maralynne's television set. Pam, drunk, was sitting on the floor with a not-quite-empty cup of whiskey and another of champagne. Gwen and Cathy did a little dance and Maralynne watched the screen with (for her) alarming concentration. Chester explained that the New York show Maralynne had on was not live but had been taped for rebroadcast in other time zones, including their own, and Maralynne told him to shut up. With a few seconds left Pam began blowing her noisemaker and wouldn't stop. Rowena's head pounded harder, but at least she couldn't hear Tammy's giggling.
“I predict that a young child will make a significant scientific breakthrough in the coming year,” Madame Zelda suddenly said.
“Three,” yelled most everyone else. “Two. One. HAPPY NEW YEAR!” Pam, Tammy, Gwen and Cathy cheered. Madame Zelda applauded with dignity, apparently doing her best to give the impression she herself was somehow responsible for the world's continued existence. Rowena and Sammy kissed, and Maralynne yelped, “Hey!”
Rowena looked. Her sister was holding Chester at arm's length, pushing him back. Chester started saying something but Maralynne ran off and shut herself in her bathroom.
Rowena sighed. Pam reached up and took hold of Madame Zelda's sleeve. “Hey,” she said. “Whatsa matter with her?”
Madame Zelda drew herself more stiffly upright. “Professional confidentiality,” she said.
“Go fix her,” Pam ordered, and, letting go, she spread herself peacefully out on the floor.
“This is too weird,” said Cathy.
“She needs time by herself,” Madame Zelda said grandly. Rowena thought she was partially right, though mostly by chance. She considered going to her sister just briefly, tapping on the door just to say—she would tell Maralynne that when she did want to talk—
“Is she going to be sick?” Cathy was peering worriedly at Pam. Tammy giggled nervously. Rowena was reluctant to look at Pam, who rolled over and hid her face, but bent to ask her how she felt. She got no answer, got up again—and Pam threw up on the floor.
Rowena would have thought that Cathy and Gwen, at least—if not Tammy—were old enough not to squeal and make a fuss on such an occasion, or to leave her to fetch the paper towels. She piled the dirty towels on a paper plate and went back to the kitchen for a little water so Pam (who was insisting by now that she'd felt “fluish” all day) could have a damp towel for her face.
“How is she?” asked Sammy, who was hiding discreetly in the kitchen.
“She thinks she has the flu,” Rowena said. “I'm not so sure about that, though I think we can rule out food poisoning, what with there being no food.” She took her towel to the sink. “Where's Chester?” She'd heard Sammy ask Chester to go with him so Pam could recover in a female-only environment, but Rowena now saw no sign of him.
Sammy shrugged. “Went out the door,” he said. “He didn't say where he was going.”
Rowena squeezed the towel out, gently. “Poor guy.” As she passed Sammy she stopped, and he kissed her, briefly.
“Ready to leave when you are,” he said. She nodded and left.
Back in the living room, Pam mopped herself off and Rowena helped her settle more or less on the couch. She heard a commotion of some kind in the kitchen and, thinking Chester had returned, was almost relieved. She went in herself with the used towel—to find Sammy with not Chester but Maralynne. Her head was drooping and he was holding her at arm's length.
“Nooo,” Maralynne said. She shook her head, clutching at his arm. “You have to kiss me. It's New Year's. You have to.”
Gently but firmly Sammy said, “I am in love with your sister.”
“Somebody—it's New Year's! Somebody has to—”
“Maralynne. It can't be me. It just can't.”
“I need somebody!” Maralynne wailed. “Just—just—somebody—just to like me!”
Sammy tipped his head back, turned it away for a moment, to the side—and saw Rowena.
They stared at each other. Sammy moved his head again, beckoning this time, and Rowena came forward. She put the towels on the counter along the way. Sammy turned the sobbing Maralynne towards her and Maralynne dropped her hands from him and allowed him to transfer her into Rowena's arms. “I'm going to take a walk,” he whispered, and left them. Rowena stood with her arms around her sister—her sister who had just tried to kiss her boyfriend—and had no idea what to do or say.
She patted Maralynne's back, and waited.
“You know,” Rowena said, setting a cup of tea down in front of her sister, “I kind of hate to mention it, but Chester was perfectly—”
“Chester! I want a real guy.”
“At least in public. Geez. He could spoil my reputation.”
Rowena managed not to comment on this. “It seems like such a shame, though.”
“My reputation,” Maralynne repeated.
“I don't know,” Rowena said, “whether he'd hurt your reputation or not, but I don't see how making passes at your sister's boyfriend would help it.” Maralynne stared at her. Rowena sat down a bit heavily in front of her own tea. Madame Zelda poked her head in the doorway, but Rowena glared at her and she retreated.
Maralynne's voice took on a reasoning-with-the-feebleminded tone. “See, if I do anything that makes me look like I'm desperate or something, people might think I'm—not really much of a Siren.”
“And Madame Zelda always says it's only a matter of time anyway before you realize that a Scorpio is just not going to—”
“Maralynne, even if that's true you're completely out of line. You're not only interfering with my relationship, which God knows is not what we call proper sisterly behavior, you're basically foisting some sort of nutty religion on me, and I am really—”
A knock at the door—the front door—interrupted her, and, listening, she heard Sammy's voice.
She hurried to let him in. He had Chester with him, and each held a pizza box. “Chester remembered a pizza parlor near here,” Sammy said. With Maralynne in earshot, Rowena decided to save her questions for later.
“How nice,” she said. “Thank you, Chester.” She turned in her sister's direction. “Isn't this nice, Maralynne?”
“I'm hungry,” said Maralynne unexpectedly. She sniffed. “Smells good,” she said, and added, to Rowena's surprise, “Thanks.”
Sammy and Chester cleared a space on Maralynne's countertop and set the pizzas down. Tammy had left while Rowena was tending to Pam, who (Rowena went to peek) was still resting comfortably.
“Is that pizza?” Cathy asked. She dashed off in search of her coat.
“Cathy!” Maralynne called. “There are no calories in smells!”
“You say,” Cathy retorted. “A smell is molecules, right?” She poked her head into the doorway, holding her nose with one hand and waving briefly with the other, and left.
“Nice to meet you,” Rowena called. The door opened and closed.
Two pizza slices later, Rowena, feeling much better, noticed that Madame Zelda, in taking her own pizza to a relatively distant end table, had turned her back. She left her third slice to Sammy's care, wandered casually over and got the psychic cornered. “Now,” said Rowena, “stop helping my sister make a fool of herself and get your so-called ‘influence’ the hell out of my life.”
Madame Zelda drew herself up. “There are forces, my child, which you cannot—”
“You want force? I'll give you force. You find some way to tell her Sammy's not her Mr. Right or I'll phone up the Skeptics and have them send someone undercover to expose you.”
“You cannot think—”
“Can't I? Did Maralynne tell you that Sammy works for a law firm and is almost as annoyed by this point as I am? Or that my company employs a publicist who happens to owe me a favor?” Rowena paused just a moment to let this sink in. “Lay off,” she said.
Madame Zelda collected herself. “You do not understand the forces I—”
“Bullshit,” Rowena said. “You are going to stop amusing yourself at my sister's expense, and you're going to stop now. As of this moment. NOW.”
Madame Zelda managed, after a moment, to gather together a little dignity. “I forgive you your youth and ignorance,” she said.
“Just let my sister and me live our own lives,” Rowena said, “and I won't take any special pains to ruin yours.”
Maralynne was walking towards them, and Rowena gave her a smile. “I'm so glad to see you talking,” Maralynne said. She turned to her sister. “Are you learning anything?” she asked.
“I think our little chat has been very informative,” Rowena said. Maralynne smiled.
“Good,” she said.
“Where is she?” Rowena asked. It was New Year's Day, edging into late afternoon. Her sister was supposed to have arrived almost an hour ago with the book she'd forgotten to make Rowena borrow the night before.
“If she's late we'll just go to the next showing,” Sammy said. He looked perfectly tidy and perfectly relaxed.
“It's just—” but there was the knock at the door. Rowena went to let in her sister—and Chester.
She tried not to look surprised. “Hi. Come in.”
“Just for a minute,” Maralynne said. “We're already a little late.” She gave Rowena the book. “Let me show you something,” she said. She took Rowena aside and opened the book. “This chapter here. See? All about finding your True Nature, and other people's, too.”
Rowena decided to keep an open mind, or at least a closed mouth. “Very nice,” she said.
“Yeah,” said Maralynne. “You'd be surprised, sometimes. Take Chester, for instance.”
“Madame Zelda says the minute she saw his aura she just knew he was the perfect man for me. Imagine that. And astrologically and everything . . . he's great.”
“Glad to hear it,” Rowena said. “I mean, I'm happy for you both.”
“It goes to show you. I mean, I was so wrong about Sammy; I mean, I wasn't wrong, but apparently he was born just a little too late in the day and just can't support my sensitive nature and—what time was he born?”
Rowena had no idea. “I must have forgotten.”
“Well, apparently Madame Zelda found out—and just in time, too. I could have made a terrible mistake.”
“Good thing you invited her, then.”
“Isn't it? And I'm gonna help Chester stop being a nerd, too—my nurturing, helpful side.”
Maralynne beamed at her, then looked out across the room. “Chester! Ready to go?”
“Ready,” Chester said. Rowena noticed he was wearing a polo shirt this time. He and Maralynne left for wherever they were going, and Rowena and Sammy gathered their coats and left also. Rowena didn't speak until they were safely alone in Sammy's car.
“It worked,” she said. “Madame Zelda finally backed off. I mean, I guess she's still meddling, but at least she's off our backs. She actually told Maralynne what a great guy Chester is.” She fastened her seat belt with something like a flourish. “I should have threatened her ages ago—told Maralynne I wanted to consult her and got her number and just called her up and—”
“Chester says he did it,” Sammy said. He looked as if he was amused by something private.
“Chester? No, I did. I told you about this; I went and—”
“Chester thinks he did it. He offered her fifty bucks to tell Maralynne to go out with him.”
Rowena stared. “He gave her money? He gave money to that—that meddling bitch?”
“He figured it was worth it,” Sammy said. He patted Rowena on the thigh. “Maybe he's too timid to threaten people,” he said. “Maybe he's not as fierce as you are.”
Rowena laughed wryly. “He hasn't been putting up with this nonsense for half his life,” she said. “He hasn't had to humor her and rescue her and then have her try and—”
“With luck,” Sammy said, “maybe he will get to—for the rest of his life.”
Rowena looked at him and laughed. “You're terrible,” she said. She leaned up against him, very gently and briefly so as not to interfere with his driving. “Terrible,” she continued. “Almost as bad as Madame Zelda said.” She kissed him on the shoulder, then turned to her window and smiled out at the world.
Volume I: Rowena Gets a Life.
Book 4: Rowena Tries To Help Her Sister.
About the Stories.
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