Remy made a list of all the things she didn’t want her daughter to bring up in front of their vegetarian guests. Don’t mention that her grandfather was a cattle farmer, they host an annual Fourth of July hotdog cook-out, her sister was once the secretary for the Tennessee State Livestock Association, or she was the 1992 Alabama Cattlemen’s Association state queen. Remy even took down the wall photo of herself in her crown and banner riding in the Christmas parade atop a blue Mustang convertible.
“They know we eat meat, Mama. What’s the point of pretending we don’t?” Standing in the doorway of the dining room, Carmi stretched her head at an angle, taking one more selfie.
Remy furiously polished a silver fork with her kitchen towel. “Your daddy has already explained this to you. We’re not trying to pretend we’re vegetarians, but we don’t need to go flaunting our past relationship with beef to these people,” said Remy.
“’Past relationship with beef’?” Carmi rolled her eyes. “Gawd, Mama, you make it sound like you were in love with it.”
“Put that damn camera away, Carmi, and go get dressed.”
“I’ve told you a thousand times, it’s not a camera. It’s a phone.”
“It might as well be a camera. The only thing I ever see you do with it is take pictures of yourself.” Remy pointed a coral tipped finger toward the stairs. “And put on a dress. You need to look nice to meet your father’s new boss. It’s important!” Her last words were flung at Carmi’s back as she flounced around the corner and up the stairs, pausing only to lean over and take one more picture with her hair hanging over the bannister.
“Don’t ride her so much,” her husband called from the kitchen. “She’s only fourteen.”
“How many pictures can a girl take of herself in one day? Have you seen her Snapchat? Or her Facebook page?” said Remy, heading into the kitchen where Thom was refilling his drink. “There are hardly any words, just picture after picture of herself, and they all look alike. Just her face, over and over. Lord goodness, I’ve never seen a young girl so obsessed with her looks.”
“I have,” he muttered.
“When I was her age I didn’t have a phone that could take pictures, and even if I did, I had enough sense to know that people didn’t want to look at me in fifteen poses a day every day of the year,” said Remy. She refilled her wine glass and gulped it.
“It’s a phase,” said Thom.
“I went through phases, too, but I got over them. This has been going on for months.”
“You once bought over two hundred Beanie Babies,” said Thom. “At least her phase isn’t costing us anything.”
“That was an investment. They were supposed to go up in value and I was going to double my money,” said Remy, taking a longer drink this time. “It’s not my fault that old Bitchy Nordstrom gives bad advice on investments.”
“Investment means stuff like stocks, honey, not stuffed toys. And besides, you should have known better than to take advice on anything from a woman who had her eyebrows tattooed on and runs around with twenty-two year old pool boys.”
“Oh my god , let’s not talk about that again,” said Remy. “It’s unchristian to gossip. Now, those people are going to be ringing the bell any minute. How do you say their name again?”
“Come on hon, it’s not hard. Lanka,” said Thom, pushing out the consonants hard. “The wife is Jana.”
“That’ll be easy to remember. I had two Janas in my sorority.”
“And his name is Prudhviraj.”
Remy downed the last dregs of her wine. “Maybe I’ll just call him Mr. Lanka.”
The doorbell rang and Remy’s face lit up. It was her onstage smile that ignited in a 3-2-1 countdown before she stepped into the lights. Thom had always been astounded at how sudden and all-encompassing it was. From dismally bored to stunningly enthusiastic in a three second countdown.
This was the face Remy wore when she opened the door. Thom couldn’t see it from behind, but he knew his wife was utterly aglow with hospitality. “Hey ya’ll! Come on in, Mr.” and she turned to the woman in the sunset colored sari, “and the lovely Mrs. Lanka.” Remy gushed with air kisses to Mrs. Lanka who stood primly next to her husband. “I have been counting the days until this dinner,” said Remy. “Do come on in and have some wine. You do drink, don’t you?”
“Yes, yes of course,” Prudhviraj was finally able to interject.
“We have some delicious Riesling. That’s German wine,” said Remy.
“Yes, yes,” said Prudhviraj, nodding approvingly.
Thom extended his hand and Prudhviraj shook it firmly. “I trust you didn’t
have any problem finding the place,” said Thom.
“No, our GPS brought us straight here,” said Prudhviraj.
“Oh, I see you have a car already,” Thom said, nodding toward the gold Prius parked on the street.
“We made arrangements before we left India to have it waiting for us here,” said Prudhviraj.
“Oh, how efficient,” said Remy. “I can hardly get Thom to make an appointment at the kennel for the cat when we go on vacation.” Her laughter erupted on cue like an audience at a talk show, but the Lankas were not entirely sure why it was funny. Jana gave a polite smile and Prudhviraj nodded with the same enthusiasm he showed over the wine.
“Folks, let’s not stand around,” said Thom, smiling broadly. “Let’s get this party started. Please, follow me.” He motioned through the door toward a sofa in an enormous open room with a formal dining table at one end next to the kitchen and a sitting area on the opposite side. A curved, salmon colored sofa anchored the center of the room like a monstrous shrimp. Creamy beige and pebble gray velvet and silk throw cushions with tassels like stripper’s pasties had been artfully arranged three to a bundle along the back at regular intervals. Prudhviraj and Jana took seats on either side of a cushion set, careful not to dishevel Remy’s decorating. Before Jana could even get her sari arranged neatly around her, Thom came at both of them with chilled glasses of Riesling.
“You have a lovely home,” said Jana, accepting the glass from Thom.
“It’s been years in the making,” said Remy. “Each time Thom makes a business trip to Singapore I trail along and pick up textiles from the Arab Street. That’s where the pillow covers came from.” She pointed at the bundles on either side of Jana who reflexively pulled in her elbows.
Prudhviraj beamed. “They are exquisite.”
“I suppose you and Mrs. Lanka will be going back and forth quite a bit, what with the company expansion.” Remy’s face lit up at the final two words.
Jana cast a glance at her husband. “Prudhviraj does his business travel without me. I’m afraid I will be very busy with my work.”
“And her mother will be moving here with us as soon as we get her quarters arranged. She is in rather frail health, so we have much preparation before she can join us.”
Remy’s face dropped quickly. “Aw, I do hope she’ll recover in our southern climate. You know I was reading that it gets almost as hot here as it does in Jaipur. I’m sure your mother will feel right at home here once we all stop by and show her some southern hospitality.”
“How kind of you,” said Jana. “We have read much about your hospitality. The south of the U.S. is well known for this trait.”
“We didn’t have much choice after the Civil War. Didn’t want the rest of the world to think we were rude!” Thom laughed but Remy’s face was frozen.
“Well, Jana,” Remy said, placing her empty wine glass on the coffee table. “I think it’s wonderful that you are diving right in and finding ways to stay busy. I can recommend some excellent organizations for volunteer work. Personally, I am on the book acquisition committee for the library, and I’ve been the chair of the Spring fundraiser for the American Cancer Society for going on ten years now.”
“How impressive,” said Jana.
“Yes, yes, you must truly be an asset to your community,” added Prudhviraj.
Remy reached for the wine and offered refills to her guests who waved it away as she began speaking. “I think you’ll find that here in America, though we have our faults, lord knows, we are giving people. And women, Jana,” Remy gave a little wave of her finger, “the women here in Savannah are on the cutting edge of so many community and business initiatives. I think you’re going to be amazed at all the opportunities available to you to learn new things and make a positive difference outside the home. It’s really a whole new world for women here in America. It’s not at all what you’re accustomed to.” She splayed her fingers in jazz hands and Jana suppressed a smile.
“What I am accustomed to?” Jana’s eyebrows raised.
“I’m just saying you’ll have rights here. Women have so many opportunities in America that they don’t have in so many other countries.”
“I presume you mean India.” Jana’s lips curved in a tight little smile.
“Oh, not just India but lots of countries. Women have so much freedom to achieve here in America,” Remy leaned forward a bit to resume her thought but Thom jumped in.
“Now,” said Thom, “Prudhviraj, I don’t want to mar the evening by talking business, but I did have just one quick question about the accounting set-up that you emailed me about.”
“Oh my god, Carmi!” Remy’s face turned pale. “Oh, oh, it’s our daughter.”
Carmi descended the stairs one step at a time, trailing one hand down the bannister. At the bottom step she paused, the toe of one silver-heeled shoe propped on the step above. Her royal blue, one shouldered, sequined dress had been Remy’s back when her waist was even smaller than Carmi’s. An enormous, black, satin bow was perched on the shoulder, its long ties sewn in stiff ruffled waves across her chest and stopping just above the ankle length hem. Carmi tossed her hair to one side and a strand stuck in her lipstick. She flicked it off and took a selfie.
Remy stood up to speak but Thom beat her to it. “This is our daughter, Carmi, who loves to play dress-up with her mother’s things.”
“Mama was a byootee queen,” gushed Carmi. “This is the one she wore when she was crowned Miss Alabama Chattel, 1992.”
For a hot five seconds, no one spoke, but then Remy’s face transformed itself. Turning on her smile once more, she said, “Dinner will be ready soon, so Thom, why don’t you take the Lankas to the table, and Carmi will come and help me in the kitchen.”
“Why can’t I go to the table?” asked Carmi. Before Remy could move, Carmi crossed the floor and slid onto one the teal silk damask dining chairs, her elbows resting on the table and her hands folded primly underneath her chin.
Thom gave a stern shake of his head to Remy while the Lankas politely pretended to see nothing. “Remy dear, Carmi and I will entertain our guests until you bring supper out.”
Jana took a step toward Remy. “Do let me help you.”
Remy’s hand shot out and Jana halted, startled. “I wouldn’t dream of it,” said Remy. Her eye twitched several times but she pulled herself together and beamed. “It’s no trouble at all, and I insist that you relax and help yourself to some nuts and figs on the table while you wait.”
Everyone took seats around Carmi and the silence settled between them. Carmi had to push the bow down from her face several times in order to see Jana and Prudhviraj to her right. Still clutching her phone, she pushed at a strand that had come unpinned from her hairpiece.
“You must like to attend parties,” said Jana. “Does your school have many dances?”
“Oh, we had a dance last spring, and I--”
“You have a son, don’t you?” asked Thom.
“Yes, our son is in England attending school.”
“England?” gushed Carmi.
“Our Amir attends boarding school in Manchester. He is a few years older than you, I think.” Jana gave Carmi a wink.
“I would die to go to boarding school in England,” said Carmi. She placed her phone next to her plate and leaned closer to Jana.
“We tried to send you to boarding school last year and you wouldn’t hear of it,” said Thom, punctuating the statement with a little laugh.
“That crummy school in Spartanburg? Ugh, that place looked like a strip mall!” She turned back to Jana. “Did you go to school in England?”
“I’m afraid not.” Jana eyed the collage of photos along the wall, and pushed up from the table to go and look at them. Carmi followed.
“That was Mom when she was a majorette. She gave me those boots, but I took those things off.” Carmi pointed at the white calf-high boots with the bright green iridescent pom poms dangling from Remy’s upward kicked foot. “And this is her when she was crowned Miss uh, Miss something. I forget.” Remy’s wide, open-jawed smile was ringed in rich, red lipstick, her blonde cloud of hair teased outward. She was reaching for a bouquet of flowers as two disembodied hands brought a crown down on her head from above.
Thom approached. “As you can see, my wife had quite the pageant career back in the day. She was a special guest, feature twirler for Jacksonville State University when she was just a junior in high school.” His raised eyebrows were Jana’s cue to be impressed. “And she once twirled two flaming batons for the half-time show with East Tennessee. She was featured on the ten o’clock news that evening.”
“Flaming batons, oh my! I have never known anyone else who has done such a thing. It’s so interesting what American women choose to do with their freedom,” said Jana. She turned to Carmi. “And do you? Do you twirl the umm?”
“Twirl baton? God no. Nobody’s twirled batons since forever.”
“You know that’s not true,” said Thom, now turning his attention to Prudjviraj who joined the trio. “Why baton twirling is an American tradition. Millions of young women do it, and probably some young, some uh boys do it, too.”
Remy pushed the kitchen door open and hurried in carrying an enormous dish between potholders. She stopped cold at the sight of everyone gathered around the wall photos.
“Oh my,” said Jana, pushing past her husband and Thom. “I should have been helping you. Please allow me to help you bring the rest of the food to the table.”
Remy put the dish on the table with a flourish and pulled a serving spoon from her apron pocket. “Mrs. Lanka, Jana, my husband’s new boss’s wife does not serve in my home. Now dear, you are our honored guest. Don’t you worry for one second about any of this.” She removed the lid from the casserole with her hot pad and steam swirled over the table.
“You were the very busy young society belle,” said Prudhviraj, motioning toward the majorette photo. “I can see where your daughter gets her charms.”
“Baton twirling is not just for idle belles, I can tell you,” said Remy. “Twirling is truly an athletic pursuit. I practiced for hours each day, and my shoulders were like that of a professional swimmer’s.” She dropped the potholders on the table and clasped her fingers dramatically over her shoulders. “I can’t even get Carmi to practice table tennis.”
Carmi snapped a photo of her mother whose eyes immediately hardened into glittering black marbles. She thrust out a warning finger. “Carmi, you remember what we’ve said about phones at dinner. Put that away until we’ve finished our meal.” The finger dropped and her expression shifted once more as she turned her attention to the Lankas. “I have prepared a vegetarian casserole, and I made sure to include turmeric. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how good that is for digestion.”
Jana and Prudhviraj gave broad smiles and murmured their admiration as Remy whirled around and went back through the kitchen door.
“That’s a pretty dress,” said Carmi, nodding at the amber silk and gold trim of Jana’s sari.
“Thank you. Yours is quite nice, too.”
Remy burst back through the swinging door with a salad bowl and tongs. “I have read that Indian spices can reduce toxins in the body and promote better breathing. Every article online highlights the benefits of turmeric, so I even sprinkled a little over the salad. Why if we’d known this when I was growing up in Birmingham we’d have put it on our fried chicken and biscuits!” She laughed loudly and Thom joined her. Carmi sneaked another photo and slid the phone back on the table before Remy could respond.
“What you have read is correct,” said Jana. “The curcumin in turmeric is an anti-inflammatory. I often recommend it to my COPD patients.”
“Your, your, Cee-oh, what? Did you say patients?” Remy stumbled.
“Oh,” said Prudhviraj, “my wife is a thoracic surgeon. Didn’t Thom tell you?”
The only sound in the room was Carmi’s giggling and the click of her camera of her mother’s face.
“Well now,” exclaimed Thom, “how fortunate to have a new surgeon in our little town. Will you be joining the staff here at St. Joseph’s or maybe Memorial?”
“Soon, I expect,” said Jana, reaching for the salad tongs. “My first priority is getting Mother settled into her suite, but I have already had some email conversations with the CEO at St. Joseph’s.”
The sound of utensils clinked against dishes as the food was ladled out. Carmi’s eyes shifted between Jana and her mother.
“Carmi, that vintage dress is not the proper attire for a junior high school girl. Go upstairs and change. And take off that fall.”
Carmi groaned and pushed away from the table. “You wore it when you were sixteen!”
Thom gave his daughter a stern look and motioned toward the stairs with his thumb. She rolled her eyes, pushed away from the table, and clickity-clacked her heels all the way upstairs.
Remy took a small bite of casserole and chewed slowly. When she did look up, she cast her broad smile. “I’m sure you know how adolescents can be. She is quite the little creature at times.”
“Amir could be a challenge as well at that age,” said Prudhviraj. “They grow out of it. This is very delicious.”
“Oh yes, excellent food,” Jana added.
“Will your son be studying medicine when he completes his coursework in England?” asked Thom.
Remy’s eyebrows raised and she halted her fork.
“He has been accepted at Brown University for the fall, but so far he’s shown no interest in medicine.” Jana dabbed at her mouth with the linen napkin.
“It seems I missed some important information while I was busy in the kitchen,” said Remy.
The conversation was broken when Carmi came bounding back into the dining area wearing a short denim skirt, blue vinyl ankle boots, and a black lace bra atop a tank top cut high and revealing her stomach. Pinned to the center of her bra was a large, silver, peace symbol. The fall was missing from her hair which was now pinned atop her head in a fashionably messy bun.
Remy’s face quivered. “Carmella Louise Sessions, you get right back up those stairs and take off that bra and put on a top that is appropriate!”
“What happened to freedom, Mother? You tramped all over the stage in less than this with people taking pictures of you.” Carmi shot a finger at a photo on the wall of a waving Remy mid-step on a runway carrying a bouquet of roses and wearing a crown. The banner across her blue one-piece swimsuit read Miss Mallard Point Resort.
Carmi ran up the stairs and a door slammed. The four adults ate in silence for a while and then Thom spoke up. “I guess raising girls has got to be even harder than boys. Nothing more headstrong than a teenage girl.”
A few more minutes of silent eating passed, and Carmi came down the stairs once more, the tank top ensemble replaced with a pink hoodie.
“That is a lovely look for you,” said Jana, clapping her hands together. “Come, let me take a photo of you.”
“Oooh, okay.” Carmi handed over her phone to Jana and moved into position: one hand on her hip, one boot poised in front of the other, and her head cocked to the left. Jana held the phone up and clicked.
“You are quite the fashion maven,” said Jana.
“What’s that? Like a bird?” asked Carmi.
“A maven means you are an expert at something.”
“Does that mean you’re a doctor maven?”
Jana and Prudhviraj both laughed. “I think it just means I’m a doctor,” Jana said.
“You know,” Remy placed her fork carefully on the edge of her plate. “When I went to Emory, I had dreams of becoming an RN. I made it two years into the program, but then I met a handsome young business student named Thom Sessions.”
“And then you got knocked up with me,” said Carmi, folding her arms defiantly across her chest.
All the air around Remy got sucked into her lungs. No one spoke, and Carmi and Remy’s eyes locked on to each other.
“I,” Remy paused, “I put all of my career aspirations aside to get married and be a mother.”
“And that decision has brought you to where you are now,” said Jana. “How fortunate for you.” She raised her wine glass in a toast to Remy.
“Yes, yes it is.” Remy stared forward into nothing, and Thom watched her, waiting.
“Mrs. Lanka, let’s do one of us together,” said Carmi. She retrieved the phone and leaped behind Jana’s chair. “Now,” she said, putting her chin close to the woman’s shoulder. Carmi’s sugary face shined next to Jana’s glossy, dark hair. “The trick is to hold it so that you’re looking up into the lens. It makes your eyes look bigger.”
“I see.” Jana gave a wide smile and Carmi began clicking the two of them.
“Carmi,” said Thom, “let Mrs. Lanka finish her meal before you start up with the selfie-session.”
“I know, let me take a photo of you with your mother,” said Jana, reaching for the phone.
“That’s not necessary,” said Remy, her voice quiet and small.
“A lovely mother and daughter,” said Prudhviraj. “Just one photo and then we can finish our meal.”
Remy sighed and pushed a few inches away from the table. “Well, I’d really rather not.”
“God Mom, come on. You know you love to have your picture taken.” Carmi flounced around the table and threw an arm over her mother’s shoulder. “Smile like it’s your last selfie.”
Jana held the phone high for several awkward seconds before everyone heard the click. When Carmi circled back to her seat she retrieved it and held it on her lap, scrolling through the photos. She saw herself next to Jana, her skin glowing like warm caramel. One blonde wisp of Carmi’s hair had come unpinned and hung atop Jana’s shoulder, mingling with a midnight strand. And in the last photo, Carmi’s face, bright from the chandelier’s glow, hovered over her mother with tight lips and dark lines around her jowls. Carmi had never seen that look on her mother’s face before, the uncertainty, the loss. Carmi’s finger hovered over the delete button, but Jana reached down and gently pushed her finger away. “Be careful with your decisions.”
Cathy Adams’ latest novel, A Body’s Just as Dead, was published by SFK Press. Her writing has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize. She is a short story writer with publications in The Saturday Evening Post, Utne, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Barely South, Five on the Fifth, Southern Pacific Review, and 46 other journals from around the world. She earned her M.F.A. at Rainier Writing Workshop, Pacific Lutheran University, Washington. Due to Covid-19, she is residing temporarily in Kansas, but her home is in Liaoning, China, with her husband, photographer, Julian Jackson.