Understanding Betsy

“I'm sure your mother will be there by the time you get home,” said Betsy's father, as they drove through the darkening streets. Betsy didn't answer, but looked over at Joanie. Her sister had fallen asleep. As they pulled onto the Beltway, she took off her glasses and stared at the taillights of the other cars, unfocusing and focusing her eyes so that the lights changed from hard, bright points to balls of colored fluff, like dandelions, and then back again.

“Betsy,” her father's voice came again. “You have to understand.”

Betsy closed her eyes, and pretended that she too was asleep. It would be good to sleep, maybe to dream something nice. But the pictures that came into her head when she closed her eyes were not dreamy kinds of things; she couldn't get away from the day that was now ending.

It was to have been a special day: she and Joanie were to see their father for the first time in three months. Joanie jumped for joy when their mother called the girls in to tell them the news, then ran outside to play. Betsy stayed behind; her mother's voice worried her. If her mother had agreed to let their father see them, the checks must have started coming again. So why did her mother still seem so angry?

“So he can spare the cash again,” her mother said when they were alone. “Now that he's the good father, I suppose that makes me the bad mother.”

Betsy didn't know what to say, so she kept quiet. But her silence seemed to upset her mother even more.

“I know what you think of me for keeping you from seeing him. You have all the fun with him, right? He's the one who takes you out for a good time, and I'm the one...” Her mother's voice caught, and she broke off.

“No, Mom, please – ” Betsy started, but stopped when she saw the look in her mother's eyes.

Her mother didn't seem to have heard her. She stared past Betsy for a minute, then said bitterly, “Maybe when you're older you'll understand why your mother was such a bitch.”

“No, Mom, don't say that,” Betsy protested. “I think you did the right thing. It's not your fault."

“No,” her mother answered. “I know what I know. You always wished you could be with him. So go with him," she said, and walked out of the room.

As the day wore on, Betsy couldn't do much of anything, wondering how it would be to see her father again after such a long time. True, they had spoken every few days on the phone. The conversation she remembered best, though, hadn't made things any easier.

The phone had rung sometime after supper, and as Betsy came to take the call she realized with a pang that it was her father's birthday. She should have been the one to call him! As she greeted her father she thought, what can I say to him? It's no good just saying I forgot... As she hesitated, her father said, “Listen, Betsy, you may live with your mother, but I'm still your father, you know.”

Betsy couldn't seem to make any sound. She looked guiltily at her mother, who stared back, waiting to see what she would say. The words just popped into her head.

“If you were sending the checks,” said Betsy, “we would be seeing you and we wouldn't have forgotten.”

There was a long pause before her father spoke again. When he did, his voice broke, and Betsy knew she would never be able to take back what she'd said.

Then there was Darlene. How would it be to spend a whole evening with her? Betsy knew her father wanted the girls to have a relationship with Darlene, but how could they when she was always sick, or for some other reason not up to being around them? Besides, she thought, the few times we've actually seen Darlene since she moved in with Dad, she wasn't really so friendly. What will we have to say to each other?

At three o'clock, the girls heard the car horn. “Daddy!” cried Joanie, and rushed down the steps. Betsy walked down slowly, and when she opened the outside door she saw Joanie and their father hugging each other tightly.

“Betsy, sweetie, come here, called her father, and opened his arms. Betsy tried, but she couldn't get her feet to move any faster. When she reached her father, she leaned over and gave him a peck on the cheek, and quickly climbed into the car.

On the way over to her father's place, he started playing the game that they'd made up for car rides when she and Joanie were younger. "Charlie," he said in a hoarse caricature of a gangster's voice, "where d'ya think we should dump 'em?" He then spoke in a high, cracked whine. "In da river, where d'ya think, Pete?" "I dunno, I'm gettin' tired a dat place," he had Charlie answer.

"Oh, Daddy, stop," said Betsy, "you know we're too old for that."

"Never too old to be dumped in da river," Charlie's voice replied, and he went on arguing with himself over what exactly was to be done with the girls.

Betsy giggled in spite of herself, and she felt something inside begin to melt. She'd forgotten how easily he could make her laugh, with his stories and his imitations and his jokes.

She started remembering. Digging moats for sandcastles on the beach, riding the ferry back and forth to Staten Island for a nickel, cooking "experiments" at Dad's apartment. Then there was the time he took them to Greenwich Village, making sure to bring flowers to exchange with the hippies. All they'd found were other hippie-hunters, tourists wearing roses on their seersucker suits and silly grins on their faces.

Betsy turned thoughtful as she recalled their father's last visit, three months ago. He'd taken them on a trip, a surprise trip, he said. The girls tried to guess where they were heading – the zoo? A ball game? The planetarium?

Finally, the car pulled up in front of a supermarket. A plain old supermarket! Betsy and Joanie couldn't hide their disappointment. Their father then explained to them gently that they had not come to do the household shopping. Over the last week he'd raised money to buy a car full of food for shipment to Africa, where thousands of children were starving.

Betsy remembered how her mother had reacted that day when she'd come home proudly wearing her new “Save the Babies” button.

“His heart bleeds for the whole world, until it comes to his family,” she said. But Betsy was proud that her dad always took the side of the underdog, and felt he could not stand aside when there was suffering in the world.

Yes, it would be good to start doing things again with Joanie and Dad, even though the kinds of things they could do had changed since Darlene came into the picture.

Betsy thought again of Darlene. It wasn't really her fault if she felt awkward with Betsy and Joanie, their father had explained to them many times. After all, she hadn't really had a mother of her own. Betsy had read about people growing up in families like Darlene's, and suddenly felt terribly sorry for her. She thought, I'll just be nice to her, it's as simple as that.

As soon as the car pulled up in front of their father's building, Betsy and Joanie jumped out of the car, racing each other up the stairs. Joanie leaned on the buzzer, and Darlene opened the door. “Hi, Darlene,” said Betsy, and smiled.

"How are you, Darlene?" added Joanie. Darlene looked past them to their father, who was still coming up the stairs.

“You're home!” she exclaimed. “Come on, I'm getting hungry, you haven't made supper yet.” Her eyes moved to Betsy and Joanie. “So you brought them, huh?” she said. “Well, turn on the T.V. or something for them, because you have to start cooking. I'm starving.”

Their father turned on the television. “She's got a hormonal problem,” he whispered to them. “If she doesn't eat every so often, it's like torture for her, and it took me more than an hour to get you girls.” Betsy decided not to ask why Darlene couldn't have fixed something for herself in the meantime.

As she waited for supper, Betsy caught snatches of the conversation in the kitchen between her father and Darlene. Darlene was complaining about one of the local storekeepers.

“I'll speak with him tomorrow,” Betsy thought she heard her father say.

“But he was so mean to me. I don't want to go back there.” Darlene sounded like she was about to cry.

“Don't worry, honey, I'll make sure he never talks to you like that again. Okay?” he said in a soothing voice. “Okay, sweetie?”

“Okay, Daddy.”

Daddy? Betsy thought, stiffening. Wait a minute, he's not... Did she really call him...

Betsy decided to put the thought out of her mind, and concentrated on the television until her father called them to come to dinner.

“So how have you been?” asked their father as Betsy and Joanie sat down at the table and started eating.

“I missed you, Daddy,” said Joanie.

“I missed you too, darling,” said their father. “I don't understand how your mother could just –”

“I had alot of tests in school,” Betsy broke in. “I didn't do so well, but my teacher says she thinks I could do better if I try harder. How did you used to do on your tests when you were my age?”

"Oh, not bad, I think," said her father. "But why should you not be doing well? Is your mother –”

“And I think I'm starting to make some friends now in my class. Just yesterday Jessica sat with me at lunch.” Betsy spoke quickly. “Maybe sometime we'll do something together after school. If her mother lets her. Her family is very strict, you know, and she has to go home straight from school and can't go out until she's finished her homework. It's really hard for her.”

“You don't know what hard is.” Darlene's hoarse voice startled Betsy. She turned to Darlene, who was staring at her, a flush beginning to creep over her face.

“What I meant was... I just think it's hard to have to...” Betsy faltered. Darlene kept staring at her. “People need to have fun sometimes too, don't they?”

Darlene didn't answer.

“Darlene, honey, have some more rice,” Betsy's father urged. “You know how it settles your stomach.” He spooned some corn onto Darlene's plate. “Have you taken your evening medicine yet?”

“Not yet, can't I wait a little more? It's so bitter.”

Betsy and Joanie ate in silence as their father coaxed Darlene into taking her medicine, eating the right foods, drinking enough.

Finally, Joanie said, “I found a kitten and took it home. Poor thing – it was so hungry and so cold. Maybe Mommy will let me keep it.”

“Since when is your mother willing to let you have a pet?” their father asked. “The way I remember it –”

“Oh, Mom hasn't decided yet,” Betsy injected quickly. “Dad, did I tell you about the time in school when –”

“Oh, the poor little kitten,” said Darlene in a child's voice, imitating Joanie. They all looked at her; she was again beginning to flush. “What if it were a baby?”

Betsy and Joanie looked uncomprehendingly at Darlene.

“If it were a baby no one would take it home, I can tell you that. For sure they would leave it to starve or freeze to death on the street.”

“But Darlene,” said Betsy, “How could a baby –”

“What do you know about it?” Darlene cut Betsy off. By now her face was frighteningly blotched with deep red patches. “I tell you, no one in this sick country gives a shit about babies. All they care about is that life is so hard for lost little kittens, and for spoiled children, with tests and homework and friends to worry about. Babies in other countries are being starved or bombed or burnt to death, and all you kids can think about is, ‘what protest button shall I wear today?’”

“Darlene,” Betsy's father started.

“You know it's true, Bob, so don't try to shut me up. It's time someone set them straight.” Darlene glared first at Betsy's father, then at Betsy. “You think if you wear enough buttons, you've done your part. What do you know about real life, growing up in this rich, self-satisfied, hypocritical country? Do you even have any idea of what this country is doing to the rest of the world?”

Darlene was shouting by now. Betsy looked down at the peace symbol she was wearing, then over at Joanie, who was now staring at Darlene with wide eyes. Darlene's gaze followed Betsy's, and she now spoke in a harsh whisper to Joanie.

“What are you looking at? You're no better than your sister over there. You missed your Daddy? You're lucky to miss him, instead of praying he won't ever come back again!” Joanie started to whimper. “Crying, are you? Maybe someone should give you something to cry about. How would you like it if your mother came after you with a hot iron?”

Joanie cried out and ran from the table into the bedroom. Darlene got up and stormed into the kitchen. Betsy just stayed in her seat, unable to speak.

Her father rose from the table. He stood, hesitating for a moment, and looked at Betsy. Both of them could hear Joanie's sobs from the bedroom, although she was clearly trying to muffle them with a pillow. Betsy looked up at her father. He lowered his eyes, and followed Darlene into the kitchen.

Betsy stared after her father. She heard him making soothing sounds to Darlene, although she couldn’t make out the words.

A heaviness started to work its way up from Bety's toes. She felt as though her legs were filling up with lead, as if they were rooted to the floor. The pit of her stomach started burning as it seemed to her that Joanie's cries were getting louder. Still, the cooing sounds from the kitchen continued.

Betsy forced herself up from her seat and managed to get herself into the bedroom. She got into the bed with Joanie and started stroking her hair. Joanie turned over and put her head onto Betsy's lap, and after a few minutes of stroking her sobs began to subside.

Betsy and Joanie sat quietly on their father's bed. The murmurs from the kitchen had ceased. Now, thought Betsy, now he'll come in to us. But when their father came, it was to tell Betsy and Joanie that he had to take them home. Betsy looked at her father.

“Why?” she challenged.

Her father would not meet Betsy's eyes. “Darlene isn't feeling well,” he said. “I'm sure next time things will work out better, and we'll all have a great time together.”

Betsy quietly put on her coat, and went outside to wait by the car.

It was getting hard for Betsy to keep pretending she was asleep. Behind her eyelids she kept seeing hungry kittens, Joanie sobbing on her father's bed, burning babies...

Betsy's eyes flew open. She looked over at her father, who began pleading with her. “Betsy, please understand. Darlene has no one in the world except me. What could I do?”

Betsy didn't answer right away. Instead, she looked out the window at the lights of the other cars, red and white, winking in the darkness. What did the colors mean? Red for blood, white for tears... She pushed that thought away, together with the drops that were threatening to seep out her eyes from her own pounding heart. No, she decided, the twinkling lights were jewels, enchanted diamonds and rubies, which if you could only touch them would allow you to enter into their magic world.

“Sure, Dad, I understand,” she said.

It seemed then that she saw the jewel-lights through a thickening fog, a fog that passed into her body, slowing her heartbeat and dulling her senses. Her father crying in the driver's seat, her mother furious at home, Darlene waiting helplessly back at Dad's place, all belonged to another place, which Betsy used to know but was now hidden by the fog. There was no point in trying to get back, or even in thinking about it, really, when those jewels were beckoning.

The harder she tried to focus on the sparkling bits of light, though, the farther they receded. Betsy could not understand why.