Quarter past six. In ten minutes, Wendy would have to get in the shower. Her clock radio came on. a newsman was talking about the elections for mayor of new York City. She switched to music. Madonna.
She went through her new school clothes in her head, thinking up combinations. Her mother said the great thing about the gray pants was how you could wear them with anything, but when she wore them yesterday, she'd felt as if she was playing dress-up. Nobody else in eighth grade had pants like that. She wished she'd gotten the pruple-and-grea-plaid kilt instead, that her mom said was impractical. her mom, who owned three different-colored feather boas and red velvet harem pants, a leopard-print cat suit, and a tutu, not to mention all her old Peachy Puffs getups.
"Do you think I'm fat?" Wendy said. Her mother was a size four, and they could share clothes now, but Wendy could tell that before long, her clothes would be bigger than her mother's.
"Of course not. All I meant was they make you look even slimmer than usual."
"I'm fat, aren't I," Wendy told her.
"You've got a perfect body. Much nicer than if you were on of those stick-figure types. I always wished I had a shape."
"In other words I'm chunky," said Wendy.
"You look just right, her mother said. Your bones are bigger, that's all."
Louie opened the door partway, just enough that she could see a corner of his face, eyes crusty, thumb in mouth.
"Are you dry?"
He told her yes.
"There's just this one little drip but it got soaked up in my sleeper suit, so it doesn't count." He stood there holding Pablo, with the old blue ribbon from when Pablo was new wrapped around his thumb. He liked to twirl the tip of the ribbon in his ear with his free hand while he sucked on the thumb of the other hand.
"Just don't get any pee on me," she said.
He positioned himself in the bed so every inch of the side closest to Wendy was touching some part of her. She could hear the slurping sound his lips made on his thumb, and his breathing, slow and quiet, still labored from last week's cold.
One two three four. He was counting the rabbits on her pajama bottoms though after twelve or thirteen, he usually gave up.
"I dreamed we got a puppy," he said. The two of them had been after their parents about that forever.
"With spots. Little and fuzzy."
"Are you going to school again today?" he said.
"I already explained to you, Louie. I got to school every day now except Saturday and Sunday. Five days in a row, school and two days home, only probably a lot of times I'll be sleeping over at Amelia's Friday nights."
"I want you to stay home with me," he said.
She could hear the shower running in the room next to hers. She called it her parents' bathroom, even though Josh wasn't her real father, only Louie's. It was easier, plus he seemed more like her father than her real one.
"You'll be going to school too pretty soon anyway," she told him. "Thursday is preschool orientation, remember? You might want to work on not sucking your thumb so much. The other kids might make fun of you."
"I changed my mind," he said. "I don't want to go to preschool after all. I want to stay home and play with you."
"Well, I'm not going to be home," she said. "And even if I was, I probably wouldn't play that much."
"I'm not in that stage anymore. Once you get to my stage in life, you want to do different kinds of things."
Josh was making French toast. The kitchen smelled of just-ground coffee beans and frying butter. He was playing the Teach Yourself Spanish tape. Part one of her mother's birthday present last month. Part two was the trip to Mexico scheduled for next spring, when Wendy was going to stay at Amelia's or possibly to California to visit her real dad, but she wasn't supposed to count on this. It had been nearly three years since she'd seen him.
Her mother had said they couldn't afford a trip to Mexico, but Josh told her she worried too much. Six months from now, I could get his by a bus, he said, and boy would you ever wish you'd gone on that trip.
The coffeepot made the sound that meant the coffee was ready, Josh poured himself a cup of coffee. Louie hopped in on one foot. He had taken off his cape now and replaced it with the cummerbund from his Aladdin costume. All week he'd been working on his skipping, and now he was circling the table, making little frog jumps. He hadn't figured out yet how to alternate his feet.
"¡Hola, muchacho!" said Josh.
"Blabbyblaba," Louie said. "Where's my cereal?"
Josh had already poured it. "At your servicio, señor."
The voice on the tape was reviewing yesterday's lesson. "¿Donde esta la estacion central de autobus?" he repeated.
Wendy studied Josh's face as he stood at the stove, holding the spatula. She had been wondering if people looked different right after they had sex, but he looked the same as usual. His hair was going in all different directions, but it always did first thing in the morning. He hadn't shaved yet, and he was wearing the same old green sweatpants and his Yankees T-shirt from last summer's subway series. He wasn't handsome like her father, and he didn't have her father's six-pack, that made Amelia call him a hunk when she saw his picture. Josh had curly black hair and the kind of face you'd like to see if you had a problem.
"Powdered sugar on yours, miss?" he asked. He set down a pitcher of maple syrup in front of her. Heated. She had told herself she was going to cut calories today, but now she poured a pool of syrup on her plate.
"Mom up yet?"
"She's a little tired this morning," he said. "I told her she should call in sick, but she said she'd just skip breakfast instead and take a later train."
They had sex all night. Wendy thought so before, but now she was sure.
"She was supposed to fill in my field trip permission forms and the one about who to contact in an emergency," Wendy told him. "My homeroom teacher said not to leave it to the last day. Also, I want to talk to her about my clarinet. They gave me a really crummy rental. I was thinking maybe we could buy one instead."
It wasn't the permission forms that were making the sharp sound in her voice, she knew, or the clarinet, either. She was thinking about the agument they'd had last night about her going to California. She wanted to visit her father. Her mother had said, That's crazy. School just started.>
"You never let me do anything," Wendy had told her. As usual, Josh had tried to make peace.
"We'll talk about the clarinet tonight," he said. "Meanwhile, I'll sign the forms. Let your mom have an extra ten minutes sleep."
For a second, Josh got a look on his face that reminded her of Louie when he stood at the bus with her that first morning she went off to junior high.
"What do you say we give it a try this once," he said, reaching for the form. "Father or no father, if you get injured in some knock-down-drag-out volleyball game, I'm probably the one who'll come running down to school to get you."
Watching Josh as he took out the jar of raisins, arranging them on Louie's plate in the shape of a man, Wendy felt crummy for saying what she had. Do you have any idea how lucky we are to have someone like Josh in our life? her mom said to her times when Wendy treated him the way she knew she had just now. Do you even remember what it was like before he came along? Do you think Garrett would ever put himself out for you the way Josh does?
"I don't know why I say the mean things I do," she told Amelia. "My parents are just getting on my nerves so much lately. Sometimes these horrible remarks ooze out of me."
"Maybe you're possessed," Amelia said. "We could perform an exorcism. Amelia had seen a video recently where that happened to a girl, and when they finally held the exorcism ceremony, all this horrible green vomit squirted out of her mouth and her head swiveled around like a cartoon character."
On TV, the weatherman was pointing to a map of New York and saying it looked like perfect weather clear through the weekend. Better grab yourself one last dose of summer, folks. No excuse not to get out and vote today.
Josh had been making her a sandwich. Now he was packing an apple in her lunch bag.
"You got Macintosh," she said. "I like Granny Smith, remember?"
"I didn't want raisins," Louie told Josh. "I wanted chocolate chips."
"We don't have chocolate for breakfast, Lou-man," Josh told him. "As for you, Miss Picky, the Granny Smiths at the market weren't any good."
"But Sissy gets hot chocolate," Louie said. "That's chocolate. Just not in the shape of a chip."
"Tell you what, son," Josh said. "You eat the raisins, and tonight we'll make ourselves some chocolate-chip cookies. Maybe you can bring in a few extra on Thursday for you know what."
"I want Mama to come too, when I go to preschool," said Louie.
"Mama wouldn't miss it," Josh said. "That's why she decided not to take the day off today. So she could be there with you Thursday."
Back when her mother first introduced her to Josh, she meant to hate him. She was only seven then. She'd seen a video at Amelia's house around that time, called Parent Trap, where a couple of twins whose parents were divorced decided to get them back together, and it worked. Even though Wendy didn't have a twin like the girls in the movie, that was her plan.
She was mean to him that first night at the restaurant. She didn't order anything except water, even though sushi was her favorite. "I was just wondering," Josh said to her as she sat there, not even touching the soybeans that she loved, "what is your opinion of miniature golf?"
She had never been miniature golfing but she always wanted to. There was a course called Dreamland they sometimes passed on their way to Fire Island that her mom said they'd stop at someday, but they never had. Josh took them there, and after that, when Wendy's mother said it wasn't really her type of activity, it got to be something he and Wendy did, on Saturday afternoons when her mom and Kate went to yoga.
They were at Dreamland when he told her about wanting to get married to her mom. "I could understand if you aren't too thrilled," he said. "I know you've got a dad, and it's understandable that you'd like it a whole lot better if he was with your mother instead of me. But I promise I'll try hard to make her happy. And I'll teach you every single thing you ever wanted to know about jazz."
Which was nothing.
She was the flower girl. All that day, she kept thinking about the Parent Trap video and waiting for her real father to come crashing in and say something like Janet, it was an a terrible mistake. Come back to me. What are you doing hanging around with this chubby guy with hair on his shoulders and love handles, when you could be with me?
Even after it was all over, and Josh's mom was hugging her, and she had on so much perfume, Wendy could hardly breathe, and saying how she'd always wished she had a granddaughter-even then, Wendy kept expecting something to happen that would make him disappear. But the next thing she knew, Josh was moving his clothes into her mother's room and building a bunch of shelves for his collection of old jazz LPs. Sometimes at night, she could hear them having sex.
Josh was a stand-up bass player. He worked weekends mostly, usually Fridays and Saturday nights, and sometimes he'd get hired to play at a wedding, but he was usually home during the day, except when he gave lessons. He loved to cook, and instead of take-out Chinese and pizza, he made them things like eggplant parmigiana and roast chicken with garlic mashed potatoes.
One day, he found a box of Duncan Hines brownie mix in their cupboard. He took it in to the living room, where Wendy and her mother were watching a video of The Music Man.
"Janet," he said in a voice that was so serious, Wendy actually worried he was mad. She'd never heard him get mad before. She was surprised at how Scary it was, hearing someone who's always nice to you sound angry all of a sudden. Not like her father, who she could remember sounding mad, even though she1d been so little when he left.
Now Josh was holding the box of Duncan Hines in front of her mother, like evidence. I h6pe and pray this is the last time an item like this ever makes its way into our kitchen. Just tell me it was temporary insanity.
"I bought that a long time ago," her mother said. "I didn't think I'd never 'mow anyone who could make us brownies from scratch. I swear I'll never in my whole life buy another box of Duncan Hines."
Then Wendy knew it was a joke, because the look on her mother's face was like some character in a soap opera whose husband just found out she was in love with someone else.
When she said that, he put his arms around her and made a sound like a bear in the forest, a low, happy growling noise, as if he'd just found a tree stump full of the sweetest honey deep in the underbrush. Something about the way the two of them looked at each other like that made it seem as if they were the only two people in the world.
It was Josh, not her mother, who seemed to know Wendy was feeling that way, because he looked up at her then.
"Knowing your mother's talents in the kitchen," he said, "I can tell the only hope I'll ever have of handing down my secret time-tested brownie recipe is if I teach it to you."
"Wendy and Josh melted the chocolate over the double boiler. You melted the butter in with the chocolate. Butter, never margarine," he told her. He showed her how to sift flour and beat the eggs with the sugar till they made a golden-colored froth, and he let her be the one to pour the melted chocolate mixture into the eggs, very slowly, so at first it was part dark brown, part creamy yellow swirls, until gradually the chocolate was all nixed in. Then the flour.
"Now for the most important part," he said.
"Putting it in the oven?"
"Oh my God," he said. "You have even more to learn than I thought."
He reached for a package of pecans and poured a bunch into a plastic sandwich bag. He took out his big wooden rolling pin.
Josh didn't come with much stuff when he moved in with them. A box of clothes, his string bass, a picture of himself with his sister and his parents when he was around nine, and a stuffed rabbit, also from when he was little. Not a whole lot else. But the rolling pin was his. Wendy's mom never owned one before.
"Let's say there's this boy in your class who keeps getting on your nerves, making fart sounds when the teacher isn't looking," he said. "Do you know anyone like that?"
The thing was, she did.
"Or some girl who tells you she isn't going to invite you to her birthday party, and even though she's a major jerk, you really wanted to go because everyone else in your clan was going to be there."
This also had happened.
"Here's what you do about it," he said. He held the rolling pin over the bag of pecans.
Excerpted from THE USUAL RULES © Copyright 2011 by Joyce Maynard. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Griffin, an imprint of St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.
The Usual Rules