Judith’s eyebrow started it. It soared up her too-pretty face like a volleyball in need of a good spiking, emphasizing the pounds of make-up she’d applied to get Dad’s attention. Showing just the kind of stepmom she’d be, if she got the chance. It was the arched eyebrow of war.
Too bad Judith wore a fancy white dress to the war. Too bad her dress was two sizes too tight. And extra too bad she had to get up from her poofy crimson chair to go to the restroom.
I wouldn’t have done that. I would have held it. And I would have worn my favorite pair of jeans, ankle-cut socks, some stomp-around tennies and my “Try to Stop Me” t-shirt if I were going to start an eyebrow war. I don’t really care what I get on my favorite jeans, ‘cause it always washes out. And if it doesn’t, that’s just one more cool story to tell my best friend Stacey Stanbaugh.
Dad’s Judith is stupid. It’s been too long since she’s had her face rubbed in the playground dirt. It’s been a long time since she’s been in a death match with a fifth-grader. You don’t pick a fight when you’re wearing white. Even first-graders know that. And you don’t get up and go to the restroom in the middle of a war either.
Dad’s not paying attention. I glance over, just in case, but he’s still on his work phone, arguing with Marco about an invoice or something. The waiters aren’t paying attention, either. Nobody is.
I sniff her glass, just to be sure. If it’s grape juice, I can spare a little. I love grape juice.
It’s not. It smells like old armpits.
I take a sip.
Tastes like armpits, too.
Now I won’t feel guilty spilling it.
Dad still isn’t paying attention. He’s going to be on his phone for a while, it looks like. He thinks buying nice dinners is the same as taking care of someone, and since the divorce, he’s been even worse. Not that Mom’s any better. She travels a lot, and when she’s in town, Dennis the marine biologist comes over and I have to share Mom with Dennis and his shark movies.
At least with Dad, I don’t usually have to share. It’s all about making the right kind of mess.
Eyebrow war, phase two.
You can’t just spill red wine onto an enemy’s dress. That’s juvenile, amateur, the sort of thing Omar would do, though he’d probably trip and make it look funny, and everyone would laugh.
And you can’t throw it in her face, like the official challenge to an epic duel.
But Dad always says to go for gold.
So I do.
I slide Judith’s wine glass to the edge of the table, and lower it carefully toward the plush, pillowy seat. I push my finger down to create a divot in the fabric, right where I estimate her butt will land. Not that it’s going to be a hard target to hit. I empty about half the glass, more than I meant to, watching it soak in. Then I lift my finger and wipe it off in Judith’s napkin.
I’m eating my peas, continental style—with the knife in my right hand and the fork in my left—when Judith gets back. I watch her adjust that too-tight white dress before she sits. No smile. She just raises her eyebrow at me. Again!
She slinks down into her chair, picks up her fork, and freezes halfway to her pork chop, eyes growing melon-sized. Her fork trembles slightly as she turns to look at me.
“What’s wrong, Judith?” I ask.
“Marco, I have to go,” Dad says suddenly to his cell phone. The word “wrong” has a special meaning between him and me. What’s wrong, Misty? What’s wrong, Evelyn? What’s wrong. . . Judith.
I can see him replaying his mental tape for the last few minutes of phone time, or whatever it is dads do when they’re figuring out what they missed.
My dad’s pretty good at this. His eyes flit from Judith’s wine glass to me and then back to Judith. “Judith, don’t move,” he says.
Judith doesn’t listen. In just a few visits, it’s easy to see that Judith isn’t the type who listens to what other people say. Instead, she does the worst thing possible. And by worst, I mean best. She stands up and turns to see what’s in her chair.
I try not to giggle.
“Don’t look, Bob,” an old lady near us says, warning her husband.
So, of course, he looks. . . His eyes go empire-wide, certainly wider than they’ve been all evening, talking to his boring wife.
“Judith,” Dad says. There’s an edge in his voice that adults use when they don’t want everyone’s attention but they want to be taken seriously. Judith stops staring at her chair, at nothing because the cushion was already red, and sees the cloth napkin Dad’s trying to hand to her. That’s when she checks her six and sees the giant red spot on her butt. “Oh, my . . .”
When she looks at me, her face is as red as her missing wine. I don’t back down. I don’t look away. I never do.
Dad says you can win a battle but lose a war. When he looks at me, I know I’ve lost something.