DISCLAIMER: The Facts of Life and its characters are the property of Columbia Pictures Television and Sony Pictures Television. No infringement is intended. Original characters belong to the author. Historical characters belong to history.
SPOILERS: References and some spoilers FOL Seasons 1 5. Reader feedback is welcome.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To zblitzreiter@gmail.com

A Very Special Polniaczek Thanksgiving
By Blitzreiter

 

Part 1

Tuesday, November 22, 1983. Peekskill, New York. The basement of River Rock, Blair Warner's massive, recently rented Victorian house overlooking the Hudson River.

The laundry room, like most of the cellar, was cold and damp.

The room hadn't been high on Blair and Jo's decorating list. They dressed it up with some throw rugs and an old sofa, but the chilly room, with its single light bulb and perpetually weeping walls had the vibe of a serial killer's lair.

Blair and Jo sat on the old sofa while Jo's clothes churned in the washing machine.

The sofa was one of Jo's contributions – a mustard-colored monstrosity from Peekskill's Salvation Army store. It had a funny odor and Blair worried that she was going to catch mange from it –whatever mange was; something, Blair suspected, that you caught from decrepit, unfashionable furniture like this.

The sofa's springs were broken. Just now, Blair felt one of them stabbing her in the butt. She shifted to another cushion.

"Darling?" said Blair.

"Hmm?" Jo was comfortably hunkered down, her nose buried in her ancient history text – as usual.

The washing machine clanked and clonked.

How can Jo concentrate with broken springs stabbing us and all that noise?

"Darling?" Blair prompted again.

Jo rubbed her eyes, stretched, put the book aside. "What, babe?"

"Do you think you'll have enough socks for your trip?"

Jo grinned. Her blue-green eyes twinkled. "To visit my Ma? For four or five days? Yeah, Blair – I think I got enough socks."

"Five days and five nights," said Blair. "You're sure you'll have enough socks?"

"Cripes, Blair, how many socks do you think I go through? Do I have a smelly foot problem or somethin? Speak up now, or forever hold your peace – and your nose!"

"Your feet are fine – which is odd, considering those horrible old sneakers you insist on wearing. I just want to be sure you have enough socks. And that you'll have enough – "

"Underwear? Yeah. Plenty of underwear."

"I was going to say 'shirts'."

"Blair, it's the Bronx, not Park Avenue. I got plenty of socks and underwear and shirts and whatnots."

Jo slipped an arm around Blair's shoulders, pulled the blonde heiress close. "What you're doin," said Jo, "is remindin me how long I'm gonna be gone. Five days, five nights."

"We haven't been separated that long since we started dating," murmured Blair. "Let alone since we got engaged. Five days seems like forever."

"I know." Jo kissed Blair tenderly. "I'm missin you before I even leave."

"Why do you have to leave right after Tootie's play tonight?"

"I want to surprise Ma. She'll be expecting me tomorrow afternoon. When I get in tonight, she'll be so happy she'll bust a gut!"

"Is that good?" Blair asked dubiously. "Busting a gut?"

"Haven't you ever done anything to surprise your Ma?"

Blair considered the question. "I made her a clay ashtray when I was eight. I hid it in her mini-bar."

"OK, well that's … kinda the same in principle, I guess. Only in this scenario, I'm the clay ashtray, and tonight is the mini-bar."

"Jo?" Blair murmured in her most disarming tone.

"No."

"You don't know what I'm going to ask."

"Whatever it is, no. No, you cannot come to my Ma's microscopic apartment for four days, because there's no way, repeat, no way we'd get through it without her figurin out we're in love."

"I wasn't going to –"

"And no, we're not invitin my Ma here for Thanksgivin."

"But why not? We have so much room! If Rose came here, she could spend the holiday with you, and your best friends, and Mrs. Garrett –"

"Blair, that's all great, but Ma's been plannin Thanksgivin for months. You know that. It's gonna be like the Waltons smushed together with the Ingalls with a dash of Brady Bunch. It's gonna be 'a very special Polniaczek Thanksgivin'! Ma's got the whole neighborhood comin over to her place. She even borrowed pots and Jell-O molds and stuff from Aunt Evelyn."

"So, borrowed Jell-O molds – that makes it a done deal? There's no room for negotiation?"

Jo sighed. "Are you really gonna do this, babe?"

"Do what?"

"Blair – I am not choosin my Ma over you."

"I didn't say you were."

"This has been planned for a couple of months. This isn't a surprise. I prepared you. You said you were OK with it."

"And I was. But now … I guess maybe I thought, deep down, that, you would, you know …"

"Ditch my mother to spend Thanksgiving with you?"

"I wouldn't put it so crudely. But, yes."

"Blair, my Ma's hardly seen me this semester. Between field hockey and my job at the Grill and my classes and you –"

"I notice I come last on that list," Blair said coolly.

"At least you're on it! I haven't even been good about callin Ma. And when you and I are in the Bronx, we're at the Fever or the bakery – we never visit Ma. I owe her this Thanksgivin. And I really want to go. I want to see Jesse and some of my old friends I haven't talked to in a million years."

"Jesse." Blair sniffed. "She's still at large?"

"Now you're soundin like Dina Becker."

Blair gasped. "You take that back, Jo Polniaczek!"

"Why? It's true. That was a shitty, snobby thing to say about Jesse."

"All right. It was. But I'm feeling very … vulnerable right now."

"Blair, babe, you're gonna be with Tootie and Nat and jackass Alec, and whoever the hell they invite over. And Mrs. G will be cookin, so you know it's gonna be an amazin feast. You'll be havin too much fun to miss me."

Blair raised her eyebrows. "And how about you?" she asked. "Will you be having too much fun to miss me?"

Jo made the sign of the cross.

"What are you doing?" Blair asked suspiciously. "Are you putting some Polish curse on me?"

"For Pete's sake!"

"Some Italian curse?"

"It's just the sign of the cross. It's a Catholic thing. I'm askin God for the strength not to strangle you. Because, yeah, Blair, I'm gonna have a great time visitin Ma, and seein my Pop, and the neighborhood, and my cousins. I want you to have a good Thanksgivin. Don't you want me to have a good Thanksgivin?"

Blair considered that. "Honestly? No. I want you to be miserable and miss me every second."

"I'll miss you every second babe. But I refuse to be miserable. Please. Let's not fight."

Blair toyed with a thread on the hem of her shirt. It was one of Jo's old flannel shirts; Blair had thrown it on hastily, over nothing but panties, when she accompanied Jo to the laundry room.

In any state of dress or undress, Blair was beautiful to Jo, but in different ways. Jo liked the way Blair looked just now, her "doing nothing around the house look": no makeup, blonde hair hanging loose and free, bare feet, bare legs, Jo's old shirt carelessly buttoned.

Jo was so lean, and Blair was so curvaceous, that Blair filled out this particular green-and-blue flannel shirt in a manner that Jo found very interesting.

"C'mere," Jo said softly.

She placed gentle hands on Blair's stomach, tracing small circles on the flannel. She expanded the circles, incrementally, until she was cupping Blair's breasts through the fabric.

"'A sweet disorder in the dress,'" Jo murmured, quoting Herrick, "kindles in clothes a wantonness …"

She kissed Blair, long and deep.

"What does that quote mean?" whispered Blair, when Jo finally ended the kiss.

"It means," Jo kissed her again, with a longing intensity, "it means you're rockin that raggedy old shirt …"

"Stupid damn laundry time," muttered Natalie, breezing into the room with a plastic basket of dirty laundry. "How do clothes get dirty so fast? And – oh, my God! Will you two just get a room? Please? There are a bazillion rooms to choose from!"

"Aw, keep your shirt on," muttered Jo, releasing Blair's breasts and sitting up.

"Keep my shirt on?"

"Everybody's got their shirt on in here," Jo said defensively.

"Looked like that was about to change, though!"

"Nat does have a point," said Blair. "Jo, we do have our suite for … this kind of activity."

"Damn straight," said Natalie, plopping her laundry basket on the washing machine. She started sorting darks and lights. "And Blair – would it kill you to wear pants around the house?"

Blair blushed. She sat up straighter, pulled the shirt hem lower so it covered more of her thighs.

"It's a long shirt," Jo said, coming to Blair's defense – and, not incidentally, the defense of Blair's long, bare legs. "You can't see anythin indecent. And this is Blair's house. She can run around naked as a jaybird if she wants, and we don't got anythin to say about it!"

"Jo, don't be ungracious," Blair chided gently. "I thought I made it clear that River Rock belongs to all of us. Everyone is contributing what they can. No one is more or less equal than anyone else here."

"Yeah, I remember you said that, but you were just bein polite, right?"

"I meant it, Jo. Everyone is to treat this as their home. We all vote equally on everything."

"Well, that sounds like some kind of crazy communism," grumbled Jo, "but if you say so. First order of business: I vote that you can run around without pants anytime you want. All in favor?" Jo took Blair's wrist, raised her right hand. "The 'ayes' have it!"

"You're crazy," laughed Blair.

"Yeah? I'm gonna show you how crazy!" Jo lifted Blair into her arms, Blair laughing and struggling half-heartedly. Blair started to tickle Jo, but "Careful," warned Jo, "if you tickle me I might drop you!"

Jo spun Blair around; "Stop! Stop, you're making me dizzy!" Blair giggled.

Natalie rolled her eyes. "It's like renting a room in Sodom or Gomorrah!"

"Would ya lighten up, Nat?" said Jo. "He's gonna call you. You know he's gonna call you."

"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," Natalie said with dignity.

Natalie started pulling Jo's clean, wet clothes out of the washing machine, tossing them into the dryer. "And if you could try to unload your own clothes next time –"

"Jeez, Nat, the spin cycle just stopped like, five seconds ago. What a crab!" Jo spun Blair around again. "Come on, babe, let's go get you dressed or somethin. Let's leave Crabalie to her laundry."

Jo darted up the steps, Blair in her arms.


Jo loved the suite that Blair had chosen for them. It was comfortable but cozy, all hand-carved wood and more curves that straight lines; it was like living in the hull of a vintage windjammer.

Even the little windows above their large bed were like the windows of a captain's cabin, opening to the clean sky and a view of the river. Often the sunlight reflecting off the water flowed, wavering, into their bedroom, quivering on the ceiling, sometimes painting rainbows.

There was a sitting room with mismatched but solid old furniture where they could receive Nat, Tootie, Alec and Mrs. Garrett. The walls were all bookshelves, filled with classics of literature and history, well-worn, much-loved old books that came with the house.

The bedroom had space only for their enormous bed and the large, mirrored wardrobe that they shared – 'shared' being a relative term, where Blair Warner and her clothing were involved.

Jo's clothes occupied about a fifth the space of Blair's – a ratio that was more than fine with Jo.

Blair's clothes filled most of the wardrobe, and she had an entire room down the hall that was devoted to more clothes and her dozens of pairs of footwear, hats and accessories. She called it her 'closet'.

The bathroom boasted one of the massive, old-fashioned marble tubs with mahogany surrounds that Jo had fallen in love with since discovering their existence. Jo and Blair placed candles on the surround, and little pebbles that they found on the river bank.

The bathroom had a sink that burped hot and cold water, and a toilet with a wood-handled flush chain, and a narrow shower that they had fun crushing into together.

In the last few weeks Blair had learned to put on her makeup in the shaft of light from the single porthole window above the tub. In the tub itself Jo and Blair passed some of their happiest hours. When Blair and Jo lay in each others' arms in the warm water and looked through the window, they could see the constellation Orion riding the dark sky, and once they saw a shooting star.

When they were in the suite together, as they often were, they were as snug as if they really were in a ship, the S.S. Jo-and-Blair, sailing exotic waters far from any port. It was their own magical world ...

"You should go see if your clothes are dry," Blair told Jo.

They were tangled together under the snowy white sheets and blankets of their bed. Two of the windows were open slightly. Blair liked gusts of fresh air, where Jo liked to be hermetically sealed behind closed windows; they compromised by keeping a couple of windows ajar.

Jo ran her hands slowly up and down Blair's naked body, marveling, as always, at the soft, inviting places, and the surprisingly taut, muscular places. She kissed the hollow of Blair's throat.

"Let's have Thanksgiving in here," Jo suggested. "Naked Thanksgiving. Guest list: us."

Blair rolled her eyes. "Kind of missing the point of the holiday, wouldn't you say?"

"I'm thankful for you," said Jo. "You're all I need."

"Do you really have to spend Thanksgiving away from me?" Blair asked plaintively.

Jo sighed. Blair was giving her the big brown puppy dog eyes. Question: How many times are we gonna hafta hash this out before I leave? Answer: as many times as she needs us to.

"Yeah, Blair," Jo said patiently. "I do. I really do. I promised Ma. Explain to me," Jo nuzzled Blair's collarbone, the space between her breasts, "explain to me how you are so selfless, you let all of us live here practically rent-free, but you're so selfish –""

"Jo!"

"So selfish," Jo insisted, nuzzling Blair's right breast, "that you're trying to make me feel guilty about spending time with my family."

"If you want me to, ah, actually answer that question, you have to stop that," Blair said breathlessly.

"OK." Jo rolled off of Blair, put an arm around her lover. "No distractions. Answer."

Blair relaxed into the circle of Jo's arm. "In a way," she said, "you answered your own question. If I'm going to be honest, my so-called 'selflessness' is really selfish."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning I'm a cliché. The 'poor little rich girl'. Growing up ignored by my parents, boo-hoo –"

"Don't," Jo said kindly. "Don't make light of it. They did ignore you." In Jo's opinion, David and Monica Warner were among the worst parents ever. Who the hell could ignore Blair? Foist her off on private schools and camps and servants?

"I just don't want to be a martyr about it," said Blair. "Because my past doesn't matter anymore. I have such wonderful friends now, truly beautiful souls. And I'm greedy about them. I'm greedy for their company. So subsidizing some rents, well –"

Jo understood. "It's a small price to pay to have your loved ones around."

"Exactly." Blair cocked one eyebrow. "You might be smarter than you look, Polniaczek."

"I sincerely hope so," laughed Jo. She chucked Blair under the chin. "So, my bustin out for the week – goin over the wall – real rebellious stuff in your lovetopia."

"I suppose I can find it in my heart to forgive you," Blair smiled. It was a noble gesture, but the smile didn't touch her eyes.

Such a damn sad smile, thought Jo. She lightly traced Blair's mouth with her finger. This really is gonna be harder on her than me … maybe …

"Blair," said Jo, "promise me you're gonna have a big damn bash this week. Invite everyone you care about. Go nuts. Wreck the place if you have to! But give yourself a good time. Please?"

"I fully intend to," Blair said reassuringly. "But I want you to consider something. Just consider it. Guilt-free – well … relatively."

"Anythin."

"After Thanksgiving, when the festivities are over, and it's just you and Rose in that little apartment, think about inviting her back here for a couple of days. No – I know what you're going to say. You don't have to answer or promise anything right now. But … think about it."

"I can do that," Jo promised.

"Good."

Jo gazed deep into Blair's eyes. "I am gonna miss you like hell, you know."

"You'd better!"

"Five nights away from each other. I think," Jo slid a gentle hand between Blair's legs, "that we oughta sorta make up for lost time. In advance."

Blair gasped as Jo deftly touched her most sensitive spot.

"Jo, we just made love. We – oh! OK. OK, that's good. Keep doing, yeah, that …"

Blair closed her eyes, settled back against the pillows. She bit her lip as Jo gently worked her fingers deeper into the blonde's sex.

Jo smiled. As her fingers worked, she leaned down and captured one of Blair's dark nipples in her mouth.

Blair groaned. "Oh … Joey …."

Someone starting pounding on the sitting room door.

"For God's sake!" Jo muttered around Blair's nipple.

Blair sighed. "Please, Jo … don't stop."

"Jo, your clothes are dry!" Natalie called through the suite's outer door, her voice carrying through the sitting room and into the bedroom. "I folded them and they're outside the door! You're welcome!"

Natalie's footsteps stomped away down the hall.

Jo shook her head, baffled. "Is that, like, Nat's still mad at me? Or she's makin peace with me?"

"Hard to tell," panted Blair. "Neither. Both. Please darling … harder."

"What? Oh, of course." Jo took the nipple in her mouth again, knitted her fingers tighter and slipped them deeper into Blair.

Blair made the most wonderful sounds of ecstasy, rocking her hips faster, and harder, as her pleasure intensified. Jo felt herself growing warm and wet again, aroused by Blair's arousal.

There was a brisk rapping on the sitting room door.

"Son of a bitch," whimpered Blair. She was right on the edge, her hips rocking wildly. Jo released Blair's nipple, but kept her hand working between the blonde's legs.

"Girls," Mrs. Garrett trilled, "I'm sorry to bother you, but did you know there's a basket of laundry in the middle of the hall? I almost tripped on it."

"Sorry, Mrs. G!" yelled Jo. "I'll take care of it!"

"What?"

"It's OK, Mrs. G! I'll get it!"

"Thank you, Jo!"

They heard Mrs. Garrett's heels clacking away down the hallway.

"Hang on, babe," breathed Jo, nuzzling both Blair's of breasts in turn, moving her hand even faster. "You're right there … you're right there …"

With a final wild thrashing and strangled cry, Blair came.

She collapsed back against the pillows and lay panting.

Jo stroked Blair's hair, her shoulders, her breasts. "I love you, babe," she whispered. "I love you so damn much."

"Mmm …" mumbled Blair, closing her eyes.

It was annoying being interrupted every two minutes, Blair thought hazily, but at least they were living together. At least she and Jo went to sleep and woke up in each others' arms.

Even though they'd been dating a little shy of three months, sometimes it felt like three years. They had known each other for three years, after all, before they started dating; they were already the best of friends before their first tentative kiss.

Now, with romance and sex added to the brew, they were completely comfortable with each other, so profoundly connected, sometimes it was like being an old married couple.

Blair half opened her eyes, glanced sleepily at the plain silver ring glinting on her left hand, the ring she couldn't wear outside of the house for fear of raising unanswerable questions.

Oh, this? My fiancée gave it to me. Jo Polniaczek. It's a family heirloom. She asked me to marry her. Yes. She asked me to marry her

How am I going to make it through the holiday without her? Blair wondered. We haven't been apart more than forty-eight hours since school started. I know I'm being selfish, but it's as if … how could I get through five days and five nights without breathing?

Jo had twined herself around Blair, running her hands up and down her fiancée's body.

This is half of my soul, thought Jo. I'm half of her, she's half of me …

Blair usually slept after sex, whereas Jo was energized. But not this time; like Blair, Jo found herself drifting into a pleasant doze, her head pillowed on Blair's generous bosom …

They were awakened by an insistent pounding on the sitting room door.

"Jo! Blair?" called a deep voice. "There's a basket sitting in the middle of the hall!"

Jo groaned. "Why won't you let me kill Alec?" she asked Blair.

"Because he's our dear friend," said Blair.

"Says you! Why is he still here? I thought he was going to spend the holiday at Jacqueline's?"

"Her parents decided to visit the Scottish highlands for a week. A last-minute, last-ditch attempt to save their marriage."

"In the Scottish highlands? In November? They're gonna be snowbound! Christ – kiss that marriage good bye!"

"Jo!" Alec pounded on the sitting room door again. "Blair! Be careful of the basket!"

Heavy footsteps thudded off down the hall.

"He did that on purposed," grumbled Jo. "He knows we're makin love."

"How would he know that?" scoffed Blair. "It's the middle of the afternoon. He probably thinks you're packing. Which you should be, by the way."

"No. He knows. He's still carryin a torch for you, babe."

"Well of course he is. I am, after all, Blair Warner. And he's carrying a torch for you, too. Who could ever fall out of love with us?"

"So why is he livin here again?"

"Jo," Blair said reproachfully.

"I know. I know! He's our friend. And he saved my life at Petal's party. And he's broke, so he needs somewhere to crash. Blah-blah-blah."

"And he really is quite taken with Jacqueline," Blair insisted. "His crush on us will never completely fade, but Jacqueline has his heart now."

"Lucky her," laughed Jo. "Poor Jackrabbit! I wouldn't wish Alec on my worst enemy!"

"When are you going to stop being so hostile to him? He and I terminated our pretend relationship. He's been nothing but nice to you. He's really a sweet, wounded soul."

"For cryin out loud!" Jo howled with laughter.

"He is."

"A 'sweet, wounded soul'? Blair, he's a damn con artist. Those impoverished nobles – you gotta watch 'em like a hawk. Speakin of which, I don't like him bein here while I'm out of the house."

Blair smiled. "Do you think he's going to throw me over his shoulder and spirit me away? He's my friend, Jo. And Jacqueline keeps him on his toes."

"She does," Jo admitted. "And it comforts me that she's a black belt. I think I'll have a little talk with Jackrabbit before I leave. Make sure she's ready to give good old Lord Nethridge a karate chop if he even looks funny at you."

Blair bristled. "Joanne Marie Polniaczek, I don't need you or Jacqueline or anyone protecting me!"

Jo raised one eyebrow.

"That didn't count," Blair said hastily. "That was a hit man. I mean, I don't need anyone protecting me from Alec. He would never do anything to hurt me."

"Once a con artist, always a con artist," Jo said skeptically.

"He's a reformed con artist," Blair corrected. "We're reforming him."

"Is that what we're doin?"

"Yes."

"Well, good luck with that!" Jo's hands drifted toward Blair's breasts. "Now … where were we?"

"Jo – again?"

"We're gonna be apart for five days," Jo said reasonably. "We owe it to ourselves to make love until we're too sore to move. And then make love one more time. Or two."

"But aren't you going to get your laundry basket out of the hall?"

"In a minute." Jo cupped Blair's breasts.

"Jo, we'll be late for Tootie's play."

"No way. We've got plenty of time." Her fingers traced delicate circles around Blair's nipples. Blair's breath caught in her throat.

"I supposed … yes … but, Jo, my little grease monkey, please get that damn laundry basket out of the hall first. I don't want us to be interrupted again."

"Good point." Jo tweaked Blair's left breast. "Back in a jiff," she said.

But before Jo could untangle herself from the sheets and blankets, there was a skidding sound and a thud and a muffled "Ow!" from the hallway.

"What the hell?" muttered Jo.

"Guys!" yelled Tootie through the door. "Is this your laundry?"

"Are you OK?" shouted Jo.

"What?"

"Are you OK?"

"I tripped!"

"Yes, we know. We heard. But are you OK?"

"Oh. Yeah, I'm fine. Guys – I really need to talk to you!"

Jo groaned.

"Steady on," said Blair.

"Babe – don't use Alec's British-isms, would ya?"

"Well then … instead of 'steady on', how about 'don't freak out, Polniaczek'?"

"Better."

"Can I come in?" Tootie called through the suite door. At the moment she sounded younger than fifteen; she sounded small and plaintive, like she was eleven again – although even at eleven, Tootie had been wise beyond her years.

"Hang on a minute!" Jo yelled ungraciously. "We'll be right out!"

She threw back the covers, grabbed for her flannel bathrobe. She snagged Blair's silk robe and tossed it to the blonde.

"How many rooms does River Rock have?" Jo asked as they pulled on their robes.

"Thirty-four. You know there are thirty-four. You signed the lease too. Remember? That little piece of paper? The realtor you grilled like he was Al Capone?"

"OK, so, tell me – with thirty-four damn rooms to spread out in, how come everybody always ends up wherever we are?"

"Face it, darling – we're magnetic."

Jo's response to that was unprintable.


In the bedroom, Jo packed her black duffle bag, the door to the sitting room wide open so she could participate in Blair's conversation with Tootie.

In the sitting room, Tootie sat on the divan, elbows on her knees, face in her hands.

She looked more dejected than Blair had ever seen her. Although it was only a couple of hours to opening-night curtain for Eastland's production of "The Women", Tootie was dressed in her cloud pajamas, her hair messy, her face bare of makeup.

"Here," said Blair, giving Tootie a ginger ale from the mini bar fridge. "Tell us all about it."

"Eh, not that we aren't happy to help," called Jo, shoving socks into the duffle bag, "but don't you usually talk over your troubles with Natalie?"

Tootie sighed. "Nat's … not very easy to talk to these days," she said. "She has kind of a lot on her mind."

"Ha! You got that right!" agreed Jo. "'Cept she's only got one thing on her mind, that actor. Why doesn't stupid Belmont hurry up and call her, already?"

"Jo," Blair called sweetly, "stop helping." She put a hand on Tootie's shoulder. "Tootie, you can tell us anything. We're here for you."

Tootie shivered, folded her arms across her chest. She looked steadfastly at her shoes.

"I can't go on tonight," she said.

"Sure you can," called Jo. "Stretch, you're gonna get your usual standing O. Bigger than ever, even!"

"I can't," said Tootie. She trembled. She looked up at Blair, her eyes welling with tears. "Blair, every time I even think about stepping out onto the stage … I can't do it!"

Tootie began to sob.

"Shh. It's OK," Blair said kindly. She hugged the younger girl as if Tootie really were still eleven.

Jo appeared in the doorway. "Toot, what's the matter?" she asked, genuinely concerned.

"I don't know!" Tootie sobbed. "It d-doesn't make any sense!"

"You did that whole 'murder game' thing at Petal's – you were freakin brilliant!" said Jo. "And you danced on that table, in front of a hundred people –"

"I know! Don't you think I know that? I was there!"

"So how come –"

"Jo," Blair said, "you really should finish packing."

Jo scowled, but she vanished into the bedroom.

"Tootie," Blair said kindly, "there has to be something different about this performance. If we can figure out what it is, you'll be able to move past it."

"You s-said that when we w-went to Lake Peekskill. So I've been thinking. But I c-can't think of anything about the play that would upset me."

"Who's directing it?"

"Mrs. Wermer. She's wonderful."

"And your costars?"

"The best! Even the girl that plays my nemesis – she's so nice."

"Is there anything about the subject matter … I mean," Blair hesitated – How do I put this delicately? – "your parents are, ah, doing well aren't they?"

"They're n-not getting a divorce, if that's what you're asking. They've never been happier." Tootie buried her head against Blair's shoulder. "What's wrong with me?" She melted into a torrent of sobs.

"She's totally losin it," called Jo. "Give her a belt of brandy or somethin."

"Darling?"

"Yeah?"

"Close the door."

"Jeez, try to be flippin helpful," muttered Jo. But she closed the connecting door.

Blair rocked Tootie as if she were a child.

Like many natural performers Tootie was extremely sensitive, thinner-skinned than most of the other girls. She had a flair for dramatizing almost any situation, often not aware that she was doing it. But this breakdown, Tootie's fears, her weeping – it was all frighteningly genuine.

"There, there," cooed Blair. "It's going to be all right."

"It's not! Of all the times for this to happen! I can't remember a single line of the play! My understudy will have to take over! I'll never live it down! And she'll never let me forget it!"

"Your understudy?"

"My mother."

Ah!

Blair stroked Tootie's hair. "Tootie, is Justice Ramsey coming tonight?"

"Yes." Tootie hiccupped. "And when I don't go on – Blair, my mother's never supported my acting. She thinks it's a total waste of time. A distraction from my studies. If she could just see me at my best! But the way I feel now – this'll be the nail in the coffin of my career!"

Blair bit back a smile. When Tootie began to dramatize, it was a sign she was calming down. "Tootie, does your mother know how good you are?"

"She's read my write-ups in the Eastland Gazette, but I mean, let's face it. That's a high school paper – and my best friend is the theater critic!"

"So … Your mother's never actually seen you perform?"

"Sure she has – when I was six or seven. I played a rutabaga at Westminster – the school I went to before Eastland."

"Your mother never saw you in one of your plays at summer camp?"

"Justice Ramsey? Take time out of her busy court calendar to see a summer camp production? No, no, no. That's not how it works."

I think, mused Blair, that I'm beginning to see exactly how it works.

"And she never saw one of your Eastland plays?"

"No. Something more important always came up."

"But tonight, she's going to see you perform as, well, practically a grown-up, for the very first time."

"And that's why I have to be perfect!" Tootie hugged herself tightly, trying to control the trembling that was washing over her in fresh waves.

"Tootie," Blair said gently, "I think the problem might be, well, to put it plainly –"

"For cryin out loud!" Jo burst out of the bedroom, duffle bag slung over her shoulder. She wore her dark pea coat, a pair of leather motorcycle gloves peeking out of one pocket. "Stop tap-dancin around it, Blair. Tootie, you've got stage-fright cause you're mom's gonna be there tonight, and you're puttin way too much pressure on yourself. Just knock it off. Have a good time with the play. There. Problem solved!"

"Nicely done," drawled Blair. "And here I was afraid you might be insensitive."

"Insensitive? Me? Nah."

Tootie's eyes were thoughtful as she mulled over what Jo had said. "So it's not anything about the play … it's who's going to be in the audience."

"Exactly. You owe me a nickel for my brilliant psychiatric advice, Tootie. And now," Jo tossed her duffle bag into the easy chair, headed toward the door, "the doctor is out."

"Where do you think you're going?" asked Blair.

"Gonna give my bike a lube job. Wanna make sure I get to the Bronx in one piece tonight."

"Where's your scarf? The wind off the river is cutting today."

Jo rolled her eyes. "You sound like Ma."

"I'll take that as a compliment. Like your mother, I don't want you to catch double-pneumonia."

"Is it really that simple?" Tootie wondered aloud. "Am I just afraid of how my mother is going to react?"

"Best thing you can do is pretend she ain't in the audience," suggested Jo, pausing in the doorway. "Tootie, in case we don't tell you enough, and I guess you actress-types need to hear it a lot, you're an amazin entertainer. Actin, dancin, singin, whatever. When you're up on that stage tonight, picture what it felt like to dance in front of all those people at Petal's. Hell – you choreographed the flippin dance! Think of that. Never mind your ma."

Tootie smiled. "I did really bring down the house at that party."

"Bring down the house? Toot, you tore the damn roof off!"

"I did, didn't I?" Tootie sat up straight, squaring her shoulders.

"You better believe it! Remember, Stretch, it's important to listen to your folks, but when push comes to shove, you gotta live the life you choose – so choose a life you can live with."

Tootie nodded. "Thanks, Jo! That really helps."

"Eh, don't sound so surprised. Blair ain't the only role model around here." Jo leaned down and kissed Blair on the cheek. "I won't be long, babe."

"You'd better not be. Don't freeze out there."

Jo rolled her eyes. "OK – I'll try not to freeze in our heated garage."

"Our detached, heated garage." Blair pulled Jo close, hugged the brunette as tightly as if Jo were embarking on an Arctic expedition. She's just going to the garage now … but later tonight she'll be leaving for five days ...

Tootie coughed and looked away from the lovers. She fully supported her friends' romance, was, in fact, one of their most vocal cheerleaders, but she was still getting used to their physical displays of affection.

"'You've got to live the life you choose'" Blair whispered in Jo's ear, "'so choose a life you can live with'? Is my barbarian watching 'Donahue'?"

"Read it in a fortune cookie," Jo whispered back. "When we had lunch at the Imperial yesterday."


Mrs. Garrett and Natalie drove to the Eastland auditorium in Mrs. Garrett's little car.

Blair and Jo took Blair's red Chevy truck, the heiress behind the wheel.

Jo loved to watch Blair drive; the blonde was such a confident, relaxed driver. It was a cold, clear night, and Blair had the truck's heater cranked up.

Lot of good memories in this truck, thought Jo. It was where she and Blair had first declared their love, where they had first realized the dizzying truth – that they were both having romantic feelings toward each other.

It was where they'd shared their first shy kisses; where they'd first made out; where they'd almost gone all the way for the first time. Where they did go all the way, many times, on the back roads of Peekskill, after their maiden voyages in Blair's dorm.

Blair glanced in the rear view mirror, watched River Rock disappear into the night. She loved the beautiful old house – had loved it at first sight. It was a grand Victorian manor overlooking the Hudson, made of field stone and brick and wood and slate – natural materials, local materials, rendered in a grand but somehow cozy style.

Jo's and my first house together. Even though we're just renting. For now.

Jo had insisted that she co-sign the lease. In purely financial terms, Jo's contribution was meager compared to Blair's, and they both knew it.

But Jo wanted the responsibility. Maybe she was paying less rent than Blair, but she could help furnish the place with usable cast-offs like the mustard sofa. And Jo was in charge of fixing anything that broke, restoring anything that could be restored, running the furnace when it got cold.

It was symbolic, more than anything, Jo signing the lease. It was Jo saying, "Yeah, babe, I'm in this with you. We do it all together." If the realtor had looked closely when the lease was amended to add Jo, he would've seen tears in both young women's eyes …

They usually played the radio when they rode in Blair's truck. The two songs they considered their songs – Journey's "Faithfully" and the Newton-John-Richards tune "Suddenly" – were still in fairly heavy rotation, radio staples even though "Suddenly" was several years old and "Faithfully" had come out last spring.

They're classics, thought Jo. Gonna stand the test of time … like me and Blair.

"What are you thinking about?" asked Blair.

Jo scooted across the bench seat, put her arm around her fiancée.

"Just how damn lucky I am. You?"

Blair smiled. "Same thing."


The Eastland auditorium was packed. The Eastland Boosters had done an amazing job of getting the word out, and tickets to "The Women" had sold like hot cakes on an icy New England morning.

Tootie had reserved the best seats for her friends and her mother.

Justice Pauline Ramsey was an intimidatingly handsome and statuesque woman. She had a strong jaw, flashing eyes, an expensive no-nonsense bob, a staid grey pantsuit that cost as much as anything in Blair's closet, expensive-yet-sensible flats.

Blair had met Pauline briefly on several occasions. Tootie had been at Eastland since she was eight – even before Blair had enrolled – but the Justice's visits to the school were few and far between.

"Blair – lovely to see you again," Pauline said briskly. She shook Blair's hand, two crisp pumps. "Natalie, dear, you look well." Natalie, as Tootie's best friend in the world, received a brief embrace. "Mrs. Garrett, I understand you've left the ivy-covered halls of Eastland? Headmaster Parker never did appreciate you. If you ever decide to litigate, call me; I'll point you toward a pit-bull of an attorney."

Jo was new to Pauline. Pauline sized her up quickly – the pony-tail, the flannel, the minimalist makeup, the firm handshake. Like my sister Sylvia, Pauline thought, frowning, not in disapproval, but pity. "Nice to meet you, Jo. I understand you've been like a big sister to my Dorothy."

"She's a great kid," said Jo. "Real talented. I figure if I'm nice to her now, someday she'll give me her autograph."

"I see," Pauline said noncommittally. My Dorothy is 'real talented'. As if memorizing a few lines is any preparation for the real world! At least the theater has some applicability when it comes to court room presence. When Dorothy becomes a trial attorney, the little skits she's been in at Eastland might serve to help her when she plays to a jury …

"Do me a favor," Jo whispered to Petal Von Schuylkill – aka Moose – the socialite and field hockey player who'd recently passed the team captain's torch to Jo.

"Whatever you need," Petal said without hesitation.

"Switch seats with that kid," whispered Jo, nudging her chin toward the petite Eastland freshman presently sitting in front of Justice Ramsey.

"Any particular reason?" asked Petal.

Jo tilted her head slightly toward Tootie's mother.

"Ah! Of course, Jo," said Petal "– whatever you think is best."

The funny thing was, the little Eastland freshman didn't want to move, and she stood her ground against broad, towering Petal Von Schuylkill.

"Why should I move?" the freshman asked Petal snottily. "I like this seat."

Jo leaned forward, so that she was just behind the kid's right ear.

"Do you know who Jo Polniaczek is?" Jo hissed menacingly.

"Of course," the kid sneered. "Everyone at Eastland's heard of her. She rode a motorcycle, and she ran away with a sailor, and she beat people up, and she used to go drinking at the Chugalug all the time."

Jesus, what a legacy! thought Jo.

"She only went to the Chugalug once," hissed Jo, "and she only beat up a couple of people. Well, a few."

"How would you know?" demanded the little punk.

"Because I'm Jo Polniaczek," Jo hissed dangerously, pushing her face very close to the kid's ear. "And if you don't move your butt, I'm gonna drop-kick you outta that seat."

The kid gave Jo one terrified, over-the-shoulder glance.

The kid switched seats with Petal.

Jo's intention had been to block Tootie's view of her mother. Even sitting down, Petal was extremely tall, towering over her neighbors, and her broad torso covered a lot of real estate. Jo's idea was that with Petal in the way, Tootie would never even see Justice Ramsey.

Problem was, Tootie was in every scene and on every part of the stage. In her very first scene, Tootie and the girl playing her daughter entered from stage right and paused. From where Tootie was standing, she had a perfect view of her intimidating, serious mother.

Tootie stared at her mother. She blinked. She swallowed hard.

C'mon, Toot! thought Jo.

Tootie swallowed hard again. Jo was close enough to see Tootie's throat working.

C'mon! Live your life!

Blair wanted to bite her nails, as she hadn't wanted to bite them since she was five. When her parents' fighting had really started to get bad, Blair had bitten her nails all the time – until Cook put chili powder on her fingertips.

Don't give up, Tootie! You can do it! thought Blair.

Even Natalie, who'd been a sourpuss all week, tried to catch her best friend's eye. Natalie smiled, nodded, gave Tootie a thumbs up.

On stage, Tootie was oblivious to her friends. She felt mesmerized by her mother, like a bird fascinated by a snake. The play had hardly begun, and Pauline Ramsey already looked bored and disdainful ...

But then something caught Tootie's eye – Natalie was waving to her with one hand, giving her a thumbs up with the other. And next to Nat, Mrs. Garrett was beaming, and next to her, Blair was biting her nails in excited anticipation, and Jo was waggling her eyebrows, telegraphing "C'mon, Stretch – speak!" Terry was nodding encouragingly and crossing her fingers and her wrists for good luck.

They're all here for me. They believe in me!

Tootie heard Jo's voice in her head. "You've got to live the life you choose, so choose a life you can live with …"

In a quick flash, Tootie saw the Great Hall at Petal's lake house – Halloween night, a hundred people dancing, Tootie up on a table, leading the dance. The music – the excitement – and when it was over, the thunderous applause.

I am an entertainer!

Tootie looked directly at Pauline. She met her mother's gaze calmly.

Pauline shifted uneasily in her seat. Was Dorothy ever going to say something? And why was Dorothy looking at her that way … in such a grown-up way … almost like an equal?

Tootie opened her mouth, said Mary's first line in the pleasing, well-bred, somewhat vapid tones of a New York socialite circa the 1930's. The scene unfolded with great naturalness … and then the play.

The initial whisperings and rustlings that plague any play quickly died away.

The audience sat rapt. The young actresses were very good; there had clearly been months of rehearsal to memorize the witty, rapid-fire lines. But Tootie outshone even the best of her costars …

It was a relatively long production, just over two hours. Jo found herself tearing up more than once, and at some points, Mrs. Garrett and Blair were frankly blubbering into their handkerchiefs. Jo found Blair's hand in the dark, squeezed it tight.

At the play's end, Tootie delivered Mary's last line with the strength and moxie that Mary could never have mustered at the start of her journey. "I've had two years to grow claws, mother! Jungle Red!"

The stage went dark, except for a single bright spotlight on Tootie, striking an elegant, confident pose in her glittering 1930's gown, her Jungle Red nails in full view.

The spotlight was extinguished. The stage was pitch black.

After a few seconds of pregnant silence, the applause was deafening.

There was a standing ovation … several curtain calls …

Pauline dabbed her eyes discretely with a sensible handkerchief. She cleared her throat.

"What did you think?" Mrs. Garrett asked her. "Wasn't your daughter amazing?"

"Yes," Justice Ramsey said with a little catch in her voice. "I hardly know her …"


Late that night. The Bronx. An apartment in a decaying, graffiti-scarred but still respectable building.

Rose Polniaczek was shaken to her core.

She smiled; she spoke pleasantly; she acted as normal as possible; but inside, she was reeling.

Sex! Rose's baby, her tomboy, her Jo was having sex!

Rose had known it the moment Jo sailed into the little Bronx apartment – apartment number 38, where over the years Jo had grown from a healthy, squalling baby to a ferociously independent and intelligent young woman.

If pressed, Rose couldn't have explained how she knew. It was a feeling, an intuition – not a logical assessment.

Jo hadn't grown much taller – maybe half an inch. She wore her old pea coat, her leather motorcycle gloves, had her worn black duffle bag slung over one shoulder, and a motorcycle helmet under one arm. Jo's hair was pulled back in her trademark ponytail – no muss, no fuss.

"Ma!" she exclaimed when Rose opened the door. "God, it's good to see ya!" Jo flashed that radiant megawatt grin – a combination of Rose's smile and Charlie's charm.

Jo had dropped the duffle bag and helmet, crushed Rose in a loving bear hug.

"Jeez, Ma, you're really a sight for sore eyes! Are you surprised?"

"I sure am, honey!"

And Rose was surprised … not just at Jo arriving Tuesday night instead of Wednesday afternoon … but at the immediate, overwhelming realization that her baby was no longer a virgin.

Rose fixed Jo a cold plate – a tuna fish sandwich, potato chips – while Jo stowed her duffle bag in the little bedroom. She's had sex. My baby. She's had sex!

It wasn't any one thing that gave it away, Rose realized, it was a lot of little things.

They sat at the small table in the kitchenette adjacent to the living area while Jo ate the sandwich and drank a glass of cold milk. Jo had hung up her pea coat. She wore one of her old flannel shirts, a blue-and-black plaid, and she had the sleeves rolled up. Jo still looked like Jo, the old Jo, but somehow she had irrevocably changed.

Jo chatted a mile a minute about her classes – she still loved botany, and ancient history, and advanced English, and was keeping her overall GPA at a solid 3.9. She chatted a mile a minute about being named captain of the Langley Lions field hockey team, about her teammates, about how the Lions had won state, and had advanced to the semi-finals of the national championship.

"Oh, Ma," said Jo, her eyes shining, "I wish you coulda got away from work, I wish you coulda been there! Jackrabbit made the most amazin shot, and Lefty scored too. And Moose, of course. And I got a couple of goals. Penn was just too good for us, in the end, but not next year! We'll win it in '84!"

"I'm so proud of you, Jo," said Rose, eyes brimming. And she was. But the other, ugly thought was crowding out her maternal pride. She's had sex! When? How? With who? No matter how high Jo's grades were or how well her hockey team did, Rose had somehow fundamentally failed her daughter.

Rose realized as Jo rambled on that there were two subjects that never came up: River Rock and Blair.

Jo talked about Nat's infatuation with some boy, about Tootie conquering her stage fright to deliver a smashing performance in "The Women", but not one word about the house they were all sharing, and not one word about Jo's best friend.

Did she and Blair have a fight? Are they fighting over a boy? Is he the one, the one that … spoiled my Jo?

Rose could picture a much younger Jo sitting at that same worn table, many an afternoon after school, smudges of dirt on her face, scabs on her elbows and knees, drinking a glass of cold milk and eating a tuna fish sandwich.

Young Jo would tell her mother what she'd learned in class, and sometimes share confessions about the schoolyard tussles she'd gotten into. Jo had always been a fighter. She got that from Rose more than her father. Rose was tiny, but she had a ferocious spirit.

Now, in the present, Rose fought back tears. Jo saw the tears, interpreted them as tears of pride. Jo squeezed her mother's hand.

"I know how much you and Pop are sacrificin so I can be at Langley," she said quietly. "You'll never know how much I appreciate it. I'm gonna keep workin hard. You're gonna be so proud of me."

"I'll always be … proud of you, Jo." Rose's voice broke. Tears spilled down her cheek.

"Ma, what the heck? Are you OK?"

"I think it's just the surprise," Rose hedged. Impatient with herself, with her own weakness, she dashed the tears away. "It's a lot to take in, honey. Charlie's gonna bust a button when he hears all your great news!"

"I guess," Jo said, ducking her head and smiling her crooked, embarrassed little smile. "It matters to me, Ma, a lot – you and Pop bein proud of me."

Oh, Jo! What have you done?

Later, in the dark, Rose tossed and turned on the fold-out couch in the living room.

Jo slept in the apartment's tiny bedroom. Rose could hear faint, soft snoring drifting from the room. It had been Jo's bedroom growing up. Once Jo enrolled at Eastland, Rose used the room most of the time, but Jo still slept there when she visited.

Rose tried to turn off her brain, but she couldn't. Jo's had sex! The Roman Catholic church said sex before marriage was a sin. One of the big ones!

It wasn't any one thing that gave it away. It was a lot of little things, Rose thought. Put all the little things together and – A mother knows!

Yes, Jo's hair was still pulled into a ponytail – but her hair had been recently cut and styled. Jo's hair was shiny, the ends neatly clipped – no split ends, no dull or straggly strands.

Yes, Jo had been wearing a flannel shirt when she arrived, one of her old ones, but it was neatly washed and pressed. And the jeans were new – and looked expensive. And although the pea coat was old, Jo's throat was wrapped with a new red scarf that looked like it had cost the earth.

Rose had never had money, not in her whole life. But waitressing she had seen a lot of rich people over the years, and she'd learned to judge some things to a nicety. Rose couldn't begin to imagine how much the scarf around Jo's throat had cost, or the jeans, but it was more, much more, than Jo could afford from her meager wages at the Campus Grill!

She'd never accept new clothes from her friends, thought Rose. Jo was intensely proud – too proud, Rose knew, to accept gifts from her wealthier classmates. No; Jo would only accept such gifts from a boyfriend. A serious boyfriend. Eddie used to buy her things … Jo was serious about some boy – and she'd never even mentioned him to Rose!

But it was more than nicely styled hair and new clothes that sent up a red flag for Rose. Jo had been wearing a hint of makeup when she arrived – makeup! Only a touch of lip gloss, and a light brush of mascara on her lashes, but for Jo Polniaczek, it might as well have been an inch of "face goop" as Jo called it – as Jo used to call it, anyway.

And instead of her usual clean, soap-and-water smell, Jo gave off the faint scent of expensive perfume. Jo would never buy herself fancy fragrance, even if she could afford it – which she couldn't. Everything pointed to a boyfriend. And there was only one reason Rose knew of that boys gave girls expensive presents …

Rose pulled the pillow over her head. She felt tears pricking her eyes again.

Even putting aside superficial things like hair and clothes and makeup, Jo seemed profoundly different from the inside out. Even during the hour before they went to sleep, Rose could see that Jo was less impatient and less tomboyish in her movements.

Jo was still Jo at the core – always would be, Rose knew – but the young woman had a new gentleness, a new polish, a new maturity that told Rose her daughter had been doing a lot of growing up in the last couple of months. There was an ease to Jo's gestures, and a womanly quality, that Rose had never seen before …

In her cozy childhood bedroom, completely oblivious to her mother's anxiety, Jo snored softly, dreaming of her beautiful bottle blonde …


In Peekskill, in the massive bed she and Jo usually shared, Blair tossed and turned. It was three am.

Blair pulled a couple of pillows into her arms, held them tight. They smelled like Jo's shampoo; Blair breathed in their scent. But the pillows were soft and squishy. And cool to the touch. Jo was lean, and hard, and warm.

Blair pushed the pillows off the bed.

I can't do it … I can't sleep without her lying next to me ...

She tossed and turned for a few more minutes before she gave up.

Blair climbed out of bed and threw on her thick, warm, paprika-colored Ralph Lauren robe. She pushed her feet into her fluffy slippers, then kicked them off, putting on Jo's suede moccasins instead. Another little addition to Jo's wardrobe, another little something from Blair. The moccasins were simple and comfortable – very Jo.

She didn't bring the moccasins home with her, thought Blair as she made her way through the mazelike stone-and-timber halls of River Rock. Her and Jo's suite was, by design, high up and at the back of the house, well away from everyone else.

She doesn't want Rose to see how many things I've bought her. Jo only packed old clothes. Except the jeans. And the scarf I made her wear. My hard-headed, lunk-headed Neanderthal, trying to motorcycle all the way to the Bronx without a scarf on a night this cold!

There was already a light on in the kitchen, and Blair smelled freshly brewed coffee.

Blair wasn't particularly surprised to see Natalie sitting at the butcher block table, sipping coffee from a chipped "Star Wars" mug – part of their eclectic dish and crockery collection, everyone having contributed what they could. Nat was eating fudge ripple ice cream right out of the carton. Her eyes were red and puffy.

"Any more coffee?" asked Blair.

Natalie nodded toward the coffee maker.

Blair rummaged around one of the cupboards, found a heavy, cream-colored mug with "Madonia Brothers Bakery" printed on it. Jo must have stolen this when she was a kid! thought Blair.

She poured out a cup of coffee, deciding to take it jet black. She snagged a spoon from the drawer.

Blair loved the kitchen. It had sealed the deal when she first decided to rent the house. It was large – larger than the old Eastland kitchen where she and her friends had toiled for three years – and homey, with a Colonial hearth that you could roast a whole suckling pig in – not that she and the girls were likely to do that!

Sitting down across from Natalie, Blair poised her spoon above the carton of fudge ripple.

"Do you mind?" she asked. Natalie shook her head. Blair dug a spoonful of ice cream out of the carton, savored it, ate another.

"Why does ice cream taste so good at three in the morning?" asked Blair.

Natalie shrugged.

"Natalie –"

"I don't want to talk about Belmont," Nat said shortly.

"Good," said Blair. "Because what I was going to ask is, can I talk to you?"

That took Natalie by surprise. She smiled slightly.

"I mean, of course. Anytime, Blair. You know that."

Blair ate a couple more spoonfuls of ice cream. She sipped some coffee, made a face.

"Did you brew this?"

"No. Alec did. I think the British are more about tea."

Blair pushed her cup away. "New house rule: Alec doesn't touch the Mr. Coffee. Under any circumstances."

"I'll second that," Natalie chuckled.

"So … 'boy-crazy Natalie Green' … I need your advice."

Natalie raised one eyebrow. "Don't tell me Peekskill's secret power couple has hit the skids. You're not leaving Jo for some boy, are you?" she teased.

"I don't need to," sighed Blair. "I've already got a boy to worry about. I mean, don't get me wrong. In some ways, Jo is so feminine – a lot more feminine than I am."

"Our Jo? Jo Polniaczek?" Natalie demanded.

"Yes, our Jo. She can be very vulnerable, very sensitive."

"She wouldn't be very sensitive if she knew you were talking about her that way," chuckled Natalie.

"I know. Her whole life she's had to put on this tough front to protect herself."

"Blair, it's not all a front. She's a very strong person."

"Strong, but not so tough – if you catch the distinction."

Nat considered that. "OK, I think I get that. So what's your question, again?"

"Well, even though Jo can be very gentle and vulnerable, in some ways she is very guy-like. Sometimes she thinks like a boy."

"Oh," said Natalie, catching on. "You mean she's an idiot."

"Exactly!" Blair downed another spoonful of fudge ripple. "I mean, it's our first Thanksgiving together," she said around the ice cream. "In what demented universe is it OK for her to leave me all alone?"

"I'm not disagreeing," Natalie said. She glanced at the moss green Princess wall phone. Her brow furrowed. "A real man wouldn't leave his woman alone during the holidays," she said, clearly thinking of Belmont. "Of course, as you just said yourself, Jo isn't a man. You can't hold her to the rules you'd give a boyfriend."

"But I have to hold her to some rules," Blair insisted. "After all, it's not as if, I mean, can you imagine if, well –"

Natalie grinned. It was the first real grin Blair had seen on the girl's face in a week. "Yes, Blair. You are the ruling force in the relationship. And I'm sure Jo realizes that."

"Then where is she?" Blair demanded plaintively. She was practically whining, she knew. It was childish. And unbecoming. And she didn't care. She ate another spoonful of ice cream.

Natalie's blue eyes twinkled. She put a comforting hand on Blair's arm. "Blair, you know I still don't get how you and Jo can be together. I don't get the whole girl-girl thing. But do you have any idea how good Jo has been for you?"

"Of course."

"Hmm, I don't think you do. Not fully. She has really had an impact on you."

"Well," sniffed Blair, "I didn't realize I was so horrible that I needed so many changes."

"Now don't get all huffy. Jeez, Jo's out of the house for a few hours, and it's welcome back Princess Blair!" The sparkle in Natalie's eyes took any sting out of the words. "I think the best thing Jo is doing for you, Blair, is teaching you how to live without getting every damn thing you want, the minute you want it."

Blair considered that over another mouthful of ice cream.

"Wow," said Nat, "you really are in a serious relationship. You're not worried about calories at all, are you?"

"Nope. Jo says, and I quote, even if I get all 'huge and doddering' I'll still be beautiful to her."

"What a lovely and yet incredibly insensitive thing to say."

"That's my barbarian!"

Tootie wandered in, wrapped in a fluffy purple bathrobe, yawning hugely.

"What are you two doing up?" she asked.

"Kvetching," said Natalie. "Well, Blair's kvetching. I'm the sympathetic ear."

"Why are you awake?" asked Blair. "After that stunning performance you deserve to be sleeping like a baby!"

"I know. I'm exhausted. But I'm so excited, too. I mean – I did it! I nailed it! Guys, last night was the best night of my life!"

Blair smiled. "Tootie, I have a feeling that was just the beginning. I think you have a lot of triumphant performances ahead of you."

"I hope so," said Tootie, sitting down next to Nat. "But last night will always be special."

"Firsts always are," said Nat. "I remember the first time I kissed a boy." Her eyes grew dreamy. "When I'm old and grey and dribbling cornflakes in the nursing home, I'll still remember that kiss."

"I remember the first time I rode Chestnut," said Blair. "I knew right away Chestnut was my horse – and he knew I was his person."

"Remember the first night we spent in that horrible old storeroom," laughed Natalie. "Who knew we'd be living there together for three years?"

"Just goes to show you," said Tootie. "You can't always judge by first impressions."

"Sometimes you can," said Blair. "I remember the first time I met Mrs. Garrett. I was such a brat I don't know how she could stand me! But for the first time I knew what it was like to actually have a mom."

Tootie and Natalie nodded, thinking back to their own first encounters with the feisty red-head. They hadn't needed Mrs. Garrett the way Blair had – but they still loved the woman like a surrogate mother.

"First night away from home," mused Tootie. "I was so little."

"Were you scared?" asked Blair.

"No." Tootie linked her arm through Nat's. "One of the older girls told me it would be OK. I think her name was Natalie Green. I made her laugh so hard with my jokes, chocolate milk squirted out of her nose. That's when I realized I was a born entertainer."

"Who knew I was launching such a distinguished career?" laughed Nat.

"Blair …" Tootie said coyly, looking up at the blonde from under her thick lashes, "you've had a first that Natalie and I haven't had yet."

Blair blushed. "Tootie! That's a very, ah, private first."

Natalie pressed her hands over her ears. "For the love of God, Tootie, leave Blair alone."

"Are you kidding? We actually know someone now who's had sex! As an investigative journalist, and as 'boy-crazy Natalie Green', how can you not be curious?"

"I am curious," said Natalie, hands still pressed firmly to her ears. "But I don't think Blair has the answers I'm looking for."

"She's right," said Blair.

"There must be some similarities," said Tootie. "I mean, boy or girl, there's kissing, and touching, and – what else is there, Blair?"

"There's … stuff," Blair said, biting back a smile. She was blushing a rich crimson, mind flashing to several recent, very intimate moments with Jo.

"What kind of stuff?" Tootie leaned her chin on her hands, raptly attentive.

"Just … stuff. That you're still too young to know about."

"I'm fifteen!"

"Exactly."

"Does it hurt?"

"Tootie!"

"Well, does it? I heard some of the older girls say it hurts."

"With boys, Tootie. With boys," said Nat. "For obvious reasons!"

"It can hurt with a woman too," said Blair. "A little bit. If you, ah … depending on what you do," she finished lamely.

"Like what?" asked Tootie, frankly curious. "Is it something you can do with boys too?"

"Tootie Ramsey," said Natalie, "go to your room!"

"Calm down, Nat. I'm not going to do anything until I'm married," said Tootie. "I just want to be prepared."

"Remember that book Mr. Bradley tried to get Mrs. Garrett to use for Sex Ed?" asked Natalie.

"The one about the dating habits of the fruit fly?" Tootie asked incredulously.

"Yes. That's all you need to be prepared," Nat said.

"Are you kidding me?"

"Tootie, all you need to know is that it's beautiful," said Blair. "At first it can be scary, but when you love someone, you get so swept up, it's as if," she fumbled for the words, "as if you go to this place where you're one, and you each feel what the other one feels, and time stands still …"

"Wow," breathed Nat, uncovering her ears. "It's all that? Really?"

"You'll see," said Blair. "When you trust someone absolutely, when you can be completely yourself with them … There's no better feeling in the world."

"No better feeling than what?" asked Mrs. Garrett, bustling into the kitchen in her pink bathrobe, her flaming red locks loosely wound over large curlers.

"Sex," Tootie said, sighing.

"Uh, Blair was just telling us how important it is to wait," said Natalie. "Until we're married."

Mrs. Garrett raised her eyebrows skeptically.

"I always seem to miss the juiciest parts of these conversations," she said. "Is this coffee fresh?"

"Sort of – but it's dreadful," said Blair. "Alec is banned from touching the coffee pot ever again."

"Has anyone told Alec yet?"

"I will," said Blair. "We're going shopping tomorrow – today, I mean."

"That reminds me," said Mrs. Garrett, pouring Alec's dreadful coffee into the sink, "we're going to need a larger turkey."

"Larger than fifteen pounds?"

Mrs. Garrett rinsed out the coffee pot. "Make it a twenty pounder."

Natalie whistled. "Are we hosting all of Peekskill?"

"Rule of thumb," said Mrs. Garrett, bustling over to the coffee maker to brew a fresh pot, "is one pound per person. And we could easily end up hosting twenty people tomorrow. You three, plus me – that's already four. Alec and his girlfriend – that's six."

"So … fourteen people are dropping by out of the blue?" asked Natalie. "Do we at least know them?"

"Well, my new boss will be dropping by. Drake wants to taste my Thanksgiving dishes – it's sort of an audition. If he likes what he tastes, it's hello 'Edna's Edibles' and hello morning television!"

"Mrs. Garrett, how exciting!" said Tootie.

"Good title," Natalie approved. "So Drake will make seven … You're expecting thirteen strangers?"

"Natalie, let me tell you something about Thanksgiving: you can never, ever have too much food. Especially when you have a lot of friends, and you've just moved into a big house."

"Everyone I know is going to be out of town," objected Natalie.

"Me too," said Blair, a little wistfully. Even my fiancée.

"Me three," said Tootie. "All my friends are going home for the holiday."

"Too bad your mother couldn't stay," said Nat.

"Hey, I'm lucky she flew up for the play. So, she had to fly right back on a red eye. So what?" Tootie shrugged philosophically. "She finally got to see me in a real role. And I killed it!" Tootie pumped her fist. "What more can I ask for? I already got my Thanksgiving miracle."

"Ah!" said Mrs. Garrett. "Funny you should mention Thanksgiving miracles. That's the thing about Thanksgiving. You can never predict what's going to happen. I really believe, girls, that there's something magical about this season."

"Meaning what?" asked Blair.

"Meaning there's no way to predict how many people will end up at our table tomorrow, or who they'll be! So we need to cook a big turkey."

"And if these mystery guests don't show up?" Blair wondered.

"Then it's turkey sandwiches for the next week. And turkey soup. And turkey croquettes."

"Come on mystery guests," said Natalie, "don't let us down!"

Alec wandered into the kitchen, clad in flannel pajama pants, bare foot, bare-chested, curly dark locks wild.

Natalie covered Tootie's eyes. "For God's sake, Alec – there are children present!"

"I'm not a child!" Tootie said with spirit.

"Aren't you cold?" Blair asked Alec pointedly.

"Not a bit of it," said Alec around a yawn. He stretched. "I'm very hot-blooded. All the Anvistons are."

"Well go be hot-blooded somewhere that's not here," said Natalie.

He squinted irritably at her. "This is my damn house too," he said.

"Language, Alec," trilled Mrs. Garrett. "And you really should cover up in front of the younger ones."

"I am not a 'younger one'," Tootie objected. "When are you all going to realize I'm growing up?"

"I realize it," said Alec. "I just don't care. Ow!" Tootie pegged him with a blueberry muffin.

"I'm filling in for Jo," Tootie explained. "She'd have thrown it at you, if she were here."

"She'd have thrown the toaster at him," said Natalie.

"Why do any of you have to throw things at me?" Alec demanded, brushing blueberry muffin crumbs out of his curls.

"You don't have any sisters, do you?" asked Blair.

"No. And bloody lucky not to, if you three are an example."

"See, right there," said Natalie. "When you say things like that, Alec – that's why it's our sisterly, housemately duty to throw things at you."

"Why are you awake, anyway?" Blair asked him.

He leaned against the counter, folding his arms across his chest.

His beautiful, muscular arms, thought Natalie, across his beautiful, muscular chest. For all his annoying ways, Alec was a truly stunning specimen of manhood. If one cared about that sort of thing. Which, actually, she did. But not when it came to Alec. He was like their big brother. Their big, angelically handsome, maddening-but-good-hearted brother.

"I can't sleep," he said. "Nerves. First holiday with the girlfriend, and all that. Bit daunting. Jacqueline's not one to hold back if she finds something to criticize."

"So," teased Tootie, "you'll never run out of conversation."

Alec sighed. "Why am I the only brother? This house needs an infusion of testosterone."

"There's too much testosterone in here as it is," said Mrs. Garrett, looking significantly at Alec's bare chest. "Find a shirt, Alec, or go back to bed."

"I call that sexist! Blair was running around without pants this afternoon!"

"How do you know?" Blair demanded. Way to throw me under the bus, Lord Nethridge!

"Natalie was ranting about it earlier."

Blair glared at Natalie. "Oh she was, was she?"

Natalie lifted her palms placatingly. "Hey, I signed on for 'The Waltons' – not 'Peyton Place'! If my parents saw you in the laundry room today, Blair, or if they saw you now, Alec, they'd yank me out of here so fast your heads'd spin! I'd be back in an Eastland dorm before sunrise!"

"Natalie's right," said Mrs. Garrett. "Everyone needs to wear pants and shirts in the common rooms. I'm surprised we even have to discuss this."

"Bloody Quaker commune," muttered Alec. "We most definitely need another man around here."

"You're lucky you're here," Tootie said darkly.

Everyone stared at her.

"What?" she asked. "I'm still representing Jo."

"That is what Jo would say," Blair agreed.

"Nice work, Tootie," said Natalie.

"I'm going back to bed," grumbled Alec. "Bloody hen house!"

"Hey, Alec," Blair called after him, "we're going shopping today! Be ready."

Alec muttered something; it sounded like "glorified houseboy".

"Hey, Alec," Tootie called "you're banned from touching the coffee pot!"

Alec's response was muffled; which, considering what it sounded like, was probably for the best.

Tootie went up to bed not long after, and not long after that Blair went up to her empty suite.

Mrs. Garrett poured out two fresh, steaming cups of coffee for herself and Natalie.

Natalie drank deeply. "Now this is coffee!" she said approvingly.

"I've been making coffee since I was six years old," said Mrs. Garrett, yawning. "I made it for my father and the hands before they went out into the fields. Goodness, they worked so hard! They had to have good strong coffee in the morning or they never would've gotten through the day."

Natalie turned the chipped "Star Wars" mug from side to side. She looked into the coffee, avoiding her mentor's eyes.

"Mrs. Garrett?"

"Yes, Natalie?"

"Why hasn't Belmont called me?"

"I don't know," Mrs. Garrett said honestly.

"We were so connected, at Petal's party. I wouldn't have expected it in a million years. Him, a big star. And me – just a school girl."

"Well, Natalie, let's be realistic. Belmont Keane is attractive, and he's talented, but he's hardly a big star. Someday, maybe. But right now he's a minor character on a new TV show that could be cancelled any time. And you are not just some school girl. You're Natalie Green."

"Sure, Mrs. Garrett, to you I'm the amazing Natalie Green, but let's face it – you're a little biased, maybe."

"Well …" Mrs. Garrett ruffled Nat's hair. "Maybe I'm a little biased."

"I mean, OK, I'm editor of the Eastland Gazette, but what would that mean to an actor like Belmont?"

"If Belmont really cares about you, it should mean a lot."

"That's just it!" Natalie hung her head. "Does he really care about me? We danced all night, Mrs. Garrett, at the party. And we laughed, and we talked. It seemed like he got me. When I talked about working for the "Times", and traveling the world – it was like he took me seriously."

"Why shouldn't he?"

"Because he's a man, Mrs. Garrett. Not a boy."

"Oh, he can't be more than twenty-one."

"Twenty," said Natalie. "A casting agent discovered him in a Princeton play last year. He's twenty, and I'm sixteen. That's a big gap. I mean, he's probably done … all kinds of things I haven't done yet." She twisted the mug in her hands.

"Natalie," Mrs. Garrett said kindly, "if Belmont really cares about you, it doesn't matter who has or hasn't done what. And if he doesn't care, well, it's his loss."

"Just that one phone call," muttered Nat. "A week after the party. And it was such a great call. We talked for hours!"

"I remember," Mrs. Garrett said grimly. "Drake was trying to get through to me to talk about the cooking show. I think, with all of us in the house, we might need a second phone line."

"Mrs. Garrett, I'm so confused," said Natalie. "I really only talked to Belmont twice in my life, but somehow it feels like, like –"

"Like you've known him forever."

Natalie nodded. A tear splashed into her coffee.

Mrs. Garrett put a motherly arm around Nat.

"There might be a very good reason why Belmont hasn't called," she said soothingly.

"Sure. He doesn't like me!"

"Oh, Natalie." Mrs. Garrett squeezed Natalie's shoulders. "If Belmont Keane doesn't like you, that's his loss. But I think you're being premature. He said he'd call you before Thanksgiving; well, he has one more day to call."

"I don't know how I'm going to get through today," sniffled Nat.

"Of course you do," said Mrs. Garrett with spirit. "You're Natalie Green!"

"I'm not sure what that means."

"It means you're a beautiful, intelligent girl. And you'll get through today just fine – one hour at a time."

"Do you think so?"

"I know so."

"Thank you, Mrs. Garrett." Natalie hugged her. "You always know what to say. I'm so glad we're all together again."

"Me too, Natalie."

"Promise you'll never leave us?"

"Well, I don't know about that. None of us knows what life holds around the corner. But as long as you girls need me, I'll be here for you."

"Promise?"

"I promise, Natalie."


Wednesday, November 23, 1983. The Bronx. Rose's apartment.

By high noon, Rose thought she was going to go out of her mind.

Jo was so sweet, so helpful, all morning. She cooked breakfast. The oatmeal was lumpy and the toast was charred, but Jo had never been much of a cook, even after years working in the Eastland kitchen, and it was the gesture that counted.

Jo arranged all the pots and pans on the counter. She lifted the extra table leaves out of the crawl space, and expanded the kitchenette table. Then she set it. Then she vacuumed the little apartment from corner to corner.

By noon, just watching her daughter, Rose felt exhausted. And guilty. Because Jo was being nothing but pleasant, nothing but helpful … and Rose was feeling nauseated just being near her daughter.

How could she do it? Have sex with some boy, and not even tell me she was dating? What would Father Kowalksi say? What would God say?

When Jo started mopping the kitchen floor, Rose was at her wit's end. She wanted to take Jo by the shoulders and shake her. She wanted to scream.

"You OK, Ma?" asked Jo, pushing the damp mop around the tiny tile floor. The apartment was fragrant with Pine Sol cleaner.

"I, ah, think I might be coming down with something," Rose managed to say in a strangled voice. Like a case of total shame and despair …

"Why don't you go lie down in the room?" Jo suggested kindly. "I got all the clean up covered. Honest, Ma, let me do it all. You deserve a break, hard as you work. I can't even believe you got today and tomorrow off from old skinflint Verucci! Live it up – by which I mean, go lie down!" Jo chuckled at her little joke.

"Thank you, Jo, I guess, ah, I'll go do that …"

Rose did lie down for a moment in the bedroom. She could hear Jo whistling cheerfully in the kitchen. Rose couldn't quite identify the tune; Jo's whistling, like her singing, was hit-or-miss.

One of the drawers of the little dresser was ajar. She put away her clothes! Rose realized, stunned.

Jo never put away her clothes when she visited for a few days. She kept them neatly folded in her duffle bag. "What's the point of unpackin, when I'm just packin again in a coupla days?" she always said.

Putting away her clothes was a complete departure from Jo's usual habits. Where did she pick that up? From her fancy friends, maybe. Or from a boy? Has she been away with him? All those weekends she said she was too busy with school and sports to come home …

Rose slipped off the bed, quietly opened the drawer. Socks. Tube socks – but brand name. And brand new. Spotlessly white. And under the socks …

Rose reeled back from the drawer. She sat on the edge of the bed.

Expensive underwear. Brand new. White silk bras. White silk panties. From Saks. Bloomingdales. Bergdorf's, maybe. Elegantly simple, but way out of Jo's price range. So feminine. Like nothing Jo had ever worn, or expressed an interest in wearing, in her whole life.

Rose felt faint. She fanned herself. Some boy was buying Jo fancy lingerie! It was even more serious, even more sinful, than she had feared …

The doorbell pealed.

"I'll get it!" called Jo. Rose heard Jo prop the mop in the corner of the kitchenette, heard Jo stride to the front door. She heard Jo unfasten the multiple chains and locks. That took a minute. And then –

"Jesse!" cried Jo. "So good ta see ya!"

"Eh, right back at ya, Polniaczek! Look at you, all fancy-schmancy! Why doncha get your Ma a maid to open the door, Park Avenue?"

It was good-natured teasing, Rose knew from the tone. Jesse and Jo had always been close. They'd had some kind of blow-out a couple of years ago, Rose wasn't sure about what, but they'd patched it up over the summer.

Rose didn't care much for Jesse – she was too rough-around the edges, in Rose's opinion, even for a Bronx girl. And Jesse was the one, Rose suspected, who'd convinced Jo to join the Young Diablos gang five years ago. Jesse was, decidedly, a bad influence. But these days, Jo seemed to be the one influencing Jesse.

"You want a soda?" Jo asked Jesse.

It was such a small apartment – the voices carried clearly into the little bedroom. Rose listened.

"How 'bout a beer?" asked Jesse. "Eh, just kiddin, just kiddin. You know I'm doing that twelve-step thing. Soda's fine."

Rose heard Jo pull open the clunky old refrigerator – Lord, that thing's going to conk out any day now! – rummage around.

"Coke or Mello Yello?" asked Jo.

"Surprise me."

Rose heard Jo pull out a can of soda, set it on the counter. "Coke it is," said Jo. "I like the Mello Yellos."

"Thanks." Jesse pulled the pop top, took a loud slurp of the Coke. "So, how's life among the Farrahs?"

Yes, Jo, thought Rose, how is life among the Farrahs? And the Ryan O'Neals?

"Honestly?" Rose could hear the smile in Jo's voice. "It's amazin. Five million times better than I ever even expected!"

"Well, don't hold back, kid," deadpanned Jesse. "If you like it a little bit, say so."

"Classes are real interestin. And the team went to nationals. Nationals! We made it to the semi-finals!"

"You were always good with a stick," Jesse said. "Bet you're carryin the team on your back."

"Nah, they're all really good. Good people, too. Not like some of the snobs."

"So, there are still snobs in snobbo city? It ain't all sweetness and light?"

"Eh, there's always gonna be some jerks, wherever you go. You just learn to deal with it. But enough about me, Jess, how's by you?"

"Well, you're lookin at the proud owner of a brand spankin new GED."

Jo whooped. Rose heard the smack of Jo and Jesse high-fiving each other.

"Gonna start BCC in January," Jesse said, trying to sound casual, but unable to completely filter the pride out of her voice. "I mean, I know it's just a community college, but, hey, it's a start."

"Jess, it's one of the best community colleges. They must see somethin in you."

"Eh, who knows? Like they say, I'm just gonna take it a day at a time. So, Polniaczek, you're studyin, you're playin stickball, you're workin – you found any new guys, since you gave Eddie the heave-ho?"

Rose felt the tiny hairs stand up on the back of her neck. She leaned forward on the bed, not wanting to miss a word.

Jo sighed. "Jess – I didn't give Eddie the heave-ho. It was a mutual decision. It was, well, all very grown-up considerin how young we were."

"OK. So that's, like, two years ago. Who you datin these days?"

"Jess, I'm not, it's not exactly …"

"Holy crow! You're blushin! Jo Polniaczek, blushin!"

Rose covered her face, groaned quietly into her hands.

"I ain't blushin," Jo said defensively.

"Well if you ain't blushin, you turned into a lobster, cause you, my friend, are red, red, red! Who is he? He one of them preppies? He gonna be here for the feast tomorrow?"

"There isn't any guy," Jo insisted. "You got it all wrong, Jess."

"Hey – don't try to short-con me, Polniaczek. What, is it a secret? He somebody famous or somethin?"

"It ain't like that."

"Whoa, this must be serious, if you gotta keep denyin it like that. When you gonna accept I can read you like the Yellow Pages? Oh … my … God! You've been de-virginized!"

"No I ain't! Jesse, for cryin out loud –" Jo began muttering quietly to Jesse … Rose couldn't hear another word.

Jo remembered I'm in here, thought Rose. She knows how sound travels in this place. Poor little Jo, listening to Charlie and me fighting all those times …

There were whispers in the kitchenette, but Rose couldn't make sense out of any of it. What is Jo telling her? What can she tell that tough that she can't tell her own mother?

"OK," Jo said suddenly, with forced cheerfulness, "I'll meet you on the corner in a sec."

"You got it," said Jess.

Footsteps … the door being unlocked, opened, closed, locked again …

"Hey, Ma," said Jo, standing in the doorway of the little bedroom.

Jo glanced around at the Evel Knievel poster, the "Saturday Night Fever" poster, the "Fonz" poster; the green-and-white comforter on the bed, the one her Gramma Rose had crocheted before she died; the bed and the night table and the lamp with the polka-dot shade, all looking smaller every time she saw them; the "Star Wars" action figures she collected after the first movie opened; her little Donny & Marie Osmond dolls …

Lotta memories in this room. Lotta dreams …

Even though Rose had been the main occupant for more than three years, there was barely a trace of her in the room. A bottle of Jean Naté bath splash on the tiny dresser. A couple of lipsticks. The heavy, gold-backed hairbrush and mirror Rose had received as wedding presents.

She's kept it almost exactly like it was when I was growin up. Like I'm still a little kid.

Jo noticed that the top drawer of the dresser was ajar, saw the gleam of her silky white under things. Cripes, leave it to Ma to snoop those out.

"I know you heard what Jesse said," Jo said quietly.

Rose wiped damp eyes. "I didn't hear anything," Rose said. She looked away. She couldn't meet her daughter's gaze.

"Ma, it isn't true," Jo said earnestly. "Jesse has it all wrong – as usual. You know she always thinks the worst of everyone."

Rose took a deep breath. She forced herself to look Jo in the face. Jo rarely lied. Jo was the most direct, sometimes pig-headedly honest person Rose had ever met. When Jo did lie – like the year she was running around at all hours with that gang – Rose had always known, instantly. Jo was a terrible liar. She just couldn't pull it off.

"Jo, have you … have you been with a boy?" Rose asked. She couldn't breathe. She couldn't even blink until she had her answer.

"No," Jo said firmly.

Rose looked deep into Jo's eyes. She's telling the truth! Praise God! But then why …?

Jo was twisting the Eastland class ring she always wore on her right hand. Twisting the ring was one of Jo's "tells" when she was being less than truthful.

She's telling the truth … She hasn't been with a boy … Not yet … But she's not telling me the whole story!

"Ma," Jo said intently, "I did not get, what, uh, what Jesse said. I swear on a stack of Bibles!"

"But there's something," prompted Rose. "You're seeing a boy. He's buying you … presents."

"Ma, cross my heart, tear my tongue out if I'm lyin, I ain't seein any guy."

"But these … things." Rose's eyes flicked to the drawer, shied away quickly. "And that scarf."

Damn stupid fancy scarf! thought Jo. Why couldn't Blair just tie some cruddy old scarf around my neck?

"Ma, part of bein at Langley is growin, well, socially," Jo said carefully. "It's studyin and sports but it's meetin different people too. Blair explained to me, when I get outta school, some of these people and me, we can kind of help each other out, get the best opportunities and everythin."

"Jo, you don't have to patronize me. I understand networking. What do you think people do at the cocktail bar?"

"Then you'll get what I'm sayin. Sometimes I go places, Ma, with my schoolmates, on the weekends. And some of the things are kinda fancy. So Blair, ah, lends me some of her stuff. Like the scarf."

Rose lifted one eyebrow. "Those are Blair's underwear?" she asked skeptically.

Jo blushed. "When you stay at big houses, Ma, the, ah, servants unpack for you. So they see your clothes. All your clothes."

"Oh." Rose had never thought of that. Someone else unpacking for you? What a thought! What a different world.

"Blair got me some nice underwear so I wouldn't be embarrassed," Jo continued. "I'm gonna pay her back. It's not a big thing."

Rose studied Jo's face. She's telling the truth. But she is holding something back.

Jo continued to absently twist the Eastland ring around her finger.

"Listen, Ma, Jesse and me are goin to the community center for a little bit. They're doin this new mural and we're gonna help paint a couple panels. It's part of Jesse's community service."

"All right, Jo." It sounded harmless enough – although leave it to Jesse to rope Jo into completing her community service assignment.

Jo leaned down and hugged Rose, hard.

I can't believe I'm lyin to her. I mean, I'm not, but I am, Jesus, I am!

She gave Rose an extra squeeze. Forgive me, Ma. Forgive me, God.

"Jo," Rose said suddenly, as Jo was walking out of the room, "what is it? There's something. Tell me."

Jo hesitated. The way Jo's shoulders hunched, the way she kept her face turned away – There is something! Rose knew.

"Jo, honey, whatever it is, let's talk about it."

I can't tell her, thought Jo. I want to, Jeez … so bad! But she'd never understand!

Jo kept her back to her mother. She dug her hands deep into the pockets of her pea coat.

"Ma, everythin's perfect," she said over her shoulder. "Really. I'll see you in a couple hours."

And without looking back, Jo fled the tiny apartment.


"Shopping with Blair Warner," mused Alec. "At the A&P, no less."

Alec pushed the shopping cart, while Blair alternated between studying the list in her hand and the goods on the shelves.

"Does shopping at the A&P with Blair Warner live up to your expectations?" drawled Blair.

"Not precisely," he confessed. "I pictured us entering the store, the manager immediately recognizing you, you pulling out your American Express card and waving it around. Little Thanksgiving elves would scurry around, magically filling shopping carts with whatever we could possibly need …"

"There are no such things as 'Thanksgiving elves'," Blair objected.

"British, remember? I'm still hazy on some of your bizarre American traditions."

"What's bizarre about setting aside one day a year to be thankful?"

"Did I say 'bizarre'? Because I meant quaint and delightful."

"Hmm. That's better. Alec, can you lift down that shortening? I can't quite reach it. Two cans."

"Done, and done."

"And seven boxes of sugar."

"Seven? Is it a Thanksgiving tradition to develop diabetes?"

"If Mrs. Garrett's list says seven, we buy seven," Blair said firmly. "She's the chef."

Alec put seven boxes of C & H sugar in the cart.

"What next?"

"Condensed milk. That should be down here ..."

It was in the produce section that Alec finally plucked up the nerve to talk seriously to the heiress.

"Blair? How angry would you be if I dropped your mother down an elevator shaft?"

Blair sighed. "Is mother still pestering you?"

"She's sending me letters every day now, Blair. And telephoning me every other day. It's becoming impossible to duck her messages. She wants to know why I left you. And how I could possibly prefer Jacqueline to you. And so on, and so forth. Monica's offering to triple my former wages if I end my relationship with Jacqueline and start wooing you again."

"I'm sorry you're caught in the middle of this, Alec – although it's your own fault for letting mother hire you in the first place."

"Granted, it's my own fault – but how long do I have to pay for my cupidity? Your mother's absolutely convinced that you're still in love with me – why else would you invite me to be your housemate?"

"She's never been very logical," said Blair. "I mean, by that reasoning I must be in love with Nat and Tootie and Mrs. Garrett!"

"Blair, divine angel – can you think of anything you can do, short of permitting me to murder Monica, that will get the old, ah, socialite off my back? Jacqueline is not happy about Monica's constant communications. I would describe Jacqueline as positively livid. And, since I've been sworn to silence about your true inamorata, I can't even tell Jacqueline that my relationship with you was a total sham."

Blair bit her lip. "Let me think about this," she said. "Mother's been bothering me too, but it sounds like you're getting the brunt of it. Maybe I can find a way to get her off both our backs."

"Bless you, ducks," he said in faux Cockney. "Lifted a great load off me mind, ye 'ave."

They roamed up and down the aisles, Blair meticulously ticking items of Mrs. Garrett's list.

Within a few moments, the cart was overflowing with canned goods, boxed goods, dairy and vegetables, not to mention dish detergent, paper towels and Brillo pads.

"Mrs. Garrett thinks of everything," Blair said admiringly, folding the list and slipping it into a pocket of her caramel-colored Ralph Lauren trench coat.

"Not quite everything," said Alec.

"Why? What are we missing?"

"Nothing much – just the turkey!"

Blair rolled her eyes. "We're getting that at the butcher shop, milord."

"Oh."

"Have you ever shopped for food before?" Blair asked curiously.

"Not directly. I've sent people to shop for me."

"Well, I'm going to ask Jo to put you on grocery patrol on the chore wheel."

Alec groaned softly. "That damnable chore wheel. I don't know how to do anything on it."

"And you think I do? This is a learning experience for all of us."

"Tell me again why we don't have any servants."

"My allowance is barely covering the rent, Alec. We have to be our own servants."

"But what about the money the other girls contribute, since they're not paying room and board at school anymore? And Mrs. Garrett's contributing on par with what she paid the glorious Off Ramp Motel."

"Their money covers things like food and electricity and toiletries and miscellaneous," Blair explained. "It all adds up, Alec. And whatever's left over goes into our emergency fund."

"How much is that?"

"About ten dollars," Blair confessed ruefully. "Hopefully our emergencies will be on the small side."

Alec rubbed his chin. "Didn't realize we were cutting it so close to the bone."

"Well for heaven's sake, don't tell the girls. Or Mrs. Garrett. As long as we have a roof over our heads and some food in our stomachs, and each other, what more do we need?"

Alec grinned. Impulsively he embraced her.

"What's that for?" Blair asked, mystified.

"Do you realize what a heart of gold you have?"

Blair blushed.

"No," Alec said, "I'm dead serious. And this is the girl people call a spoiled, selfish narcissist!"

"Thanks," Blair said drily. "It was a beautiful compliment, up until that last line. Now push the cart to the check-out stand, milord. I have to get our coupons ready."


Shivering, Jo turned up the collar of her pea coat.

She stood on the corner a couple of buildings down from the dilapidated brownstone that housed her mother's apartment.

It was 5:30 pm. Jesse had said goodbye to Jo half an hour ago. The sun had already set. It was dark, and damp, and the temperature felt like it was just trembling above freezing.

Maybe we'll even get a little snow tonight, thought Jo. Great. She pictured herself still standing on the corner at midnight, drifts of snow on her shoulders and head, icicles hanging from her hair.

Come on, Polniaczek, when did you turn chicken? Get your ass into that apartment!

She started to put one foot in front of the other, but then she hesitated.

Damn! How come Ma's gotta know me so good? Why?

Jo's fingers were numb. Since she and Jesse had been walking, Jo hadn't bothered to wear her motorcycle gloves. She blew on her fingers to thaw them out a little bit, then fished around in one of her coat pockets. Her fingers closed on an assortment of dimes and nickels.

There was a payphone on the corner, under the faint splash of light from a streetlamp. Jo lifted the receiver, fed some dimes and nickels into the slot …


Blair was rolling pie crust, her hands and face dusted with flour, when the moss green Princess wall phone began to ring.

"Can someone answer that?" she asked.

"Sorry, Blair," said Mrs. Garrett, her hands covered with stuffing and halfway up the twenty-pound turkey.

"Don't look at me," said Natalie, pounding turnips with a ferocious zest, as if she had the inconsiderate Belmont Keane under her mallet.

"Sorry – busy," said Tootie, brushing a tendril of hair out of her face as she stirred a steaming, boiling pot of potatoes.

Blair sighed. She wiped her hands on the apron she wore – one of Jo's finds at the Salvation Army. It bore a cartoon of Chewbacca from "Star Wars" wearing a chef's hat. "Wookies Make the Best Cookies" it read. Blair had disliked the apron at first sight. "Who would throw this away?" Jo had marveled. "It's certainly a mystery," Blair had deadpanned. Blair was only wearing the apron now because it was the only clean one left when she and Alec returned with the groceries.

Blair lifted the phone receiver. "River Rock," she said. "Happy Thanksgiving."

"Yeah, uh, 'Happy Thanksgivin' to you," said a familiar voice.

"Jo! Darling! How are you? Are you having fun?"

Mrs. Garrett and Tootie and Natalie made a wide variety of nods and smiles and gestures indicating that they wished Jo a "Happy Thanksgiving".

"Everyone sends their love," said Blair. "Darling? Are you there?"

"Yeah. Listen, babe … light of my life …"

Uh-oh, thought Blair. "Light of my life" was usually the preface to a statement Jo knew would upset her fiancée.

"Are you all right?" Blair asked, concerned. "Did you take a spill on the bike? Is Rose OK? Do you need more socks?"

"I'm fine. I didn't dump the bike. Ma's fine, and I have, like, ten bazillion socks. Blair …" Jo took a deep breath. "Blair, you were right."

Blair held the receiver out at arm's length for a second, stared at it, then put it next to her ear again.

"I'm sorry, darling, I think we had a crossed wire or something. Is this a party line? I heard someone say 'you were right'."

"Wow. You're enjoyin this, aren't you, babe?"

"Shouldn't I?" Blair asked sweetly. "It is a pretty momentous event. Would you mind, Jo, saying that one more time? Just so I'm certain it wasn't a crossed wire?"

"Blair … Blair, you were right."

Blair made an excited little squeal.

"Are you two having some kind of sex code talk?" Natalie demanded, fragments of turnip flying up around her mallet. "Because I can't take that right now!"

Blair made a "shushing" gesture at Natalie.

"Jo, that's the best Thanksgiving present anyone has ever given me. Now – what was I right about?"

"C'mon, Blair … gimme a break."

"I'm serious, Jo. What was I right about? It could be so many things."

"About me havin Thanksgivin with my mother. It was a big mistake. A big mistake. Ma found all the fancy underwear you got me, and she noticed the scarf, and she heard some stupid stuff Jesse was sayin and, well, she thinks I'm kinda, like I lost my virginity to some rich guy."

"Oh, Jo." Blair turned away from the others. They could still hear her, she knew, but it felt more private. "Darling. That must feel awful."

Jo's voice shook. "Blair – the way Ma looked at me. She was so disappointed! And I swore to her I didn't lose my virginity to any guy, but she could tell I was holdin back somethin. There was this look on her face like she was feelin sick to her stomach. And I know how she feels, cause that's how I feel now."

Blair heard the rumble of a car engine in the background, the sound of tires squealing on pavement.

"Jo – where are you?"

"Payphone on the corner. I just, I can't quite face goin inside yet."

Damn Rose to hell! thought Blair. Self-righteous, mindless puppet. How dare she make Jo feel anything but loved?

Blair took a deep breath. Getting angry wasn't going to help anything.

"What can I do, Jo? I'll do whatever you want."

"Part of me wants you here," Jo said softly. "Cause anytime I'm hurtin, it's you that makes me feel better."

"I can be on a train within the hour," Blair said decisively. "Or I'll have Alec drive me in his coupe. How fast do you need me there?"

"Jeez, Blair, don't let Blitheridge drive you – you'll be on the wrong side of the road the whole way!"

"The train it is," said Blair.

"No. No, babe, look – I spent all last night and all this mornin being totally normal – at least, I thought I was bein normal. But Ma's still all suspicious. All she needs is one look at me lookin at you and she's gonna figure it out."

"Come home," Blair said impulsively. "I'm not being selfish, honest. Just … come be with people who love you, Jo."

Blair heard Jo swallowed hard. She could picture Jo's eyes were welling up. "I wish I could," Jo said huskily. "All I wanna do right now is see you, Blair; I just want you to hold me. But like you're always tellin me, Blair, I can't just run away from somethin cause it's uncomfortable."

"I'm an idiot," Blair said recklessly. "Don't listen to what I said. Just come home."

Jo chuckled. It sounded like she was crying a little and laughing a little at the same time.

"You're not an idiot, babe. Anythin but. I gotta face this, somehow. I gotta go back inside and find a way to get through it."

Blair pictured Jo standing on a freezing cold street corner in the South Bronx. Blair had never been to Rose's apartment, but if her neighborhood was anything like the one around the Fever, Blair distinctly disliked the idea of Jo standing at a payphone, alone in the dark.

"Jo, if Rose really is upset with you, she might not want you there after all. I know that's not a very pleasant thought, but if you argue, or if she kicks you out, just come home. It doesn't matter what time you get here. It looks like we'll be up half the night cooking anyway. Just come."

"I love you so much, Blair."

"I love you too."

There was a click as Jo broke the connection.

Blair held the receiver tightly for a moment, not moving, lost not so much in thought as in emotion. She wanted to rush to Jo's side, to defend her, to be there for her – but that would be the worst possible thing just now, and she knew it.

Blair slammed the receiver down in its cradle. "Dammit!"

When she turned around she saw that the three others had fallen still, Tootie in mid-stir, Natalie in mid-smash, Mrs. Garrett in mid-stuff. They looked at Blair with worried faces.

"Is Jo all right?" Mrs. Garrett asked.

"Yes. No. Her mother can tell something's … different. She thinks Jo's sleeping with some boy."

"I see. And given Rose's strong Catholic faith, that must not be sitting well."

"Not too well, no. As Tootie would've said when she was little, Jo is in trouble."

"Can we do anything?" asked Tootie.

Blair shook her head. "Not really. If Jo does come home tonight, just give her some space, but be ready, you know, if she needs to talk, I guess."

"Jo? Needing to talk?" Natalie asked. "Jo Polniaczek?"

"Not funny, Nat."

"Just trying to lighten the mood a little bit. Sheesh!"

"Well," Blair smiled wanly, "keep trying."

Everyone returned to their cooking. Blair spun the rolling pin with an extra ferocity. When she flattened the crust, she was flattening Rose, and anyone who could ever dare to hurt her Jo.

"What is it that makes mothers so, so impossible sometimes?" Blair demanded.

Tootie laughed. "Is that directed at all of us, or someone in particular?"

"I think we'd all have our own special spin on that question," Natalie said with feeling.

"We do seem to have more than our share of mother issues," Tootie agreed.

"My mother adores me," Alec said cheerfully, sailing into the room in a splendid tuxedo, freshly shaven and smelling of Polo cologne. "Do we have any bottles of champagne lying around?"

"Several," said Mrs. Garrett, "but they're for tomorrow."

"Where do you think you're going?" Blair demanded, blowing a floury strand of hair out of her face.

"Ma Maison," said Alec. "For escargot with Jacqueline. Apparently tonight is some sort of anniversary."

"What anniversary?" asked Natalie. "You've been dating less than a month. What anniversary could it possibly be?"

"The 'we've been dating almost a month' anniversary," suggested Tootie.

"It's anyone's guess," Alec said, unconcerned, as he opened a cupboard door and began rummaging around. "My job is simply to show up looking smashing – mission accomplished. You're sure we don't have a spare bottle of champers collecting dust anywhere? Don't we have a wine cellar? What is that little room near the stairs, you know, in the cellar?"

"That's the laundry room," Blair said coldly.

Alec opened another cupboard. "That reminds me," he said. "What do we do when our dirty knickers start to pile up?"

"You wash them, Alec."

"Don't we even have a laundress? I mean, I know the margins are slim, but –""

Closing the cupboard door, he smiled winningly at Blair. Noticing, at last, how pissed off Blair looked, his smile faded. "Well, I guess I'll be pushing along, don't want to stand up Jacqueline. She's funny about punctuality – a lot like Jo, actually. 'So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye', angels. Don't work too hard, will you?"

"You get back here, Alec Anviston!" Blair shouted after him. "There are more potatoes to peel and turnips to mash and cranberries to, ah, cran, and –"

They heard the front door slam in the far distance.

"I hate to say 'I told you so'," said Natalie, "or, actually, I don't. I love saying 'I told you so'. And I did. I absolutely told you so! That boy, as much potential as he has, is first and last what the Brits call a bounder. The day he settles down and exhibits any kind of reliability is the day hell freezes over."

"Natalie," said Blair, "mash your turnips."

"What a grouch!"

"We need more roommates," Tootie said reasonably. "More roommates equal more hands to put to work."

"True," said Mrs. Garrett, trussing the turkey, "but more roommates also equal more people making more of a mess."

"More dirty dishes," said Natalie.

"More laundry," said Mrs. Garrett.

"More rent rolling in," Blair said wistfully.

"Blair Warner – worrying about money?" Natalie asked in mock horror.

"Well someone has to," snapped Blair. She put a floury hand to her forehead. "I'm sorry. That was very rude. I just can't stop thinking about Jo, and what she's facing right now. And I can't do anything."

"Jo's mother loves her," Mrs. Garrett said firmly. "I don't know when, and I don't know how, but they're going to work this out. A mother's love is unconditional."

Blair laughed hollowly. "Mrs. Garrett, you know I love you, but we're going to have to agree to disagree about that one. And if I hear the word 'mother' one more time tonight –"

The wall phone rang insistently. Blair sighed, wiped her hands on the Chewbacca apron and snatched up the phone.

"River Rock. Happy Thanksgiving." There was a pause as Blair listened. "Oh. All right." She held out the phone. "Tootie – it's your mother."


Supper was a simple meal, in light of all the cooking Rose was going to be doing the following day.

With the table already set for Thanksgiving, Rose and Jo sat on the couch and ate their tuna fish sandwiches and Fritos off paper plates.

Jo had flipped the television on. She didn't care much for TV shows in general, but she was nervous about talking to Rose just now.

Rose was in a similar state of mind. They sat glued to the couch for most of prime time. At one point Jo got up and brought her mother a Coke and herself a Mello Yello. At another point, Rose went to the kitchenette and came back with paper plates of Double Stuf Oreos – one of Jo's favorites.

The few shows Rose liked ("Remington Steele", "Family Ties", "Cheers") were on NBC, so she kept the television tuned to NBC all the time. She was worried about "losing" the channel.

Jo and Charlie had repeatedly explained that if Rose changed the channel, she could change it back to NBC any time. But Rose was convinced she would somehow "lose" NBC – so that was all anyone visiting could watch.

At eight o'clock Jo suffered through "Real People". At nine o'clock there was a pretty good show about girls at a boarding school, followed by "Family Ties". By ten Jo was staring to nod off, until a familiar voice on "St. Elsewhere" caught her attention.

"Hey, that's Belmont Keane," she said. "That's Nat's boyfriend."

Belmont, or, rather, his Casanova-like character, was stitching up a patient while making goo-goo eyes at a pretty nurse.

Rose smiled indulgently. "Dr. Truman? I can see why Natalie would have a crush on him."

"No, Ma, it's not like she has a crush on him. Belmont's her boyfriend. At least, he will be as long as he called her today like he promised."

Rose lifted her eyebrows. "Where would Natalie meet a big TV star?"

"He's not a big TV star," scoffed Jo. "He's just Belmont. Real nice guy. He told this ghost story at Halloween, I gotta confess, you know I don't get scared too easy, but it was about Jack the Ripper. It was really somethin!"

"Where was this?" asked Rose. She tried to sound pleasantly interested, rather than hurt and excluded. Where are Jo and Natalie meeting famous actors? So much I don't know about Jo's life! It's like she's living on another planet these days!

"Oh, Halloween weekend," said Jo, glad to have something other than herself and her own love life to talk about. "When we all went up to Petal's place. I told you I was going, remember?"

"You did tell me you were going to something. Petal, that's your teammate, uh, Moose?"

"Yeah. Her family has this place up on the lake."

"And what was Belmont Keane doing at Moose's place on the lake?"

"He's one of her cousins."

"And, were there, uh, any other interesting young men at Moose's place?"

Jo sighed. Damn. It's gonna keep circlin back to this.

"Ma, I swear to God, I'm not serious about any guys. I'm not even datin any guys right now. You wanna hook me up to a lie detector or somethin?"

She's telling the truth, Rose knew. But she's leaving something out.

"Jo, would you say I'm a pretty nice person?"

"Nice? For Pete's sake, Ma – you're a saint!"

"Jo –"

"I'm not smartin off. I mean it. You're, you're just the best, Ma."

Rose ducked her head, caught off guard by Jo's intensity. Compliments made her uncomfortable.

"I'm no saint, Jo. But you know I go to church every Sunday. And I read my Bible, and I do what it says. That's all you need to do, Jo. Just do what the Bible and the priests say, and you can't go wrong."

"Sure, Ma. That makes sense."

But what the hell do you do, wondered Jo, if you fall madly, completely in love with another girl?

"You're moving in a whole new world now, honey. I can't pretend I understand it. Every once in awhile, maybe, I've pressed my nose against the glass. But you're in there. And those people have values that are a lot different than what you grew up with. You can't let yourself get talked into things. I know you think a lot of Blair, but her crowd is probably … faster than you're used to."

"I think for myself," Jo said firmly. "You and Pop taught me that. I'm not gonna do anythin I'm gonna regret."

"You remember when you started running around with Eddie?"

"Ma … I was fifteen."

"But you were sure he was the love of your life. You knew he was the one. You were ready to throw everything away to marry him. Aren't you glad you didn't?"

Jo shifted uncomfortably on the couch. "Of course."

"You're at one of the top colleges in the country, you're playing in national championships, you're meeting big actors –"

"He's not that famous, Ma."

"So what? He's still on TV, isn't he? How many people on TV do you think you're gonna meet around here? If you'd married Eddie you would have been a fifteen-year-old Navy wife. You wouldn't have any of the opportunities that you do now. You probably would've had a kid, you and Eddie probably would've busted up. Look around you. This is what your life would be – you, me and a kid in this place."

Jo shivered. "For cryin out loud, Ma, point taken. I ain't disagreein with you. Can you let it go?"

"No, Jo. Any time I start worrying that you might be making a big mistake, a mistake that could ruin your life, I can't just 'let it go'."

"Ma, how many times do I gotta tell you I'm fine? My grades, the team –"

"There's something going on!" shouted Rose.

Jo was silent. She looked down at her sneakers.

"There's something going on," Rose repeated, in a normal tone of voice. "You've been shutting me out. There's something you don't want me to know. I'm right, aren't I?"

Jo shrugged.

"Jo, if you don't let me in, I can't protect you."

"I don't need you to protect me, Ma. I just … I need you to love me."

Rose sighed. "I want you to be happy Jo, to lead the life that's out there waiting for you if you keep doing the smart thing. And years from now, when the good Lord takes you, I want you to go right to the front of the line, no waiting."

Jo smiled. "You make heaven sound like a deli."

"Joanne Marie Polniaczek, what is happening in your life? What aren't you telling me?"

"Ma … My life is good. It's really good. You raised me with values and I'm bein the best person I can be. What else do you need to know?"

"How about anything? What is your life like? What makes you smile these days? What's this new house like?"

"The house is great." Jo flashed her megawatt smile. "It's fun livin with the girls again, and Mrs. G, of course. We get on each others' nerves sometimes, but nothin new about that! And it's savin you and Dad a bundle on room and board."

"Never mind about the money. Is it a good environment?"

Here we go! "Mrs. G's around to keep us in line. And we share the chores. I made a chore wheel. We all take care of the place. Even stupid Alec –"

"Who's Alec?" Rose pounced.

Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn!

"He's a friend of Blair's," said Jo. "He's been having some financial troubles, so he's, uh –"

"He's living in the house?" Rose put a hand to her heart. "See, Jo, this is what I'm talking about. This house you're so excited about – there's a young man living there! When were you going to tell me this?"

"Alec has his own room, far away from any of our rooms, Ma."

"But you're sharing a house. You must be thrown together constantly."

"It's a really big place."

"It's still a temptation. What do you think Father Kowalski would say about this?"

"I don't know."

"Come on Jo. You know what the Father would say. You're living with a boy –"

"Oh my God, Ma, it's not like that. Alec? Ugh!" Jo made a juvenile face. "I don't even want him there. It was Blair's idea."

"So if Blair wanted you to jump off the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge –"

Jo held up her hands in a gesture of surrender.

"OK, Ma, I give. I can't take any more of this tonight. Just think whatever you're gonna think."

"Jo!"

"The truth is I don't care much for Alec, but he's a good guy. He saved my life at Petal's."

"Saved your life? When were you going to tell me about that?"

"Never, Ma. Because you can't handle it. You can't handle hearin about this new life that you keep sayin you want me to have."

Rose leaned forward, color draining from her face. "Is this how you talk to your mother now?"

"No! I just … It's so frustratin, Ma! I don't know what I can tell you, what's gonna upset you, what's gonna make you worried, what's gonna make you insecure. It's like I'm walkin on egg shells!"

"Well, tell me how you really feel, Joanne Marie!"

Jo buried her face in her hands. I shoulda gone home. Cause that's what River Rock is. That's my home now. Blair's my home.

I've lost her, thought Rose. I don't know how it happened. She has this whole secret life that I'm just learning exists …

Rose waited for Jo to storm off. At some point during any argument, Jo stormed off. Just like her father. They always cut and ran when a discussion got too uncomfortable for them.

Jo drew a deep breath. I'm not five years old, she told herself. I'm a young woman. I'm an adult.

She took Rose's hand. "Ma, you're right," she said gently. "I've been keepin you at arm's length this semester. And I'm gonna keep doin that for awhile."

Rose looked at her daughter, surprised not just by what Jo was saying, or how calmly she was saying it, but that she was saying it at all.

"I'm not fifteen anymore," Jo said gently. "I get that you're gonna keep worryin about me till I'm, like, ninety-five, but I gotta live my life. You just gotta hope that you did a good job raisin me, and trust me to do the right things."

Rose squeezed her daughter's hand. For some reason, this mature Jo made her more uneasy than the one that had just yelled at her. "You understand that hell is real, Jo? It's not just something they talk about to scare little kids."

"Yeah, Ma," Jo said wearily. "You remember last year, when I almost joined a convent? You know I take my faith very seriously."

"And you're really not, not uh, involved with any boy?"

"For the thousandth time –"

"Humor me, Jo."

"For the thousandth time, no, I am not involved with any boy."

"All right. I'll take your word for it. And I understand you're growing up, you need your privacy – but couldn't you let me in a little more?"

"I could. I will, Ma."

"Maybe you could start by explaining how this Alec saved your life."

"It's not really that big a deal."

"It is to me! I'd like to meet him someday, and thank him."

Jo hesitated. Was this the way to smooth it all over … or the way to set the apocalypse in motion? "Blair, ah, told me that I should invite you up to River Rock for the rest of the holiday. Tomorrow night, after all your guests leave."

"That was … very nice of her," Rose said a little grudgingly. Blair was nothing but nice to her, but Rose resented the blonde's influence over Jo.

"You wanna go? It could be fun, Ma. You could thank Alec in person." Right before you figure out Blair and I are in love, and your head explodes!

"You're sure I won't be in the way?"

Jo groaned. Will she ever stop being so insecure? "Ma, when are you gonna realize how great you are? You're my mother. You could never be out of place in my house. The gang already loves you."

'My house,' she says, thought Rose. She's already slipped away from me. She has a new home now, and God knows what's going on there! Rose squared her shoulders. She had to get to the bottom of the all the changes she was seeing in her daughter.

"OK, Jo. I accept your invitation."


Blair lay contentedly in the bed that she and Jo usually shared.

The most delicious aromas were percolating all the way up from the kitchen, tantalizing promises of the feast they'd all enjoy the next day.

Blair stretched like a cat. She smiled. Jo had called around ten-thirty pm, sounding nervous but happy.

"Hey, Blair, Ma says she want to visit River Rock. So we'll see you all tomorrow evening."

Tomorrow evening! Only one more night without Jo!

Blair understood why Jo was nervous. They would have to be very careful around Rose, who was, in Blair's opinion, even shrewder than Jo gave her credit for.

But in Blair's experience, parents usually only saw what they wanted to see. So unless Blair and Jo started making out in front of everyone, Blair was ninety-nine percent sure Rose would keep her maternal blinders on.

What was it Mrs. Garrett was saying earlier, about Thanksgiving miracles? I've got mine, thought Blair.

She drifted into a deep, contended sleep, dreaming of her Bronx grease monkey …


Jo sighed. She turned to the left, then to the right, but she just couldn't get comfortable. The bed felt so small, and, even with all the blankets and the comforter, it felt cold as ice.

Jo looked at the alarm clock on the tiny bedside table, read the luminous green hands. Almost one am. She'd been lying there sleepless for two hours.

Damn. What did I get myself into?

How was it, Jo wondered, that the two most important women in her life were somehow getting exactly what they'd wanted? Blair would have Jo home for the holiday; Rose would connect with Jo's new life.

It's what they think they want, Jo mused darkly. But it's gonna be a lot more than they bargained for – and me stuck in the middle! Fasten your seatbelts, ladies. Happy Freakin Thanksgivin to us all!

Part 2

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