Gina is beautiful. The way she stirs the batter. Such strong arms, molding slowly the thick, sweet concoction. I can smell it from here though Iím trying not to show my lusting anticipation. Iím pretending to read this newspaper, the headline of which I canít even comprehend because out of the corner of my eye I am watching her. Gina.

Her wrinkled flannel shirt, tucked lazily into her baggy jeans, must feel soft against her skin. It looks incredibly comfortable. The kind of shirt Iíd like to slip into after a hot bath. But it definitely isnít clean. Little drops of batter have decorated the collar. She must have splattered, using that huge wooden spoon. Iíd be surprised if she didnít. Batter stirring is a difficult task. Not everyone can do it properly. I would think her arms would be getting tired by now but thereís no sign of a break in her seductive circular motion. Only someone filled with love could be so determined and gentle.

I like the way she wears her shirt, rolled up to the elbows, showing off her freckled forearms. Her black hair forms one long braid down her back. She always wears it back, either in a braid, or a ponytail, or in a bun. I suppose to keep it off her face because sheís always doing something and canít afford to let her hair get in the way. I often have wondered why she doesnít just cut it off, if itís such a bother. But Iím really glad she doesnít because it is so beautiful - thick and silky, almost like Grandmaís mink stole that she let me wear once.

At night before bed she lets her hair down and sometimes asks me if I will brush it. I usually yawn and say ďI suppose so. For a couple of minutes,Ē trying not to let on how important those couple of minutes are to me.

Sometimes I think What If, like we used to play when Gina would tuck me into bed when I was little, a tamer version of my motherís game. My mother would say, íWhat If  Jack and Jackie hadnít gone to Texas that day,í or íWhat If  your father hadnít taken the job in the refinery,í or íWhat If  Iíd had a boy.í Gina and I would say, íWhat If  the world were a rainbow,í or íWhat If  we could see with our toes,í or íWhat If  I were a Pulitzer prize-winning writer.í

What if I were to say to her at one of those times, when weíre close and Iím brushing her satin hair, that I love her and I want to be with her. I would ask her in my sweetest, most sincere voice if she would take me with her to San Diego, or Seattle, or San Francisco or wherever sheíd be going to next. Gina is always going somewhere. But I donít ask and I donít say. I think she would probably laugh or tell me that Iím silly and then we would be over. I wouldnít be able to brush her hair anymore.

And there races her smile right through the middle of my daydream. Her teeth are white and straight. I donít think Iíve ever known anyone fortunate enough to have both white and straight teeth. I had braces for two years, from ages twelve to fourteen, (the most horrendous two years of my life), but no matter how long and hard I brush, or even if I were to wear those metal contraptions for the rest of my life, I wouldnít be able to get mine to be nearly that white or straight. I try to smile without opening my mouth but sometimes I forget and I know itís not at all attractive. How could anyone like looking at my crooked yellow teeth?

My mother yelled to me ten minutes ago to start setting the table. Iíve been avoiding it because in order to do it Gina will have to be out of my sight for at least five minutes. But if I donít start putting out the place mats soon my mother will continue to roar. And Gina might start suspecting. My motherís not an extraordinarily observant woman unless you set something right in front of her face. But, Gina ... she could out sleuth Agatha Christie any day, and this isnít something I want her to know about. If I do decide to tell her it has to be my choice as to how she finds out. After all, it will be a pivotal point in our relationship and it canít be handled carelessly.

So I sigh, as Gina moves farther out of my vision. Iím not unbearably sad because I know that during dinner Iíll be able to sit across from her and watch her eat. That I have down to a science. I can chew and observe at the same time and no oneís the wiser. Iíve even got the mmm-hmms in place, itís all a matter of rhythm, so that they think Iím actually listening to their conversation. The last sight I have of Gina are her hands as she spoons the batter into a pan. I canít help wetting my lips with my tongue. That is going to be a delicious cake.

Dinner is delectable. No surprise. If thereís one thing my mother can do itís cook, a talent I havenít managed to pick up yet, and considering I spend as little time with my mother as possible, I doubt I ever will. My mother is shrieking, in what is meant to be a laugh, over one of Ginaís many stories of her travels. My mother thinks Gina is gold. This is the one and only area in which we agree. And I have managed to miss Ginaís tale because Iíve been concentrating, without the appearance of concentrating, on the way Ginaís lips move when she speaks.

Mine is a complex life - to do without appearing to do. So far Iíve been able to accomplish it without getting caught. And itís going on six years now. Maybe I should be a private detective, hiding in dark alleyways, picking up clues in a personís expression or mannerism, wearing long overcoats and wide brimmed hats.

My mother snorts, nearly falling off her chair backwards, and I cringe, wondering why my mother canít act like a mother when I want her to. The only time she acts like what a mother is supposed to act like is when sheís telling me to do something. I donít think anyone notices my discomfort, or if they do no one says anything and no eyes roll in my direction.

ďTell her ... tell her ...Ē my mother reels, her eyes shut tight, as she snorts again, unable to continue her sentence, ďTell her about the trip up here ... what you told me ... in the car... and the guy ... in the truck,Ē shrieking and snorting. Gina smiles, wide, knowingly, and nods. Boy, she has a lot of teeth. And her voice, like velvet, envelops me, not like my motherís, whose voice cuts sharply through me like after Iíve eaten nachos with too much hot sauce.

Gina came to us nearly a decade ago, to help out when my father was sick, and she stayed with us after he died. Lindsay and Jewel were both away at school and too busy with textbooks to bother with a younger sister or a father who was dying. Ginaís been with us, on and off, ever since. I was only five then, and much to my shame, didnít want Gina to be here, and I more or less said so. My father was sick in bed most of the time and it didnít seem fair. Lindsay and Jewel had so much more time with him than I did. Of course, theyíre a lot older than me. I realize that now. With me he mostly coughed, spit, and slept. And my motherís time was taken up with him. I remember her making him tons of soup. I thought if she were to write a book on all the different ways she knew to make soup weíd be rich. When he slept so did she.

But Gina taught me how to color. Most kids donít do it right. They take the crayon, pressing and scribbling, as hard as they can into the paper. No subtlety. No variety. The only requirement is that the color doesnít spill over the heavy dark lines. But Gina colors like she bakes. She carefully chooses the shade, perhaps a violet cow or a winter green rose. Sheís not afraid to be bold. And the only place she presses hard is on the heavy dark lines, outlining precisely. Then on the rest of the picture she lightly rubs, using the side of the crayon, so that the texture is like soft cardboard and the picture doesnít jump out at you but smiles and sits quietly instead.

The rain has started. Only lightly. I can barely hear it and probably wouldnít even know it began except my mother just came in, carrying the seat cushions that decorate our rattan chairs setting on the porch. Her hair frizzes a little when itís wet.

ďCassandra? Cassandra?!Ē she yelps. ďThe rainís really starting to come down now. And, boy, that windís getting strong. I almost got blown over out there. I think weíve got a storm on our hands. Help me bring in the chairs.Ē I knew what she was going to say even before I heard the words.

Gina is at Kellyís, her friend who lives a couple of streets over and lives in a tiny apartment on the roof of a building. Itís five flights up. You get tired walking up all those stairs but itís worth it. The whole rooftop is her porch. You can see across the lake all the way to the Fairfieldís. Gina took me there a couple of years ago when she was here for Christmas. We made chocolate chip cookies and put M&Ms in them. Kelly had a blue and white cockatiel named Omar. I donít know if she still has Omar or not. Iíll have to remember to ask Gina. Omar and I talked a lot that night. He was a very vocal bird. And when we were playing What If,  Kelly asked me, ĎWhat If  I could fly.í I thought and thought but I couldnít think of the answer that would truly express my wishes. So I was stumped.

I wish Gina were here now because she knows how I feel about the rain and she would go out and get the chairs herself. She would even make up some excuse to my mother, that she needed me to do something for her, something believable, to keep me inside the house. Gina doesnít believe in lying as a practice, only when itís absolutely necessary.

I stand up slowly, which I know is a mistake because as I do my mother shouts, ďWell, come on, Cassandra. Move!Ē I hate the name Cassandra. It sounds phony, like it doesnít belong to me. And Iím sure anyone who hears it will say to themselves, ĎWhoís she trying to impress?í

Our porch is one of those old weathered ones you might see in a Hitchcock movie, that was probably sturdy and attractive when it was new, but now the wood boards in the floor and roof are rotting and those that arenít are missing. My feet are bare. I donít like wearing shoes. I feel like they constrict my movement. So around the house I almost never do, though in winter I wear socks. They not only keep my feet warm but protect them from the mold and slime that sometimes seeps in through our living room floor when it gets really cold. I know I should put on my shoes, and probably a hat, because our deteriorating porch, even though it has a roof, is not capable of keeping me dry. My motherís slippers are next to the couch so I try to put them on and run to the front door at the same time, twisting my toes and feet around in all sorts of directions until they fit properly.

Once I make it outside, I try to move as quickly as I can before my mother has a chance to call my name again. I pick up one of the chairs, and wrestle with it. Rattan should be light, but this one, maybe because of its awkward shape is heavier than normal. I try to balance it on my legs, lifting one knee in the air, and my arms, outstretched, are grasping both its sides. But I canít walk this way. So lifting my knee, the one thatís supporting the bulk of the chair, higher in the air, to give me leverage, I use whatever momentum I can muster to swing the chair up over my head.

As Iím doing this I see a blade of lightning streak through the sky. Iím suspended there, on our porch, wondering what tree it sliced into this time. I count ďone-Mississippi ... two-Mississippi ...Ē As I get to three, thunder rocks the air and I jump, spinning around. I try to see where the chair lands but I canít because one of my feet came out of its slipper and though I try to get my foot to stay flat and solid, my ankle turns and my foot flip flops. Even rotating my arms backwards and forwards or grasping at the railing canít keep me from falling. And I know this as I tumble down the stairs.

Dr. Wallace put my arm in a sling and gave me a pair of crutches. They donít seem to fit quite right though. Theyíre a little tall for my body so when I use them my upper arms are lifted up in the air, higher than my shoulders. Itís difficult to walk that way. So I donít. If I have to go anywhere, like to the bathroom, I put part of my weight on the heel of my fractured foot and the rest on furniture that I pass.

The pain isnít so bad now. The first night the doctor gave me some Demerol. It helped a lot. I could relax and eventually sleep. When it happened I heard the bone crack. I thought it was my leg because thatís what collapsed under me, but it was actually my arm. And I fractured my foot. The doctor explained that that was like chipping a bowl, but it would grow back. I remember feeling stabbing pain, from all over my body, it seemed, shoot simultaneously into my skull. I thought my head would explode.

Iím not sure when Gina got back. It wasnít long after, I think, because my mother told her to go get Dr. Wallace and he came about twenty minutes or so after my mother had situated me on the couch. Dr. Wallace isnít our regular doctor but he lives down by the lake, not far from Kelly, and heís the doctor that people in the town go get in an emergency when, for one reason or another, they canít make it to the hospital. The hospital is approximately five miles from where we live and we donít have a car. While the doctor told me long stories about his childhood and wrapped up my arm, my mother was in the kitchen making me chicken noodle soup. Then I took the Demerol, ate the soup, and slept.

Today is Sunday. Yesterday morning it stopped raining, finally. The only thing I like about the rain is the day after. The day-after-it-rains air is always crisp and clear with a few bubbly white clouds in an electric blue sky that goes on endlessly. I can only see its expansion as far as the window in my bedroom will allow, though. I havenít made it outside yet and will probably be bedridden or house-ridden for at least another week. But my mother says if the weather is still good in a couple of days maybe she can put one of the chairs on the porch for me to sit on, with a step stool, of course, so I can keep my leg elevated. Gina has been good to me, with me almost every minute. But she will be leaving us on Tuesday, heading off on another one of her adventures. I donít want to think about it because I know I will be very sad. It usually takes me at least a day to recover from her departures when Iím in the best of health.

My mother left a little while ago to do some grocery shopping. She goes once every other Sunday and is usually gone for an hour and a half. Gina offered to go with her to help but she said she wanted Gina to stay with me to keep me company. As soon as she was out the door Gina got the White Zinfandel from the cupboard and the cards from the closet. This is another one of our secret traditions. Wine and gin rummy. Gina wins at gin, and I pretend to get drunk. (I usually donít drink more than half a glass because I really donít like the taste of alcohol.)

Weíre on our fourth hand. Ginaís got 105 and Iíve got 30. She says to me, ďWhat If  you were a rose?Ē The first thing that comes to mind, what I want to say to her but censor myself again, is that I would plant myself on her doorstep, wind myself around her doorway, just so I could be near her. Instead I say to her that I would make myself grow so tall and pretty and smell so sweet that every person in town would stop to look at me.

I lay the Queen of Spades on top of the discard pile. Darn. Thatís my favorite card. I canít use it but sometimes I just like holding it. I think Gina knows this because almost as fast as I lay it down she sweeps it up.

ďI love you, Gina,Ē I say. She appears to be diligently studying her cards although thereís a smug Cheshire cat grin on her face that I know so well. Then she lays the Queen of Spades back down on top of the discard pile. ďGin,Ē she says.

Copyright © Rachel Belinda Kidder 2002. Title graphic: "Queen of Spades" Copyright © Jenny de Groot 2002.