Of All the Tinas in the World
By Sara Schaff
The night before my Theories of Human Development midterm, I went to O’Neill’s to study. My brother Aaron was bartending in his usual “tip magnet,” a dark t-shirt that shows off his biceps. I asked for a Heineken and his terrible happy hour nachos, and while shoving burnt chips into my mouth, I thumbed absently through my textbook, waiting for Rod to walk in and distract me.
Feeling watched, I looked up, and the blonde at the end of the bar nodded at the empty stool next to her. “If you don’t come study next to me from here on out,” she said, “I’ll be surrounded by morons for the rest of the night.”
A few of Rod’s buddies scowled at us, but for the first time in my life I didn’t care what they thought. I was glad she had picked me out from the crowd. Her hair was the kind of blonde I always wanted—golden, with soft lowlights. She wore tight, white jeans and a tank top that showed off her slightly orange tan.
She was there to meet a guy, she said, but he never showed. “His loss,” she shrugged. “My gain.” She winked and extended a bangled wrist. “Kristina Hardy,” she said. “My friends call me Tina.”
Who goes to a bar to study, anyway? I put away my book, and when I settled myself next to Tina, she grabbed my hand to inspect my engagement ring. You needed a microscope to see the diamond, but the setting was pretty.
“Who’s the lucky dude?”
I saw Aaron watching us from behind a glass he was polishing with a stained rag. “He comes here after work,” I said, “You should stick around.”
Tina smiled and reached over to brush my heavy bangs out of my eyes. “Invite me to the wedding, and I’ll give you a total spa treatment the morning of. No charge.”
Something clicked for me then, this weird feeling that I’d known Tina all my life and yet had been waiting forever to meet her. I couldn’t talk fast enough. I told her I was taking some classes so I didn’t have to be a Meal Server at Noble Pines Nursing Home for the rest of my life. I told her how Rod and I had been together since high school, that we were saving for a family and a house, maybe a duplex that we could rent out to a nice, quiet couple. Tina nodded and laughed in the right places and shared her own goals: complete her bachelor’s degree, open a daycare center, and remain committed to overall personal grooming. Her most important goal, she said, was to find a reliable daddy for her four-year-old daughter, Bliss.
Recently, she’d been seeing a commitment-phobic state trooper and the married orthodontist who gave her a steady desk job but still charged a fortune to fix her teeth.
Hoping I could be the one to help her find the right guy, I waved Aaron down to bring us a pitcher, and I introduced Tina to him with a knowing smile. Physically, she was totally his type—tall and curvy and happy about it.
While they chatted, I imagined a scenario in which Tina was my sister-in-law and came over every Friday night to watch reruns of Friends and gossip about people at the bar. Then Rod walked in, wearing his navy work-shirt and pants, and headed straight for me.
“My day was fucked, baby, but I sure am glad to see you.” As he gave me a one-armed hug, he drank a long sip from my glass, and that’s when he saw Tina looking at us over her shoulder.
Immediately, she stood to shake Rod’s hand—thick with calluses and black from oil. “Better hold on to this hunk, girlfriend.”
Rod couldn’t have looked happier if he’d been asked to sign autographs for a group of screaming girls in tube tops.
Tina winked. A joke, then. At certain angles, Rod looks like a tallish Danny Devito—not exactly Chippendale material. So I believed the joke.
When Rod and Tina headed to the jukebox, Aaron grabbed my arm. “Watch out,” he said. “You don’t know what you’re getting into.”
I shook him off. “I know plenty.” How Tina had dropped out of high school her senior year when she got pregnant. How, while working at the A&P off the highway, she put Bliss into a head start program, finished her GED, got the job at the orthodontist’s office, saved enough to buy a doublewide on Johnson Road. How she read to Bliss every night before bed.
“She’s a good mother,” I said. “Which is more than I can say about the woman who raised us.”
Aaron frowned. “You met her an hour ago.”
I thought he was jealous because Tina didn’t drop dead for him on the spot. And I was pissed he wasn’t trying harder to win her over. “Don’t you have some customers to get wasted?”
I turned to watch Tina and Rod punching buttons on the jukebox. Rod was laughing and wiggling his hips to his favorite Bon Jovi song, “Livin’ on a Prayer,” which, I learned later, also happens to be Tina’s favorite Bon Jovi song.
The next day, I took the midterm with a foggy headache and barely passed, but at the end of the semester I still earned my certificate and got promoted to Recreation Specialist at Noble Pines. Now instead of slopping pureed peas onto plastic trays, I organized Bingo games, craft activities, and chair aerobics for the old folks. It was like being a gym teacher, art instructor, nurse, and grandchild at the same time.
I’d never dreamed of having any one career in particular, but working with old people suited me. I liked the challenge of my daily routine, which was not really a routine at all. In a place like Noble Pines, you show up to work, and you never know who’s still trucking, who’s had a stroke, who’s dropped out of scrapbooking class because they just don’t see the point anymore. A client told me that she was done collecting her memories in a “dumb old album.” She was ready to forget. Hearing this made me sad, but it also made me want to work harder.
“You want something, you go for it,” Tina said once.
We were at the burger joint near the mall, sharing a Kids’ Meal while Bliss ran around the play area near our table. I had given Tina all my packets of ketchup, my least favorite condiment, and she created a pond for her fries to soak in.
I laughed. I thought she was describing herself. She was only one class short of finishing her associate’s degree, and she’d already begun applying to SUNY Cortland.
“I’m just doing my job,” I said. “Work is a four letter word that ends in ‘k’.”
“You don’t believe that,” she said. “You care too much.”
And then she grinned. We cracked up simultaneously, and when Bliss came running over to our table, crying from an invisibly bruised knee, we had tears streaming down our cheeks. “Why are you sad?” Bliss asked, so surprised she stopped crying herself.
Tina scooped Bliss into her lap. “Baby, we’re not sad. We’re just laughing so hard it hurts.”
* * *
A week before the wedding, I drove to Tina’s place after receiving a panicked phone call, and before I could climb out of my car, she was flying toward me, wearing an uncharacteristic apron. She pounded a wooden spoon on the hood of my car.
“Is this what it’s gonna be like for me, Kelly—always the single mother, never the bride?”
I steered her back toward the house. “Just think of all the eligible guys who will be at my wedding.”
“Well, I have an immediate situation. Bliss’s father is coming over, and I can’t face him alone. Don’t look at me like that! I had a weak moment. His sister said he was around, and I thought he should see his daughter.”
Bliss was at the door, waiting to be picked up. While her mother drained the spaghetti, I twirled her around the kitchen floor and sang the name game, which got her laughing. Tina tina bobina banana fana fofina. Me mi momina, Teeena!
When we heard the knock, Tina ran toward her bedroom. “I have to check my hair!”
Ricky was TV-handsome, and he strode into Tina’s place as if he were still captain of the football team. I asked what he did for work. He said he was between jobs. “But I’m heading to Florida after this. Buddy of mine does construction down there. With all those Jews, you’ve got yourself a lot of dough for the taking.” He smiled at Bliss, and she grinned back.
“Cute kid,” he said. “Knows it, too.”
Tina reemerged, smelling like lilies.
After ice cream and undercooked brownies, he put his hand on Tina’s thigh. Next thing I knew, Bliss and I were watching Bambi while Tina and Ricky panted in her bedroom. I held Bliss’s hand and turned up the volume on the television.
As Ricky left an hour later, he patted Bliss’s head and handed Tina a twenty. “Buy my angel some new clothes,” he said.
With Bliss in bed, I asked Tina why she let him do that to her.
She shrugged. “I’m a romantic at heart, I guess.”
“Nothing romantic about letting him screw you for a twenty.”
She teared up at that, but not enough to mess her makeup. She stared at the TV, a commercial about air freshener. “Rod’s a good man,” she said. “You don’t know how lucky you are.”
I had never considered whether I was lucky or not. Rod and I had known each other since we were toddling around in diapers at our mothers’ crocheting circle. I was pleased about our impending wedding, but it hardly seemed like winning the lottery.
I tried rubbing Tina on the back the way I did sometimes with my clients when they were upset or coughing on cold ravioli. Tina sighed and leaned closer to give me a hug.
“You’re lucky you met me, that’s for sure.” She messed my hair, playfully.
Relieved, I attempted a joke. “Lucky I found a cheap babysitter for my future ankle-biters.”
I waited for Tina to smile again, but she stood abruptly and started clattering dishes in the kitchen. I had a sinking feeling then, but I shrugged it off. After all, Tina had just fucked Bliss’s deadbeat dad, and no one in her right mind would be thrilled about that.
I made it through the wedding ceremony without weeping. I felt that Rod and I were sharing something important, that this was us growing up right in front of all our friends and family, and I was glad to have Tina by my side.
But after my first dance with Rod, something snapped in Tina. She got smashed on rum and coke, danced with all the guys, grabbed my tiara, then pretended to make out with the blow-up doll some of Rod’s buddies gave him as a wedding gift. In the photograph of me and Rod with our groomsmen and bridesmaids against the backdrop of the pavilion and barbeque pit, Tina stands taller than everyone else, her shoulders hunched to make herself smaller, her mouth twisted into an ugly grimace. She refused to remove her movie-star sunglasses, so in the picture you see all of us, purple and smiling, and then there’s Tina: a giant, hunchbacked, disappointed beetle.
People ask when I first realized something was going on. But ever since I’d known Rod, he’d had a wandering eye. He was only looking at chicks the way he looked at girls in the stacks of Playboys he kept in the garage. He never strayed. Maybe we were not in love in the Harlequin Romance kind of way, but we were family, and as dicky as your family can be, you stick by them, you try to think the best of them.
So I ignored Tina and Rod whispering in the kitchen during the Thanksgiving meal she and I prepared for our families. I overlooked Rod’s sudden interest in tanning beds and manicures. Sometimes when Tina called, she seemed surprised to hear my voice on the other end. But I let it go. I let everything go so I could still spend time with Tina.
I found her and Rod on an early evening two days before Christmas, months after the wedding. During the holiday season, I did all I could to keep my clients’ minds off the fact that they were mostly alone: made them cards filled with glitter, arranged visits from a local church choir, baked cookies shaped like snowmen in my home oven. The planning took all my energy, and I came home every night smelling like hand sanitizer.
The snow had started by the time I put my key in the lock. I looked at the picture window, where the tree lights blinked on and off—not because they were made that way, but because they were on the fritz.
As soon as I opened the door, I knew something was up. Inside, I stood in the living room and surveyed the weird damage: Rod and Tina naked on the floor, trying to cover themselves with bits of wrapping paper and the articles of clothing they could reach. Even in the dim light, I could see a new gold watch glinting on Rod’s left wrist.
“Shit, you’re home early,” he said. “Aren’t you home early?”
“You’re the one with the new watch. Why don’t you check it?”
Tina whimpered and reached for his hand, which he removed from her grasp to pull a crocheted blanket from the sofa. Tina wrapped herself in it, but I could still see her bare skin through the holes.
One of the tree lights blinked behind her hair, giving her an eerie half-halo. “Can you give us a minute?” she asked. Was she talking to me or to Rod? To this day, I’m not sure, but she sounded genuinely shy.
I felt overcome by an unfamiliar desire to hurt someone. How could I have been such an idiot? I started hurling tree ornaments at the two of them. “You assholes!” I yelled. “You lying, stupid, sluts!”
I went around the room, collecting the pieces of Tina I could find: her keys, her rhinestone-studded change purse, her jeans and her t-shirt with the sweaty armpits. And then I opened a window, let the cold air fill the room, and flung these things into the snow. It was satisfying to watch everything disappear into the fresh powder. I imagined Tina’s naked ass out there later, digging for her keys.
“Hey! Shit! Hey!” Tina leapt up. The blanket dropped, revealing the mottled scar on her belly from Bliss’s C-Section.
She and I waited inside while Rod went into the gathering storm to retrieve her clothes. We stared at each other for a long time.
“You wanted me to find you,” I said.
Tina sobbed, gripped the blanket around her. “I’m so sorry—”
When Rod handed Tina her chilled clothes, I saw the look in his eyes, an expression I almost couldn’t blame him for: absolutely adoring.
I wanted to collapse, but not in front of them. “Get out of here, both of you.”
I told them to take the blanket and all the wrapping paper. I watched them pull out of the driveway in Rod’s car, the windshield wipers batting at the snow. Once they were gone, I drove on plowed roads to Aaron’s and let myself in with the key he keeps under a dirty ashtray on the front porch. I watched television, I don’t remember what. By the time Aaron came home, I was asleep on the couch.
I expected him to say I-told-you-so, but he just handed me a beer from the fridge. “You want my advice? Be thankful that prick never knocked you up.”
He was missing the bigger picture of my loss, and for a couple of hours, I hated him. But I knew he was right about one thing: before our father split for good, the man carried on a public affair with the village postmistress, who, to this day, talks to locals about my mother’s unwillingness to please her husband in bed. No wonder my mother became so jumpy and aggressive. She has to think of that asshole every time she looks at me and my brother. She has to buy stamps from that bitch.
Tina sent blotchy, tear-stained letters and hung around the bar, hoping I’d show up. But Aaron always called to warn me, and I was able to keep my distance.
I discovered perks in my new situation. While Rod and Tina had to cram their growing family into her trailer, I could decorate my rented bungalow however I pleased. Rod never liked animals. I rescued a mutt from the pound. No longer a slave to Rod’s Sanka habit, I bought a coffee maker, and on weekends over a freshly brewed pot, I read articles for my Psychology of Aging class. With all the time I now had to myself, I figured I should do something useful.
For a while, I had a recurring dream where I would invite Rod over for a drink, and then we’d end up in bed together, trying to relive old times. Even in my dreams, the sex was always disappointing, and I felt like I was betraying Tina. Every morning when I woke up, I was relieved to be alone.
I’d dress in the dark and walk the dog before leaving for work. The cul-de-sacs were empty, everyone still asleep inside their little houses. I liked the silence and the cold on my face and how, by the end of our walk, the sky was just starting to brighten. In those moments, I felt the same thrill as when I watched my clients paint a landscape with watercolors for the first time: they thought they couldn’t learn anything new. I knew anything could happen.
After not speaking to Tina for almost three years, I ran into her at the gas station on Route 13 last week. That morning one of my clients died in her sleep. Days before Alma passed, she gave me a pair of clip-on pearl earrings that had belonged to her own mother. I am not supposed to accept gifts from clients, but she had dropped the pearls into my hand and started to cry. No one had visited her for months. Her kids live out past Horseheads, and she always made excuses for them—They work so hard, they’ve got so many babies, it’s hard to drive in the snow. I kept the earrings in the glove compartment of my car until the Friday drive home, when I put them on, to honor her memory.
I saw Tina as soon as I pulled into the station. She stood next to her rusty Neon, the baby on her hip, the boy wrapped so tightly around her leg that she was having trouble getting the gas cap off. I took in the sight of her: sweatshirt, baggy jeans, ponytail, pale cheeks. I was about to turn around when I heard a little voice calling my name: Kelly Kelly bobelly! I barely recognized Bliss, she’d gotten so tall. I didn’t think she would even know who I was anymore, but she raced toward me from inside the store, carrying a bag of Doritos. Tina looked up and saw me and stopped. The baby and the boy turned toward me, and I realized then how much they looked like Rod.
I scooped Bliss into my arms, and she kissed my cheek.
“Kelly,” Tina said, her voice tight. “Look at you.”
I imagine we had twin expressions: like we’d both seen a ghost. There were about four feet between us.
“Nice pearls,” she said.
“I’m a supervisor now.”
“You’ll be running that place soon.” She smiled, then, revealing a hint of the beautiful, flashy Tina, and I felt comforted to know she was still there.
“What about you?”
She patted the boy’s blond head and kissed her baby. “You’re looking at it. My own personal day care center.” She rubbed her belly. “This one’s been cookin’ for a few months now.”
I squeezed Bliss and put her down. I was tempted to hug Tina. Or punch her. I considered giving her the name of my coworker’s daughter, an accomplished babysitter with first-aid certification. But I didn’t. I just stood there.
“Bliss misses you,” Tina said. She looked down at her first child, busy luring her brother to her side with the promise of chips. “You’re happier, Kelly. I can tell.”
This time her smile was not a smile. And it made me angry. I wondered if she would say more, if she had any regrets, but she just slid the baby to her other hip and watched me. Did she want me to say that all was forgiven? Right then and there, I could have admitted that I missed her. I could have even thanked her for showing me I was truly better off this way, without Rod and the babies. So what if you chose my husband over me and never gave me a say in the matter—what the hell: I pardon you, I pardon you, I pardon you!
“I’m good,” I said.
She looked relieved. Her shoulders relaxed, and she bounced the baby in her arms, making him giggle. “If you’re interested,” she said. “I’m starting to do these mani/pedi parties for friends…” And then her eyes got sad and watery before she laughed—no longer a sparkling sound but a hesitant puff of air. “Kind of like Tupperware parties? But more fun?”
I’m a terrible liar, but Tina seemed encouraged. “I provide all the supplies, but if you want a certain color, you should just bring it.”
I thought the words I’ll call you but didn’t say them. I thought, anything could happen.
“I’ve gotta run,” I said.
I started moving away just as Tina bent toward Bliss and her brother to break up a Dorito-related argument. Climbing behind the wheel, I remembered I hadn’t even filled up my tank. I felt cruel for a moment, leaving Tina as she was. While I considered whether to turn the key in the ignition, she raised the baby’s chubby arm in my direction, and like a stiff little sock-puppet, he waved goodbye, adoring gaze on his mother.