Delilah stared at the bathtub, which was three-quarters filled with blue Jell-O cubes.
"So get in," Thomas said.
"Get in?" she asked.
When she didn't move, he briefly stopped fiddling with his camera equipment and blinked at her.
"You'll want to take your clothes off first," he noted. "Otherwise they'll get stained."
"And I won't?"
"You'll wash," he said, and went back to his camera.
She sighed, and started to undress. She'd helped Thomas with other art projects, such as his ten-foot-tall pasta tower, and it was fun enough, but this was different. She wasn't sure it would be fun to model for a series of photos on the human body immersed in Jell-O, which Thomas wanted for an upcoming photo show.
Still, she knew Thomas. When he was into one of his projects, he occupied a world composed entirely of his own visions, and no discomfort mattered. Especially not her own. She didn't take it personally. Besides, he made her life a lot less dull than it would be otherwise. At thirty-one, still living with her parents, with no career to speak of, she didn't have much to brag about beyond her willingness to slip into a tub full of Jell-O for the sake of art.
Not that she was complaining. After all, living with her parents meant occupying a room in a sweet little three-thousand-square-foot Spanish contemporary on two acres of prime land in Key West. The house itself was, as her mother frequently pointed out, big enough to house two families of Guatemalans, which it had done occasionally, so they didn't really get in each other's way.
If she were the beach bunny type, her life would have been a blast, but she didn't think she was built for that. She was too normal looking, with brown eyes, medium-length brown hair, medium height, and medium build, though she'd be the first to admit that it would be accurate to say she had hips.
And while Key West was known as a party town, she was not much of a party girl. She could hold her liquor too well and it took an inordinate amount of money to get her drunk. The party life being out, and in the absence of anything she could generously call a career, she still wanted something to get her up in the morning. Some anticipation of surprise, or adventure. Something that said she mattered on the planet -- aside from her mother's periodic demands that she participate in an activist event like a Vegan Supper to Save the World.
"This isn't going to feel good," she said when her clothes were off and she had one foot poised over the tub.
"Sure it will," Thomas said. "Kind of like a very cool lotion, or -- or like sex."
She raised an eyebrow at him. "How do you know?" she asked.
"I did a trial run. It seemed only fair."
She contemplated the thought of Thomas naked, in a tub of Jell-O. It did not make her think of sex. But to Thomas, art definitely took precedence over sex. In fact, that was her only complaint about him, besides the fact that he couldn't cook, didn't have a job to speak of, and was living in the caretaker's house on her parents' land for free, without any indication that he ever intended to move out. Still, he had one distinct advantage over a lot of men she knew. He was there.
She closed her eyes and plunged a foot into the Jell-O. It made a squishing sound.
"God," she ejaculated.
"All the way in," Thomas encouraged her. "Unless you want naked bits to show."
She put her other foot in and stood there, shin deep. "They'll show anyway," she said. "This stuff isn't opaque."
"It'll all be decently blurred. Slide down."
She shuddered and lowered herself slowly. "Ewww," she said. "This doesn't feel like sex. It feels like -- like goo. Gooey worms and -- and goo."
"Beautiful," Thomas purred when she was fully immersed. "Now, let one hand dangle over the side and close your eyes. Good. Let your head kind of loll, like you're dead."
"Am I?" she asked.
"Metaphorically," he said. "The series is about how popular culture sucks us in and kills us all in the end. Turn left a little. Good." She heard his camera clicking away.
After a while, he had her roll over on her stomach, splayed out, eyes open and staring blankly. "Wow," he said. "I wish you could see yourself. That cellulite is perfect."
"Cellulite?" she squeaked. "What cellulite? I don't have cellulite."
"Don't move," he said.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw him approaching her with a yellow rubber duckie, which he put on her back, but she was beginning to lose sensation by then. It was a defense mechanism, she was sure, to avoid feeling like a piece of canned fruit cocktail. To avoid feeling slimy, and riddled with cellulite.
It was about that time that she heard the insistent chirping coming from the region of her pants pocket. Her cell phone. She'd resisted getting one, but her father thought it would be a good idea, and it had proved handy -- to bail her mother out of jail after a civil disobedience moment, or rescue her when she treated a diner full of homeless people to lunch and then realized she didn't have her credit card with her.
"Delilah," Thomas said reprovingly, "I told you, no cell phone when we're working."
She rolled over, slid under the Jell-O and came up sputtering, pulled herself upright and choked out, "Get it."
"In a minute," Thomas murmured, snapping away with his camera.
"Get it," she insisted, splattering Jell-O around as she tried to pull herself out of the tub. She slipped back under and was briefly terrified that she'd drown. Death by Jell-O. Thomas would never be able to explain, and her parents would be terribly embarrassed at his subsequent murder trial.
She made an effort and pulled herself up.
"Mm," Thomas said. "Keep doing that. That's good."
"Get it," she demanded, "or I'll smear Jell-O on your camera. It'll be ruined and my parents won't necessarily buy you another one."
Thomas made a face at her, but put his camera down and got the phone out, opened it, and held it to her ear.
"Delilah?" a voice said. Then, with more urgency, "Delilah?" Her mother.
"Yes, Mom. It's me."
"I'm so glad. Are you busy? Because if you're not I really, really need to see you for just a few moments. Well, actually, for more than a few moments."
"What is it? Is Dad okay?" She was accustomed to the sound of her mother's voice in incipient hysteria, and it didn't really worry her, but she did worry about her father. Someday his patience would just give, and he'd self-combust.
"Your father's fine," she said, sounding a little miffed. "This isn't about him."
"Then what's wrong?" Delilah asked.
"Nothing's wrong. Just -- disturbing in a way. I mean, not in a bad way, but in a way."
"In what way?"
She drew in breath and released it in little sputters. "I found my mother," she said.
"Lemme clean up," Delilah said. "I'll meet you in the kitchen."
Copyright © 2003 by Barbara Chepaitis
At age thirty-one, Delilah needs a plan. Still living with her parents on their Key West estate, with no career to speak of and a dull relationship with a self-involved artist, she is beginning to feel as if life is sailing swiftly past her. Her sister is living the perfect life with the perfect husband, her father con-tinues to make money off the stock market, and her mother continues to spend it on the latest social cause. Delilah would love to save the world as well -- if only it weren't such an overwhelming task. She longs for inspiration. Little does she know that it will soon come in the shape of Carla, -- a former tiger tamer and Delilah's long-lost biological grandmother. Long-lost, that is, until now.
When Delilah's mother unwittingly discovers the identity of the woman who put her up for adoption years ago, Delilah is enlisted to visit Carla at her dilapidated farmhouse in rural New York. The first meeting does not go well. Aside from her constant gruff commands and occasional meddling in Delilah's love life, Carla barely says a word to her newly discovered granddaughter, who is more like her than either of them would care to admit. Slowly, however, the two are drawn together by the beauty of the land, by the good friends around them, and by a love as unpredictable as life itself. Soon Delilah discovers that saving the world requires the courage to be saved and that truly embracing life means accepting its uncertainty. "Because love was always unpredictable. And slightly out of control."
With her trademark humor and warmth, Barbara Chepaitis tells a wonderful story about one woman's stumble upon happiness in the most unlikely of places. She creates characters that are "genuinely human" (Publishers Weekly) and in so doing reflects our ability to love the world and each other despite our many flaws and failures. Smart, funny, and true, Something Unpredictable is a gem of a novel and one to be dearly treasured.