As Women Do

by >>Jae

Britney's mother shakes her head when Britney says she's going to take some time off.

"Honey," she says, "are you sure ..." She doesn't finish the sentence, but Britney knows what she's not saying. She's heard it a thousand times already, from her managers and the record label and the papers and all the other people whose business is her business. Careers like yours don't last long. The pop ride's going to end soon. Better get what you can before it's over. Before you're over. Britney doesn't pay much attention to them. They get paid to worry. That's what they do.

She knows her mother is worrying too, although Lynne never says it. But Britney just swoops down and kisses her cheek and runs lightly out of the room. Mothers worry. It's what they do.

Britney doesn't worry. "That's what I have you for!" she says, smiling, to her mother and her manager and everyone else when they try to make her look at sales charts and marketing reports and newspaper articles. She doesn't have time for that. This is her time, now, finally. She has better things to do.

She goes shopping, playing dress-up in designer clothes. She lies on the beach until she's as golden as she feels. She gets giggly drunk on champagne and climbs on top of the bar to sing. She kisses boys. She kisses a girl.

She has the time of her life.

Britney dances into her living room one morning to find her mother waiting for her with Jamie Lynn. For the first time in years, she doesn't dance because she has to, because people are waiting for her, because people have paid for it, but only because she feels like it. She feels like it a lot now.

Her mother shifts uncomfortably for a moment, easing one foot out of her beautiful high-heeled shoe, as if it's too tight. Britney sympathizes. These days she goes barefoot as much as she can.

"Honey," Lynne says, "have you put on ..." She doesn't finish the sentence, but Britney knows what she's not saying. Britney has put on a few pounds. Exactly a few - five. She likes it. She can afford it. The camera adds ten pounds, and Britney hasn't been in front of a camera on purpose in a while now. She doesn't watch shows that might run clips of her, and she doesn't read the papers. She doesn't have to now. The only places she ever sees what she looks like are in the eyes of other people, which are admiring, the way they've always been. There, and in her mirror.

Once upon a time Britney didn't like mirrors. She didn't dislike them, either. They were just tools, part of her job. She looked in them when she had to learn a dance step. She looked in them when she had to make sure that her hair or her makeup or her body was still perfect. But that was all. She hadn't ever been particularly vain. She wasn't like her mother, who couldn't resist a shiny surface, who checked her reflection in store windows and soup spoons. Britney had laughed lovingly at her, and never thought of doing the same.

Now she can't stop. She loves her mirror now. She can make faces at herself for hours. There's a full-length one in her bedroom, and she closes the door and takes off all her clothes and looks at herself closely, carefully. But it's not the same way she once studied herself. It's not an inspection. She just wants to see what she is. She likes what she sees.

She loves it.

Britney smiles at her mother, the same smile she's seen in her mirror so many times before. She knows it's a beautiful one. Her mother can't help smiling back, the corners of her mouth tugging up, her lips parting just a little. It's a beautiful smile, too. It's the same as Britney's.

Her mother laughs in surprise when Britney kisses her, then swings her sister into a wild dance. "Us Spears girls are gorgeous!" Britney says, and Jamie Lynn poses and pouts just like the women in the magazines. She looks good. When Jamie Lynn looks up at Britney, eyes wide and shining, Britney tells her so.

"Somebody's happy," Lynne says.

"I am," Britney says. "I'm just - I'm really happy like this. I'm really happy." For a moment, they smile at each other again. When Jamie Lynn runs off to get a drink, Britney says, "I was thinking - maybe I could do this forever."

She holds her breath as her mother's smile shrinks, then stretches out again. "Honey," Lynne says, and for once Britney doesn't know what she's not saying. But that's okay, because for once Lynne finishes her sentence.

"Who knows what the future holds?" Lynne says. "Maybe you'll get your wish." Britney hugs her hard, and Lynne shifts a little in her tight loving grasp.

Britney goes on having the time of her life. She goes to premieres and throws popcorn. She dances all night, until her shoes wear out and she has go barefoot. She eats fried chicken and chocolate cake. She spins at the end of a runway, glittering in borrowed finery, and smiles broadly as the flash of cameras bathes her. For once the light doesn't hurt her eyes. She even misses it a little, just for a second, once it's gone.

She goes on vacation, to an island she's told she visited once, years ago, in the middle of a whirlwind tour. She doesn't remember it. She's amazed by how beautiful it is, how peaceful she finds the relentless rumble of the tide. She stands naked on her balcony and listens to it and looks at the horizon fading blue and endless beyond her and suddenly she recalls being here before. It was out of season. She had hunched against the railing in the rain to chain smoke and try unsuccessfully to get Justin to answer his phone. Now she just laughs and runs down into the ocean. The waves wash the memory away.

It's so wonderful that she calls her mother and invites her and Jamie Lynn to join her. They can't make it, though. Jamie Lynn has an audition, an important one, and she's taping her show, of course, and then they have arrangements to meet some people who can help Jamie Lynn's career. Britney feels a little strange when she puts down the phone. She stands on one foot while she scratches her calf with the other and tries to figure out what it is. When she catches sight of herself in the clear glass French doors, she looks uneasy. She shrugs and smiles and runs back down to the beach.

Back in LA, Britney has a hard time catching up with her mother and sister. It's two weeks of rushed phone calls and sweet apologies and rock-solid excuses before she realizes that they're avoiding her. She tries to dismiss the thought, because why would they want to avoid her?

The thought comes back because she can imagine why.

When they finally meet, Jamie Lynn seems to have grown a couple of inches and a couple of years since the last time Britney saw her. She was always a pretty little girl. Never as pretty as Britney, and there's no jealousy in that thought, just an automatic appraisal that's as natural to Britney as smiling when a flash goes off. Never as pretty as Britney, but brighter and bolder, her voice filling rooms before her body gets there, asking questions and offering advice and sharing her opinions nakedly, unmasked by sugary words and sweet sly wiles. If there's anything Britney has ever envied her, it's her easy assumption that whatever she has to say is worth listening to. That was trained out of Britney long ago. Or maybe, Britney thinks, maybe she's not being fair. Maybe she just never had it. After all, no one ever told her to smile when she wanted to cry, to keep her thoughts to herself. Her mother never once told her to shut her mouth unless she was blotting Britney's lipstick.

Jamie Lynn looks different now, older, her bright bold prettiness polished to a high sheen. She's a little quieter than Britney remembers. She's a little quieter than Britney likes. She stands still in the warm circle of Britney's arms, and although her sister doesn't shrink from her, Britney can tell she doesn't want to be touched. Jamie Lynn doesn't say anything, though. Britney lets her go.

"Honey," Britney says, "is something wrong?" and Jamie Lynn smiles without meeting her eyes. With an ache, Britney recognizes that smile from once upon a time.

Because she recognizes that smile, she doesn't ask anything else.

Jamie Lynn isn't so old that she doesn't laugh and run off when she's given permission to root through Britney's closet. Once she's gone, Britney sits down next to her mother. Lynne launches into a long story about someone who screwed up their schedule and has lived to regret it. Britney's mouth twitches with the desire to smile at her mother, to say, "Oh, how awful," and "I bet you're right," when her mother pauses. She doesn't. Instead, when Lynne finally finishes, Britney looks at her and says, "What's wrong with Jamie Lynn?"

Lynne opens her mouth, then closes it and looks at Britney thoughtfully. She crosses her legs silkily and Britney watches the way one red pump dangles from Lynne's foot, swinging slightly but never falling. "Very little," Lynne says. "She's not as pretty as you, of course, but then she's smarter, so that balances things out a bit. I think you'll be surprised ..." Lynne stops and smiles. Britney knows what Lynne isn't saying. She recognizes that smile, too.

When Britney doesn't say anything, Lynne smiles wider. Her voice is smooth and straight as an arrow. "Brit, you're not - are you jealous?"

"No!" Britney says. "No, I'm not. I'm not jealous - I'm just ... I'm worried."

"Oh," Lynne says. She leans back, still smiling. "Well. Well, maybe you should be. After all, it's been a while since you ..." Her voice fades away, but the words hover in the air, sticking to Britney's skin like sweat. It has been a while.

"That's not what I'm worried about ..." Britney says.

Lynne stands, and just for a moment her smile is wiped away. Her face looks naked. "Well," she says quietly. "Well, maybe you should be." She turns and heads for the stairs. "Let's go find your sister."

Jamie Lynn is sitting at Britney's vanity, a sleek chrome system of drawers and counters and shelves that takes up half a wall. Draped in one of Britney's dresses, she leans so close to the mirror that her nose almost touches it, just like she did when she was a little girl. There's nothing childish about the steady hand that lines her lips blood red, or the steady gaze that appraises her work in the glass.

Britney sits behind her and wraps her arms around Jamie Lynn from the back. She lays her face against Jamie Lynn's hair for a moment, then pulls away. Her sister's hair still lies perfectly in place.

"What's wrong?" Jamie Lynn says, dabbing impatiently at her chin. Britney made her smear her makeup.

"I'm worried," Britney whispers, still holding her tightly. "I'm worried about what you're doing - about what you're going to do."

Jamie Lynn smiles brilliantly at Britney's reflection. "Don't worry," she says. "I'm going to get famous just like you did." It's a beautiful smile. Britney recognizes it, from once upon a time.

She lets go and leaves Jamie Lynn to her careful study of lipstick and eyeliner. She kicks off the soft wool slippers she just bought yesterday. She ought to take them back - they're itchy.

Britney wanders restlessly out of her room. Her mother is leaning against the wall in the hallway, looking through the open door at Jamie Lynn. "Look at her," she says quietly, and Britney turns and looks. Her sister has bent back toward the mirror again as she paints a wide red smile over her own small pink lips. She's good at it - her hand never even trembles. Britney drops her eyes and shifts away.

"She's just like you were," Lynne says, and Britney's mouth tugs up anxiously into an uncomfortable shape. She looks over her shoulder at the mirror, suddenly, though she's not sure why. Her lips are stretched into a hard smooth curve that she feels like she should recognize. Britney catches Lynne's eye in the top corner of the mirror. Jamie Lynn never looks up from her work.

When she turns back to her mother, Britney sees her own smile shining back at her, a perfect reflection. "Mama, I don't want ..." Britney says, but in the steely glare of that smile she shrinks into silence. She knows Lynne knows what she's not saying.

"Look at me!" Jamie Lynn calls out, preening gracefully for them. Britney and her mother turn their smiles on Jamie Lynn. Neither of them say a word.

It's what they do.

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