Finding comfortable middle ground during their punishment isn't easy for Jo and Blair. They fight over where to go. They fight over what to see. They fight over what classifies as acceptable outings and acceptable times to go on those outings. Jo never wants to do anything too fancy and Blair refuses to be associated with the people in Jo's low-key places. It takes them another week to work out a functioning schedule and a list of appropriate places to visit. Their conversations regarding the subject typically consist of, "If we go there for you, then we're going here for me." The shouting doesn't lessen much from the previous arrangement but the hostility is aimed in a productive direction, and Mrs. Garrett has to pat herself on the back for teaching them how behave like civilized individuals. With the hard part behind them, normalcy returns.
Just in time for a wrench to be thrown into the mix. A silvery-haired, suit-wearing, card-playing wrench.
"Three o'clock. Shift's over, Polniaczek. Looks clean enough to eat off the floor in here."
"Trust me, it is."
"Keep it up and you'll be a busboy slash food server in no time."
Jo tugs the cleaning apron over her head and rolls her eyes discretely, imagining the jokes yet to be thrown her way for having a title that ends in '-boy' or for serving her classmates their lunches. "Yeah, yeah. See ya tomorrow."
Howard isn't a guy Jo is particularly keen to work for. He can be chauvinistic at times. On Jo's first day, he told her that a woman's place is in the kitchen. Unbeknownst to him, that remark resulted in a mysteriously flat tire that he would have to stay after work and change on his own time. Not slashed. Jo knew where to draw the line. She's through with damaging property. She just found it hard to believe that her mother or her Uncle Sal, who taught her a few things at the auto repair shop, would fault her for using her tire pressure gauge to deflate the tire of a Pig during her five minute bathroom break. If anything, they would be impressed that she did it without getting caught. She laughed to herself while doing just that, thinking back to when she received criticism from her roommate for carrying around 'useless junk' like the gauge in her jacket pocket and a roll of duct tape hanging on a string slipped through her belt loop.
Over all, working has its perks. In the short walk from the cafeteria to the dorm, Jo cherishes being free of responsibility, Howard, and most importantly Blair. Mrs. Garrett was pleased that Jo had gotten a job and gladly granted her the additional time away from Blair. In turn, Blair has no choice but to come straight back to the dorm when Jo heads to the cafeteria after school. Best of all, it'll be no time before she's back on her bike. The pros outweigh the cons.
Jo hasn't been here long, a few months. She doesn't know what stores in Peekskill have the best deals. She isn't sure which of her well-off classmates think less of her for being a scholarship student. The general blueprint of the campus is still one huge question mark to her. Last week, when the restroom she typically uses after geometry was closed for cleaning, she ended up climbing two flights of stairs before finding another one. In short, Jo is still getting the hang of things. One thing she is certain of is that Mercury Bobcat station wagons with fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror don't normally park in front of her dorm building.
With a new-found interest, Jo quickens her pace to the door. She isn't expecting company and the other girls hadn't spoken of anyone. It could be a daytime burglar for all she knows. The view Jo gets on the other side of the door is not what she expects. A sharp-dressed stranger holds Mrs. Garrett in his arms, kissing her in that awkward and uncomfortable-looking way much like the way Clark Gable kissed Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind. It takes Jo a moment to stop gawking and close the door.
"What are you doing?" the older woman asks when he lets go.
"Looks like he was trying find your tonsils to me." Jo turns to the girls who are shamelessly watching from the couch. "Who is he?"
"Mrs. Garrett's ex-husband," Tootie gushes.
"Ex," Mrs. Garrett echoes in deep thought as if it only now crossed her mind. "My ex-husband."
She hurries toward her bedroom but he follows after her, begging for conversation, for more time with her. Another big, stolen smooch between former lovers puts goofy grins on the spectators' faces. The adults exit the room together.
Nancy turns to the others, eyes wide. "Can you believe it? Our Mrs. Garrett must have had some wild past."
"Yeah," Sue Ann says with suggestively bouncing eyebrows, "and her immediate future doesn't look too shabby either."
"What's Mrs. G's guy doin' here anyway?" Jo asks.
Molly shrugs. "Nobody knows."
"I think it's romantic," Cindy comments. "He shows up here after who knows how long and kisses her like that. He must still love her."
"The question is," Molly says, "'does she still love him?'"
It takes time, interrogation, and puppy dog eyes on Tootie's part, but Mrs. Garrett ultimately caves on the story of her ex-husband, Robert, showing up. He couldn't live without her any longer and, after tracking her down, finally came back to apologize for what happened all those years ago. What it is that happened all those years ago doesn't quite make it into the story though. Fifteen years, it took him to come to the conclusion that he needed her again. That's the part that makes Mrs. Garrett nervous, but she is deciding to roll with the punches and see where it takes her.
"They've been gone for three hours. Don't you think they should've been back by now?" Nancy asks before moving away from the window and plopping down on the couch.
"He took her to lunch at La Maison. That's the fanciest restaurant in town," Molly says matter-of-factly.
Jo and Blair share a look. "We know," they say in unison.
"He took her to a place like that; he must have something up his sleeve."
Tootie shakes her head. "It better be money 'cause that place costs a fortune."
"They've been divorced for fifteen years now. Why do you think Mr. Garrett came back?" asks Sue Ann.
"Maybe he forgot his laundry," Natalie suggests earnestly.
"Did you see the way that they looked at each other on the way out?"
"I didn't notice anything special."
"Are you kidding? They looked to me like they got the hots for each other." Tootie wiggles in her seat for emphasis.
Sue Ann cocks her head. "At their age?"
"Maybe they got the lukewarms for each other."
"Do you know what I think?" Nancy asks.
"That none of this is our business?" Jo offers in a tone that mocks Nancy's.
She doesn't mean to turn on Nancy. They'd made it this far without a mean word spoken between them. But darn it, Blair has been so quiet lately, like she's somewhere else entirely. She isn't talking enough to take the brunt of Jo's offhanded sarcasm, and Nancy is nearly as annoying.
Nancy's smile flat-lines. She scowls at Jo for a long moment before returning to her previously exuberant state. "I bet he came back to ask her to marry him again."
"If you ask me, I think that they should just live together." Count on Molly to be the liberal thinker of the discussion.
"Without being married?" Tootie sounds scandalized. "She wouldn't do that. It's not right for people to just live together."
"Why not?" Natalie asks. "We do."
Nancy's eyes bulge at the sound of a man's voice nearby. "It's them!"
"Come on, let's get out of here and give them a little privacy."
Everyone scatters in different directions, disappearing through halls and into random rooms. Jo opts to take the stairs two at a time behind Sue Ann and Cindy. Because Cindy is her friend and because she isn't exclusively opposed to being around Sue Ann, Jo follows them into their room. A Blondie record can be heard playing down the hall after a moment which can only mean one thing: Blair must have followed them up but would rather be alone than be around Cindy and herself. She's probably studying or doing homework, Jo figures and tries not to take it too personally. She would have done the same thing if it had been Blair in her place.
Cindy falls to her bed with an oomph and Sue Ann falls next to her. They lie there, looking up at the ceiling with their legs hanging over the edge at the knees. Jo pulls out the chair at their vanity table and sits on it backwards with her chin resting on the back.
"What do you think it's like?" Cindy wonders. "Reuniting with someone you love after fifteen years."
"Must be hard," Sue Ann says. "Mrs. Garrett doesn't look torn up inside when Mr. Garrett is around, but I would be. You don't get divorced unless you have a good reason."
Jo sighs and pops her neck. "Maybe he cheated," she offers.
Sue Ann and Cindy shift on their elbows to look at Jo. Sue Ann's face contorts slightly. "You really think he'd do that to her?"
Jo just shrugs. She doesn't think so, but how the heck should she know? They barely spoke to the man.
"There must be another reason," Cindy says. She waits until Sue Ann is looking her in the eye. "You don't hurt the people you love."
For some reason—a reason Jo is about ninety-nine percent sure of—it takes them a good ten seconds or better to break eye contact and remember they aren't the only people in the room.
Sue Ann stands up, ears beet red, and walks over to her own side of the room. She starts to tidy up her pigsty. A few stray sneakers get tossed into a chest at the foot of her bed. A dozen dirty outfits are hauled to the hamper by the door.
"Well, let's hope for Mrs. Garrett's sake that whatever happened between them is in the past," she says after a long silence. "Everyone deserves to be with someone who makes them happy." Then she picks up a striped tube sock from under her bed and wipes off her dusty headboard with it, now too preoccupied with cleaning and too lost in her head to chance a glance at Cindy or Jo.
There are a strict set of rules that one must agree to when becoming a student at Eastland School for Girls. They are there, clear as day, black and white, printed in the handbook. One of them not unlike the others states that misconduct inside or outside of the classroom while on school grounds is prohibited and will result in punishment. Jo is no fool. Broad guidelines like that can cover whatever the administration wants it to cover. Anything from chewing gum in class to picking a fight. It's all fair game. That's why, when Tootie gathers everyone into her room to announce that she's going to teach them how to play poker for "cold, hard cash" while Mrs. and Mr. Garrett are away, Jo is the first to turn down her offer.
"Are you nuts? What if somebody finds out?"
"Don't be such a chicken."
"Hey, I'm not scared."
"Prove it. Get over here and let me teach you how to play," Tootie orders like she isn't the youngest and shortest girl in their dorm.
Jo has another refusal on the tip of her tongue if only she could get it out. A perfectly good reason to say no. She has an explanation. Jo knows how to play the game and she hates it. But she struggles to express herself.
Suddenly, Sue Ann speaks up. "Jo's right. If any of you get in trouble for playing, you'll have no one to blame but yourself. Count me out." Sue Ann thumbs her chest and walks to the doorway.
Blair adds that she won't be joining in either but only because as a Warner she doesn't need the money and sees no other reason to participate. She and Sue Ann exit the room without another word. Jo watches them go but doesn't follow. She stays and watches the girls flounder with the rules over and over as Tootie cleans them of their pocket change.
Days pass without a peep of Tootie's underground gambling sessions reaching Mr. Bradley or Mrs. Garrett. The time comes when the girls realize money is much more transient than previously thought. Lunch money and allowances stop covering poker expenses—that is, for everyone but Tootie who sweeps the others clean in every game. They get crafty, lying to Mr. Bradley about needing money for other things: birthdays, school supplies, sports gear. Jo shows up sometimes when she's bored and can't get Blair to leave the house with her. She sees the appeal, and she's confident that she could crush any of them in a game, if she wanted to. She doesn't. And she considers on more than one occasion offering helpful tips to play the game with success. But she doesn't.
"Okay. I'll see your bet and raise you fifty cents." Tootie drops the chips into the pile one at a time for the clank sound. "Come on, Nancy. What are you gonna do?"
"I don't know."
"Oh, here." Cindy reaches for Nancy's hand and scans the cards. "Hmm. Three queens. You should go out."
"So what are you gonna do, Natalie?"
Natalie scans her hand. "Oh. I have two fours. I see your raise and up it a quarter."
Jo looks up at Mr. Garrett, who shows up to most poker games and claims to mentor the girls though he doesn't do it very well. He neglectfully flips the page on the magazine in his hands.
"Natalie, what are you raising for?" Tootie is about to blow a gasket. "Two fours does not beat queens."
Natalie rolls her eyes. "I know that and you know that but how do we know that she knows that?"
Nancy blinks. It seems like a possibility.
Jo looks up at Mr. Garrett again. "Aren't you gonna tell them what they're doin' wrong?"
He smiles and closes the magazine. "Oh, come on, Jo. They're having fun."
Jo can't stand another minute of whatever it is that they're doing. It isn't playing poker, that's for sure. A chimpanzee could beat everyone but Tootie with one pair. Truthfully, if anyone were to ask Jo why she had been watching them gamble day after day, she wouldn't have an answer. Even as an observer, the game hauntingly drew her, sickly yet seductively.
That's it, though. She's done.
Mrs. Garrett is humming with glee. Literally. Sue Ann and Blair can hear her in the next room, singing an old-time love song under her breath. They share a look before shooting up from the couch and in through the open door to her room. She's twirling around a chestnut-colored dress, marveling at her reflection.
"You're glad Robert showed up, aren't you, Mrs. Garrett?"
"Oh I'm having one heck of a time! I was about your age when I first met him. Fresh off the farm, and he was a smooth city slicker. Gorgeous. Swept me right off my feet." Mrs. Garrett dances all the way to her makeup table and takes a seat.
"How romantic. But . . . why'd you break up?" Sue Ann inquires in that childlike meddlesome way of hers.
"Well, dear, one day the bubble burst. I came home and all the furniture was gone. He had to sell it to pay off his gambling debts."
Blair grimaces. "How tacky!"
"Couldn't you tell he was a gambler?"
Mrs. Garrett looks at Sue Ann, a bittersweet expression on her face. "How's a gambler supposed to look, hm? Besides, I was eighteen and madly in love. Girls, you have no idea what it is to be married to a gambler who cannot quit."
"Mrs. Garrett, you should've dumped him. A guy like that is bad news," Blair says.
"Sometimes it isn't that easy." Jo pushes off from the doorway she'd been leaning against and stands next to Blair. "Sometimes he's married to your ma and he tells you on Christmas morning that he's sorry he couldn't afford the board game you wanted but that your paper doll will be just as fun. And you think, probably not, Pops, but thanks anyway."
The three of them look at Jo with pity. She didn't share this with them to earn their pity. She hates pity.
"I'm sayin' that it ain't easy to get rid of someone. Sometimes you stay with them 'cause they need you."
They continue to look at Jo. Whether it's out of shock or because they're waiting for her to continue, she doesn't know.
She shoves her hands in her pockets and shrugs. "But sometimes you'd be better off cutting the ties before they suck you dry of everything and then leave you with a debt the size of Alaska. Think about it, Mrs. G. He might love you and, and you might love him too, but maybe what you need isn't what he needs."
Sue Ann shakes her head. "You gotta work through the tough times. That's what my mom told me, and she has a happy marriage."
Blair scoffs. "Big deal. My mom knows much more about happy marriages. She's had three of them."
"I know I'm an incurable romantic—"
"Well I hope you're not contagious," Blair interrupts.
Jo crosses her arms. "Even an incurable romantic should have common sense."
Blair looks at Jo, and it dawns on them that they are agreeing on something. She turns back to the self-proclaimed victim of Cupid. "Look, Sue Ann. Marriage is enough of a gamble without starting off with the deck stacked against you."
"If you're planning a trip, you don't get off the bus because of one little flat tire."
"Sure, you do," Jo argues, knowing all too well about flat tires. "You keep drivin' on a flat tire and you'll warp the rim."
"How could you reason with someone who would take a trip on a bus?" Blair grins at Jo. A strange, fluttery feeling of excitement bubbles in her stomach when Jo grins back. They're on the same side for once, and it feels good.
"Okay," Sue Ann tries again. "Let's say your Mercedes has a flat tire. What do you do? Junk it?"
Blair flips her hair coolly and gently places a hand on Jo's shoulder. "No, I have my personal mechanic fix it for me."
Jo lets out a gruff laugh that makes Blair's stomach flip. Maybe it's naive of her to get excited over something so trivial, but she wants to milk this pleasant moment with her normally very bitter roommate for all it's worth.
"Look Sue Ann, we're talking about Mrs. Garrett's future happiness."
Sue Ann nods at the obvious statement.
Jo looks at the woman in question, tilting her head and wondering if it drives Mrs. Garrett crazy to have a couple of kids debating over her life choices. Mrs. Garrett's mouth quirks into a crooked smile while slightly wobbling her head in amusement.
"We can't send her out in an old clunker like that."
"Mr. Garrett is not a clunker," Sue Ann defends. She lowers herself to the housemother's level. "What are you going to do now, Mrs. Garrett?"
Mrs. Garrett's eyes fall to the table in front of her. "I don't know. He says he's changed. Oh, my head says, 'forget it,' but my heart says, 'who knows?' I gotta admit, I'm tempted."
"Go with your heart, Mrs. Garrett! Take a ride with him."
"Take my advice, Mrs. Garrett," Blair counters as Sue Ann hooks onto Blair's arm and begins to tug her out of the room. "Wait for a cab."
Jo takes a few steps back, following the direction of her dorm mates, repeating, "Take Blair's advice, Mrs. Garrett. Wait for a cab." She throws her hands up and adds as an afterthought, "Or buy your own car."
When Ms. Mahoney and Mr. Bradley, chattering about men being in girls' dormitories, walk past Sue Ann's open door and down the stairs, Sue Ann, Blair, and Jo suspect something isn't right. When Mr. Garrett walks past not even five minutes later, they have no doubt. Without a word, they walk over to Tootie and Natalie's room.
"Mrs. Garrett, did you kick him out?" Blair cautiously inquires.
"She couldn't. She loves him."
"Maybe she loves him and she kicked him out," Jo retorts, a hint of irritation laced in her voice.
This whole experience has struck to too closely to home for Jo. Sue Ann's view of what people should put themselves through for the ones they love is exactly why Jo resents the father she once saw as heroic. He put his addiction before his family, draining their finances and making halfhearted apologies along the way, yet he went unpunished because Rose shared the same attitude as Sue Ann and loved Charlie enough to forgive him time and time again. Had Jo's mother given him a tough love ultimatum early on, before things got out of hand, before he skipped out on them, maybe they wouldn't be suffering like they are now.
"Exactly right, Jo."
Author's note: If memory serves, Charlie never had a gambling problem. Forgive me for straying from canon. This is femslash though so lbr canon is the enemy anyway.