My mother was a toucher. She tapped her fingers on my wrist, and even though I was sixteen, not really a girl anymore, I loved it, the feel of her pink touch. Such small hands. You couldn’t help but notice.
I was my mother’s daughter so I was not small, but she treated me like I was, especially when we sat, quiet like that. Waiting. The smell of spaghetti sauce still in the air, a little burned since she’d left it on the stove too long. He said he’d be here by midnight. He promised, she said. It was 11:50 and outside, headlights went by in columns in the dark. Lots at first as the summer sun dropped, then fewer, fewer.
He’d called—when? Seven or so I guess, an hour past when he first said he’d come. Work, he said. Mom believed him.
He wanted to meet me, she said. They’d had three dates. Met at the diner after her shift. And he loved her little hands, he’d said. The way her fingers curled around the handle of the coffee mug. The way she used them to brush the bangs from her eyes, wipe the rings of mascara out from the creases there.
She’d woken me up then, that night when they’d first met. Come into my room and sat on my bed which rocked and dipped when she sat. (She used to be small. Sparrow small. I saw it in her old pictures. I know that it’s true.)
And I was up, just like that, sitting and blinking in the dark.
“It’s me, Baby,” Mom said. “Mommy. Shh now.” And she smelled like the cigarettes she smoked in the backyard after sunset—smoking towards the sky, clouds towards the stars.
“I’ve met someone,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. What I did not say: “Again?”
So on this other night, the one when he was supposed to meet me, we sat on the couch that still had cat hairs in its cushions even though Shanty, our cat—my cat—had run away four months before. It was early summer hot, and we sat there in shorts and tank tops, hiding nothing. And I could tell that my mom was in need; her tiny hands made a ring around my wrist, and she hummed, like she would. A distraction. She did it when she was afraid, like when we were driving on the interstate after my grandfather died and the sun was hours from up and the gas light was on and the car made some rattle noise and there was nothing around but fields of night, and deer dead on the side of the road. She hummed while she ate. And she did it when she was anxious, this humming. Like when she waited in the dentist’s office every six months. My mother had beautiful teeth.
Small hands and beautiful teeth. And a face so pretty that when we’d stop at a red light men stared at her poised at the wheel, men in trucks and cars and just walking by. A head turner, my grandfather—her dad—used to say. He said it up until the day he died, there in the hospital, while she sat next to his bed, holding his big hands in her little ones. Me down the hall getting a Pepsi from the machine. And I wished it could always be that way, my mother making heads turn with her prettiness, her lovely smile, her eyes, her long neck.
But, and it kills me to tell you this, I feel guilty even just saying it, that’s all she’s got really. A pretty face. A long neck. Small hands. Beautiful teeth. The rest of her is something else, something big and scarred. Scarred from when she ran into a tree one afternoon, that day when I was—what? Two?—and she and my dad (I never knew him, unless you count him living with us before I understood what knowing people meant, what it felt like to know someone, to see them, recognize them, yearn for them) they were out on the highway coming home from her work, where he’d always pick her up because she didn’t used to know how to drive, and he didn’t used to want her to. And so when she got off her shift at the school—that’s where she worked then, the middle school, in the cafeteria—he’d be there waiting for her, in the parking lot, the car running hot or cold depending on the season, she told me later when she wanted to talk about it. Later, when I was older, a few years ago, and I started to ask.
Her pretty face and delicate, soft hands and shiny smile were all I got to see of my mother back then. I mean, I knew she was big (all right, I’ll say it even though it sounds mean—she was fat) but she mostly stayed covered up in long, flowy blouses with sleeves all the way down to her wrists, and pants with wide legs to the tops of her shoes. Didn’t matter if it was winter or summer, she’d wear pretty much the same thing all the time. I mean, not the exact same thing, she had dozens of these blouses, these fancy pants in her closet in all kinds of colors, dark mostly, and rich. Jewel colors, she called them.
This next thing happened when I was ten. We were in the backyard, and it was summertime. Mom held an unlit cigarette in her fingers, trying to quit, she said; no willpower she said. And up and down the block people were in their yards, fences and trees and imaginary boundaries separating us from one another even though we waved and called out and sometimes crossed onto someone else’s lawn, to chase a ball maybe, or to tell a story. It was a nice neighborhood, not the best in town, but good. Families, and men who had jobs and places to go during the day, and women who hung wash on the line when the weather was nice. Not like where we used to live before we got that money from grandpa’s insurance, in an apartment with mice and a living room window that faced an alley. And so we were out there in our yard sitting in the low, long lawn chairs Mom had bought on her latest paycheck day, their plastic seats slippery with sweat, their armrests too hot under the sun. But we didn’t care. It was summer. School was done and the rain that always seems to soak our spring, had finally stopped. Things smelled green and new, and the neighbors who had gardens were out there digging in their flowerbeds, and the cicadas buzzed and the dog down the street barked a little and Shanty stretched in the cool grass under my chair and sipped at the air with her little pink nose and some kids a couple of houses over splashed and squealed in a wading pool.
And then my mom screams and tries to jump up from her chair. Only she can’t quite, because her sleeve gets hooked on the armrest, and she gets all tangled for a minute and goes over in the grass, her shirt torn and her beautiful teeth showing like a snarl. And I’m there at her side in a blink, reaching for her, but she pushes my hands away, not mean, just sort of insistent. And she’s dropped the cigarette and she’s pulling at her blouse, tugging it up and away from her skin and up over her head. “A wasp,” I hear her say, muffled in the shirt, and I see how her skin on her belly is tight and shiny—it looks like (I’ve thought about this a lot since then) melted and stretched cheese, kind of bubbly and pulled. And why haven’t I ever seen this before, I wonder. I mean, have I never seen my mother’s tummy before? But I can’t remember having ever, so maybe I haven’t. Maybe this strange stretched skin isn’t something new like I thought at first it might be; and I swat at the wasp that has left his mark on my mother, a bright red blotch on her shiny cheese belly. And Shanty is up and batting at it, but the wasp just bobs in the air and lazily—probably so full of blood (do they do that, wasps? Drink your blood like mosquitoes?) that it is hard to gather any steam—flies off toward the house next door with Shanty, long and ropy, running in the grass behind it. And my mother is crying. But it doesn’t sound like hurt crying, like pain crying. She is weeping like she has lost something really important, and maybe she has, I don’t know, and she pulls on the hem of her blouse to cover up her cheesy stomach and stays in the grass with her arm over her eyes. And the torn sleeve shows that there is more stretched cheese-skin on her arm, curling over and around her elbow.
“Does it hurt?” I ask her, and I’m up close, kneeling in the grass so she can hear me and I don’t have to talk too loud. “Does it hurt?” I say again, only I don’t know if I mean the place where the wasp stung her or if I mean something else, her shiny, tight skin, maybe, or what it must feel like for her to understand that what I know now is not what I thought I knew before. And that she will have to tell me everything.
My father drove like a crazy man. Speeding and taking corners like a driver in the movies or on a cop show. Always. But especially when he was mad. Something set him off that day, my mom remembers and tells me. “He saw me talking to one of the building guys, I can’t even remember his name now, something different, foreign, Rajid? Ramon? I think he said, nice day, or have a good weekend, or see you tomorrow. That’s it, but I guess I smiled at him, and your father was nuts about my smile, so whenever I smiled at anyone else, he’d flip. What was that about? Who you smiling at? Friend of yours? That kind of thing. No, I’d say. Was I smiling? And I’d apologize. I was so young. I didn’t know anything.”
We were back in the kitchen now and Shanty was on the counter, her gold eyes on us at the table, tail switching. Mom had made a mixture of baking soda and water, was dabbing it on the red sting with a cotton ball and hissing through her lovely teeth. She was in nothing but her bra and slacks, and I could see it all. The crazy white scars and so much skin the color of a flesh crayon. Her face was scraped a little from the grass, I think, and there was mud on the knees of her pants. I rested my cheek on the cool Formica tabletop and watched her sideways. Listening. Not wanting to know, but needing to.
“He always took the backroads to our house from the school.” We used to live in a trailer in the woods on the edge of town. I don’t remember it, but I’ve seen it, too, in a picture. Blue. Sky-colored. With a pretty little flower bed and a knee-high white fence around it. My dad’s in that picture, too, with dark hair and a straight, tight mouth, and glasses that caught the sun in them. Tough. Mean, maybe. And my mom is holding his hand, and has her other pretty little hand on his arm. She’s a stick then, except for the balloon under her yellow dress that she told me was me. And she’d always told me—when I’d asked—that my dad had died, an accident, she’d said, but this was the first time—this time when I was ten—that she told me everything else. I imagined the car (a big old mustard-colored Buick, also in the picture) hurtling over the gravel roads, hitting the rises and lifting up a little before slamming back down, my mom and dad feeling it all in their stomachs, in their backs. There’s always that sweet, empty floating thing in your belly when you crest a hill and just before you sail downward; but then there’s that bang at the base of your spine when you hit bottom. I wonder if my mom screamed then, yelled at him to slow down, cut it out, relax. The mom I knew was never much of a yeller. So I doubt she did; instead she probably held fast to the seatbelt, pushed a delicate hand up to the car’s ceiling, clawed at the felt of it, and pulled her lips closed over her pretty, perfect teeth, holding on.
“There was a tree at the T in the road where we made our turn,” she told me, “the only one out there in the fields, a half-mile from where the woods started up for real. I loved that tree. It must have been at least a hundred, as big around as it was. And in the fall it went bright red. And its leaves hung on for just about ever until they dropped, all at once it seemed like, and then those big bare branches made shapes in the sky. Like art. It took my breath sometimes.” Mom went to the sink to empty the little cup of baking soda salve and wash her small hands. The flesh of her arms shook. She looked at the blank wall, like maybe there should be a window there, something to see, but there wasn’t. “He was going too fast for the turn. He had to know. He had to.”
She didn’t remember the crash or the fire or those few weeks in the hospital. She remembered some things, though. The sound of my father wailing. The smell of burned rubber and something else, sweet and meaty. She remembered my grandfather coming to pick her up from the hospital with me in my car seat; she remembered weeping at the sight of me, even though—I’m told—my diaper was full and stinking. She remembered weeping, too, when they passed the tree on the way to our trailer and she saw the trunk burned black and scarred, its bark pulled away like a scab. She remembered telling me for the first time that same evening that my father had died—but I was only two and didn’t get it or didn’t care—and her feeling relieved that it didn’t seem to matter to me one way or the other. She remembered the taste of rice pudding, the only thing she would eat for weeks, and how now she couldn’t even bear to look at it, slimy and pebbly and milky in the bowl. She remembered waking up in the dark for a long time after, months, maybe years, with her skin still burning and her heart aching and wanting—not my father, because she knew, like she might have known all along, that he was not a good man, not a man worth loving—but wanting to not be alone.
We didn’t talk about this after that summer day with the wasp, but it was always there. My mother stopped hiding her scars from me, even though she still hid them from the rest of the world as best she could under her blouses, her pants. But whenever we sat at that kitchen table where she’d told me everything, we rarely talked anymore. Instead we filled our plates over and over and ate every bit of whatever we had, filling in the spaces left over from the story, left over from the crash.
I was skinny before that ten-year-old summer, my mother’s daughter like I said, but up until then, I was like my mother the stick. But then I got to be something other than stick-like, no longer flat (as a board, the kids said, as a pancake,) but rounder and filling out. It was a sudden change, I guess, so people noticed.
By the time I was thirteen I didn’t really fit into little girl clothes anymore. Once at Sears shopping for school, we tucked into the narrow dressing room that smelled like sweat and feet, and my mother gave me a ladies’ blouse, with darts and tucks. And the skirts from the juniors department hugged my hips too tight—even the ones for the chubbies. And I can remember my mom sitting behind me on a stool while I tried things on, and she was crying. “You’re growing up,” she said to me when I asked, but now I think it had more to do with me getting fat, not grown. “You’re not fat,” Mom would say when I worried out loud. But I figured she wouldn’t tell me if I was; I wondered if she even knew that she was. “You’re zaftig.” And I figured maybe that just meant fat in a different language and so I looked it up. Curvaceous. Pleasingly plump.
Boys liked me, my fleshy parts that made me different from the other girls. At the roller rink they’d ask me for couples skate, and sometimes even the moonlight skate when the lights went down and that mirror ball sent fireflies over the walls, the floors, our faces. And we’d circle the rink for a while, and the music was always slow. When I was really young, my mom brought me to the rink on Saturday afternoons for kids skate, and there used to be an organ player, a real guy in a booth near the shoe rental, and he and my mom used to laugh together, and he’d play I Dream of … and he’d lean toward her and say her name then, and once I watched while she sat next to him on his bench, and he put his hand high on her leg while the other hand spread wide over a few chords. Now, though, it was records all together on a tape that hissed sometimes. And me and a boy would hold hands: palms wet and fingers laced, and he’d guide me off the floor and into a corner where during moonlight, kids would press up against the wall and make out until one of the guards, a high school boy with a whistle and a flashlight, would swoop in to break things up. But before that, one or another of my moonlight partners would put his tongue in my mouth and his hand under the buttons of my blouse and I knew then the foggy warmth of want. And I leaned into it, this want: the moist hands on my skin, the hot breath on my neck, the rub and hardness of him, of any him.
My mom, her daughter’s mother, wanted to be loved. I could see it in her eyes when she’d come to me on those nights when she’d met someone. They were shiny and blinking, like she’d just seen something so bright it stunned her, and under her perfume and smoke and the greasy, fried smell she wore home from the diner was something else, a scent like honey and nuts. Her love smell, I called it. But not out loud. Just to myself. And on those nights of her love smell and blinking eyes she’d wake me up if I wasn’t still there on the couch watching late night movies with Shanty on my knee, feeling his ribs through his fur. And her small hands would stroke and pat me while she told me about him. Any him.
“He’s new in town,” she’d say. Or “He’s a business man.” Or “He’s smart.” Ever hopeful, always optimistic. Once it was the insurance man who came into the diner after she’d gone to his office about grandpa’s policy, the little pile of money in her name. He wore shiny, white shoes that looked like plastic and he had sandy hair that circled a pink bald spot on the top of his head. He called my mom Doll, up until the time he left because she wouldn’t give him money to pay his rent. Another time, the man she met stole our car while she slept him off; and another time, a woman showed up at our door in the morning while the guy sat at our table drinking coffee and eating the runny yellow eggs my mother’d made for him. He winked at me and told us he’d called his wife to come and pick him up.
And Mom would swear off guys for a little while then; but I never did, even when I started to hear things at school, small whispers behind my back in the halls, girls talking in the bathroom when they didn’t know I was in there. You can guess the things they said, the names they called me, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was the warmth that climbed and filled my insides in the dark corners of the roller rink, behind the bus garage at the edge of school property, in the back seats of cars we’d find with their doors unlocked at night. I’d come home breathless and sticky with sweat, grass in my hair, buttons undone, and the house would be empty (except for Shanty) until my mother came home from work, bored and lonely and ready to break her fast, eager to meet someone new. She liked her men skinny, like we used to be, like my father was, and they’d slide in and out of our life like a cat through a door barely opened.
It was my fault Shanty ran away. On a February night Mom called from the diner: “I’ve met someone. See you in the morning.” It was just before my sixteenth birthday, so I didn’t need her, I could take care of myself. And I went to the park where everyone hung out in the warm or the cold, and this night it was cold-cold, the kind of cold that makes your eyes water and your mascara freeze in clumps. The kind of cold you might wish you wore something other than a short skirt and tights and boots; you knew your legs would be blue from your thighs to your shins, and you couldn’t keep your teeth from chattering or your hands from shaking. That kind of cold. The kind of cold when you paired up quick, found someone to warm your hands on, someone to huddle with against the wind. Like the guy you never saw before—I never saw before. Older and whiskers under his bottom lip in a shaggy patch, a scowl like nothing was any good at all. I saw him giving me an up and down and I saw how his eyes lingered on my tights, my pleasingly plump thighs, and on my coat stretched over my top parts. I asked him for a cigarette, even though I don’t smoke, and lucky for me he didn’t either. But he reached for me anyway, there in the shadow of the swing set, the monkey bars. He ran his hand over the arm of my coat, pinched through it to my flesh.
“This felt?” he asked. And before I could say I’d already heard that one, he said, “It is now.” I laughed a little, it was so dumb but he was so cute, angles and planes, dark eyes and high cheekbones for a boy. He didn’t laugh at all, though, and I thought he might turn away so before he could, I said, “Wanna come over?”
All the boys I knew, and I’d never asked anyone to my house before, because, frankly, part of the whole delicious deal was how it felt to be out somewhere, away from home and my mom and the men who didn’t love her, like she deserved, like her father had—out in the dark corners or against a tree or stretched and twined in the grass. But it was cold, like I said, and why not?
I pulled his hand and he walked with me, a few steps back, but side-by-side sort of anyway, and that was new, too, my walking hand-in-hand with a boy over the ice-slippery sidewalks of my neighborhood where the streetlights and Christmas lights up too long made halos and colored pools in the snow. The windows of the houses were bright in the dark and there was a family sitting down to dinner; and there was a father in his recliner, sleeping it looked like, in the blue-gray TV light of the news, maybe; and there was a little girl up in her bedroom looking out at the sky. Her face pale and expectant, it looked like from my sidewalk point of view.
And Shanty ran out of the door when I opened it, even though the cold was too much for him I knew, fur coat or no, and I tried to reach down and scoop him up before he leapt from the step, but the boy—his name? Trevor, I think. Or Terrence—told me to let him go, he was allergic anyway, and he pressed me to the wall inside the door and kissed me with his teeth as much as his lips, his tongue, like I was something he wanted to chew on. He sunk his fingers into the soft flesh of my hips, making bruises I would find when I slid into my nightgown later. And he thrust against me, ground himself there, and all my cold parts went warm right away, and my mouth hurt but my body felt liquidy and golden, like honey in the sun. He pulled away long enough to scan the living room, the old television, the hook rug, the portrait of my mother my grandfather painted; and I could see he was a mean one, this one, his eyes were marbles and his face was tight. And outside on the stoop, Shanty meowed. Once, twice, then a yowl that followed us to the couch where Trevor-Terrence pushed me back on the butt-worn cushions and didn’t stop although I said no once, a quiet little whisper that even I didn’t believe, a token, maybe, what a girl should do. But this wasn’t my first time so I knew what to expect, what I thought I wanted, and what he did, too. “You’re a big one,” the only thing he said during, and when he was done, he was gone. And so was Shanty.
I stood on the stoop in bare feet and legs, the concrete so cold it burned my soles. I tugged my skirt down over my blue, shaking thighs. The boy was a shimmer far down the street. “Shanty!” I called. “Shanty!” I cried.
And later, it sounded like cats fighting in my dreams, and I woke up to yelling, to howling, and to a car door slamming and tires on the icy pavement. I came to, blinking in the dark, listening before understanding that my mother had come home even though it was not yet morning, and she was downstairs, crying. I found her on the couch, still in her coat and scarf; her lip was bruised and bloodied.
“Mom,” I said, and she looked at me and tried to smile.
“It’s all right, baby. It’s fine.” She stood and hung her coat on a hook near the door and I could see the scrapes on her knuckles. She saw me looking.
“Fucking men,” she said.
And I said, “Yes.” The insides of my thighs still hurt from the bony hips of Trevor-Terrence.
“I’m hungry,” she said. And I said, “yes,” again, because I thought that might be it, that might be what I was feeling, too, an ache and emptiness beneath my ribs. I went to the kitchen and made us cocoa and toast with strawberry jelly, and my mother ate four slices and dabbed at her broken lip with a paper napkin. Later, when I cleaned up, I saw the red on the white paper and didn’t know what was strawberry and what was blood, and I tasted sour at the back of my throat. When we got up the next day it was almost noon and I made pancakes with butter and syrup and cinnamon.
As the winter passed we stayed in nights on the couch with the television going and plates on our laps: spaghetti, beef stew, shepherd’s pie, tuna casserole. Mom would go out just to smoke on the back patio, and I only went out to the front stoop and called, uselessly, for my cat.
When the man my mother had met, the one we’d been waiting for, finally showed up, it was nearly 1 a.m. and I was asleep with my head in Mom’s lap. She slid out from under me, holding me with her little hands and settling me easy on the cushions like something that might break. I pretended to be asleep and through my eyelashes I watched her go to the door, watched the man come in, dirt on his face and muddy to his knees. He hugged her tight and spoke into her hair and I could hear it: stuck…tow truck…walked…so sorry. He sounded like it all hurt him, and like holding her might help. He pulled back and kissed her lightly on the lips, on the neck, on the scars on her arms. He kissed her small hands, open like cups at his chin. The man glanced over her head and at me on the couch, and before I closed my eyes I could see he was fat like Mom, like me, maybe, and he had a soft, round face that looked—well—nice.
They went to her room and I could hear them through the wall. “I’m sorry,” he said, and he said it again, “I’m so, so sorry. Your daughter. Our plans,” he said. “Shhh,” she said, and things rustled and creaked and I got up from the couch and on bare feet I went outside into the night. It was too late for the park, the cops kicked us out at curfew, but that wasn’t where I wanted to be anyway; I hadn’t been there in months. I walked a little, feeling the cement still holding its sun-warmth under my bare feet. In my neighbors’ windows there was nothing but dark, and my shadow under the streetlights looked big and round.
A few houses down a sprinkler—on a timer, I guess—hissed and spit and stutter-sprayed a garden, and a cat jumped out from under the bushes and ran. Shanty, I thought, because now, tonight, when my mother shared her bed with a fat, sorry, nice man, I thought maybe it could be; you never know.
The cat scrambled in my direction, leaping and running and swerving into the street close enough for me to see that it wasn’t my cat, the one I lost, the one I missed. Still, I turned as it passed and watched it run, tail high and legs slightly out of line so it would look bigger. They do that, you know, make themselves bigger to ward off their predators. I watched as he hurtled through the night, wondering where he would go.
I stood on my street, a block from home. Where, I wondered—the ones who are lost—where do they all go?