Because my mother's lover left her on the same day I told her I was pregnant, my mother was late for work.
Waitressing second shift at the Best Western means morning for my mother is around noon. Living in Bell, Illinois in a trailer means her frizzy long hair and blue eyeliner make her fit in. Not that she always looked like that -- my existence has made her turn out this way.
Her name is Nora Houston and her left eye is slightly higher than her right. She is thirty-five and I am seventeen. We are members of a race of history-less white people that live each day without the hope that it will provide context for the next. Nora says the only difference between us and white trash is that we know we are white trash. Awareness, she says. The ability to see the category and its characteristics and know you fit the bill.
My father fancied himself an adventurer. There he was, just passing through and he met my mother. Nora, seventeen years old, bright, pretty, a bit shy -- different. Articulate, funny and demure. Maybe they took a day trip to St. Louis. Maybe my mother had never been there and maybe her brown eyes were wide and happy. My father fancied himself an explorer. There were narrow, child-like hips and skin to brush with fingertips. My father's fantasies did not have room for me so my mother, so different and such a find, began fading into this woman. Noon. milk, two teaspoons of sugar, then pour in coffee, trailer, and images inside her eyelids she's never let me see.
Of course, these are simply the musings of a daughter who really has no idea who or what her father was or is or why she does not know. There are other things my mother trusts me with, but not this. For instance, she lets my boyfriend, Carl, sleep with me when we stay out too late or get too drunk for him to drive home. Unfortunately, this is why I am pregnant and she is late for work.
My mother's lover's name is Molly Delia. She is tall and would rather wink than say hello. She welds steel frames for skyscrapers on the second shift. Molly and Nora have been together for five years, long enough for their names to roll off the tongue as a couple. Molly doesn't smoke, except for an occasional joint when I can get it. I've always wondered what Molly knows of my mother's past that I don't. Can she tell me who my father is? Or where he is? Does Nora confide in her? I confide in Carl. . .which brings me back to the present situation.
I am careless. When my mother started me on the pill at fourteen (she said she thought after fourteen she couldn't trust me to be truthful) I took it everyday at the same time because I thought it was crucial to my health. I lost my virginity last year, with Carl, in my room. By this time I was taking the pill rarely at best. I knew what it was for and believed I didn't need it. We used condoms. At first. When we got too careless to use condoms I swore I would start taking the pill religiously again and well, I'm pregnant.
Driving back from the clinic earlier today I passed Molly's pick-up, with her lawnmower in the back, turning onto an entrance ramp to 55 north. I knew she was leaving. She's very serious about her lawnmower. It didn't matter why, just that she was. And my mother, alone in the house with an unashed cigarette between her fingers, not crying. At least that's what Molly always accused her of -- not crying.
They say bad things come in pairs. As I pull into the driveway I put my hand on my stomach.
I enter the house through the front door, which I never do, but I knew that I would see my mother before she saw me this way. And I did see her, frizzy hair falling over back, the broken ends of it near her tailbone. She was at the kitchen table, in her chair, working on one of her "impuzzable" jigsaw puzzles. She's amazing at them. Janis Joplin was on the stereo. "Take it, take another little piece of my heart now, baby." How appropriate. But this was my mother's normal afternoon routine. She gets up around noon, makes coffee and does jigsaw puzzles while listening to Janis Joplin.
Maybe Molly was taking the lawnmower to get it fixed? Then I saw it: my mother pulled a Newport out of the pack, put it in her mouth, and couldn't light it -- she was shaking. I took that as my cue. I shut the front door quietly behind me and walked through to the kitchen. I exhaled and put my left hand on her shoulder, then lit her cigarette with my right.
You never use the front door, she said after she exhaled her first drag.
You usually don't have trouble lighting your cigarette.
Alright, she breathed and almost smiled. I sat down across from her.
The kitchen table is my favorite place in the house. The chairs are made out of the glittery blue vinyl car seats used to be made out of. The table is round, a bit too small, and the same color as the seats. Your thighs stick to the seats in the summer and the vinyl is cold when you sit on it in the winter, but the table is perfect for us. When I first met Molly she was sitting at this table, holding my mother's hand with a "take it or leave it" look on her face. I liked the fact that she didn't hide. There was no "but we're only friends" bullshit with Molly and Nora. I sat down across the table from my mother, where I always sit, I was twelve years old at the time, and smiled. Molly winked.
My mother was grinning like a kid. We were okay sitting there silent, all three of us smug in our own ways. And though my mother and Molly expected all this bitterness and angst from me I simply reveled in my newfound identity. I was the only kid for miles who lived in a gay household. Bell isn't famous for its open-mindedness but the three of us somehow managed to stay in its graces. I still don't know what people said about Nora and Molly behind our backs. Occasionally there were people brave enough to talk about it in front of us. Like my grandmother's friends, who quilted and smoked and chatted all day. I knew they talked about it.
I slept at my grandmother's house quite a bit because my mother was scared to leave me home alone in a town where no one ever locked their doors. Every once in a while I went there straight after school and did my homework on the floor while they worked. These were women who knew about life, or at least other people's lives. My grandmother's closest friend, Ada, literally had blue hair. I remember thinking she must have it done that way to match her eyes -- it made sense to me at the time. I'd work through a series of cursive, spelling, and math as they made their way from Mrs. Slocum's cheating husband (that bastard) to plans for a new supermarket eventually to my mother's newest sin, "I just pray to God Nora eventually finds her way. She'll realize what she's doin' to this girl, here," (at this point the other women looked down, nodded knowingly, and sighed), "she'll know she's victimized this child enough!"
But I didn't feel victimized. In fact, I cherished my family for what it was, mine. I even cherished my grandmother for what she was and what she knew (my father, for one thing. I kept thinking that when she got really sick and ready to die she'd tell me a deathbed secret. Recently, I'd even begun to imagine some sick turn of events like Carl's long-lost father being my long-lost father, too). And as I watched my grandmothers' hands stitch back-and-forth, back-and-forth I'd think about the years of practice she had under her belt and the things she's had to keep tucked away.
She'll most certainly be disappointed. I can't say I'm sure of how Carl will react. He's quiet, mostly, and sad. At school he doesn't play sports or raise his hand a lot. He's not dumb, but he's not quick and kids don't like him. They don't like him because he's poor (really poor) and they avoid him because they're uncertain of his intentions. He walks slowly and smiles rarely, but he's harmless and he dresses the way he does because he doesn't care and he has no money. I love him in a way that sits inside me and stares. A person always knows when they're being stared at, it's unavoidable.
I watch my mother's rhythmic dragging on her cigarette. Neither of us wants to go first.
Molly's gone for good?
The words hang like icicles from the gutter. My mother shudders slightly and says nothing.
Because realization is a process I put my hand on my stomach under the table and push. It doesn't hurt anymore than normal. I push harder. In my mind, I could be my mother at seventeen pushing a fetal me wrapped inside her -- calling me a mistake. Yes, it definitely hurts.
I haven't told Carl.
The one-way conversation is starting to be heavy now. The temptation is to babble, but I let it be.
My mother continues clicking together the pieces of her "impuzzable" -- The Arc de Triomphe, this time. I stand up and wipe down the counters, back-and-forth, back-and-forth. In my mind, I'm listing uncertainties to my mother like they're groceries.
I know you didn't want this to happen to me
I know you think I should get rid of it
I know your lover left you
I know I should tell Carl
I know I'm too young
I know you're going to be late for work
But I don't know very much and the stillness glazes over the putting together of puzzle pieces and the wiping of the counter. This has happened to us.
This has happened to us.
I've never seen my mother cry. Let me rephrase that, I've never seen her cry about something that has happened to her. She cried when I fell off my bike and broke my collarbone because the doctor told her the collarbone was the most painful bone to break. She cried when I explained to her, at six, that I was special because I had an invisible daddy. She cried when one of my teachers referred to me as a bastard in a parent-teacher conference. And she cried when a stray cat crawled into her engine to keep warm and she turned on the car.
My mother and Molly were always affectionate, but I only saw them kiss for real once. I used the front door then because I was tripping and couldn't locate the back of the house in the dark. My mother and Molly (nine inches taller than her) were standing near the kitchen table, arms wrapped around each other, involved. When they pulled away from each other I saw my mother smile. Molly brushed some of my mother's wisps of bangs from her forehead and gathered her hair together at the nape of her neck. My mother leaned her head slightly backwards and Molly kissed her chin, then her neck, then her breastbone. My mother brought her face back toward Molly's and Molly let go of her hair. It spread across my mother's back and back down to her butt. Molly rested her hands there and brought my mother toward her, closer, close. They kissed again, prolonged, indefinite, and wet. Molly whispered something near my mother's smiling mouth and they went to her bedroom. I was breathless, fucked-up, and stunned.
I am taken aback by this memory image in the kitchen now.
This is what my mother has lost.
And she sits stone-faced at the table now, replete with the knowledge that her daughter is pregnant, young, and poor. The loop of history has threaded itself over and on. The context has always been at least this clear.
Molly's not coming back.
Because realization takes persistence my mother mouths the words again, and a third time. Her right hand wavers above the almost complete Arc de Triomphe and then brings it down. Janis Joplin has quit singing.
You should call Carl.
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