I WAS an angel in the fourth-grade Christmas pageant, and my mother didn't come. I wasn't just any angel. I had a solo. I blew the trumpet when Jesus was born. Backstage somebody else's mother pinned on my wings. Her hair was gray, and she had glasses. She sat on a chair, her fat spilling around her. She took the pins out of her mouth and turned me around. She said, "There. Don't you look like a real little angel. Won't your mother be proud!"
I said, "She's not here." I looked the lady straight in her dog-brown eyes. I said, "My mother is in a coma."
The lady's eyes went watery, as if someone had pinched her. I said, "All I want for Christmas is my mother back." That made her cry. My mother would cry when she heard about these lies. She would hold her drink in front of her face, run her fingers through my hair, and shake her head. She would say, "What a messed-up little kid I made."
IN seventh grade I got suspended, for writing out verb conjugations on my leg. I wrote them all the way to my underwear, and during the test I pulled my skirt up over my thigh. Danny Costar was watching me. I cinched it up higher so that he could see the conjugation of vouloir, and Madame Bauvais said, "Mademoiselle Holmes! Qu'est-ce que tu fais?" My mother was asked to come into school for this. She got called, but she never came. She was staring at herself in the bedroom mirror. She was tracing the small wrinkles that creased her face.
The bedroom door was ajar when I came home from school. Through the crack I could see her sitting on a chair in front of the vanity table, and smoke from an ashtray curling up through the light. I walked in. The room smelled stale, like cigarettes and lilies from the silk sachets in her drawers. This was the scent of my mother. I said, "I got suspended."
She didn't turn around. She just kept staring at her reflection in the mirror. She said, "I'm sorry I didn't go." She wasn't even mad. She said, "I thought I would cry. And who wants to see a crying mother when the mother should be yelling?" My mother lifted the cigarette to her lips and sucked. She viciously jabbed the stub against the face of the mirror. It left a dark smudge and rained ashes over her makeup case.
I said, "What did you do that for?"
"Who knows." This was her answer. My mother said, "Why does anybody do the things they do?" She turned her face away from the mirror. She pushed back her chair and stood up. So did Snowy, our Persian cat, who had been sleeping all white and plush on the rug. My mother was still wearing her thin robe, though it was already afternoon. It was the Ginger Rogers one, light and flowing, the one she wore when she wanted to feel wanted. She said a man had given it to her because it clung to her curves. "For example," my mother asked, "why is the sky blue?" She threw off her robe. She let it fall into a heap by the vanity table, and over the twitching tail of our cat. "Or better yet, why" -- she turned away and faced the mirror -- "did I get left alone?" She didn't wait for an answer, though I could have given her one.
My mother stumbled naked into her dressing room. I could hear her pulling open drawers and banging them shut too loudly. I could smell the lily clouds and powder, and over them the faint scent of gin. I could see her arms extend through tight blue sleeves, her legs push through clinging dark denim. Then she was standing, dressed, in the doorway. She began searching around the room, stepping through the thick pink rug on high-heeled boots. I sat on the bed with my legs hanging. My mother picked up a scarf from beside my feet and tied it over her mane of blonde hair. She didn't look at me. She bent to straighten the scarf in the mirror.
I had been swinging my legs, kicking the dust ruffle, watching her move quickly around the room. Now I stood up. I tried to stop her from leaving. I said, "Where are you going?"
"It doesn't matter," she answered. "Nowhere. You're old enough to not know everything I do."
I followed her out into the hall. I followed her down the soft carpeted stairs. She was digging through her purse by the door. I grabbed the hem of her coat. It wasn't long and muted, like other mothers' coats. It was red. I said, "Are you coming back ever?"
She didn't turn around. She was looking for her keys. "Yes, I'm coming back," she snapped. "When have I ever not?" She paused beside the open door in winter light. She pulled gloves on over her slim hands. She lit a cigarette in the frame of the door. The breeze filled the corner of her scarf behind her head and lifted her hair. Then she turned and smiled. Her blue eyes were glassy and bitten by frost. "Hey," she said to me. "Sammy, sweetie --" She sucked in against the wind. "I need to be free. Feel the ground move under my feet a little -- the earth spin in Central Park. I'll be back."