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."
I watched my mother disappear down the block, between faceless forms fighting toward Fifth Avenue. When she was out of sight, I turned off the lights. The house was narrow and dark. It was dead. I picked up Snowy and bounced her up and down like a baby. She hissed, so I let her go. I went up to my mother's room and turned on the lights. I watched pools of warmth pierce dusky pinks. I went through her closet. I opened her drawers. I tried on her clothes in front of the mirror. Her shirts were too big. The bras hung flat like deflated balloons. I put on her robe and tied it over my bony hips. The hem rippled into pools around my feet. It was silky and cool on my skin, and I imagined it caressing soft curves. I lay down in it on her bed, on the rose comforter that caught dry skin in its delicate folds. I let the hem trail out over my pointed toes. I reached for the pack of cigarettes on her nightstand, and the lighter. I rested my neck against the lacy white pillows. I lit a cigarette and let the smoke roll around in my mouth. I forced it out in light gray clouds that drifted toward the ceiling. I let the ashes fall into the marble bowl beside the picture in its silver frame. It was a picture of my mother and father sitting in the sand on the beach at Quogue. It had always been there by the bed. It was beside his untouched pillow, like a trophy. He spent his nights in safety behind the closed door of another woman's room. I lay there as the room grew darker and shadows melted across the rug. I was listening for the sound of the downstairs door, and her faltering steps across the floor. But she didn't come back until late. I fell asleep like that, lying there in her clothes.
I DIDN'T hear her come in until the bedroom door banged open. I sat up, shaken out of sleep. My mother stood there, leaning on the arm of a man. I rubbed my eyes. The man was someone I had seen at the Christmas party at Mrs. Brink's, in The Dakota. All the distinguished and lonely people gathered there around a tree. My mother took me every year. She would say, "Here's the place to find him, just you wait." The man had poured my mother champagne. He had looked down her dress. He had rested his hand on her forearm and fingered the shiny red sleeve. His hair was gray around the sides. He looked like someone's father, or a teacher who smoked cigars. I covered myself with the comforter, pulling it up over my chin. I was hiding the robe. My mother was swaying slightly, and the man was helping to hold her up. His arm was around her shoulders. She said, "What are you doing in here, Samantha?" Her hair was falling over her face. She said, "That's my daughter. She's playing Mother."
I said, "I'm not. I've been waiting up."
The man pushed my mother forward. He urged her gently into the room. My mother pulled him across the carpet. She dragged him over to the bed, where I was still sitting, hidden beneath the comforter. She snaked her arms up around his neck. She pressed her lips to his cheek. She dangled there. She swung her hair back through the air. I imagined his neck smelling of the musk that rich men wear. I supposed that she would never want to lift her head up from it. The man was laughing. I thought he might drop her. He said, "I think you should get in bed, Linda." He rubbed her shoulders. He said, "Lie down."
She turned around. She bent down. She leaned her arm on the side of the mattress. She pushed her hair out of her eyes. She stared at me. She said, "I can't, Frankie. Someone is sleeping in my bed."
I rolled over to the other side, where the sheets were cold. I kneaded the feather folds with my fingers. My mother threw herself down on the bed. She crawled toward me, across the comforter. She put her face up to mine and pointed her finger toward the door. Her hot breath was bathed in bourbon. "Get out," she said. "We want to be alone."
"I want to be alone." I said this. I spun out from under the covers and landed on the floor, spread-eagled, with the gauze robe around my thighs.
My mother peered down at me over the edge of the bed. She said, "Take that off -- it's mine."
But I didn't. I ran out of her room and slammed the door.
LATE in the morning I heard him leave. I heard my mother follow his heavy steps, softly down the stairs. I heard her laugh. I heard the gentle rise of her voice in the hall, heard the door close quickly on a gust of winter wind. I was sitting in the kitchen doing homework. I put my name at the top, with the date in French. I drew a straight line down the center of the sheet to separate words. I organized definitions and dotted my is.
My mother said, "Sammy?" She was standing in a patch of sunlight on the tile floor. Everything was soft. Her hair fell around her face in luscious, long ripples. She didn't look like anyone's mother. She looked sugarcoated and candy-floss sweet. She was smiling. The cat was winding around her ankles. My mother said, "I forgot to feed Snowy. I guess she's hungry." She bent down and ran her finger over the head of our cat and down to the end of her sassy tail.
I said, "I did it," even though I hadn't. I was looking at the dictionary. I said, "I did it when you were asleep with him." I turned some pages.
"Him --" My mother pulled out a chair and sat down. "His name is Frank. Mr. Cooke." She rested her elbows on the surface of the table and leaned her face in the cup of her hands. She said, "Look at me." I looked up from the page, though I didn't want to. To look at her hurt. My mother was soft where I was angles. "I want you to like him, Sammy," she said. "I think he'll be good for us."
I said, "Okay." Just like that.
"He's going to be around a lot. He's not just someone I met in a bar." My mother stood up. She turned to go. She said, "So no guilt. I'm doing this for you." She said it over her shoulder. She didn't even mention my suspension.
IN the following days my mother dressed before noon. She would kiss me on both cheeks. She would ask about school. She fluttered over floors in floppy white slippers, straightening slipcovers and beating cushions. She would say, "Consuela doesn't get it. I can't believe it. I never knew." She hired the Clean Team. They were dressed in white suits. They ran through the house in droves like ants. They polished windows and oiled hinges. They rearranged the rooms. My mother stood with one hand on her hip, nodding her head. She said things were coming together. She said she loved feeling that her life was under control.
My mother was cooking. She was trying out recipes. She would leave them warming in china terrines. She would bend over the stove. She would shove spoons in my mouth and tell me to try, taste, savor, smell. She said, "I want things to be perfect for him. I want to do everything I can, Sammy."
My mother was having Frank to dinner. She said, "Call him Mr. Cooke. I'm cooking for Mr. Cooke." She laughed. She spent the day stirring over the stove, and the early evening getting ready. I sat on the edge of the bed watching my mother pull heavy hangers from the closet. She was standing in front of her full-length mirror. She was turning around, looking over her shoulder at the curve of her back in a red silk dress. She said, "Frank likes me in red." She said, "Sammy, do you think I'm sagging?" She went over to the nightstand and took a sip from her drink. The ice cubes chimed happily. They hit the curved sides of the glass. She looked at me. She was holding the glass up close to her neck. She ran one finger around the smooth wet rim. She said, "Sincerely, how old do I look?"
I said, "I don't know. You're my mother." I stared at the wall.
My mother raised the drink to her lips. She said, "You know just what to say." She swallowed. Her lips left a deep full print on the edge of the glass. She crossed the room slowly, over the warm, lamplit rug. She sat down at the vanity table and moved her face close to the mirror. She was tracing her fingers over her skin, running them lightly along the creases of time. She kissed the edges of her eyes with her fingertips, and traced the faint lines that ran from her nose to the corners of her mouth. She lit a cigarette. She said, "I don't think Frank likes me to smoke."
I said, "Then why are you?"
"Because I have to," my mother answered. "Because I'm nervous. You wouldn't understand what that means. You don't understand much, you're so young." She turned around in her chair and looked at me. She sucked in hard on her cigarette. She said, "You know what the greatest thing about being young is?"
I said, "No."
"You have no idea what it's like to be old." The ice was melting in her drink. The lime was growing tired in the glass.
I got up off the bed. I said, "Is Frank going to sleep here again?"
"Yes!" My mother stood up. "That's what boyfriends do." She flipped her hair over her shoulders then, and smiled sweetly. She moved closer to where I stood. Her face went warm. She was going to try to make me understand it. "Do you have a boyfriend, Sammy?" she said.
I wasn't going to answer this. I made a face. I wrinkled up my nose.
"Come on," my mother teased. "I bet you do." She moved closer. She lunged forward. She grabbed my shoulder fiercely. She smelled like lilies and gin and ashes. She ran her hand quickly over the flat front of my shirt, over the aching points on my chest. She laughed. "You have little boobies, Sammy!" She crowed.
"I don't!" I said. I shook myself free from her grasp.
"Oh, but you do, you do." My mother's teeth gleamed white beneath heavy red lips.
I ran out of the room. I slammed the door.
WHEN I came downstairs, my mother was stirring something on the stove. She was wearing an apron over her dress, and cursing to herself quietly. She said, "I should have known I couldn't handle this shit!" She turned around when she heard my steps. The combs were falling out of her frizzing hair. Sweat was forming on her brow, and her makeup was smeared. She said, "Don't you look pretty." She said, "Will you go talk to Frank, please? He's sitting in the living room." She turned her attention back to the stove. She said, "Ask him what he'd like to drink."
I was wearing a dress my mother had bought for me, red like hers. It had long sleeves and a scoop neck. It fell above my knees, and I could feel it cool and smooth on my skin. I could feel the hem rustle against my thighs, over the thin nylon that clung to my legs. I stepped across the cold tile, over the black and white squares in the hall. I listened to the sound of the heels of my shoes graze the surface of the glassy floor. I tucked my smooth hair behind my ears. I opened the living room doors. He was sitting on the couch my father used to like. It was the one by the fireplace with the heavy arms and the high back. He was turning pages in a photography book about Long Island Sound.
I said, "We go there sometimes. We have a house in the Hamptons."
He looked up. He smiled at me. He said, "Well, if it isn't the little bedroom wonder."
I could feel my cheeks grow hot like my dress. I brushed my hair over the sides of my face. I looked at the floor.
Frank cleared his throat. He said, "I go there in the summers too." He said, "That's where I first saw your mother. I fell in love with her from afar. She was wearing a flowered bathing suit at the beach." He smiled. He said, "I never saw you."
I said, "Oh, I didn't know you knew her before." I walked toward the fire. I said, "My mother's making coquilles Saint-Jacques."
Frank had on a turtleneck and a blazer, and the book was in his lap. He closed the heavy cover and put the book on the floor. The fire's shadows and light danced over his face. The flames reflected in his spectacles. He took them off. He folded them gently in his large hands. He put them in his breast pocket. He looked at me. I was watching the fire. He said, "What in the world is Cocky Saint Jack?" I thought he was funny. I laughed.
He said, "I'm not very good at French. Not like you."
I said, "I'm not either. I'm really not." I told Frank I had been kicked out of French class. I said, "I got in trouble for writing out verbs on my thigh, all the way up to here." I put my hand on my hip. I said, "I was wearing a skirt."
Frank laughed. He said, "You're a clever girl, then. That's how you make it in this world. You've got it all figured out."
I could hear my mother banging pots in the kitchen. I smiled. I brushed my hair back behind my ears. I let my little pearls twinkle in the light. I said, "I'm supposed to ask you what you want to drink."
He said, "Well, Samantha." The way he said my name sounded old. He let it roll off his tongue. He softened the sound. He made it round. He said, "I would like to have a Mount Gay and tonic, with a twist of lime. Do you think you could make that?"
I went over to the bar behind the piano. I searched through the bottles. I lifted them up in the dim light and stared at the names. I set them down heavily, and they clinked together on the mirrored shelf. Clear amber liquid swayed in the bottoms of mysterious bottles. I said, "I found it, Frank." I smiled at myself in the mirrored shelf. I was wearing lipstick. It made my skin look pale and smooth.
Frank said, "Half and half. Half rum, half tonic, on ice."
I bent over low beneath the shelf to reach the tonic. I felt my dress rise over the backs of my thighs. I dropped the ice cubes slowly into the bottom of the heavy glass, hearing the sound of each one fall crisply against another. I poured in rum. It swelled slowly around the cubes. I poured in tonic. I watched the bubbles rise and break through the tinted drink. I said, "Now lime?"
"Yes," he said. "Just squeeze a little in."
I rubbed the green slice between my thumb and forefinger. I kneaded out the juice and the seeds onto the surface of the drink. I walked over to Frank. I held the cool glass back from him, against my chest. I said, "I hope it doesn't taste bad."
He said, "You taste it, and then tell me."
I lifted the drink to my lips. It smelled strong, biting. I curled my lips slowly around the smooth rim. I tilted the glass, felt the coldness drip between my lips. It stung. It brought tears to my eyes. I swallowed. "I think it's good," I said. I gave it to him.
He took it in one hand. It was a large hand with wrinkles. It was rough like a cowboy's, like the hand of a man who throws lassos, like Ralph Lauren. Frank sipped his drink. He said, "Perfect. Sit down." He patted the cushion beside him.
I sat. The softness melted beneath me. Frank smelled like after-shave, like musk, and I felt warm beside him there by the fire. He reached out. He ran his fingers through my hair. The roughness made my scalp tickle. He cleared his throat. He said, "You look so much like your mother, except for the hair, your lovely brown hair."
I leaned over. I snuggled up close to his ear. I shielded the side of my mouth with my hand. I whispered, "My mother's hair is only dyed blonde. It's not real."
I saw the smile spread across the side of his face, and his mouth opened slowly as he began to laugh.
I said, "And she smokes cigarettes all the time."
His eyes crinkled at the corners. He said, "I won't tell. The secret's between you and me." He put his hand on my shoulder. He squeezed it gently.
My mother was standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips. The light was behind her, and it made her hair glow softly. She had let it down to fall around her long neck and smooth shoulders. She said, "Dinner's ready." She smiled sweetly.
On the way in, she pinched my arm hard. She pushed me up against the side of the doorway. She put her mouth close to my ear. She smelled of gin. Her voice was thick. She said, "Go away, Sammy. We want to be alone."
I SAT upstairs with Snowy. Our stomachs rumbled. I closed the door of the den. Neither of us could get out. The cat kept rubbing against it, as if the wood were a person she could charm. It wasn't. She wasn't charming me. I could still hear through the closed door. Their voices were that loud. The sound of my mother laughing furiously, trying too hard, traveled up the stairs. I imagined her drink clutched like a pillow, lipstick staining her teeth. The thought made my stomach hurt. They would be eating dessert if my mother remembered to serve it. I smoothed my hair in the soft face of the mirror. I pinched my cheeks to make them red. I opened the door. I went downstairs.
I crossed the light-stained marble. The dishes were strewn over the dining-room table. My mother's hair was tossed wildly. She was talking too loudly. Frank was quiet at the other end of the table. One hand was supporting his chin. My mother had her elbows on the table. She had told me never to do this. She would say, "Men don't like it when women act like them. It's not demure."
I stood in the doorway only for a moment, but my mother saw me. She started to stand. She said, "Sammy," as if she were pleased to see me. "Isn't she young and pretty, Frank?" My mother reached her arm out to welcome me in. Her heavy rings hit the wine bottle with a sudden chime. The bottle teetered and fell. The liquid spilled over the white tablecloth. It coursed toward her quickly. My mother moved to catch it with her napkin but it spilled over the end of the table, staining her dress a deeper red, as if someone had shot her. Frank stood up. He looked embarrassed. She said, "No, no. Don't move. Really, I'm such a klutz." My mother had already forgotten I was there. She moved toward the door. "I'll just go change."
"Are you sure you're all right, Linda?" He started to take her arm. My mother was unsteady. She brushed away his hand. "I'll be just a minute." She breezed by me. She tossed her hair. I saw her stumble when she reached the banister. She clutched the mahogany with one hand, the molding with the other. She led herself upstairs.
I said, "She gets nervous when she cooks."
Frank said, "I understand." He walked toward the hall closet and reached for his coat.
I said, "Do you want me to make you another drink?"
"No, thank you, Samantha." He turned around to face me, his coat over his arm. He said, "I think your mother's had enough for the both of us." He winked at me, as if we had a secret joke between us. "She should sleep it off." Frank pushed his arms into the sleeves of his coat. He really was leaving.
I tried to get between him and the door. I touched his arm. I fingered the wool. I looked up into his face. I said, "You didn't have dessert."
He stepped around me. He said, "That's all right. I'm sure it's good." He had the knob in his hand.
I said, "She'll be down."
He smiled. He chucked me under my chin. "Tell her thank you." He said it just like that. He opened the door. The pane of glass rattled when his shoe knocked wood. He closed it behind him. Frank was gone, and he didn't look back.
My mother was standing at the top of the stairs. She was wearing her robe. "Where is he?"
I didn't answer. I watched her descend. The thin white robe trailed behind her, illuminated sheer and gauzy by the lamp in the alcove. "What did you say to him?"
I said, "He left. I was trying to stop him."
My mother just stood there. She touched her face to make sure all the features were in place. She smoothed the front of her Ginger Rogers robe. All at once her cheeks were smudged with black mascara. Her face unraveled with tears. "Well, what did he say?"
"He said thank you," I answered. "He said he was sorry but he had to go. He said he had fun."
My mother stared at her reflection in the clear face of the door.
"He said he'd call you." I added this, but it didn't work.
My mother sobbed. She crumpled. The glass pane shook. She was beating her fists on it. The cat, perched on a step, was staring, mesmerized by my mother's motion. I wanted to kick it. Instead I opened the door. I stepped out into the night. For a few paces I followed a figure. The figure retreating might have been anyone's. I stopped where I was. I called, "Hey!" But I hated the sound of my voice, small and shaking. Snow was beginning to fall in soft flakes.
The city was silent, as if it had died. I knew my mother was standing behind me, there in the cold draft by the door, searching frozen patches of light. I imagined her breath held in her chest in the darkness. She was staring out at the street, at me standing there in my red dress just like hers. Car lights rounding corners played across wet cheeks. She was waiting, praying he'd turn around and come back. I was waiting too. I was wearing my mother's disappointment like a tired old face. I turned around in the sleeping street. I faced our house, tall and thin. It was spotted with one lone light, breathless, awake, and silent.
Liza Ward studies creative writing at the University of Montana.
Illustrations by Kari Alberg.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 2000; Unraveled - 00.09 (Part Two); Volume 286, No. 3; page 92-98.
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