So. So here’s a good place for crime. One door in, one door out, confidentiality respected all around. The shrink’s office. The receptionist tap-taps on the typewriter, she’d never notice. Somebody could take a dive out the window down five stories and she’d never notice. And the magazines are old. If you come once a week the magazines are always going to be old. Old and faded as if other mothers suck up the colors while they wait. I’m not her mother, though, but her stepmother.
Adolescence is a tough time at best, the shrink said. He patronized me, the son of a bitch. He looked down his greasy nose and shot me a fat smirk as if he knew from the dark circles under my eyes that I was helpless. She had a rotten start, he snorted. A child’s emotional make-up is formed ages three to seven, he enunciated very carefully as if to an imbecile. That’s me, the imbecile. I’m the one who phoned hysterical demanding that the six-month waiting list was cruel and she should be seen now. Now. But, of course, I signed on late, when she was twelve. Now she’s fourteen. Fortunately, he sighed, we get a chance during adolescence to undo the damage. And I blew it. That’s what you mean, you pompous pig, isn’t that what you mean? She’ll be OK, but of course she’ll need long-term therapy: three sessions a month for her and one a month for the parents, the father and mother, meaning me. Meaning me. So here we are.
There she is behind that firmly closed door chewing her nails and telling secrets. Here I am. Here I am with my dark circles and my hostility obviously a manifestation of paranoid guilt. Relax, relax. Every law in the world grants me the right to presume my own innocence. Breathe easy, take a nap. No need for hostility in a place like this with the vase of carnations on the file cabinet and the soft plastic couch for those of us whose only responsibility is to wait. That’s all. Country music soft on the radio. The receptionist tap-tapping. She has gray permed hair and a print dress, an old diamond ring, she’s probably somebody’s grandmother. Relax.
I did my job. I picked her up when her mother threw her away, I handed her over to the shrink when the time came. I did my job. I’m the stepmother, not abnormally wicked.
“Damn it, damn it.” I screamed. My voice cracked, I screamed like that. The first nice damned day of Spring and my tennis shoes are slopped full of mushroom soup. My hand shook, my head shook; when I’m being unreasonably outraged my head shakes. Easy easy easy. This was my second thought after damn it: when I tell about this later, it’s going to be really funny. (Turns out she’d hidden half a can of soup in the hall closet and it spilled. Crazy teenagers! Ha ha!) So don’t blow it. Don’t make it into something you’ll be ashamed to think about later. I carried the can into the living room.
“Is this yours?” I said, perhaps too quietly. Of course it was hers. She’s the only one who eats mushroom soup undiluted from the can, she’s the only one who smuggles food and hoards it — baloney in her pillow case, a stick of celery going to slime in her boot — as if for inevitable famine. But I thought it was only fair to ask.
“Yes, it’s mine,” she shrugged and began to weep. She had already admitted how pleased her acting teacher is that she always has tears ready to weep. I wondered, easy easy easy, can she also simulate those trapped rabbit eyes darting upward to the ax. “I put it there two days ago when you wanted a sandwich for lunch but I wanted soup so I thought. . . .”
“OK OK, just clean it up,” I said quietly, but perhaps too quietly, my head was still shaking. “Just clean it up, OK?”
I thought I handled that right. I was sure I did that right. She cleaned up the soup then went unbidden to her room and refused to come out for dinner. The shrink says she was punished so often ages three to seven that now, when I only speak quietly in her adolescence, she must punish herself to make up for me. Damn him. Her real mother would’ve left her to starve, her mother left them all to starve until I came along. Damn him. I did that right. Right. Except for screaming. Except for speaking too quietly.
“Aren’t they pretty? My son sent them.”
Turns out I’ve been staring at the carnations.
“How nice. They’re very pretty.”
“Yes, I thought so,” she smiles and resumes tap-tapping.
Twenty minutes into the hour, it’s time to stroll casually to the window and stare out. Of course no one is going to jump because the window doesn’t open. Outside there’s sun, shoppers, vendors. If I believed in God I’d pray for a horrible cold, one of those miserable colds from rushing outside in wet shoes on the first nice day. I’d bundle up with quilts and tea and have no care for anything but my own fever for three miserable days. My own mother used to pray. I used to pray, she’d say once or twice a year during my own long-term adolescent therapy, I used to pray that I’d never have to see a psychiatrist and now it looks like I prayed for the wrong thing, doesn’t it? She used to make a stab at a laugh as if the joke were on her.
“So what do you think of this guy,” I asked my stepdaughter. “I mean, besides his greasy nose and his polyester sweater.”
“Oh, he’s a real jerk,” she laughed and shrugged. “But it’s kind of good to go in there and talk, you know?”
“I remember my shrink was a real klutz. I mean, he wore cashmere sweaters but he always had a cast on something.” We both laughed. “But anyway, it was good, it was a relief to have some place to go where it was OK to be crazy, you know?”
“Yes,” she smiled politely, but that wasn’t what she’d meant.
She isn’t wearing a sweater. The first day of good hot sun, they have the air conditioning on, and I am not the one who catches colds. She is. She walks out into a Spring breeze and comes home sick. She was home shivering and miserable for a week after the cops brought her in out of the rain. The cold was no surprise. The cops were no surprise. I called them. My God, I can’t believe I called the cops. She didn’t come home from school, didn’t come home by eight, there’s an eleven o’clock curfew, finally it was midnight and I called the cops. Her own mother would have locked the door and the hell with it. At least I called the cops. But I’m not her real mother, I had to explain. As her stepmother, I’m not her legal guardian in case anything has to be signed, and her father’s out of town. They told me to fake it.
“Is that music OK? I could change stations.”
The carnations again, with the white bow and glittery card. They stand beside the radio on top of the file cabinet.
“No no, it’s fine. I like country.”
“My son,” she smiles, “he’s a disc jockey.”
“Oh that sounds like fun.”
My son, for Christ’s sake, my stepson is still on the waiting list. At least my stepdaughter doesn’t claim to hate me. And my own little daughter who is only seven, maybe I should sign her up now. All those files.
“So is this his station?”
“Oh no, he’s classical,” she shrugged. She blushed, her smile grew vague as she shrugged back to her typing. “He always did like classical.”
I have proof that I’m not her mother. We like the same music, how’s that for proof? Not country, not even classical, but that wordy one-man one-guitar stuff from my own youth except that what’s wrong with her that she prefers the music of an enemy generation. So I worry about that. Proof. She is fair and I am not. I run to skin and bone and she is soft around the edges. I like the way she dresses even when it’s weird, I wouldn’t mind if she wanted to dye her hair purple. Put that in your polyester sweater and wrinkle it. Except she doesn’t want to. But I was right to call the cops. I saved her from rape or something. What right did you have? What right? What right? she whispered the whole week she was sick, whenever I tried to bring her tea. She got so pale that week whispering I was afraid she’d die. I didn’t call the doctor. I was right to call the cops. I had the right damn it, damn it.
Excuse me, gramma, but I need to remind my stepdaughter of something. I regularly remind her to take her lunch, call when she’s late, brush her teeth. It’s only right that I remind her now that I understand. Remember dear, I’m not your mother. I didn’t start you out this way, it wasn’t me, I didn’t walk out on you, I walked in on you. Remember the difference. I only called the cops because I knew you were getting sick or raped in the rain, because I figured I wasn’t your real mother and didn’t have the right to lock the door. And since I’m here, damn you for giving me the tears you keep waiting for her. Excuse me, gramma.
The receptionist smiles.
She looks at her watch.
I look at mine.
Now I understand why my mother waited for me in the coffee shop. I understand. It’s better than pulling your hair out on a couch that goes poof when you fidget. I understand. Counting the National Geographics, for God’s sake.
“She punishes herself,” he said. He pursed his lips, made a temple of his hands, blew this tidy little item through them. “She punishes herself for her mother.”
I don’t know, I don’t know, I think I was supposed to nod and go aha.
“Look . . . look,” her father whispered. Her father, my husband, he goes cold stone quiet when he’s scared. He passed me her hand to look at. She was behind it somewhere. Me, I go stupid. Her hand had a push pin sticking out of it. There was blood, but not enough for ER. There were scratches on her hand in a pattern. She’s quite an artist, she won a prize for art. I went stone dumb. Somewhere there behind her hand, she shrugged. We were less imaginative when I was a kid. I used a simple razor blade. I remembered seeing the blood bead, realizing with a shock that I was a blooded living thing. So I ought to understand, right? Right?
“It doesn’t mean anything,” she shrugged. The joke was on me. I took the push pin out.
That was wrong. That was cold. I should have wailed and retched or something, should have made a scene, should have slapped her like in the movies for a cathartic end to all this. Anything but so stupid and calm. I just took the pin out and told her to disinfect her hand. But tell me, you granny you file cabinet you couch full of other mothers’ split hairs — but I’m not her mother — tell me, what else could I do?
So here we are.
There she is.
She sneaks through the door with the shrink huge behind her. Her pale crooked smile, she didn’t brush her teeth. The couch goes umph when I rise.
“Well now,” he taps the receptionist’s desk and smiles his thin-lipped smile, his teeth never show. “We had a good talk today, about school, et cetera. Next week I’ll see the parents.”
Meaning whom, sir? Her mother can’t be reached in Utah, you understand, or maybe it’s Mexico. Meaning me, you son of a bitch? He slaps the next file against his thigh and closes the door behind him. I verify next week’s hour. My little daughter who’s only seven likes to push the elevator buttons, but my stepdaughter is too old for that.
“I was thinking,” I say as we fall. “Let’s go shopping. Let’s get you and me some new shoes.”
“May’s is having a sale,” she laughs suddenly, “on their soup-proof tennies.”
We hit bottom. The lobby is cold. She sniffs. She should have worn a sweater. Outside the sun, at last, is grand.
“Wait,” she giggles at the corner. She blushes, rummaging in her big woven sack purse. “For you. This is for you.”
For me, a carnation out of her purse. A sunny big carnation with a mashed stem from being snatched out of the vase in a hurry and specks of glitter from the card. Easy easy do this right.
“It’s Happy Mother’s Day,” she smiles. “Did you forget?”
“I guess.” Do it right. Be easy but firm. This very minute, take her back upstairs in the cold. Make her return it and apologize, a clean common sense move you’ll be proud of later.
“Hey look. . . .” Do it now. Don’t let this be yet another thing that festers, turns to sin.
“Hey listen. . . .”
Except I get stupid, except I get teary here in the damn new sun. Except I love her. My God, both of us damned, I love her.
“Hey thanks, OK? OK?”