In the spring, during long twilit evenings lengthening slowly into night, we watch our mothers change. The pink on the filters of their cigarettes matches the pink on their rounded fingernails. We think somehow this color signals s-e-x, but we don’t understand, and it makes us want to hate them. Their cigarettes are menthol; the pink is frosted, and so are the highlights in their hair. With so much mint and frost, they should be cool, but they aren’t. The heat of the coming summer seems to rise from them.
Spring brings weddings, cocktail parties, cookouts, tennis, and speed-walking. The mothers must get in shape for their bathing suits. At dusk they go to parties on porches and patios, where they meet men whose skin is scrubbed painfully clean. They laugh, pink mouths open wide. They rattle ice cubes in sweating glasses. We stand on grass at the edges and try to catch their eyes — we’re hungry, it’s late, come check our homework — but they look over our heads. We’re too old to tug on their hands, so we go home and eat cereal and kick the walls.
One weekend, when spring is just starting, we go horseback riding. The mothers phone each other and reassure themselves that we will be safe riding horses owned by the slow son of a bank president, whom a mother knows, not socially, but from work. We listen to one side of the phone calls, kneeling on counter tops, searching cupboards for a snack. They talk about their partners for the mixed-doubles round robin. After dinner, we meet on the sidewalk to compare notes. They are giving us to an idiot man so they can play tennis; they didn’t even ask us. Our mouths are dry with resentment and the promise of danger.
The slow son meets us the next day, wearing navy blue pants and a matching shirt; he looks like a gas-station attendant, only without the name on his pocket. His face is blank; expression vanishes from it like spoon marks from pudding, and we are bored with him already. We walk behind him to a small field where the horses are. On the walk we fight over who gets which horse — first dibs on the spotty one, I called first; no, I did — but when we get close we find they are all the same: bigger than we thought, swaybacked, and round-ribbed. We shut up. The slow son holds the stirrups for us as we climb on.
Riding is surprisingly hot, smelly, and bumpy. Our feeling of freedom is blunted by fear and the knocking of our bones. We dig our fingers under the saddles, flat against the horses’ hot skin, and hang on, whooping cowboy shouts to show we aren’t really scared. We are aware of being one bump from the dusty ground and those hard hooves.
After riding in dizzy circles, trees full of new green leaves whirling past us, we swing our legs around and slide off the slick saddles. The slow son gives us cans of Purple Tropical, an exotic soft drink we’ve never even seen before. We sit in the dust, lean back against aluminum siding, gulp Purple Tropical, and pretend it has something in it. We get drunk in the hot sun, laugh loudly, say penis. We ride the fence, get bucked off, roll in the fine brown dirt. At the other end of the field, the slow son unsaddles the horses and brushes them, one by one. The horses’ thick skin ripples and twitches under his heavy hands. Whenever we laugh or scream, he lifts his face to us and smiles. Our disappointment about the horses evaporates. We feel far from home and talk about stealing the rest of the Purple Tropical, hitting the road. We could tie the cans up in a bandanna on the end of a stick. We could ride boxcars to Timbuktu. We could send postcards to our mothers. Then they would be sorry.
A high-school-boy brother picks us up. We pile into his car, dizzy, shrill, and hilarious. We say words only we know the real meanings of — piston, bubbles, sack — and lean into each other, shaking with laughter until the brother blasts the horn and swears at another driver inching into our lane. Then we are quiet, respectful of the job he has to do.
He takes us to a friend’s house, where we are surprised to find all the mothers together in their white tennis dresses, drinking gin-and-tonics. They call for refills, and their breath mists the mirrors; their high notes are going to shatter the glass, we know it. On the blacktop driveway, they grill hamburgers, their noisy laughter swallowing ours. They talk of jobs, co-workers, the knitting addict who was found with needles and yarn in a bathroom stall. They sell houses, make appointments for kids with braces, hire people. They serve us crumbled hamburger bits scraped from the grill. They laugh helpless, defiant laughs, daring us to hate them and their broken hamburgers. If they asked us we would tell them: the house is a mess, your butt is getting fat, I hate that blouse. We almost fit into their clothes now. Afternoons we try them on and smear pink lipstick on our mouths, stand naked in the bathroom and hold their bras before us.
The high-school-boy brother and his friend are ready to leave. The mothers gather around them to tease about girls and grades, to smooth buttons and shoulders. The boys laugh, step up, then back. We think the world might break apart right then and there.
The front door slams behind the boys, and we sneak out the back, slip around the corner of the house to spy on them as they get into the car, roll down the windows, turn up the radio. We whisper plans to follow them on bikes, throwing water balloons — but we let them get away.
Stars come out, and we lie in the yard near the dying charcoal embers and pretend to know the constellations. We can hear the mothers through the open windows talking about our fathers, the latest from Florida, California, Connecticut. We dig our heels into the soft ground, push our bodies toward the back fence until we can no longer hear their words, only their voices, the syllables thick, fermented in some secret, cool place: a cabinet under the sink where they keep douches, razors, and wrinkle cream. We sit up, eat three Little Debbie cakes apiece, lie down, pull our shirts up and compare full bellies. The moon is low. The fathers have wives who are not our mothers. We call the wives by their first names; they try to be our buddies. This summer we will make them take us to air-conditioned department stores, where we will get our ears pierced. When our lobes have healed, they will buy us the earrings we want, big round hoops of bright plastic. This summer we will imagine our mothers at home doing this: grilling hamburgers, misting the mirrors, cutting limes for fresh drinks.
Just as it gets too cold, they call us inside. The light makes us squint. The kitchen is clean. Everyone is tired. We pair off, daughters with mothers, and head through the dark toward our homes. As we step off the sidewalk to cross the street, our hands brush against theirs, and we pause for an instant, almost wanting to lock fingers, hold hands.