It was just my mother’s luck: Fred left, and then she couldn’t get her contraceptive sponge out. She had forgotten about it through the long night, as she and Fred had fought and car headlights had panned across my bedroom walls. They’d fought in the living room, in the kitchen, in the hallway, from the toilet. Even after it seemed they had nothing left to say and had collapsed into sleep, my mother’s bedroom door sprang open with a reverberating shudder. “I can’t just lie next to you like everything’s hunky-dory,” she said.
Fred insisted it wasn’t really how she kept the apartment; that wasn’t the point. He shouldn’t have said all that about the place. It was how she treated her lungs.
“Right. So now it’s my smoking.”
“I don’t want you to get cancer and die. If that makes me an asshole, fine.”
“That’s not what makes you an asshole,” my mother said.
I was fourteen. It was my place to lie awake in shifting light as knowledge of men and women filtered in to me from other rooms. I didn’t altogether mind.
“All you want me to do is change,” my mother told Fred. “All I hear is how I’m not good enough.” Then she spoke calmly, as certain people do when facing an irrevocable truth: “You don’t even like me, really.”
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Fred replied.
It didn’t seem to worry my mother how much I heard. If anything, she wanted me to make some noise myself. The morning she’d told me Fred would be moving in, she’d said, “I know what you’re thinking, but it’ll be different this time.” I’d shoveled in the Cap’n Crunch and shrugged. It was my policy to speak as little as possible to my mother and not allow myself to be provoked into any kind of open, honest exchange. That morning, sitting back in her chair, pink robe loosely tied, she’d said, “I wish you’d just let me have it.” She wanted to know how I could sit there eating.
I told her I was hungry.
She lit a cigarette, picked up an envelope from the cluttered table, and said, “Another check with no letter.” It was from my father, who lived in Los Angeles and was a sound technician. Sometimes his name was listed among the credits at the end of a TV show. Every Christmas he flew back east to see me.
“He’s busy,” I said.
She aimed her cigarette smoke at the ceiling. “I give up.”
She was a hostess at DiLilo’s, a fancy center-city restaurant. Her closet was packed with elegant dresses, still in plastic bags from the dry cleaners. She’d bought them at consignment shops or from sales racks in department stores. She had to watch her figure in her profession. She had to glide. On her nights off, she liked to do nothing but smoke Merit Lights and watch hour-long detective dramas on TV. “Give me your dogs,” she’d say, and I’d put my feet on her lap, and she would rub them while smoke curled around us and dust collected on the furniture.
Fred was an auto-body mechanic. All day long he put things right again, and all evening he tried to do the same with us. During commercials he took our mugs to the sink, or banged my mother’s ashtrays into the trash can, or touched his toes twenty times, or flossed his teeth. He seemed to have this idea that he could win at life if he didn’t just sit during the commercials like the rest of us.
“Fred,” my mother would say, “you’re wearing us out.”
He’d swig the last of his beer and walk the bottle to the kitchen trash. Then he’d pull the bag out of the can and take it to the curb.
For the three months Fred had been living with us, he had been nice to me: bought me the Van Halen cassette I’d wanted; remembered my teachers’ names and how I liked my steak. But as I lay in bed watching the car headlights make their circuit of my bedroom walls, I had little trouble sending a telepathic goodbye to Fred, telling him to take care but just go, leave if he was going to leave. He wasn’t the first, and I knew he wouldn’t be the last.
It was right before dawn when he left, and it wasn’t until later that morning that my mother, red eyed and exhausted, tried to remove the sponge.
“I only bought it because of him. ‘I don’t like rubbers,’ he said. ‘I want to feel you.’ He never wanted to feel me. He just wanted to feel good.” She said this to me from behind the closed bathroom door. “You still there, Amy?”
“Yes,” I said, though I wanted to be anywhere else. I hated the idea that a woman could put something up in her body and then just walk around without it falling out. I hadn’t used tampons yet, and when I touched myself, it was always in the dark, under the covers, often over my underpants. I thought of what I had down there as a cleft. But I knew my body also had a tunnel that led to a sort of secret compartment. The idea gave me a touch of vertigo. I felt foreign to myself. I seemed to contain a darkness.
From where I stood, I could see out my mother’s bedroom windows. The blue sky had a few small clouds that appeared motionless, as if stunned by their own icy purity. I wondered what Fred was doing. He hated to let a beautiful day like this go to waste. He liked to drive for miles into the country just for an ice-cream cone. It was that kind of a day, my mother’s room so bright with sunshine that the two forty-watt bulbs burning behind a shell of frosted glass on the ceiling made no difference. Even the traffic had a wholesome sound. It was Sunday, and the sedans that lurched over the uneven asphalt of our busy street would soon be parked, engines ticking, outside churches and diners.
Shadows moved on the bit of bathroom floor that was visible under the door. The water started running. These struck me as good signs: my mother had gotten the sponge out, and we could get on with our day. I thought about what I could wear to Mass, which pants were clean and didn’t make my backside look big, in case a boy was behind me in the Communion procession.
My mother opened the bathroom door and fell against the jamb. Her jeans were up but undone. The sponge’s long sheet of directions dangled from her hand. “It’s stuck.”
My body winced at bone level.
Mass started in forty minutes. I could go with my best friend, Eileen, whose mother would stop at the bakery on the way home. At their house, she would set the box of doughnuts out on the breakfast bar, make us General Foods International Coffee, then leave us alone.
But this was just a fantasy. I knew that the stuck sponge was somehow going to keep me with my mother all day.
“Come on,” she said. “Get your sneaks on.”
I followed her into the living room. “Where are we going?”
She sat on the noisy wicker chair and pulled on a cowboy boot. Our cat Betty had her entire head stuck in the empty box of Triscuits that I’d finished off the night before. On the couch an ashtray teetered on the edge of a bright afghan; some ash had spilled on the upholstery. Most days I didn’t mind the mess. It told me that I was home, where I could sit in front of the television with my shoes on the furniture and eat slice after slice of hard salami right off the deli paper. But that morning the trash everywhere disgusted me. My mother couldn’t get her life in order. No wonder Fred had left her. She couldn’t do what others seemed to accomplish easily: hide their shortcomings behind a carefully arranged facade.
“Well, we could go to Mass and spend an hour praying this thing just drops out of my twat,” my mother said, pulling on the other boot, “or we could go to the emergency room and get it out for sure.”
Her tough talk was an act. Earlier that morning she hadn’t been so tough. Just after Fred had left, in the blue light of dawn, she’d gotten into my bed and curled against me so that the only thing for me to do was hold her. Now it was all “twat” and cowboy boots. She was performing, and I was her audience, supposed to admire her grit — or, if not, at least be shocked and dismayed, show some kind of emotion, even disgust.
But I gave her nothing. By the age of fourteen, I had mastered how to empty my face of any expression whenever my mother looked to me for a response.
She said, “You can pray for my soul the whole time. Just blame it on me. I’m sure God’ll forgive you.”
I blinked once, to show her my level of amusement, which was equal to that of our cat. “We didn’t go to Mass last week either,” I said. Over the phone, Eileen had listed for me the cute boys who had filed past her pew.
“Would you just forget about Mass?” My mother zipped her jeans and buttoned the button. She had large gray eyes that she could pin you with. I understood why men were attracted to her. Her wavy brown hair fell to her shoulders in a way that invited you to touch it, then touch the shoulders beneath. Her hair was naturally straight, but the curling iron remained plugged in and turned on by the bathroom sink, its switch pushed to “low,” despite a sturdy tag warning against the dangers of electric shock. Even that morning her hair looked good. She must have fixed it while she was in the bathroom trying to remove the sponge. But her eyes were unmade up and sore looking, and her lips looked colorless and thin.
“Can’t you wait,” I said, “and go to the doctor tomorrow?”
“Amy, I want this thing out of me now.” My mother grabbed her coat and tossed mine to me.
“God, can’t I even get my shoes on?”
She was busy looking through her pocketbook for keys. “Since when are you such a Holy Roller, anyway?”
The emergency room turned out to be a lot like Mass: I was bored and seated on a hard bench, and the time stretched on much longer than it should have. I kept my puffy coat on and ate a Milky Way. Sharp planes of beige wall rose to a faraway ceiling cluttered with vents and sprinkler heads and blinking devices. The building made a low hum that seemed to be related to the greenish light. Patients in need of care sat on burnt orange benches or gray chairs bolted together in short rows. The chairs had mesh seats that would have left pink grids on the backs of people’s thighs, except it was winter, and there weren’t any bare thighs.
A young man holding a bloody rag to his arm took a seat across from me. He was alone and had short, dark hair and black stubble on his face, no coat over his gray sweat shirt. His right sleeve was pushed up, exposing a hairy forearm with a thick cut across the top. The rag he held against it looked to have been torn from a thermal undershirt, and he kept lifting it to look at the cut. His emergency was the most dramatic in the room, but that’s not why I kept looking at him. It’s simply that he was the only young man, and he happened to be sitting across from me. He had a coarse masculinity that I found unappealing but intriguing. And he was the perfect age: too young for my mother, too old for me.
It took a few seconds for me to realize that he was staring back at me. His dark eyes, set deep under a thick brow, regarded me flatly. I looked away and ate the last bite of my chocolate bar. His gaze made me feel hot and uncomfortable, and I wanted to dissolve into the seat the way the chocolate dissolved in my mouth. I put the candy wrapper in my coat pocket, then glanced at the man again. His eyes had more life in them this time, as if he were really seeing me, registering this weird girl staring at him. I let my gaze wander to a young woman reading a hardback novel, a urine sample on the chair next to her. I was burning up in my coat, but I didn’t consider taking it off. When I looked at the man again, I noticed, with both disgust and fascination, that he had hair growing on his neck. He dabbed at the cut on his arm.
My mother leaned against me conspiratorially and muttered, not quietly enough, “I can’t believe that bitch behind the window made me tell her exactly what my problem was.” She had her pocketbook open on her lap and was digging through it, as if to give herself something to do. “You just know all the hens back there are having a good laugh on me.” She put two orange Tic Tacs in her mouth and rattled the case at me, offering some. I shook my head within the puffy hood of my coat. “Look at her,” my mother said.
The receptionist at the window was your average middle-aged, overweight woman. She had short brown hair that she had probably permed herself. I knew what my mother wanted me to see in her. And I did see it, because my mother had taught me well. In that woman I saw a clean sink with no dishes, a clean soul with no passion.
“She wouldn’t know an orgasm,” my mother said, “if one bit her on the ass.”
Then she looked at me with just a slip of a smile, waiting for a response. I emptied my face like a wastepaper basket. I held my face upside down and smacked it till every last bit of expression fell out. I stayed that way until my mother sighed and picked up a magazine.
Again the man and I met each other’s eyes, then looked away. We weren’t flirting; our little game seemed more a bother for both of us than anything else. Once, he rolled his eyes and scanned the walls, as if looking for a clock or a television set that wasn’t there. I tried staring at my lap, but that was too depressing, because my thighs, spread flat against the seat in my sweat pants, seemed enormous. It was all my mother’s fault that I was in this awful place wearing these awful clothes and staring at this stupid guy I didn’t even like. It didn’t occur to me to blame Fred, even just a little bit. It didn’t occur to me then that he was at least partly responsible for the stuck sponge. Regarding Fred, my only fleeting thought was this: He would have been able to get the damn thing out.
We waited for another hour on the hard orange bench. My mother made a trip outside to smoke and another to the bathroom. I returned to the vending machines for a bag of chips. We flipped through magazines. Nurses holding files called out names, and people rose in response. Running my fingers over my face, I discovered with alarm a pimple on my jaw. All the while, the man and I looked in each other’s direction, then looked away. Thankfully my mother didn’t notice, because if she had, she would have made some joke about his being my “boyfriend.” She picked up my hand and squeezed it. “Fred just didn’t know how to give,” she said. “He thought he could whack all the dents out of us.”
That’d be a lot of whacking, I thought. It was a response my mother would have loved. She would have thrown back her head and laughed. But I kept it to myself.
“You know,” she said suddenly and loudly, “I’m sick of getting the silent treatment from you.” She stood up and slung her pocketbook over her shoulder. “You think you’re punishing me, but really you’re just punishing yourself.”
I tried to burrow deeper into my puffy coat.
“I’m going for a smoke,” she said. “Get me if they call my name, all right? . . . All right, Amy?”
“All right. God.”
She walked away. My face burned. The man smiled sadly as if sorry for me, the girl whose mother had made a scene. I made a face at him, a grotesque face, a face that sprang out of me as if it had been coiled up inside for years: my neck jutted forward, the right corner of my mouth lifted in a snarl, my eyebrows shot up, and my head waggled. It was a face that said, What the fuck are you looking at, asshole?
Stunned, the man looked down at his lap. Breathing fast, I stared again at my thighs, which seemed even more enormous than before. They were like a fat Fuck you! to the world, and if I hadn’t been so disgusted by them, I might have been proud.
The man stretched to pick up a magazine several seats away. I picked one up, too, then put it down. My face felt as if it were still somehow contorted. Nobody else seemed aware of what I’d done. Again I felt this was all my mother’s fault. She was taking too long with her cigarette on purpose, just to increase my misery. I imagined her outside, complaining companionably with some other smoker about the receptionist, the wait, her thankless teenage daughter.
When I heard my mother’s name, I lifted my head. The nurse who had spoken held a file and a clipboard and was looking out over the crowd in the waiting area. Blushing — the man had to be looking at me — I stood up. I could see that the nurse thought I was Renee Marcus. Why wouldn’t she? For a moment I was tempted not to say anything, to walk back there with her and play dumb and let the doctor examine me and find nothing. Then I told the nurse that I’d get my mother.
The air outdoors was fresh and cold. White sunlight bounced off the cars in the lot. My mother stood alone, slumped against the beige brick wall beside a trash can with an ashtray on top. She had her sunglasses on and was holding her coat instead of wearing it. Seeing her just slumped there, not even bullshitting with anybody, made me feel sorry for her — but not for long. I was ready for this to be over.
“Come on,” I said. “They’re ready for you.” I went back inside without waiting on her. “She’s coming,” I told the nurse. Then I sat down again, in a new spot, away from that guy.
When my mother came in, still wearing her dark sunglasses, I saw that she had been crying: her nose was red, her lips a thin line. She was hurting, and here I was making it worse for her. But she was the one putting me in this position. It wasn’t my fault. I was just a kid.
No, even I knew that was crap: as soon as you wonder if you’re still young enough to get away with being cruel to your mother, you are no longer young enough to get away with being cruel to your mother.
I figured my mother would follow the nurse without a word to me. I figured she would ignore me, to punish me. In a way I hoped she would, so that I could go on punishing her. But instead she came over and took my hand. Hers was freezing.
“Will you come with me?” She turned to the nurse. “Can she come with me?”
“Shouldn’t be a problem,” the nurse said, and she turned for us to follow her.
Wait! I wanted to shout even as I stood up. I wanted to scream it, make the whole hospital shut down. Couldn’t I just stay in the waiting area? But the nurse moved quickly. My mother held my hand. We were already going through the double doors.