Thursday, May 7, 2015

Black Velvet Band

My mother had a gift for killing me regularly with very carefully chosen phrases.  I wish you could have heard the way she said them.  You, too, would have died.

"You look cute" was among her favorites.   Another was "Have a good time."

These gems were unleashed whenever I got ready to leave the house.  They were meant to discourage my confidence.  To temper my enthusiasm with self-doubt and guilt, hopefully preventing too much fun and the harrowing possibility of a careless pregnancy.

I shook off these manipulative attacks like a rhino with a poison-tipped spear in its flank.  I was going out, damn it.  And I was determined to have fun and sex and more fun.  Ideally, in that order.

"Have you even looked in the mirror?" she sneered, as I hustled past her down the front steps.  "Get your ass back inside and wipe that warpaint off your cheeks."

Mom sat in her beach chair, smoking a cigarette and pretending to read "The Thorn Birds."  There's no chance in the world she ever finished that book.  It had way too many pages.

"How am I supposed to check my face?  You took the mirror," I called boldly over my shoulder and kept walking.

It's true.  Mom got pissed because of all the hairspray, and she lifted the mirror right off the bathroom door.  We lived like daytime vampires.  No reflections, super pale skin.  Of course now, I understand where she was coming from.  I'm cleaning sinks and toilets all the time, and it's a grind.  That AquaNet was some unforgiving lacquer.  It left a film on everything.  I would have blown my stack if I were her.

"It's as if you're asking to get raped," she yelled after me.

"Nobody asks, Mom!  It just happens."

I feel compelled to clarify that my mother loved me very much.  Because I know the pictures I paint with the words that I choose sometimes make it sound as though she were a monster, and she wasn't.  She just didn't want anything bad to happen to me.  She would sooner beat the living shit out of me herself than watch somebody else do it.  Intimidation tactics were her most creative defense against the unknown.

I tried to tow the line, even though the line kept moving.  I longed to be the good girl she wanted me to be, but the demands were so fucked up.  All that twisted talk was really confusing.  If I had the help of an interpreter who could translate her emotional frustration, then maybe I might have been able to understand what she was going through.  We didn't have emotional frustration when I was young.  It hadn't been invented yet.
I called my mother five days after the hurricane.  We still had no power, but when I picked up the phone, the dial tone had returned.  It was also my birthday, and I couldn't bear the thought of her not knowing where I was.  Not one moment longer.  Although I did see myself as a victim of my mother's cruelty, the world was still very much all about me.

My father answered, and we had a lengthy four second conversation.

"Hi, Dad."


"How are you?"

"Good.  Lemme get your mother."

He yelled to her, and I heard the sound of her plastic slippers flopping down the stairs.  I wanted to squeeze myself through the phone wire so she could pin my shoulders against the kitchen wall again and scrub my face like when I was a kid. Yank my wrist backwards and tuck it under her armpit as we crossed the street. Rub my chest with Vicks when I was sick and sing old Irish songs.

I heard my dad tell her, "It's the kid."

And she asked, "Mary?"

There was excitement in her voice.  But by the time the phone changed hands, she was cold and guarded.  Poised to attack.


"Hi, Mom.  It's me."

"I know it's you."

My heart sank.  It had been more than six months since our last argument, and she was still angry.  Still holding her breath, waiting for me to say she was right and I was wrong.  Or so I perceived.  I spent most of my young life trying to guess what the fuck was going on.  But I could only see things one way.  My way.  Same as her.

"Guess what.  I got married."

"I heard."

I couldn't imagine how.  I hadn't spoken with anyone from back home.  But Jason's mother knew.  She wasn't all that thrilled with the news, either.  Perhaps they'd gotten in touch with one another.  I would've loved seeing that introduction.  Two completely different women, forced together through concern for their children's impractical choices.

"And I'm gonna have a baby."

"Well, I figured that."

Her comment crushed me, and she knew it.

"How in the hell are you gonna manage with a baby?"

"Whaddya mean?  I'm doing good."  I tried to sound sturdy.  I added, "We're doing good," for emphasis.

She picked right up on my insecurity and moved in for the kill.

"There's no 'we' in your situation.  That poor boy is carrying you.  You're dead weight."

"I'm not.  God, why do you hate me so much?"

"I don't hate you," she said.  "You hate yourself."

"You know what, Mom?  I gotta go."

I hung up the phone.  I felt all the heat in my body swirl around my heart, travel up my neck and settle into my brain.  I started crying inconsolably.  Pulling my own hair and shouting "Bitch!" into the quiet aftermath of our exchange.  I never cry like that anymore.  If I did, I think I'd scare myself.  I slammed the receiver down a few more times.

All in all, I thought the conversation went pretty well.

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