strangers didn't look so familiar today, I wouldn't
be standing here, anointed by the pouring rain with
no coat or umbrella to put a barrier between the
elements and me.
ago, a woman stepped into a tall vehicle, loaded
in a child and in that child's pudgy face I recognized
her mother, whomever she might have been: A flash
of white teeth, a flip of hair that looked as
if Jackson Pollock used her head as a canvas for
gray. Maybe we went to school together, or she
was somebody's girlfriend. It doesn't seem possible
that anyone I used to know could be gray-haired.
the face I saw before hers that keeps me standing
here, fixated. I wouldn't be surprised to find
my feet have taken up roots in the cement. I always
vowed that if I found her, I would follow her
until she took me in. I've changed! I would say.
I'm nothing like him, anymore. All this, and it
wasn't even her face for sure, just a long thick
braid, a profile whose angular noseonce
compared to Ingrid Bergmanand sharp line
of jaw sliced off a piece of me. Or maybe gave
a piece back, I'm not sure. I haven't seen her
since, hell, since she was my age. She would surely
have gray hair by now, and if she remained as
sensible as I always thought she was, it would
be cut short, not in a frivolous braid. And so
I stand here, wondering if she was just a phantom
not yet tired of its haunt, afraid to leave this
spot in case I'm wrong.
my mother everywhere. This is the conundrum of
my disappearing parent: she has stuck around and
become more real than before she left. She appears
to me as an impish flash of those fine features
popping up behind curtains, just behind doors,
fading into corners. Gone is the familiarity of
knowing how she walks, or what her perfume smells
like. If I stay silent for a long time, I can
recall the way she used to brush my hair from
my forehead when I kept my bangs long.
need an umbrella," a dirty street bum with
kind eyes says to me. He hands me a soggy paper
bag for my head. I take it, thank him and give
him the five-dollar bill that's crumpled in my
he says, then blows me a kiss.
man I feel I've met in a bar or café somewhere
before gives me the kind of glance that makes
me want to grab him by the collar and say, "What're
you looking at dickweed?" Then I look down
at my rain-drenched self and see that I could
easily be a contestant for a wet T-shirt contest.
Maybe even a finalist. The Styrofoam cup of coffee
in my hand repels water, but my skin drinks it
in, and I feel like a strange fruit, swelling.
There's an odd familial sense that I am related
to everyone passing by on the street and that
if I wait long enough, the world will revolve
enough times, the planets will align, and the
sheer force of life in motion will bring her back
to me. I could wait here until then thinks my
child's mind. But I can't go on standing here
like this. If I haven't already caught a cold,
I'm sure to catch a fine for public indecency.
cars drive past me with wet Christmas trees, freshly
felled, tied to their rooftops. I look for the
shiny faces of children inside, but see only streaky
blurs of flesh tones and colors. Similar to the
way my mother's face feels inside the skin of
somebody to buy me a Christmas tree. I want somebody
to take my arm and guide me to a dry, warm place,
strip me out of these foul wet clothes and wrap
me in a blanket. I muse further on the earthy
tang of hot cocoa and soft ethereal music but
I end up laughing at myself. Motherless girls
do not know these kinds of comforts.
Hah! I'm thirty-two years old. Or am I stunted
in my growth, forever doomed to be twelve years
old, the age when she left me?
least twice a week I dream of hospital nurseries
full of complacent wide-eyed babies. There is
one red-faced screaming cherub I can't forget;
the strain on that tiny face only rage can produce.
Her yelling doesn't interrupt the other babies'
peace. Her yelling doesn't bring a nurse, or her
mother. I wake up every time, my mouth in a grimace
of silent pain.
could curse the fact that I chose to walk downtown
on a day with impending storm clouds. But there
is a certain solace to this soggy discomfort,
like one of the lame best friends I always kept
around as a kid. This sense of punishment is etched
into my daily rituals. She left me, therefore
I am bad. Therapy doesn't cure this thought and
time does not heal all wounds.
ground is slippery, my coffee lukewarm. A speedy
little Miata splashes mulchy water onto the backs
of my jeans. Maybe the driver is someone I know
too. Maybe it's one of my father's young girlfriends.
He likes loose women with fast cars; women who
snap gum and skip meals, and give excellent head.
The last detail I know because he told me, when
I was fourteen, two years after she left us. He
told me this and more as I stood at the sliding
glass door looking out on the Jacuzzi he bought
not a day after she was gone. She would never
have let him buy one with half of her money. I
can still see the expression of befuddled victory
on his face. He had to find a way to win. In one
hand he held a fifth of Jack Daniels, in the other,
a handful of her photos.
wants you to think she left me," his voice
oozed like coal tar. "She had so much pride.
But here's the story, Dana. I want you to listen
good. Women don't leave a man who has everything
to offer." My eyes bounced from his loose
jaw to his left hand where he held fistfuls of
paper. I soon realized he was drowning photos
of her in the Jacuzzi's chlorinated water between
slurred sentences. My knees twitched with the
urge of wanting to run, plunge in, and save those
small pieces of her. What about why she left me?
better get used to this new way of life. We're
gonna wash your mom right out of our hair."
don't want to wash her out. His words incised
the tender parts of my psyche. Why did I think
only women could be cruel? Cruel as the new girlfriends
he paraded into our lives. Cruel as the blunt
edge of ocean slicing away the shore. Cruel as
a mother who had a baby at seventeen and felt
the world owed her adventure and spontaneity her
family could not provide.
one block away now from home and I can't distinguish
my tears from the sky's water. What if it really
was her I saw? If I called her name, or worse,
called out "Mom!" would she have looked
my way? Would she have recognized me, or turned
and run, that long braid slapping her back before
I could catch her? I try to picture her at seventeen,
holding the newborn me in her lap; my father,
a wizened twenty at the time. If only she had
left us then, and I had never known her.
rain is so cold it feels hot on my drowning skin.
I don't see the pothole or feel my heel as it
slides out from under me. I only meet the ground
as if I'd knelt to pray there. Coffee sprayed
in all directions is my libation to whatever force
has chosen me. My knee lights up in a bloom of
scraped, angry flesh. I inspect the dark stain
that spreads up through Calvin Klein's expensive
denim fibers. This urgent pain, the sudden memories,
that shard of her face in the body of a stranger
all remind me that my father broke his promise
to send me the remaining photos of her. Send them.
Though he only lives across town.
my father's first three post-mom girlfriends,
all suspiciously as blonde and dim and phony as
my mother and I were not, I shut her up in a place
way deep inside me. Every time my father made
noisy love to one of his women, my mother opened
up from that store hold in my heart and together
we swore at him, stuffed pillows against our ears
and stomped around my bedroom. I figured she'd
be proud that I was mad at him; that I wanted
to leave him too.
night I turned fifteen, my father invited all
of his friends and none of mine to a birthday
party in my honor. Some bimbo made me a cake;
spelled my name wrong in red icing and I spent
hours on the porch with Frank, my father's best
and oldest friend. He had a chin dimple and a
soft voice. His wife Sarah died of cancer the
same year my mother left. He seemed quiet ever
want to go for a drive?" he asked after cake
had been demolished. My father was off making
merry in some far corner of the house with bimbo-of-the
month and old man Jack Daniels.
I change first?"
said sure. I only meant to change my clothes.
up to the trunk in the back of my closet where
my mother's remaining belongings lived. From the
dark cedar smelling depths I withdrew a pair of
red high-heels, slipped my feet in and buckled
the straps tight around my ankles. I added lipstick
and a flowered summer dress. My bra size had expanded
by a whole cup since the last time I wore it and
my breasts pressed up tight against the material,
lifted themselves like proud royalty to reveal
cleavage my mother had passed down.
didn't conceal his pleasure as I came down the
stairs. He took my sweaty hand. I could smell
alcohol on his pores, but I liked it, it made
me feel privy to a grown-up secret. We drove out
winding back roads without saying a word and I
noticed that Frank was crying silent tears. He
had to pull over so he could wipe them from his
myself by kissing his cheek and then his mouth
found mine and I let his hands reach for me, explore
me, imagining that this was how it felt for my
mother once, when she still loved my dad. Frank
tasted like brandy and something else musky and
foreign. I climbed into his lap, thinking of my
mother's photos as they floated in the Jacuzzi;
their old ink washed away, their surfaces a blur
of color. I wanted to drain the girl out of me,
blur the lines that kept me as her child, catapult
myself into womanhood: a place where no one needs
Frank lift me and I bit down hard on my lip as
the gateway to my womanhood tore slightly to let
him in. Frank sighed softly and I leaned against
him, pressed my nose into his neck to keep from
crying out loud. He never stopped crying those
God, Sarah," he whispered. The memory of
his dead wife slapped hard against my own heart.
My body began to shake the way it did when I was
really cold, something speeding up inside of me
that would shatter to bits if someone didn't acknowledge
me soon. It was no use reminding him that I was
Dana. Frank and I both cried for the women we
loved and lost. We cried when I climbed back to
my seat, wet and sore between my legs. We cried
as we drove the black roads to my house and pulled
into the driveway, my mind a fog of risk and loss.
a good kid, Dana," he said gently. I said
nothing, keenly reminded of my age, of Frank's
age. The lights were off in my house now, but
I didn't worry.
got out and opened the passenger door, took my
hand to help me exit. Then I saw my father's tall
silhouette, a tiny light burning at the end of
his mouth and an exhale of ghostly smoke. I heard
him clear his throat. Frank let go of my hand
too suddenly and I stumbled in my tall heels,
falling hard to the gravel outside the car, skinning
my knee and hand.
son of a bitch," my father said to Frank.
it's not what you..."
father moved fast. A shadow becoming flesh. He
struck Frank hard and the smack of his knuckles
against Frank's soft cheek seemed deafening to
me. I wanted to stand up for Frank and defend
my new womanhood. I looked at my father, bleeding
and defiant, prepared to tell him off.
made me do it," were the words that erupted
out of me. Words I didn't plan on.
in this puddle I come back to present day, to
the familiar throb in my knee. I raise myself
from the ground, still crying. My father's voice
still rings in my ears across eighteen years.
"Your mother was no whore."
limp the last block home the same way I limped
to my room that night, checked my underwear for
blood. My knee and hand had blood enough for war,
but in my panties I found only the faintest speck
of pink, small and faded like my mother's drowned
drag myself to my street, leaving a trail of blood
like Cinderella's wicked stepsisters behind me.
My eyes are clogged with tears. From the lip of
my long driveway the rain manipulates my vision.
I imagine a waterlogged UPS package on my front
step, imagine what I will do with the long promised
package: I'll drag it inside the house, pull it
apart with my numb fingers. The scraps of wet
paper will stick to me like dirt. There will be
a shoe box full of the remaining pictures of my
mother, badly duct-taped together. On a tiny scrap
of paper, written in my father's hand will be
the words: For You.
what images might I find inside? The mini-dress
hippie years, the crinkled, confused eyes of a
new mother's. I still can't focus on that face
that I should know by heart. I imagine carrying
the box into the kitchen for the scissors that
I keep and dumping the contents onto the floor.
In my mind I hold the scissors up to the first
photo of mom with all her familiar angles, the
ones I've inherited, and I begin to cry even harder
as the scissors make their first cut, as if by
slicing out my mother's face completely, finishing
the job that time started for me, I can deplete
my swollen self of all this dirty water.