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The Blue Moon Review
 

Libation by Jordan Rosenfeld
If 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.

Minutes 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.

It's 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 nose–once compared to Ingrid Bergman–and 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.

I see 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.

"You 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 pocket.

"Righteous," he says, then blows me a kiss.

A 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.

Three 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 my memories.

I want 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.

Girl. 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?

At 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.

I 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.

The 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.

"She 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?

"You'd better get used to this new way of life. We're gonna wash your mom right out of our hair."

I 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.

I am 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.

The 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.

After 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.

The 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 since.

"You 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.

"Can I change first?"

Frank said sure. I only meant to change my clothes.

I stole 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.

Frank 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 eyes.

I surprised 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 a mother.

I let 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 silent tears.

"Oh 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.

"You're 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.

Frank 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.

"You son of a bitch," my father said to Frank.

"No, it's not what you..."

My 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.

"Mother made me do it," were the words that erupted out of me. Words I didn't plan on.

Now, 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."

I 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 photographs.

I finally 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.

And 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.


Jordan Rosenfeld co-founded and edited H.E.R. magazine for women. She currently runs a series of workshops titled "The Alchemy of Writing" in Northern California.

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