“We’ll find something close to Gram’s.”
We both knew we were moving backwards when we started arranging our things in the one-bedroom apartment she found across the street from my third school that year. I had always had my own room.
“I’ve got an idea,” my mother said, dragging our Japanese screen, a geometric pattern in wood, toward an empty corner of the living room. We unfolded its panels and then taped black wrapping paper inside, facing out. Behind the screen I played out dreams while my mother worked at real life. While I dressed my Barbie, snapping on her shoes and straightening her hair with the tiny brush, she shuffled a deck of cards and laid out a game of solitaire. While I played zookeeper, coloring food for my attentive stuffed animals, she lifted the marble lighter from the brass coffee table and flicked its flame. Then she clicked through the TV channels and fell back on the couch. She flipped through the deck, looking for something to build on. She was 31.
Gram was happy to have us close by again, but she never talked about Daddy Dan or my father or any of the men my mother dated.
“A woman has needs,” my mother said to her once.
“Everyone has needs,” Gram hurled back.
But it didn't seem like Gram needed much. She had lived alone for forty years. She slept in a twin bed like mine and next to it was her small desk neatly arranged with papers and envelopes and a bowl of paper clips. In the basket by her chair she kept nursing magazines with photographs of wounds and skin outbreaks. She parked her three-wheeled bicycle in a corner of the living room. She had a coffee pot that made only two cups.
We came over on Saturdays so my mother could work at the old treadle Singer making me dresses because I had grown. She'd always bought my clothes—pale yellow dresses, deep red skirts, navy cardigans with shiny buttons—but now was different. She hunched over the black machine on which she'd sewn her own clothes in high school while a smoky thread floated up from an ashtray on a nearby shelf. Gram and I played crazy eights on the patio. While we'd been away, the lady next door had moved. The porch was dull and empty without her flamboyant parrot who spit and screamed.
From outside, I could hear the wooden drawers of the sewing
machine squeal open and slam shut. Starting slow, the machine gathered
force and raced to the end of a seam. The foot that kept the fabric
down clicked up and down and then the whole thing started over again.
You could always tell when she was doing a zipper. The rat-a-tat of the machine would suddenly stop so she could take a drag on her cigarette and study the directions.
After she mastered the challenges of the simple A-line dress pattern, she recreated it in multiples. Soon I had five identical short-sleeved dresses with a zipper in the back. She promised to make matching scarves from the leftover fabric because I said the dresses were boring. But she never did. She could have added contrasting pockets or decorative braid to differentiate them, but her sewing wasn't about creation. It was about survival.
She was greatly inspired by a second pattern, however, for which I had chosen fabric printed with tiny red rosebuds. This sun dress, with a keyhole back that almost killed her in the making, became my favorite dress. When I wore it I could believe in the strange fractions that the teacher drew on the board. I could walk past the clutches of girls who had spent the whole school year together, nourishing friendships with secret jokes. I could be tall and tan, a native of the place where we were now strangers but that was already taking us back—if we promised not to yearn for somewhere better again.
The room we shared was a sea of beds and dressers and huge red flowers that covered our matching spreads. White fringe hung all the way down to the gold shag carpet. At bedtime I fell asleep in my corner listening to the TV show my mother was watching in the next room. Sometimes I was still awake when she came to bed and I watched her undress in the light from the closet. She carefully folded her sweat pants or slacks and dropped her shimmery underwear soundlessly into the basket we kept in the closet. Her gown fell over her body like a waterfall. She slid into the far side of her full-size bed, only a foot away from mine. It would have been easy for me to cross that gap without touching the floor. I longed to join her. But she slept with her back to me far away, across the flowers. She needed space around her to sleep. She needed space around her to live.
My mother got a job answering the phone at the Camelot Inn, a hotel by the highway built like a castle. A slim moat of turquoise water surrounded the hotel and when guests drove up to check in they left their cars on a draw bridge. Inside, there was a sunken seating area, suits of armor guarded the elevators, and torturous-looking maces decorated the walls. It was the nicest hotel in town and occasionally my mother got to meet famous people who were staying there. She shook Carole Channing's hand and also Tony Perkins's.
Gram picked me up from school still wearing her white polyester nurse uniform. At her house she changed into her African shirt with the black embroidery around the neck slit while I did my math homework. As I navigated my columns of numbers in the kitchen, she set up her shiny music stand in the living room and practiced her recorder. On Sundays she played with a group that wore funny clothes that looked like nightgowns. While she played quivery sad tunes on the wooden horn, staring ahead at the music, I read books from her shelf that had belonged to my mother. One explained the workings of the body as conducted by tiny elves. The illustrations showed a line of little men wearing pointed hats heaving tiny buckets of food down the esophagus and into the stomach. The brain was depicted as a huge switchboard with an overworked operator elf at the main desk. The section on sex organs focused on the theme of cleanliness, with a work crew of elves scrambling over scaffolding to polish the plumbing.
At school we read about a boy who fell from his planet onto earth. He had a dog and also the special ability to read other people’s minds. Eventually the difference between what people on earth thought and said made him homesick. He finally figured out how to return to his planet where people said what they thought and meant what they said.
I could understand his trouble: my mother kept calling me a liar—even when I was telling the truth.
One morning before school, I poured my milk into my orange juice glass because I thought it would be more efficient to drink them together. A sickening creamy color, it was a disgusting combination.
“How did that happen?” my mother demanded, taking the glass away.
The earth tilted the way they say it does at school and it made the table lift up on one end, I imagined answering.
Or: I am a seer who willed the milk to leap from its glass like a dolphin.
Or: because I thought it would taste like the orange sherbet we had for my birthday, the most perfect day of my life.
But only the simplest of words fell from my lips.
“I don’t know."
It was a quiet answer. It was the truth.
“You liar!” she shouted.
I was telling the truth of the universe, though, when she leaned over me with her hair and eyes perfectly made up even though she was still wearing her robe, and yelled. While she was married to Daddy Dan, I seemed to travel through a protected hamster tunnel that ran throughout the house. When I entered a room, she smiled. When I spoke, she listened. When I moved, she watched. From the darkness of my bed, I could here her and Daddy Dan yelling deep into the night. But I was safe from her rage.
Now her voice shattered the walls of our tiny apartment. Our belongings stood still and quiet around, dull witnesses who lacked the courage to speak up. I ran to our room but she caught me as I went by, swatting the soft backs of my thighs with a hair brush she'd picked up.
“I don't want to hear your lying voice or see your lying face ever again!” she yelled, slamming the bedroom door shut.
“Until you think about what you've done!” she continued, stomping away. “Until you're ready to apologize!”
From the safety of my bed I shrieked: “I’m not lying! I'm not!”
It made things worse, of course. To talk back, to toss the pillowy bodies of my stuffed animals at the wall, to cry aloud or plead or make any noise, made it worse.
The door gasped open, the knob shivering against the wall, and she dug in again.
“If I hear another peep....”
I sat in the canyon between our beds, chewing on the hem of the heavy drapes that came with the apartment, teeth grating silently against the dry nubby fabric. My t-shirt grew wet with noiseless tears.
With my mother there were wires that held each thing in place, every furniture leg, each piece of Japanese bric-a-brac. Some days I tripped them all.
Maybe I was telling the truth all along. Who knows how anything happens? Sometimes there is an exact explanation, simple as the architecture of a tree. But usually I think the truth lies hidden in the dark space between things, beside the bed and bedside table, among the pencils and odd pens gathered in the jar by the phone. It waits like the wick inside a candle. My fingers reaching into a drawer may have touched it once without knowing because the truth never moves or makes a sound. The truth, I thought, is somewhere between the line of stitches and the fabric's fraying edge.
Robin Bradford’s work has appeared most recently in Mother Knows: 24 Tales of Motherhood (Washington Square) and Three-Ring Circus: How Real Couples Balance Marriage, Work, and Family (Seal). An O. Henry Award winner and Dobie Paisano Fellow, Bradford writes a monthly column, Mother Load, for www.austinmama.com. Bradford works as communications and development director at a nonprofit affordable housing organization and lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, 7 year-old son, three cats and one dog.
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