My name is Elizabeth Walk and I was born and raised (mostly) in Maine, but what I called "home" has
changed about 10 times throughout childhood...read more and adolescency, attributed to a stingy dad with a tendency
to get fired, and subsequently to try a different geographical location instead of introspection. I graduated
with a BFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maine at Farmington in 2012 and immediately after
shipped myself off to China to teach English and gain life experience through more geographical location
change, and after gaining 15 pounds from overly oily food I left China for New York City where I can't even
afford thin-crusted pizza. My poetry and nonfiction have been published in lit mags such as The Sandy
River Review, Inscape, and Laughing Earth Lit. When not walking dogs for money I spend my time writing,
and looking at new apartments in better neighborhoods for a better deal.
I watch her chopping the green peppers for dinner from my spot on the other side of the kitchen counter, just like old times. Ever since I was little I’ve always liked to sit on the bar stool and watch her cook so we could talk. Back in high school I would never do my homework during study hall or right after school—I would save it for when my mother chopped peppers or onions or trimmed meat. I would sit at that bar stool and chat about anything that came to mind, looking up every now and then while trying to figure out trigonometry or French grammar while she opened a can of baby corn or water chestnuts. This week I’m home from college for February break, and though it’s only Tuesday she’s making sure that we have my favorite dinner, our signature stir fry, before I have to leave again.
She laughs. “Yes, Anna,” she says, “you have my permission to have sex with your boyfriend. Oh wait!” She leans her face and shoulders across the counter toward my face, “you don’t HAVE one!” Mischief gleams in her brown eyes, the same little glint that I catch in the mirror sometimes.
I grin. “Bitch!” She looks down to her peppers again, smirking, and I reach over and slide the pepper backwards as she is about to chop, then move it away more as she tries again, laughing. I could keep going with the boyfriend comment, pretend to either be really sensitive about my lack of companionship and start crying, or play it off like I’m a slut who prefers to have sex with anyone and everyone, and just wanted to make sure I’m doing the right thing by Jesus or something. This joke is the type that has the capacity to build into a recurring game or even a year-long inside joke between my mother and me, but unfortunately today I’m on a mission, and I’m not about to back down so easily, tempting as it is. I let go of the pepper and lean back to my sitting position, put my hands in my lap.
“But yeah. Mom. Um.” Damn. It sounded so good and authoritative and grown-up when I played it over in my head a few times this morning, but in the light of having just been part of that joke that’s so characteristic of our love and common humor, what I’m about to say sounds down right cruel.
My gaze remains down at my unpainted fingernails. “You know I’m old enough now to understand larger and more complex concepts and form my own theories and opinions. You know I’m, like, in college now. And you knew there was going to be a day sometime down the line when I wasn’t going to just accept what you’ve told me or neglected to tell me. About your past, and your current outlook on…relationships. And… my dad.” I look up at her. “You know I’m not…stupid. Anymore.”
She looks at me, the gleam of humor and mischief behind her eyes snuffed out like a flame by my words, as I suspected it would be. I hate seeing her serious.
“I’m not sure I know what you mean, Anna,” she says.
There’s stuff you get from your parents that you never thought you would. You expect to get eyes, body type, hair texture, tendency toward alcoholism, high blood pressure, etc., but I recently read somewhere that statistically speaking, people tend to love the way their parents love, and their love lives have a tendency to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Mothers who marry and divorce early and then spend thirty years trying to find a husband the same as their old one produce children who believe that no one is the one, and that they should never settle, even if settling seems right at the time. Fathers who treat women as objects and jump from girl to girl while their children are there to watch teach their 6-year-old son that that’s okay, and that he should live his own life accordingly. Those are what we like to call your run-of-the-mill, stereotypical frat boys. And, of course, so that no one accuses me of being ignorant, parents who meet at the right time and fall head over heels in love and stay together forever give birth to kids who do the same. Fuck those kids. In both ways, actually. Well, when they’re grown-ups.
My mother was slightly different. But no, she was never lonely, or at least she told me (and everyone else who would ask) she never was. And yes, I was a “mistake,” in case you were wondering, the product of a few months and one regrettable night. My mother had known that my father wasn’t the one from the start, or at least, that’s what she insisted to me. He was simple, normal, she says. He was sweet and handsome, clever and understanding. “So what the hell was wrong with him?” I wanted to scream as she told me. What I think is that he was a just fine lover; he listened to her, wanted to assist her with her hopes and dreams throughout her entire life while asking for nothing in return except to know that she loved him even a little bit. And my mom fucked it up. Somehow.
I had to know how and why, as I’m sure any girl without a father would. I used to ask her a lot why I grew up without a father; when I was four the questions were, “Mommy how come all the kids on TV have daddies and I don't?” to which my mother would reply, “Every family is different.” When I was eight it was, “Mommy, Kathy Liberman in the 5th grade says that moms who aren't married are usually sad and lonely and filled with regret. What does that mean?” I don't remember her response. And when I was thirteen it was, “Mom, were you a whore?” which got me nowhere except up to my room. When I was sixteen she finally thought me worthy of giving me a tiny hint as to why I grew up without a male figure in my life other than my Uncle Josh who visited regularly. It went like this:
“Mom, can you tell me why you left my dad?”
“This again, Anna?” Her sigh always made my heart wilt.
“I haven't asked in years.”
“And I told you when you last asked as I'm sure I told you the time before that; it's not a big story, nor is it very interesting. Sometimes two people just aren't right for each other.”
I pressed the matter further, but as expected, my mother again tried to sell me on the idea that while Neil was a great guy, simple, normal, sweet and handsome, etc., he “just didn’t work out.” By the end of the five-minute conversation she looked like she had just been interrogated by the “bad cop” for two hours, and I left it feeling guilty.
I found out that they had met in college, and she had given him a chance. The trial period wasn’t satisfactory and then expired, and the free gift you get to keep even if you send the product back…was baby me. Then apparently, while I was still a bald little upside-down somersault in her belly he left, moved across the country for good. While I was growing up he paid child support in checks through the mail, but never a call, never a letter, never a “hello, baby Anna, I’m your dad”. She says I was a blessing, though, of course, and I do half-believe her when she says that. What I don’t really believe is that she’s telling me the whole story.
I've had years now, five since the last time I asked to be exact, to formulate my own opinions and thoughts based on what I've learned of psychology from introductory courses, and I have come up with what I regard as an educated theory.
My theory is that there was something else that happened to make her feel this way about men, and love, even before she met my father—in fact, long before. High school, maybe, or even junior high school. Why else would she turn down someone so perfect (in my mind, anyway) and not even let him stick around to raise me properly?
One thing I have observed is that my mother has always been good at preparing for disaster, at learning from her mistakes. She told me the story once about the time when she was six and fell into a pool, thrashing futilely and inhaling chlorinated water in the deep end, being saved finally by the strong hairy arms of a diver. She tells it as a funny story. But I've noticed on my own through trips to the lake and the ocean throughout my childhood that she absolutely never goes into the water past where her toes can touch the bottom, no matter how many times I call out for her to join me and start a splash fight.
In tradition with her usual way of “learning lessons,” then, my theory is thus: My mother has a case of highly sensitive emotions, and she let them dig themselves down deep into her heart and set up camp there with nothing but a very strong lean-to and some freeze-dried ice cream. By the time she got to college they had built a metropolitan city down there complete with a mayor and punk subcultures. What I think happened was that someone broke her heart when she was 15 or 16, and for some reason she took it very, very hard.
My mother sometimes tells me stories and facts about her past when I ask, but she always leaves some parts out. When she tells me about junior high and high school it's usually regarding teachers she didn't like or pop culture of the time. She barely even mentions her social or love lives. This is what leads me to estimate that my mother's romantic downfall was sometime in that time period. I imagine it was right around the time of the last high school dance of the year (save prom for the upper classmen), and my 10th grade mother was finally ready to ask the boy she had loved for an entire year to go with her. The boy named Sam (a name and face I picked out of her yearbook, which seemed to fit the part for the sake of the theory) had always been her best friend; he talked to her in class all the time, made jokes when he saw her in the hallway, and during every outing with her circle of friends there was a point at which they would talk for a good twenty minutes about whatever. No one could make her laugh the way Sam did, and he always seemed to understand her stupid ideas that she pitched to him. He won her a stuffed animal from the crane machine at a skating rink once. And today she knew there was nothing that could go wrong, and my mother would finally present her feelings that had been brewing and steeping for months like strong red tea in still-boiling water. All Sam needed to do now was add the milk and sugar.
She spent ten minutes in the girls’ bathroom giving herself a pep talk and rehearsing what she would say: “Hey, so, are you going to the dance?” “Yeah, I am too.” No, I haven’t been asked yet, you?” “Well, hey, maybe we should go together, if you wanted to go with someone, you know…” “Really? Great! I’ll call you that night and we can work out rides and stuff.” Foolproof. She pulled out the mascara she had stolen from my grandmother that morning and gave her eyelashes a nice brown coating (yeah, people actually bought the brown back then), then curled them by holding her fingers up against her eyelashes and pushing the tips back and up. She took one last look at herself and marched off to find Sam.
Her heart skipped a beat when she found him outside his locker exchanging his books before lunch to be ready for the second half of the school day. He saw her and waved, smiled that crooked boyish grin that made her laugh on days she was in a good mood and smile on days that she wasn't. She took a deep breath.
I’m guessing the real conversation went along the lines of, “Hey!” “Yep, I have math now.” “Yeah, that was funny.” “So um…” “Yeah, that guy, gag me with a spoon...” (that’s eighties slang, children) “So um…” “Yeah, the dance…” “Have you been asked yet?” “Oh, yeah, well, I haven’t. Maybe we should go—“ “As… as friends? Um, yeah, as friends, totally. You know, like backup. Yeah, that’s cool.” “Yeah, I’ll let you know if someone asks me, too…”
But my mother figured she could work with this. The night itself would be the fairytale in which she shows up at the dance in a beautiful gown and bedazzles her love with her grace and charm and beauty and when they’re dancing the last dance he has already fallen in love with her because he’s finally seen her as the gorgeous young woman that she is and while they’re slow dancing to “Stairway To Heaven” (timeless, yes?) she leans in close and whispers to him that she’s “dug” him for months now (or whatever the hell they said back then) and he says he’s felt the same way since he met her and he’d just been too nervous to say anything and then they kiss and magic purple sparks shoot out from the floor and rainbow glitter falls from the sky and their love carries them through their lives to the heart of their dreams, and they get married and have adorable little baby offspring who aren’t me and live happily ever after.
Soon it was night of the dance, and there was my mother, sitting and staring out her window (I do this often, so she must have, as opposed to nervously reading magazines or something), waiting for him to call, and the minutes kept passing by. Then she remembered she never did tell him to call her, and maybe he was waiting for her call. She dialed the phone but there was no answer at Sam’s house. It was 6:50 and the dance would start at 7. If he were coming to pick her up he would have arrived by now. But maybe he was waiting for her and was just in the shower or something when she called. She called again, still no answer.
She panicked when her kitty clock read 7:13. “Mom!” she yelled at my grandmother, “Can you just take me to the dance? I bet Sam just wanted me to meet him there and he’s probably wondering where I am.”
My grandma Fern drove her to the dance, and as soon as she stopped pretending not to know her mother and was safely indoors she started scanning the room for Sam, without even waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. It was a slow dance, so it would be easy to spot him leaning against a wall or in a chair along the sides of the gym. He wasn’t there. Maybe he was late, or maybe something happened to him. She had begun to worry about headlines in the paper about a local boy who got hit by a car crossing the road to meet the love of his life when she finally saw him. She had to look twice because the first time she couldn’t believe it was him standing there. But there he was, in the middle of the room, wearing a blue suit and dancing with Julie Dobson.
Julie Dobson was in my mother's yearbook a few times with a stupid little heart drawn over her face undoubtedly by a few people in the yearbook club. She was always photographed with two or three other girls next to her, in the documentations of social gatherings or with the key club or playing her flute in band. She was pretty. She looked smart. Not too different from my mother, actually. I honestly think there was most likely nothing wrong with her in terms of character.
My mother froze, as if the little red flowers all over her dress had been caught in a pre-seasonal frost overnight. Julie Dobson, one of the prettiest and most popular girls in school, was swaying back and forth, her feet moving her around a little circle, her arms around the neck of my mother's knight in shining armor. In my mind she was wearing a bright pink dress. My mother hates pink and always has. Her hair was in an expensive-looking updo (wait, did they wear updo’s back then?), and she was wearing 4-inch heels that raised her off the ground and almost higher than Sam's head.
My mother walked over with quickly-filling eyes, struggling with all her might to fight back the tears, looking up pretending to be occupied with the lights and decorations hung up by the student activity council. She reached the two of them as the slow dance ended, and she found that she had to tilt her head back to look up at Julie properly. My mother hated wearing heels (still does, and so do I).
Sam saw her and waved, grinning. My mother didn't want to look at the grin. She didn't want to smile automatically. “Georgia!” Sam cried. He almost made a move to hug her, but stopped himself. “I like the dress,” he said. He didn't say she looked beautiful.
“Hey,” my mother said. Her mind raced. Should she yell at him? Yell at Julie? Did she have a right to do either? Should she pretend everything was fine? Should she just walk away? Maybe this was all just a misunderstanding and Julie had stolen him away just so he wouldn't feel awkward?
“I thought we were going to--” she started.
“What?” Sam half-yelled to her, “I can't hear you.” My mother looked down at her flat shoes. “Are you okay? Is something wrong?”
My mother shook her head.
Sam shook his own head, disagreeing with my mother's head-shaking. He said something into Julie's ear and she nodded, then he motioned my mother to follow him out of the room into the stairwell at the front of the school.
“Okay,” he said, “now I can hear. What's wrong? And don't say nothing.”
My mother fought the tears with all of her being. He wouldn't see her upset. She had done something stupid, is all, and she had no right to show the emotions to complain about it. “Weren't we going to go together? Um... as friends?” Yes. As friends. She was an idiot to think she could turn this into something else.
Sam's expression turned from concern to confusion, his brow narrowing with thought, and after a moment his eyes looked pained and he gritted his teeth and threw his head back gently and brought it back into his hands with a groan. It looked genuine. Of course it would be. This is not a story of pure betrayal.
“Dammit. Dammit, Georgia. I'm sorry.” My mother had never heard him swear before (back then it was a big deal). “Oh, man. Georgia, you have to believe me when I say I completely forgot we were going to go together. Julie asked me after you did, and I guess I just forgot. Crap, I'm sorry.” He looked at my mother's face. “Okay?” he asked gently.
So their conversation hadn’t meant anything to him at all, to the point where he had forgotten it altogether. She was nothing. Just a friend. And Sam had loved Julie all this time. My mother stood there silent, forcing her feelings to recede deep down into her, hiding them, denying them. She would not let Sam know what she had thought. What she had been thinking, planning all year. She had let these feelings for him gather up inside of her only to have it not come, to never have existed in the first place. And now the feelings would have nowhere to go; they would have to stay inside, and her disappointment, sadness, humiliation would have to come along with them, deep down where they can all mix together and become concentrated. All she would have to do is make sure she never gives them the opportunity to come out again.
“Okay,” my mother said. She smiled.
And that, I have deduced (okay, imagined), was when the feelings commenced upon their descent deep into her heart and set up camp, began building and procreating their little civilization of doubt and distrust and insecurity and pessimism. That was why she dumped my dad. Nothing but something that all of us go through, but for my mother it was the first and last time she let it happen. It's like the pool story. As far as my mother is concerned one time is enough times and there is no such thing as, “If at first you don't succeed...” And she has been alone since then, and participates in a daily struggle to convince herself she’s happier this way.
My mother just looks at me, stops chopping the pepper, waits for me to say something. And I’m about to tell her the story I’ve been building and believing for five years, the one I’ve become so obsessed with and convinced it’s real, but I hesitate. In that moment, replaying the story in my mind for the millionth time, I want to stomp away in a huff and hug her at the same time. I want to tell her so badly that she’s had the emotional equivalent of a childish grudge on the playground for literally thirty-three years, and that she’s being a big baby about something that literally everyone goes through.
But, wait. Maybe I’m letting my thoughts get a bit carried away. What if I’m wrong? What if my theory is based on nothing? Well, then it’s her fault for giving me false and inadequate information that led me someplace silly.
Every time that I’ve asked her, seriously, about love flashes through my mind: every annoyed sigh, every break of eye contact, every humorous cover-up, every hollow excuse, and every dismissal. Every time she didn’t trust me with her answer. Every time I felt like a failure of a daughter because my mother didn’t believe she could trust me with something so important to her. Every failed attempt at connection and understanding was another brick on the wall between us, the secret blockade that is buried with the subject of love and relationships within our world of love and relation to each other, and covered over with a familiar sheet of humor, always ignored but growing more and more undeniable with every year that goes by and I don’t feel comfortable enough to tell her, seriously, about how my love life is going.
I have to try. If my theory isn’t true, I have to be sure, so I don’t go crazy believing it to help myself rationalize the distance I feel from my mother. Maybe if I rephrase the question, start again, one more time.
“Mom,” I say. I think. “Why am I single?”
My mom seems to relax a bit, goes back to her chopping. “What do you mean? Maybe you just haven’t found the one yet.”
I mentally push myself forward; genuine, familiar fear and vulnerability threaten to push the rims of my eyelids forward with tears. Honesty spills out of me. “It’s just—there was this guy a few months ago. He was perfect. He was clever and understanding, he listened to me, wanted to assist me with my hopes and dreams throughout my entire life while asking for nothing in return except--” I catch myself as the sentence trails off. This seems familiar… But for some reason I can’t stop now. “—and I fucked it up. But—but it was because he said--” this time my voice cuts itself off. I can’t speak.
My mother waits for me, patiently, but I remain silent. She tries, “He said what, honey?”
I can’t look up at her. I try, try again, but my voice still won’t come back. I shake my head in defeat.
My mother takes a deep breath. “He said something that you just couldn’t handle. And you didn’t know why but the feelings that emerged out of what he said attached to you, burrowed deep inside you and built up a… blockade or something. And it’s like it’s so strong and obscuring that no matter how hard you try you can’t for the life of you remember the way you used to feel, the way things used to be.” She blinks very heavily. She chops. “And more than that you hate yourself for changing your mind this way, for letting yourself become hypnotized by one aspect’s repercussions on your heart and mind to the point that there is simply no way of going back, because you know this frame of mind is for good, and every day you would either hate yourself for giving something that used to be perfect up, or for being so involuntarily mentally set on not trusting or loving this person in the same way ever again.”
I remember the moment—not much else, one night at a bar when my ex said that 65% of the population cheat. And, maybe more than a little tipsy, I asked if he’d ever cheat on me. He shrugged and laughed, drank some beer, didn’t notice my serious expression. Didn’t know I had been cheated on in high school and had taken it so hard. Since then every joke he told fell flat on its face, every conversation about opinions and ideas was idiotic, every stare at another woman was betrayal. I tell my mom this.
My mother listens, and then she speaks. “Your father,” she says, “said he would probably beat his children, because it was done to him when he was five or six.”
I know that my mother’s father was an alcoholic. He used to mentally and emotionally abuse my mom for years, hit her once when she was in high school. My uncle Josh told me a couple Thanksgivings ago, and I had forgotten. How could I have forgotten?
“I couldn’t let him raise you, Anna.” She puts the knife down on the chopping board but continues pushing down on it, seemingly trying to break the board’s surface and bury it, drive it all the way through the pepper-stained wood. “And after I told him that, he didn’t want to. Didn’t even take the matter to court. He just left.”
I’m speechless for a moment after hearing that. “Don’t you hate being proved right?” I say. I try to force myself to smile. My mother does too.
“Yes,” she says. She looks into my eyes, and I somehow almost feel as though I’m looking into a mirror. The mischievous gleam in her eyes is gone, but it is replaced with a different kind of gleam. The days are getting longer, and I see the sun emerge from a cloud, shine through the window onto my mother’s face, reflect in her eyes. She’s illuminated, smiling, and she really is pretty, isn’t she.
I take the wine she always slips into almost anything she makes in a pan from the counter beside her. I pull the crinkled aluminum foil from the top of it that supposedly somehow magically keeps it fresh in the fridge.
“A toast?” I say.
She smirks, just a little, and tries to brush a tear out of her eye as casually as possible. “To what?”
“To…stir fry with wine in it. To the days getting longer…”
My mother helps me. “To mommies and baby girls.” She smiles at me—a gentle, motherly, somewhat sad but undeniably happy smile. “You’ll always be my baby girl.” She’s serious. I usually hate seeing her serious.
I drink first before my tear ducts can react, and she snatches the bottle from me and drinks too. Our signature stir fry is especially delicious that night.