In the photograph she’s looking up from the vast cosmetics vessel of her purse, brush in hand, chemical-strobe-green contacts staring straight at the camera, makeup done to a level of perfection I see evident nowhere else in any of her other endeavors.
She shows me the photograph a few weeks after it was taken, sliding it to me through the blindingly pink lacquered nails, saying, Fred told me I look beautiful in this photo. Do you think I look beautiful?
Before I have a chance to answer, she shrugs and wipes hard at her face, adding, It doesn’t matter. Not that it matters. He tells me I’m ugly every other day of the week but I guess here the light caught just right.
I start to say something, but I’m not sure what it is I see in the photo. My word options box against one another along the precipice of my lip, ultimately smeared back into silence by the gust of her disbelief in anything being decent about her, a thing that swings low and heavy in the space between us all the time.
I try, but I can’t fight through it; the endlessly decomposing mass of her self hatred. It points questions with the business end of Prove Me Wrong then digests them under an immediate response that she alone will furnish. She will talk over my attempts to answer her, grind down the Of course I love you with It doesn’t matter, I know you don’t anyway, then sweep closed the curtain of her one woman show with a heavy sigh, or an eye-roll, or a deft spasm of shoulder-shrugging, or all three at once. If I am still up for another round with the strong-armed mass there between us, if I attempt to try again with some sliver of nicety, she shouts over me in a fiercely happy tone some statement unrelated to anything at all, like, Well they said it was going to rain today but what the hell do they know about anything, huh, huh?
What the hell, indeed.
I know the name of the heaviest stone that rests there on my tongue and I know who put it there. She’s lived a few states away from me for twenty years and we are not. We do not.
My mother calls to wish me a happy birthday. In the voicemail she sings the traditional song but intersperses it with Why do you hate me so much. Then she sings another line of Happy Birthday then cuts herself off to say, Even convicts in prison for rape and murder don’t get life sentences but you’ve given me a life sentence and I can’t believe I raised such a hateful person. Then, Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday, I love you (here she freestyles a bit with more love proclamations all in the traditional melody) then lastly says, I know you don’t love me but it’s okay because Jesus loves me and no matter what I love you. Happy birthday. I know you won’t respond. Happy Birthday.
She leaves other messages from time to time. She tells me she is helping orphans or sending knitted garments to poor children in Haiti. She tells me she rescues stray cats and nurtures them back to health.
Still I see her there, in the laminate memory of my adolescence, pulling me awake at four in the morning to ask why I am a lying whore. Still I see her stuffing my clothing into a garbage bag and throwing it into the center of the road. Still I see myself run after her car as it backs down our driveway, begging her to take me somewhere where there is food in the fridge, where the heat is turned on, where the locks work, where there are not right hooks waiting inside. I tell her I am afraid. Still I watch her face when she sees the blackening eye on mine, still I hear her ask what I did to provoke that. I ask her when she is coming home. I ask her again. I tell her I am afraid. After, I wonder what words I used to say these things but I cannot remember, I remember only the sound of the tires retreating, the sound of the clutch grinding into reverse, the certain resolve of her pointed arm when she tells the officer beside me in my driveway, This girl is trespassing on my property. I wonder if I chose the wrong words, I wish to go back, rearrange them, make them matter more, to slow down, to move the monolith between us.
Sometimes in dreams my mother is crying when she puts the stone there on my tongue, earth-grit dusting over the messed up geometry of its surface, cold from the brackish place she plucked it, tears streaking through the confused topography of her face. The dreams are vivid like this. She says, I didn’t want to do this, I’m so sorry, I just have to do it. I don’t know how to not do it. These are things she would never say to me. In real life she says things like, Jesus told me he’s forgiven me for everything I ever did and I am clean again in his eyes and he knows every hair on my head and he has told me that I am perfect to him. I am beautiful.
In the dreams she’s apologizing as she is laying the stone inside the curve of my teeth. We both know it will crush me, rip my tongue out under its weight. Yet I open my mouth for her, more than wide enough, and the last thing I am saying, in a fiercely happy tone of voice, talking over her apologies, is, It’s, okay, mom.
Now I look in the mirror and see my makeup done to a level of perfection I don’t see evident in any of my other endeavors and I think, gah, you look so old and pathetic. Someone will compliment me on my effort, maybe, say something like, You’re so good at that. I’m all thumbs when it comes to makeup, and I’ll make a funny dance move with my arms and say in a cartoonish voice, before they are done speaking, I suck at all kinds of other things or Thank god for dim lighting or I’d never get laid.
Of course now I’ve made them uncomfortable when they were only trying to offer some bit of flattery or kindness and I don’t really know how to do this, look at me messing it up, but then they said it was going to rain today and what the hell do they know about anything, huh?
What the hell, indeed.