by Lynn Vande Stouwe
Everything might have been different if I had another mother. But I only had mine.
She was smoothing her blond hair in the window of our aging bronze Mercedes–a gift from a car dealer named Bill who hung around for most of my elementary school years–transformed into a mirror in the moonlight. We were standing in the gym parking lot after beating Pelion. I had scored sixteen points, Elsie twelve, and we were trying to figure out a way to get to Matt Dugan’s house, with Elsie acting as chief negotiator. But my mother was unyielding.
“No ma’am. Your grandmother is coming over for brunch tomorrow.”
I didn’t know my grandmother was supposed to visit. Even though my grandmother only lived across town, she hardly ever came to our house, so I suspected my mother was lying, as she often did. She was generally reluctant to allow me to spend the night at Elsie’s, with its patchwork quilts and brass beds and incense smell. She said Elsie was trash, and she was training me to be more refined. Basketball was enough of a headache and having a best friend who lived on a farm with hippie parents who everyone knew smoked pot on their back porch was not her idea of a step in the right direction.
“All right,” I said and reached for the car door. Elsie elbowed me in the ribs. We had been talking in the locker room about not giving up so easily when it came to my mother. I was still learning.
“C’mon Mrs. Hampton!” Elsie’s voice went up an octave. “Everyone will be there.”
“Who?” She smoothed the collar of her paisley blouse and straightened out her pearls. I could feel her looking over my shoulder as I talked.
“I mean, please, Cindy.”
I was still getting used to calling her by her name. She had only insisted on it about a month earlier, saying that I was almost a full grown adult and she looked too young to be my mother, if you really thought about it.
“Everyone will be there, Cindy.”
I knew if she thought the party was some sort of marquee event, she would relent, happy to imagine me socializing with the right kind of kids for a change. Sure enough, she didn’t even ask me where the Dugan’s house was.
“Put on some makeup.” Those were her parting words.
I watched her eyes follow Madison McLeod’s tall, divorced dentist father as he exited the gym and crossed the parking lot. When I was taking a foul shot in the third quarter, I had noticed her crossed legs angled towards him on the bleachers, her hand on his shoulder. She was whispering something in his ear instead of watching me.
She turned to walk in his direction.
A few hours later I found myself standing face-to-face with Kyle Dillard in the red plaid shirt that he always wore in Spanish class. I sat two rows behind him and liked to stare at the back of his neck, the big brown freckle right on top of his last knobby spine bone.
“You know, I always look for you at parties,” he said.
I was a little dizzy after drinking three beers one right after the other and working on the fourth. I was giggling at everything he said, high-pitched and bubbly and trying to be pretty, like my mother had instructed me over Cobb salads at Cracker Barrel.
“Demure,” she said with her idea of a French accent, perched up on her elbows. “That’s what you want to be.”
Kyle and I started talking about the basketball games: mine, which we had won, and then his, which they had lost. We were deciding whether it was better to lose by just a little bit, where you were trying up until the last minute and thinking that it might work out in the end, even if it was going to be something like a miracle, or to never even be close and accept the fact early on that tonight was not your night and that nothing you could run, no shot you could take would bring you anywhere close to where you needed to go.
We were about to walk outside so he could smoke a cigarette when Elsie leaned into me and whispered.
“We’re just talking,” I hissed back. “Cindy says his father’s a drunk.”
Elsie rolled her eyes at me, went back to dancing with no one in particular.
Kyle and I walked outside into the fields, along the ridge between the rows of soybeans, one foot in front of the other, trying to keep our balance in the dark. We were talking and then he just stopped, looked at me. I giggled again and he stepped closer. I shifted back on my heels, knowing what was coming next and thinking maybe I should go back to the house but then also thinking about the back of his neck, how he would run his hand over the freckle when he didn’t know the answer to Senora Gonzalez’s easiest questions. I looked at his smile, dimpled, and thought about the way he winked at me when we walked past each other in the hallway at school, me with Elsie and him with the other guys from the basketball team, bumping fists and slapping each other on the back and rolling up the sleeves of their plaid shirts.
And when he said to kiss him, I wanted to kiss him more than I wanted to run back into the house and go find Elsie and more than I wanted to play basketball ever again and more than I think I’d ever wanted anything. So I kissed him.
We stood for few minutes like that, kissing in the middle of the soybeans. I felt his tongue roaming around my mouth and tried to move mine out of the way so they didn’t get tangled up, tried not to bite it and remembered something my mother said once about kissing back to not be like a dead fish. I commanded my legs to stay standing up, but my head was spinning.
So when we ended up lying on the ground, I didn’t think about how my white jean jacket was turning black in the mud. And when my shirt came off and then my pants, I was just glad it wasn’t cold enough to see my breath even though it was January. And then, as I was inclined to do, I stopped thinking and just let it happen.
It was two and half months until I noticed something was different. I was always playing so much basketball, and my mother always picking at me for scarfing down bowls of Stouffer’s fettuccine that refused to stick to my long, lanky limbs. So when I couldn’t button my Levis anymore, I realized that something was finally sticking. My mother had always said the day would come, when all the basketball in the world couldn’t keep me skinny anymore and I would grow hips as round as hers and breasts but, if I was lucky, keep a thin waist like hers. She had predicted this earth-smashing shift would occur at eighteen. I was already seventeen so I just assumed that she was reaping her satisfaction early.
I came downstairs one morning for breakfast, wearing the navy blue A-line dress usually reserved for the rare Sunday when my grandmother invited us to church. It was the only thing in my closet that fit.
My mother studied me as I loaded the toaster with four pieces of wheat toast and took the butter and jam from the refrigerator.
“Why are you wearing a dress?”
“I need to go shopping. My jeans don’t fit,” I said. “You win.”
She stood there in the kitchen and crossed her arms over her chest. She looked me up and down and made me spin around once so she could get a better look. Then her face went white and her eyes bugged.
“Jesus almighty,” she said. Then she was on the phone with the secretary at Dr. Kershaw’s, where she threatened to take me whenever I stayed out too late with Elsie. She said it was very urgent and if he had any openings that morning she would be most appreciative.
When we got to the doctor’s office, my mother tried to follow me into the exam room, but the nurse asked her to wait outside, just for a minute.
“I believe I have the right.” My mother stood at the threshold, her arms braced against the exam room door like she would need to be pried away. The nurse coaxed her into the waiting room, handed her an old People magazine with Julia Roberts on the cover and closed the door so that we were all alone in the square, white room.
“First date of your last period?” she asked.
I thought for a minute. I could remember I was wearing a sweater but couldn’t remember the date exactly.
“I don’t know. It comes and goes different all the time. Cindy says on account of all the basketball.”
The nurse put her pen down.
“Mary Beth, have you taken a pregnancy test yet?”
It wasn’t until she asked me that I realized why I was there, what my mother knew and what I didn’t know yet. I shook my head no, and she handed me a cup to go pee in. I screwed the plastic lid on when I was done and brought it back.
“Oh you didn’t have to bring it back here sweetie.” She took it from me and smiled, like I was supposed to know what to do.
She unwrapped a stick like I’d seen in the commercials with the women and their husbands, so happy and smiling, and she dipped it in the plastic cup then set it on the counter to dry. And when it finished she didn’t smile, didn’t frown but looked at me with her eyes gone soft, and my head started buzzing. I didn’t cry because I didn’t know that my life, as it had been, was over.
Elsie was the first person I told, the only person I could stand to tell. We were sitting in hard plastic chairs at a linoleum table in front of the Great American Steak Company in the mall over in Elgin, eating cheesesteak sandwiches and curly fries and talking about whether we should go to the prom.
“No point this year,” Elsie said. “No boyfriend. No date. I’m gonna save up and get one knock-out dress next year instead of having my mother make me some ratty thing from whatever old curtains she pulls out of her sewing closet.” It gave me some comfort to know that even though Elsie had the kind of mother who would make her a prom dress, she couldn’t stand her sometimes.
“I’m pregnant.” I just said it like that, instead of telling her how much I didn’t want to go to the prom.
Elsie’s jaw dropped open, just hung there, nearly on the table. She stared at me, but the corners of her lips turned up a bit like what she really wanted to do was smile. My face got hot.
She straightened up and nodded her head slowly.
“You know I thought maybe.” She pointed towards my stomach, my plate of fries, only crumbs now. “But I couldn’t figure out when. Or who.”
And she didn’t ask and I didn’t tell her.
In the parking lot of the doctor’s office, my mother had tried to yell it out of me, then begged, but I didn’t tell her either. I knew I didn’t want to marry Kyle Dillard, and he didn’t want to marry me. I knew I didn’t want to be a nineteen-year-old wife to anyone, like my mother had been to the father I didn’t remember before his plane fell out of the sky in Kuwait. Kyle probably wouldn’t get blown up, but I knew I didn’t want half a dozen freckled babies getting all the answers wrong in Spanish class. That was all anyone needed to know.
On the Friday after we went to Dr. Kershaw, my mother told me to get in the car but didn’t say where we were going. Almost anywhere was better than biology class, so I didn’t ask.
We drove with the radio up so loud I thought my ears would explode, playing a talk show from the educational station, which my mother always said would make us smarter. It seemed to me, though, that it was always the same show about cars, and I wasn’t sure how being able to identify the sound of a faulty transmission was going to make me any smarter.
We kept driving for half an hour, from our part of town, where the houses were small but stable with shutters on the windows and clean cars in the driveway, to the west, where paint started to chip, bumpers dented and grass grew taller than the toys strewn about the front yards.
We passed the Bose factory, shiny and white like a spaceship landed in the middle of a field, bigger than any building for miles. They made fancy stereo speakers there too expensive to be sold at any of the stores in town, and they paid sixteen dollars an hour if you had half a brain. I imagined myself sitting in front of a conveyor belt, next to Elsie, laughing at the big plastic goggles they would make us wear and screwing one tiny, expensive cog into another. Or maybe we would go to Tech if we could stand any more school, live together in an apartment with only macaroni and cheese and tangerines in the refrigerator. And beer too because no one could tell us not to.
“Where are we going?” I asked but she didn’t answer, just kept driving.
And then we turned onto a main street that wasn’t our Main Street but the town of Pelion’s Main Street, with Long’s drugstore and the tiny brick post office and the Free Women’s Clinic, and then I knew what she was doing.
We pulled into the parking lot and she turned off the engine. She unbuckled her seatbelt and reached in back for her purse. I just sat there, not moving, not sure what to feel other than tricked.
“What are we doing here?”
She pulled her purse onto her lap, looked at me knowing that I already knew.
“Why can’t we go to Dr. Kershaw?”
“He’s respectable. He doesn’t do it,” she said.
I wondered what that made me.
“And I see him socially. Or could anyway, under the right circumstances.” She took her lipstick out of her purse and applied it in the rearview mirror. “So could you. You’re not a baby anymore.”
“Under what circumstances would I be socializing with a gynecologist?”
“Next year you’ll go to college and find a smart husband. Someone who wants to be a lawyer. Or a doctor. Then you’ll move back home to the biggest house in town and take care of your dear mother.”
I didn’t know her plans for me were bigger than the plans I had for myself. They were plans I didn’t even want. I felt my neck get hot.
“But I haven’t even thought about it yet.”
“What’s there to think about?”
She put her lipstick away, looked me square in the face. For the first time in my life, I saw her eyes getting watery. I always thought my mother didn’t cry, but in that instant I realized that she just didn’t cry when I was around.
I watched her, trying to decide what to do. Trying to decide between not listening to her and not being like her. It had to be one or the other.
“How do you know I couldn’t be good? Better than you?”
She put her hands on the steering wheel, her head on her hands.
“You weren’t that much older when I was born.”
She didn’t say anything. I put a hand on my stomach, trying to feel it move. I stared out the windshield. There was a girl who looked young enough to be a freshman going into the clinic, holding her mother’s hand. I wondered why we couldn’t be like that. It seemed easier than being like we were.
I turned to look at her and she had her eyes closed now, like if she took enough deep, heavy breaths and wished hard enough, she could conjure up a whole other life.
It was summer not long after that. My mother went on pretending nothing was happening, waiting for me to come to my senses. She wasn’t about to start asking for time off at the law firm to take me to my doctor’s appointments. Even if she was just a secretary and no one had any expectations for her or her daughter, she had them for herself, I suppose. So Elsie went with me instead.
Elsie considered herself an expert in nearly all matters, but babies were a particular specialty of hers on account of her older sister, Moon, who was twenty-one but had two boys, five and three. I usually didn’t have any questions when Dr. Kershaw asked, but she was always thinking about things I hadn’t considered.
“Is the baby’s head turned down yet?” she asked Dr. Kershaw one day in August.
He said it was.
“Good.” She looked at me, nodded. “That’s very good.”
In the car driving back she was drumming on the steering wheel in time to the radio. She sounded ridiculous rapping to Eminem but she knew all the words. Then she stopped all of a sudden, distracted.
“I have an idea,” she said. She pulled into the Bi-Lo parking lot.
I followed her into the grocery store. She pulled a cart from the rack by the front door and started loading it with whatever she saw and liked. Paper plates and plastic cups. One of those circular black trays with the little cubes of cheese and mounds of grapes. At the bakery she picked up a box of cookies and held them up so I could see.
“Aren’t these the cutest?” They were sugar cookies in the shape of baby carriages and rattles, iced pink.
“What’s all this for?”
“Your baby shower.”
She stacked three boxes in the cart.
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”
“It’s the best idea. You get tons of presents.”
I took a deep breath. Elsie was already steamrolling towards the racks of soda.
“What about Cindy?”
Elsie took a liter of the store brand ginger ale off the shelf, then thought better of it and reached for the Seagram’s instead.
“She’s just jealous.”
At the cash register Elsie took out three crumpled twenties from her back pocket to pay for the food, refusing the two tens I offered her.
By the time we loaded up the car and were driving again, Elsie’s plan didn’t seem so crazy anymore. We talked about who to invite. The girls from the team, Coach Carlson, my grandmother. I was smiling and laughing, singing along with the radio until we pulled into my driveway. I said goodbye to Elsie but just looked at the groceries in the back seat, bit my lip.
“Are you still scared of her?”
Elsie turned off the engine.
“No,” I said, believing myself. “I’ll tell her.”
I got out of the car, carried the plastic bags up the front steps and opened the door.
“This is what you asked for.” My mother reached her arms out as wide as they would go, as if taking in all of the empty living room, the cups of ginger ale with lime sherbet melted at the bottom, the tray of untouched sugar cookies. She was leaning against the arm of the peach sofa with curly-cued walnut arms, which was better suited for a castle in France than our living room. It was our only antique and she refused to sit on anything else.
“I don’t know who you thought would come to a baby shower for a seventeen-year-old girl.”
She was wearing her favorite suit–the beige one that had been her grandmother’s, with black piping around the pockets and down the two sides of the jacket. She told me it was Chanel. It made her look as rich as she wished we were.
“It’s my fault Mary Beth,” Elsie said. “I didn’t even send out real invitations.”
I knew it wasn’t though. I had seen Megan Rogers at the Shell station with her mother the day before. When I waved to say hello, they turned away like they didn’t see me, pretending to get a pint of ice cream from the freezer case. The others would have done the same.
“What about grandma?” I asked.
“You think I invited your grandmother to this atrocity?”
“I think she would have liked to come.” I crossed and recrossed my legs. I had to pee. I always had to pee now but I didn’t want to give my mother the satisfaction of leaving in the middle of an argument, making her think that I was going off to dab back tears with toilet paper.
I looked at Elsie, who was pulling at her knotted, brown sugar hair. I don’t think she could stand to look at my face at that moment, to see the disappointment and the striving.
“You don’t even know her,” my mother said.
Elsie walked over to the dining table, picked up the square white box with the big pink bow that looked like it belonged on one of my absent grandmother’s Easter hats. She handed it to me.
“Open it, Mary Beth.”
I pulled back the lid and tore at the tissue paper floating at the top. I reached in and found a basketball the color of bubble gum with rhinestones studded around the place where it usually just said Spalding. I turned it under the light, let the crystals catch it and turn colored.
“Don’t the rhinestones fall out when you dribble?”
“No.” Elsie was back pulling at her hair, braiding a crumpled strand. “I tried it a few times at the store. They’re stuck in there pretty good.”
“Jesus almighty.” My mother pressed her index fingers to her temples and rubbed in little circles, like she did whenever she felt a migraine coming on.
“What is it Mrs. Hampton?”
“You…” she started then her voice got soft, died. “You can’t give a baby a basketball. Its fist is the size of a pecan when it’s born.”
“I know. It’s for when she’s older,” Elsie said. “We’ll teach her to play.”
My mother took a deep breath through her nose and closed her eyes.
“A baby needs so much. You can’t even know.”
Elsie put her hands on her hips.
“I’m going to help. I’ve babysat my nephews since they were born. I can even change a diaper.”
My mother looked at Elsie long and hard. They stared at each other like having a contest to see which would break first.
But my mother gave up, looked at her watch and stood up from the couch, smoothing her skirt as she rose. She went into the kitchen and took her purse, her keys.
“Where are you going?” I asked her.
“Out,” she said.
“Does it matter?” She pointed to the basketball in my hands. “You don’t need me anymore.”
She walked over to the mirror by the front door and took out her compact. I wondered if it was true.
“Dr. McLeod is going to be here any minute.”
“He’s not really a doctor, you know. Just a dentist,” Elsie said.
My mother ignored her, dabbed some powder on her nose.
“What about me?”
“Mary Beth, this is what you asked for,” she said. “Isn’t it?”
A car horn honked in the driveway. She waited for a minute, giving me a chance to answer, but I didn’t know what to say. All I could think about was her eyes in the parking lot at the clinic what seemed like forever ago even though it had only been months. I couldn’t reconcile my memory of their dewiness with the steel blue of them now.
The horn honked again, a long, plaintive noise. She gave me a final shrug and closed the door behind her, not looking back, leaving me and Elsie to clean up the mess.