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My Mother, The Rock Star
seagull
kimberlywade
This story is an excerpt from my 2011 novella, The Reality Wars:

My Mother, the Rock Star
 by
Kimberly Todd Wade

            My mother was not intentionally treacherous.  She intended to love me, but nothing was ever that simple for her.  I’ve no doubt my mother had passionate emotions about me, worried over and even doted on me on occasion.  She called the intense feeling she had for me “love.”  But somehow she was able to put this feeling aside in order to do exactly as she pleased.  She did not “love” me.  Loving involves action.  It is not an emotion.  This misconception causes more pain and suffering in the world than any other.  The act of loving someone may bring you exaltation or it may sink you in despair.  Neither emotion is a stand in for the act of love itself.  They are the products that have so unfortunately become bound to the word “love,” which is a verb.  You cannot “have” love for someone, anymore than you can have “swimming.”  You give it or you cannot rightfully lay claim to it.  You love and you are loved.  That is all.
            My mother needed to demonstrate her “love” in grand fashion, and her grandest demonstration was a blowout celebration of my menarche, an event she’d not been present for, having been away filming a movie in Australia.  (It was her first and last turn as an actress, her life notwithstanding.  Neither the Oscar nor the Golden Globe was forthcoming; she wasn’t going to waste anymore time on that.)  She was either several years late or I was a late bloomer, sixteen, when we packed up the station wagon—we were traveling in cognito, just “we two gals”—and headed southwest toward the shawoman camp in New Mexico.
            We’d just turned out of the long, sloping driveway onto the main road, when my mother said, “Of course, I haven’t menstruated since you were born; the doctor took out my uterus along with you.”
            “I guess you could say I broke the mold.”
            My mother laughed with genuine glee.  I could do that sometimes – make my mother laugh.  She laughed easily.  It was me who had lost interest.  I had once cherished that ability to elicit it – her laugh – but I lost interest when I realized how fickle it was.  One minute she was laughing for me and the next it was for someone else.  I don’t even know if she missed my sense of humor, such as it was.  I wish I could get it back.

            Wadded fast food wrappers rattled around our feet as we pulled into the motel parking lot.
            “You go in,” she said.  “I don’t feel like being seen.”
            I slurped the last of my chocolate shake and tossed the cup over my shoulder; it landed on the seat and rolled onto the floor.
            My mother handed over her license and credit card.  “You look enough like me,” she said.
            When I handed the cards to the clerk inside the office, he raised an eyebrow.  “You sort of look like her, ya’ know?” he said, apparently not noticing the birth date on the license.  I certainly didn’t look like I was pushing fifty.  I grunted and kept my head down as I filled out the form.

            My mother twisted the key in the brass doorknob and pushed the door inward.  The smell would be familiar to anyone whose spent time in a cheap motel room: musty dank overlain with cloying-sweet air freshener.  It made me think of opening a crypt, but my mother charged in, tossed her keys on the dresser and hefted her suitcase onto the nearest bed.  The bedsprings squealed.  I stood on the threshold.
            “Well, what are you waiting for?”  My mother’s voice hovered in its upper register.  “It’s time you learned how the other half lives.”  Her hands stayed on her hips as she watched me take a step forward.
            The carpet was an indiscernible color.  Perhaps it had once been azure, but now it looked like a mottled bruise.  The walls were paneled with vertical strips of vinyl molded to look like wood-grain.  There were pictures on the walls, horses and cowboys, maybe an Indian.
            “It ain’t the Ritz, but it will do.”  My mother chattered as she riffled the contents of her suitcase.  “I practically lived in such places when I was your age…”
            Of course, I knew this was a lie.  She’d lived with her patents until leaving for college at age eighteen, unless that was also a lie.  I was too road-weary to challenge her on it.
            “Can you imagine me and my whole band crammed into two little beds like these?”
            I lowered my buttocks onto a bed-end and bounced up and down a few times.
            “Yes, that’s just what it sounded like—all night long!”  She hooted.
            Too tired to even cringe, I flopped back onto the bed, my arms splayed, but I didn’t risk a sigh of relief until I heard my mother duck into the bathroom.  I knew she wanted to exercise her ability to slum, but her discomfort with her surroundings was intense.  She hadn’t relaxed for a moment, and her uneasiness was infectious; it enveloped me like an aura that emanated from her being.
            The shower hissed, and after awhile my mother burst from the steaming vault, wearing a semi-transparent, beige nightie that represented her idea of modesty.  She proceeded to perform jumping jacks, squats and lunges in the narrow space between the two beds.  It was her regular routine for staying in shape, but it was also a way to release the nervous energy that seemed to be overwhelming her.  Her footfalls shook the floor, the vibration creeping up the paneling on all four walls so the room itself seemed to shake and sway like a wooden wagon rolling over a rutted road.
            I folded my suitcase open on the bed nearest the bathroom.  On top was a robe made of burgundy velour, a garment so hideous it’s hard to imagine how it had come into existence or how I had come to posses it, but I loved it.  I carried it into the bathroom and hung it on the back of the door before shedding my clothes in a pile on the floor.  I could reach the faucet from my perch on the toilet.  Water gushed into the tub, while I sat, huffing in the steam, making myself dizzy with hot air.  When the tub was three-quarters full, I lowered myself into the scalding water, inch by inch.  The stinging pain distracted me from all other thoughts.  Finally, I sank down to my neck; I let my chin dip beneath the surface and stared out over my bobbing breasts, my knees distant peaks.  My mother’s tension ceased to infect me.  I forgot her existence as I felt the water cool by degrees.  It grew more comfortable until it passed its peak and began to grow chill.
            Just as I stood up from the bath, my skin dripping and piebald pink, my mother came into the room.  I reached for a towel to cover myself, but my mother caught my hand.
            “Let me look at you,” she said, her eyes already scanning my body from my neck down to where the water circled my calves.  It was mortifying but also so intensely queer that I made no further move to cover myself.  “Wow,” she said flatly, her face blank; she turned, the beige nightie swirling around her broad, sagging buttocks, and left the room, closing the door behind her.
            She was my mother, she had the right to look at me, didn’t she?  So why was I so unsettled?  I looked down at my breasts, round and ruby-tipped.  I had the thought that I’d bested her in some way, but this thought did nothing to disperse the odd residue of the encounter.
            I dallied.  I scooped out large dollops of cream from the various jars my mother had left scattered around the edges of the sink and smoothed it over my already taut skin.  I loitered in front of the mirror, squeezing out blackheads and picking at my scabbed-over pimples until there wasn’t a pore on my face that had gone un-scrutinized.  There was nothing left but to go out, back into the room with my mother.  I slid into my robe, which was like a burgundy skin to me, and folded its lapels up against my neck.  I let my hand rest on the doorknob until it grew warm in my palm.
            My mother was sitting up on the far bed, her back cushioned by a stack of pillows, the two from her bed and one from mine.  The tv flickered without sound.  We did not look at each other.  I peeled back the sheet on the near bed and climbed in.  The moment I was settled, the light clicked off.  The set flickered a few minutes more then it too went dark.  I listened to my mother shift.  She wrestled with the coverlet, snorted and groaned.  While she tossed, I lay stiff, unable to relax until I heard her snores fill the room.  Somehow her snoring managed to convey the unique quality of her voice.  Her fans would have recognized it.  I listened for a long while—it was finally what soothed me.  The voice that tormented me also rocked me to sleep.
            When I woke, she was sitting on the end of her bed, fully clothed.  “Come on,” she said, “let’s go.”

            The station wagon rattled over a dirt road for a mile or more.  The view outside my window was a smear of desert reds, pinks and yellows.  Then suddenly an adobe palace hove into view.  Beyond it, I could see a semi-circle of white tents.  Off to one side was an open-air dining area connected by a walkway.  The station wagon skittered off the dirt onto the smooth, circular driveway.  Three broad, graduated steps led up to the double-door entrance.  My mother handed her keys to the valet, and we ascended.  The lobby’s ceiling soared two stories high.  A huge, stone fireplace occupied one wall.  The room was manned by giant, over-stuffed sofas upholstered with Navajo prints, where a group of women and girls lounged in anticipation.  They dropped their magazines the moment we arrived.
            I don’t know if my mother realized the level of privilege afforded her or the way people “changed” in her presence, losing all sense of authenticity they were so awed to be near her.  She had been famous for so long.  Even the “shawoman,” dressed in flowing seafoam green, was not able to contain her giddiness.
            “Welcome fellow travelers!”  She stepped forward, clasped my mother’s hand in both of hers, and beamed.  She was a stout, middle-aged woman with a thick, gray braid trailing past mid-back.  When she turned to me, her pendulous breasts swung around a half-second behind.  I was immediately impressed by her.  “And this must be the new woman,” she said.
            “Well, actually I’ve been a woman for…”
            “We’re so delighted to have you join us on our humble journey of celebration.”
            My mother swilled her attention like nectar.  I’m not sure the other participants even minded; they got to bask in the aura of this exchange between their shawoman and a rock star.  Behind their eyes, I could see their hungry minds writing the story for their friends back home.
            “It’s a good thing you two arrived looking like daisies, because I’m afraid there’s no time for you to freshen up.  The banquet is about to begin.  Follow me.”
            The shawoman escorted us to the outdoor dining area.  Her bushy braid-tip brushed the tops of her roiling buttocks.  The other “travelers” trailed behind us like a clutch of baby ducks, their shoes clicking on the wooden walkway.  Above our heads, paper lanterns glowed lemon yellow against a magenta sky.
            We took our seats at the table.  My mother was now at her ease in a familiar element of luxury and adoration, while my entire being quivered with tension.  She appeared not to notice my stress.  She’d always been oblivious to my moods, while I was keenly attuned to hers, and I wondered how that channel of resonance only flowed one way.  I allowed my attention to sweep over the room.  There were about a dozen of us, including my mother and me.  The other women looked like housewives: soft, pale Midwestern ones and tan emaciated ones, who looked like they’d birthed their daughters on tennis courts without ever putting down their rackets.  One of these leather mothers had two daughters at her table.  The daughters were not twins, but perhaps separated in age by a couple of years.  I figured their mother had split the difference between the dates of their respective menarches in the name of economy.  My thoughts were interrupted, when I heard someone say to my mother, “Your daughter is so poised and mature-looking.”
            My face flushed before my mother had a chance to pipe, “She’s always been mature for her age.  I didn’t even have to potty train her—she couldn’t wait to sit on the pot to poop!”
            Laughter rippled through the room.
            Yeah, I had known what was coming.  My shyness was anathema to my mother, an oddity she couldn’t get her head around.  Perhaps she thought she could “cure” me of my acute embarrassment in social situations by embarrassing me further—a “throw the kid in the deep end” sort of approach—or maybe she was just oblivious to the torture she caused me or didn’t care.  Even from this distance I can’t tell.  I know she laughed to see me squirm.  Did her laughter have a sharp edge or was I predisposed to being cut?  I wish I knew.
            The mushroom dumplings were served, followed by gazpacho and an asparagus lasagna constructed out of the thinnest spears of asparagus I’d ever seen stacked in overlapping rows like elfin Lincoln logs mortared together by oozing white cheese.  My mother moaned between mouthfuls.  She rolled her eyes up with pleasure and allowed her jaw to hang open, exposing a green gob of masticated paste, before grabbing her wineglass by its stem and gulping down the hearty cabernet with which it had been brimming.  The shawoman and everyone else at our table giggled helplessly as they reached for the bottle to refill her glass.  The shawoman claimed the honor time and time again.  I chewed tiny morsels, only swallowing when the food was near liquid consistency.  By dessert, my jaw ached.
            I watched the shawoman scrape a dab of whipped cream off her chin with the side of her little finger.  She sucked the finger clean then stood and made her way to the front of the room.  Everyone fell silent.  She raised her hands and held them palm-up alongside her shoulders as she spoke, “People often speak of finding meaning or purpose, but what is truly important is finding your intention.  Focus all your energetic powers on your intent.  That’s how you effect change in your life and in the world.  Look at yourself, look deep inside”—her hands came together between her breasts—“Look into your heart and ask yourself, ‘What are my true intentions for coming to this retreat?  What do I really hope to gain from it?’”
            I looked deep into my inner being without even knowing where to find it.  While I searched, I was aware of my uneasiness.  It had been far easier to be alone with my mother; to be with my mother while at the same time surrounded by others was full on excruciating.  It felt as if my every nerve fiber buzzed with tension, prepared to react with shame to whatever potential embarrassment she was about to dish in my direction.  What did I hope to gain by this experience?  Sheesh, my full intent was simply to survive it.

            My mother slung her arm across my shoulders, and her hip bumped against mine as we lugged our suitcases along the path lit with paper lanterns.  Our “tent” was pitched upon a raised tiled slab.  The bunks inside had mattresses clothed with white sheets and fluffy duvets, already turned down in neat triangles.  Mints dimpled the pillows.  There was a rack of towels, a basket of herb-infused toiletries, two big white robes and two pairs of slippers for walking to the bathhouse and pool.  It all reeked the crispy pristine odor of wealth.
            “Now this is what I call ‘roughing it,’” my mother said, tossing her bag on a bunk.
            Alone with my mother in the tent, my tension eased a bit.  I felt I’d made it over the first hurdle.  I folded open my suitcase and drew out my robe.
            “You’re not going to wear that!” my mother said.  “Look, there’s a perfectly good robe right here,” and she lifted one of the white terry ones from its hook.
            “This is a perfectly good robe,” I said, holding my burgundy baby against my chest.
            My mother calmly returned the white robe to its hook then suddenly spun and lunged in my direction.  Before I knew what was happening, she’d ripped the robe from my hands and was running outside, brandishing it over her head like a pennant.  I chased after her, but my foot missed the step down from the tent platform and I pitched forward, cracking my chin on the tiled walkway.  I blinked through the stars in time to see my mother standing over the firepit at the center of camp.  She whirled the robe once around her head like a lariat—she was laughing now—before releasing it to settle over the coals like a fallen flag.  I dragged myself up and fell to my knees at the edge of the pit.  I picked at the smoking velour with my fingertips.  My mother fell on me, full body, and we roiled across the dirt, me kicking and screaming with fury, my mother howling with laughter.  She released me when we were both exhausted.  My mother sat back to wipe the tears from her eyes.  I lifted my head and glanced around at the other tents, their flaps folded back to reveal pairs of women and girls, all staring at us in wonder.
            My mother stood up and reached down to me.
            I took her hand and allowed her to pull me up, letting her lift most of my weight.  I felt her muscles strain, but it didn’t give me much satisfaction.  I followed her back to our tent, the sound of canvas flaps falling closed all around us.

            In the morning, my mother inspected the deep red bruise on my chin.  “How’d you get that?” she asked.
            I shrugged bitterly.
            As ever, my mother seemed to have a compensatory gift at the ready.  “I brought matching halter-tops for us.  See,” she held up one of the scraps of cloth against her bosom and extended its lavender twin in my direction.
            I recoiled, putting my hands behind my back.
            “It’s the only thing for the hot weather.  Besides, you want to show off your new boobies.  You know you do.”
            The truth horrified me.  I took the halter and turned my back to her to change.
            Once outside, I glanced over to the firepit.  A few holes had burned through the burgundy robe, but it was still recognizable.  I didn’t go over to it.
            When I saw all the other girls in t-shirts, my shoulders caved in and I wrapped my arms around my bare midriff, shielding my bellybutton from view.  The shawoman handed out shoulder pouches.  Inside each was a plastic water bottle and a sandwich folded in wax paper.  I kept my eyes on the ground as we trudged out onto a dirt path banked with stones.  Light chatter and giggles filled the air.  My mother’s voice burbled up ahead, while I hung back, trying to make myself invisible.  The troop came to a halt at a fork in the path.
            The shawoman said, “We’ve come to a fork in the path.  Let us pause here and reflect on the path we’ve so far traveled together.”
            A cactus wren trilled.  And trilled again.
            Finally, the shawoman cleared her throat.  “There comes a time in every woman’s life when she must part company with her mother, taking forth into her future all the many lessons her mother has taught her.  It’s the mother’s duty to bid her daughter a fond farewell and safe journey.  When we all meet again, it will be as equals, all women, all one in our womanhood.  The new women will hence forth forge ahead on their own, and when we see them again, we will recognize them by their womanly arraignment.”
            She pulled a scroll from her satchel and handed it to me.  Then she waved to the older women to follow her.  They broke off down one fork of the trail, and we girls were left alone.  The others gathered around me as I unscrolled the map.  As I felt them press close, looking over my shoulders, the map quivered in my hands.  A single, zigzagging line traced between boulders and saguaros that were nowhere visible in the landscape.  We were to discover the map was rather more artistic than literal and completely unnecessary as our clearly marked path never diverged.  Posts with arrows pointing our way were stationed at fifty-foot intervals.  The lack of any challenge to the expedition didn’t dampen the other girls’ enthusiasm; they skipped down the trail ahead of me.
            There’s nothing quite so humiliating for a sixteen year-old girl than being forced to keep company with a gaggle of eleven to thirteen year-old girls; their screaming, giggling childishness tickles a too recent past, a past the sixteen year-old is desperate to put behind her.  Joining in with them was out of the question, but remaining aloof would only draw more attention to me, the one wearing a c-cup bra and regularly shaving my armpits.  My mind exhausted itself racing over coping strategies.
            The littlest of our group, the younger of the pair of sisters, fell in next to me.  “You’re not as pretty as your mom.”  Her voice was firm and forthright, but not unkind.  She had stated a simple and obvious fact, and I admired her gumption.
            “That’s because she’s not wearing make-up, stupid.”  The older sister had somehow circled around and come up behind us, giving me a start.  She gained my side and flashed me a look of wide-eyed sweetness.  “I bet you look just as pretty when you’re made-up.”
            I shrugged.  I could see this girl was only a couple of years younger than me and eager to make an alliance that would put distance between herself and the younger ones, but she couldn’t help being enticed into their conversations.
            “Naw-uh!”
            “Shut up!”  She reached across me to slap her sister’s shoulder.  “You’re not even a woman yet.”  Turning back to me, she said, “She hasn’t had her period.  My mom got permission to bring her, so she wouldn’t have to do all this again next year.  My name’s Shannon, and this is Sharee.”  She indicated her sister with her thumb.  Already I liked the younger girl better.
            The path ended at a picnic table shaded by a ring of cottonwoods, where the other girls waited for us to catch up.  When we joined them, they tore into a large paper bag that had been left there for us to find.  Out spilled squares of fabric on strings, several clear plastic canisters filled with colored beads and tubes of glue.  We unfurled the instructions for decorating our puberty aprons and set to work gluing beads onto our fabric squares.  The two sisters settled in, one on either side of me.
            “I bet your mother’s been everywhere,” ventured Sharee.
            “That’s stupid,” said Shannon, but she didn’t sound convinced.  She looked to me for confirmation.  Then I saw all their faces turn to me with hungry expectation.  I don’t know what came over me.  I’d never lied or told stories before.  My mind up to this point had been overwhelmed by the unusual circumstances at the camp.  Ordinarily when I traveled with my mother, we remained isolated and were waited on by people who’d been trained to interact with us in only the most superficial manner.  These girls all seemed relaxed in each other’s company, even though they’d only just met.  Their keen, open faces touched something in me, and I wanted to feel a part of what they had.  The words slipped from my lips, “My mother was once on the moon.”
            “Bull pucky!” said Shannon.
            “I’m not supposed to talk about it.”  I kept my eyes on my apron, my hands busy gluing beads in a spiral pattern.
            Everyone was quiet for several minutes before I heard Sharee ask, “Why did she go to the moon?”
            “I shouldn’t have said anything.”
            “We won’t tell.”
            “I dunno.”
            Another minute slipped by.  If there’d been any humidity in the air, I would have felt the sweat trickling over my temples.
            “Everyone pinky swear,” said Shannon.
            Every girl except me planted an elbow on the table and leaned her crooked pinky into a tangle of fingers.  Shannon led the chant, “One, two, three—swear!”  Their hands broke apart, and they turned to me.
            “Okay,” I said and let out a long breath as if I’d been holding it.  “In the early ‘70s there was a space station on the moon.  You’ve never heard of it because it was top secret.  Scientists lived there doing top secret experiments.”
            “What kind of experiments?” Sharee interjected.
            “They were top secret, dumbo.”  Shannon kicked her sister under the table.
           “My mother had been doing USO tours for years.  Mostly Vietnam.  But also Germany and Turkey.  Places like that.  The scientists had been on the moon for so long they were starting to go crazy.  There’s no sunlight up there, and of course, back then there were no women.”  I looked around the circle of faces.  A couple of them smirked.  Sharee stayed round-eyed.
            “Anyway, the people at NASA knew they had to send up a visitor—to relieve the tension—but there was only space in the capsule for one other person besides the pilot.  They couldn’t send any of the scientists’ wives or other relatives, because whichever one they picked, it would be unfair to the others.”
            “They could draw straws,” offered Sharee.
            “Then the ones who didn’t win would be jealous,” said Shannon.
            “They let the scientists decide.  They picked my mother.  Unanimously.”
            I took another glance around the group.  Nobody batted an eye.
            “We moved to Houston a full year before the launch.  For the training.  I didn’t get to see all of it because of school and stuff.  But I got to taste some of the food.”
            “What was it like?’  Sharee’s voice assumed a tone of reverence.
            “It tasted okay, but the texture was weird, because it was freeze-dried and you reconstituted it with hot water from a tube.  They had to make my mother a special space suit as she was the first woman ever in space.”  I glued another bead on my apron.  I considered.  “It was hot pink,” I said.  I held my breath for a second, but nobody said anything.  “I watched her strap into the capsule.  She gave me a thumbs up before they took me down to watch the launch.  I was maybe seven then.”
            “Didn’t anyone notice NASA was launching a rocket?”  It was one of the other, perhaps less credulous girls.  I didn’t know her name.
            “They told the press they were launching a satellite.  She stayed up there for two days, and when she came back, she was two days younger because you don’t age in space.”
            Again, there was silence from the other girls.  This time when I looked around the table, I saw their acne, their braces, their bony shoulders, and I thought how if they were a couple of years older or I was a couple of years younger, I could be friends with them.  We could all be friends.
            “Wow,” said Sharee.
            I added a few more beads to my apron before speaking again, “That’s nothing.  Last year, when my mother was on tour with Michael Jack-”
            “Yoo-hoo!  How goes it, women?” my mother called out.  Some of the women on the path behind her laughed.  I fell silent.  The story I’d been about to tell was actually a true one.  I don’t know why I didn’t start with it.
            The shawoman stepped to the front of the pack of mothers.  She turned to face them and held up her hands like stop signs.  “Let’s wait a moment, while our daughters, the new women, don their womanly attire.”
            We girls shifted from our seats and tied each others’ apron strings.
            “Let’s have the new women line up here.”
            I found myself in the middle, three girls on either side of me.  I was the tallest and wished I could shrink down beneath their shoulders.
            “There.  Now, your mothers would like to say a few words to each of you.”
            Each of the women held a sash, beaded and feathered, and already I could see that my mother held the gaudiest of the lot, trimmed with purple down.  I waited for its presentation with sick anticipation, wondering how long I’d be forced to wear the thing.  I should have known that my mother would angle her way to the back of the line—she had to be the headliner.
            The mothers stepped forward one by one.  Starting at one end of our line, they moved down, hugging each girl in turn, saying, “Welcome to womanhood.”  When she got to her own daughter, she paused, lifted the sash over her head and whispered a few more words.  Finally, it was my mother’s turn.  She made her way down the line, lingering in each hug before stopping in front of me.  She looped the ridiculous sash over my head, and I could see tears standing in the corners of her eyes.  “I want you to have the best,” she said, the tears catching in her throat, “Only ever the best.”  My face burned.  I didn’t want to look at the girls around me, but I couldn’t keep my eyes from straying in their direction.  Some purposefully looked away, but Shannon gaped at me with open envy.  The moment of closeness I’d shared with them seemed to have happened in a past epoch.  My mother pulled me into a tight embrace, our bare bellies pressed against each other; when she released me, our sweaty skins peeled apart with a wet sucking sound.
            Then my mother leaned in to hug Sharee, who was standing to my right, and I heard Sharee whisper, “You’ve been in space.”
            My mother stepped back from her and grinned.  “Why yes I have!” she said and laughed heartily before moving on to hug the next girl.  I knew she was referring to a different story altogether—she’d been very open with me in regards to her early drug experiences—but she’d corroborated my story without a missed beat!  By the time she went to stand with the other mothers, my embarrassment was forgotten and I gazed upon her with love.  She beamed back at me, her face flushed with pride.
            The shawoman spoke, “New women, it’s good to feel the strength of independent womanhood, but always remember that there will be a woman waiting to catch you when you fall.  Today it will be your mother.  And in a way, your mother’s love will always be there to catch you even after her physical body has transformed to one of spirit.  Let us practice falling into our mother’s arms, so that when the vicissitudes of life eventually knock us down—and they will—we’ll be prepared for the sensation of falling and have faith in the woman’s arms waiting to catch us.”
            The shawoman gestured for my mother to come over.  Standing face to face, the top of the shawoman’s head was level with my mother’s chin.  She reached up to my mother’s shoulders and turned her around so that my mother’s back was to her front.  “Cross your arms over your chest, dear, and when I say the word, ‘trust,’ fall back, knowing that I will catch you.”
            I barely had a moment to examine my skepticism before the shawoman said, “Trust.”  I gasped and took a step forward at the same instant my mother fell backward like a plank, like her heels were greased tennis balls.  She landed in the shawoman’s arms like a rag doll, never losing her smile.  The shawoman pushed her back up onto her feet in one smooth motion.  “See?  Simple.”  She and my mother embraced.  I stepped back in line and pretended to adjust my sash.
            “Okay, mothers, take your positions.”
            The mothers moved around to stand behind us.  The shawoman stood behind Sharee.  I envied her.  My mother was a couple inches taller than me and thirty pounds heavier.  I felt her solid presence behind me, and yet—luckily, I didn’t have much time to think before the shawoman called out, “Trust!”  I summoned all my will and fell back.  I fully expected to feel the smack of hard sand against my back, but my mother’s arms absorbed my weight, and, only for an instant, my head rested between her breasts.  Memories of being small and sitting in her lap rushed through my body.  There was no time to relish them.  My mother quickly pushed me back up onto my feet.  I turned to her and saw her euphoric expression, reflecting exactly what I felt.  We threw our arms around each other, for once, in gleeful accord.
            The shawoman called for our attention.  “Now that you’ve felt what it’s like to fall, let’s find out what it feels like to fly!”
            I had no idea what to expect as we circled around the butte.  I most definitely was not expecting a trapeze.
            “I can’t do it,” I said.
            My mother looked at me with an expression I knew well, a sort of shame-faced incredulity that seemed to say, “are you really my daughter?”
            I tried to whisper my fear, but I couldn’t get a breath.  I gasped, and it felt like the last bit of air leaving my body.  Panic replaced it.  Tears poured from my eyes.  I clutched my throat.
            Sharee stepped up next to me and laid her hand between my shoulder blades.  I imagined her face looking tenderly up at mine, full of concern, and in fact, I heard her say, “Are you okay?” but I couldn’t look at her anymore than I could look at my mother.
            “Of course, she’s okay,” my mother chirped, her voice hard-edged, falling into her deeper register like a sugar-coated rock.
            I felt Sharee move away from me, my last life line jerked out of reach, and I literally flailed.  The panic swarmed up out of my pores and coated my skin with cold, clammy sweat.  “I—can’t—breath!” I choked.  The effort caused my heart to explode.  Everyone crowded around me.  Both their concern and my mother’s mortification were palpable.  I needed to make it up to her, get her on my side, make her see how she had missed the gravity of my situation; I managed to get the words out, “I’m dying.”
            “Go ahead and die then,” she snapped and pushed her way out of the crowd that for once was focused around me.
            The shawoman stepped up and grasped my shoulders.  “It’s just an anxiety attack,” she soothed.  “Let’s breathe together.  There, that’s better.  Let’s all link hands and do a healing ‘OM.’”
            “Ooooooooo—mmmmmmmm…”
            I listened to the chant.  My mother’s voice wasn’t in it.

            The harness fit snugly around my waist.  The hundred degree heat caused the belt to exude a strong odor of vinyl.  In addition to the harness, there was a net I hadn’t been able to take in when I first glimpsed the trapeze.  There was virtually no risk at all, and I felt a fool for the butterflies still attempting to claw their way out of my stomach as I climbed the ladder made of hollow metal that clanked and swayed through my ascent.  The hands that greeted me on the platform were strong, calloused.  I trusted them.  The women and girls called up to me, so I looked down at them, returned their waves and quickly brought my eyes back to meet the gaze of the instructor.  His eyes were dark blue and reassuring.  He held the bar of the trapeze in one hand, the other hand pressed firmly against my back just above the band of my harness.  I’d watched the demonstration; I knew what was supposed to happen.  I would swing out with both hands on the bar.  On the back swing I would jack-knife my legs forward, bend at the knees, and once my knees were hooked over the bar, I would let go, swing forward again, grab the hands of the acrobat who would be there to catch me—and release.  I’d watched each of the other girls perform the feat, some successfully, some not.  Every one of them had been lowered safely down into the net by the harness.  Piece of cake.
            The instructor held the bar for me, and when I had it in my grasp, he said, “Relax your grip.  Let your hands be like hooks.  Keep your legs together.”
            My catcher swung out from the opposite platform.  He executed the moves I would mirror, ending up with his knees hooked over the bar.
            “When I say go,” said the instructor.  I focused my attention on the firm pressure of his hand against my back and prayed I wouldn’t throw up.  “Go,” he said, and I jumped.
            There was no time to think.  I felt the forward momentum of my body.  My legs moved forward and up on the backswing just as they were supposed to do.  My knees came over the bar, and I let go.  My knees began to slip from the bar before I could see the hands waiting to catch me.  I reached for the hands, and for a split second I was airborne, no bar, no hands.  Hands closed around my wrists.  I held my legs together, my arms and shoulders slackened, my whole body swung like a ribbon on the wind.  When the hands let me go, I felt the tension in the wires attached to my harness.  I remembered to lean back and ended up supine, the net closing around me like a cradle, cloudless blue sky above.  The net shook as the instructor crawled toward me to release the harness.

            You can imagine the feeling I had after this triumph, not only the sensation of flight but the exhilaration of having conquered a crippling fear.  It was all so heady, for a moment, I forgot my mother’s existence.
            She lay on her bunk in a bathrobe, reading a magazine.  Her toenails sparkled.  She didn’t look up when I came in but rolled onto her side, showing me her back.  I didn’t care.  My experience was still mine.  I knew the moment I told her about it, she’d find some way to claim it for herself, and I wanted to cherish it a bit longer.  I lay back on my own bunk, closed my eyes and felt the mattress sway.  It flung me up into the air so those strong arms could catch me again and again.  They rocked me to sleep—or so I suspect.  The rest of the day is a hazy memory of escalating tensions.  My mother wasn’t speaking to me.
            As we sat around the fire in the dark, every drum and rattle thrummed and screeched the accusation my mother refused to speak, “You’re a bad daughter, a bad, bad daughter.”  Boom-ba-da-boom-boom—rattle-rattle.  The shawoman stepped into the middle of the drum circle.  She wielded her rainstick high until the skins fell silent, then she thumped it on the ground, its mysterious innards burbling—I felt the sound like ball bearings rolling down my spinal column.  “Is there one among us brave enough to take the journey on all of our behalfs?”  The shawoman’s voice sounded strange, deep and otherworldly.
            My mother’s hopeful glance cut through the darkness, and I raised my hand.  The shawoman beamed at me.  She walked to my place in the circle, both hands extended.  I placed my palms on her palms.  Her hands were warm, almost hot as we clasped our hands together, and she pulled me to my feet.  My knees only trembled a little as she guided me to the center of the ring.  We stood next to the fire.  She presented me with a crudely fired pottery cup, its sides painted with zigzag designs.  The firelight flickered over the surface of the murky liquid it contained.  “It doesn’t taste good,” she warned, “Hold your nose if you need to.”
            I took the cup in both hands and lifted it to my lips.  The flavor was of spicy mud.  It stung my tongue, numbing it instantly.  The texture was more objectionable: a thick, viscous goo.  The more I swallowed, the more it seemed to coat my mouth and throat, demanding to be brought back up.  I handed the empty cup back to the shawoman.  My stomach was doing somersaults.  I squeezed my eyes shut as I concentrated all my attention on keeping the foul liquid in my gut.  Suddenly it seemed my balance was off.  I began to stagger woozily, just trying to stay on my feet.
            The shawoman’s voice broke through my struggle, “You remember you can fly, right?”
            It was as if she’d asked me where I put my keys—of course I remembered.  I lifted my arms and felt a swell of air rise beneath me, pushing me heavenward.  I looked down to see my toes pointing toward the receding earth.  Clouds enveloped me in white foam.  Crystals of frozen precipitation caught in my eyelashes.  I rose higher and higher until there was no longer any up or down and I was surrounded by stars.  I squeezed my eyes shut against their blazing brilliance, felt their radiance warm my skin.  And then I was walking, crystals of hot sand between my toes, and it was the sun warming my skin.  I opened my eyes and saw desert once again, but it was like no desert I’d ever seen before.  No manzanita dotted the landscape, no red rocks, only waves of yellow sand dunes.  The sky was dark blue at the horizon, paler higher up, bright white near the sun.  I walked.  I heard the shawoman’s voice from afar, “Look for your totem animal!”  I squinted at the dark blue horizon and could just make out a lumpy shape, moving.  I walked closer.  More moving shapes climbed over the horizon, not clumping together, not a herd of animals, a smattering of individuals whose proximity to one another was accidental—camels lumbering steadily toward an oasis of palm trees.  I joined their ragged caravan.  When we reached the oasis, I found a seat on a smooth rock.  The camels spread their front legs wide and lowered their necks to sip; their tongues made ripples that sparkled across the surface of the pool like jewels.  Hypnotized by the camels’ slow, gentle movements, I was content to watch them as they came one by one, but then I heard the shawoman’s voice again command me, “Keep going.”  I stood up.  “Look for a staircase.  There must be a staircase.”  I saw a small white building, a simple cube of bleached concrete slabs that I hadn’t noticed before.  Inside it was cool.  I looked for a staircase but saw only four gray walls, a gray ceiling and floor.  The floor opened beneath me.  I slid down a child’s slide that spiraled round and round down through dark earth.  Frightened at first, I soon relaxed and enjoyed the ride, the wind in my hair, the pure clean smell of dirt.  I popped out into gloaming light.
            I’m in a woodland scene anchored around a small lake.  It’s quiet, serene.  The beauty of the place overwhelms my senses.  A troop of deer emerge from the trees.  The lead animal wades into the shallow lake, and the others follow, fanning out behind it.  They don’t seem disturbed by my presence.  I pause to watch them make the crossing.  The lead deer suddenly falls to its side and slumps down under the water.  I think it has died and am briefly stricken before I see a flutter of movement beneath the surface of the water.  A human-like figure rises up.  It is covered by longish red hair like an orangutan, but its proportions are more like a man.  It stands on two legs.  Its face is small and overhung with heavy brow-ridges; its cranium slopes back.  Its expression is as peaceful as the deer’s.  I realize that it is an australopithecine and am amazed.  It begins walking toward me.  I feel no threat, just curiosity and awe.  The other deer have also fallen in the lake and are re-emerging as hominids.  I’m filled with joy.
            I realized I was lying down when I felt tears running from the corners of my eyes and rolling around the rims of my ears.  My mother and the shawoman were leaning over me.  Their faces filled my field of vision.  Even in the dim firelight I could see the pores in my mother’s cheeks; cheeks that had begun to sag when she was standing upright were pooched out by gravity.  The sight of their airy fullness made me think of Porky Pig, and I laughed.  Porky and the shawoman pulled me to my feet.  I knew they’d done it, but the sensation was one of floating.  I glanced around the drum circle, slowly turning, my feet churning down into the sand.  I saw all the women and girls staring silently at me, their drums and rattles resting between their knees.  Every cheek was rose; their lips, blood-red.  I felt my smile all through my body.


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"who looked like they’d birthed their daughters on tennis courts without ever putting down their rackets"

I particularly like that line...

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