There isn’t a movie theater in the Bone. You have to catch the bus two towns over. Destiny’s dad takes her and her brothers all the time. I don’t even have a TV at the eating house, so watching movies while sitting on Destiny’s red-and-white striped couch is enough for me. We start to watch Pretty Woman, but halfway through I tell Destiny I have a stomachache. Julia Roberts’s character is too much like my mom—the toothy smile, the vulnerability.
I walk home in the rain, wishing I’d taken some popcorn. By the time I reach my front door, my white T-shirt is soaked through. I pull it over my head as soon as I get inside, failing to notice the car in the driveway. I walk toward the kitchen and stop short. A man is standing on the stairs looking at me. I gasp. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I clutch the shirt to my chest, but it’s twisted, and I can’t straighten it out to cover myself. I hear my mother’s voice.
“Robert…?” she says. I catch a glimpse of her red robe as I run for the kitchen. I find the laundry basket that I keep next to the washer and grab a clean shirt. As I’m struggling to get it over my head, she walks in.
“What the hell were you thinking?”
This is more than she’s said to me in six months.
“I-I didn’t see the car. I was wet…” I dip my head and swallow my shame.
“You embarrassed me,” she says between her teeth. “Walking through my house showing yourself like that.” She speaks of my body like it’s a thing of disgust. Something to be hidden and never shown.
I say nothing. My chest heaves. I hate myself. She swoops out as quickly as she swooped in—in a flurry of red silk and condemnation. I can smell her vanilla perfume as I begin to cry.
I want her back. I want to know what changed her so that I have somewhere to lay my blame. If there was a cause, I could stop blaming myself. I trace my memories, over and over, searching for the root—the moment, or month, or day she vanished.
From my mattress, I stare at the ceiling. Deep brown watermarks stain what was once cream paint. In those marks, I study our years in the eating house. The gradual recession of happiness. Your life can be nicked away so slowly that you don’t even notice it.
Her laughter went first, then her smiles, which were so deep they showed more gum than tooth. The last thing to go was her eyes—her brilliantly expressive eyes. They stopped looking and gazed right through. They stared at walls, and cabinets, and floors. They stared at everything except me. In the early days I’d tried everything to get her to look at me: drop a bowl of cereal and milk on the floor, right in front of her so that her toes were flecked with milk, or scribble all over my arms and legs with marker until I was as deeply blue as a Smurf. With grim determination, I lied to her face, broke her trinkets, swore loudly, and sang songs she hated at the top of my lungs. Hateful attempts met with milky-eyed ambivalence. She’s slowly dying, and I’m not sure she knows it.
FOLD YOUR HANDS IN YOUR LAP. Smile. Don’t smile. Don’t look anyone in the eye. Pretend you don’t care. Study your shoes. Don’t smile … don’t ever smile. God.
I am fidgety and awkward. I never know what to do and when to do it. A boy smiled at me once; he was cute. He’d already passed by the time I smiled back. Too little too late. I couldn’t make my face move in time. School is a reprieve from home; home is a reprieve from school. I don’t belong anywhere, so I travel from place to place hoping no one notices me—but if they do, I hope they won’t be overly cruel. I think about the past. Days long gone.
Everything different, everything so strangely the same. People become different, I realize. It’s the landscape that never changes: the highway signs marred with graffiti, the pink and orange blended sunsets that kiss the top of the evergreens, even the line of cars waiting to turn into the Wal-Mart parking lot. That’s what jars me the most: same sky, same Bone, same house, different mother.
So I remember the old mother, tracing the past, recoloring the memories. The weight of bad memories blossoms and expands under the good memories. I try to think only of those—the good things that carve me into my childhood, not the ones that carve me out of it.
I think of the way my mother always had a leaf between her fingers. That’s what I remember most. She’d pull one from a bush or a tree and hold it between her fingers, compulsively rubbing little circles until the leaf was rubbed clean of its veins and membranes and her fingers were stained green. I liked when her fingers were green; it reminded me of the finger paints we used at school. It made her seem strange and fun, organically different from the other mothers who were always sour-faced and stiff. When we were outside, I’d study the way she’d examine the plants, mimicking her movements, wanting to be close to her, wanting to be her. And it was difficult because my mother carried her grace around her shoulders, a regal class that was almost impossible to imitate.
That was when I was real little and things were almost right. Before she lost her job at Markobs and Jacob, before she started smoking, before the men. Nowadays, my mother’s fingers are stained with nicotine. The smell rolls off her skin when she moves across a room—stale smoke and tobacco rot. Her shoulders hang from her neck like an old housecoat. When she stopped leaving the house a few years ago, she would send me out to buy cigarettes, the ones with the Indian chief on the carton, because they were healthier for you. Somewhere in between her smelling like the outdoors, and her smelling like an ashtray, I stopped wanting to be her. And during that same time, while she was shrugging off the mantle of parenting and becoming a stranger, she stopped saying my name.
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