She calls me in the middle of the night, holds me tight, trembling. Mummy, I scared. Don’t leave me alone. I need a big person to be with me. Mummy, she says, I hate myself. Why? Because I hate my daddy. He yelled at me.
She asks me, what’s your mummy’s name? I answer, you know her name, it’s your grandma, Jacqueline. Then, what’s your daddy’s name? I say, I told you, I never knew my father. I don’t know where he is. She asks, but where does he live? I answer, very gently, I don’t know where he lives. He never lived with us, I don’t know what happened to him.
In the afternoon when she takes her nap I look at the old photo album I brought back from my grandmother’s place after the funeral last year. It has thick gray carton pages with black celluloid wedges and the photos are small black and white glossy prints with a soft shine, lines a little washed out. There is a whole series of beach snapshots dated summer 1932, Deauville. On one of them my grandmother is in a one piece striped bathing suit with a low U-neck back, I wonder if it was considered daring then; she’s sitting sideways on the boardwalk, legs dangling above the beach, with the two girls, my mother and aunt Edith playing in the sand at her feet. I’ve just had my hair cut in a bob and I look very much like her, tight waves along the left profile. A while ago, this Chilean theater teacher I was taking a workshop with did a mask of my face. He layered warm wet gauze from my forehead to my chin, working around the eyes, because the skin is too delicate, and around the nostrils, to allow for breathing. After a few minutes, the gauze had hardened, he lifted the mask. I had a shock. I never knew I looked so much like my mother. The mask is hanging on the wall over my bedside table. Jimmy hates it. He says it looks like a young woman’s death mask. To me it seems very calm, looking away to some kind of inner beyond, with its hollow eye-sockets.
Jimmy works 12–14 hours a day in a law firm down on Wall Street. I sell real estate part-time in the morning. I drop her at the baby-sitter on my way, it’s two subway stops from here, pick her up on my way back. I make her take a nap even though she’s four and she doesn’t really need it. It gives me two free hours. I don’t do much with them. Mostly sit around thinking about my life. I turn the album pages, back to the ’20s, the turn-of-the-century. Ladies wearing bustles. There the photos are mounted on cardboard embossed with gold. They were farm people yet they look like royalty, decked out in dark silk and lace, the men dashing in army uniforms. On our own photos, we always look like farm hands, jeans and sneakers, flannel shirts. I couldn’t do it on my own. I’d have to put her in a day-care for the whole day, but even then. How could I pay the rent? Even if I worked full time. I add up the figures. They don’t come up to much. It would have to be a rent-controlled place. They don’t come by that easily nowadays. People sit on their apartments, pass them on to their friends. Maybe in a couple of years, if I put a little bit of money aside every week. Open a separate bank account. And what if he found out?
She’s in the bathtub splashing water over the tiled wall, attempting to scrub it with sponge and face soap. Me sitting on the porcelain ledge amid shampoos and detergents. I bend to give her a kiss. Fine texture of her skin. Perfect tight live silk against mature ripe skin. Riper skin she finds repulsive. I did too, when I was her age, before I learnt to give my cheek politely to the grown-ups. She turns her head when Jimmy’s grandmother threatens to move the deep furrows and quivering flesh of her face too close to her. Offers the side of her forehead. Lets herself be kissed on the hairline. Hair contact not as intimate as skin contact. She opens the shoe box in which the recent family snap-shots are stocked, looks for one of her other great-grandmother, the one who died, giggles, embarrassed. She’s ugly! She points to a tuft of hair sprouting out of a small wart on her chin. She is old, I say. The skin looks like that when you grow old. She was 97 on that picture. I look at her, at her glowing complexion, the nose mouth eyebrows chin, perfectly drawn, pulled together, smooth like pure lake water, not a ripple. I touch her back, her shoulder’s so small it fits in the hollow of my palm, so frail I could crush it. I kiss her neck, I could eat her up, her cheek like a plum. Don’t eat me all up, mummy. Don’t. Genuinely alarmed. She asks about her great-grandma. She’s dead I say. Do you remember her? We went to visit her in her house in France. Do you remember the chickens in the backyard? You gave them seeds. You wanted to catch them but they flew away. She looks me straight in the eye, suspicious. Will I die too? Her eyes are grey-green speckled with red. They are huge, deep, you sink into them like down a clear well. Yes, I say. You will die too. Impossible! Those tiny teeth, the hands getting expert at building funny trucks with bilateral wheels, struggling to fasten a red tail at the back, see mummy, a truck-doggy. Impossible! She bursts into tears. No! I don’t want to die. Do I have to die? First you will grow up, and that will take a long long time, and you will become a woman, and that will take many many many years, and in many many more years you’ll grow old, and your body will grow very tired, and then you will die. Like a flower withered, drying out. Everybody will die, I will die, your daddy will die. You will die too? Yes. But not for a very long time. Right now we’re alive. Don’t think about dying. She lowers her eyes, fidgets in the water with her toes. Mummy, she says, bring me my little smurfs, I want to play with them.
Please, I say.
Please, mummy, she says.
My mother lived without a man. She raised me and my brother on her own. It was rough and sometimes all we had for dinner was a big pot of spaghetti with margarine, I liked them better without tomato sauce anyway. But we don’t depend on anybody she used to say, she was very proud of that. I buy a small black and red Chinese notebook and a new pen and while she is asleep I calculate how much money I could save every week without Jimmy finding out. It’s not easy because we use my money for food, Jimmy’s income goes towards the rent, clothing, vacation, domestic appliances, and savings, the big things. We don’t save on my salary. I’m supposed to spend it all. I also use it for books, make-up, gloves, tights, belts, earrings, things I like to buy without Jimmy breathing down my neck giving me his opinion—usually negative, he thinks I spend my money frivolously. He doesn’t consider frivolous his purchase of a VCR or a professional baseball mitt that he only uses pacing back and forth the living-room hitting it with a softball in his left hand.
Running on small legs. Jeans too long smooshed up accordion-like, above brand new sneakers. Small tight perfect buns swinging. Head of curls bobbing out of over-sized corduroy jacket. Making a U-turn, zipping back suddenly tired, head hanging over one shoulder, legs turning to jelly, knees bent inside. A cloth doll, ready to collapse. Mummy. Whining. Muuummiieee. Carry me. It’s an order. Total confidence. Now I can’t let that go. One has to point to social improprieties. What’s acceptable, what’s not.
Not even please.
Immediate retaliation. Spread-eagle on muddy sidewalk, pretending to be dead, paralyzed, at least seriously sick. Then when grown-up hand makes attempt to pull, kicking proceeds. Methodical. Look around. The street is crowded. Six o’clock shopping, people coming back from work, harried. At sidewalk level, heels click by, circling the small body. Disapprovingly, I could swear, just listening to the clatter of soles, watching heads turning back, staring for a half second. Pick up child. Assaulted by little fists pounding into defenseless parental flesh. Look of victory in child’s eyes. She thinks it’s all power-play. One time she wins. One time I win. I play society’s game. She plays wild beast’s game. More sophisticated: I play for two, society’s game and my own version of trying to subvert society. The three players are her, me, and them. Sometimes, we both hate them. But I’m supposed to play on their side. Sometimes I forget, I get mixed up. She gets confused. Will she end up shooting dope as a result of my confusion? Where does that lead us? More kicking.
Then this smooshy tender kiss. The storm has passed. Musky smell in the tangled hair, right under my nose. Small arms around my neck, head flapping against my shoulder. Eyes flickering. Soft warm body weighing a ton as it fades into sleep. My right hip, my back starting to ache. Wishing for a couch in which to collapse, the child asleep in my arms. Trusting. Totally. Not having detected yet betrayal signs. Mummie, I like you, muttered by a wooly mouth. Never a dull moment.
* * *
She appears in the early dawn, little pale ghost motionless at the foot of the bed biding her time, sharp senses aroused to see if the parental bed will give signs of life. If not, walks light as a feather in quasi-total silence, worms her way under the cover. I open my arms. She has this big smile. Makes a bridge between her father and me, touching his thighs with her toes, my neck with her arm. Their flesh is so alike, resting pleasurably against each other, whereas his has become so alien to me, just to be connected to him through her body gives me the shivers. I usually stick to the edge of the bed, an ocean between him and me. He doesn’t attempt to cross it.
An Oldsmobile Cutlass is up front right now. Cutlass Supreme. Followed by a healthy diet of Mazola, for the young at heart. When it comes to Republican leaders … Mummie, she whines from the kitchen, can I have a cracker with cream cheese?
Wait. I’m listening to this. Besides, we’re going to have dinner.
For four days only at Bloomingdale’s … The smugglers are becoming bolder …
Sing-song of a child somewhere in the direction of the bathroom.
Look, mummy, look.
Small weak fingers brushing against each other, eyes mouth set fiercely, concentrating.
So Tatiana taught you how to snap your fingers. Let me see. Snap. Squeeze your fingers together. Great. Look, mummy, look.
Wait. Let me look at this.
Turbo 18 liter. Jiggle, jiggle on the screen. Come on now. Buick. A record starts playing on her tape recorder. Pinocchio! Yes, Jiminy Cricket. Oh! What did I do! … Light and elegant entrees like shrimp creole. Thirteen calories … Pinocchio! No! Quick!
Mum! Look at me, I can snap my fingers!
After two days of rioting … Wait! I’m listening to this … Jamaica is slowly returning to normal …
She’s mad at me. She wants my attention. She says, we’re not friends. I’m not your friend. I won’t play with you anymore. Taunting me, four-year-old to four-year-old. Changes her mind. Wiggles her hips, sign of imminent pipi.
Mummy, come to the bathroom with me because I scared of the Big Bad Wolf. Capital B, capital B, capital W.
But then, as soon as she is sitting safely on the john, light on, door ajar, she yells at me. I’m not talking to you, she says. Goodbye. I’m going to go away and never come back.
Me too, I hiss between my teeth. I’ll walk out the door, not even a suitcase, just my purse, my jacket, as if going to work, heading for the subway, instead hail a cab, drive straight to the airport, who cares about the money at this point, board the first plane out of NYC, God bless Visa, never mind where, the farther the better, and never come back. Never look back, never think back. Like these men who walk out the door before dinner for a pack of cigarettes, never to be seen again. Reincarnated someplace else. How many lives could one collect, walk away from, like one more skin to shed. Two, three, five? How many wives, husbands, children, how many lovers, how many jobs? How many identities, new names, wigs, hair transplants, facials, nose jobs, social circles, countries? Hoping to get to the core, to the Right Life.
Instead she calls me to wipe her ass and I carry out the order.
Later we take a bath together. She lies on top of me like a baby, suckles my breast. She still considers it her own, her thing. To toy with. Pinches the nipple with the tip of her teeth. Her idea of a good joke.
I love you, Mummy, she says.
You want to take a trip with me? I ask her.
I shrug, look blankly at the white tiles on the wall, scratched at the bathtub edge, the greyish gook gathered along the crack.
Where to, Mom?
There is a silence. She twists strands of my hair between her fingers. I think Rio de Janeiro, Fez, Melbourne, I think Jamaica, Caracas, Dakar, Shanghai, Valparaiso, Bangkok, and the cloud lifts and I soar like an eagle in a humid hazy blue sky, banana leaves swing in the meek breeze beneath me, and she straddles me holding my hair as reins, crying faster, faster, she’s naked around me, her skin is sweaty, it smells like honey, she holds a red hibiscus flower, ripe, heavy, she slides it behind my ear, nice, mummy, she says. You look beau-ti-ful …
The keys rattle in the lock. We fall like stones. I see the water dripping down the side of the bathtub on the mat, soaking the linoleum floor.
He walks in. Makes crisp noises. The key-ring clinking by the telephone, the briefcase a muted thump on the couch.
Let’s hide, she whispers in my ear. Let’s pretend we’re not here.
Hello, there, he shouts. Where’s everybody? Dinner ready?