Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Deal

I am standing in the kitchen with my mother, the cool linoleum sticking to my bare, 12-year-old, feet.  My mom’s back is to me, bent over dishes in the deep sink.  Her S.O.S. pad scrapes against a copper-bottomed pan, intensifying my queasiness.  I am beyond sick to my stomach, most certainly, I am about to die.  She doesn’t know I am behind her, wrapped in devastation, hands squished into balls.  My fingers burn.  They sting like only freshly chewed skin can sting.  They’re red and raw and hurt all the way to my heart.

See, tomorrow is my birthday.  I’m going to be 13.  A teen-ager.  I was supposed to have a big birthday party, a special sleep over, with girlfriends and giggles and popcorn.  But my older sister blew it for me last month on her birthday, drinking beer in the garage with by brother’s friends.  Trina’s birthday is exactly a month before mine.  And a month isn’t long enough for parents to forget.  So now, no big birthday for me.  Even though I’ve never tasted alcohol.  Even though my sister offered me a sip of her wine cooler at the beach last week and I said NO WAY JOSE.  I’m the good one.

So, tomorrow, instead of girlfriends and giggles, the cousins are coming over, and the aunts and uncles.  My brothers and sisters are required to attend which ticks them off, because on a Sunday night, right before the school week starts, the last place they want to be is sitting on folding chairs in our living room listening to the aunts and uncles talk about Grandma’s arthritis and the weather.  Because my brothers and sisters have girlfriends and boyfriends – girlfriends who crack their gum and wear tight jeans and boyfriends with combs in their back pockets and hair on their upper lips.

My mom shakes off her hands before reaching for the yellow and white dishtowel.  I imagine water droplets hitting the little window above the sink, the window that offers a perfectly framed view of Mt. Hood on clear days, which are few and far between in Laurel, Oregon.

I should say something soon.  Before she whips around on her way to the next task and trips over me.  Which will make her mad.  Even though she’s the one who’s running into me.  I slide my thumbs across my cuticles.  They are throbbing.  How am I going to explain this?

See, my mom and I made A DEAL.  Because I drive her crazy sometimes.  Like when I talk too loud and she’s on the phone.  Or laugh too loud at things she doesn’t think are that funny.  Or when I sit beside her at church and wiggle my leg.  You know how you can sit and kind of balance on the ball of one foot and your knee will percussively pop up and down, almost like it’s having a spasm?  Well, I love doing that.  But it drives her crazy.  Makes her nuts.  Makes her sigh the most disappointed sigh and Karate chop her hand above my knee, not actually touching me, more like slicing an invisible string, cutting down a dancing puppet.

But the thing that drives my mom the craziest is when I bite my nails.  There’s no mid-air Karate chop to stop me then.  Nail biting gets contact, she’ll slap my hand away from my mouth.  Which is so surprising because I honestly don’t know I’m doing it.  It just happens.  My fingers wander there, without notice.  Until I’ve gone too far and I taste blood, or SMACK, my hand is batted away from my mouth mid-chew.  Once, my mom missed and hit my nose, scratching me with her fingernail.  I could tell she felt bad but she didn’t apologize.  So as soon as I was alone I squeezed the spot until a thin line of blood eked out.  The scratch suck around for nearly a week and my brothers teased me, saying I stuck my nose in somebody else’s business. But still there was no apology.

My mom is a homemaker, that’s her job.  “Raising five kids is a career,” she says.  But she also cleans houses.  Big mansions up on the hill with horses and four car garages and more than one TV.  I go on jobs with her sometimes, sit inside these massive homes with white carpets and whole rooms dedicated to one hobby or another.  She works hard and fast.   My mom uses her cleaning money to pay for things like, my ballet lessons, Kerry’s glasses, Trina’s braces.  And birthday presents.

So THE DEAL.  If I can grow my nails to the tips of my fingers for my birthday party, my mom will buy me a ring, a real 14-Karat gold ring with my birthstone, which is Topaz.  I don’t really love the dirty yellow of Topaz but my mom loved the idea and got so excited I instantly agreed and we laughed out loud (and I was careful not too laugh too loud).  So THE DEAL.  Nails to the tips of my fingers, for my birthday party.  DONE.

What’s funny to me though, is that when my Mom stands in line at the bank or waits to get sliced turkey at the deli counter, she picks.  At her fingers.  She has long nails she files to unnatural points and paints a frosty pink.  And I have watched her take her right thumbnail and scratch at the skin around her left thumbnail.  She goes down the line, finger to finger, then switches hands.  I know she doesn’t realize she’s doing it either.

Earlier this evening, when I was standing in the shower, my fingers shriveled up.  The skin got all soft and bumpy and I couldn’t drag my eyes away.  My nails were so beautiful.  I had never seen that much nail before.  I poked both pinkies in my mouth to feel the round edges.  “I love you all so much.” I whispered.

I closed my eyes and dreamed of the yellow stone my mom went ahead and bought even though we agreed to wait until after my party, after THE DEAL was sealed. I envisioned myself in the center of the circle at my birthday party, cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters all around.  I would pull out the lovely golden ring, and it would fit perfectly on my finger.  I knew exactly what it looked like because, right before I got in the shower, I found the little blue velvety box in the back of my mom’s make-up drawer.  It was the first place I looked.  Obviously it wanted to be found. See, I overheard my mom on the phone talking to one of the aunts, saying she was afraid the ring wouldn’t fit, that she might need to take it back and get it sized.  So I had to look for it.  Had to make sure it would slide on easily in front of everyone.  And it would.  It had fit perfectly.  I stood there in the shower, practiced my best surprised response and imagined the special look she and I would share, the one that said, “We did it!”

And then I tasted blood.  I looked down to see what I had done.  Seven nails were nibbled down to nubs.  SEVEN.

“Mom?”  I say turning toward the fridge.  I yank on the door handle so quickly I hear the lid on the butter dish slide off inside the little compartment that’s just for butter.  It’s already getting hard to breathe, my hand-me-down Shawn Cassidy nightshirt all itchy in my arm pits.

“Get out of there, I’m making popcorn.  We’ll have a snack during Love Boat,” she says.

Oh.  Love Boat AND popcorn.  This would have been the perfect pre-birthday night.

“Mom?”  I say again, my stomach twisting and turning like it does when I get carsick.  “What?” she says and turns toward me.  I slowly extend my hands.  She gasps and I watch, horrified, as she takes in the damage.

“…but you saw them, you saw them, you saw them at dinner,” I blurt out, “they were all the way to the tips, you saw them...”

For a moment I see her consider, weighing her options.  She folds the yellow and white towel and the kitchen shrinks around me.  My scalp is hot.  But then comes the disappointed sigh.  And I know, even though she already has the ring, all is lost.

 “Kimberlee, you know I can’t do that.  Your birthday is tomorrow.  That was THE DEAL.”

I’m crying and I know I’m on my way to those gasping-shuddering-sobs that make it impossible to speak or breathe or even think.

“You have to learn,” she continues.  “What kind of kind of example would I be if I didn’t follow through on my word?  What kind of Mother would I be then?”

I want to say, “You’d be the kind of mother who doesn’t punish me because my sister drinks with boys, the kind of mother who isn’t driven crazy by the things I love to do!”  But most of all I want to say, “The kind of mother who stands in line at the bank and AND PICKS HER FINGERS!”

But I can’t say anything because snot is dribbling from my nose and my chest is convulsing with each jagged breath.

She sighs again and says, “Don’t you think this disappoints me too?”

And I know I won’t say any of it even if I could get it out.  Because I love her.  I see her cleaning someone’s bathroom floor, kneeling on a folded towel, on her hands and knees for me.  I think, maybe next year we’ll make the deal again and I’ll do it, I’ll make it happen.  For both of us.  Even if I have to take masking tape and bind each finger so tightly they turn purple.

We stand there.  Both of us slumped.  And I think, this is what they call tough love.

I lean back against the fridge, my sobs finally settling into a random hick-up or two.  Something in me knows this is just the beginning.  Of letting love for her, silence me.  I think about the next day’s party and how tonight before bed, I will practice a new look for us to share.  One that says, “I understand.”

My mom starts picking at her thumb.  She doesn’t even realize it.  At least not right now.  And I wonder if, tonight when my mom takes her shower, her fingers will hurt all the way to her heart.

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