I was taught that women who suffer are far superior to those who remember to eat, who mouth off, who look at themselves in mirrors. “They aren’t fooling anyone,” my father said about the women who outlined their lips in red. When my father told me she was not like other women, my mother’s eyes glittered with pleasure. She pursed her lips into a folded-up smile.
I always see my mother leaning, over papers, bent over the ironing, shoulders hunched over dishes. “I’m the accountant and the maid,” she told me. She wouldn’t wear gloves when she washed dishes. In the winter, her hands were red and cracked. I bought her cocoa butter with my allowance. “Put it on at night,” I told her, “and cover your hands with socks.” I’d read about that trick in my friend Alison’s mother’s Redbook. My mother laughed, and put the cream away in the back of her closet.
We had dinner with the Gordons. “Mrs. Gordon dyes her hair,” my mother whispered to me, “you can see the gray at her roots.” I liked Mrs. Gordon’s thin gold bracelets, and the way they glowed against her warm skin. She had hair the color of a ripe peach.
My mother taught summer school, and I stayed home alone. I liked the time. I slept as late as I wanted. I slept like a possum. When I felt myself waking up I pushed my head under the pillows and smelled the musty warmth that was my own sweat. I began to dream about sex, dreams without men in them. There were oozing strings and big hairy blobs as big as houses that wrapped around me and made me wake with a rumbling in my stomach. I wondered if my mother dreamed this way. I knew she couldn’t, she would never fill her good mind with those sweet sores and infections that made me wake with the pillow between my legs.
I wasn’t supposed to go outside, but I did. I crawled beneath the foundation of the house and dug holes. The dirt was wetter down there. It was cool and rich, and smelled faintly of metal.
My father was there at night. I didn’t sleep in the nighttime. I pretended to sleep. He sat beside the bed and ran his hands over my hair. My hair was long, the way he liked it. It was smooth and fine, like his. My mother called it Alice in Wonderland hair. “Your hair,” she told me, “is your crowning glory. When you grow up, you can wear it down for your husband.”
She’d braided it until I told her to stop. In the mornings, he’d groan and call for her as she brushed it out. “She’s too old for you to be fussing with her hair,” he told her. “She needs to do it herself.” And, to me, “Don’t you, Little Princess? You’re a selfish, spoiled little priss.”
So I did. I did a better job of it, too. I pulled it back so tightly the blood rushed to my scalp. I sprayed it stiff with AquaNet. I tied the end with a ribbon. And then, the first morning of school, I took Cherry Kool Aid from the fridge and stained my lips.
“You’re wearing lipstick,” my father said.
He never lied, just as my mother never thought of herself. Those were the rules they lived by.
“No I’m not,” I said. It wasn’t a lie.