“Your father drank,” he remembers her saying. It’s not a clear memory. Her face for instance, is a fuzzy blob with only the mouth in focus. Bright red lips, small teeth. They’re standing in a shallow hallway in a two-bedroom house. The hallway is rosy beige. He remembers that clearly. The woodwork is yellow. There’s multicolored carpet on the floor. She has on a bright Hawaiian shirt.
“Your father drank,” she says, not as if she’s telling her son but with a small feminine voice as if she were on a date. “He wanted me to tell him I loved him all the time. He was needy…” She closes her mouth as if she’s said too much. The son suspects she’s talking about sex.
He remembers weighing 120 lbs. He’s maybe fifteen. He hasn’t grown an inch since but he’s put on 40 pounds. “You couldn’t say you loved him?” he had asked.
“Not all the time. After the divorce I met your step-father and I liked him because he didn’t need me.”
“That’s nuts.” He holds up his palms. “Sorry, that didn’t come out right. Sorry.” He has a sense that his mother is off somehow and he’s learned to walk on hot coals and he dreams of a family where people hug all the time. He sees families like that on TV but they’re in black and white and don’t wear plastic jewelry.
“I’m not the most loving person,” she says as if she’s just thought of it.
“No shit.” He remembers a day in September. Terri Mulligan was walking to school, waving for him to come on. They’re maybe twelve, thirteen. He was a vulnerable, skinny kid and was already out the door when Mom said, “Come back. Give me a kiss.” He walked back reluctantly and tried to kiss her while keeping his eyes on Terri and wham! Good old Mom slapped the hell out of him. “Don’t French me, you pervert!” she yelled.
He knew Terri heard. The prettiest girl in school and now she’d think he was crazy.
It’s possible his mouth was open, who the heck remembers now? But he wasn’t going to argue the point on his own front stoop. He slunk away. They walked up the hill with Terri trying to hold his hand but he pulled away. Neither of them said a word.
But that’s not what he was remembering. For some reason he finds it hard to concentrate. There are too many people around and his collar is too tight.
“Don’t be fresh,” she’d said.
He nods and looks down at his feet. Feet are terribly interesting. They give him something to focus on while she lectures. Someday he’ll meet a woman with great feet and he’ll know it’s meant to be and she won’t wear flowered blouses. He keeps his head down.
A bunch of other times she’d have these backaches and neck aches and headaches and she’d take her bright blouse off. She’d keep the bra on. It was huge and white and three inches wide in the back. She’d stretch across her bed on her stomach. “Come give me a back rub,” she’d say.
God, that bedroom! The first one on the left was hers. The step-dad took the other. The kid slept in the basement and dreamt about Terri Mulligan and wanted to strangle his mother if only he could do it without touching.
He never wanted to touch fat, doughy skin again. All those big pores—God! You could lose a nickel in there.
Her eyes are closed and he tugs at his collar again. “I apologize for being fresh,” he says. He had said it then too. “I apologize.”
“Apology accepted.” She doesn’t smile. “I can tell you what you need. You need a woman who’ll tell you what to do. You never know what to do, so you do nothing.”
He’s heard that before. He’s heard it over and over. “I do stuff.”
“Only after I get on you, that’s my point.”
His teachers have always said he’s a dreamer but he’s learned a new word. Oblivious. It means if it doesn’t touch your skin, it doesn’t exist. “Well, I wouldn’t want you to forget your point.”
There is a belt in her hand that’s mysteriously appeared—well, not that mysteriously, she’s always dressing and undressing. She raises the belt briefly as if she will hit him across the face the way she used to do and he remembers being sent to cut rosebush staves so she could beat him when he was very little. He stares her down and says something he’d learned after The French Kiss. “I’m bigger than you and I’ll if you touch me again, I’ll throw you against the wall.”
Her hand falls without a word. She breaks into tears. It’s always magic the way that works. Spontaneous tears when she’s in trouble. “I’m sorry,” she says.
“Nothing, I don’t want to think about it.”
“Me neither,” he had said then. And he says it now. “I don’t want to think about it anymore.” He reaches out and touches shiny varnished wood.
He takes a seat beside Terri. She’s got on a plain black dress and a small pearl necklace. She reaches for his hand. He wants to pull away but he fights the feeling of ants marching up his arm. “You’ll be okay,” Terri says and he nods, looking at the toes of her slim, black, patent heels. “Breathe,” she says.
He keeps still and waits for the service to begin.