(photo by smashthirteen on flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/smash13/)
Sometimes, in certain moods, at dusk or early morning when the light is starting to reveal the space and separation between things, or sometimes when she’s driving down a highway and has been driving for awhile and has fallen under the empty, yawning spell of rubber humming against cement, Drew begins to lose herself.
At first it’s a subtle shift in perception, a spinal connection to the vibrating motor, but after a certain length of time the emptiness widens and she has lost her grasp on reality, can’t remember who she is or where she’s going, and it’s as though everything about her has been erased entirely, her entire existence is gone and there is only this long stretch of gray cement lined with broken glass, these weeds and swirling bits of plastic.
When this happens, Drew holds her wrists to feel her pulse. She has to look at herself in the mirror to jog her memory: Her mother’s eyes; her father’s chin. I am a person who orders earl grey tea and a currant scone. She stands in line at the café and reminds herself, I am the kind of person who has worn real holes in her vintage Levis. I graduated summa cum laude. I have a tattoo.
Drew’s mother always said that one’s goal in life should be to become somebody, somebody with a capital S, she used to say, and Drew has never forgotten how her mother would switch off the old black-and-white television in the den, turn her faraway face toward her daughter and say, “Now that Bette Davis (or Norma Shearer or Joan Crawford) was really somebody,” or how before Drew left for school, her mother might look her up and down and quip, “Well kid, if you’re ever going to be somebody, maybe you’d better start practicing now.” She taught Drew to take herself seriously because, as she said over and over again, “If you don’t, who will?” Sometimes Drew wonders if her mother had been Dorothy Parker in a previous life, or maybe Madison Avenue advertiser, or maybe she just repeated the punchlines and catchphrases she’d heard on television but either way, in Drew’s mind, the things her mother said still have the resonance and energy of a big brass gong.
Around Drew’s sixth birthday, her mother began spending more time in the orange velvet armchair in the den facing the television and less time minding her daughter. The family doctor said it was just the usual “woman troubles” and prescribed some pills. Drew’s mother was a pretty woman with curly black hair, white skin and what the doctor called high spirits, a diagnosis Drew concluded had something to do with how her mother laughed too long and loud at jokes only she understood or the how she would sometimes watch herself cry in the mirror over her bureau. Everyone agreed that the pills helped soften her edges. Drew noticed that the pills made her mother even slimmer and her eyes as round as a cartoon character’s and when Drew got home from school her mother would flutter her pale fingers from her usual spot in the den like a passenger embarking in the fog, like a tantalizing ghost.
Once when Drew was eight, her mother was feeling better and so they put on sunhats and lugged canvas sacks of laundry along the iron-hot sidewalk. Inside the laundromat where the air was even hotter, her mother’s friend Linda was folding laundry and complaining loudly, as usual. Linda’s husband was never home—he was a cheat and a drunk and her kids were ugly laggards who called her “fatass” and stole from her purse and, as Drew stood eavesdropping, Linda broke down in noisy sobs against her mother’s shoulder.
Drew never cried in front of her mother; she knew better than to trigger a meltdown or a relapse and so she froze at the scalding maw of the dryer watching her mother’s glacial face and Linda’s heaving backside. But nothing happened. Her mother patted Linda’s back and after a good long bawl she pulled back, looked her in the eyes and said, “Just think: without suffering, we’d have nothing to talk about.”
While the two women stood face-to-face in a bubble of understanding, Drew reached her hand into the dryer, placed it flat upon the scalding metal and held it there. She didn’t cry out. Later, she would study the perforated pattern of white dots on her red palm and tell herself that it was an accident.
Linda started hooting and slapping her knee. “Haw, haw. Is that why you’re so quiet?” she had said, “Your husband loves you. Your kid is a little angel. So you don’t need to say a thing. Haw, haw.” It was true: Drew’s mother was exceptionally laconic and Drew’s parents never fought–or at least, Drew never saw them fighting, but she never saw them kissing, either. True, too, that Drew was a good kid: she got straight A’s, brushed her teeth without being told and never whined. She’d follow her mother anywhere and mimic her like an understudy learning her lines.
So for the most part their life in Port Huron, Michigan was as placid as a paper plate. Maybe that’s why her mother disappeared forever, without a word, when Drew was ten. Maybe she went off to find something—or someone—to talk about.