It is the first day of spring, our traditional day of bonding and spring-cleaning. Mother and I need excuses to schedule bonding. “What is this?” I ask Mother, tugging the brown cardboard box from the walk-in closet’s corner. All of Mother’s shoes rest in beds of tissue in shoeboxes she’s covered with fabric and frills. The closet floor looks like a Hallmark gift-wrap display and stimulates my gag reflex.
“Dear,” Mother says as she adjusts the silk-scarf she’s fashioned into an anti-dust turban, “your hair has to be that short?” Mother’s shoulder-length hair defies what they say older women should do with their hair, but she keeps the color light blond, almost white, to go along with their guidelines.
“Focus, Mother. The box?”
“Hurricane shoes.” She tugs the hair at the nape of my neck and sighs.
I can’t believe she’s allowed an unadorned brown shipping box to share space with her shoe collection. Mother prides herself on being one of those southern ladies with a pair of shoes for every occasion. And a purse to match. And often a hat.
“Hurricane shoes?” A pair of manly, rubber galoshes and a wild pair of olive green and tangerine pumps with three-inch heels inhabit the box. Neither is typical of mother’s style. “Yowsa.”
“Those are if I’m going to survive,” she says, indicating the galoshes. “And those are if I need to go out with style.”
I pick up the green and tangerine monstrosities. “But with whose style, Mother? Liberace’s?”
“Don’t be fresh, Katrina.” Mother puts the hurricane shoes back in the box and shoves it back into the corner. “What ever happened with the last one? Joseph was it?”
“Nothing’s happened to him. He’s still married is all.” I open a box covered in black satin and fastened with a black tulle ribbon. A pair of gray pumps with tiny pink rosettes at the toe and one inch heels.
“Funeral shoes,” Mother says. “Remind me to show you where I’ve put the dress you’re to bury me in.”
With a wave of the hand I dismiss her like a waitress offering another free refill. This dress will be the fourth in two years she’s wanted to be buried in.
“You’re an adulteress now, in your spare time? Put those away before you muss them.” Mother grabs a brown paper bag from a shelf and drops it on the hurricane shoebox in the corner.
“I’m trying to make a living at it, but it’s harder than they make it out to be on television.”
She gently slaps the back of my head and crosses herself.
“What’s in the bag?”
“The hurricane purses.”
I rub the fog from the bathroom mirror. Hotel mirrors always reveal the circles left by the last occupants, which often leads me to ponder the cleanliness of the toilet seats. I wrap a towel around me and use another to rub dry my hair. I asked the hairstylist to give me pixie, and I ended up with dykie instead. Dyke isn’t a word I use, but Donna, my lesbian friend who’s allowed to use it, did when she saw my new cut. So I’ve appropriated. Donna was ecstatic about the cut because she thought I’d switched teams. Alas, I have not. But the chestnut brown of the new me I adore.
Joseph comes into the bathroom and stands behind me, resting his chin atop my head, which makes me feel like his little sister.
“It’s fine, babe,” Joseph says.
This unsolicited comment is his seventh, which leads me to believe that he does not like my new hairstyle.
“It’s dykie.” I duck out from under his chin. “I’m trying to pick up women. As part of becoming the new me.”
Joseph tries to snatch my towel. “That’s hot.”
“No. So I wouldn’t need you anymore, not so you could watch.” I turn the light out and leave the bathroom.
Joseph follows me out, scratching his dark patch of chest hair. He is my type: muscular arms, hairy chest, brown eyes, and minimal brain cells—the sort of man who calls all women after legumes and gets away with it: sweet potato, sugar beet. “What’s wrong?” he says.
“I’m reinventing myself.”
“New hair. New choices.” I flop on the hotel bed careful to hold my towel in place. I feel more naked in the towel than I did a half-hour ago when we fucked—perhaps because the nudity isn’t functional now.
Joseph sighs and sits next to me. “I can’t leave Rachel right now. Hell, we shouldn’t even be here.”
Regret usually kicks in when the condom comes off. “Funny, I thought we were talking about me.”
“You were hinting.”
Joseph stands up. “Then you’re about to give me an ultimatum or some shit.”
“I’m really not.” I get up, grab my clothes, and go back into the bathroom, locking the door behind me. I pull my short, naughty-secretary skirt on and yank my white button-down blouse over my head: the costume of the mistress. Two of the buttons flew off during foreplay, but I’ve got to wear a shirt home. I chuck my black satin and lace panties and patent leather come-fuck-me pumps into the garbage. The poor maid.
I know I am pregnant, even before I pee on the test stick, before the blue line materializes. I wept about three commercials this week, and I threw up the coffee I’ve had for breakfast twice. Crying isn’t something I do, or vomiting. The unsurprising blue line serves only to confirm my fears. Or my joy. I haven’t committed yet.
I arrive at work a half-hour late at 9:30 after brushing my teeth repeatedly, unable to make the acidy taste go away. Slinking to my cubicle, I avoid eye contact with anyone. As soon as my ass hits the chair, Donna pokes her head over the partition between our desks.
“You look like shit. Late night?” Donna’s bleached hair’s been dyed green since I last saw her.
I stand up and pat Donna’s alarmingly stiff and erect green spikes. “Long morning. Your hair looks like I feel.”
Donna stares at me a minute, perhaps waiting for me to laugh if I’m joking. “You’re shitting me?”
“No.” I grab some papers and shuffle them. Revealing this news wasn’t my plan for today.
“Lesbians don’t knock anybody up.” Donna ducks down on her side, and more quietly, through the sad, flimsy wall of our cubicles she says, “What’re you gonna do about it?”
“I’ll let you know once I do.”
After an hour or so of shuffling the same papers and watching the pipes of my screensaver fill my monitor, I call Joseph and tell him we need to meet for lunch. He asks what hotel we’re meeting at, but I tell him Gino’s, our restaurant, which is a hint that I have news.
I wait ten minutes after I’m seated before I plow into the bread and order an apple crisp dessert with two scoops of vanilla ice cream. Twenty minutes after Joseph and I were supposed to meet, my dessert arrives with two spoons. I feel like chucking the second spoon across the restaurant but fear I’ll clock some poor patron in the head. Instead I stick the spoon in my armpit for a second, and then place it on the opposite side of the table. The warm apples and pastry mingle in my mouth with the freezing ice cream. The conflicting textures and temperatures turn my stomach. Joseph strolls up, and I set my spoon down. I force myself to swallow.
“Already through with lunch?” Joseph kisses my cheek and sits.
Joseph unfolds his napkin and sets it in his lap.
“Have some apple crisp.” I motion toward the armpit spoon.
Joseph picks it up and takes a heaping spoonful of apples and ice cream. “Sure. Yeah. You’ve got the face on. Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
I smile as he puts the armpit spoon in his mouth. “I have to get back to work. I only have a half-hour for lunch today because I got in late this morning.”
“So you’re pissed I was late, and now you aren’t going to tell me?” He dips the spoon into the ice cream again.
“We can’t see each other anymore.” I stand.
Joseph stands. “You’ve said that before.”
“I haven’t meant it.” I turn to go, but Joseph grabs my hand. He rubs his thumb over the back of my hand and the bones creak under the pressure. I turn, lean toward him, and kiss his cheek. It’s barely past noon, but he’s already grown stubble. I let my lips drag across the rough little hairs. “I have to go.”
Reinvention doesn’t come cheap. I call Mother and ask her to go shoe shopping with me. She’s waiting in front of the house when I pull up. She wears a clear-plastic rain cap and as she slides into the passenger seat, the cap catches on a handle above the door.
Mother yanks the cap free, tearing it at the seam. “Oh fudgebricks,” she says.
“Could you cuss like an adult just once, for me?” I tuck a displaced lock of her hair behind her ear.
“Ladies don’t swear, dear.” Mother pulls the visor down and checks her hair in the mirror. Then she wipes some lipstick from her teeth. “Sailors do.”
“You’re in a fine mood.” Usually Mother’s weapon is guilt, not outright insults. “Should I veer into oncoming traffic?”
“You called me,” she says, dramatically snapping the visor up.
At the department store, the shoe section eases mother’s mood a bit. She greets the sales clerk Darleen by name. Mother caresses a pair of sequin and satin pumps. She grabs a pair of peds from her purse. Mother is in her element. I, on the other hand, feel like a car is parked on my chest.
“I think I’m having a heart attack.” I collapse into the nearest chair.
“You’re hyperventilating or having one of those panic attacks they talk about on TV. It’s all the leather and stylishness.” She sits next to me and pats my shoulder. “It’ll pass. Deep breaths.”
This advice is the most helpful she’s ever given me. I breathe more slowly and the car seems to drive off. “Thanks, Ma.”
She squeezes my shoulder. “Now about the new you.”
First we pour over the sale rack, Mother picking out shoes in one-for-you, one-for-me fashion. She asks Darleen to bring her selections in our sizes. Then we commence the trying-on phase, which is serious business and involves standing, walking, leaning, sitting, and leg crossing in each pair. Mother and I finally agree on pair of tea-rose pink pumps with gray and black rosettes near the toe and a fun pair of baby blue pumps. She decides on a pair of sensible tan pumps for church and a frivolous pair of lavender pumps with a “smart-looking black stripe.” We slump down into the stained, uncomfortable shoe department chairs.
“The tea-rose pumps are fabulous. They make your feet look so petite.”
A size nine, my feet are anything but petite, which is dad’s fault because I inherited his gargantuan feet but not his height. Mother has tiny size six feet that seem to defy physics by holding her up. She’s amply bosomed and bottomed in an Italian grandmother sort of way. Oh, how many times I’ve heard she’d love to be a grandmother.
“Dear, you have to be so thin?” Mother pinches the back of my ankle where my Achilles tendon bulges.
I’m a vegetarian and ultimately find food boring. This point is a bone of contention between Mother and me. Raised in the South, she believes anything worth eating should at some point involve bacon fat in its preparation. Pregnancy, however, seems to already be wreaking havoc upon my feelings about food. I’m starved.
Mother says, “Couldn’t the new you eat a cheeseburger and a shake sometimes.”
“Only if you swear like a sailor.”
I get up and carry our shoes to the register where I treat because the trip was my idea, and at Mother’s suggestion I tip Doreen.
“Lunch?” I link arms with Mother, and her body stiffens. Usually I’m not inclined to public displays of affection.
Mother relaxes her arm and hands me the bag she carries. “Cocktails, dear.”
We find the only actual sit-down restaurant in the mall, and the waiter tells us house wine is two-for-one. I propose we split two pinot grigios, but Mother insists we get two-for-one each. Though I haven’t decided whether or not to keep the baby, I have no intention of drinking two glasses of wine in one sitting while pregnant. I scheme to give Mother my second wine, which will get her schmasted.
“So, dear, does the new you need an outfit to go with the shoes? How about a bag to match?”
“Easy, Mother. I’ll hyperventilate again.”
We laugh. I enjoy the moment because it’s rare that we ever find the same thing funny. Dad and I were always laughing. Mother was usually the butt of the joke. The waiter comes with our wines.
“A toast,” I say. “To mother-daughter bonding and reinvention. It’s always worked for Madonna.”
“Which, dear?” Mother chuckles, amusing herself at least, and we drink. “So why the new you?”
“I haven’t been the person I want to be, and I guess I can’t find the person I want to be with if I’m not the me I want to be.” I am tempted to blurt out: By the way, I’m pregnant.
“Seeing a therapist?” Mother finishes her first wine and picks up the second.
“Are you?” I chug the last of my wine. We hold our glasses up to toast again.
“To your father, who didn’t bullshit.” Mother clanks her glass against mine and takes a huge swig.
“I was kidding about the cheeseburger.” I suppress a smile and take one sip from my glass before setting it down in front of Mother. Apparently I underestimated her tolerance.
“Dear, let’s cut to the chase. You don’t really want to change yourself, you want to change the men you’re with.” She finishes her second wine. “And you can’t change men. And love isn’t being with one that’s perfect. Love is 20 percent unhappiness, 10 percent struggle, 50 percent compromise, 20 percent comfort, and maybe 5 percent bliss if you’re lucky.” Mother signals the waiter over and orders another round.
“That’s 105 percent, Ma.”
We stare at each other across the table for a minute. Ma’s crow’s feet have deepened and her lipstick seeps into the wrinkles around her lips. She’s always looked timeless, like she’d aged to a graceful fifty and decided to stop. She looks old.
Mother stands up. “Excuse me, dear. I have to powder my nose.” She reaches for her purse and knocks it off the back of the chair, the contents spilling onto the floor. A prescription bottle falls out with her packet of tissues and a glasses case. Mother’s always been perfectly healthy—frighteningly so. She sits on the floor and shoves things back into her purse. I kneel to help her pick up, but she swats my hands away.
“I didn’t want you to find out this way.” She picks up the tissues and pulls one from the pack.
“Find out?” I try to read the name of the medicine.
At a normal volume, she says, “I’ve got,” and then she leans in closer to me—close enough for me to feel her breath on my cheek—and whispers, “cancer.”
I laugh. I am sure this is some sick joke. Mother’s face looks pulled too tight as she stares at me in silence. She’s not kidding. I try to read the prescription bottle again, but tears blur my vision. I refuse to blink because Mother can’t see me cry. I don’t cry—haven’t cried in front her since childhood, not even when Dad died. I don’t know why I can’t stop the tears. It’s probably hormones or something, but Mother doesn’t know that. I shove her things back into her purse and help her up.
“I’m gonna go blow my nose,” I say. I mean I’m going to go throw up.
“Here, dear,” Mother says, handing me the tissue. “This one’s for you.”
Joseph snores next to me in bed. I called him in a moment of weakness, after Mother and I suffered through an awkward lunch and overly cheery ride home. He conjured some urgent business emergency that meant he had to travel at 8 o’clock at night. His wife, either an expert at denial or screwing someone on the side herself, let him leave. I told him about Mother’s ovarian cancer, the prognosis bad but better than it could have been because the doctor said it has been detected early. Joseph nodded like a bobble-head, not sure what to say. He pulled me to him, forcing my face into his shoulder. Maybe he hoped I’d cry.
I watch Joseph breathe and contemplate percentages. Is this more than 50 percent compromise? Does great sex constitute 5 percent bliss? Does love like my parents had even exist anymore?
My mother and father met at the Jersey shore in their teens. He noticed her admiring a gigantic stuffed giraffe and spent a half-hour trying to win it. After she walked off, he gave up and paid the barker for it, found her on the boardwalk, and gave her the gift. She accepted his gift and agreed to meet him at the pier for cotton candy the next night. The rest was family legend—they fell in love and married in a matter of months. It was the love story I was raised on—I always thought they were effortlessly, deliriously happy. Now she tells me it took work?
Joseph chokes on his own spit then coughs. I elbow him until he rolls over, and the hotel room is silent, save for the usual hum of the mini-fridge, the purr of the air conditioning, and the buzz of the neon sign outside our window.
I knock on Mother’s door. I’ve brought her a bouquet of Fuji mums, the flowers she had at her wedding—her favorites. She answers the door in her bathrobe, which is a sure sign she’s resigned herself to death. The woman usually vacuums in a dress while wearing earrings.
“They’re lovely,” she says.
I follow her inside and into the kitchen.
Mother turns on the tap and fumbles in a cupboard. “They say you should trim flowers’ stems at an angle while they’re submersed in a bowl of water.”
“Who are they, Mother, and why do we care what they say?”
“Just making conversation, dear.”
In her bathrobe, fumbling for a bowl to trim her mums in, she looks much smaller than I remember her.
“Let me, Ma.” I reach over her head, grab a bowl, and try to take the bouquet from her.
“For Pete’s sake, Trina, I’m not an invalid. Sit down. Have you eaten breakfast yet?”
I can’t sit, so I lean against the counter and watch her trim and arrange the flowers. “I don’t eat breakfast.”
“Oh,” she says. “Did you just come over to give me these?”
I want to tell her I just wanted to see her, but it sounds plastic even just in my head. I want to tell her I’m pregnant, so she’ll finally get the grandchildren she’s been pining for. “I thought we could do some more shopping, you know, for the rest of the new me. Feet alone don’t make for a transformation.”
“Just because love isn’t all rockets and sunshine doesn’t mean you have to settle either. Just don’t expect perfection. On Earth perfection doesn’t exist. Especially not in men.”
“I know, Ma.” The belt of her robe hangs unevenly. I grab the longer end and pick at its frayed edges.
“Do you? You shouldn’t settle. I didn’t. Settling never makes anyone happy.”
“Is that why you have two pairs of hurricane shoes? Couldn’t settle for just one sort?”
“I just like being prepared for anything.” Mother sets the vase of mums she’s arranged in the center of the kitchen table. From the counter, she picks up a framed photo of her and dad, looks at it a moment, and sets it down. “I’m up for more shopping.” She loosens the belt of her robe and evens it out. “I need a pair of sensible chemotherapy shoes.”
I should laugh. It’s what she wants. But I can’t. “Ma, I’m pregnant.”
Mother leans against the counter, lets the air thicken with silence. She wraps a hand up in the robe’s belt. After staring at me for a minute that feels like ten, she says, “Is that so.” Not a question.
“No. I’m making it up to top your cancer press release.” Sarcasm: the humor of my father and me. The kind of humor that left Mother the butt of our jokes.
Mother pulls the belt tighter around her hand until her fingers go purple. “I just need to know if you’re telling me so I can get excited, or if you’re telling me because you’re going to get one of those things.” Mother whispers the word cancer and can’t even say abortion.
I haven’t decided what to do yet. But Ma’s eyes glimmer with hope while her hands tremble with fear. I should have the baby. Maybe she’ll live to see a grandchild. “Of course I’m keeping the baby, Ma, or I wouldn’t have brought it up.”
Mother relaxes the belt, and her fingers slowly return to a normal shade. She smiles, though it seems she’s trying hard to keep her face set in the taut expression of disapproval at me, her unwed, pregnant, adulterous daughter.
I rise and go to her. I take her shoulders in my hands and squeeze, a gesture that’s as close as I’ve come to hugging her since seventh grade. “The new me is a mother, Ma.”
She should laugh. “I’ll go change,” she says.
I sit at the table to wait. My cell phone rings and the caller ID shows that it’s Joseph. I push the button to send him to voicemail. The photo of Ma and Dad is from their honeymoon. They went to Niagara Falls. Dad had wanted to go to Hawaii. Mother wanted to go the Grand Canyon. Niagara Falls was the compromise. In the photo, they stare at each other like there’s no one else in the world—like the camera and the person behind it don’t exist. Five percent bliss. My phone rings again, and I know it’s Joseph without checking. I answer it, saying, “I just can’t settle, Joseph. So don’t ask me to, not now or ever again.”
But it’s a woman’s voice that replies. “So you’re the whore my husband’s been fucking.”
For a minute or more, we are silent. I imagine her in her bathrobe, smoking a cigarette and clutching Joseph’s phone so hard her knuckles go white. I’ve seen pictures of her in Joseph’s wallet. She’s lovely in an Audrey Hepburn sort of way, always put together, manicured, a little gaunt. The sort of woman who looks like she needs to be taken care of. The sort of woman who likes being called after legumes.
“Don’t settle,” I say. I can’t think of anything else. “And please pass my message on to your husband.”
“Bitch,” she says.
“By the way,” I say, “tell him I’m pregnant.”
Joseph’s wife hangs up. He told me that for a while they tried to have kids, but when they got the plumbing tested to see what the problem was, the doctors told them she was sterile. I feel cruel and small for having just told the sterile woman whose husband I’m having an affair with that I’m pregnant. Was having an affair with.
Mother comes into the kitchen. I still press the phone to my ear though the line is dead. Ma’s got her purple pumps with the smart black stripe on. She smiles at me and pinches my cheek. “You’re pale, dear. Who’s on the phone?”
“No one. I’m fine.” I get up and throw my phone into the sink full of water and dishes. “Our purchases await. Let’s away.”
Ma retrieves the phone from the sink and throws it on the floor. She looks at me, and something about my expression tells her not to ask. Instead, Ma drives a heel of her purple pump into the phone, shattering it.
“Now you, dear,” she says. “It’s liberating.”
I smash the bits of the phone under the sole of my sensible sandal. Then with the other foot. Only soggy bits of dashed plastic and metal remain.
Ma links arms with me and gives my hand a squeeze. “You’ll have to start eating more with a little one on the way. We’ll have to pay attention to your protein.” Ma pats my stomach with her free hand. “Your hair really has to be that short,” she says. And the new me doesn’t seem to mind.