by Caroline Kepnes
Her fingers were long and slender and too clean to be part of the human body, a thing that inevitably fails. She played with the straw in her Fribble the way little girls do, except, of course, that she was my mother. She was forty. It was the first day of summer, the last day of school. Even though we were at Friendly’s, maybe because we were at Friendly’s, I leaned over and whispered, “Mom, how do you give a blow job?” She spit Fribble onto the table and stared at me.
“Why would you need to know that?”
I didn’t know.
“You don’t have a boyfriend.”
“I know. Forget it.” I folded my arms across my chest.
“A blow job, Lily? Are you nuts?”
“Just stop it.”
We finished our Fribbles in a silence pimpled with sporadic blabber about summer, about where we would go to get me a new bathing suit. We were both thinking about dicks, trying to act like we were thinking about clearance racks. My mom and I were off now. I had pushed some button you’re not supposed to push. I knew it. Even though I couldn’t articulate it and I hadn’t intended to do it, I broke us.
Come September, she would leave my father and I would always feel like my blow job question inspired her to go. Their separation would commence during my senior year of high school and my guidance counselor would assure me that this was good timing for my family to break up. “You’re on your way into your own life,” she would say. “You don’t have to worry as much about what goes on in their life.”
Dad was always the first one to talk about what a beauty Mom was. Years from now, when she’s dead, at her burial, he’s the one crying the most. He loves her much more than he loves me. I wonder if a divorced man whose ex-wife dies is still considered a widower. The day they split, I sat on the couch while she stood in front of the TV talking about living just once and he was on the porch swinging an invisible golf club. I saw him and he didn’t know I could see him. Mom was starting to worry out loud about finding a rental and he called out, “You girls stay. I’ll go.” I didn’t like the way he was staring, like there was a prowler in the distance fixing to kill us all. We weren’t safe anymore. He was too distracted to protect us. And now we’d be in this house without a man.
Sometimes when I can’t sleep it’s because I just keep seeing him alone in those first nights at the Motel Six on Route 20. I get crazy itches in my arms when I picture him under the sheets, on top of the sheets, brushing his teeth, that plastic cup in the plastic sleeve on the bathroom counter, his shampoo bottles closed tight, like someone was gonna knock ‘em around. I wonder if he watched the news or sitcoms or if he read the paper in silence and talked to himself, pretending that he wasn’t alone. It makes me feel crazy to know that I put him there. He liked Janet on Threes Company and one of the reasons he said he loved my mom was that she was jealous of Janet. “Your mother is prettier than her and she’s not even a real person and she’s off in California,” he laughed. “But your mother has such imagination. She can be jealous of anything.”
Mom and I had each other after he was gone. We ordered pizzas and watched movies and we didn’t shower as much as we normally did. I thought she’d be out trying to get men but it turned out she just wanted to sleep on the couch and have her shows on the TV all the time. She didn’t take out the trash enough and the house started to smell. I could have taken out the trash but I didn’t want to be the man and somehow I thought if I took out one bag I’d never get to give a guy a blow job, like I’d become the man of our house and no boy would want me. Sometimes very suddenly I had to get away from her because I’d get this flash of fear that I was never going to give a blow job and I’d pretend to be tired and run upstairs to my room. She would come around a few minutes later and knock on the door. “Lily, are you still up?” I’d freeze. I was getting so good at freezing that I thought one day I might just stay that way.
I was an only child. Sometime she wanted a dog because she said it was too quiet. But she said puppies would only turn into dogs. She said that was one of the flaws in God’s plan. She hugged me a lot. She would hold me too tight and I couldn’t breathe and sometimes I’d see the Motel Six vacancy light flashing. There was always vacancy there, which was a comforting thing about the world. There were not a lot of people booted out so the ones who were always had somewhere to go. Her love was like the time I had a plantar wart and the doctor erased it with liquid nitrogen, which he said burned warts by being so cold. I was only in sixth grade when that happened and when we were walking to the car I tried to peel off the bandage.
“Don’t do that!” my mom snapped. She glared at me.
“Because it’s nothing you need to see.”
“I won’t hurt it.”
“Lily,” she said and she was bored of me sometimes. Sometimes, she did wish I was dead. “It’s a gross thing. Don’t be disgusting.”
“It’s just my hand.”
She laughed and I didn’t get what was funny. I still don’t get what was funny. I can’t even remember which hand had the wart. I do remember tearing off the band-aid later that night to see and she was right. It was disgusting. And then I tried to kiss my own forehead in the reflection in the mirror. You can’t do that. You can’t be your own mother and kiss your own forehead. They were still married then, in a bed together, asleep.
At my mother’s wake, she looked like a doll. Dad leaned over the casket and kissed her like she was still his and there was nothing she could do about it. She couldn’t bark at him that she didn’t love him anymore. He kissed her on the forehead and I got the chills. I didn’t want to touch her cold body with my own. Nobody wanted to kiss me in a casket, in a car. The first boy who ever kissed me was Nick Crail and I made him do it. He had a Saab as soon as he got his license. His father was a lawyer. His mother was a doctor. They were like white Cosbys and he always looked so well fed, like he was always getting what he wanted when he wanted it. His khaki pants were wrinkled in all the right places and somehow they concealed all the contortions of his body. I couldn’t see his knees or his ass or the hairs on his legs and you didn’t know if his legs were bony or thick with muscles. For a year I sat in the cafeteria staring at his pants, wondering what it was like under there, the most mysterious place in the world, his body, a few feet away. I was a senior and he was a sophomore and one day I just walked up to him and asked him for a ride home. He laughed at me and I knew why he was laughing. I was acting like a crazy girl. I was older and I didn’t know him and you don’t just walk up to guys and ask them to take you places.
He unlocked the Saab with a remote control and it would have been ridiculous of me to expect him to open my door for me. There was a bunch of crap on his leather passenger seat, sunglasses and gum wrappers and a tin can of chewing tobacco. He didn’t move any of it out of the way and I was relieved that I was little enough to sit next to it all.
“What a gorgeous day,” I said.
He laughed at me. What a dufus I was. He was driving and I was rubbing my hands together hoping that he was thinking that I was really sexy with my hands. He was slamming at the radio and not talking. My mom would say that there was a whole world outside of this town and not to be impressed by some guy with a Saab. But I knew this world. I was impressed.
“Where do you live?” he said.
“The Motel Six.”
He laughed and he didn’t get why I was saying that and I couldn’t explain it without telling him about my dad and Mom says that everything gets easier with time so I waited for time to fix it. He was driving slower and I was talking about the forecast.
“Should I go left or right up here?”
“Left,” I said. And then I told him how to take me home. He slowed down before we got to my house and my feelings started to heat. My tongue felt like a muscle, like a dick in my mouth. I swallowed and he hit the brakes. He didn’t say anything nice to me. He reached his hand in back of my head and pulled my face to his. He kissed hard, but what did I know? Maybe that was how you kiss. He was grabbing the back of my neck hard and I didn’t know what to do with my hands. Somehow I didn’t feel allowed to touch him. Eventually he stopped kissing me and let go of my neck. I undid my seatbelt and he started the car and as I got out of the car he started laughing again.
I walked home. I still didn’t know how to give a blow job.
Dad never met another woman. I don’t know if he tried. I think he just dreamed of Janet and my mother and focused on golf. He didn’t stay at the Motel Six forever and Nick never offered me a ride home again. He didn’t want to kiss me anymore and I guess I was weird, the way I had asked him. It was hard to sleep my senior year. I would see those Vacancy lights flashing at the Motel Six and hear Nick’s laughter and think about Nick’s pants and how I couldn’t stare at them anymore in school, how I got close to them but not into them. Mom said the older you get the harder it is to sleep because you have more you want to do and less time to do it.
This one time when we were a family, I was a kid. We drove to Richmond because Mom wanted to be somewhere else. We went into a coffee shop and I sat with my dad and my mom sat at the table next to us where there was a young handsome guy. He was probably in his twenties. I remember my mom asking the guy if she could sit with him and he nodded yes. I remember thinking it was weird that my mom wanted to sit at the table next to us. And Mom started to say brash things and then she’d look at the guy fast like she was hoping for him to react to what she said.
“He makes more money in one week than you make in a year.”
“You should quit dentistry and become a photographer.”
“They’re not in love anymore. That’s like saying that we’re in love. Nobody’s in love anymore. It’s not like that anymore.”
“You were the one who wanted me so badly. How’s that working out for you?”
“Your daughter is a whole other person when you’re around, you know. When you’re not here, if you weren’t here, she’d want to sit with me, not you. But that’s daddies and their daughters for you. Everybody wants Mommy to piss off eventually.”
I had never heard my mother talk like this. I couldn’t tell if my dad liked it or not. He didn’t say a lot and his face was hard to interpret. He looked like a kid. The young guy at the neighboring table stared into his crusty sci-fi novel like my mother’s face could kill him if he were to so much as glance her way, like she was his own personal eclipse. She wanted him to look at her so badly. I could see that and I was a kid. She wanted him to flirt with her. Why couldn’t he just look at her and smile or laugh at her sarcasm? I think if he had laughed at one of her jokes or told my dad that he was a lucky man or even stolen a glance at her when she was pretending to look out the window, I think somehow my parents could have stayed married.
A few days after the funeral, Dad I went to Friendly’s. I can’t begin to tell you how far away we were from blow jobs in that booth with our new dead woman here and not here. I was old now too, almost forty, almost my mom’s age when I sat here with her and asked her how to give a blow job. Life wasn’t a circle, it was a rope you threw out and sometimes it just landed. I didn’t have any questions about how the body works anymore. I didn’t have a daughter, but I knew. I asked my dad how long he stayed at the Motel Six when he and Mom first split.
“I didn’t stay at a Motel Six.”
“Yes you did.”
“No, I stayed at Bob and Betsy’s.”
“Not right away.”
“Honey, I didn’t stay at a motel.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Dad, I remember going to see you and I remember driving past with Mom and seeing your car.”
He looked through the restaurant, past a few loud families. Nobody in here was talking about blow jobs, it isn’t that kind of place. He fixed his eyes on something out in the parking lot or something deeper into the fields on the other side of Route 20, something invisible as his golf club, something he didn’t want to tell me about, something about him and my mom that wasn’t for me to know, not now, not ever.