Winner of the 2016-2017 PubCo Award for Best First Person Narrative
I’m meeting someone for the first time. A man made of brown hair and muscles. My mother tells me on the way over to the park that he’s someone very important to her, an old friend. When we get there, she hugs him right away, and he holds her so tight. Like he’s trying to pull her inside of him. It’s very sunny out, so when the man looks down to me, the light behind him makes him hard to see. I don’t get the whole face, only features: a tender, long smile—mouth kept closed—and two brown puddles of eye above. He says I’m beautiful like my mom. I say I’m a boy. That means I’m handsome. The smile grows. He likes me, and I like him too. I sit in a patch of field and look at the broken beer bottles in the grass while he talks to my mother. The sunlight is bouncing off the smoky glass, which makes the shards gleam like old cinders. The crowd of trees bristles loudly as the wind blows above us. I don’t hear anything except the shika-shika-shika of the leaves, but I can see they’re still talking. The man is asking her something, leaning in, making promises. My mother smiles like she’s shy—she gets very small and gives him her answer. They kiss softly, and I realize that they are in love. We leave him.
On the way home, I look up to her and notice she is crying. I want to ask her then—what are we doing? Who are we leaving behind? But, I won’t get an answer. I never see this man again. The very memory of him, too, is left back in that gleaming spring park. Just one of my mother’s secrets I’m not old enough to understand.
Fifteen years later, I’m listening to her voice crackle over the telephone, trying to broach the subject of the mystery man. In her age, my mother has become less evasive but just as sentimental. I can tell she enjoys remembering him. “His name was Sean, and he wanted to take us away to Alabama.” The riff of an overzealous saxophone wades from her TV through the phone receiver—she’s watching her soaps. “He could’ve been your daddy. That could’ve been our life,” she says matter-of-factly. She’s seventy miles away, but I can see her in my mind: cross-legged, sitting on her crowded bed and nursing a cup of tea. She’s dressed in her working clothes, a comfy pair of black shorts and an old t-shirt of mine, makeup-less. Her bushel of dark hair has been strenuously brushed down about her shoulders, hugging her torso down to her hips. It’s rare for someone to see her without her 1980s rock ‘n roll flare (she’ll have you know that it takes hours of work to look like you just rolled out of bed), but as she is now, her kiddish beauty shines through just the same.
“Did that kind of thing happen a lot?” I ask.
The puffing out of her chest is audible over the telephone, “Your mother got anyone she wanted.” There was Frank Schaffer, her first boyfriend and the only man to ever tease his hair bigger than hers. Edenado Principado, whose uncanny resemblance to Eddie Van Halen left a trail of star-struck fans in his wake and whose legendary member almost got him arrested during a search for “concealing a deadly weapon.” Of course, there was the kind man from the park, Sean McClain. Legend has it, the only thing faster than his souped-up muscle car (named Jake by my mother) was his killer right hook.
She cheated on most of them, often with their brothers or best friends. Broke their hearts. She exhales deep into the receiver, drops her voice down low, “I don’t know, Dae. I was young, foolish. Didn’t feel safe with them. I had to keep moving before I got hurt.” Much as they tried, the men never really left her behind. There’s many a girl running around Philadelphia named after my mother by some heartbroken ex. Gorgeous little Tina-Maries, with whom I can’t help but feel some kind of misplaced kinship. Hell, there’s one guy (who I’m encouraged to call uncle) who has a habit of popping into my life with blank checks whenever my car’s engine starts to sputter. I know for a fact we’ve never paid him back, but I’ve spied him with my mother stealing small friendly kisses. “You take care of us, Al,” my mother will whisper to him. The men don’t forget her, don’t stop loving her. They just don’t, and, honestly, I’m not sure my mother stops loving them either.
She moves through the names of her old lovers, her voice airy and sweet. She forgets no one, remembers every date she’s ever had. The arrogant huff she put on earlier begins to vanish, replaced by girly coos. One phrase gets repeated over and over, “He was good to me.” And yet there’s one story, one man, who crops up more than any other. He never met us in any park, never asked to be my father, but I know this man like I’d seen him yesterday. She won’t let me forget his name. “The only man to have dinner with my family, only one to ever make my body tingle—swear to god. That’s Bobby Jonas.” Bobby Jonas, the skinny blond boy who lived down the street, perennially wrapped in a flannel shirt and crowned with his lucky baseball cap (“It only came off for two things, both starting with ‘S.’ That’s sleep and sex, Dae.”). She tells me about the first time they made love: they’re out camping with a group of friends. Kegs they’ve somehow acquired are being wheeled into place. Bobby runs over to her and steals her pocket mirror. He dashes into the woods while my mother listens to the rustling of his feet in the greenery becomes quieter and quieter. She lets herself forget him momentarily—helps her friends set up for the party when a small circle of light falls on her. It’s Bobby from in the woods, reflecting the sun off the stolen mirror. She goes in after him, and, when they meet—“like every flower in the forest bloomed all at once.” From then on, when she spied that little reflection, she knew Bobby was waiting for her. I imagine my mother as she is now, curled up girlishly, recalling this boy. She lets herself cry softly, “I don’t know why I left him, but I went back for eighteen years. The love of my life.”
“Have you always had to deal with people falling for you left and right?” I ask.
She gives me that dry smoker’s laugh. “Your mother’s always been hot, but not always love. No.” Her voice suddenly crumbles in the back of her throat. It drops to a moist whisper. “I didn’t hear, ‘I love you,’ growing up.” My mother’s upbringing has long been a mystery to me, some kind of sad rush of events that everyone has accepted. Except my mother hasn’t. She jokes with me, channels laughs and joyfulness from some place I don’t fully comprehend. “Being the middle child isn’t easy for anyone,” she quips one moment. Everybody laughs, the trite little sitcom theme queues up in our heads, but she’s not done. I feel her hunker down on the other end of the phone, looking anxiously side-to-side to be sure that no one will hear her. “Everybody beat up on me, kiddo.”
I pause here. Let the power and the fear of what she says make its way through the phone wires and fill into my room. I’m confronted by the honesty, the hurt—the grinding collapse of her façade. We breathe uneasily into the phone—she becomes hesitant. I can feel her fingers making their way up to anxiously braid her hair as she prepares to conjure another hollow laugh. I halt her. There’s a pleading in my words, a weakness—Let me in, mom.
She tells me about her mother, “a tough-as-hell Cherokee bitch who beat the piss out of me.” She makes herself out as the scapegoat—beautiful, popular, and, for this, routinely abused at home. “Slut,” my grandmother would bark at her daughter as she pounded her with unrelenting lefts. “She was either beating me or paying me no mind. I’d slit my wrist and fall in front of the woman, and she’d just step over me,” she tells me. Her only solace was the love of her father, a tired ex-navy man, whose small sense of pride came from working odd jobs to keep whatever family he had fed and clothed. I can hear the joy creep back into her voice as she gives me a portrait of him. She’s curled up underneath a kitchen table, picking at the hem of an old polka-dot party dress. The curtains are drawn, the lights out—the light of the moon, itself, forgets the house. Absolutely pitch black. A heavy someone comes thumping down the steps and stands in the arch that marks the beginning of the dining room. She sees his old work boots and becomes motionless. Then, suddenly, she’s being pulled out into the open and she soars into this man’s arms. He flicks the lights—Daddy’s got her again. She squeals as he kisses her. “We used to play monster,” she giggles. “My Daddy and me. Make sure you write that down.”
Those moments were short-lived. There came a night when my grandfather was home to see what his wife did to their daughter. A proposition arose: the beatings stopped or he left. My grandmother called his bluff, and he was gone that night. I ask my mother why he didn’t take her with him—why he didn’t do more. She sighs deeply, the shaking of her head apparent even over the telephone, “Your grandfather’s loyal as anyone. Hell, he kept paying our bills—went on to marry grandmom a second time after that. A good man.” She puts a cigarette between her lips and continues speaking out of the right side of her mouth, “But, he’s not one to shake things up.” I hear the click of her lighter on the other end of the phone. A deep inhale, “I got out myself anyhow.”
My mother’s room is a monument to her, small and eccentric. She’s a crafty interior designer. Safety pins and tacks hold layers of billowy fabrics to the bed and her dresser, which makes sitting anywhere potentially dangerous. Animal print is the theme; she finds it exotic, sexy. Overlooking it all are the young faces of our family. She’s a sucker for photographs. The familiar faces reassure her, but there’s always been some that I haven’t recognized—the unframed photos taped to the wall beside her bed. The ones crowded by unaware, slouching (and often blinking) men. She’s given me their names now. I see Frank, I see Sean, and I see Bobby. I see them catching the camera just as the iris shuts, looking stoically out of the frozen moment into the present. They peer out at my mother wondering what she’s doing as if asking when she’ll finally return and join them back in their faded, static paradise. She got out, she tells me, left them behind. But she never lets herself forget. She owes them that much.
David Marchino is a graduating English major at the University of Pennsylvania and a Philadelphia native. When he is not cursed with bad luck, he enjoys writing creative nonfiction and running. He has worked as a tutor for the Kelly Writers House's Write-On Program and as a college mentor for Mentor for Philly. He is also a pizza delivery boy; tip him generously if you see him. Joys in his life: red sneakers, reading outside, punk rock.