Mommy never minced words. Instead of saying hello, she stood on my welcome mat, greeting me with an insult. “You don’t look good. You’re not getting enough sleep.”
Sleep. What was that? I’d had fifteen weeks off, but maternity leave was no vacation. I spent the entire time nursing, changing diapers, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and running back and forth to doctors’ appointments. Not to mention dealing with Spider. If Tee-Bo wasn’t crying, Spider was calling; they tag teamed me. I opened my apartment door all the way, yawning, “I haven’t slept since March.”
Mommy waved her finger in my face. “Talk to your boyfriend. He helped make the baby. He should help take care of him.” Seeing Tee-Bo strapped to me in the harness carrier all ready to go, she asked, “Are you going out or just getting in?”
I was actually on my way to the laundromat, which is only empty on Tuesday nights. Last wash is at seven, so I looked her straight in the eye and said, “Just getting in.” Half the time she left me no choice but to lie or argue, and since I didn’t have time to argue, I urged myself: Focus. Keep my answers short and sweet. Don’t volunteer information. Whatever I do, don’t mention anything about having keys to Dr. Snyder’s brownstone.
Mommy breezed by me. Her hairstyle was different. Bangs stopped at a scab. The back tapered. A pixie cut. Judging by the curling iron burn, she was probably at the salon this past Saturday, but her curls were still crisp; Mommy always did know how to sleep pretty. She wore the same “red raspberry” shade on her lips and nails. A pencil skirt and pantyhose showed off the long, curvy legs. The white, tailored suit was spotless. Her snakeskin heels made quiet steps into the living room, but the keys to the new Volvo rattled until she stuffed them inside the Louis Vuitton hanging off her arm. She then felt my chaise, rubbing the fabric as if to determine whether or not the pattern was printed on.
The upholstery was ivory Jacquard. The blue carnations, woven. “This one is a little busy.” I then pointed to the adjacent camelback loveseat, solid ivory. “But, that one adds balance.”
Mommy dusted off her hands, staring at the silver mirror covering the wall over the loveseat. The scroll and leaf detail was intricate. The antique frame was gleaming. When I bought it, it was all black. A polishing cloth couldn’t get into the crevices, but I remembered how my Nana used to clean her silver in the sink with salt, baking soda, and aluminum foil, so I lugged the mirror to my bathtub. After soaking one side at a time, there wasn’t a speck of tarnish. Mommy grunted and turned. The bachelor’s chest wasn’t a coffee table, but it was a cute substitute. On it, I had my stack of Modern Bride magazines all spread out, and on opposite ends, the decanter and fluted vase were both cobalt blue.
“The one closest to you is Mikasa. The taller one is Lenox. Hallmarks are etched on the bottom.” Now I was beaming, not because of the brand names but because of the way I used color to draw eyes to the center of the room. I tried to find matching material for throw pillows, but the match I found was expensive silk. At Goodwill, I found curtain panels that I cut into squares and stuffed, costing me next to nothing. Beige linen paled in comparison, but it worked out better that only the crystal was this bold blue. That pop of color was actually the effect I wanted.
Mommy gravitated in that direction. Then, as if changing her mind, she drifted to my bistro table, first drumming her fingernails on its glass and then tugging on the edge so hard; the bowl of lemons on it slid around. Three wrought iron chairs with heart shaped backs surrounded my little round table. She looked down, and then back at the wall. The periwinkle paint matched the cushions perfectly. I took a swatch to Sears; they mixed the can while I waited. Watching her tip one of the chairs back, I admitted, “I covered the seats myself with a power stapler. Would you like something to drink?”
No comment. She was ignoring me. Oh well. Anyway, there wasn’t much more. To the left, the arch and twelve linoleum tiles marked off my stove, sink, refrigerator, and ten inches of counter space. It’s the smallest kitchen ever. And down the hall, my bedroom was so tight that we had barely enough walk space between our king-sized bed and the dresser. This was the Bronx, not Hoboken, and my two and a half rooms on 167th Street were nothing compared to Mommy’s condo. In fact, this whole apartment could probably fit in the backseat of her Volvo, but it was finally furnished, and I had done it myself, even if these were thrift store finds. Now I knew Mommy was scrutinizing, because she’s a buyer for a furniture chain. She used to design showrooms so I was hoping she’d comment on the décor, but she zipped her purse by the padlock and sat it in the chair. She didn’t utter a word. Her face contorted. I twisted my own face, following her favorite fragrance, Poison.
Mommy kicked off her heels. Draping her folded blazer across the chaise, she asked, “How was work?”
How was work? I couldn’t help but just seal my lips and blink. I worked for a collection agency. Translation: I called people, demanded that they pay their debts, threatened to take them to court and sue for the money they didn’t have, all while hoping that I annoyed them into making payments, but that’s what I did…all…day…long. No matter how many times I heard, “You can’t get blood from a turnip,” I hassled them. Even those who were honest enough to confess, “I just don’t have it,” I hassled them too. I didn’t exactly “harass” them, so to speak, with repeat calls minutes apart or with empty threats. No. That, I didn’t do. But I did badger them. I had to. I had to demand payment, otherwise the debtors wouldn’t commit. I had to make a certain number of calls per hour, and a certain percentage had to follow through with their promises, or else I’d get written up. Enough write-ups, they’d fire me. And those supervisors, they hovered over us like vultures, bloodthirsty vultures, circling, with clipboards and number two pencils, filling in circles. The ones that didn’t were in the back office wearing headphones bigger than earmuffs, monitoring our phone conversations, hanging on our every word, “This is an attempt to collect a debt. Any information obtained will be used for that purpose. This call is also being monitored and recorded for quality assurance. My name is Miss Love. I’d like to start by verifying the last four digits of your Social.” I could say that in my sleep. Day in and day out, I had to stick to the script and all the other bullet points of the collection process: identifying the original lender; stating the reference number; demanding the balance in full, even if debtors insisted they could only make partial payments; demanding payments by the preferred methods, Western Union or check by phone, when debtors could actually mail their checks in. And, of course, golden rule number one: verifying all information; making sure I got their work number, if they had one, so that we could garnish their wages if we needed to; and verifying the home addresses and phone numbers so that we could put liens on their homes. All this or I’d get written up. The fact that I was so good at my job is what made it so awful. Most debtors were already depressed or had recently experienced some personal tragedy. I performed like their sob stories didn’t affect me, when the real deal was I could relate. Even though I was a bill collector, I was one paycheck away from hardship myself.
Mommy unfastened her gold clip-ons and dropped them in her pocket. She then stood upright, massaging her ear-lobes. “Ah! My goodness! That feels good. Beauty has its price.” She looked at me. “Well?” she said.
“Seventy-two degrees and sunny, that’s great weather for the end of June, right? Don’t you just love sweater weather? By the way, you look good in white.”
“Mmhmm. Now, how was work?”
“Can we talk about something else? I hate that place.”
“Be grateful. That’s a good job, and you have no degree,” she said.
“Mommy!” I took a deep breath to calm myself. And I counted backwards. Didn’t work. “Today was only my second day back, and my supervisor caught me nodding off. Did I make quota? Yes, actually I doubled it. Did he take into consideration that I have a baby that isn’t sleeping through the night yet? Nope. He wrote me up! Then, he wrote me up again for lateness when I made it in this morning and signed the time sheet at exactly seven fifty-two. I logged in, not realizing my computer froze. I logged back in, but the clock said two minutes after.” That reminded me. Time check. Six twenty-two. My elevator was broken. I had to use the stairs with Tee-Bo and the shopping cart. If I was going to make it to the laundromat on the other side of the Concourse, I needed to leave in no less than eight minutes. I looked. Mommy was walking up the hall. When the bathroom door closed, I called her. She didn’t answer. So, to save time, I went to the linen closet, and stuffed the detergent, bleach, fabric softener, and everything else I needed into the top of the laundry bag. Now, all I had to do was drop that into my shopping cart. I glanced down. Flats were on my feet, but climbing four flights of cracked steps, they’d feel like stilts. I changed into Reeboks.
Mommy was still in the bathroom. I pressed my ear to the door. Hearing only my pulse, I was about to knock, but then, the toilet flushed. Mommy yelled, “Why didn’t you tell him to check the sheet?”
Tee-Bo twitched, but the noise didn’t wake him. His legs flopped like a rag doll’s on my way back to the living room, where I called out, “I did. He said time sheets don’t matter. If that’s the case, why is there a time sheet?” With the second hand still spinning, I stopped watching it, but anxiety had me counting in my head. The faucet ran, but I couldn’t think of one single solitary thing to say or do in order to rush out of here in the next few minutes without her tagging along.
The door opened. She came out smiling, crumpling a paper towel. “It happens.” She tossed it in the wastebasket and then approached, extending her arms. “I came to see the baby. Hand him over.”
“Hand the baby over.”
“His name is Tobiah.” At this point, I didn’t even put up a fight. I just took Tee-Bo out of his harness and passed him to her. She sat, looking him over. Then she looked at me tight lipped. I knew what she was thinking. Before she could say it, I told her, “I am using the cream.”
“No one in our family has eczema.”
“No one in Spider’s family either.”
“What could it be? You’re hand washing, I hope.”
Mommy grew up scrubbing laundry with her knuckles at five in the morning. So, of course she had stressed the importance of hand washing Tee-Bo’s clothes since he was born. But, between catering to Spider and taking care of Tee-Bo, especially now that I’d returned to work and had to express enough breast milk to fill eight bottles, how could she expect me to still have time and energy? I shrugged and shook my head.
“You are washing this newborn baby’s clothes in those nasty machines?”
“He’s not a newborn anymore.”
She raised her voice and repeated herself. “In those nasty machines?”
“He’s three months old now.”
“I know how old the baby is. Stop washing his clothes at the laundromat!” Now, here she was hollering at me, and I was almost twenty-six years old.
I hollered back, “I’m saving for a washing machine!”
Mommy squeezed her left eye. When we were kids, we knew: once she squinted, duck. “Did you just lose your mind?”
I nodded and spoke like I had some sense. “Sorry, I’m saving for a machine.”
Her face relaxed. “What are you going to do in the mean-time?”
So much for the laundromat. “I guess I’ll have to use Dr. Snyder’s.”
“You shouldn’t get too comfortable in that woman’s home.”
“I’ll be there, anyway. I have to sign for a package on Friday, and I have to run an errand for her next week.” I smacked my forehead almost as soon as those words slipped out.
Mommy didn’t even hesitate, “Why doesn’t her out-of-work son run her errands?”
“Spider is not out of work. He’s an intern.”
“That’s no job. You two should have a mutual exchange.”
“Sexual favors don’t count!”
“Don’t bad mouth Spider in front of my baby.” I reached, grabbing Tee-Bo at his waist.
Still, Mommy would not let him go. She tightened her grip and cut her eye at me. “He’s asleep, Mia.”
“Can he sleep in the room while we have this conver-sation?” I asked, but she pulled him even closer. “Mommy, please,” I begged. After a few seconds, she laid him in my arms.
As soon as I reached the cradle, I laid Tee-Bo on his back. Tiny, red bumps covered half his face. I knew the stages. In a few days, the redness would fade, but not the bumps. His hair—jet-black like Spider’s—swirled in the sweat on his scalp. He looked like a Kewpie doll, even if his skin did look like tapioca pudding. I reached for his cream, applied a dab to the side of his face, and then kissed his forehead. His skin cream smelled like bleach, but I was getting used to it.
I’d been dealing with this for over a month. I looked all through Dr. Snyder’s medical journal. None of the rashes in the pictures had pointed tips like Tee-Bo’s, but after looking in that big book, everywhere I went, I saw hives, prickly heat, bug bites.
On my way into
this morning, the man
nodding off next to me was wearing a short sleeve shirt and had what looked
like psoriasis. Not only was it red, it was covered with white ash. Seeing that
man this morning hit so close to home, I almost broke down on the D train. This
rash was spreading. I should’ve known that would set
her off. I kissed Tee-Bo again and wiped off some of his sweat. Manhattan
I know once my mind is set on something, it’s almost impossible to convince me otherwise, but I was glad I had an excuse not to bump my shopping cart down four flights, especially now that my surge of adrenaline had fizzled out. I was exhausted all over again. I wasn’t going anywhere. I yawned and stretched my body. This harness carrier was pointless. I took it off and laid it across the diaper bag.
At my knees, lace hung past the hemline of my black skirt. There was no elastic left in my half-slip, and the knot at my waist untied. I should’ve pinned it, but my only safety pin was keeping my skirt’s zipper from sliding down. Stepping out of the slip, the ankle strap from my high-top caught onto the lace. When I separated them, the Velcro tore the slip all the way across the bottom. I held up the slip and examined it. Besides the rip and not having any elastic, it had more runs zipping through it than an old stocking, but a raggedy slip is not the same as a raggedy pair of stockings. Slips are functional. This slip served a purpose. My skirts didn’t have linings. Debating whether or not to remove the lace trim from it entirely, I carefully folded it and placed it in my night table drawer. From behind me, I heard, “Well, now I’ve seen it all.” I turned and caught a glimpse of Mommy leaving the doorway.
I expected her to get started on Spider all over again as soon as I walked into the living room, but she was seated, leaning on the arm of my loveseat. She straightened up and I looked into her face. She wasn’t squinting, tightening her lips, or drawing up her nose. Her forehead was crinkled. That meant she was worrying, but I knew what I was doing. I had to at least try to convince her. I thought for a moment. Then, I made my voice as sweet as possible. “Mommy, you’ve always taught me I’ve got to give a little to get a little, right?”
“What’s your point?”
“My point is I give my all to Spider.”
“Don’t you realize giving your all to your boyfriend leaves you with nothing?”
“Spider’s all I want. I can’t live without him.”
Mommy jumped up, grabbed me by the shoulders, and shook me hard. “I told you before. Don’t say that! Mia, Mia, Mia.” She pulled me over to the mirror. I wondered why. I didn’t see any streaks. But then again, seeing the light from the window bounce off, I did notice some fingerprints. I pulled my sleeve and reached to wipe them with my cuff but she pulled me back, pointing me into the mirror. Punish-ment. I already knew that the pocket of my white
shirt had a milk circle. When my
supervisor handed me my write-ups, I sucked my teeth, and my breasts leaked. I
scratched away the crusty stuff, but this was a protein stain. I needed to soak
it in cold water. The second button from the top was reattached with grey thread,
only because I ran out of white, and with two top buttons open, I felt naked.
My collar was wearing thin, because bleach was eating away at the fabric. This
blouse may have been worn out, but at least it wasn’t dingy. Oxford
She brought her cheek to mine. This was torture. Bad enough she tanned bronze, and my brown skin was turning blue from the neck up since I didn’t have a coupon for sunscreen, but she was standing here in all this black mascara, eye shadow, and liquid liner, when she never needed any of that. Mommy’s eyes were beautiful all by themselves. Even if mine weren’t bloodshot and didn’t have the dark circles underneath or the bags from lack of sleep, she would still be Nefertiti, and I would still look like a locust, standing next to her with my big, bug eyes. I’ve tried squinting and batting them, practiced smiling and half-smiling, bleached my skin with Ambi, baked it back with cocoa butter, and when none of that helped, I mailed dollar bills and coins to P.O. boxes for all kinds of goop, believing testimonials, but nobody ever asked me for mine: If it’s in the back of a magazine, it doesn’t work. $12.95 plus $2.00 shipping and handling never made me love what I saw in the mirror. Mommy was almost twenty years older than me, and I still would’ve traded faces. Why didn’t she just spit me out the way she did Dawn? All our other features were somewhat similar. Why wasn’t I a clone, too? Why did Donald Jackson’s genes have to be this strong? I would’ve loved to look like her. She pinched one of my hairs and stuck it into my bun. Then, finger-combing, she blended more fly away strands. In the mirror, we made eye contact. She squeezed my arms and said, “You can have any man you want. Don’t waste your time.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that, but looking in her eyes, I had to sound confident. “We will get married, Mommy. Spider gave me his word.”
“Mia, for heaven’s sake! Should I go shopping for a blue dress? Should I buy a ten-pound bag of Uncle Ben’s?” I didn’t answer, at least not right away. I never knew how to respond to her rhetorical questions, so I just folded my arms and stared down. Determined to make her point, she twisted me around and tilted my face toward hers. “Should I call Reverend Earl?”
“Spider’s an atheist, Mommy. It’s been so long since I’ve set foot in church, I doubt Reverend Earl even remembers who I am.”
“That’s not the point! The point is no one’s going to be throwing any rice at you anytime soon.”
“Maybe not, but—”
“No buts! That man should already be married to you! It’s been ten years, and he’s reaping all the benefits. You pay his bills. You just gave him a baby. You dropped out of college twice for him!”
“For once, will you please be honest with yourself? In-stead of knocking yourself out trying to pay for your pretty boyfriend’s master’s, let his mother, “the doctor,” pay for it. You best believe if his mother’s a surgeon, that boy ain’t broke. He has some money stashed somewhere. The only question is how much. So take that which is rightfully yours, and get your own degree! I worked three jobs to get us out of those projects! And I didn’t keep you in private school all your life for you to be anybody’s fool!”
“I’m nobody’s fool!”
“Then I must be! I paid college tuition for four, no, five years and then went out and spent a hundred and twenty-seven dollars on a frame for that diploma!”
I screamed, “I know! Enough already! Gee whiz! So what, I don’t have a degree for you to show off to all your friends! That was three years ago, Mommy! Get over it!”
The next thing I knew, I was holding my stinging face. I didn’t see the swing. I didn’t even see her squint. I was dazed for a minute, trying to figure out what triggered the slap. The last time she had done that was ten years earlier because I was “smelling myself.” But I wasn’t a sixteen-year-old sneaking out in the middle of the night with roller-skates anymore. I was a grown woman. “I can’t believe you just did that. I can’t! I can’t believe you just slapped me!”
“Shut up, and stop overreacting,” Mommy said. No remorse whatsoever, but she was calmer. “I don’t care what folks think. My concern, Mia, is you and the baby.”
“His name’s Tobiah.”
“I know! Tobiah Osbert Love!”
“No! His last name is Snyder, Mommy!”
She froze. Staring. She didn’t even blink. Then, she politely collected her suit jacket, hung it over her arm, and slid her pedicure into her pumps. “Goodbye.”
“Does this mean this talk is over?”
“Why should I stay here and talk to a wall? I got walls at home.”
“Now this is my fault?”
She yanked her purse from the chair and gave me that look. Her one squinted eye was now wet at the corner. “I tell you time and time again, but you don’t listen. You just don’t listen! And when you don’t listen…” Her voice quivered, “…you suffer. Mark my words. Keep doing what you’re doing, Mia, you’ll keep gettin’ what you got. Absolutely nothing.”
“Mommy,” I said, rearranging my throw pillows. After I gave them each a karate chop, I glanced back at her. “All this look like nothing to you?”
“Mia, look around! Anything in here child friendly? Once the baby starts crawling and walking, he’ll be in everything. The lamps, the vases, all that is placed low. This seating is right next to where you eat. Even if a professional comes in here with Scotchgard, in a year’s time, I’ll still see it covered in grape juice and spaghetti handprints. And that’s not even the worst of it!” She tapped her fingernails on the bistro table’s glass. “This top isn’t tempered! And it’s a tip-over hazard! It has no suction cups, no gripping pads, nothing securing it to the base, nothing to keep it from sliding off!”
“Nothing’s wrong with that table! You’re nitpicking!”
“Am I?” Mommy pushed down on the table’s edge. The glass overturned, and the opposite end went straight up, sending the wooden bowl crashing to the floor and lemons rolling across my living room. The glass top came back down with a bang but didn’t break. She looked at me. “Need another demonstration?”
Now that my heart was in my throat, I could only manage to shake my head.
“That table can topple if someone so much as puts an elbow on it, let alone a toddler trying to pull himself to stand. And your walls…are sheetrock. That mirror has got to weigh a hundred pounds. That’s another accident waiting to happen.”
I turned, wiping the fingerprints off it with my cuff, “I don’t think so.”
“Of course not! You haven’t learned to think for your child yet.” She walked away. “All you think about is your boyfriend’s curly hair and hazel eyes.” She faced me when she reached the door. “Remember what I told you. And another thing: that’s your boyfriend’s mother and all, but don’t make yourself too comfortable in that woman’s home. You can have keys and still be an outsider.”
That said, she snatched the door open and stepped out. “Kiss the baby for me.”