“Mama,” I swallowed the tickle from the back of my throat and forced myself to take slow, even breaths, “I’m leaving.”
I quietly set my bags down next to the sagging front door. It was time. I wasn’t, until this very moment, sure that I had the courage to actually go through with it.
Breathe in, breathe out, I silently reminded myself. I could feel my heart slamming against my ribs and a low squeeze in my kidneys.
I suddenly had to go to the bathroom.
My mother continued to sit on the living room sofa, a cigarette dangling from one hand, her other hand buried deep into a bag of potato chips. The room was dark save for the small, lonely light above the stovetop and I immediately wished I had thought to turn it out before making my announcement; I felt exposed and raw, like a weeping wound. The light shone directly on my face; she would be able to see my hope, my deep seated need to leave the hellhole I was forced to call home.
I wished with all my heart the light would simply flicker and die in that moment, somehow that would have seemed fitting – a perfect summary of my life.
My mother snorted and roused herself from her television-induced stupor. The bluish-gray light from the box sliced across my mother’s large frame and cast ugly shadows across her hard face. She didn’t turn around to look at me, nor move from her position on the sofa, but her voice projected so clear and sharp I felt like she was standing right next to me.
“Come here, girl.”
I had expected the summons, but I jumped, nevertheless.
I shuffled my feet across the dirty, threadbare carpet, my secondhand moccasins making a soft swishing noise as I moved to stand near her, but far enough away that she couldn’t reach me if she were to reach for me. I had learned, from years of experience, to always be on my guard around my mother.
“What did you say?” she asked as I completed my journey across the room.
I knew she had heard me, she had excellent hearing. In fact, her hearing was almost canine in nature. She could hear the slightest sigh or the softest mumble the entire length of our trailer, with the doors closed and the television volume turned all the way up. In fact, her hearing was so acute, that I used to wonder if my mother didn’t somehow have super natural powers.
“I, uh,” I mumbled and I jumped once again at my mother’s sharp tone of voice.
“Speak up, girl. You know I can’t stand it when you act like a whipped dog.”
Now there was an apt description, I thought bitterly to myself.
I stood next to the ratty, stained sofa and absently stared at the reddish-brown stain that nearly covered on threadbare arm. That stain had prompted several questions and numerous jokes over the years – the stain remained a mystery.
I could feel my mother’s coal black eyes staring a hole into my face. My answering blush only teased my sense of anxiety and small beads of sweat began lining my upper lip.
“You better answer me now, girl. You’re making me miss my soaps.”
I could feel my shoulders slump and my body curl inward, my confidence began to ebb and I forced a dry, blob of nervousness back with a swallow. My counselor told me this might happen. He also told me what to do when it did.
My eyes shifted toward the TV, now boldly airing a commercial for a female hygiene product. I wanted to laugh out loud at the sheer absurdity of the situation – didn’t they know that women like my mother would never elect to spend their precious cigarette money on something as inconsequential as feminine wash?
And as if the thought provoked the smell, or maybe the smell had been there all along and I only now recognized it for what it was, I could smell my mother’s sour body. The origin of the smell originated somewhere deep beneath the dirt, sweat, beer, smoke and oily skin – it was somewhat yeasty and not altogether unpleasant.
“Damn it!” She pounded a meaty fist on top of the mysterious reddish-brown stain and I involuntarily flinched at the movement. “Are you trying to piss me off, girl?”
Girl. I straightened at the term, for that was all my mother every called me. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time she had actually said my name.
“She will likely mock you,” my counselor’s voice rang in my ears. “Do not allow her to make you feel guilty or insecure. You deserve this. You deserve to start your own life.”
I smiled at the thought. Not because of the unkind things my mother has said over the years, but at the thought of someone having faith in me, in my future.
My mother’s brow arched at my smile. “What the hell is wrong with you, child. Are you on drugs?”
“No, that’s your thing, mother,” is what I wanted to say, but instead I simply cleared my throat and repeated my earlier words. “I’m leaving, mama.”
She stared at me for long moments. Her face was expressionless, her eyes cold and hard, her lips a thin, straight line of disapproval and then, without warning or provocation, her mouth began to tremble and a low rumbling sounded in the back of her throat.
For a split moment, I thought she was going to start choking and I quickly ran various emergency procedures through my head.
But I needn’t have worried; my mother wasn’t choking, she was laughing. The sound that squeezed past her fat lips was a cross between a squeaky wheel and a burbling brook.
“Yer what?” She repeated, gasping for air. “You ain’t goin’ nowhere. You ain’t got no friends and you certainly ain’t got no man,” she stopped abruptly and narrowed her eyes at me. “You ain’t got ya a man, do you?”
“No mama,” I said quietly and she nodded once in approval.
“I didn’t think so. Don’t you go and git yerself tangled up with no man. They ain’t nothin’ but trouble, hear me?” She lifted a pudgy arm and swiped the back of her hand across her nose, smearing a thin line of mucus across her upper lip. “They’ll screw you, take yer money and then leave ya high and dry.”
I couldn’t help but wonder which of the long line of men my mother might be referring to. None of them had been any better than abusive beggars.