“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.
“Nope,” she continued while settling back into the deep indentation she had made in the sofa throughout the years, “yer stayin’ right here, like a good girl, and takin’ care of yer mama.” She smiled at the thought.
I suppressed a shudder at the same thought.
“Yer trailer trash, girl. You always was and you always will be. People like us,” she gestured between the two of us, “we don’t ever leave places like this. This here is our paradise.” She gave a harsh chuckle at the thought and took a drag off her cigarette. The tip glowed hot red for long seconds before fading back to a dull orange.
“Actually,” I began and my mother looked up at me in surprise. This was probably the first time in my 18 years of miserable life that I had actually pressed an issue with her, “my bags are packed. And my ride is here.”
“Huh?” she responded and her neck cracked once, then twice, as she turned her head to finally notice the two bags sitting by the door. Her eyes then shifted back to me and she noted the army green messenger bag hanging across my chest. “What the hell are you talking about?” Her voice raised an octave and the tone pierced my bravado. “Where do you think you’re going? You ain’t got no money.”
Actually, that wasn’t exactly true. I had been working odd jobs for the past two summers and when my classmates had been busy being carefree teenagers, I had carefully kept the jobs, and the money I made from those jobs, hidden from my mother. It hadn’t been easy, thinking up excuses for my absences, but in the end, it had paid off, in the grand sum of $2,356 dollars.
I decided to skirt the money issue and expose my biggest secret of all.
“I got two scholarships, mama, to a college in Tennessee. And I qualified for financial aid … so, a lot of my school is already paid for.” I couldn’t help it, I smiled. I knew it would probably infuriate her, but I didn’t care. I was going to college. I was going to make something of my life. I was going to get away from this hell hole and the woman responsible for my crappy childhood.
I still couldn’t believe it was true. I had hoped, and prayed, so hard for this day to arrive. I had no idea if I would even be good enough for any of the scholarships I had applied for, but my counselor not only coached me through the process, he helped me develop something I thought I would never have in my lifetime: pride.
I had never been a very good student, a little above average at best, but I knew, deep in my heart, that I had the guts to make college work. I wanted it. I wanted the change to succeed more than anything I’ve ever wanted in my entire life.
And now, I had been given that chance. There was no way I was going to blow it.
I braced myself. All of my secrets were out in the open, well, most of them, anyway. How would my mother react? I had never taken the initiative for my life like this before. I had always been a good girl. Even though I knew my mother didn’t really love me, and she only saw me as her personal slave, I had always hoped, somewhere, deep in her black heart, there was a tiny flicker of love for me.
I watched a kaleidoscope of emotions cross my mother’s face. I relaxed somewhat when I saw her small smile, I tensed up when her brows drew together in disapproval. I honestly didn’t know what to expect next and the thought of not being able to predict my mother made me very uneasy.
“Well,” she began, her purplish tongue darting out to lick her lips, “ain’t this a kick in the crotch. College, eh?”
I nodded, my fingers curling tightly around the strap of my messenger bag.
“So yer gonna leave me to rot while you get a fancy-smancy job and live high on the hog.” The tone of her voice was light, but her expression had hardened to stone. “I’m assuming, when you get yer job and wearing yer expensive clothes, that you won’t forget about your mama?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” she shifted to give me her full attention. “I expect monthly payments.”
“What?” I sputtered in surprise.
“What. You think I ain’t gonna ask for payment for all the years I put food in your mouth or clothes on your body? You owe me, girl. In fact,” her eyes narrowed into hateful slits, “I’m gonna expect it. And if you don’t pay up? I’m gonna sue yer ass.”
It took me a full minute for her words to sink in. I blinked in shock. This woman, this stranger, didn’t care about me at all. She was only interested in herself. I knew, in that moment, that I would never see her again.
And I finally realized, after years of trying to be everything she wanted me to be simply so she would show me a little affection, that I didn’t care.
I spun on my heel, picked up my bags and opened the door without a backward glance.
The smell of freedom was indeed sweet.