Paige E. Reecer
The Best Days
Before the smoking, the drinking, the sporadic use of drugs, the constant bad taste in men, my mother was beautiful.
Not in a conventional way. No, she had thin lips, hooded eyes, thin hair that never knew if it wanted to be wavy or straight, and a waif frame. But she had a beauty to her that was electric, magnetic and when I look at photographs of her, I study the planes of her face, the contours of her jaw, the softness of her brow, unable to look away until I start noticing the parts of her that are me.
Then I flip the photograph over.
I sifted through the clothes at the thrift store, looking for something funky, something bright, loud, fun. Coming to the thrift store is a Sunday ritual for my husband and me. Some people go to church, we go thrifting. It works for us. My husband sighed, ready to go look at the books and equipment tucked away at the back of the store. I asked him to give me five more minutes and he made me pinky promise. We never break our pinky promises.
Feeling generous, I cut my time looking through the clothes and headed toward the back. Before we made it, my husband stopped and turned around.
“We need to go. Now.”
He knew I hated making small talk with extended family or people we went to high school with just a few years ago, so leaving places early or going the long way around to avoid being seen was common, but the look in his eyes and the strain in his voice concerned me.
“Why? Who is it?”
“Please, let’s just go.”
I peered over his shoulder. In a snug pair of jeans and flowy top stood my mother, looking at a row of coffee cups.
My mother had me at a young age, some time in her early twenties in 1966, and her figure bounced back rather quickly from childbirth. It was something she prided herself on, going back to her pre-baby body so soon. She never let me forget the stretch marks, though, or the purple scar from the C-section. In all those old pictures in the months after my birth, my mother always had her hair dyed and curled, paired with a slash of red lipstick and fitted blouse. And she made sure I was in frilly little dresses with shiny Mary Janes over my bobby socks. Perched on a cocked hip, I looked like a wild mess of ribbon and tulle. She looked like one of those movie stars that carries their little dogs with them everywhere.
We were the best of friends, she’d tell me.
“You were my little buddy, Pumpkin. I’d strap you in the car seat, roll the windows down, and we’d cruise for miles. Just you and me and the open road.”
Where my mother was beautiful, I was ugly. I had a big, bald, round head that didn’t sprout curls until I was a year and a half and I was so chunky, my feet hardly fit into my church shoes and when they did, little mounds of fat would puff out over the straps. But oh, did my mother think I was the darlingest thing.
“Your little pumpkin-head was so stinkin’ cute and you had the sweetest smile. Oh stop it, you weren’t ugly. I don’t make ugly kids.”
As a baby, I was a nomad. I slept in more pulled-out dressers and pallets on the floor than I did my crib. A village of people helped raise me before my mother met Paul. My Nana, my Uncle Travis’s girlfriend Jess, my mother’s friend Tina, and my Aunt Lacey all stepped in to help my mother while she worked late nights and early mornings to put food on the table and dresses on my back.
My Aunt Jess looked over at me one day after I got home from school, dish towel thrown over her shoulder, hands scrubbing the dishes in soapy water.
“You know your mother would just leave you with me for a whole weekend, not tell anyone, not your Nana, not your Uncle Travis. No one. She just up and left and left me and your uncle to make sure you stayed alive. You won’t believe how many classes I had to take you to while I was in college. I was only eighteen too and your uncle and I had only been dating but just a few months. Oh yeah, I’d have to lug you across campus in your car seat or stroller and then hope and pray to the dear Lord you didn’t cry while I was in class.”
My Aunt Jess had married Uncle Travis, my mother’s younger brother, and her relationship with my mother had never been a great one. It started off alright when Aunt Jess was fresh out of high school and I wasn’t born yet, still encased in my mother’s womb. My mother invited Aunt Jess to one of the ultrasound appointments, the one where you get to hear the heartbeat.
“I remember the first moment I loved you. I was at the doctor with Kim for her ultrasound and we heard your heartbeat. I knew right then my whole world had changed.”
My Aunt Jess had a body that was not made to create children of her own. It was my mother's favorite thing to bring up and her favorite weapon to wield, as if her scars and stretch marks were the true markers of motherhood. My mother told Aunt Jess, after she and Uncle Travis adopted my brother and me when we were in high school, that we were just a "paper family" and there was nothing real about that.
It was a knife that buried deep and a wound that festered every time.
There was no one who hated my mother more than Aunt Jess.
My mother met Paul at a department store when I was three years old. He was on a ladder, paint scuffing his pants and face as he slicked a coat of white on the walls. They caught each other’s eye, fell in love, and nine months later a photo was taken of my mother and Paul in my Nana’s living room. She wore overalls and had a round stomach. She had cut her hair to her chin, a look I never preferred, and Paul wore a dark shirt and gelled his black hair back. On the back of the photograph in smeared ink was my Nana’s handwriting: “Paul and Kim Wedding, March 1969.”
A month later, my brother was born.
“Oh Pumpkin, you just loved your little brother. You thought he was your baby doll. Lordy honey, it was the funniest thing. You would want to dress him up in your baby doll outfits and your dad about had a moose when he walked in one day and Craig was in a sparkly dress. He had the hair for a girl, let me tell you, but no, you just thought he was the grooviest thing.”
With Paul came the moving. The bouncing back and forth between Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico. Always moving, always packing, always leaving Aunt Jess crying on the front porch, always holding the stuffed animals Uncle Travis gave me real close and trying to remember the way home smelled.
Before Paul showed up. Before he became a semi-permanent fixture. Before he wrapped his grubby fingers around my mother’s hand, my neck and squeezed, I hadn’t a clue my life was hell. He was a catalyst, a steady flow of gasoline and my mother a flame, ready to burn bright.
Paul worked hard, worked late, worked like it was his religion. Fucked anything with two legs and a pair of tits like it was his religion too. Always made the excuse that he was buried in work when my mother knew he was actually buried inside some “snaggle-toothed whore.”
I hated Paul, began hating him when I knew that I could hate someone. I hated him for his cruelness, his absence, his love for my brother and contempt for me. How he would walk around the house fully naked and how he grilled the best burger I had ever eaten.
Late, late one night when I was about eight or so, I woke up to the sound of my mother’s screeching and Paul’s bellowing. I knew they were fighting and it was scary when they did, but I always had to see. I tiptoed down the hall, the sound of their footsteps thundering through the house.
“I’ll do it Paul, I’ll fucking do it. Don’t fucking push me. I swear to God I’ll kill your sorry ass.”
I had made it to the dining room and crouched in a corner. It was dark with only a lamp in the next room on. It cast an ominous glow and I saw their shadows slinking across the floor before they came into view. Paul shuffled backwards, still in his work attire, a look of pure disgust plastered on his face. My mother, wrapped in a robe, continued to charge after him. I tried to melt into the wall, make myself smaller--invisible. But they didn’t see me, too caught up in their rage.
“You psycho bitch,” he spat.
My mother stumbled at his words, momentarily thrown off guard before she screamed and charged after him again. Paul sidestepped her, grabbed a handful of her hair, and slammed her into the wall opposite of me. The sharp crunch of her nose filled the room. My fingertips zinged. He cursed at her and slammed the door on his way out. I sat frozen in the corner, looking at the crumpled form of my mother and only when she began to stir did I make my way back to my room.
They divorced five years later.
“I just want to look at her. See what she looks like,” I whispered.
My husband grabbed my wrist. His voice shook. “You know that’s not a good idea. C’mon, let’s just buy this and go.”
I looked into his eyes, green as spring leaves. “Please. I’ll make it short.” I cupped his cheek. “Five minutes.”
He glanced over in her direction and his jaw clenched. He sighed. “Five minutes. Then we leave.”
There would be times after school when my mother would stumble into the living room, take a long drag of her cigarette before putting it out on the coffee table, and swipe her foot along my ankles, making me fall to the ground. I had just gotten home from a rather lousy day at school when I saw the glassy look in her eyes, saw the bottles and cigarettes strewn across the countertops and knew what was about to happen. I tried to make a run for my room but her foot caught my ankles and I crashed to the floor. My mother moved quick.
She pinned me to the floor. Sitting on my stomach, both her hands were wrapped around my wrists and her knees kept my legs in place. The older I got, the stronger I got which meant the more she had to restrain me but my small ten-year-old body was no match in this position. I squirmed, tried to claw at her hands with my nails, bending and contorting them at odd angles just to barely skim her flesh.
“What’s the matter, Pumpkin? Can’t move?”
I curled my lip and she tsked. She manuerved her body to where her knees held my arms down just long enough to reach behind her and pull off one of her socks. She then wadded it in a ball. I moved my head side to side as quickly as I could but she still managed to shove it in my mouth. I could feel the warmth of it still on my tongue. Taste the days of wear.
My mother moved back to her previous position and began hocking up her spit. She leaned over me and let a thick glob seep between her lips and hang in front of my face. I started to shake my head again. She slurped it back up, laughed, and let it dangle once more, swinging it like a pendulum until it fell right by my nose in a thick, gooey lump and slid across my cheek, on my ear, and into my hair.
My mother was cruel in unusual ways. In the usual ways too. But, my gosh, was she a savant at the unexpected methods of making life miserable. This was her favorite.
It didn’t leave bruises.
My mother dated a slew of men in the 70s and through the early 80s. Most I didn’t know since during this time Craig and I were living with Aunt Jess and Uncle Travis. But she would write me letters about how Roger had a slick red Mustang and how Jerry had a son my age and that Mikey could finger the strings of a guitar about as well as he could finger her. She spent a good majority of her time in Mexico when I was fourteen with a man named Jason. I met him a few times before. They always had an on-again, off-again thing and I didn’t hate him like I hated Paul.
Jason was quiet, liked to read, wore glasses. He was a nice enough man. We liked to talk about books, Native American history, and The Beatles. Jason didn’t make too loud a fuss and really seemed to think my mother was something. He was always sticking up for her and had her back no matter what.
At times, it warmed my heart to know there was one person out there who loved my mother when she had made herself so unloveable.
“Something about that man just doesn’t sit right with me,” my Aunt Jess said one night while she was painting my nails for a school dance. “He’s sort of cowardly. A spineless, no good man that will sit back and watch the world burn before he gets a pail of water to help out. I just don’t know how someone could put up with that woman and what she does.”
I had sex for the first time when I was sixteen and somehow my mother found out about it. My Aunt Jess drove Craig and me to our mother’s for our weekly dinner. The car bounced and shook under the long gravel drive and when my mother’s small house came into view, she was standing on the porch smoking a cigarette. Jason sat on a fold-out chair, whittling a chunk of wood.
“Oh boy, looks like she’s in a great mood. We’re not late, are we?” Craig asked from the backseat.
“Nope,” Aunt Jess put the car in park. “Early actually. You two mind your manners and remember who you are, okay? I’ll be back to pick you up at seven.” As I unbuckled, she leaned over and gave me a quick hug goodbye. She paused for a moment. “Well, good lord, what’s she doing?”
My mother threw open my car door. She was mad, mad mad. Her brows were furrowed and those two little lines in between them were etched deep. Before I had time to register what was happening, she stubbed her cigarette out on my bare thigh, grabbed a handful of hair at the back of my head, yanked me by it, and threw me to the ground. I could feel the gravel sink into my cheeks, my forehead. Could feel her boot ram into my stomach, my thighs.
I heard my Aunt Jess scream as she tried to get out of the car and make her way to me.
My mother lifted me up off the ground by my hair and I stumbled to my feet, the pain white hot.
“You nasty little whore,” she spat at my face, picked up a handful of rocks and threw them at me. They felt like little bullets against my neck, my chest. “You spread your goddamn legs for every little prick that wants in? Huh? Do you, ya filthy cunt?”
I cried. Looked in the car and saw that Craig was crying. Looked at Aunt Jess and saw murder in her eyes. Saw her as she shoved my mother into the side of the car and got real close.
“You don’t get to touch my baby! Do you hear me? You don’t get to touch her.” Aunt Jess yelled in her face.
“Why the fuck is my daughter sleeping around at sixteen? Do I need to take her back? Raise her under my roof to make sure she’s not fucking everything from here to Timbuktu?”
“Kim, you were having sex well before sixteen so don’t act holier-than-thou. And don’t you dare threaten to take these kids away from me when you haven’t done shit for them in years. You cook them one meal a week, Kim. One meal.” She held up her index finger. “I’m the one that puts clothes on their backs and takes them to the doctor and makes sure they do well in school and you’ve only ever played “mommy” when it suits you. So I swear to the dear Lord above if you ever touch one of my kids like that again, I’ll beat your ass till your head falls off.”
My mother looked at me then at Aunt Jess. Her lips snarled and eyes narrowed. “Fuck the both of you. Get the hell off my property.” She walked back into her house.
I got in the front seat of the car and picked the tiny bits of gravel from my face. Aunt Jess rested her head on the front of the steering wheel and cried. Craig patted my shoulder.
Jason crossed his legs and waved goodbye.
I stood next to my mother for a few moments, waiting to see if she would look up at me. My stomach felt heavy, like there was a bowling ball sloshing around and I felt an urge to run. But I was eager to see her. It had been a while.
She shifted uncomfortably before she turned in my direction. Her face was blank, neutral. Her eyes flicked back and forth, looking into mine, trying to register how she knew me, who I was to her. Then---
“Lordy, Pumpkin! I had no idea that was you. My gosh, your hair. So short! I like it.”
Her skin had withered. Her hair, though dyed a glossy brown, hung around her face in limp strands. She had put on a little bit of weight which I approved of. Last time I saw her, she was thin and gray. So she was either now eating full meals or not using as bad. Both were victories. But she still reeked of smoke.
“Yeah, I decided to chop it off. Wanted a little bit of a change.”
“I feel ya, hon. Say, I haven’t had a chance to tell you about . . .” She talked to me in those five minutes about a little bit of everything. All of it concerning her, none of it about what was going on in my life the past few years or how I was. She was like that. Always had been.
I noticed that when she talked she tried to position her head and mouth in a way that covered the fact that she had lost one of her molars. But I had seen it. I didn’t bring it up. I wanted to give her that shred of dignity.
My husband waited patiently by the front door. When five minutes hit, he motioned me to come over with a snap of his head. It was time to leave. The conversation had lulled anyway.
“Well, listen. I’ve got to get going. Still have to cook some dinner.”
“Right,” she winked at me. “Got to feed our hungry men.”
“Right.” I scratched the back of my head. “I guess I’ll see you at Nana’s Christmas this year?”
“Oh yeah, I’ll be there.”
She gave me a hug, the stench of smoke billowing out of her clothes when she pressed against me. “I love you so much. I’ll see you later.”
I pulled back and looked at her face. She was not beautiful anymore. She was tired, sick-- wilted almost. She was a photo that had sat out in the sun too long whose colors were bleached. A flower that was dried up and laid in the pages of a book. She was full of hatefulness, poisoned by narcissism and a skewed sense of reality. A woman who liked to see others hurt by her hands and words. Loved to see the power she held there. A woman who never wanted to be a mother, not wholly and not in the ways that mattered, and found ways to make me pay for the crime I committed when I stripped her freedom from her.
She was a lonely wretch and, God, did it show in her eyes.
“We have to lie in the beds we make,” Aunt Jess told me. “You can’t be a selfish, nasty person to everyone and expect them to want to be around you. Just isn’t how the world works. Kim can’t have her cake and eat it too. She did this to herself.”
My heart broke for her. It always did.
Probably always would no matter how horrible she’d been.
I remember one night when I was little, maybe five, I found my mother face down in a pool of her own vomit again. A glass of amber liquid lay nearby and a few bottles of beer littered the linoleum. I pinched my nose and shook her shoulders.
“Mama,” I whispered. “Get up, Mama. Craig is fussy and Daddy’s not home.”
She groaned and slowly sat up, leaning against the fridge. She took her shirt off and wiped her mouth with it. She wasn’t wearing a bra underneath. Her hands smoothed her hair back, picked the chunks out of the front strands.
“I love you, Pumpkin.” Her voice sounded jumbled, like her tongue was swollen and her mouth was full of marbles. “Curly head and all, I love you.”
“I love you too, Mama.”
“C’mere,” she slurred. “Let me hold you for a second.” I shimmied into her lap, careful not to touch her vomit next to us. “You’re my best friend, Pumpkin. You really are. You know when you were a little bitty baby I’d strap you in the car seat, roll the windows down, and we’d cruise till we couldn’t cruise no more. Those were the best days. Just the two of us.”
“The best days,” she mumbled.
I sat in her lap until she fell asleep again, head resting against the white of the fridge and mouth hung wide open.
I curled up in bed with Craig that night leaving my mother alone in the middle of the mess she’d made herself.