by Cindy Lamothe
“She clung to that which had robbed her, as people do.” — William Faulkner
When I was five years old I tried shaking off ‘crazy’ much like a child shakes off the ‘cooties’. Dusk was setting in, turning the sky from pale orange to partial darkness, as I slapped my arms and shook my small frame around to rid myself of the flea-like disease.
“Daddy don’t let me catch it” rolled off my tongue after he came home from work one day. “Why you dancing like that, grasshopper?” He cupped my chin before taking me inside. His briefcase hung to his side as we made our way into the wooden two-story house. The blossoms outside wafted a sweet and pungent scent that filled the living room as we walked in.
“Uncle Ben said that if I wasn’t a good girl, I’d catch crazy just like Mama.”
Daddy furrowed his brows and frowned as he patted me on the head. “Your uncle says a lot of stupid things. Don’t listen to him.” He grabbed at his tie with the other hand and waved me away.
That whole summer I lived in fear that these insect-like creatures would get to me, the same way they did Mama. Her need to wake me up at midnight to warn me against burglars and scold me for leaving my door unlocked.
“They will come for you and kill us all in our beds, is that what you want?” her red eyes on me like a hawk.
As with the burglars, there were many fears to worry about.
They would come on sporadically and without measure, at times during supper or while doing the laundry. “Look at this stain.” She dug her long nails into my small arm. “Do you know how much money I spent on this? You’re just like your father. Careless.” Her thick mascara spiderlike on her eyes.
There were no warning signs except for silence. Silence before my daddy came home; silence before a gathering storm.
“Where have you been?” she’d hiss before slamming down a frying pan at his feet. Her angular face contorting into fits. She’d grab at his coat and sniff him like a rabid dog on a hunt. “Whose perfume is this?” Her voice both huffy and acidic.
“Damn it, I’ve told you before, I’m no cheat!” he’d shout.
She would make her way into my room and toss the guilty coat at me. “What do you smell?” At these moments I was frozen in my bed, unable to speak. The stuttering that followed only intensified Mama’s anger.
“It smells like soap?” I managed to croak out. A slap to the face helped me reconsider my answer.
While the house rattled with slammed doors and broken glass, I’d find refuge in the hallway closet and take my ponies with me for company. The darkness offered me protection, as did the soft light that peeped in through the cracks. In my mind I imagined princesses rescued from tall towers, warlocks and monsters saved from themselves. I sailed to pygmy islands on ships full of pirates gliding over emerald waters. Maybe they will adopt me?
At thirteen, the fears increased until their weight spread out like a quilt that covered me. Thick knots rose in my throat and stomach, which churned like butter when I went home after school. The sting of the unknown could both alarm and comfort me, causing electrical sensations to ripple along my spine.
One evening during late spring, when the moist air covered the tiny leaves of our large patio, I came home from school to find a path of ripped rose petals and scissored clothes in the driveway. They lay there silently as a foreboding.
Mr. Petey, our elderly neighbor next door waved at me while watering his plants. His eyes cast an apologetic glance to the ground where evidence of foul play had transpired. “Looks like a nice day for a swim, don’t ya think?” He gave me a comforting smile as he returned to spray his gardenias.
“Should go play with the rest of ‘em kids at the pool instead o’ being indoors.” His forehead gleamed with droplets of sweat.
“Yeah, thanks Mr. P,” I frowned and tightened the grip on my backpack as I stepped over the crumpled petals.
I took the message and retreated to a friend’s house that lived a few blocks down.
Dilara was her name, the child of two Turkish immigrants who worked the better part of the night as cooks at a lavish restaurant downtown. The house was ours, to chug down glasses of Raki or “lion’s milk” as Dilara called it, and play “truth or dare” with other neighborhood kids. We’d plop down on a Middle Eastern carpet woven of rich red and golden fibers, telling fantastical truths about ourselves.
“You go,” blurted Jaime, squinty-eyed boy with a bowl hair cut swept over his brows.
“Truth. Who would you push down the stairs if you had the chance?” I laughed between chugs, wiping my mouth on my forearm.
Dilara gave me an amused look while reaching for more Raki. Her eyes sparkled with dark sedition as she curled the words with her lips. “Sarah For-e-man. She talk shit behind my back and make fun of my accent. I push her no thinking.” Her serious face made me laugh even harder.
Sarah Foreman was a freshman cheerleader who took pleasure in bullying foreign students and general outcasts.
“Ok funny girl. What about you? Who you push down?”
My eyes watered from the anise-flavored alcohol. “That’s easy. Your mama.”
Dilara spit out her drink and cursed at me in Turkish. But I rolled on the carpet laughing hysterically until my sides hurt. “You asked.”
Her dark eyes nodded to me. “OK, now you must take dare.”
“I dare you go home.” She said, eyebrows quirked in peaks.
Suddenly, the room quieted except for the loud ticking of an antique clock in the dining room. Jaime gave me a distressed look, half expecting me to laugh it off.
“Fuck you.” I stood up abruptly with my head on fire.
“It’s only joke! Stay, don’t go!” Dilara grabbed at my arm.
But I shook off her hand and stormed out for home.
I once found Mama sitting in the kitchen looking inside a tarnished keepsake box when I was sixteen. Her small frame hunched over with fingers smoothing out antique pictures. The soft skin of her hands showing signs of aging. She looked more like a wounded child than a grown woman over forty.
The photograph she stumbled upon was one of a bearded man embracing a small child with dark hair, wearing a red scarf. It was the same one she kept hidden away in the bottom of her bedroom drawer. Her own mother had gifted her the small cloth that smelled of cinnamon oil and mothballs. At age seven, when Mama wasn’t home, I used to take the scarf out and let the smooth texture cover my arms and let it embrace me with its softness.
“This was your grandpa when he was a young man. And that’s me in his arms.” She did not raise her eyes.
There was nothing unusual in her voice. But the creases in her forehead relaxed as she passed the photo to me. I looked at it intensely, at its deep indentations that showed years of fingers pressed into its corners. I had the urge to grab her hand and let the many years of silence evaporate between us.
“He was a good man,” she whispered under her breath.
Daddy had told me stories about Mama’s father: a rigid alcoholic who used to hit his children with leather belts. “Don’t tell her I told you this,” he’d say.
I wanted her to give me these answers. To tell me why she couldn’t stand being hugged or touched. Or why the slightest noise could cause her to jump at night.
“You gotta make something outta your life, child. Go out there and get yourself a degree. Don’t rely on a man.” She said to me. “You can’t be running away scared all the time when things get tough.” Her voice both calm and forceful as she looked at me blankly. “I shouldn’t have had kids. I’m not cut out for it. But I married your father and he wanted them. I couldn’t say no.”
Her words pierced through me. She shouldn’t have had kids. Why is she telling me this?
“Are you listening to me, child?” she asked.
I averted my eyes but nodded.
“Don’t be afraid like me. Don’t you dare be like me.”
By the time I was a senior in college, the fear of the unknown still sent electrical pulses down my spine and caused me to wake in the middle of the night with matted hair and the sensation of suffocating in my sleep. I hadn’t seen Mama in several years, not since moving many states away.
The loneliness was inescapable. When potential partners asked questions about my constant nightmares and distant behavior, I lied, blaming it on exhaustion from studies, and their clinginess.
When asked about meeting my family, I promptly offered an assortment of excuses to avoid get-togethers and holidays. I’m too busy at school. Can’t afford the plane ride. The weather is awful and not good for traveling anyway.
“Can’t you make an effort?” Daddy pleaded on the phone.
“Maybe next year,” I said, fully aware of the lie.
After graduation I worked tenaciously trying to keep myself afloat by waiting tables and working catering jobs on weekends. I napped between long shifts and dreamt repeatedly of a large black crow whose wings I’d try to grasp, only to have it fly away before I could unfurl its feathers.
A few years later I sat on a train headed to Manhattan for a job interview, and a woman across from me dropped her silk scarf—blood red with a small floral pattern embroidered on it. She had the soft jowls and fine lines of sixty, with deep-set eyes and wrinkles on her forehead. The sharp features of her chin and cheekbones juxtaposed with the exotic flare of her nose. I imagined her smelling of cinnamon oil and mothballs.
I could see Mama’s eyes peering out through the woman’s face. The same distant gaze that sent me far away many years before.
Her sadness wore heavy on her face as she reached down and gathered the scarf, wrapping the soft fabric around her neck like a shield.
I wondered where she came from and where she was headed, how many children she had raised, and where the sadness came from. She rode alone without company and I wanted to sit next to her, if only for a few minutes to understand her. To tell her that things would be ok, and that she wasn’t alone. I wanted these words to hold us both together like the flowers in her scarf, and for her to cup my face with her hand and feel the warmth of its protection on my skin.
But these things wouldn’t come to pass.
The last month I remained single, the cold air seeped through the trees as I explored the windy streets of the city. I heard the soft voices of fall rustling between buildings, and imagined new experiences of becoming a wife and mother.
Images of a child running up and wrapping her arms around me—and another of a man holding my hand as we both made vows in front of family and friends—sent a shiver down my spine. Mama’s words appeared like dark smoke before me as they always did, with sharp precision as I made my way into Central Park.
There were many unknowns that caused familiar knots to surge in my throat and cause my gut to quiver with its vastness. I pressed down on the latch of my handbag, exhaled deeply, and kept walking until the many shadows that followed were vanquished.
That same winter, I walked the snow-laden path to my new home, where memories of comfort and laughter were still fresh. There was a small pigeon with grey and black feathers perched in the driveway. Its bruised wing flapped inconsolably as I reached down to bundle it in my arms. As with most small wounded things, the creature started pecking repeatedly at my glove as I caressed its shiny plumage.
“It’s okay,” I whispered before taking it inside, its weight slowly disarmed in my hands.
Cindy R. Lamothe has earned her B.A. in Communications with an emphasis in Journalism. She is a writer, social media strategist, inspirationalist, and lover of life. Her work has appeared in The Manifest-Station and other publications. Cindy’s quirky personality and passion for travel has led her down many strange paths, harnessing her appreciation for beauty and innate wildness. Get to know her on Facebook, Twitter and her personal website crlamothe.com, where she encourages others to let go of fear and live authentically.
Photo, “Heavy Red Scarf” by Ben Raynal Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License.