From “My Real Mother Would Never”
(The Green and Purple Skin of the World) by paulo da costa:
I didn’t plan on running away. It happened.
You stare at me from down the street, and when we cross paths, you turn and shake your head as I walk along, stuffed rabbit under my arm, rainbow-coloured sling bag bulging with my comfort blanket and my Anne of Green Gables book collection biting my shoulder. If you stop and talk to me I’ll tell you, “My real mother would never do such a thing.”
I’m dead sure my mother isn’t my real mother. I’ve got eyes. I mean, look at us. I have dusty blond hair. Hers: black. At the wave pool I’m skinny and sink like a nail. She floats without trying. I have freckles. She doesn’t. I hate smashed squash, she loves it.
And I’d rather know the truth now, thank you very much. Not like my best friend, Tilda, who only found out last week that she was adopted. She wanted to die. And why the wait ’til she is nine? How will she ever believe anything her parents-not-parents tell her again? I’m sorry for Tilda. I’ve also been trying to pull the truth out of my mother for weeks now.
Kurt swears he dropped her off from the car pool at 3:30. She’s not in the playground. I phone Tilda’s mother, surprising myself with the calmness of my voice, the steadiness of my breathing. “Hi. Mara’s mom here. Have you seen my daughter?”
Twenty mothers later, I put the phone down and stare out the window. I thrust my finger into the soil of a potted plant and break a nail. The cemented soil would choke any root. The yellow leaves droop. It will cope. “Fig trees are resilient plants. Impossible to kill, even if you wanted to,” the salesperson guaranteed. The poor thing hasn’t seen a drop of moisture since finals started three weeks ago. Poor violets, too. With a pop I pull the cracked, dried soil from the pot. Skeletal stems poke out. It’s my third try at growing violets. Why do beautiful flowers need so much extra care?
Can’t call the police. It would be as good as saying goodbye to my daughter in the middle of her father’s rehashed custody battle after I filed for enforcement of his delinquent payments. I imagine the lawyer pacing, gesticulating from one end of the courtroom to the other, firing words at my chest — bad mother, irresponsible, incapable, unloving, uncaring — bleeding me to tears.
I’ve told Mara not to answer the doorbell or the phone when she’s home alone. She knows she isn’t supposed to leave for any reason whatsoever. There are so many weirdos out there.
I want my mother to worry. I hope she cries. Then again she may not notice or even care. She tells me all the time to get lost because I’m driving her crazy and she needs space. Well, I’m getting lost, all right. She’s had plenty of warning. We fight every day. And every day I run and hide underneath the couch where it’s dark. After a while she calls out to patch things up. “It’s too quiet,” she says. She’s worried. I pretend I don’t hear a thing. Serves her right, she can find me if it’s that important. “Where are you? Are you hiding?” Her voice is out of breath. “Are you all right, sweets?” I don’t budge. And then she gets angry, twice as mad. “Why didn’t you answer me? Don’t ever try that again. It scares the hell out of me.” I think it would be a good thing to scare the hell out of her.
It’s chaos in Mara’s room. I know this isn’t the time to be upset, but her messy habits still bug me. A maimed doll sprawled in the middle of the floor, a red-stained play bandage twisted in a knot around the head, a play cast on its hand. Her latest obsession, playing injured, drives me crazy. For an entire week she can carry her bandaged arm in a sling, acting as helpless as a two-year-old. Next week it’s her hand, then her knee. She insists on wearing her bandage du jour to Safeway. Of course some old lady doesn’t take long to ask what happened to the poor child’s arm. And that’s all she needs to fabricate a convoluted story about an accident. If I’m lucky, the story doesn’t outlast my whole shopping circuit, otherwise I have to wait for her in the parking lot while she finishes her tale. It drives me wild. The old ladies offer her lots of sympathy and time to listen. There’s no point in saying she can’t play injured anymore because then she arrives from school with real injuries.
Mr. Carrot, her stuffed rabbit, isn’t on his usual pillow hangout. And Speedy, her hamster, must know something I don’t since he hasn’t stopped racing his frantic wheel. The same irritating squeak that keeps me awake at night. There’s an envelope on top of the cage. It’s addressed to Tilda.
Dearest and goodest friend Tilda,
I’m leaving Speedy behind. Will you please take good care of him? I’ll pay you once I get a job because I won’t be getting my allowance now that I stopped helping with the chores at home.
Here comes Freckle, Mrs. Tate’s terrier, carrying a white envelope in his mouth, trotting past me without a blink of remembering. And there’s his waggling tail at the end of the street disappearing into the corner store. I wait until Freckle comes out, folded newspaper in his teeth, trotting back, no time to waste on me, focused on the task, ears pointing home, eyes flashing: reward, reward, biscuit, biscuit. Often Freckle stops and lets me rub his ears and tummy. I love dogs. On my birthday I begged for one, but no luck. My mother suffers from allergies and her new boyfriend, Kurt, dislikes animals on leashes or in cages. Everyone owns a pet. He’s weird.
He told me with super slow and careful words like he was teaching me a higher level of religion, “It’s cruel to confine animals and make them food-beggars for the rest of their lives.”
I put my hands on my hips and told him, “Same cruel as when my mother sends me to my room, no?”
“Never thought of it that way before,” he laughed, ruffling my hair and messing it up again.
The year we got pregnant, Mara’s father announced he liked dabbling in nature and we planted our first garden. He made a point of planting the beds himself, poking the seeds into the moist ground with his index finger. His horticultural interest peaked about the time the first sprouting heads reached for sunlight, bursting through the small cracks of fertile soil. Proud of his garden, he insisted on showing it off to visitors, tossing newborn Mara in the air among the tall potted sunflowers I had bought from the nursery. Such a delighted father.
The first blooming season passed and his interest in the garden waned. “Weak back, rusty knees.” Complain. Complain. Fighting with the crabgrass wasn’t for him. In fact anything to do with bending his knees seemed to take a toll on his health. First in the garden, then any sort of maintenance work: bathing the baby, changing diapers, or wiping vomit off the kitchen floor. Come summer, weeds choked the seedlings. He wasn’t showing the garden off anymore.
I think I’ll go into Sammy’s to buy an ice cream sandwich. My favourite treat. It’ll help my spirits. Why are you still following me? You think I don’t know you are only pretending to buy a newspaper? You think I haven’t noticed you hiding under those black sunglasses and toque? Sammy asks me where I’m going all by myself and I don’t lie when I tell him I’m going for a sleepover. Which I am, I just don’t know the exact over.
Copyright © paulo da costa, 2013