One. Again.

635962114968686569-thinkstockphotos-516497930At my mother’s house, the usual busy-ness when we are there: Nana at the table with two great grandchildren, one grandchild playing Scrabble. Another granddaughter stops by for leftover meatballs and cavatelli. My sister is upstairs making soup for another sister who just broke her leg and is hospitalized. Dennis has taken Justina to the local sporting goods store to buy sneakers. Beatrice says she’s going on a run.

“How long will you be gone?” I ask. She tells me. “Leave the earbuds out,” I say, but she probably has them in already.

I’m looking on my phone to see if quin is an acceptable word (it is!?) when the Amber alert comes in. A twenty-one year old woman missing in Kingston, RI. Kingston is twenty minutes away. This woman, another woman, some poor mother’s beautiful daughter, has been gone for two days. My daughter is out running, wearing the earbuds I’ve asked her not to, ticking off the miles on her GPS watch, marking her way along unfamiliar routes but not paying attention to anything important. This is no ordinary day out there for one family, while here my mother, my sisters, my children and nieces and nephews carry on as if the bottom has not fallen out of someone else’s carefully constructed universe.

I borrow my sister’s car, guessing at Beatrice’s route. The road stretches out, ominous in its ordinariness. Women are not safe out here. Don’t tell me the odds are against a woman being attacked in a town like this. Quote all the statistics you want. Here’s the only number that matters: One. I remember Linda.

We were ten years old that summer. Along the mostly residential Route 1, we walked to the Dunn’s Corners Volunteer Firemen’s Carnival. On a stretch beside a tract of cedar swamp, we played games of chance for a dime, took our first ride on something called the Round-Up. At a prize-every-time booth, run by an old man who might or might not have been a firemen, I rolled balls into chutes trying to win stuffed dogs. He let me have several chances for free. The next night, I returned to his game. When my mother found the plastic poodle consolation prizes hanging around my bedpost the next morning and asked how they’d gotten there, I told her.

“A stranger let you play his game for free?” she said.

I thought it was a great coup. Fearless. Stupid.

“Well, be careful,” she said. It’s what most mothers in Westerly, RI, in 1973 would have said. The next night, I went back, my friends and I laughing at my mother’s warning.

Three months later, I climbed off the bus. My friend’s older sister sat outside their house, leaves turning colors around us, the air still warm, and motioned us over.

“Linda Robinson is missing,” she said. “She never made it home from the YMCA last night.”

Linda was thirteen. She lived a few miles away from downtown where the YMCA was. Her younger sister attended the same elementary school we did.

Someone along a dark stretch of road had heard her scream, had found her schoolbooks scattered across his lawn.

To reach my house, I had to leave the noise of Franklin Street ‘s traffic, of the kids outside playing kickball, raking leaves. Our lane was a quarter mile stretch bordered on one side by the back of a shopping center and on the other, by a stretch of woods. I stood at the top and studied — from what seemed like an insurmountable distance — the white block of my house where my mother would be watching her afternoon soap operas, behind which my father would be filling the pit silo with the final truckfulls of corn silage.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been afraid to traverse that lonely stretch; I was a child with an active and fearful imagination. But it was the first time that I understood: bad things really can happen here. A thirteen year old girl was missing in Westerly, RI. Someone had been responsible for that.

Young girls should be able to walk home alone in the dark. Young women should be able to go out for a three mile run at any time of the day or night. We should be able to park our cars and not think about it, to sleep on a hot night with our windows open. Bikeriding to school, showing up for our lifeguard shift at a local pond, lying in our sleeping bag at a slumber party in a friend’s basement, closing up shop after a long day at work. None of these situations should put us in jeopardy. None of these things should separate mothers from their daughters. But they do.

Instead of a Mother’s Day gift this year, I asked my daughters to take a self-defense course with me. They would rather have gotten me a plant and done our usual picnic, but they agreed. We took twelve hours’ worth of classes with officers from the Ipswich Police Department. These concluded with us participating in three scenarios where we had to fight against a perpetrator. These were police officers dressed in protective clothing, men who had taught us what we would need to do to defend ourselves, “perpetrators” who, no matter how ineffectual our resistance, would let us go, and yet we were terrified. For the duration of the two hour class, my hands shook. When it was over and they asked us to talk about our experience, I could barely say what I wanted to: that, as scary as it had been to work through these exercises with them, I felt empowered by all the women who had not had the benefit of this kind of training. The countless victims who had had no idea and perhaps no chance to fight back. How could I not learn to fight? Even Linda Robinson, thirteen, had fought back, but in the end, she had been no match for a man so intent on doing her harm.

When I reached the end of East Avenue and saw the flash of Beatrice’s neon singlet, I wish I could say I felt better. There she was, my beautiful girl, my life’s work, healthy and present, only a few steps from home. But finding her and following her back(discreetly since she doesn’t appreciate my vigilance), only reassured me for today. She has a long life ahead. So many miles to travel.

When I pulled into the driveway behind her, she rolled her eyes. Not again, that expression said. Yes, again, I thought. Again and again and again. My paranoia and her disregard. A mother’s fear and daughter’s assurance that she will be okay. Most of them will be, after all. There’s that idea on which to cling.

Inside the house, her cousins erupted at the table at Nana claiming yet another double word score. Justina showed her her new running shoes. My mother reminded us that we’d need to get to the restaurant early if we all wanted to sit together. Her aunt finished the soup that will help our sister heal. What could possibly be wrong in the world?

 

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Just Remember Who Loved You First

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI shouldn’t have checked his answering machine. But the point was: I felt the need to and that impulse alone should be enough for someone to say, You know what? I’m sure there are healthier relationships in which to find oneself. He had taken a part time job at a bar down the beach for the summer, a job he didn’t need at a place where we never went. Sometimes on weekends, the only time we long-distance lovers could be together, he worked by choice. His mother’s voice, his sister’s. A guy from the gym and then the beep that changed everything: A woman’s voice that asked him to meet “us” at the bar. You know, her tone implied, as usual. That’s it. She sounded very casual, a woman used to calling this number and keeping him informed of plans. A woman who didn’t need to leave her name.

That’s the black and white betrayal of relationships. Things are okay, even if they’re not great, and then they are very, very bad. Cloudy but dry, and then torrential, unremitting, mold-inducing, apocalyptic, Biblical.

You’re twenty-three, still a stupid kid. You have a shitty job, an apartment that smells like the cabbage the woman next door cooks nightly, an apartment you’ve furnished from the stuff your sister gave you once she was through with her orange plaid phase. You cruise around in a light blue Chevy Citation, belting out Whitney Houston songs. A boyfriend, even one who might be cheating on you, is a necessary distraction, but it doesn’t remove the nausea you feel when you have what you consider irrefutable proof of his infidelity that he will still refute.

Fast forward thirty years (30?!?). At least as far as my husband is concerned, my competition is reduced to any track meet on some obscure television channel only we subscribe to, any new listing on letsrun.com of road race times, and a cat whose name is Enzo, but who Dennis calls Young Man. None of my husband’s attachments, by the way, inspire that seasick feeling, none inspire the cartoon image of a woman flailing wildly about as she falls blindly down a black hole.

But that doesn’t mean I am through with feeling betrayed. These days, it’s my teenagers who I catch cheating.

Valentine’s Day, for example. Sure, Beatrice remembered to buy me a little token gift. Thoughtful even though she went out specifically that morning to get it. It didn’t take the kind of forethought it required for her to take, print, and frame a picture for her boyfriend or to write all the cheesy notes she wrote him on the candy she bought him (another Reeses why I think you’re cute, etc). But in this flush of a first infatuation, she didn’t forget me. EXCEPT at dinner that night when the boyfriend’s mother (who I have never met) served her brussel sprouts. And Beatrice ate them.

“What do you mean, you ate brussel sprouts?” I say, fighting back the tears.

Since September, her father had been toting bowls of them into the house and I had been roasting them, urging our daughters to try these organic, heirloom, grown-with-dad’s-love-and-devotion pearls. But no. This is the kind of sacrifice, it appears, that she’ll only make for another family.

It was a painful reminder of Apphia and the cocktail wieners. Okay, we’re vegetarians, but we had decided that, if one of our children wanted to eat meat, we’d be fine with that. So, at a Christmas party at my sister-in-law’s, when Apphia asked to try a pig in a blanket, I said (indulgently, I thought): of course. Seven or eight pigs later, Apphia sat beside me on the couch as we got ready for the Yankee Swap.

“Mom,” she said, “I need to tell you something.”

That’s the thing about cheaters. They think clearing their conscious is preferable to preserving their loyal loved one’s equilibrium.

“I eat hot dogs all the time.”

“But how?” I said. “Where?”

These were the days before she straightened her hair so it was all ringlets. Ringlets!! “You know how I always want to buy the mac and cheese for school lunch? Well, they serve mini hot dogs, too. Sometimes, I’m too full to eat the ronis.” Ringlets AND ronis. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Justina would no sooner eat brussel sprouts and hot dogs than she would put her screen down and/or take no for an answer. Finally, I thought, someone deserving of my trust. Until, of course, I discovered the Poland Springs bottle. And then another one. And then a third. In the age of no answering machines, there are still clues left behind, and here was my youngest daughter, a child raised in a house of filtered tap water and reusable bottles, a house that refused to stock up on cases of plastic bottles destined to be strewn, mostly FULL, about the unsuspecting planet because, god forbid, you couldn’t remember if that was your bottle only a sip was missing from or your sister’s!

“We don’t use these,” I said. You and me. All of us on this particular, highly endangered, but still very green branch, of the family tree. Remember, I wanted to say, reading on my bed before you fell asleep every night? Remember how we used to set up a picnic in the wagon on the first great day of spring and eat outside? Remember Mrs. Doubtfire? Stellaluna? High ponytails? Webkinz? “Where are they coming from?”

She regarded me with the nonchalance of a serial offender before revealing the name of her source: “Kayla. She brings me one from her house every morning.”

The world tilted out from under me then. The world weighted down with its landfills, its soccer field trash receptacles overflowing with the non-biodegradable refuse of a generation who believes itself to be one gulp away from certain death by dehydration.

So there they were: the three daughters I thought I knew running around behind my back with other families, other experiences.

My love affair with the temporary bouncer didn’t survive, of course, but it didn’t have to. What choice do I have now, however, but to forgive my daughters for the ways in which they have hurt me? These days, every quiet moment in this big house seems a mark of their disloyalty. How could they pack up their Little Pet Shop toys, their mini kitchen, their costume box, and leave me here in this house so devoid of plastic and High School Musical songs? How could they do what every other mother’s children do and grow up so fast?

And, in the face of these betrayals, what else can I do but try to heal, take an art class, get a couple more cats?