My mother was a hero, someone I admired. And I could never become her, this part of her at least.
I had a quirky childhood habit of sitting sideways on the toilet. It began, I surmise, in our Southeast San Diego house on Manos Drive, sometime after I turned five. Sitting side-saddle allowed me to look in the mirror and lose myself awhile. Perched there, I often acted out scenes from the day’s All My Children. I did a perfect Susan Lucci — if Lucci were to act entirely from a toilet seat.
In our house on Cavalry Ct. — an hour north, where we moved when I was 10 — the bathrooms seemed palatial to me. The mirror extended nearly the entire length of one wall, plus another mirror hung on the wall opposite the toilet (useful if one was facing sideways, which I usually was). I could forget entirely that seven other people, my siblings and parents, lay claim to that bathroom as well. It was there, on that toilet, sitting sideways, that I tried to straighten my rapidly curling hair, perfected my circa-1977 Elvis impersonation, and planned my intended reign as the future Queen of Mexico, my dream career. It was also where I heard gunshots for the first time, coming from my mother’s dressing room next door.
My mother wore the most gorgeous shades of lipstick on Cavalry Ct. — reds that forced the beholder’s own lips to pucker in anticipation, oranges that conjured sunsets over water. They were glorious. On my mother’s bare lips, I saw the words she never spoke. I saw the secrets she held — two abusive husbands, my fathers — and what they had done to her. Slathered in cacophonies of color, though, my mother’s lips sang of defiance, a garish middle finger directed at the men who hurt us all. Her lips demanded dignity.
I often took those lipsticks into the bathroom with me, far beyond the age when little girls want to be their mothers.
The night my dad started screaming at my mom, a routine intrusion, I was sitting there sideways. I had spread a thick layer of the deepest red my mother owned over my lips so many times I could feel the weight of it pressing down on my mouth like mud. Long finished actually using the toilet, I got up and flipped off the light. I stood in front of the mirror and lit a match, a wooden one, the kind that lights with an elegant swipe across the box; they were available for free just about everywhere in 198o.
I saw the secrets my mother held — two abusive husbands, my fathers — and what they had done to her.
Holding the match up to my lips, the red forcing my other features to disappear, I puckered. I loved that lipsticked pucker behind the fire. My red mouth looked like it belonged anywhere but inside that bathroom. I listened to my father searching the shelves frantically. He rustled while shouting; I heard him throw a chair while calling my mother names. I heard a box open and the closet door slam shut.
For the most part, these were familiar sounds. I’d heard them each time my father — father #2 to be exact — threw himself at my mother in a drunken fury or pounced on my teenage brother to beat him into submission. These sounds pummeled me, brutal relics of the wrath he unleashed onto my younger self.
Then I heard the gun go off. I blew out the flame and stood a moment in darkness and silence.
There are choices to make when you hear your father shoot your mother. Choices nobody ever elucidates for adolescents in the suburbs. My heart pounded in a cacophonous fury. It was the only sound strong enough to pierce the silence inside me, the only part of me brave enough to move. I released my first breath and inhaled so deeply that I sucked in smoke from the still-smoldering match. This scared me, this hot, smoldering match. Every fear I’d ever had that my father would someday kill my mother, leaving her six kids to him and him alone, every nightmare where my mother was present only in vapors, billowed around me in sulfurous smoke. I tossed the match into the sink and quickly turned on the faucet, as if the match was my enemy. As if I could extinguish the danger that might finally overtake me.
Suki lived across the street from us on Cavalry Ct. She was a mythological goddess to me. She never opened her dark brown curtains, leaving me to picture her daily life in sepia tones. She was the first single mother I could remember meeting, besides my own. I never thought of my mother as single, though. There had been so little time between us leaving my father (the first abuser) when I was four, and her marrying our new father, this man who she sold to us by gushing over how much nicer he was than father #1.
Suki showed no outward signs of single motherhood mattering to her. I looked too. I searched her face for the angst that supposedly plagued “unwed mothers,” as we’d learned in sex ed. Once, I asked her if a man — who had obviously spent the night — was going to be her new husband. She winked and blew me a kiss, as if to say that she wasn’t looking for a man to fill that role in her life.
Sometimes I babysat her kids. When I did, she always had name-brand snacks. Real Twinkies and Ding Dongs. No Navy commissary food like I was used to eating. Her children reminded me of hummingbirds. They flitted through her house and yard with a joyful ease that made me jealous sometimes, as if they didn’t even know how hard they had it by not having a dad. They were three and five around the time my dad shot my mom. They were always tan from the sun and their barely brushed hair had golden streaks in it, the kind I would try to create in my own hair with lemon juice. Suki had long, straight brown hair that reached below her hips — also with golden streaks — and lips as full as mine. She never wore lipstick.
I never thought of my mother as single.
The day my dad shot my mother, we somehow ended up at Suki’s house. Sometimes I picture us slipping out the sliding glass back door and running toward Suki from the side of the house. Other times, I convince myself that Suki materialized inside the bathroom, gathered us safely together, and whisked us away to her house. I don’t expect that I will ever sort through the confusion of that absurd escape.
We sat on Suki’s couch in front of the closed curtains. She wore a light, satin robe with a giant red hibiscus across the back. It barely reached the tops of her thighs. She paced back and forth, puffing at an unlit cigarette. Twice she pulled a lighter from her pocket and brought it up to her cigarette. Both times, she looked our way and placed the lighter back in her pocket.
I watched Suki eagerly. If anyone knew what to do if a kid’s dad shot their mom, it had to be her.
“Listen, kids. You hang out here and I’ll be right back,” Suki muttered while breaking her cigarette in two between her fingers. She stared at the pieces in a quick whisk of confusion and then threw them into the ashtray on the coffee table. “Sky, get the kids some Twinkies!” she yelled to her daughter, who until that moment, I thought was not home.
Suki took a deep breath, hastily fished one part of the broken cigarette out of the ashtray, and then practically marched out her front door. I immediately turned my body and lifted the curtains to see her lighting the shortened cigarette at the end of her driveway. With a deep drag, she started across the street.
I could not take my eyes off of her. The satin robe danced over her as she picked up speed toward our front porch. She pounded furiously on the door. The roar of sirens emerged from a distance, overwhelming us.
I dropped the curtain and turned around, forcing myself to concentrate on the promised Twinkie. I couldn’t think about what Suki might find when the police got our door open. I couldn’t allow my greatest fear to be realized against the backdrop of that exquisite satin hibiscus hugging Suki’s tanned legs.
As if responding to my telepathic command, Sky dropped a plate in my lap with two unwrapped Twinkies and a napkin. I sucked in a breath that stung with the potential for tears and took a massive bite.
Someone said, “She’s there. She’s walking out.” Someone said, “She’s okay.” I turned my head and lifted the curtain once more. One police officer was placing handcuffs on my dad, who seemed calm, almost peaceful. I scanned the scene, finding Suki, who was weeping, wiping her eyes with the tie of her robe. Then a second police officer moved slightly to the right, revealing my mother, standing upright, absent of blood, her arms gesticulating madly as she explained everything that had happened. It was the first time our family turmoil involved the authorities. It would not be the last. Charged only with possession of a gun, father #2 would be home before I left for school the next day, unchanged and undeterred.
I breathed out through my nose, realizing suddenly that I still had the large bite of Twinkie in my mouth. Turning my head from the window, I looked down at my plate. Bordering the remaining half of the bitten Twinkie was a ring so red I wondered momentarily if I was in fact the one who was bleeding. Inside was pity and rage. Inside was the realization that I’ve carried with me to this day; my mother was a hero, someone I admired. And I could never become her, this part of her at least — the part she concealed with intense expertise.
Picking up my napkin, I quickly scrubbed my lips free of my mother’s lipstick.