I am stomach down on a motel bed somewhere in Florida. A man, most likely my father, is rubbing my back in an attempt to get me to sleep. I wonder where my mother is, why she is not here.
My grandmother is singing, "You Are My Sunshine," over and over as she holds me on her lap, rocking away. I finger the aquamarine dangling askew from her neck.
As I enter the bathroom that connects our bedrooms, I notice their door ajar. I can make out the bed, hear the sound of a projector spinning, the voices from the film echoing through the door, the flashes of light upon their walls. Quietly I return to my bed, unnoticed.
I spy him there, crouched down, leaning, unsuspecting, too busy watching the swimmers below in the pool. My perfect opportunity and I seize it, kicking him square in the backside. One good kick. He turns around, surprised to see my angelic face staring back at him. He never again sings that annoying song to me, the one that goes, "Baby face. You've got the cutest little baby face."
"Here, let me show you," Stan tells me, taking the cards from my small hands. He shows me how to group them by suit, then from highest to lowest. We play Crazy Eights and Go Fish. We play Rummy. I wonder if he will be okay without me here, in this big house, the one we only just moved into at the beginning of the summer, the one my mother no longer wishes to live in with him. "Want another hot dog?" he asks. We eat them raw, straight from the fridge, watching basketball on the television, just Stan and me.
The road twists and turns out here, on these Ohio back roads, over hills and around bends. My grandmother and mother chat merrily upfront while I try desperately in the backseat to keep my stomach from expelling the mint-chocolate chip ice-cream I was given only minutes before. My grandmother's foot is heavy on the pedal, unrelenting, yet somehow I manage to keep things at bay, everything under control, until at last we arrive home. Once out of the car I throw up onto the neatly mowed lawn. "Why didn't you say something?" my mother wants to know.
We are standing behind the bushes, the ones that edge his backyard, the ones that keep us hidden from any adult eyes. As we stand, he unzips his pants, feeling around for something, something he wants to show me. "Touch it," he says. I just look. I don't touch.
I am there in the front row, center, counting along with the rest of the class, performing perfect jumping jacks. I am the only child in a room full of adults, and I delight in this fact. My karate instructor calls me up to the front of the room to lead the class through the next set of exercises. Afterward they ask my mom if I can join them for ice-cream at Friendly's. I beam. I am one of them.
We are on our way to the library, Mom and me, always just the two of us now in the front seat of her Carmen Ghia, orange. She lights one of her Virginia Slim Menthols, and I inhale deeply along side her, the first smell immediately following her initial drag so sweet. Together we sing the Broadway show tunes she has taught me, "Open a new window, open a new door, travel a new highway that's never been tried before, before." We stop to get donuts -- glazed -- always glazed.
My grandfather is playing the piano and I am seated to his right, beside him on the bench, turning pages as needed. He plays all my favorites - "The Entertainer," "Tea for Two," "Jellybean" -- and I sing along with him the words I know by heart. Later, when we have tired of singing for the time being, he makes himself a drink, and I am allowed to fish out the olive, popping it whole into my mouth. I don't yet know this isn't the way all olives taste: like gin.
We have made the three-hour drive to my great-grandmother's, all of us crammed into one large car, for Thanksgiving. "Good Ole Number Eleven" Watts Street, the house she has lived in for some fifty years, the last twenty alone. She greets us at the door, stoop-shouldered, in one of her hand-sewn, floral smocks, her wrinkled face one big smile, her wavering voice beckoning to us to come in out of the cold; and we do, into her bony arms, into the familiar smell, a mixture of German potato salad, Ivory soap and yellowing photographs.
I am having that dream again, the one in which some faceless person is chasing me. I awake, shaken, still scared. I walk the dark hall to my mother's room, hoping to be invited into the warm, safe bed next to her. "You're okay, honey," she tells me sleepily. "Go back to bed."
It's the first time I have to make the flight to Florida by myself, without the sturdy hand of my mother to hold onto. I am feigning bravery, standing straight-backed and still as my mother pins the gold wings I have been given onto my white cardigan, not daring to meet her eyes lest she see the fear in mine, the pleading to remain here with her, always with her. She hugs and kisses me one last time before I turn and make my way down the runway, turning back only once to wave goodbye before boarding the plane that will take me to this man I barely know, this man I am told is my real father. I take my seat, clasping my stuffed cat close to my chest as I stare out the window, hoping for one last look at my mother, hoping she is standing with her nose pressed to the airport glass looking out at me.
About the author:
Elizabeth Ellen says yes to the universe. So far the universe has responded with a definite maybe.