She is still awake. It is long past midnight. Today is Mother’s birthday. She wonders how much better Mother is in bed. He hasn’t said anything about it but she still wonders.
He is older than her, but only by a couple years. He is long. His features seem double the length of hers. In bed, his legs drape over the edge of the mattress and brush the floor. His fingers fold over hers. His nose curtains his upper lip. A dark birthmark smudges his right cheekbone like a stain.
Her mother found him on her way home from the Soap Box. Her mother makes money sewing and washing other people’s dirty laundry. Every other week, her mother carries the local’s clothes across town to the Soap Box where the owner gives her a special price on drying machines. She knows why the owner gives Mother special prices, but she doesn’t understand it.
Once on the way home from the Soap Box, the cart her mother used to carry the laundry broke. The front wheels spun off and the metal frame met the uneven sidewalk; he was across the street having a smoke. Her mother offered him a soda with ice and a grilled cheese sandwich.
He is younger than Mother by quite a few years.
She never knew how comfortable she could be in her own bedroom. Now, she sits up at night because she doesn’t want to miss out on the special kind of darkness he leaves in his wake.
The locals, like the owner of the Soap Box, enjoy her mother. They think her mother has a good sense of humor and they hand over their soiled linens without shame. They save yellowed smiles for her. They have the courtesy to only sometimes stare at her mother’s cleavage. For years she has watched how these people react to her mother and she’s never understood the appeal. She knows the locals don’t save smiles for her lesser sense of humor, her lesser cleavage.
She wonders if Mother ever notices the shift in the mattress on the nights he leaves or if she just rolls over and snores.
She stole a pair of her mother’s earrings, once. She wore them around the house. She took a bottle of pink nail polish, too. She let it chip away on her nails for a month. She took a pair of her mother’s lace underwear out of her dresser drawer every day for seven days straight. Must have left them at the laundry, her mother had said. Her mother has never noticed much.
She is not sleeping with her stepfather; she has more dignity than that. He is just Mother’s boyfriend. And besides, he is younger than Mother. He should be out of Mother’s reach. This is what she likes to write in her journal. She prefers to focus on the little things she knows her mother doesn’t see. She likes to put these things in a list:
He is so long that he can touch the ceiling without having to jump.
He only likes one ice cube in his soda.
He is missing a molar.
He is uncomfortable speaking to the neighbors.
He has a sister.
He is afraid of elephants.
Each time she adds a new detail to her list, she is satisfied in knowing something her mother does not.
It is long past midnight now. Today is Mother’s birthday. Her plan is to bake a cake with pink frosting. Pink is Mother’s favorite color. She knows she does not often please her mother. She came out all wrong. You have your father’s pug nose. Your legs don’t look too good with that skirt. You need to cover up that scar. Those are the things Mother notices. She slips a t-shirt over her head and goes into the kitchen to pour a soda. She drinks it fast and the carbonation bubbles inside her nostrils. She likes the way it pinches. She pours another and steps through the broken screen door and out onto the bluestone back porch. The bluestone is clammy under her feet from the rainstorm. It poured down the whole time she was underneath him; the leak in the corner of the ceiling dripped onto his back. […]
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