There was once a girl who knew nothing but to love her mother. When the girl was very small, her mother would read her stories from thick books with yellowing pages. And as the mother sat at the foot of her bed, the girl would watch the words spill from her mother’s lips, and sometimes she would mouth the words along with her, to see how it felt. Her mother would laugh, lines deepening around her mouth. The girl would crawl up to the mother, and run her pinky finger over the lines, and the mother would stroke her child’s coarse, chocolate braid, saying, “Silly girl.”
“Silly lady,” the girl would say. Then, she would lay her head on her mother’s stomach. And as it rose up and down, the girl would listen to its inner-currents, until she fell asleep.
I was 31 when I found out I was pregnant. While I sat on the paper-covered table, the doctor went over my options, as though I were 16 years old. I smiled, thanked her and scheduled my next appointment with the receptionist.
As my car sputtered down the street, I wondered how I had waited this long to make the mistake my friends had made in high school. I wondered how I would raise a child on my sales clerk salary. I wondered if I would be able to love it enough.
“You should move to the county,” my sister, Faye, told me from across the wicker table. We sat under the cool May sky on her back deck. “You don’t want to raise a child in the city, do you?” She lived with her husband and 12-year-old girls in Chesterfield, a suburb 30 minutes away from my St. Louis apartment.
“What’s wrong with the city?” I asked, flipping through the bland pages of her Home and Garden magazines.
“Nothing, if you want your child to get shot on its way out,” she said. “Do you even watch the news? The Bloods and Crips are just splattering downtown with bullets.” She was talking about the south side. I lived on the north. “I won’t even let the girls go out in all red or blue anymore.”
As I imagined her two daughters being initiated into rival street gangs, Madison and McKenzie walked onto the deck. They both untucked their polos from their plaid skirts.
“Hi, Aunt JoAnne,” they said in unison, hugging me as they had been taught.
“Jo’s pregnant,” Faye said, sipping her iced tea.
“Congratulations!” They each hugged me again. I smiled as they squeezed me, keeping my arms by my side.
In September, I moved to a condominium in Bridgeton, 30 minutes away from my St. Louis apartment. It was quiet, and dull, and just big enough for two people.
“It’s good, for now,” said Faye, as she gave herself a tour. “Do you have baby-proofing stuff?”
“I’m going shopping tomorrow,” I said, unpacking a box of dishes.
“I’ll go with you, so you’ll know what to get,” she said, pulling out a stack of plates.
“I’ll be fine,” I said. “The salespeople can help, I’m sure.”
“Those sales clerks are always so young,” said Faye. “They probably don’t even have kids.” I pinned my Macy’s tag to my blouse and stood up.
“I have to go now. I’ll call you when my shift is over.”
“I’ll finish unpacking and lock up for you.” She reached for the silverware.
“I’ll do it later!” She looked up at me, her hands still in the box. “I’ll call you when my shift is over.” We walked out to our cars in silence, getting into them without saying anything. She drove away, but I sat in the parking lot for a few minutes, trying to cry. When I realized I could not, I just took long deep breaths, until I started to feel sleepy. I turned on the car and listened to myself breathe the entire way to work. I did not call Faye when my shift was over.
By 9:30 am on November 12, I was holding a very small, almost beautiful, baby girl in my arms. There had been pain, regret, and crying, but at 9:30, all I felt was the tawny 8 pound mass topped with sparse brown curls sleeping on my chest. She did not look like a person yet, but I could feel her heart beating over mine, so I knew she was real. I reached my lips out to kiss her head, but it was too far away. I was sore and sweaty, and I did not want to wake my new, sleeping thing. I would kiss her later.
“Samara?” Faye said when I told her the name. For 9 months, I had refused to take her name advice or reveal my list of possibilities, but it was impossible to keep it a secret any longer.
“It means ‘reward’ in Arabic,” I said, touching the sleeping girl’s cheek. It felt like breathing cashmere.
“Since when are we Arabic?” I should have felt insulted. I should have asked her since when was it her business to name my child? Her kids had last names for first names. But I could not take my attention away from Samara. Her eyelids twitched as she slept, and I wondered what she dreamt of.
“Mama,” she said one morning, pulling the crust off her toast. “I want to be a prince when I grow up.” I turned away from the coffeepot to face her. There she sat, three years old, draped in a flowered dress, her hair in two big braids, pink stick-on earrings adding a final touch of prim.
“Why do you want to be a prince?” I asked.
“Because the prince always saves the princess and gets to do important things,” she said.
“Do you think a princess can save people and do important things?” I asked, pouring coffee into my mug. It was not that I disagreed with a transgender lifestyle, but I wanted Samara to consider all of her options before taking the plunge.
“Maybe,” she said. “Maybe not.”
As time passed, the girl became more of her own someone, but the mother never became less a part of the daughter. She forgot of the past things that had pleased her. It was as though nothing had ever existed before the girl’s first breath. Nothing that the mother felt, or did or wanted was completely for herself anymore. This made the mother very happy.
Soon I was offered a manager position at Macy’s. Dance classes were expensive, but I recalled one woman telling another, as they browsed the fragrance counter, “You’ll either pay now, or you’ll pay later.” I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but I thought it might have something to do with jail or rehab, so I decided to take the extra hours and pay for the ballet lessons.
“Thanks for doing this, Faye,” I would say, each time I dropped Samara off at her house.
“Oh, it’s just a pleasure!” Faye would say, smirking at Samara, who would flash a concerned, close-mouthed smile in her direction. When Faye wasn’t looking I would mouth the words “I’m sorry” to her, and she would frown as I ran out to the car.
At Faye’s house, Samara learned a number of very important things: a run in a pair of tights could be remedied with a dab of clear nail polish; yams and sweet potatoes were the same things; and all magazine photos were airbrushed. It was at Faye’s house that Samara discovered her next calling.
“I want to be a supermodel,” she said, as we drove home one evening.
“Wow,” I said.
“Wouldn’t it just be perfect. I mean, I’m tall and skinny, so I think I could do it.” She was, in fact, the tallest girl in her 5th grade class. “They get to wear really pretty clothes, travel around the world and make tons of money!” She had failed to mention the eating disorders and rampant drug abuse.
“Well, you’ve got some time to decide,” I said.
“What did you want to be when you grew up, when you were little?” she asked. A middle-aged single mother and 50-hour-a-week face-sprayer at a mid-scale department store, I thought.
“I don’t remember,” I said. “Maybe a writer, I think.”
“Why didn’t you do it?” she asked. I sat for a moment, wondering how I could possibly explain “life” to a 10 year old. Our street was nearing, and I knew I wouldn’t even have time to get to “disappointment” before we reached home, so I thought I would save the talk for another day.
“After high school, I had to start working to make money,” I said. “I just never really had time after that. I kind of forgot about it.” She nodded her head and said nothing else.
I scraped through the car seats looking for quarters to fill the gas tank.
“What are you looking for?” Samara asked. Her dance bag hung from her shoulder.
“I thought I had a pen back here,” I lied. My eyes jumped back and forth from the road to the gas meter, as we drove to the dance studio.
“I’m so excited about camp!” she said, clapping her hands. Samara had taken the SAT, and her score had earned her a spot at a selective, expensive camp at Duke University, for what the brochure called “gifted” 7th graders.
“I bet you’ll learn a lot,” I said, as the red light flashed below the “E.” The camp had offered her a partial scholarship, and I had started to put aside money to send her away for the two week program.
She ran inside the dance studio, and I felt a warm and big, the way I did each time I knew she was truly happy. I put $2.50 worth of gas in the car while I waited for her class to finish.
That summer in North Carolina, where her skin cooked to a deep mahogany. Samara decided that she would be a psychologist. She came home diagnosing everyone she knew with a different disorder. My disorder did not have an impressive name like most of the others. Faye was a hypochondriac, Madison might be bipolar and most of the students at Samara’s school had ADHD. I was simply an emotional eater.
“There weren’t this many ice cream cartons in the house before I went away,” she explained. Again, she was right. Sucking in my stomach no longer did anything, other than make me out of breath. “A lot of people do it,” she said. I had figured I was not the only reason there was a plus sized section in every department store, but I was glad to have her reassurance.
We sat in silence for a moment, avoiding eye contact.
“I do it too,” she said, walking to the freezer to pull out a carton of butter pecan ice cream. Grabbing the biggest spoon in the drawer, she shoveled a scoop into her mouth. She didn’t like butter pecan. “See,” she said, ice cream dripping down her bottom lip. “I feel bad, so I am going to immerse my guilt in this delectable dessert treat.”
“Silly girl,” I said.
Her teenage years were more docile than movies and talk shows might suggest. Perhaps she had been involved in things I didn’t know about, but she was never out past midnight, and she always kissed me goodnight when she returned home, so I reasoned that she couldn’t have been doing anything terribly unruly.
She exceeded what I thought I could make of a child. By the time she was 18, Samara was performing the lead roles in ballets at her dance studio, and leading clubs at her private school. One day, I walked through the front door to find her on the living room floor, surrounded by college brochures. The schools spanned from coast to coast. None of them were in Missouri.
“What do you think?” she said, running her fingers through her straightened hair. She didn’t look up, only shuffled through the papers, like the answer was hidden somewhere on the carpet.
“They’re all really good.”
“Yeah,” she said, still searching, “I just don’t know which ones to go for.”
“Well, you might as well apply to them all,” I said. She looked up at me.
“Mom, it’s expensive to apply to college.” I shrugged my shoulders and left the room.
A month later, Samara had sent applications to 10 schools. By April, she had gotten in to 8, earning scholarships to 6, and by May I had sent a $350 deposit to NYU.
One day the mother looked at her creation. The girl was smart, and beautiful and strong. The mother thought, “Now I am finished.” She was very proud of her good thing, but her mouth wanted to read the stories again. Her stomach wanted to be listened to, slept on.
That summer felt dense. Samara worked as a hostess at a chain restaurant, while I took all the extra hours I could get. I spent hours online looking for the cheapest airfare to New York, and Faye offered to pay for Samara’s ticket home for Thanksgiving. She had begun to devote a substantial amount of her time to Samara, since Madison had moved with her boyfriend to Chicago, McKenzie had joined the Peace Corps and her husband spent a suspicious amount of time on business trips.
“Now, be sure to call any time you need anything,” Faye told Samara, as we left her house the night before we flew to New York. “And don’t be afraid to come home, if you need.” Samara just smiled and let Faye kiss her forehead. “Be good.”
The next afternoon, we found ourselves in Manhattan, a very sundry city 15 hours outside of St. Louis. Sweat burned my eyes as the two of us chugged through the city with shopping bags and luggage. When we got to her building, I sat on her bed, exhausted by the city, wondering how Samara would fare in such a place so contrary to the one in which she’d spent the past 18 years. I sat, taking deep, sighing breaths, watching her unpack her bags. She now matched my 5’ 8’’ frame, minus about 30 lbs. I could see the roots of her hair begin to kink with the perspiration.
“Do you want me to help?” I asked.
“No, I’ve got it,” she said, setting up a picture frame on her desk. “You rest.” So, I did. I let her organize her side of the room for an hour before her roommate, a short, blond girl from Washington, D.C., walked in with her parents.
“Hi, I’m Jane,” said the girl’s petite mother, “and this is Bill,” she was pointing to the tall, handsome gray-haired man next to her. He was holding a stack of plastic containers filled with accessories. “And this is Melanie.” They all smiled and held out their hands for shaking. Samara and I followed suit, introducing ourselves.
“So, where’s Dad?” asked Bill. “Luggin’ boxes?” he let out a chuckle, as old white men do.
“No,” said Samara, moving a large box of hers off of what she assumed would be Melanie’s chair. I smiled at them, admiring the mother’s spotless linen pants. She was looking at me, as well, but I don’t know what she was admiring. We all stood still for a moment.
“Well, we were going to go to Sardi’s for dinner,” said the father. “Do you all want to come and celebrate with us?” Samara looked at me. Hers eyes said “no.”
“You know, we already ate,” I said. “But thank you for the offer.”
The three of them dropped off the rest of the girl’s belongings and headed off to dinner. Samara and I decided to go to a cheap Chinese restaurant around the corner. She ate her chicken and broccoli and I had my General Tso’s, but we didn’t really say much. By the time the fortune cookies arrived I realized that she no longer lived in Bridgeton, Missouri, but was now a resident of New York City, a place that for 55 years had, to me, only existed behind screens. She was in the screen now. I put the cash down on the plastic tray, and gave my cookie to Samara.
The next day, after about 30 organized NYU orientation events, I kissed her goodbye in the doorway of her dorm.
“I love you,” I said, as I ran my hand over her head, looking into her still very young eyes.
“I love you too,” she said, wrapping her arms around me, holding me tighter than she had since the times when she dreamt of being a prince. “Have a safe trip home,” she whispered, kissing me on the cheek, before I headed to the airport.
And in the cab, I cried. I cried the way I had not been able to for 18 years.
“You ok?” asked the driver, his sweat bleeding through his white t-shirt.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Are you?”
“I’ve been worse,” he said, lighting a cigarette out the window, “but haven’t we all?” I couldn’t remember.
During the first semester she would call each day and tell me how she felt alone, how she didn’t know anyone, and that Melanie was always drunk and throwing up in the recycle bin. In time she made friends, of whom she would tell me longwinded stories. Her classes became manageable, and she, after years of sifting through her dreams, decided to major in film.
After her updates, I would tell her about Faye’s increasing insanity and my dreadful customers. My daily reports would never match hers, I knew, but I wouldn’t have wanted them to.
She seemed happy to come home for winter break. As we walked the mall, she told me about all of her prospects in New York: films, performances, interviews and internships. While she incessantly declared how excited she was to be home, I could sense that she was aching to get back to school.
She made the most of her spring semester, dancing in school concerts and directing a small student film. When I called her, her voicemail would tell me how sorry she was that she couldn’t come to the phone right now, and I wanted to tell the automated Samara that it was ok; I forgave her. I left her messages telling her how much I loved her, and relaying stories about her aunt.
Any time she called me, she always started with, “I can’t talk for long, but…” and ended with, “I love you.”
Last summer, when she came home, most of her words were devoted to New York. She wanted to be a part of it, to conquer it. I told her that I thought she could.
“Mom,” she said on the last day before returning for her sophomore year, “have you ever thought about starting to write again, like you wanted to when you were little?” I didn’t think she would remember anything from so long ago.
“Well, I hadn’t really, but….I guess it might be good for me.”
“I really think you should,” Samara said, so I promised her I would.
Now, each day after I get home from work, I make myself dinner, scoop out a bowl of ice cream, sit at my computer, and try to write. Sometimes I sit for hours, producing half pages of words that only get deleted. The only words that ever appear true and good are the ones about her. I sit at my computer, pressing the keys, waiting for the phone to ring.