Never Look Back
© 2002 Deb Atwood
"So, when is your mother coming to pick you up?" Kenneth is holding me, his hands loosely across my tummy, just under the edge of my blouse. He has unbuttoned one button and is trying to distract me from what he is saying. But I stiffen at his question anyway, and catch his hands in mine, roughly stopping his touch.
"She isn't." My voice is stiff and cold, but he doesn't pay any attention.
"Sure she is," he insists. "You've got to go home. I've heard she has a new beau, and that she's working on a new picture."
Wonderful. I've been with Kenneth for almost six months now. We haven't talked about my parents much. Its not a topic I really enjoy sharing. People are too impressed. Like Kenneth is now.
I wonder all of a sudden if he's been talking to people about how he's the lover of my mother's daughter. That's who I am after all -- my mother's daughter. But then I realize that I don't mind if he *has* been talking. After all, the rumors would make my mother angry, and I can't mind that.
Kenneth's fingers wiggle under my hands, and I let him go. He's waiting for me to say something still, and annoyed, I snap, "I'm not going home, Kenneth. My mother and I… don't get along." That's an understatement.
"Why?" His hand slides over my skin, his fingers circling my belly button.
I capture him again and move his hands away as I sit up. I button my blouse and tuck it under the edge of my skirt before looking back at him. "Because we don't." I can feel the familiar fury with my mother sliding over me, insinuating itself into my mood and destroying any good feelings I had about graduating. Damn. But I don't swear out loud. That would shock Kenneth, and start another fight. He doesn't mind most of my less ladylike habits, like smoking, but he cannot stand it when I swear.
A knock at the door disturbs us, and when I open the door Jennifer smiles at me, pretty and blond, and dressed in her graduation gown. She startles a laugh from me. "Graduation isn't until tomorrow."
"I know," she grins. "But I can't wait." She peers past me, eyes sparkling as she spots Kenneth. "You're busy, huh? Don't forget we're meeting for dinner. My father wants to celebrate and you're both invited. He is so proud that I'm the first of my family to graduate." Jennifer is from Alabama, and her father had worked his way up from a sharecropper background to own a plantation of his own. She's the oldest of 8 children, and the only one to go away to school so far. Her two brothers would be arriving next year, and she was glad to graduate before they arrived.
She frowns slightly, seeing something in Kenneth's expression, then turns her gaze back to me and the frown deepens. "You're hair's a mess," she tells me, coming close and combing her fingers through my hair to try to fix it. "Why didn't you put curlers in it last night?"
I shrug. "I didn't see a reason, Jen." I tuck the long dark strands back behind my ears, twisting it down. "I don't like the way it looks curled." I look like my mother, and I despise seeing her reflection staring back at me from the mirror.
Jen just laughs, and I can hear voices coming down the hall. She turns to call out to them, and Kenneth takes that moment to stand, smoothing down his slacks. I hide a smile, knowing that if I look at him I’ll be sending Jen out of the room. Now, when I can’t have him and he looks all bothered by it… now he’s more interesting again.
I sit down in front of my mirror and quickly put on lipstick and a little color on my cheeks. And then Kenneth and I join the others, his hand at my waist ushering me forward.
Jen introduces me to her father again. I know we have met before, but he acts as if I am new to him, shaking Kenneth’s hand and then giving me an impersonal hug. His expression as he speaks to me is avid, and her brothers and younger sister stare at me adoringly. And I realize then that everyone but me is hoping for a glimpse of my mother tomorrow.
I never wrote to her about graduation. I’m not sure she remembers exactly how old I am, and I saw no reason to remind her. There is nothing good in our relationship. Graduation is my chance for freedom, to escape before she notices I am gone and in some misplaced maternal instinct comes after me.
“You are singing tomorrow?” Jen’s mother is speaking to me, and I nod. Jen and I are both in the choir, and we will sing at the graduation ceremony. I have a solo, and it is something else I am actually looking forward to. I love music, love to sing. When the music washes over me it is as if nothing else exists for those few minutes. And my voice is suited to solo work – the choir master has used it often since I came to school two years past.
I remain in a fog throughout dinner, my good mood ruined, and when we return back to our rooms afterwards I send Kenneth away. I want to be alone, this last evening here in school. This last evening as a child. As my mother’s daughter. Tomorrow, after the music has played and the last note has been sung – tomorrow I will be only myself.
I have been looking forward to that moment for almost all of my life.
My suitcase is hidden beneath my bed. I don’t want questions about what I am doing, so I have packed almost everything and then hidden it away. But tonight it is time to finish the job. My clothes are all folded, except for the dress I will wear beneath the graduation gown tomorrow. All that is left are my posessions. My toiletries, the silver hand mirror my father gave me when I was young enough to play dressup – those all pack easily away. Then I open the top drawer of my bureau and take out the small envelope that used to lie beneath my underwear.
Sitting down on the bed, I open it and two pictures slide out. They are old, already yellowing. My mother doesn’t know I took them.
The first is of her and my father. They stand together in front of Niagara Falls. I don’t know when they went, but I assume this portrait was taken long before my birth. They are smiling at one another, him gazing down at her in adoration, and she returning the expression measure for measure. I can’t remember ever seeing them look like that in our house. Even when they made up after their fights – that was fire and fury, but never love. Never like that.
The second is of us all, not long before he left. He sits, instead of her, in this formal portrait, holding me on his lap. I touch the photograph with reverence, remembering that fondness he felt for me. I cannot remember her ever loving me, but he did, I am certain of that. She has only ever resented me. For stealing her figure, for stealing her lover’s heart, for causing him to leave. She blamed me for everything. And she may be right – I cannot remember anything but the sound of the arguments. No words, nothing exact. But he hated her when he left, and his last words to me were caring.
I missed him bitterly. But he left me with her. And over the years, as she grew to hate me more and more as the depths of her descent into an alcoholic haze continued, I realized he was never coming back.
These pictures are all I have of what once was. Of what might have been. Sometimes I think that they are pictures of someone else’s life because it all seems so strange to me. Sometimes I think it might be easier if I could simply forget the good things, because reality is so far from the good.
When I awaken in the morning I am curled on the bed, the pictures still in my hands, my head resting on the open suitcase. My neck aches from the oddness of the position, and I move stiffly. But there are voices in the hall, wide awake and excited over the day. Because this is it – today we escape these halls and pass into adulthood.
I quickly shove the suitcase back under my bed. Everything I can carry is in it – everything else can be left. I will not miss any of it. Then I dress myself for the day, combing my hair into submission and highlighting my eyes. It is almost time to sing, and that, at least, I can look forward to.
Jennifer nearly bounces as we mount the risers, walking behind the men. I can feel the vibration of her every step as she effervesces with excitement. Her words roll over me until I cannot listen any more, and as we begin to sing, I tune out her chatter.
“Isn’t that your mother?”
The note catches in my throat as I look at her, startled. She nods out into the audience, where a throng of parents watches us. And there she is, wrapped in a slightly ragged rabbit fur coat that I know is nearly as old as I am. Sunglasses fit across her face as if she might hide from her public. Her hand rests upon the arm of the man next to her – tall and pale skinned, with dark hair and a weasely chin. I recognize him as a rising star, maybe ten years my mother’s junior. He is watching us closely, and as my mother speaks to him, he smiles at me. I hate him on sight.
“I can’t believe she’s here,” Jen whispers excitedly. “Will she autograph my yearbook?”
“I’m sure she will,” I whisper back, trying not to snap at her. And then I am saved by the solo. As my voice lifts, I steal another glance at my mother. For a fleeting moment I wonder if she is proud to hear me, proud to know that I have found my own niche in performance and that I will carry on her tradition.
The force of her gaze nearly strikes me, and I falter. As my voice hiccups a note before finding its path again, the corners of her lips turn up into a dark smile. She is pleased to see me fail, and resents my success. She does not wish me well – she knows that I do not succeed her, I replace her. And she resents my youth. The familiar fury returns and is channeled into passion and volume, singing with a strength I did not know I possessed.
The applause, when I am done, is thunderous. This does nothing for her mood, and I smile to see her anger.
When the concert is over and our name are called, I walk to claim my diploma. My fingers grip the paper tightly, clinging to this evidence that this phase of my life is ended. All I have to do is slip away and take my suitcase to the bus. Then I will be gone, and it will be over.
Damnit, why did she have to choose now to be a proper mother? Why did she have to come here?
Jen is pulling me along, and I cannot resist without making a scene. As we approach, my mother pastes a glowing smile upon her face and envelopes me in a hug. “Darling! You were absolutely wonderful! So much talent… you can tell she’s my little girl.” She gushes to her companion.
Ah, so that is why. I can see the reporters off to one side, making their careful notes. She has a new beau, she is restarting her career. She needs me to be the perfect daughter, and for her to act the perfect mother. She is long past the age of the ingenue and she needs to set her image straight.
I have no desire to make it easy for her.
I am stiff in her arms, and step back as soon as she releases me. “Hello, Mother.”
She ignores my cool reception, pulling her beau forward. “This is Mark. He…”
“I’ve seen him,” I interrupt her. “We saw your newest film last month.” I smile charmingly at him. “I thought it stank.”
“Well, the special effects were awful, but you were wonderful,” Jen gushes from beside me, saving the moment, unfortunately.
I need a cigarette. I dig into the small purse I am carrying and pull one out, fumbling for a lighter. Ignoring the dark look my mother gives him, Mark offers me a light. Happy with both his gesture and how it irritates my mother, I smile brilliantly at him in thanks, and take a long draw as the tip catches.
“You can’t do that in here,” Jen hisses in my ear, then turns to smile again at my mother and her beau.
“You are quite right.” I act as if I hadn’t thought of it, and excuse myself to step outside.
Once I am blessedly free of the crowd I lean against the wall, taking deep drag after drag. I light a second cig from the first, and with this one I can take my time. But I am still tense, my arms crossed tight over my chest, fingernails making half moon marks against my palms. I stand there, staring at the orange tip of the cigarette, and then slowly turn it towards the soft inner flesh of my wrist.
It makes a wet sounding hiss as it burns into my skin with an acrid odor. I lift it away, staring dispassionately at the small burn. I wonder if it would look different, this time, if I left it longer.
“Do you have another one of those?”
Mark’s voice interrupts me, and I scowl at the intrusion. But he did give me the light, so I suppose I owe him something equally small. I hand him my next to last cigarette. I will need to get more at the bus station before I begin my trip. I cannot possibly make it all the way to New York with only the one I have left.
He lights it and draws shallowly – it is just for show, I believe. “You look like your mother,” he comments, making small talk as we smoke.
I reply in kind, and when I glance over at him as we chat about inconsequentials, I realize he has stepped closer to me and stares at me. “My mother wouldn’t appreciate it.” I interrupt our polite non-conversation with the non-sequitur, and he only laughs.
“Your mother is an aging harridan who knows exactly why I am here,” he murmurs, moving another step closer.
She has sold my soul.
I realize it with the sudden snap of surety, and I try to step backwards but the wall is in my way. His smile grows, and fury lends me strength and I push him out of my way as I storm past him. I will not be the body that buys my mother’s stardom back. She may blame me for the loss of her shine, but I will not return it to her with the loss of my own self.
I toss the remains of my cigarette on the ground, grinding it out as I step past it. Mark has made no move to follow me, as if he knows I cannot escape. But I was already planning that escape long before they arrived. All I need to do is to go to my room, and then…
I can hear the voices in the girls’ dormitory before I enter the hall. My mother and Jen talking, standing in the hallway outside of our rooms. She is waiting for me there, expecting me to return.
I hesitate outside the building, glancing back. He still has not followed – I am still alone. But if I go inside I will be trapped. But if I don’t, I have to leave my things… the few things I wanted to bring with me.
I have planned this moment since Christmas, planned out every step of the way I would leave for my new life. I had never expected her to be here. Had never expected anyone to interfere.
And I refuse to let them take this away from me. I will leave. I will be an adult, and on my own, and never again answer to her for a thousand imagined slights. I turn on my heel and walk away. The suitcase remains in my room, hidden under the bed. My mother still stands in the hallway, talking to Jennifer, utterly unaware of my path.
I walk quickly towards the bus station, and I will never, ever, look back.