“Don’t wait up for me,” mom said, slamming the door behind her before she could finish her sentence, her voice muffled from the other side.
I sighed and grabbed the bag of popcorn from the microwave, the corners hot on my fingers. Muttering under my breath, I tore open the bag and upended it into a bowl, a waft of popcorny, buttery steam hitting me in the face.
The movie started as I sat down cross-legged on the old sofa, the cushions underneath my ass giving way, my body sinking slightly. The sofa was a hangover from what mom referred to as the ‘old days’. She had purchased it from a second-hand shop with her first-ever paycheque when she was on her own for the very first time in her life. To me he would always be an anonymous face; a person I never knew, but to mom, he was my father, and while she had stopped loving him years ago, I think she still held out the hope that he would one day return and we could be a ‘proper family’.
My father had left us when I was three years old, deciding that fatherhood wasn’t for him. At least that was what he wrote on the note when he snuck off in the middle of the night and never returned.
I knew what the note said, because mom had kept it all these years, and I found it when I was twelve. Believing that my father had been dead all that time, it had been the source of our first major argument as mother and daughter, one of many to come during my teenage years.
I had been conceived underneath the school bleachers, by two teenagers who had decided to cut class that morning. Apparently, they were caught in the act by one of the gym teachers, and I used to imagine that if she had caught them a minute earlier, or perhaps even thirty seconds if I would even be here.
I had been conceived in secret, born in secret, and lived most of my life that way as well, my mother demanding that I tell everyone we were sisters, or that she was my aunt. It stung, and I never knew why, until I started college and I realized that I didn’t have to bear my mother’s shame anymore. I didn’t have to be anonymous or stripped of my identity, forced to live between being a fake sister or niece.
The blast of music from the end credits of the movie woke me up, frightening me. Sitting up properly, I winced in pain, my neck hurting from falling asleep in such a strange position. Knowing that my mother would be home soon, and knowing that I didn’t want to face any awkwardness with any potential suitor she bought home, I quickly turned the television off, dumped the uneaten popcorn in the trash, and headed for bed.
It was a surreal thing to be a grownup and laying down in my childhood bed. Staring up at the ceiling, I felt almost like I was a child again, waiting patiently for my mother to finish the late-night shift at the restaurant, while the elderly next-door neighbor lit up inside, her cigarette ash burning holes in the armchair. Every night was the same ritual as I’d wait for the sounds that meant my mom had finally arrived home; Mrs Petrosky, finally alert and scrambling to put out her smokes and get rid of the smell, the murmured voices as they spoke, or the quiet tiptoe of mom’s footsteps as she padded around the apartment before finally going to bed herself.
I heard the front door open and then shut softly, the lock clicking back into place behind mom. I heard voices, two of them, confirming that my mother had indeed come home with her date. The soft giggles and whispered voices grew momentarily louder as they passed my bedroom door to get to mom’s room, but once inside, all pretense of needing to be quiet dropped as they rutted together loudly and relentlessly until the early hours of the morning.
I woke early, my neck and shoulders still feeling stiff from my brief sleep on the couch the night before. Deciding that I didn’t want to be there to hear round two start up again on the other side of the wall, I quickly changed into my running clothes, grabbed my headphones, and quietly headed for the door.
It was a cool, crisp early summer morning as I jogged through the sleepy town. The sky overhead was light gray, paintbrush strokes of rose gold starting to peek through. My feet felt heavy and awkward; concrete blocks underneath me as I lightly jogged.
Slowing my pace down to a walk a few minutes later, I took a left on Bleecker Street and headed for the hill. The cool morning air filled my lungs, and I breathed in and out appreciatively.
Old Hill Road. It had been years since I’d been to the top, let alone walk it. I’d slept up there once, the night I ran away from home when I found my mother playing tonsil hockey with my high school crush. I don’t know why I’d chosen the Old Hill.
Possibly I had some dramatic teenage notion a la Romeo and Juliette to throw myself off the edge, figuring that Spencer was my one and only love. However, I doubt the fall would’ve killed me. It was steep, sure, but it was more of a long, gentle slope than a quick plummet to the ground. I would’ve effed myself up physically from rolling down it, but I wouldn’t have died.
I had misjudged two things that night, the first being my own mother, and the second being the weather. Interesting that two women were to betray me, both of them maternal figures of some sort. My birth mother, and mother nature. It was surely the stuff of crappy poems.
In some ways, I felt that I shouldn’t have been surprised that I found my mother with a seventeen-year-old. Ever since I had started having a proper social life and being interested in boys and parties, my mother had wanted to tag along, trying desperately to fit in with my friends and recapture some of the youth she lost to raising a child as a young mother herself.
I had been unfairly burdened with the title of having a so-called MILF for a mother in high school. It was the only reason the popular senior boys associated themselves with me, wanting to live out some porn fantasy of banging the local hot mom. I knew they didn’t really like me, but I was okay with it, because I didn’t really like them. I only used the popular jocks as contacts, to keep myself socially afloat with the cool kids and their parties. It was a means to an end for me, they were my ins.
Out of everyone though, out of all the guys on the swim team, the football team, and the hockey team, she had to pick Spencer, the one guy I actually liked. She had to pick him. It had been a pathetic display, really. My mom, thirty-five years old, making out with a kid who was pushing eighteen. To her, it probably looked hot or wild and rebellious, but to me, it looked sad. Here was a woman trying to compete with her teenage daughter for the affections of people who had yet to legally reach adulthood. It was sad.
It wasn’t supposed to be as cold as it was that night. But once I was at the top of the old hill and huddling on that park bench, my body betrayed me and I fell asleep. When I woke up the next day, I was in the hospital, having given everyone a fright. “Hypothermia,” the nurses and doctors repeatedly told me. “Coldest night of the year,” they said. I guess Mother Nature, being the bitch she was, decided to get one final twist of the knife in and make it a lot colder than everyone was expecting.
What someone was doing running up and down the old hill at three in the morning, I’ve no idea, but she was the one who found me and called for help. She was happy to see me doing so well, happier than my own mother, who kept a straight face, expressed an insincere sorrow for her actions, and then complained about the hospital bill.
It had been nearly four years since the incident, and mom and I had reached a sort of unspoken impasse. No real verbal progress had been made since then, but we were on speaking terms. For a number of reasons, I was glad when I moved away for College.
I got halfway up the hill and then decided to turn back around, my desire to get to the top and look at the town below disappearing with each step upwards. It was also a stark reminder that I wasn’t as fit as I used to be, and that the shitty college diet of instant noodles and beer really did nothing good for me.
By the time I lumbered back through town to the apartment, I had been gone just over an hour. Feeling both sweaty and sticky, yet cold at the same time, I peeled my tank top off, the cool air hitting my stomach. Walking through the apartment in just my sports bra and leggings, I went to the fridge to look for something to eat, my stomach giving off early warning signs of hunger pangs.
I found nothing but a few sad lettuce leaves in the fridge, and a lone tomato. Knowing there was not much else in the house to give me proper sustenance, I shut the fridge door heavily in frustration.
“Oh, ah, excuse me,” I heard a deep voice behind me say.
Getting a hell of a fright, a curse word flew out of my mouth and my body tensed with the scare, my heart rate momentarily skyrocketing, and then once more coming back down. My body relaxed. I turned around and saw a gentleman standing before me, his face creased with a look that was slightly anxious.
“Excuse me,” he repeated, vaguely motioning behind me. Stepping aside, I caught a whiff of cologne, as well as a hint of my mother’s own distinctive Avon perfume. Of the men my mother had bought home over the years, and there were plenty, this mystery man was the cleanest looking. Usually, my mother found her dates in some of the greasiest bars in town, but this guy looked like he showered regularly, and he seemed well put together. Already I could tell that he had an IQ over ten. He also was rather good-looking. Perhaps my mother was starting to make better life choices after all?
“I’m Gregory, by the way,” the man said, breaking the awkward silence. He looked at me oddly, questioning my very existence and presence in the apartment.
“I’m Ella’s daughter, Julianna.”
Gregory looked confused. “Daughter?” he questioned. Pursing my lips into a thin line, I gave a single nod. “She never told me about a daughter.” I could almost see the cogs turning in Gregory’s head as he thought about what I just told him. “Why would she lie about you?”
The all too familiar and much-dreaded pit opened back up in my stomach, after years of being closed over. In a rush, all the purposely forgotten memories of high school came back to me, and all the feelings associated with having to explain to people all the lies my mother told about me. The pit grew larger inside me and threatened to swallow me whole from the inside out. I felt like that much-maligned child I had been eighteen years ago. I felt hot behind my eyes, and I quickly blinked away the tears that were trying so desperately to spill over.
I shrugged, begging myself to hold it together. “Usually it’s so she can lie about her age,” I said. A small rush of relief came over me, at least I didn’t sound as terrible as felt.
He narrowed his eyes. “And how old is she?”
“How old did she tell you she was?” I asked.
“Thirty-nine,” I said.
Again, the wheels turned in Gregory’s head as he processed the situation, and no doubt tried to figure out the answers to all the new questions being opened up.
“I just…..” His voice trailed off as he looked around the apartment. “I don’t understand why she would do this. We’ve been dating for a few months, and she never told me about you.”
“Maybe she didn’t want to scare you off?”
Gregory shook his head in disbelief. “What did you say your name was?”
“Nice to meet you, Julianna,” he said in a flat voice, extending a hand for me to shake. I saw his eyes briefly go down to my chest, and I became very much aware that I was standing in the kitchen in my sports bra.
“Oh,” I said, taking a step back, covering my chest with my arm, my cheeks growing hot.
Turning, Gregory went back into the bedroom he had not long come out of, shutting the door behind him. A few moments later, I heard my mother’s voice, pleading with him to stay, telling him that he was being silly and overreacting. Gregory came out, nodded a quick goodbye to me, and left, my mother in hot pursuit still begging him to stay, a bed sheet wrapped around her small frame.
She stared at the apartment door for what felt like a lifetime after he left, the air thick with awkwardness, her face expressionless. When she turned back around, she glared at me with disgust.
Half an hour later, after having a quick shower, I was out of the apartment again. It occurred to me, as I sat in the coffee shop window, staring out at the world around me, that my mother was living the life I should’ve been having. At twenty-one, that should’ve been me having no shortage of lovers, sprawled on the club bathroom floor, shoe in one hand, the other one, somehow in my hair. My face should’ve been making the acquaintance of the toilet bowl, lipstick smeared, and mascara pooling underneath my eyes. And yet, I was the one who was serious about a career, and she was still out partying. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
My mother had always accused me of being judgemental. “Why are you looking at me like that? I’m a grown woman, I can do what I want.” Which I of course knew, and it had never been the problem. She had lost the later half of her teenage years to raising a baby, so she was going to try and make up for it, that was the problem. Judgemental personality or no, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that it was a bad idea.
There were many reasons that my mother begrudged me, most of them petty and in her head. From the age of sixteen, she had come to the conclusion that I was prettier than her, therefore, I was competition in her world, a world, I might add, that I wanted no part of. Having a sister borrow your clothes and never return them is one thing, but having a mother trying to borrow and fit into her teenage daughter’s wardrobe is quite another.
She caused a stir the day she came in for parent-teacher interviews, which is exactly the reaction she had wanted. She always craved shock value. Hair all curled, lips painted a brazen shade of red, and wearing a plaid skirt that she had stolen from my bedroom floor, she went into the meeting looking smug, loving the stares she was receiving.
If I had been a few inches shorter, the skirt would’ve fit her perfectly, however, my mother being very petite, and me being long-legged, the skirt hung off her, somehow accentuating the fact that it was her teenage daughter’s skirt and not her own. What was a cute mini skirt on me, became an ill-fitting sack on her. She looked somehow glamorous and like a ruffian at the same time. Like a homeless person in a cashmere sweater. Of course, when she came home and caught a proper glimpse of her reflection, it was all my fault.
The apartment was quiet. The apartment was still. There seemed to be no sign of life inside, and I wondered if mom had gone out, but not long after I closed the door behind me, she popped her head around the corner and smiled broadly at me.
“How was your day?” she asked.
Confused, I looked her up and down. I had expected her to be a volcanic mix of barely contained rage, ready to explode, and yet, standing in front of me was a smiling, happy mom. “It was fine,” I answered slowly.
She smiled at me expectantly, not saying anything. “What is it, mom?” I asked.
Her smile changed now, and it occurred to me that her body seemed all slinky, like a cat, and the air around her was smug. She thought she was once again getting her way, and if she had been a feline, I’m sure she would’ve been purring, tail high in the air as she gracefully, yet mockingly walked circles in between my legs. “I was thinking,” she said, trying her best to sound casual. “That you could cook for us tonight and we could stay in and watch a movie?”
I stared at my mother, marveling at how she could stand there all smug, as if nothing was wrong, and as if nothing had transpired only hours earlier. Of course, it was nothing to her, to lie to people. People were disposable, and there were always plenty more where that came from. She could just find more people to replace the people she had screwed over. Gregory was another disposable human being. She had lied to him, he had found out and was naturally upset, but in her head, she would spin it to be his fault, and she would move on. Thus the cycle continued.
“I have plans,” I lied.
Mom’s face dropped. “Plans?”
“Yes,” I said, pulling confidence from somewhere inside me, to back up my lie. If my mother could do it so easily, then I should be able to as well. “I’m going out tonight.”
“But... But... I told Mick that you would cook for us tonight.”
“Mick?” I questioned. I searched my mental Rolodex for any men named Mick that my mom had dated, or who had been five-minute fathers to me. ‘Mick,’ I thought. That guy was bad news. A druggie recidivist asshole, who seemed to do a better job at fucking up people’s lives than mom did. It should have been a match made in heaven, really, two people who were that similar, who thought nothing of deceiving those around them, but it was a destructive, explosive thing. There was no honor amongst liars.
Every few years Mick would come back onto the scene, and then disappear again. He was like a thin, junkie tumbleweed, blowing through people’s lives, and much like tumbleweed, I would forget about him, and forget I’d ever seen him almost as soon as he had left. Even by my mother’s low standards, this guy was bad.
“Yes,” she said. Mom sounded defensive now, and her body language had changed again. Her hackles were up.
“Well, I guess you’ll just have to tell him that plans have changed, and I won’t be home tonight.”
Mom lowered her head and looked at the ground, her hands behind her back. She looked guilty. I closed my eyes and let out a long sigh. “Let me guess,” I said. “You lied and told him you would cook, creating some extravagant menu and bragging about your cooking skills, and then you’d get me to do it, shoo me out of the house, and take credit for my hard work, yes?”
Silence. She stood there, saying nothing. “I’m not your personal chef,” I told her. “If you want to impress men, even those who are junkies, and play at being the perfect wife and homemaker, you learn how to cook.” I started to turn, wanting nothing more than to retreat to my room.
“Why are you doing this to me?” Mom asked.
I turned back around slowly. “What?”
“Why are you doing this to me? Why do you treat me this way?”
‘Ah,’ I thought. That old gem.
“You are not the victim of your own lies, mom.”
The club was busy. Busier than I had anticipated, despite it being so early in the night. All around me, sweaty bodies danced and writhed, grinding up against each other, dry humping to the music. It was an oddly beautiful thing, this mating ritual between humans, while electronica boomed and thumped.
I pushed my way through the hoards of people and made it to the bar, ordering myself a vodka tonic. I downed the drink and quickly started to feel myself becoming calmer. My mother and the apartment seemed like a distant memory. A memory that didn’t seem to matter that much anymore. I felt a disconnect. A delicious disconnect. It was like we were in two different worlds; she was her and I was me, and nothing seemed to matter. I ordered myself another one, gulped it back, and was rewarded with more of the same effects.
“Hi,” I heard a voice beside me say.
“Gregory,” I said, an ice cube cracking uncomfortably between my teeth. “How are you?” I asked, crunching.
“Fine, thank you.” We stood next to each other awkwardly. “Do you maybe, want to go to the pub across the street?” he asked, his voice raised over the music.
“Sure,” I answered.
We settled in a booth at the back of the old pub, the leather on the seats peeling away from the foam, and giving off a musty smell. The music from across the street could still be vaguely heard, growing slightly louder every time someone opened the doors.
It was certainly a characterful place, and it struck me that this was the pub my friends had spoken about in high school when they had snuck in to underage drink. The place somehow didn’t seem as magical or as wild as the legends spoke of.
“What do you drink?” Gregory asked.
“Whatever you’re drinking.”
Gregory smiled and traipsed over the bartender, having a brief conversation before returning with two glasses filled with dark honey-colored liquor, a lemon wedge in each.
“Whiskey,” he stated, placing the glass down in front of me. He slid into the booth and took a sip of his drink, looking around the pub awkwardly, the silence between us feeling cumbersome, not quite knowing what to say to each other.
Fiddling with the alcohol-stained coaster beneath my glass, I finally said, “Look, I know it probably won’t seem like it, but it was better that things ended with my mom when they did. It was actually a good thing, what happened.”
Gregory looked at me questioningly, but he didn’t say anything. “My mother is just…” I sighed. Words failed me. “She’s just… She’s my mom,” I finally said. “And she’s not always the easiest person to be around or the nicest.”
Silence again. A silence that engulfed us whole. With dark blue eyes, Gregory scanned me slowly, taking in my facial features. “You don’t...” He cleared his throat. “You don’t look much like Ella,” he said.
I gave a breathy sort of a chuckle. “I know. I’ve heard that most of my life. Mom used to question how I could be hers because we’re nothing alike. I don’t look like her, therefore I am not hers. As if one day I just magically appeared in front of her.”
Gregory’s brow creased, some of the tiny lines around his eyes growing closer together as he tensed. “Sounds rough.”
I shrugged. “You get used to it after a while.”
The silence between us this time was momentarily broken by someone opening the doors to enter the building, a blast of electronica music whooshing in and whirling around the sleepy pub.
“What happened to your father?” he asked. “Your mom seems quite young to have a daughter your age.”
“They were teenage parents, both eighteen when I was born. My dad left us when I was three, but I grew up believing that he had passed away. I found out the truth when I was twelve. Mom blamed me for his leaving.”
I thought I had seen my father once when I was ten, at the summer carnival. I got off a ride and ran back to where mom was standing, and I saw she was talking to someone. I didn’t know who he was, but something inside me told me that this man was like me. He looked like me, he acted like me, he seemed to be me. He walked away again before I could reach mom through the crowds of carnival-goers, and two weeks later, when it dawned on me that that could’ve been my father, my mother laughed at me and told me I was reading too many ghost stories.
“What?” Gregory asked, breaking me from my thoughts. “She blamed you?”
Again, I shrugged. “She blames me for everything.”
And with that, I had Gregory’s morbid curiosity. It just came out of me, like word-vomit that I couldn’t control, and even if I wanted to, I didn’t think I could stop it. I wanted to tell him. I wanted him to know all these things. I sensed in him a kindred spirit, there seemed to be a small, hurt child in him. A soul deep inside him that had been chipped and cracked.
By the time I managed to stem the flow of my word-vomit, it was nearing midnight, and we were both good and drunk, having guzzled at least half of our body weight in whiskey. We staggered through the pub and into the night, where we waited for a taxi, the thumping music from across the street keeping us company in an otherwise still and quiet night.
Hip to hip, I was very aware of Gregory standing close to me, his spicy cologne perfuming the night air. As the taxi approached, slowly rolling down the street, I turned to thank him. I took in his handsome face, with the intense dark blue eyes, the fine lines around them telling a lifetime of stories. The angular jawline, where he had missed a small patch shaving, and the lips, the bottom slightly fuller than that top lip.
Buoyed by the drink that was sloshing around inside me, I leaned in to kiss him. Two things surprised me about Gregory. The first being that he didn’t reject the kiss, instead he firmly pressed his lips against mine, and the second being that his lips were surprisingly soft.
We stood there under the glow of the streetlight, locked in a passionate kiss when the taxi stopped in front of us and waited expectantly.
“You sure you want to do this?” Gregory asked.
I nodded in reply.
We were awoken early the next morning by the sound of impatient knocking on the front door. Gregory eased himself from the bed, collecting his boxer briefs as he lumbered through the house.
Lifting my head off the pillow, I tried to make my hungover mind concentrate, listening out for the sounds of voices. I heard the low rumble of Gregory’s voice, and then the higher pitch of a shrill voice. ‘No!’ I thought.
I moved quickly, quicker than someone with a hangover should ever move. I wrapped myself in a bedsheet and exited Gregory’s room, feeling like Aphrodite herself, triumphant in her sex. I crept down the hallway, the voices growing louder. This must’ve been some sort of record for Mick and my mother; being done with each other after only one night. But now she was here, trying to make amends with Gregory.
She spied me before I saw her. Her face flushed red with anger, and then all the color drained and she was pale and clammy looking. “You little bitch!”
“Hi, mom,” I said.