by Stephanie Johnson
Even though the house hasn’t held babies in years, the mother baby-proofs the knife drawer as soon as the father leaves for work. When the daughter stumbles into the kitchen, sleep still tangled in the angles of her disheveled hair, the mother points out the change—a nylon latch with a simple, one-handed adult release.
For me? I could break that in a heartbeat, the daughter tells the mother, flexing meanness like a muscle. At fifteen, she can figure things out, isn’t a baby anymore.
It’s pointless, the mother lucidly agrees.
The daughter slips into a chair at the table, rubs her eyes. A normal mother would bring her juice, she thinks, or maybe even coffee. But this mother—her mother—barricades the knife drawer, imagines matricide, and flushes medication down the toilet. This mother hides in the garage when the daughter’s friends come over and refuses calls from her own best friend.
I don’t want to be replaced, the mother tells the daughter.
Who’s signing up for that job?
The daughter yawns, stretches a bare leg, wiggles her toes. She’s hungry, but doesn’t want to decrease the distance between them. Remembering last night, she pulls the collar of her unchanged T-shirt over her nose, breathes souvenirs of the boy’s summer body commingled with her slumber. She thinks of cigarettes smoked with the boy in the backseat of his car— afterward, while it rained—and how the boy cupped the cigarette between his middle finger and thumb, the ember close to his palm.
The mother presses the release on the useless latch. She spits fingernails into the sink, then chews fingertips. She pulls raw fingers through graying hair and stares out the kitchen window. You think it’s fun now, the mother tells her stubborn and lovely baby, but you’ll see…everything changes.
Uncomfortable, the daughter wants someone to do something. She wants a mother with clean hair and a father who deals with the disorder. She wants pancakes and chatter about boys, fashion magazines and gossip TV. She pretends her mother’s voice is the boy’s, hears words he whispers and means rather than the mother’s arrhythmic, cryptic messages. She silences her rival’s smoky suggestions of seduction and accepts the boy’s extravagant vows of devotion. The daughter knows where she is—here in the kitchen, on her own. She has no idea who is supposed to protect whom, but understands that only babies believe a man of steel will swoop in and save them.
Eventually, the father returns, tie loosened and the top of his shirt unbuttoned. He fills the doorway, suit jacket over shoulder like a cape. And in this half- light, the growing girl recognizes his musky secret, the source of her mother’s madness—there, then gone as he bumps his glasses up his nose.
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