I get to wear a black leotard, just like Mom’s, except mine has short sleeves and hers has long. She’s made me a pink cotton circle skirt, even though she can’t sew, and I twirl for her, and she smiles.
One by one we pick up the other girls, all in cotton skirts, too — a blue one, a green one, a pink one like mine. Like flowers, my friends and I sway and bob in the back seat.
We take the special road, the one that turns past a broken-down barn, then stretches up, up, up, and my mom floors the old Chevy, and we flowers giggle because we know what’s coming. At the top of the hill, the Chevy goes airborne, and our stomachs fall to our toes. My mom’s elbow rests casually out the open window, and her hazel eyes laugh in the mirror. “Another!” we shriek, and there is another, and another one after that, too, as we fly and fly and fly.
Suddenly I’m not fat. This happens just before my family’s trip to Florida, just in time for me to get my first two-piece swimsuit that I actually look good in, and a yellow-and-white-checked one-piece with an underwire bra and a scooped-out back that’s open all the way down to my waist. To make sure I stay as svelte as I can’t believe I really am, I confine my diet whenever possible to the incredibly sweet Florida grapefruit, which I peel instead of cut, eating the sections one by one, juice bursting in my mouth.
We’re at the beach. I’m wearing the yellow suit. I separate myself as much as possible from my parents and pretend that I’m here alone. This guy comes over, squats down. He’s got black hair slicked back, tight trunks, and a killer tan.
“Where’re you from?” he asks.
“New York.” I suck in my stomach to present a perfect profile.
“So, how do you like Florida?” He’s running sand through his fingers, letting the white grains fall on my towel.
“I like it fine.” He reminds me of my cousin Paul’s friend, an older boy with a cherry red convertible who cruises up and down their country road on lazy summer evenings.
“So, what do you like about it? The sun? The water? I bet it’s cold up there in New York right now.”
“I like the waves,” I say. “And the color blue.”
“Blue.” His smile reveals crooked teeth that he hides with his upper lip.
Just then my mother lunges between me and the guy, grabs his slick shoulders, and pushes him backward into the sand. “You stay away from her!” she hisses.
Where did she come from, this panting animal bent upon my humiliation? “He wasn’t doing anything!” I yell, but my mother keeps her eyes on him.
“She’s a child. You stay away from her. You hear me? You stay away.”
The guy holds up his hands in a gesture of surrender, stands up, brushes sand from his body.
The whole beach is watching, I know it — all the college kids, the moms, the children making sand castles, my dad on his distant blanket, the smirking teenage girls.
I hate her now. I do. I hate her to the core of my being.
She gave me that crystal, the purple one encased in faceted plexiglass. Did she think it was beautiful? Did she think I would like it? Where did she find it, anyway? What catalog or shop? What was she thinking?
“Your mother’s amazing,” my friends say. Several of them confide in her. They ask for and receive help from her on their deepest problems. Not me, though. She and I can sit in the same room for hours and barely speak. We’re like the north ends of two magnets, darting apart.
Her father beat her. She won’t say it, only that he had a seven-strand leather strap hanging by the kitchen door, and that she and her younger sister sat crying on the stairs as he chased his oldest daughter around the dining-room table, beating and beating. When my mother went back to college after her mother died, she told her younger sister to keep her door locked. Once, her mother made her a red dress so she could compete in a contest at the local roller rink with her partner, Johnny. They spun, him holding her legs while she struck a match on the floor with her teeth.
What she wants is for me to live unafraid. Long ago, when we moved from the Midwest to the East Coast, we were separated for a time. She sent a letter kissed with her brightest lipstick, and my aunt cut out those lips and affixed them to a small round pillow for me to hold on to at night. How is it now that there’s this barrier between us, like the plexiglass that encases the purple stone?
In the ladies’ room of a fancy restaurant, Chinese red and lacquer black, flowers, two stalls, my mother (in her new red turtleneck dress) and I are alone. I’m the first to finish peeing. I wash my hands and dry them on one of the rolled cloth towels in the basket by the sink, and know for sure that my mother is not going to be able to resist a few dance steps to the lively jazz that’s being piped in. And sure enough, she comes out of the stall with the music inhabiting her body and takes a few graceful, swaying steps, and I take a few too, and then here we are in this swanky bathroom, dancing and laughing, and for a long, beautiful beat she doesn’t have Alzheimer’s, and I haven’t had cancer, and we sashay and laugh as if this, this is the center of the universe.