We Danced Without Strings
It was one a.m. Too late for coffee, yet my mother’s long coral nails tapped as she sipped a cup of sugared Nescafe to the music of Dolly Parton. Her body vibrated with guitar twang and dehydration. Footsteps in the hallway sent a violent message as Vance, my mother’s dimwit lover, said he hated that I was there.
As did I.
The lights flickered off, then on. The toilet flushed, gurgled, flushed again. “Bet that’s a load off his mind,” I said. My mother’s face remained a practiced blank. She had lost boyfriends because of my playful teasing, more boyfriends than she could count.
I was trapped in her kitchen. Trapped by rain (I had arrived on foot without coat or umbrella) and by a return of childhood inertia. I needed someone to jerk my strings and make me move. But the puppet-master, my father, was six feet under on the outskirts of town. Because of my father, my mother had never developed the knack.
“Spill,” she said.
Five blocks away, my husband and “the beans” slept unaware that one third of them were missing. She would wake soon, my young daughter. Lilia never slept long. The day before, at the end of the world, we had been informed that sleep disturbance was part and parcel — so too absence of speech, facial abnormalities, jerky gait, protruding tongue (not yet, but one day), a fascination with plastic and water, hand-flapping, frequent laughter, a permanent smile. We had mortgaged a new house in a single-family neighborhood with good schools for a Happy Puppet Child.
“We met with a geneticist today,” I said as I shifted the green lace tablecloth towards my lap and then rubbed its nub between my wooden fingers. “It’s not good.”
My mother, ever patient, waited.
“He said Lil’s genetic gift means she might never potty train and she won’t ever talk. Sound familiar?”
“Well, good. Just like your cousin Lars,” my mother said. “I suspected Angelman’s all along. Now you can help that little darling instead of pretending everything is hunky-dory. Now you can figure out the upside.”
“When your father passed, you said it was a relief we were finally out of his misery. That was the upside.”
“That was the only side, Ma. I’ve seen Lars: this isn’t like that.”
Vance shuffled into view. His house-coated barrel of a body blocked the only exit from the kitchen. “The offer stands,” he said. Earlier on he’d volunteered to rearrange my face.
“My price has risen,” I said. “Two hundred bucks up front and now you have to wear a rubber.”
“To the moon, Alice.” When Vance jostled my shoulder his housecoat flapped open and unwashed trucker scented the air. He opened the refrigerator, rooted around and came up empty.
I glugged down the last quarter of the last can of Labatt’s. “Ah!” I said. “That hits the spot.” When I slammed down the can it made a wet ring on my mother’s green tablecloth.
“You little shit. That’s my beer,” Vance said as he raised a meaty fist.
“She’s upset, honey.”
“Well, boo-hoo. It’s always something with Alice, ain’t it?”
“It’s news about the tyke,” my mother said. Even men like Vance have soft spots.
“What’s wrong with my girl?”
Lilia was not the foul man’s girl and my taunting grew barbs. “Go back to bed . . . Tony,” I said. Tony, my mother’s other lover at the time, didn’t drive long-distance. My mother patted Vance’s butt, drew him close and whispered something into his cauliflower ear. With a final glare for me, he trotted off to bed like a frisky spring lamb.
My mother struggled to her feet. “One day, Alice,” she said, “you’re going to see me lonely.” Her head wobbled as she made her way to the stove and a lemon shaped timer. She wound the timer and placed it on the table between us. I had two minutes. She resumed her seat and tipped a Virginia Slim out of its package. Her thin lips wrinkled when they held the tip.
“The upside?” I said. “Easy. They can do anti-drool surgery on Lilia. When she’s older.”
“I didn’t raise you to be snide.”
I took in the bottle depot of a kitchen — empty beer cases stacked high, rinsed shot glasses upside down on the green rubber mat by the sink — and wondered what she did raise me to be. Last year’s calendar still hung on the wall. Dance at the Legion and Art’s funeral were marked in red. Death and debauch were my mother’s red-letter days.
“Okay. She won’t need much to be happy. I mean, if happiness is one of the symptoms, it figures.” The timer’s shrill made me jump. “Right?”
“Lil’s got one up on the rest of us then,” my mother said.
“Yup,” I agreed. “I guess she does.”
My mother tamped out her cigarette. She stood and then glided past me smelling of carcinogens and rose perfume. The familiar combination provided strange comfort. Her hand swept my head, sparked me to life. She had the knack after all, only her knack didn’t hurt. Tears of self-pity formed in my eyes. “I just wanted her to be normal, Ma,” I said.
“Bullshit. You and Andy never wanted that.”
Andy and Alice, the perfect yuppie couple wanted more. She was right, but still I was stunned.
My mother bid me goodnight and then disappeared into the cavern of her bedroom. Vance’s baritone rumbled. Bedsprings gave way. My mother laughed. She was chipper when she should have been crushed.
I parted the curtains and pressed my face against the cold. The rain had stopped. “Hey, Tony,” I called as I left. “See if you can find the upside. You’ve got 30 minutes.” I wound the lemon timer, set down it outside the bedroom door and then let myself out of the house.
At night our old neighborhood looked unchanged from the time of my childhood. One working-class family per dwelling, painted porches, hardy rose shrubs, nothing extravagant. Daylight revealed gardens gone to weed, porches that hoarded litter and too many cars in front of each house. My father had raged when I left home to marry Andy. To his mind I had sold out my roots for a pretty college boy. But if leaving cost me my soul, returning, I suspected, would cost even more.
I jogged the six blocks to my new and exclusive neighborhood. There the houses were tall Victorians. Front porches sported hanging moss baskets filled with designer annuals and swings that might never be used. Small yards shared a thin strip of green-space. To make room for this, a developer disbanded a mobile court of retirees, many of whom were my parent’s friends. The developer paid residents to disperse without a fight and most embraced the windfall. The few who went public said they feared the loneliness of dislocation. Their story didn’t make the front page.
On my street, I walked past three For Sale signs. Dislocation still ran like sewage under our postcard pretty setting. Transfers, bankruptcy, divorce; these things took their toll. Even so my neighbors slept with confidence inside their heavily mortgaged homes: they slept knowing their children would be icons of socially conscious fashion, win athletic awards, read before kindergarten, earn honors, be beautiful or handsome or both. When grown they would graduate with multiple degrees and then emigrate to the United States because the wages are higher. They would marry well and buy nicer homes than these. They would make their parents proud.
They would avoid my daughter like the plague.
The sting would be mine and Andy’s, not Lilia’s. Like my cousin, she would laugh and grin and be a whirlwind of misdirected activity. She would flap her hands for fun and offer stiff hugs and wet kisses to whoever would receive them. She would still swim with a lifejacket in her twenties. She would never marry, never give birth.
If we let her, she would be happy.
Inappropriate joy scudded through me like the clouds beneath the smiling face of the moon. A breeze scoured my already spotless street. It felt fresh and good and I hurried eager to be home before the clouds regrouped.
In my house lights were on, lights and doleful music. I opened the door on a disgruntled husband and a Happy Puppet Child. “It’s past one, Alice. Where the hell were you?” Andy’s relief as he held out our daughter betrayed the false bottom of his anger. The taint of Angelman’s was in my blood, not his. Sooner rather than later, he would leave us and try again with someone better. I could read in his face that his future plans included such consolation.
“I went home,” I said. My arms lifted to take my daughter. Lilia was soft against my body — soft and pliant as I bent with her to start a new CD; Bach’s Royal Fireworks.
As we twirled around the living room, my tiny daughter laughed.
Horns signaled our triumphal entry.
We danced without strings.