I press the button that has Thompson, my mother’s maiden name, next to it. Over the intercom there is a humming and then my mother’s voice.
“Yes . . . hello?” the excitement in her voice fades out as the static grows louder. I can’t hear if she’s stopped talking or if she can hear me, but I say into the metal grating, “Mom. It’s me, Ruby. I’m here.” Either she heard me or she’s taking a guess that it’s me — the door begins buzzing and so I reach for the knob to let myself in.
Inside the front door, the hallway smells damp with the odor of stale cooking oil seeping out of the slick, buttery yellow wallpaper. I hear people moving behind the wooden doors I pass on my way to the elevator.
My mother and her lover, Samantha, are waiting outside the elevator when I reach the third floor. I pull back the metal gate that protects me from falling down the elevator shaft to the floors below. Once I manage to open the gate, there is an awkward pause.
“Ruby! Look at you. I can’t believe how much taller you’ve become in just eight months.” She rushes towards me, her arms encircling me, holding me tightly.
“Ten months,” I mutter into her red blouse.
“Was the ride here okay? I’m sorry I had to send a car for you; I’m too new at my job to get time off yet.”
My mother lets go and I glance at Samantha who has picked up my suitcase. I don’t want to hug her in this moment. But I can see that she is intent on hugging me. She drops my suitcase and makes a lunge for my shoulders. My hands are at my sides and I let her wrap her arms around me. I pull away when I think enough time had passed.
“Good to see you, Samantha.”
My using her full name stings, I can tell. She avoids looking at me. But she brushes it off, “The old elevator is great, it’s one of those characteristics that we love about this funky building. Nothing like you’d see back in Watsonville.”
I nod. My shaking hands, pasty tongue, and dry lips make me feel like I am going to give a speech to the 1,200 students at my high school.
I follow Samantha down the hallway to their apartment, my mother walks behind me. A “Welcome Ruby” sign is taped to the front door.
“Sam made that on her computer. Pretty spiffy, isn’t it, Rubes?” my mother says.
The apartment is small, probably the size of my bedroom and our living room at home combined. There aren’t any curtains on the windows, only candles lining the window sill. On the wall opposite the window I recognize a painting of a woman in an orange dress. My mother bought the painting at an art gallery in Santa Cruz. When she brought it home my father wasn’t happy. It was expensive and didn’t go well with the wood block prints that he and my mother began collecting when they were newlyweds. The prints, mainly scenes from nature, still hang in rooms throughout our house. Because my father was so angry about the painting, my mother hung it up in the laundry room so that my father didn’t have to see it often. It definitely looks better in her apartment than it ever did in our house.
My mother puts my suitcase on the Persian rug covering the wooden floor.
“We’ll deal with this later; let’s give Ruby the grand tour.”
Samantha and I bump into each other as we follow my mother’s lead down the hall. The kitchen is small, with a window facing the brick of the building next door. My mother always said she loved our kitchen at home. A big window above the sink looks out onto the fields of our ranch and she used to watch the hired men during harvest. The men began working before my brother or I got up in the morning. They began picking strawberries even before the sun came up, or so my mother told us. Sometimes she’d wave at them from the window, and call out hello. But the trucks were loud and her voice was lost before it could reach them. I doubt that she ever calls out hello to the brick wall on the other side of her new window, but maybe she does. Maybe the brick wall in New York answers her.
On the small table against one of the walls, a jar of marmalade sits next to a plate with a piece of buttered toast. Samantha is watching me. “We were just making a snack when we heard you buzz at the front door. We’ll clean that up later. Anyway, there’s not much to see in here, really. But it’s a big enough kitchen for the two of us.”
“Here’s our room,” my mother is now standing in the doorway of their bedroom. I reluctantly move to the end of the hall and look through the doorway. Their bed isn’t made; the sheets are tossed over the mattress on the floor. Two pillows are next to each other, dents remain in the stuffing from the weight of a night’s rest. I scan the room, looking for some sign of a vibrator or a lesbian magazine or massage oil. But I find nothing shocking or unusual or different about the room. I am both disappointed and relieved.
A framed photograph of my brother and me sits on the green bookshelf next to the bed. His arm is draped around my shoulders, our bodies are still wet from swimming in the lake near our house. Our auburn hair, prominent eyebrows, and freckles clearly define us as siblings in person and in this photo. We are tan and lean, the signs of many days spent in the water at the lake that summer. My mother took the photo two years ago, on the last day of our vacation. I breathe deeply and ache for the security of that moment. I clear my throat and step away from the door frame. My mother has moved to the bathroom, so I follow.
On the wall behind the toilet there is a black and white photograph of a naked woman sitting in a field of flowers. I stare at the photo and realize the woman is Samantha. My cheeks grow warm and I clear my throat again. I can’t stop looking at the photo, at Samantha, the way she’s holding her arms out away from her body, the way her head is held back in laughter, her long, blond hair resting on her shoulders. I don’t ask, but I know that my mother took this photo as well.
“I need to call Dad and tell him that I made it here,” I move away from the bathroom doorway.
“Go ahead. Call from our room, sweetie,” my mother says and nudges me towards their room.
In their room I take off my tennis shoes and sit on the bed, my long legs wrapped beneath me. My fingers glide back and forth along the lines on my corduroy pants, giving me a place to focus my eyes and to keep my tears from falling. I dial our number and wait for an answer.
My brother, Ted, picks up after only two rings.
“Hey. It’s me,” I say.
“How is it?” he asks.
“Alright. Weird. I wish you were here with me.” My brother got out of coming to New York with the excuse that he didn’t want to miss the first days of football practice. I wish I’d found a similar excuse and wonder how I’ll manage the next five days in my mother’s new life.
“Sorry, Rubes. I know you’ll be okay,” he says and tells me that he’s going to get our father.
That night, I sleep on the lumpy, maroon couch in the living room. It is the only logical place for me to sleep, but I am still angry. My mother begged me to visit and she doesn’t even have a bed for me to sleep on. If Samantha wasn’t here I’d be able to sleep with my mother. We always slept in the same bed when we took our yearly vacation without my father and brother. On those trips we stayed up all night talking about her life in college, or the years she lived in San Francisco before she married my father. She talked to me like we were friends. She told me things I didn’t think she’d tell anyone else. She told me about her first kiss and about the tension in her chest when she heard an opera singer’s voice soar. Now I suspect she tells Samantha the things only I’d known.
I can hear the two of them laughing down the hallway and I imagine what they could be laughing about — maybe it’s my shaking fingers or the plate I dropped after I helped my mother wash the dishes. Maybe seeing me reminds my mother of how happy she is that she isn’t in California anymore and all she can do is laugh for the sheer joy of her new life. Maybe she is telling Samantha about my father and they are laughing at him.
I put on my headphones and turn the volume up so that I can’t hear their laughter anymore. My eyes are tense from the energy I am using to keep the images, real or imagined, out. Visions of my mother’s new world — tongues, mouths, breasts, bodies — begin to swirl together in my mind. I shut my eyes even harder, grit my teeth, and shove my head under the pillow my mother gave me from her bed.
I wake up and it is still dark outside. It is just five o’clock in the morning, or two o’clock at home. I shuffle towards the bathroom. I can’t see much without my glasses. I bump into the wall and laugh at my awkwardness. I think my laughter is what Samantha hears. Or maybe it was my uncertain shuffling. She opens the bathroom door just as I was about to open it myself.
“You’re awake, Ruby?”
I don’t know how to respond. I knew I was awake, but her naked body in front of me makes me wonder if I am still sleeping, or sleep walking and maybe her photograph is coming alive. But she isn’t in a field. And her hair is shorter. And she isn’t smiling like she had been in the photograph.
“Hey, Samantha. Yeah, I guess I had to pee.”
“Me, too. And, please call me Sam. That’s what all my friends call me.”
Now that I know Samantha is really in front of me, I don’t know what I should say at five o’clock in the morning to my mother’s naked lover.
“You want some tea? Or maybe you still want to sleep,” she asks.
“That’s fine, yeah,” I say. “Um, yes, I’d like some tea.”
I shut the bathroom door behind me and sit on the toilet seat, my elbows propped on my knees, my head in my hands. I consider letting the lid drop on the toilet seat after I flush it, hoping that the sound will wake my mother and we will all have tea together. I don’t want to have tea with Samantha by myself. I leave the lid up and walk towards the light from the kitchen.
I am relieved to see that Samantha is in her bathrobe. I settle myself into a chair at the table and we wait silently for the water to boil.
I try to make conversation, “I’ve never had tea this early.”
“First time for everything, I guess. I used to drink tea with my mother almost every morning,” she smiled.
“Where does your mother live?”
“In Oregon, in a real small town. I don’t see her much anymore. At all, really. She isn’t very accepting of my ‘choices,’ as she would say. She really liked your mom until I told her she was more than just my roommate.”
I avoid looking at Samantha and look at the painting of the woman in the orange dress in the living room. I wonder if my mother and Samantha were together when she bought this painting. My mother took several day trips to Santa Cruz and although I begged her, she never let me go with her; she said it was time just for her. Maybe she and Samantha picked it out together and that’s why it was so important to her to hang it up in our house. Even if it was only in the laundry room.
I don’t want Samantha to see that I understand her mother’s feelings. I had the same reaction when my mother told me Samantha was not just a convenient ride to the East Coast. I thought Samantha seemed nice when she stayed in our house the night before they left. When I met her we talked about the Beatles and how she saw them in concert when she was sixteen. None of my mother’s friends from Ikebana ever talked about interesting things, they just concerned themselves with flowers. Samantha was exciting and alive; they were going to New York City so that she could audition for a show. Samantha’s career wasn’t thriving in a town like Watsonville, and she was going to see if she could make it in the big city. My mom said she was “just keeping her company on the drive.” I’d even wished I could drive across the country with her and my mother. When I found my mother’s letter on my bedside table after she left, my feelings for Samantha changed.
The kettle begins to boil. I think of telling Samantha how I feel, about my own reluctance to like her after what she’d done to our family, but I don’t.
“Did your mom ever visit you here?” I ask, trying to imagine anyone over the age of seventeen sleeping on the lumpy purple mass in the living room they called a couch.
“No, I told her I was a lesbian before she flew out to New York and she canceled her trip. That’s one reason we’re so happy you came out, Ruby. We were afraid you might decide it was too much, too.”
The reality was I did think it was too much. I thought my mother was confused and Samantha was someone who had tricked her into thinking she was a lesbian. I knew my mother’s new convictions were really Samantha’s ideas. My mother couldn’t really like having sex with another woman; she was just bored with my father. I didn’t want Samantha to think her relationship with my mother would last; it couldn’t.
“Well, I know it’s not permanent,” I said. “That makes it a lot easier for me to deal with.”
My mother can’t just become a lesbian after being straight for 38 years. She’d never have been married if she were really a lesbian. She wouldn’t have had kids. I get it with Samantha. She’s really a lesbian because she’s never had a husband. But I’m proof, my brother’s proof, even my dad is proof that my mom’s not a real lesbian. There’s no way she could have lived that life, our life, and be a different person now.
“Not permanent? You sound like your father, Ruby,” my mother is standing in the kitchen doorway. The sound of our voices must have woken her. “He couldn’t believe I wanted to be with women because he said we’d never have been married if that was the case. But I am a lesbian, Ruby.”
The mention of my father forces me to bite the inside of my cheek to stop myself from crying. I long for the comfort of the home that I know. For my father’s belly laugh as he watches television after dinner. For the honk of my mother’s minivan in our driveway each morning. For the sound of my mother’s voice calling my brother and me to dinner. I long to be away from this apartment in New York where my mother is telling me she is a lesbian, while her lover sits next to her and strokes her arm.
“Ruby, I thought I’d made this clear. I thought you had dealt with it.”
I bite the inside of my cheek again and stare at the tea kettle to avoid looking at my mother’s eyes. I wonder how she expects me to deal with something as big as her telling me she’s a lesbian. I can’t even tell my friends why she never came home, much less that she’s living with another woman. And yes, they’re more than roommates.
“You’ve never even talked to me about my leaving. You just said you’d read my letter, Ruby. What could I say to that?”
“You could say you were sorry. Or that you wanted to come home. Or that you knew you were a bad mother. Anything, Mom. You could’ve said anything. But all you’ve done since you moved to New York is talk about yourself or about Samantha.”
My mother slouches back in her chair and Samantha stops rubbing her arm.
“Well, Ruby, I don’t know how I’m supposed to respond to statements like those,” my mother says, letting the deliberate sound of her breath slowly slide out of her lungs down the front of her robe.
I grip the mug with the tea in my fist and imagine myself hurling it at the brick wall on the other side of the kitchen window. The “Gay Pride Is Our Pride” written across the mug would shatter through the window’s glass and crumble down the brick. The shattered pieces would remain between the buildings forever. If I threw it hard enough the white ceramic would mark the red of the brick and my mother would see it everyday when she went to the kitchen sink and she’d remember me. She’d remember this conversation. Maybe she’d be able to say something then.
My mother lets out another big sigh and I know she is trying to force me to be the first to speak. But I won’t talk.
“I can’t do anything to change, Ruby. This is who I am. I was fooling myself before. I thought if I married your father I would be a different person. But I wasn’t, that only made me unhappier.” Her voice is now shaking. I glance at her foot to see if it is bobbing at the end of her leg as it always does when she cries. But it isn’t bobbing.
“How could a daughter and son make you so unhappy? Have you forgotten everything, Mom?”
“Ruby, you and your brother kept me there for all these years. If it weren’t for both of you, I’d have gone crazy. You were the only things giving me any joy, the lying was what made me unhappy. I just can’t lie anymore.”
I start to cry. I don’t want to cry; I especially don’t want to cry in front of Samantha. She is the woman who has ruined our lives and now I am crying in front of her. My mother pushes her chair closer to mine and puts her arms around my shaking body.
“I’m sorry, Ruby,” she says and strokes the back of my neck, her long fingernails separating my hair into clumps.
From under my mother’s arm I watch as the sun begins to come in through the living room window. Now the painting of the woman in an orange dress appears to be almost in a spotlight. With the light, her face becomes brighter. She looks more beautiful and for the first time I see emotion in her face. In just a few moments the sun completely fills the room and the next time I glance at the painting, her face is lost in the brightness that surrounds her.