NICE LIFE IF YOU DON’T WEAKEN
Sarah’s mother had always been a bit strange, a bit off kilter.
Even though Sarah was proud of her mother
and a bit ashamed, too, because while everyone seemed to like her mother, she
never fit in. Her mother Elaine knew this about herself but never seemed to
mind. “Know thyself, kiddo!” she’d say,
pointing at her daughter, with her ever-present long brown cigarette, breaking
her own rule about the rude gesture. In
fact, Sarah had always yearned to know herself, had always thought that if she
were someone else, she’d want to be friends with someone like herself. She was
kind, like her mother, but had a tentative personality that seemed to put kids
her own age off.
gave in to her loneliness in a way that fascinated her father, Stan, who had
always kept his eye on her, like an object in a curiosity shop. Her mother
didn’t try to understand her, or try to mold her into anything at all. “Dare
to be different, Sarahbean!” she’d
once said, taking a long drag and
blowing smoke up to the ceiling, one arm cradling her own waist and her small
freckled hand holding the brown cigarette, poised, as if she meant to say
something else. She had begun to call
her daughter “Sarahbean” when “She began to grow tall and graceful, like a
beanpole,” Elaine had explained. Sarah
thought the nickname unique and was proud when her mother called her that in
While Elaine was a free spirit in her own right, Stan always seemed to
be needed in a way that choked her feelings for him, made her feel confused. He
seemed ashamed of her outsider status with her peers, though Sarah could not
imagine her father ever being even remotely “popular.” “Poor
Sarah,” he’d said once taking a long look from the newspaper that rested on
his lap on one lazy, sunny Saturday afternoon, one of many when Sarah was alone
and without friends. Sarah looked up
from her book and sighed. She’d look forward to when her mother would come home
from her Saturday shift as a nurse at the VA Hospital. They’d cook dinner
together and her mother would turn the radio on, loud, and she’d show Sarah the
dances she did as a kid, like the “bump” and the “freak.” Her
mother would smoke and pour a glass of
wine and they’d talk about everything that mattered and didn’t matter.
Sarah had often wondered at the powers that brought her mother and
father together. Her father was an
orderly, cautious man, hair parted and combed to the side with precision
neatness. He had a penchant for order that he would occasionally impose on
Sarah. He was never as concerned with
the cleanliness of things, but rather with how things appeared. Her mother
would laugh her smoker’s laugh
and shake her small head slowly. “Oh, Sarahbean, I couldn’t care less about
things like that!”
had been, in particular, her mother’s precise lack of interest in anything
around her that first alerted Sarah to the fact that something was wrong. Towards
the end of October, Sarah had begun
to notice a slight change in what her father would describe as “Elaine’s worldview”. Sarah didn’t care about the world, she cared
about their life at home, about her small and tiny mother with her frizzy red
curls, who had begun to spend so much time on the couch she seemed to blend in
with the scenery. She’d begun to call
in sick at the hospital and then decide to go in, donning her beige nurse’s
scrubs and lassoing her stethoscope around her neck, confusing the charge nurse
when she’d show up. Other times, with no
knowledge to expect otherwise, they’d wait in vain for her. Finally, they’d
reach her by phone at home
and she’d lie, saying that she’d thought she
called in; it must be the fever. . . .
“Sarahbean, what do you need?
Don’t hover like that,” her mother said from her position on the couch,
dressed in leggings and an old “Freedom of Choice” tee shirt. Sarah’s
mother looked like a tiny rag doll
someone had picked up and dropped carelessly into place. The late day sun aimed
a strong beam into the living room, fading the image on the television, while
millions of dust particles hung in the air, swirling ‘round and round. Her
mother seemed unaffected by the distorted
image on the television, but seemed eerily transfixed anyway.
you can’t afford diamonds, those would be the ones to have, Sarahbean” she
said. Sarah glanced at the two women on
the Home Shopping Network, with their halo of glossy and gleaming hair, mouths
painted on in juicy, wet colors, and soft-looking and manicured hands with
perfect nails. One held up a two-karat
Diamante pendant while the other rotated her small wrist with a gleaming tennis
bracelet. Elaine whistled slowly, obviously impressed. “Sarahbean, would you
like a bracelet like that?” Her mother
didn’t seem to care that she was having this conversation by herself and Sarah
knew her mother had no intention of buying her such a gift. Her mother picked
up the smoldering cigarette that had been resting on the edge of the end table
and, closing one eye, took a deep drag.
watched her mother and experienced the one of many “suspended moments” she’d
suffer through as she watched the smoke her mother never bothered to exhale
escape out of her slightly parted lips in soft, dreamy tendrils. Sarah heard
the thud of the back door and
said, “Mom, Dad’s home,” in a voice that didn’t even seem to be her own, like a
kind of warning. She looked at the
detritus of what had become her mother’s life on the coffee table in front of
her. She barely resisted the urge to
swipe her long, lanky arm over the entire table, dumping the evidence of her
mother’s decline into a trash bag. Cigarettes, tissues, dirty socks, the dregs
of coffee in the chipped robin’s egg blue mug, hard candy, and a sampler box of
chocolates littered the scratched and sticky surface of the cherry wood coffee
table. Family Circle Magazine,
with coffee rings on the front, boasted the
headline “Start Now to Take Charge of
Your Life!” mocking the life of the woman who’d been resting her cup on it
for a week now. Sarah turned away, not wanting to witness the look in her
father’s eyes when he would, once again, come upon his wife’s inertia.
“This is getting to be a habit,” he’d say
with gross understatement and then ask Sarah, in the strange and soft voice
he’d been using lately, to “Help your mother, honey, and clean up a little
You’re a big girl now.”
that Sarah loved of her mother seemed to be left. Sarah lay in her bed with
the acute notion
that her entire fragile existence seemed to depend on whether or not her mother
ever became “herself” again. “Well,
she’s not herself,” is what she’d heard her father say to her grandmother on
the phone. Who was she then? Sarah
feared for her mother but feared, too,
for herself. What happens if you become
lost before you are even found?
heard the soft footsteps of her father, but ignored them. A soft knock and then
he enters the room
without waiting for a response. “I want
to be left alone, Dad. If you don’t
mind,” she says and her voice catches in her throat, striving for aloof
politeness to make her point, the way she has always spoken to her father.
“Crisis time, Sarah, sweetie. We
need to talk,” her father tells her in a voice that both condescends and
sickens her. He has never had any of the
unstudied smoothness or joy about him that made her mother spontaneously
lovable. He seems to be all soft, and
bloated but with jagged intentions. He
stands by her bed with his hands in his pockets.
“Pretending won’t make it go away, Sarah.”
I pretend, will you go away, Dad?”
Sarah whispers, surprising herself. She hunkers down and feels the warmth of
her breath melt into the soft darkness under the sheets and feels embraced in
the embryonic comfort of her own space.
She thinks if she stays there long enough he may go away. A sudden jerk
of the sheets and the shock of
cool air on her face and she feels her father’s stare before actually looking
into his piercing eyes.
“Sarahbean. Mom needs to go away
to get better. She’s depressed or
mentally ill or God only knows what
it is; we don’t know how it started or what might have caused it. She’s lost
touch with reality. We’re going to have
her committed, Sarah. It’s going to be
just you and me for a while.” He says this in one long breath then exhales,
watching her for a reaction. She can
hear the television on downstairs, a sound she’s become so used to, it is
almost a lullaby; the Home Shopping Network again, Christmas ornaments, this
time, joyful preparation of the season, a must for the Happy Holiday Home. She
can smell her mother’s cigarette smoke
and somehow this comforts her amidst a sudden and gripping fear that time will
not pass quick enough, that time without her mother, in any condition she might
be in, might be more than she can bear.
She begins to cry softly.
a quick and deft movement defying his girth her father heaves himself onto the
bed. “Scoot over, sweetheart.”
He begins to make soft cooing sounds and
murmurs that sound like strangled words of comfort, but Sarah wills herself not
to listen, not to feel. Lying flat on
her back, tears flow down the sides of her cheeks through closed eyes. Then
it seems in an instant, her father is on
top of her, moving up and down slowly and deliberately. A slight quiver of his
chin and a moan as
soft as a baby’s and he is in a world all his own.
off! Get OFF,” Sarah shrieks. Heaving
upward she pushes against her father’s weight, laying like lead, on top of her.
“Calm down, Sarah. Calm down, now,”
he says in a voice that
sounds dreamlike. He seems disoriented
as though needing just a moment, “Just a
moment, please” as he would say, to get his bearings. Years later
she will think that he almost
seemed glad for the opportunity of her mother’s illness.
“Don’t. Ever. Come. In. Here. Again,” she manages to sputter between
rage she didn’t know she had and choking sobs.
As her father walks unsteadily toward the bedroom door, he says, in a
shaky voice, the thing that will seal the deal concerning Sarah’s relationship
with him and any chance at marriage for the rest of her life: “I feel
sorry for your future husband,
Sarah.” He leaves the door ajar, as if
his reentry, should he be bold enough to dare, is his perfect right.
Sarah creeps downstairs in the middle of the night to see her mother.
Elaine, wearing her old, red cardigan, smells of smoke and nutmeg. Her arms
are wrapped tightly around her waist
as if she is holding onto the semblance of herself for dear life. The room is
lit with the narcotic haze of the
television, a light that seems sinister at so late an hour. An old black and
white film flickers on the
television and Sarah imagines herself as the leading lady, wishing she was
anyone else but who she is at the moment. Sarah notices her mother doesn’t
appear to be watching the television but is, instead, rocking herself back and
forth, humming a tune that seems vaguely familiar to Sarah.
stops humming as Sarah comes closer.
She looks vaguely frightened and slowly picks up her lighter and a
cigarette, then stops.
“Look at me Mom. Please. Hold
me,” Sarah says, feeling like her
heart has just gone and taken off into some wilderness, where she’ll need to
fend for herself. How her mother responds is so important to her right
now. “Please, Mom,” she whispers and
instead of crying, clenches her fists until she has lost all feeling in them.
Elaine swivels her head toward her daughter, with the look of someone
who truly wants to do as she is told but simply doesn’t know how. She
looks down at the rug, hunter green with
burgundy specks mixed with cracker crumbs.
She rubs her hands along the worn brown corduroy of the couch cushion
until they feel hot.
“Come back, Mom,” Sarah whispers and leans her head on her mother’s bony
shoulder. Elaine gently shrugs her off
and reaches over to the coffee table. Nervously she picks up the chocolate
sampler, staring as if seeing it for the first time. She rifles through the
empty brown wrappers that fill the box, scattering them, and then looking down
as they drop to the floor. Sarah watches
the mixture of confusion and hopelessness, and feels moved by it and at the
same time envies her mother’s ability not to feel. Sarah feels
an urgent hunger for something
that will be denied to her for a long time. In later years, everyone will say
that it was a real shame that Sarah had to be so grown up at only fourteen
years old. Elaine peers into the box of
chocolates strewn with the empty papers, digging around for something
worthwhile, though it is clear there is nothing that she really wants anymore.
She quickly gives up and tosses the box toward the coffee table. It misses and
lands on the floor. She looks down at
the box, unaware of her daughter’s hand on her shoulder. She heaves a heavy
sigh, full of resignation.
“Someone,” she says, deliberately, “has surely gone and taken the very
best I had.”
Michelle Reale is an Associate Professor
at Arcadia University and holds an MFA in poetry. She is the author of
five collections of poetry including The
Marie Curie Sequence, forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. She conducts
ethnography among African refugees in Sicily and blogs about some of her
experiences at www.sempresicilia.wordpress.com
You can visit her author website at www.michellemessinareale.com.