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BOOK: loose
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K

a s s u m m e r t u r n s to fall, my mother makes a decision. She wants to go to medical school. She’s been working as an artist, making jewelry, sculpture, and paintings. But her father was a doctor, and an artist’s hands can morph easily into a surgeon’s. Besides, she needs to find a way to make a living now. She’s used to a particular way of life—a doctor’s daughter, and then an engineer’s wife. Art isn’t going to cut it.

This all feels strange, even unlikely, as if my mother has suddenly become someone else. She was always an artist, always eccentric and


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avant-garde, not a serious doctor in a white coat. My mother’s friends were all unconventional too. They lived in lofts in SoHo and made large, crazy paintings right there in their living rooms. They put on performances in which Tyler and I got to wear red, purple, and blue sheer scarves and prance across the stage. They were often gay and silly—or just plain silly—and I loved them. When my parents were still together they hosted summertime parties, and our house was filled with all those silly, laughing adults. The Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac boomed from the speakers my father had moved outside, and Tyler and I twirled around in the warm darkness, dancing and laughing, allowed to stay up late.

Because of this, because of how different her life will be as a doctor, I ask her if she’s sure.

“I’ve always wanted to be a doctor,” she tells Tyler and me, as though this were something obvious we had missed.

“You’ll make a great doctor.” Tyler hugs her, always supportive, but I know she feels it too. I can tell by the fear I see, hidden like a squirmy puppy she’s not supposed to have brought home.

So Mom starts a yearlong pre-med program at the local college and prepares for her application to medical school. She piles the desk in her bedroom with fat textbooks. She fills pages of notebook paper with her neat drawings of cells and neurons. She closes the door and tells us we have to be quiet so she can study. And she invites an Aus-tralian college exchange student to stay in the guest room to help pay the mortgage.

Antony is extremely handsome, with light brown hair, dark eyebrows, and bright blue eyes. Liz makes a point of spending the night more often, and the two of us follow Antony around, teasing and flirting. He’s twenty-one years old, but he tolerates our behavior. He calls us cute, which we discuss later. Can cute mean sexy? My mother often says I’m cute, and I assumed that meant I looked like a baby.

But now I’m not so sure. I examine my features, my freckled nose, big eyes like Mom’s. Maybe cute is one step away from something


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A H o u s e w i t h N o M e n better, just an angling of the hips or the way I hold my head. I practice different looks in the mirror, seeing what’s possible.

Tyler stays away from all of us, bothered by the changes, but I see Antony as an opportunity. This is my chance to learn about men. I do everything I can to entice him. I take a long time walking from my bath back to my room, a towel wrapped around my pubescent body, hoping Antony will catch a glimpse. I wear shirts that hug my small breasts and old nightgowns so thin you can see the outline of my figure. At night, I fantasize he will come to my room, unable to control himself any longer, drawn in by my magnetism, and make love to me. I want to experience that kind of attention. My mother flirts with him too, laughing and flashing him smiles. One night she pours them both glasses of wine and invites him to sit with her on the screened-in porch. I hear them chatting, his voice measured, hers too loud and peppered with giggles. A couple of hours later he goes back to his room and closes the door. I know my mother must be lonely, suddenly without the husband she had for fifteen years. Having someone around must be familiar, comfortable, like the way my father touches his girlfriend now. Sometimes I can see why my mother is so hurt. She was on the other side of those touches once.

My father knew her in such an intimate way. But her flirting with Antony seems pathetic, desperate. I’m embarrassed by her need.

Worse, I fear my need isn’t all that different. Antony is no more interested in a twelve-year-old girl than he is in a woman in her forties. Like my mother, I want to be known by someone too. But it doesn’t happen for either of us, and after a couple of months, Antony moves out when his student visa expires.

K

o n e m o r n i n g , not long after Antony has gone, Tyler asks our mother what it feels like to be kissed. We’re getting ready to leave the house for school. Our ride is a teacher who takes all the kids from New Jersey to the school in Riverdale, and he is already waiting at


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the end of the driveway. I busy myself with the buttons on my coat, not wanting either of them to see that I know the answer to Tyler’s question. My mother smiles.

“It’s a nice feeling,” she says as she wipes a counter. “Soft.”

Tyler wraps a scarf around her neck, listening.

“I can show you.” My mother steps toward Tyler, the sponge still in her hand, and she leans down and kisses her on the mouth. Tyler nods.

“Oh,” she says.

I move toward the door, wanting to get away.

“Kerry?” Mom asks. “Do you want to feel it too?”

I shake my head quickly, avoiding her stare. “Come on,” I tell Tyler. “We’re late.”

“Relax, Kerry,” Mom says, a note of anger in her voice. “Always in such a hurry. You need to learn to relax.”

Another day, I hear my mother and sister in the kitchen. As I approach I slow down to listen.

“You’re growing so much,” Mom says, water running as she washes dishes. “Becoming a woman. You have breasts now.”

“I know, Mom, but—” Tyler protests.

“They have lots of sensations,” Mom goes on. “Did you know that? It can feel nice to have someone touch them.”

This is when I reach the doorway. My sister sits at the counter, her eyes on the TV. My mother steps up behind her and puts her hands on my sister’s breasts. I am briefly aware I could do something. I could storm in and question my mother. I could call Tyler’s name. But then my mother lets her hands fall at her sides, and goes back to the sink. It is just a moment, so quick it could have not happened at all. My sister stares at the television, her body still. My mother at the sink. I step back, away from them, having done nothing.

My mother takes her MCAT, sends in her medical school applica-tions, and gets rejected one by one. She calls her father, who speaks with one of his former students, now running the international pre-


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A H o u s e w i t h N o M e n med program in the Philippines, and it is set. She will leave in a few months. One evening, I sit at the kitchen counter, doing homework.

I can hear my mother and sister talking in another part of the house, sharing something private, as they often do. Their voices rise and fall. And suddenly, they are in the kitchen with me, a whirlwind of movement and energy. Tyler holds something, crying. Mom tries to wrench it from her hand. Tyler grabs a glass and fills it with water from the kitchen tap.

“I don’t want to live,” Tyler screams between sobs. I see then the bottle in her hand. Tylenol. She opens the top, pushing Mom’s hand away, and pours the bottle into her mouth.

“No!” Mom screams. She digs her fingers into Tyler’s mouth, pulling out the pills and flinging them away. Tyler clenches her mouth, but finally she releases against my mother, both of them sob-bing and holding on to each other.

I sit still at the counter, my hands gripped tightly together in my lap. My mother and my sister stay like this, unaware of me perhaps, or else unconcerned. So intimate I finally have to look away.

My grandparents fly into town to stay with us the month Mom plans to leave. They help Mom pack, and my grandmother makes dinners so Mom doesn’t have to. They take Tyler and me to play miniature golf, giving Mom some space, and Grandpa takes me on long walks like when I visited them in Florida, like we did when life was simple and containable—a firefly caught in a jar.

Grandma reminds us often what a strong, brave thing our mother is doing, going off into the world to pursue her dream to become a doctor. She needs our support. She holds a tone in her voice when she says this, a tone warning us not to make Mom feel bad. The day my mother is to leave for Manila, my grandparents drive us all to the airport. My mother cries loudly at the gate, clutching onto Tyler who, heeding our grandmother’s warning, tells her everything will be OK. Tyler’s face is flat, without expression. She looks small and empty to me, a deflated doll. When my mother turns her wet eyes to


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me, I just shrug. I refuse to give her what she wants. She made her choice. Let her sit in it. Why should I care about her sadness now?

Besides, in many ways her leaving is a relief. No more of her constant need for attention. No more ducking her all-consuming emotions. I give her a quick hug, trying not to inhale her familiar scent.

Deep inside, though, her leaving takes its grip. A fishhook latching into my bones. Years later, when I am in college and driving back to my apartment, I will hear a psychologist on the radio discussing divorce, talking about how the scariest part of divorce for children is their fear that if one parent left, perhaps the other one will leave too.

I will pull over, the pain rising into my throat, fresh and raw as that day in the airport.

My grandparents help my mother make her way down the tarmac with her bags. Tyler and I stand, silent, and watch her go. A month later, we move in with our dad.


22 •

2

Before boys put their soft, eager hands on my skin, before they pull me into dark rooms and whisper promises I hold on to like rope pulling me from water, before I sink further and further into trouble, I have crushes. Most girls know what it’s like to long for boys in this way, to see the smooth, olive-toned skin of some boy and have their hearts start racing. Overwhelmed by both my mother’s needs and her absence, that sensation feels like desperation.

Boys are unknown to me. When my father moved out, women surrounded me. My mother’s anxious insecurity, her long talks with girlfriends at the kitchen counter, my sister’s sadness, these are the things that made up my life. The times my sister and I visited my father in his one-bedroom apartment were always a relief. There was room to breathe. There was no talk about emotions. Even now, at thirteen, living with him without my mother there to temper it, he seems distant and airy, more like a friend than a parent. It is all computer games and Doritos and music turned up loud.

Boys are connected to this independence for me. I’ve seen the movies, read the books. I know the ways a boy can make a girl feel. I


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believe they have the capacity to pull me out of the muck of my life, to save me, and I will believe this for a long, long time.

Once ninth grade starts, Liz and I spend time in Leonia, a nearby town, to hang out with her boyfriend, Chris. Her grandmother lives there, and we arrive each Friday after school with our packed duffels.

Liz calls Chris, and soon we are walking to the playground behind the library to meet him and his friends. Brian is one of these friends—a dark-haired, quiet, hard boy who is rarely around. When he is, he barely seems to notice me. Liz told me Brian once liked her, and even though Liz has an insecure way of puffing herself up, I believe her.

Why wouldn’t he like her? She is beautiful, skinny, and fun to be around. I, on the other hand, am mousy. My thighs touch (a no-no, according to Seventeen magazine), childish freckles cover my nose, and my hair never does what I want it to. It makes perfect sense that he ignores me. But that doesn’t stop my desire for him. It eggs it on. He is unreachable, a fantasy, like all those movie boys. Plus, he is bad.

One afternoon I watch him come from the library, a book in his hand. Chris, Liz, a few other kids, and I hang out on the play struc-ture at the playground. I sit dangling my legs off the top of the slide.

As Brian crosses the playground, he tears something from the book and lets it float behind him to the ground. Then he walks on. As soon as he is out of view I slide down and get what he dropped. It’s a library pocket for a checkout ticket. He stole a book about Jimi Hendrix. I stuff it into the back pocket of my tight jeans. Chris, who had watched all this, puts an arm around my shoulder.

“Sorry,” he says and smiles. Chris is great-looking as well, with full lips and big eyes. I smile back, embarrassed at having been seen.

In some ways, I harbor a crush on Chris, too. But he’s Liz’s and therefore off-limits.

The three of us and a guy everyone calls Iggy walk down the Leonia streets toward Chris’s house, looking for something to do. I hope Brian will show up again, but know it’s unlikely. It is October and darkness is coming early. Most of the trees are already straggly and


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A H o u s e w i t h N o M e n bare. Chris and Liz hold hands, and Chris tells us about an ex-girlfriend who used to call him every hour just to know where he was. We all laugh at how crazy this girl was. Newly fourteen, I know girls shouldn’t be so demanding. It is one of the many rules I am slowly learning, rules for what boys like and don’t like. I store them in my mind, knowing I need to keep them close if I ever want a boy to like me back.

Chris’s parents aren’t home, so we settle into his living room and turn on the TV. After a while Chris and Liz disappear. It’s no secret they’ve gone off to mess around. The envy I feel is a low ache in my pelvis. I want a boyfriend like Chris. I sit on the worn, yellow couch, and Iggy sits across from me in a La-Z-Boy. Chris’s house is small. It’s clear from the décor his family doesn’t have much money. Most people in Leonia don’t. My mother sent Tyler and me to private school, believing her children should have only the best. But I know only rich people can make such choices. I also know my mother doesn’t like that she can’t control where we go and who we spend time with anymore, now that she’s gone. She would be unhappy if she knew I was spending time with someone like Iggy, and this pleases me to no end.

BOOK: loose
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