I have my feet in the stirrups and it’s not cold like I thought it would be, I have the gown on and I don’t feel like a prisoner from Auschwitz like I thought I might, she is fitting the metal duck up inside of me and it doesn’t hurt like I thought it couldn’t not. I barely feel a thing. I can feel a pulse from my hand where it’s pressing down against the paper-covered vinyl at my side and it isn’t fast at all, as slow as when I watch TV. This is what it’s like to be a woman, I think. This isn’t bad at all. Who lied? What happens when the only thing you’re scared of you’re not scared of anymore?
I’ll tell you what happens. You go and fix the world.
First off, you find that turquoise book your mother left you on your bed when you were nine, the one with the big red dot on the cover—how clever, that. The one about the period. You find it and you find all the ones in town. You find the last chapter in them with that illustrated stirrup scene and you paste in pictures of waterfalls and butterflies all over them instead. You get jobs at Barnes & Noble and the local library so you can assure unsure customers that yes indeed that is the book itself, that’s how it came, that’s how it’s made, and you moonlight as a customer service rep for Amazon.com to do the same over the phone.
That’s what I did, but that’s not all. Still plenty more world-fixing left. I take out terrorism first, all the kinds our country says there is and all the kinds there really are as well. Check that all off the list. Then I get to gangs and drugs, and then to things like clowns and spiders. Then I train grizzly bears to file down their claws and teeth, and I domesticate the ocean’s sharks so they lick you when you swim, and I globalize the firefly population so nowhere’s really that dark any more. I leave movies ‘cause they’re fun, and plus I’ve started a training program to teach parents to help their children safely enjoy violence on TV.
“That’s only in the movies,” they’re supposed to say and kiss their child’s head goodnight. “They have to make that up ‘cause real life’s just too nice now.”
And then, every even-barely creepy guy I find lurking in an alley, I get ‘em with a lasso made of mountain lion hair—that thing’s real strong—and lock ‘em all in an arcade, where they get too full of blinking lights and pizza to ever think to hurt a girl again. I choose one of them to love, and put him in charge of that whole operation so I have more time to raise our kid. And when my daughter graduates fifth grade, I get her one of those money leis but instead of money, tampons. I want her to be really proud.
“Mom,” she says, and rolls her eyes, “I started all this years ago.” She pulls her panties down from in her skirt and shows me an old red stain.
I give her an eyebrow but it weakens, and I can’t do much to hide the fact I’m tearing up.
“Years ago?” I say. She pulls her underwear back up and smoothes her skirt.
“Yeah,” she says, then smiles for a picture with her grandparents. “When I was eight.”
When she was eight, I think. When she was eight we’d moved across the town and I’d thrown her a party (complete with cake and ponies) so she’d get in good with everybody new, and I bought her a stationery set so she could keep up with everybody old. All this so she’d never think to have no friends. I’d installed a surveillance camera system in the house so that if anybody bullied, I could be right there to make it stop, and when the party ended, I set them up in the new school bathrooms so I could get there right away if any funny business went around. That’s what I did when she was eight.
“It’s cool,” she says, “I checked this book out at the library. Said everything was waterfalls and butterflies.”
I put her to bed that night and right away start digging a hole to God. He lives in a hot little room at the bottom of the earth, where it’s hot and muggy and where he can sweat it all out while he waits for us to come complain. I want to know what happened, how my daughter figured it all out. It’s never a big deal, getting him to let me know things, but getting there is hard. Just last time there were falling rocks and this time there are poison moles and now my forearms hurt and swell with the stings of their bites as I push them away with every digging stroke.
When I get there, he explains:
You did something for her, he says, so she did something for you. Remember this guy? He pulls back a curtain and I see Jesus Christ waltzing around some godforsaken desert with a basket of fish and some flat stale bread. She paid attention to him, God says.
But we don’t even go to church, I tell him.
Shit doesn’t matter, God says. That guy’s there.
You cheated me, I tell him. You robbed me of my motherhood.
I let your daughter come out of you alive, he says. I even went in there and unwrapped her umbilical cord from around her neck.
When was that? I ask.
Month eight, he says. When you took your husband to the back room at the arcade and made him have pregnant sex with you.
He loves pregnant sex, I think, and I can hear God thinking right back, no he doesn’t.
You took him away from his work for that, he says.
I own that place, I say. I cleaned up all your world.
God shrugs. He pulls back a curtain and I see a dirty black kid kind of hungry. He pulls back another, and someone’s pissing in a public fountain.
Goddammit, I say, and he gives me an eyebrow. So I missed a few spots, I say. Big whup. I’ll get to it tomorrow.
I’ll get to it tomorrow, he says, all nasally, like he’s a little brother. My hair is everywhere now, I can feel it sticking on my shoulders, and I’m wiping magma-flecks of sweat out of my eyebrows. When I first got really mad about it I was in the shower and I felt the same kind of steam, but this is different, this stuff stings. Then I’d scrubbed myself raw with a hard-edged loofah wondering how she found out how to get it in, and why she didn’t have to ask a thing of me. I’d skinned my feet with pumice stones and tried to think of all the other moms she might have coyly questioned at the counter over hand-made snacks and lemonade, tried to imagine all the slumber parties used as covert conferences where fourth-grade girls decided how best to launch offensives over menstrual might. In the shower then that night I’d burned my mind down to the quick, and even Harny telling me that’s girls these days and holding me so close and tight didn’t help. Now here I am in heaven-hell with God above, expecting something better.
He’s waiting for me to be direct, I know. He’s wanting me to say exactly what. He wants me to admit I’m confused at how my daughter figured out how to handle bleeding from her undernethers on her own, even though I’d gone ahead before her and made certain that she would. He wants me to tell him I’m not happy with the work I did myself, wants me to say it’s really better his way, after all.
She never even asked, I say. And I never even tried.
Tried what, he says.
He pulls back another curtain and I see her in my master bedroom bathroom struggling slowly with another tampon, see the tears heavy in her eyes, see all eight of the white sticks on the floor with their tips barely-bloodied where she couldn’t make them work to plug her up. I see her reach beneath her with her other hand with slackness in the wrist, watch her lightly grace her fingers somewhere down there shaded and then bring them up glazed in shining red for both of us to see.
My mother isn’t crazy, just has a big true heart and believes in big true things.
“You think you’re soooooo hot,” she was yelling, to no one I could think of. I hadn’t heard the door open all afternoon, except when she came in, and she came in alone. Squeezed my foot when I was lying on the couch and told me sit up, sit up, you’re going to squish the armrests.
“You think you’re so right and generous, always giving me exactly what I need, telling me the single thing I need to hear.” I hear the cabinet door creak open and slam shut. “So gracious,” she says all soaked in sarcasm, “showing me my daughter in the moments I missed out, pointing out all the mistakes I made and then assuring me that it’s okay.” The faucet turns on and off so fast and hard I hear the metal bump of it against where it goes no more, a bump that means you pushed too hard and maybe broke something inside.
“Always snickering,” she says, sounding like a villain from TV. “Always thinking I didn’t even see it coming. Well let me tell you something, mister, let me tell you…” She pauses. I hear a vicious hollow whershing sound and then I realize my mother is brushing her teeth. “I didn’t, okay?” she yells all frothy. I hear a liquid plop. “Fuck you,” she says. Ouch. “You were right. I had no idea.” The faucet runs again as I’m almost up the stairs.
“How the hell was I supposed to know?” she yells again. “How was I even supposed to think?” She spits. “You think that I have time for thinking?”
Now, I’ve heard her pray before. This woman has a direct line to the Big Man Upstairs, something to make every St. Francis and Mother Teresa just a little envious. Maybe makes ‘em wish they’d spent a little less time with birds and poor people and more time actually doing things worth getting done on earth.
Alright, alright, I stole that line from her. It’s what she uses to get a laugh out of my uncles and their spacey wives at Christmases and Easter, what she says to help explain her job and put everyone at ease. You think it’s easy, she tells them, being the one assigned to pick up after everybody’s mess? People pray to Mary, she says, and takes a sip of wine, but they dump their shit on me.
You seem like you’re doing pretty good, my one aunt with the implants always says, and rubs her hand down my mother’s arm. Seems to keep your triceps pretty toned.
My shameless mother smiles, and then changes the subject back to Chase’s work. So about that paper mill, she says, you think I can find a way to help you redirect the waste away from Downey Creek?
When she prays usually, it’s like talking to a cross between a dad, a friend, a sister-grandma-mentor-teacher. Like a boss who likes you, she says. I think it sounds like how she talks to me, only she never yells at me. Not a single time in fifteen years.
I’m upstairs now overhearing all this yelling and this brushing. I’m almost up the staircase and starting to inhale the smell of bleach. I am worried for her gums.
“You think I can do it all right all the time?” she’s yelling, almost at a scream.
The way the bathroom is, it’s connected without a door to the bedroom. When you walk up the stairs you can see the whole bathroom in the mirror if you stand just a few feet outside it, where I’m standing. I can’t see her in the mirror and I get scared, for a second, get that cold fear of death that’s like someone turned your marrow into ice, so I hurry up to get inside there and she’s sitting cross-legged on the ground, her back to the cabinets underneath the mirror, with a bucket and a toothbrush, scrubbing at the wall.
“You think I can make everything so clean?”
Even I can hear God at this point, saying No, you can’t, that’s not the point, but she’s scrubbing so loud and so close to her face it probably drowns it out.
This is a scene, I think. This is my crazy mom. This is the woman who made sure that I had two best friends, a downhill walk to school both ways with never any snow, and a pink pony at my seventh birthday. This is the woman who put a quick and easy end to World War III, and who came more close to curing AIDS than anybody else. The one who turned third worlds into seconds and who almost wiped out cancer. This is the woman who did—look—how much work?—and who still will have to die like everybody else. I look around the room and wonder what to do. I take a toothbrush from the Costco package of them on the counter and dip it in the bleach beside my mom, and sit down on the ground behind her and start getting at the tiny places between the moulding at the corners and the bottoms of the cabinet drawers, start helping with my smaller hands to get the parts she’s missing in all her size and rage.
For a while we’re on board together. As soon as I’m eighteen she starts giving me some heavier roles. We split the global condom distribution—she takes El Salvador and I take Nicaragua, she takes Somalia and I take Tanzania and then we both hit Ethiopia together, our shoulders rubbing, bumping, as we make our way through the market with the gift bags we’ve made, all the sex protection gear along with toothbrushes and mini tubes of toothpaste and a copy of John Steinbeck and a note about the distribution system we’ve set up for when we leave. We give a speech when we go away, and we both shake hands with the Pan-Pacific President and smile for the press on-stage. Dad drives the truck behind us as we make our way around and gets his guys to wrassle anyone who reeks of unconsensual anything so he can round ‘em up and put ‘em back in the arcade.
I take a page out of her book, and literally too. One day I finally realize it and I tear out that waterfalls-and-butterflies page from the turquoise period book, the one I found at the library so many years ago—I have kept it, overdue—with the one page collaged in like some teenager making art from Cosmo mags, everything sideways and riddled through with pasted words from headlines like YOU RADIATE and BEAUTIFUL.
“This,” I say, and I can see her jaw tighten, her eyebrows raise as I approach holding the thing, “this was you.”
She nods, and breathes, and it’s okay. She lets her arms unfold and takes a seat on the sedan and tells me about how she covered up the stirrups page with pretty things, and then we grin and go to town. We pull out stacks of period book boxes she has kept hidden back in the garage. We get out the craft bin, too, and then we go to town. We fill some of them with unicorns and dolphins, stickers of kittens and baby squirrels. We paste in landscapes from the National Geographic photo contest issues and we change the plots completely. Others we cover in red paint and turn to gore. We’re in the garage and laughing, head-to-toe in red and glue—the shiniest of murders ever. We decide to go extremist art and use our own period blood instead. We wait two weeks—we’re synced, of course—and dip the brushes right inside ourselves and make one book the messiest of all.
We go out for margaritas and laugh and laugh and laugh on how we’ll send that copy to the publishers. Halfway through the pitcher we are crying about how beautiful it is, that our blood is here together, look here we are mother and daughter in the booth and on the page. We have pulled the copy out at the Mexican restaurant and are trying to tell our waiter that it’s salsa. This only makes us laugh harder and cry more. He brings us extra napkins and our check and asks for us to leave soon please.
At home we bundle up beside the fire with fair-trade hot chocolates and talk about our partnership, about our world-work here and how we go about it.
“What’s the secret numero uno?” I ask her, and the brown sticks to my lip. “If you had to boil it all down, what would you say it is we do?”
She strokes the mug-side with her fingers, like it’s some ceramic neck-of-cat. “We pray,” she says, “and then kick ass on evil.”
I can’t wait to keep it up, but we start heading different ways. I get to work on some environmental salvage program, but Mom has to go to Canada—the border there’s been acting up since she figured out all the Mexico business back in ’15. There’s some gangs re-booting in LA but she takes the jet to fight the underground oak-smugglers in China. Someone at the Capitol is trying to slice the teacher’s salaries again and I invite her to the plate, but then she’s headed off to Guam. I would miss her, I think, if she’d been any fun the weeks before.
A few more weeks of things like this and I go complain to Dad at the arcade. He tells me wait a second he’s got to fix the Pacman machine before the serial rapists start getting antsy and uptight again. When he comes over to me finally he asks, “Now what’d you want to say?”
“Mom’s really hard to work with,” I confess. “Hard to get a hold of. You know?”
“I know,” he says. “This isn’t easy stuff.”
I hold up my elbows, with big and bloody scrapes on them from army-crawling round a rock cliff to feed with worm-blend droppers the screeching chicks of endangered birds of prey. Dad nods and kicks a rock. He locks up good and drives me home and we go through the citywide nutrition program data together, and then call it a night. Mom’s still not home. He falls asleep on the couch, a really grey Jon Stewart complaining on the TV about how boring everything is now, now that there’s no problems in the world. I roll my eyes and go to shut him off, but the remote is deep between Dad’s legs so I leave him to his kind of sleep and go and do my own.
Upstairs I do it old-school this time, knees agrounded and scabbed elbows resting on my bed. I pound my forehead with my folded fists and squeeze my eyes closed from the moonlight that’s too bright. How are we the same, I think, and press my swollen breasts against the bed. I know how we are different, God, but how are we the same.