Then she had to run across Sixteenth Street to the SuperFresh to pick up the cake. There was just enough time after she arrived home to throw the cake in the fridge, change, and pull the ground beef out of the fridge before she heard his car pull into the driveway. She tiptoed to the front door and peered out the window beside it, making sure not to disturb the white sheer curtain.
He was driving a shiny black Mustang coup. Last time, he had still been driving the mini-van they’d bought together just before the split. She had probably told him to get rid of it. Too domestic.
Marie-Claire had already hopped out and was waiting for him to open the trunk. She had dyed her hair blue. Blue, for Christ sake. It made Marie-Claire’s skin look ghastly. The mother eyed her daughter hungrily. She had missed her so much.
Sure it’s all right to leave you? She heard him say to Marie-Claire.
Marie-Claire shrugged. She probably didn’t hear you drive up or maybe she had to work late, she said. She stubbed her sandal into the suitcase. I’m okay Dad. It’s not like I’m six anymore. I’ve got a key.
He rubbed the top of his head and let out a sigh. He looked up at the house. The mother stepped back in the hallway. She held her breath. As he turned towards their daughter, the mother crept towards the window again. She watched them hug and as they broke away she ran into the kitchen and stuck her hands into the cold, wormy meat. She heard Marie-Claire’s key in the lock and the door open.
She turned on the taps. I’m in here, she called out. She rinsed her hands and wiped them dry on the towel. When she turned around, Marie-Claire was standing there.
The mother buried her daughter in an embrace. Marie-Claire smelled of candy and perspiration. The mother put her arms on Marie-Claire’s shoulders and gave her the once-over. Marie-Claire met her eyes for maybe a second or two before lowering them to the ground. She stood on one foot then the other, half-heartedly trying to remove herself from her mother’s grip. So self-conscious. It was the age. They all got like that around puberty.
You’re growing breasts.
Mom. Marie-Claire flushed. She broke her mother’s grip and turned away.
And you’ve dyed your hair blue. It looks awful. The other kids will make fun of you.
Marie-Claire looked up at her, sideways. No they won’t, she said. It’s vegetable dye. There’s no need to get so slurpy about it.
Slurpy? Slurpy? The mother rolled the word around on her tongue. This some sort of new slang? Is it something she taught you?
Marie-Claire sighed. No Mom. Patricia didn’t teach me anything. It’s just a word. I need some water.
She walked over to the counter and pulled out a glass. She stared at the cupboard above the sink as if making her mind up about something. She filled the glass, took a sip and set it back on the counter. She turned around and showed her mother a big toothy smile.
It was a hot ride.
He has a nice new car, I see, the mother said using a tone of voice that, to the daughter, threatened more criticism to come. The daughter held her smile, even though the sides of her face had begun to ache.
I brought you a present, she said. She ran to the suitcase she had left in the hall and opened it, pulling her clothes out and leaving them on the floor. She pulled out a small box that had been wrapped in purple tissue paper. It was tied with a silver ribbon.
The mother smiled. Oh I love presents. Especially from you. She reached out and rubbed Marie-Claire on the top of her head. And I have a surprise for you, after this.
What is it? Mom? What is it! Marie-Claire rubbed her hands and jumped up and down the way she used to when she was eight and her father still lived with her mother and he would bring her home a chocolate bar on Friday nights after working at the plant.
The mother opened the box and saw inside a necklace with polished translucent stones and beads on a dark metal chain.
Oh, it’s beautiful Marie-Claire. She held it up and watched the stones catch the light. Help me put it on.
She turned away from her daughter and bent her neck. Marie-Claire brushed away the stray curls and fed the loop at one end of the chain into the latch on the other. Marie-Claire put her hands on her mother’s shoulders and turned her around. Now let’s see, she said. Oh, it looks perfect. It goes good with your red hair.
The mother lifted her chin and went to the mirror in the hall. It looks real nice. Then she frowned.
You picked it out all by yourself?
Marie-Claire’s smile slipped a bit. Of course I did!
At the mall? Although the mother did not know where her former husband lived in Toronto, she had heard Marie-Claire mention a mall nearby. Sherwood or something.
At Sherwood? she said.
No. Marie-Claire’s voice was soft. At Kensington.
Kensington. The market? Downtown? What were you doing in Kensington! It’s not safe! You weren’t on your own, were you?
Marie-Claire was silent.
Oh. The mother nodded. She took you.
The mother reached to the back of her neck to undo the necklace’s clasp. So who chose it?
She held the necklace in the palm of her hand.
I told you. I did. Honest, Mom, she’s not all that bad. What did she ever do to you anyways?
The mother pulled her mouth into a thin chilly smile. It was thoughtful of you Marie-Claire, but I really don’t think I want you to go to places like Kensington, even if she is with you. You’re too young.
Mom, I’m thirteen! Besides. Tourists go to Kensington.
The mother looked at her daughter. She saw the two bright red circles on her cheeks that picked up the blue in her eyes and the unfortunate blue in her hair. She realized how much Marie-Claire looked like her father. It was a resemblance that seemed to strengthen with age.
Tomorrow we’re going to see Annie White. She’ll get that vegetable dye out of your hair before school starts. I don’t want the other kids to make fun of you.
Take your suitcase to your room, Marie-Claire.
Marie-Claire went. The mother returned to the kitchen and pulled out the bottle of vodka she kept hidden under the sink, just for times like these. She took a big swig and then she heard Marie-Claire scream. She thrust the bottle under the sink and ran down the hallway to the bedroom.
What is it? Are you okay baby?
She found Marie-Claire huddled over her suitcase in the centre of her room. Her back heaved up and down. She was weeping.
Honey, what’s wrong? The mother stepped into the bedroom and approached her daughter. She pressed her hand against her shoulder blade. She remembered how she used to bathe her forehead when she had a fever. She remembered the milky smell of a child’s skin and imagined she smelled it now.
You can tell me.
No I can’t, Marie-Claire blurted. It’s horrible. She wept some more.
Nothing is that bad.
Perhaps it was something that happened in Toronto, the mother thought.
Marie-Claire looked up at her mother. Tears streaked her face.
You painted my room pink!
Marie-Claire collapsed again in tears. How could you do that! Pink!
Aw honey. The mother stroked her daughter’s hair. You love pink.
Not on walls. Not great gobs of it everywhere like that. Oh, it’s too horrible for words. Marie-Claire wept.
The mother held her daughter. How had she ever come up with the idea of painting Marie-Claire’s room pink? It was damn Ruby’s fault. She’d suggested it a couple of weeks ago when they were sitting out back drinking bloody Caesars trying to cool off in the heat. Kids love surprises, she said.
Marie-Claire sniffed and wiped the tears from her cheeks. It’s a little girl’s colour. It’s what you put on babies.
The mother let go of Marie-Claire. You ungrateful girl, she said. She stood up and shook her finger at Marie-Claire, still huddled on the floor. I worked hard to get you that paint and I worked hard to get this room ready for you when you got back. It’s not like at your father’s where there’s all sorts of money to change your mind or buy based on a whim or a mood. I don’t have money to burn. I work my butt off to make a good life for the two of us and keep the house you were born in. And this is the thanks I get!
She stomped out of the room and slammed the door shut.
Marie-Claire sat up and wiped her face. She heard her mother walk down the hall and heard the oven door open and shut. Why couldn’t her mother be more like her father’s wife, Patricia? Patricia would have understood pink was totally inappropriate for walls. Just like she had understood when Marie-Claire’s first period arrived. She bought her a box each of sanitary napkins and tampons and stood outside the bathroom door while Marie-Claire tried both. Marie-Claire hadn’t even had to ask Patricia not to tell her father. You let your parents know when you are good and ready, Patricia had whispered through the bathroom door.
Her mother would have told the world. She would have called up Ruby and yelled it into the phone. She would have told Marie-Claire’s friends when they came over. Marie-Claire knew this like she knew her mother didn’t want her father to know that she always watched his arrival and departure through the window beside the front door.
It just wasn’t fair, Marie-Claire thought as she climbed on to her bed and buried her face in the pillow.
They began dinner in silence. Marie-Claire sat at one edge of the table while her mother dished out the hamburgers and buns and ketchup and mustard and relish and deep-fried potatoes. After she sat down, they picked up their food, almost in tandem, and began to eat. Half way through her burger, the mother thought, well screw this. Marie-Claire can sulk on someone else’s time. So she began to talk, like nothing was wrong and Marie-Claire was happy to see her.
She told Marie-Claire about the kick-boxing classes she and Ruby were taking at the Y. It’s really fun, she said. She bit into her burger and examined her daughter as she chewed. You know, between Ruby and me, I think we’ve lost 30 pounds over the summer. Just from working out two times a week.
You’d think Marie-Claire would have noticed.
The mother got up from the table, still chewing on a mouthful of burger, to show Marie-Claire a couple of moves. She brought her arms in and kicked her legs out, not necessarily in the way taught to her in class, but the way Bruce Lee used to do it in the Green Hornet.
Marie-Claire looked up at her mother’s extended leg, held there for effect. She forced a smile. That’s great Mom.
The mother lowered her leg and stared at her daughter who had returned to her food. Maybe it’s not great for a kid like you. Youth makes you so flexible. Oh well. She stared out the window at the back of the kitchen at ridge of escarpment that marked the town’s boundaries.
So what did you do for a whole summer? You haven’t even told me yet. I haven’t seen you for two straight months.
It suddenly became very hard for Marie-Claire to swallow. Nothing much, she said. Mostly we just hung out.
Just hung out, the mother repeated. I guess she didn’t have a lot of time for you with her big P.R. job and as for him.
Marie-Claire took a sip from the glass of milk her mother had poured for her without asking. In Toronto, she drank what she liked with dinner. Mostly she chose juice. Her father and Patricia drank wine. On the night of Marie-Claire’s first period, Patricia set out a small wine glass for her, too. When her father noticed, Patricia said it was for no reason, other than Marie-Claire was now thirteen and entitled to the occasional glass of wine. Then she winked at Marie-Claire.
I dunno. We went to Canada’s Wonderland and to the CN Tower. We went shopping a lot. And to movies.
Hah, I knew it! The mother slammed a hand into the table. Buying you off with carrots. That’s all that was, you know that Marie-Claire. You realize that, don’t you?
She peered at her daughter. Took her chin between her fingers and raised her head. Looked her right in the eyes.
Marie-Claire looked away. Sure Mom, she said.
No, look at me. The mother gave her daughter’s chin a firm wag. This is important. Money doesn’t buy everything. Money doesn’t make up for love. Your father thinks it does, but don’t you ever forget, he was the one who chose to leave. Not me. Don’t you ever make the mistake of trusting your father like I did.
Marie-Claire bravely looked back at her mother for a second or so before her gaze faltered. Her mother let go of her chin. She sighed.
There is another surprise for you in the fridge, but I suppose you don’t want that either. You’re not a little girl anymore.
What is it?
Her mother took up the plates. Do you want me to cut you some?
I’m not hungry anymore.
After dinner, Marie-Claire told her mother that she was going to visit a friend. She made a big deal of pretending to call, and carried on a long conversation with the dial tone. Before she left, she put on the smile again, hugged her mother and told her that pink really was okay and that the cake was beautiful. She’d have some when she got back.
Outside, Marie-Claire headed in no direction in particular but ended up at the top of the escarpment anyways. Everyone knew if you walked far enough in town, you’d end up at the top of the escarpment – or in the harbour.
She kicked a few stones and watched them cascade over the edge of the limestone cliff. When they visited the CN Tower, her father told her that if you dropped a penny from its top, it would go right through a person on the ground below, like a bullet.
She had resisted going to the tower. She wasn’t a little kid, she told them. But really, she did want to go. They ate dinner in the revolving restaurant and afterwards, when she was full and dreamy with the skyscape of Toronto, she made her mistake.
If only I could live here all the time, she said. Her father and Patricia looked at each other.
Look Marie-Claire. Her father leaned towards her and took her hand.
When you are ready to go to college or university, you can stay with us until you find a place. Though you’ll most likely want to live in residence with your friends rather than old fuddy-duds like us. But right now . . . he glanced at Patricia who examined her coffee mug . . . Right now it’s better for you to stay where you are. Besides. What would your mother do without you?
She had managed to smile and even laugh. Sure Dad, she said. I was only joking. I meant here, in the CN Tower above the clouds. Above everything.
She had so wanted to believe he felt it was for her own good. After all, he had been right to leave her mother. Her mother would have stumbled through his urban world spilling vodka in its designer kitchens, making inappropriate comments to his clients and painting bedrooms pink on a whim. Not the type of support he needed from a wife. Not like the woman he was with now.
As the escarpment faded into darkness, she remembered a song her mother used to sing to her when she was just a little girl. What was it? Itsy Bitsy Spider. That was it. Marie-Claire closed her eyes, trying to remember the song, her hands instinctively following the movement of it. At the end, her mother always took her hands inside her own and clapped them together. The song made them both laugh.
She remembered too how her father would storm out from the kitchen and yell at them to keep the noise down. How could he study for his exams with all the noise going on here! How could they expect a better life than the one they had if they didn’t let up!
Marie-Claire opened her eyes and peered into the now-black landscape. She wondered how big a rock had to be before it was considered a boulder and she wondered how big a boulder had to be before it was considered a hill or a mountain. Then she wondered if there was a boulder big enough to bury her feelings.
Mary Baxter is a London, Ontario writer and award-winning journalist. Her short stories have appeared in the online journal Montreal Review and her poems have been published in regional publications serving Grey and Bruce Counties in Ontario and in the former online journal Niederngasse. She holds an Honours B.A. in English from the University of British Columbia and a M.Phil. in Anglo-Irish Literature from Trinity College, University of Dublin.
Volunteers for Issue 8
For copy-editing this issue of MTLS thanks:
- Amanda Tripp
- Carmel Purkis
- Rosel Kim
- Julia Cooper
- Lequanne Collins-Bacchus
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