by Janie Emaus
“Sara, who was that?” Judy asked as her daughter tossed her phone onto the couch.
“No one,” Sara answered.
“No one?” Judy watched the way Sara picked at her cuticle. Her unwillingness to say more. “Was he a boy from school?”
“Mom.” Sara threw the word against Judy. “I told you. It was no one.”
A queasiness churned inside Judy as Sara stomped from the kitchen. She knew all too well the boy who had called was not a “no one.” Not the boy with the bad posture who sat next to Sara in Language Arts. She talked about him for hours on end. Not the boy with the squeaky voice who called every Thursday for math homework. He was just plain annoying. No, this boy was someone special.
Someone who could make Sara’s thirteen-year-old world tilt too much for Judy’s liking.
“What?” Sara glared at Judy before slamming her bedroom door.
Judy knew Sara was lying face down hanging over the edge of her bed, twirling the eyes on Pandy, a stuffed animal left over from her toddler days. Intentionally. But you’d never pry that confession out of her. It took all Judy’s willpower not to knock. Not to walk in. Which of course, was her mother’s right, but not the right thing to do.
Instead she stood in front of the living room window. The rain smashed the roses, collecting in the dips on the patio. The lounge cushions, which should have been put into the garage, were turning into soggy nightmares.
The scent of strawberry floated around Judy.
“Want to go shopping?” Sara asked.
“You said we’d go this weekend.”
So she had. But right now, Judy felt like reading.
How nice to curl up on the couch with that novel. How long had it been sitting on her nightstand? Every time she picked it up she had to reread a few paragraphs to remember the story. Sort of the way she saw her life. A few steps forward and then she would play back a little of the day before. Was this what it felt like to be middle-aged? But then didn’t everyone hit middle age at a different time? And actually, one never knew when one was at that middle age until one’s death.
“C’mon, Mom,” Sara said. “I need some new things.”
Sara had been repeating this all week. She needed a pair of shoes. A pair of pants that fit. And then, that thing.
“Thing.” Judy said as they entered the lingerie department. “You mean a bra.”
“Ssh,” Sara whispered
This side of her daughter baffled Judy. She wasn’t modest about the changes in her body, not even in front of her father. But here in the store, she was embarrassed. Judy watched her daughter unbutton her shirt, curious to see how much she had developed since the last time she had seen her naked. The days seemed to show as months on her daughter’s body.
When the curtain wouldn’t stay shut, Judy offered to hold it. She had held a curtain like this hundreds of times for girlfriends. Shutting out the world, while they tried on their futures. And in the too near future, her daughter would be holding the curtain and giggling with her friends about boys. About the “no ones.”
Without any warning, Judy imagined young clumsy hands moving over her daughter’s body, lingering on the newly formed breasts.
She turned her attention to the floor. A toddler in the next dressing room played on the ground, her tiny foot sticking through the crawl space. Wasn’t it just yesterday when Sara was that small? Sitting on the floor, surrounded by crayons, instead of tubes of eye shadow and lip liners, trying so hard to color between the lines.
Judy glanced at her daughter. She was struck by the fullness of Sara’s lips, shaded a deep pink and perfectly lined with dark brown. At her long lashes accentuated with mascara. At the blush on her high cheekbones. Panic rose into her chest. She started talking, hoping her words would wash away the inevitable.
“We left in such a hurry, I have to call your father to see if I turned off the bathroom heater.”
“It was off,” Sara said.
“Did we lock the back door?”
“What are you talking about?” Sara asked. “Dad was staying home. Ugh. These don’t fit.”
Judy shifted positions. The things were already too small. She had outgrown the ‘nearly A’ cup in a matter of minutes. “Try this sports bra on,” Judy suggested, imagining eager hands pulling the bra off and gawking at what lay beneath. “I’ll go get you a bigger size.”
What she really wanted was to inhale some fresh air. To kill the images flooding her mind. And she wanted the impossible. She wanted to turn back time.
Back in the dressing room, Sara sat against the wall. “What took you so long?” she asked.
“Here.” Judy tossed several more things on the bench.
As Sara changed, Judy studied her daughter. Familiar, yet so strange. Her freckled shoulders. That tiny snowflake birthmark on her collar bone. Her flat stomach. Maybe she should have that mole near her bellybutton removed. And such amazing hair. Thick as fog and just as dangerous to pass through. As a toddler, Sara hated to have it brushed. Now it cascaded down her back in silky waves.
It wasn’t really a miracle to give birth. The miracle lay in raising the child into a decent person. In doing all the right things, when everywhere you went someone was luring you in the wrong direction. In keeping them safe from all the hands that wanted a part of their bodies. Safe from all the promises that would turn into empty words. An emptiness that could fill a broken heart with tears.
Without intending to, Judy thought about Brian. He had been the first boy to touch her. Every afternoon after school she would hurry to the gas station where he worked and during slow periods they would make out behind the counter. He touched her with grease stained hands. She wore the smudges proudly to school.
For a whole six months Judy thought he was the one her mother kept talking about. The man who would take care of her for the rest of her life.
And then one day, after running his rough hands over her new silk blouse and his words into her hopes, he stopped calling. The next time she went to the gas station, she saw a version of herself leaning against the counter, leaning into Brian’s promises. She went home and cried for a week.
What she wouldn’t give to keep her daughter away from that kind of pain. If only it were possible.
“Mom,” Sara stood in front of her. “What’s the matter with you today?”
“Nothing,” Judy answered. “Let’s go check out Forever 21.”
Sara’s eyes lit up. “Really?” She rushed out of the dressing room ahead of her mother.
The mall was crowded, a confirmation of Sara’s theory that it was good to shop in the rain. Judy walked a few paces behind her daughter, catching up with her in front of Forever 21.
“I have to have that,” Sara said. “Please, Mom.”
Judy stared at the perfectly proportioned mannequin, dressed in a slinky black dress. She had worn a similar dress to a fraternity party, a million years ago. “No, it’s too revealing. You can’t even wear that to school. Besides, your father won’t approve.”
Sara rolled her eyes. “You don’t want me to wear it. Why do you always blame it on Daddy?” She stormed into the store. Judy knew the scenario. Her daughter would beg. Judy would say no. Sara would protest and promise she’d never ask for anything ever again and Judy would give in.
Sara should have been a boy, Judy thought. No better yet, she should have been a boy. Then it would have been different. Her dreams would have been her own. But her mother had made her see the world as she had seen it. And in time, Judy had seen the world through the eyes of whoever she was dating.
During her first year at junior college Judy studied men, searching, hoping for the right one. The one her mother said would make her life complete. For after all, a girl who belonged to someone, who wore someone’s else identity, was safe.
“Hello,” Sara waved a hand in front of her face. “Are you coming in? Why are you acting so weird?”
Judy forced her lips into a smile. Sara headed straight for the black dress. “Please.” Sara held it up to her body. “I could wear it to Sabrina’s party. There’s going to be a lot of really hot guys there.”
Hot guys. Have some hot young hands already touched Sara’s young skin? That thought crawled into Judy’s mind like a spider.
“I haven’t said you could go yet,” Judy replied without conviction.
“Mom! You promised.”
“I said maybe.”
“Whatever.” Sara slammed the dress back on the rack. “You just don’t want me to have any fun because you never did.”
“That’s not true. I want you to have fun, I just don’t want….”
Judy broke into a sweat. The store was too hot. The video on the TV was too graphic; a young girl gyrating against a pole while men in leather jackets gathered around her. She couldn’t stay there a second longer. She turned and hurried out of the store. Taking deep breaths, she paced around in circles. Spotting an empty seat, she rushed to sit down before it was taken.
And then she waited, as she had done hundreds of times before. At the elementary school. In the auditorium. At the softball game. At the kitchen table. What would she do when she didn’t have to wait anymore?
She watched as Sara approached. Her long hair bouncing off her shoulders. This daughter of hers, this stranger. Judy started to rise when a group of young boys nearly collided with Sara.
The adrenaline rushed through her body, the familiar rush of fear. But then it became obvious that these boys knew Sara. Judy sat back, pretending to rummage through her purse. The taller of the boys placed his hand on Sara’s shoulder. Sara leaned forward and whispered in his ear. He moved his hand to the small of her back. Judy could feel his palm pressing into her daughter’s skin. She felt his fingers moving toward the mole on Sara’s stomach.
Judy watched Sara’s body language. She knew this emotion. Her heart beat in rhythm to Sara’s. Quick, full of anticipation. She brushed her own hot cheeks with the back of her hand. This boy stood in the center of her daughter’s world. He could make her laugh or cry. And drive her to the point of despair. If she let him. And there was no doubt in Judy’s mind, Sara would let him.
Judy caught her daughter’s glance. Sara smiled and raised her left shoulder slightly, a gesture left over from her preschool days. Judy turned away before the tears left the corners of her eyes. She stood up, tucked her hands into her jacket pockets. Through a haze of images she walked over to Barnes and Noble and stared in the window. At nothing and at everything.
A few minutes later the familiar hand slipped inside hers and squeezed tightly.
“He’s cute, isn’t he?” Sara asked. “But sometimes he’s a real jerk.”
Judy nodded. She wanted to know if he had been the boy who had called this morning. But she also knew it didn’t matter. So, she said nothing. She simply held on to her daughter’s hand. Not yet. Not now.
But when the time came, she knew she would have to let go.