Coming of Age
I put my third cup of coffee in the microwave, hoping the fuse won’t blow again. I’m not dressed, haven’t taken a shower. Am trying to finish that article on how to talk sexy to your husband in bed. If I get it in to my editor by tomorrow, and it is accepted, and I made all the required changes in two weeks, I could count on being paid in a few months. I push a stray, graying lock of hair behind one ear, and sit down at the kitchen table, which is also my desk. The book I’m using for a reference says, “I want you to think about the word penis. Now close your eyes and try to visualize your husband’s penis. As you are doing this, slowly mouth the word penis without trying to make any sound. Just feel the way your tongue and lips move. Say it again. And again.” I recall, with a sudden panic, that I haven’t seen my daughter for a few days. That’s what that heavy feeling was, I realize, as I run, barefoot, across the rough floors of the living room, through one tiny bedroom towards the last, and largest, room of our railroad flat. Her door is closed. Studying its cracked and yellowed paint, and the also yellowed childhood drawing of a square red brick house with a smoking chimney, on a spacious bright green field, which had been hanging there for about ten years, I feel the panic I’d been feeling lately when approaching her now always closed door. My heart pulsing in my throat so deeply I feel I might black out, I wonder why I’m afraid of my kid. It was just that lately she didn’t seem thrilled to see me. But was it only my fear of rejection? That’s not mature. Finally I get up the courage to knock. There’s no answer, but I can hear something. A floorboard? Her squeaky bed? I can tell she’s in there. Still, I’m tempted to leave, finish my article. If she isn’t answering, then she’s fine, and if she doesn’t want to see me, OK. At least she knows I want to see her. Then I realize I’ll feel better if I actually see her and speak to her.
The last time I saw her we had a huge fight about her sociopathic friend Tami—who she had a cult like relationship with—and their visits to the Lower East Side gang, Sick Death. I’d found her diary on my desk while I was writing an article called “It’s Great to Marry for Money,” for which I had to do lots of research, since I’d never been smart enough to try it. Usually I don’t invade my daughter’s privacy—for instance, if I saw her diary in her room I’d never look in it—but somehow I wondered whether she wasn’t crying out for me to read it by “losing” it right next to my word processor. Also, she looked like hell lately—scrawny, filthy—and was always grumpy. I realized with horror that it was like having her father—who I’d divorced years ago—around the apartment again—my tiptoeing around explosive and possibly violent outbursts with sullen silences in between. My high blood pressure creating fireworks that burst in my head leaving sparklers in my peripheral vision, I’d opened the lavender vinyl cover of her journal. If I’d once hoped she’d become a writer, here was, once and for all, the proof that that was out. In purple ink, and in a sloppy, rounded handwriting, with circles for dots, and a multitude of misspellings, I saw repetitions and variations of one idea—was Tami fooling around with Cool Breeze behind her, Lauren’s, back, or wasn’t she? I told her that her closeness with a friend she didn’t trust scared me, and her going to the Lower East Side scared me, and her fooling around with members of a gang scared me. I was afraid to ask what she meant in her diary by “fooling around.” I was afraid to ask about drugs. I was terrified that she had an eating problem. She screamed at me. I felt like a child being yelled at by her mother. I cowered, and covered my face with my notebook. “You’re scared of everything,” she shrieked, her light brown ponytail falling down over her slender shoulder. “I’ll die before I turn out like you.” She didn’t accuse me of the one thing I was afraid of—invading her privacy. She was so angry, but yet she looked so frail, so vulnerable, that I began to cry, the first time I’d ever cried in front of her. Her hazel eyes widened with fear, and she put a thin arm around my shoulders. “Everything will be okay,” she crooned as she rocked me.
I am about to knock once again when my daughter’s bedroom door opens. She’s lying on her bed, propped up on her pillows. Or are they her pillow? They’re scarlet velvet, and I don’t recognize them. Strangely, she looks years older than when I saw her a few days ago. Maybe that’s because her hair is moussed back—no more bangs; her forehead is exposed. She’s wearing a peach stretch t-shirt that has tiny sleeves, and is cut low, exposing what has become—quite suddenly, it seems to me—a large ripe bosom with a deep cleavage. I just stand there surprised. From behind me, a man’s voice: “Lookin’ good, ain’t she?” My daughter squirms with pleasure. I notice, in the tanned, flat space between her low-cut tights and her short top, a gold ball in her navel. Where did she get the money for that? I wonder. The thin, light-haired youth sits down on my daughter’s bed. Her now-womanly, well-rounded arm wraps around his narrow, hairless chest. Tattooed letters that I try to read emerge from the edges of his pale blue sleeveless T. I think I can make out the word “hate”—at least the “ate” part—and what looks like a swastika. “He’s so supportive,” my daughter purrs. Looking closer, I think I can see, through my daughter’s blouse, a small ring next to each nipple. However I wasn’t going to get hooked into screaming about the piercings or whatever other ornaments might be adorning her once-pristine body. Didn’t I write an article about teens called, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff?” I sit down on the other side of her bed, noticing with pleasure that she still has her pink Mulan quilt. “How did you get into her room?” I ask. “His name is Chico,” my daughter says. He couldn’t have gotten in without passing through my bedroom. The thought of him, with his dirty nails and fusty smell, sneaking through my apartment gives me the willies. I look at my daughter. She’s running her delicate fingers through Chico’s pale, oatmeal-colored, absolutely straight hair. The only windows in the apartment that aren’t off an airshaft are behind my daughter. These windows face a small concrete backyard that has two large ailanthus trees in it, growing from a small crack. I could see the green above my daughter’s hair, which has a reddish glow around her head, like a fiery halo.
“He came in through here, Mother,” she says. How come she’s calling me Mother, and not Mom or Ma as she used to? I look at where she is pointing. There is a doorway in her room where there used to be just a slightly dirty white wall, against which her bookshelves and toys used to be. “What’s going on here?” I ask. My daughter gets up, and indicates that she’d like to show me around. She’s grown so much in the last few days she towers over me. Her platform boots don’t help. “We were able to rent the apartment across the hall, and they connected here, so we renovated, and now we have a gorgeous ten-room apartment.” My daughter leads me through a maze of beautifully furnished rooms with oak floors and trim, with three fireplaces and a fantastic kitchen, with hundreds of cabinets. There is an island with a stove, like in Frasier, where ruddy gleaming copper pots of various sizes hang from a rack overhead. This is like one of my apartment dreams in which I’d suddenly notice a door somewhere in my apartment that I’d never noticed before. I’d open it, and find a few large rooms I never knew I had. Or an enormous terrace or garden that I could put chairs in, and a picnic table. “Where did you get the money for this?” I demand. “You’re only fourteen.” She had been baby-sitting since she was eleven or twelve, and had even bought her own Sony television. But an enormous renovated apartment? “I knew you’d be jealous, that’s why I didn’t tell you right away. What do you think I’ve been doing?” my daughter asks. “Give a guess. Don’t try to pretend you don’t know. How else was I going to get the things I needed and wanted? From your magazine articles?” “What? What?” I sputter. “Quit pretending you know nothing,” she squints at me. “You as much as gave me your blessing. That’s your game, isn’t it—ignoring what you don’t like so you don’t have to deal with it?” I look over at Chico, who’s gathered his thin hair in a ponytail and changed into a grayish-brown Armani suit. “We’re partners,” my daughter says, linking her arm in Chico’s. “Business partners,” says Chico, winking. He has tiny, deep-set, pale-blue eyes with pupils like bullet holes. I must still look blank or shocked. “That’s right, Mom. I’m a call girl, a high-priced hooker. Very high-priced—one of the best in the business.” “Yeah, right,” says Chico. “Your little girl here gives the best blowjob in the business. She’s famous.” He brings his beady eyes close to my face. “She can take twelve inches.” My daughter giggles with pleasure. “I do everything but digest it,” she says. Her laugh is the same delighted giggle she had when she was a baby.
My daughter places her bright vermilion lipsticked lips on Chico’s pale thin ones. He pulls her closer by tugging gently on one of her nipple rings. I look away. It sounds as if they’re panting, but I realize it’s me, hyperventilating. I look around in vain for a paper bag in case this turns into a full-blown anxiety attack. “You stupid child,” I say, knowing that’s exactly the wrong thing to say. I expect her to yell some insult at me, but instead she looks at me like a devastated one-year-old—like she did the first time some kid socked her in the playground, surprised and hurt. “You’re being exploited,” I continue, but in a softer tone. Maybe I’m reaching her. I don’t have much time to reach her—maybe it’s even too late. I was going to have a talk with her about sex, but I thought the time hadn’t come yet, and now look. “You could get pregnant,” I say, “you could get some disease. And what about college?” I expel some air, pull my ratty robe together across my chest, but not before I notice my own small, saggy breasts. The word “dugs” comes to mind. “Remember those feminist marches I used to take you on? Marches for Choice, marches for equal rights for women?” “Yeah,” my daughter says. “I remember those depressing marches, all those poor women in ugly t-shirts and shorts, and jeans with butterfly patches…” “I can’t believe that’s how you felt about all that…for me that was a most exciting time. You’ve inherited the benefits of our struggle.” “What benefits?” my daughter asks, pursing her lips in disgust. “We worked hard so you wouldn’t be totally exploited.” I scream. My voice cracks, my robe opens. “And now it looks like you’re choosing to be exploited.” I look over at Chico, who’s checking his tie in the mirror. “Exploited! How am I exploited? I’m the one who’s earning a great living, who’s getting rich, who has great clothes and a great apartment, who has a great mate. And I’m only fourteen. I guess you want me to make the same mess of life that you did—no money, exploited by those stupid dates you always had sex with, a dirty, rent-controlled apartment with no windows in two of the rooms, clothing from thrift stores. By the way, I am pregnant already, Mom.”
I stand there with my mouth open. A writer, I’m usually very verbal, but with my daughter, either nothing comes to mind, or inanities burble out as if I’m bewitched—all the trite and horrible things mothers have said to their daughters through the ages. I recall myself, small and sullen in front of my own mother, brows knit, tears on my cheeks, vowing never to say those things she was saying, vowing I’d be much more understanding, open, totally different from that woman yelling at me.
“A baby. What are you going to do with a baby?” “We’re going to let you take care of it, Mother. Since you freelance, you’re home all day. Although I’m not that happy about how you’d bring it up.” Chico nods.
“I may be home, but I’m working. How do you think those articles get written?” “You were never available to me,” my daughter says. “While I languished for attention, you were always busy.” She bites on a cuticle. She looks the same as she did when she was teething on a rubber circlet. Her two front upper teeth still have their “fringes”—the name we gave to their deckled edges.
I can’t believe how she’s interpreted my life—our life together, all my struggles to change things, partly for her benefit. “I always felt that I never had a moment of privacy, or even enough time to do a good job at my work. I was always available to you,” I say.
“And what is he?” I shrug a shoulder in Chico’s direction. “Isn’t he a pimp? Or does he have a day job? Isn’t he exploiting you?” “No, mother.” She fluffs those scarlet pillows, but looks as if she’d like to throw them. She gets her voice under control. She’s sure she’s right, which makes me madder. “We’re in business together. We work together, and we make a great living.” My face is hot, and it feels damp. “It’s not his body that gets used in your business, is it?” I can’t hide my disgust with Chico, though I’m trying. “I’m not the one with the gorgeous body, or the special talent,” Chico says, squeezing a pimple on his chin. “I’m the one with the influential clientele.” “You have the totally wrong idea, mother,” my daughter says. “Chico’s been to Harvard Business? A lot of his friends have helped us, and are now our clients. His real name is Arlen Trent Drumwoodie III.” “The Republican senator’s son?” I ask. “That explains it.” My daughter stares me in the eye. “None of your usual sarcasm.” She’s protecting Chico. “That sarcasm is probably why Daddy had to leave,” she says. “It’s probably why you don’t have any man living with you now.” Chico clasps his diamond Rolex around his thin, hairless wrist. It clicks definitively. I can’t believe what she’s saying. Our entire life together—everything I’ve done, everything we’ve done—is being interpreted by her in some twisted way. From the mirror I look back at myself, and can see that I need to calm down. My forehead is wrinkled with worry, and around my mouth are those lines that make me look like Charley McCarthy, the puppet. I stand straighter, pull my robe closed, and re-tie my belt. I modulate my voice. “You just don’t understand how I lived, so don’t make judgments. Daddy didn’t leave because of my sarcasm. I made him leave because he was hideous.” Her snide smile indicates that once again I’ve said the wrong thing. But is there any right thing?
“Not all girls can take twelve inches in their mouths. Those with this talent are surely entitled to public recognition. But our society denies the prostitute both appreciation of, and the opportunity to exercise sexual virtuosity,” Chico explains, as my daughter helps him squeeze a cufflink through his well-starched French cuff. “What kind of talent is this?” I ask. Now I’m speaking to Chico. “She used to draw and paint. Even as a baby she had a wonderful sense of design, color. She was good at making pottery. She loved it.”
My daughter puts her arm around Chico, which isn’t difficult, as she’s the taller one, as if they’re posing for a family portrait. “Listen,” she says. “I didn’t want it to come to this, but look how we lived. And do you think your work writing those ridiculous articles isn’t prostitution? Don’t you complain that you have to write those idiotic, meaningless and pornographic, anti-feminist articles all the time and don’t have time to write what you want? And the editors hound you with the stupidest changes, all based on their advertisers’ ludicrous demands, they take months to pay, you still have no money, and you still have a shitty place to live? Is that a better, more moral life?”
I’m limp. There’s too much going on here, and I have no more answers. “At least we’ll be able to send our child to private school,” my daughter adds. I cover my face with my hands, and sit on the edge of her bed for a moment. My daughter rushes over to my side, and sits next to me. Chico, who I see now looks just like my kid’s father, gets on the bed too, and places a warm, reassuring hand on my back. We sit for a moment in silence. Then my daughter puts her face alongside mine. I can smell her sweet bubblegum breath, feel her cool, firm cheek. She places her hand on my arm, rubbing gently, soothingly. “Everything’s going to be okay?” she says, the way most of the kids speak nowadays, ending their statements as if they are questions. Her slightly stubby fingers (like her Dad’s), with their gnawed tips, and chipped, blue-polished nails, look like those of a tiny child.
Lynda Schors latest collection of short stories, The Body Parts Shop, was recently published by FC2. She lives in the West Village.