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Authors: Mona Simpson

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BOOK: Anywhere But Here
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“Huh-uh. Look at us. And look at this car. We can’t go like this. We’re going to clean up a little first.”

“They’re used to it, they’re a hotel, aren’t they?”

“Honey, the Bel Air isn’t just a hotel.” She had the tone she always had when she was too tired to fight. “You’ll see.”

“Why can’t we wash up there?”

“Because
. That’s why. You just don’t. Listen to me once in a while.” Then it seemed she’d brought me all the way to California just to make me mind.

She parked in front of a restaurant near the campus of UCLA.
“This looks like a good little place. And we can have a bite to eat. Hamburger Hamlet, it’s called. Cute.”

She took our gingham dresses from the trunk. They were still in their dry-cleaning cellophane. Two men leaned against the building. They had tie-dyed sheets spread out on the sidewalk with buckles and leather belts for sale. We stood there staring down, entranced. They were slow and graceful, smoking.

“What are you looking at? Come on,” my mother said. The ladies’ room was upstairs in the restaurant. “Those kids are on drugs,” she whispered. “They’re hooked on marijuana.” My mother had read about drugs. She always read the magazines. Now she listens to talk radio. But even then she knew what drugs were.

In the rest room my mother plugged her steam rollers into the wall socket and unpacked her cosmetics and soaps, lining them up on the counter. She used the row of sinks as if this was her own huge dressing room. She turned on a hand dryer and touched up her nails, holding them under the warm air.

She washed, shaved her underarms and ripped open a fresh package of nylons. She clipped the hot rollers into her hair. She stood in pantyhose and a bra, starting on her makeup. She didn’t dally, watching other people. Strangers touched their hands under thin streams of water in the sink farthest from us and my mother didn’t notice. She was driven. The will to be clean.

“Ann,” she called then, looking for me in the mirror. I was standing by the door. “Comemeer.”

“My name is Heather,” I said. While we were driving she told me I could pick a new name for myself in California. It would be my television name.

“Heather, then. You know who I mean.” She sniffed me. “You smell,” she said, and handed me a towel. “Let’s have some scrubbing action. Get undressed and hurry it up.”

I washed standing on one leg, the other foot on my knee, swishing the towel around lightly. Other women disciplined their eyes to look away from us, cut a hole in the air and avoided falling into it again.

They saw me as a Theresa Griling. It’s a long story, this girl I
knew at home. I was beginning to understand how someone could become a long story.

My mother didn’t notice the other women, but she saw that I was embarrassed. All of a sudden she saw that. And it must have seemed like a defeat. She’d driven all that way and now we were here and I was ashamed of her.

She sighed one of her sighs. “Comemeer,” she said. She brushed blush on my cheeks. “Listen. Nobody cares, do you hear? They don’t give a hoot. They can think we wanted to wash up before we eat. They can see we’ve been traveling. They don’t want you to stay dirty.”

I must have looked pale standing there, because she pushed some lipstick over my lips. They were chapped and I wouldn’t stand still, so she smeared a little and licked her finger to clean the edge of my mouth. I ran over to the sink and spit. I tasted her saliva, it was different from mine.

I felt something then, as I stood watching my spit twirl down the drain. I wanted to get away from her. There was nowhere I could go. I was twelve. She’d have me six more years.

My mother examined us in the mirror and sighed. She held my chin up and looked at us both. She’d been right. We did look much better. She gathered our things back into the suitcase and snapped the buckle shut. “See, all done,” she said. “Doesn’t it feel good to be clean?”

We found eight car washes in Westwood that afternoon but they were all the drive-through kind. My mother wasn’t going to trust them with our Lincoln. She would now, but we were new then.

“You wouldn’t do it by
hand?”
She was standing on the blacktop talking to a boy who looked as if she were asking for the world. “I mean, I’ll pay you.
Ex-tra
. I just don’t want those hard detergents on it. They’ll hurt the finish.” She ran her hand on the car top. It was still smooth and new. This was a long time ago.

“You can wash it yourself, lady,” the boy said, walking off. He walked with his head tilted slightly back, as if he owned the sky.

My mother sat down again in the car. “You know, I guess we
could,” she said. “I guess we could do it ourselves.” She started to unpack the backseat.

“Heather, go.” She gave me a five-dollar bill. “Give him this and say we want rags for the windows and stuff to clean the seats. Oh, and ask if they have a little vacuum cleaner, too. Go on.”

She already had our one suitcase out and the trunk open. My mounted child’s ice skates were on the pavement next to a tire.

The boy stood hosing off the wheels of a Jeep. “Hurry up,” my mother yelled, but I kept sluffing. I didn’t care about the car being clean. If it was mine, I’d have just left it dirty. She would say I never learned to take care of a thing.

I stood with the five-dollar bill stuck in my hand, looking down at the cement ramps by the gas pumps.

“Could we please buy rags and cleaning stuff and also possibly rent a vacuum cleaner?”

The kid laughed. “What kind of cleaning stuff?”

I shrugged. “For the outside and for the seats.”

“Gonna do it yourself, huh?”

“She wants to.”

He put the hose down, not turning it off, so a stream of water dribbled down the blacktop. He stuffed a bucket with rags and plastic bottles. “You have to pull up here for the vacuum. You just pull on up when you ready.”

“Thank you.”

“I don’t know how much to charge you for this stuff. Five dollars probably be too much. You not going to use that much fluid.”

“She might. You better take it.”

He laughed. “She might, huh? She always like that?”

My top lip pulled down over my teeth. “Oh, no, she’s usually not that bad. We just moved here. Just today.”

“Oh, I see. Well, makes sense. Anxious to get the car cleaned, huh?”

“Yeah.”

But we kept looking at each other, his chin tucked down against his neck and his eyes dropping open, until my mother called.

“Heather, hurry it up. It’s already four o’clock.”

“That your name, Heather?” He picked up his hose again.

“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks.”

Torches flared on both sides of the road that led to the Bel Air Hotel. The path wound in and out of woods. My mother drove real slow. She parked underneath the awning. I moved to get out but she stopped me and told me to wait. She rested her hands on the steering wheel the way she used to for years on top of my shoulders. The valet came and opened the doors, her door first and then mine. She wasn’t shy to relinquish the car now. There was nothing embarrassing in it. It was clean. The leather smelled of Windex.

At the desk a man shuffled through his book. “We’ve put you in the tower, which is a lovely room, but there’s only one bed. A double. I’m afraid it’s all we have left.”

My mother let a frown pass over her face, for appearances. We’d slept in doubles all the way across America. She didn’t like to sleep alone. I did. She was frowning for me to see, too.

“That will be all right.” She shrugged.

Following the valet to our room, we let ourselves relax. I bumped against the wall and she let me bump because I was clean. The stucco seemed to absorb amber evening light.

We walked through an outdoor courtyard. There was a small café; white tablecloths, white chairs, the distant slap and shuffle of late swimmers. People at the tables were drinking, lingering in daytime clothes.

We climbed stone steps to the tower. My mother tipped the valet and then closed the door behind us. I crossed my arms over my chest. She looked at me and asked, “What’s the matter with you now? Don’t tell me even this doesn’t satisfy you.”

She stood looking around the room. And it was a beautiful hotel.

But I was thinking about us on our hands and knees, our butts sticking out the car door, scrubbing the melon juice stains off the leather. The afternoon canceled out now. My mother was not that way. She could hold contrasts in her mind at once. She must have found me horribly plain.

“It’s nice,” I said.

A green and white polished cotton canopy shaded the four-poster bed. My mother kicked her shoes off and collapsed. I sat on the window seat, my leg swinging over the side. My jacket hung on the back of a chair where I’d left it. She hooked it with her bare foot and brought it to her face. Then she tried it on, adjusting the collar, turning it up.

I looked at her—she was standing on the bed, barefoot, her toenails polished a light shade of pink, glancing in the mirror. “Take my jacket off,” I said, cranking the window open. It wasn’t warm but my arm was pumping as if I needed air.

“It fits me. You don’t know what a cute little shape I have, for a mother. Pretty darn good for my age.”

“Can we afford this place?” I wasn’t looking at her anymore. My face was out the window, gulping the night. I watched the waiters move, beautifully, around the glows of candles on the little tables. One man cupped his hand over a woman’s to light a cigarette. My mother’s fingers spidered on my back.

“I’ll worry about that, okay? I’m the adult and you’re the child. And don’t you forget that.”

“Don’t I wish I could.”

“Well, you can. So start right now.” She laughed, half a laugh, almost a laugh.

“I’m hungry.”

“Should we call room service?”

“No, I want to go out.”

I hardly ever said things like that. I was afraid I would be blamed for wanting too much, but that night it seemed I had to go outside. I didn’t like being just with my mother all the time. You were alone but she was there. My mother must have felt that too, but I think it was one of the things she liked about having a daughter. You never were all alone.

“I don’t know, I’d just as soon have something here, now that we’re parked and all. To tell the truth, I’m sick of this driving. You don’t know, you haven’t been doing it, but it tires you. You can’t believe how my shoulders feel. They ache, Heather-honey, they really ache. Twenty-one, twenty-two, let’s see, we left the
fifth, do you realize, we’ve been on the road sixteen days. No, the fifth to the, today’s—”

“We can go here. You don’t have to drive. There’s a restaurant down there.”

Her head turned. She looked a little startled; she always did when she was interrupted from one of her long songs. “Oh, okay. Fine. That’s fine. It’s just this driving, seventeen days, day in, day out, eight hours a day behind that wheel and boy, you feel it, you feel it right—”

I stood up and walked to the door, my jacket hooked on one finger. “Let’s go.”

“Well, would you just wait a second, please, and let me wash my face? And I want to put on a little bit of makeup.”

I sat on the steps and listened to her vigorous washing. She slapped her face, her feet thumping on the bathroom floor.

“It’s going to be a few minutes,” she said.

And it was. The sky went from deep blue to purple to black in the time it took my mother to get ready. I sat on the steps watching other people come to the café, sit down and drink, clinking their glasses together. I saw a man reach across a table and rummage underneath a woman’s hair, as if there were something to find.

My mother was humming, standing with her back to me.

When she stepped outside, I sniffed loudly to let her know I didn’t like perfume. I was wearing my regular afternoon clothes, and she’d put on a long dress, with a slit up the back. She was the adult, I was the child. She wore pearls and heels, her hair was teased two inches out from her face.

I rolled up the sleeves of my shirt. I have the kind of arms you roll sleeves up on. My mother is softer, plush.

“Well,” she said, making noises around her, the pearls, the cotton swishing, “are we ready?” She was talking in an octave higher than her normal voice, a voice to be overheard.

“What do you think?” I shoved my hands in my pockets and started down the stairs. She clattered behind me.

“Wait, wait, would you? Go a little slower, please. You don’t know what it’s like up here. I mean on these heels.” She put her hands on my shoulders. “My balance isn’t what it should be. It’s
fine, in the morning, I’m fine. But by this time of day, you’re just going to have to slow down. Please.”

“Why do you wear them, then?”

“Honey, you know. They look nice.” She caught up to me and grabbed my arm, falling a little. “At my age, they expect you to have a little height. And who knows, maybe I’ll meet someone tonight, you never know. And I’d hate to meet the right man when I had on the wrong shoe.”

But my mother seemed to gain balance when we waited at the café entrance. I was glad to be with her then. I was glad to have her in those shoes. I stood close by her, when I was shy.

“Two for dinner?”

“Please,” she said, her chin high, following him. She knew how to do these things.

We got a small table at the edge of the courtyard with its own glowing candle, like the rest. We didn’t look at each other at first, we looked at the people around us. I didn’t see any free men for her.

My mother opened the menu. “Wow,” she whispered, “a wee bit pricey.”

“Room service would be just the same.”

“Not necessarily. But that’s okay. We’re here now, so fine. Well, I know what I’m having. I’m having a glass of wine and a cup of soup.” Even that was going to be expensive.

“I’m hungry,” I said. I was mad. I wasn’t going to have any soup or salad. If we could afford to stay here then we could afford to eat, and I was going to eat.

The waiter came and my mother ordered her glass of wine and cup of soup. “Is that all, ma’am?”

“I think so. We had a late lunch.”

I ordered a steak and began answering the waiter’s long string of questions. Baked potato. Oil and vinegar. Beans instead of rice.

BOOK: Anywhere But Here
3.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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