Authors: Mona Simpson
My mother kicked my shin, hard, under the table.
“Didn’t you want a hamburger? I don’t know if you saw, but they have them.”
“No, I’d rather have a steak.”
“Oh, okay, fine. Whatever you want. It’s just that you said you wanted a hamburger. You said it this afternoon.”
Then the waiter left us alone. My mother leaned over the table and whispered. “Didn’t you see me winking at you, you dummy? Didn’t you feel me kick? I can’t afford this. What do you think you’re doing? Jesus. You saw what I ordered, didn’t you? Don’t you think I’m hungry? Am I supposed to starve myself so you can have a steak?”
“Why didn’t you order yourself a steak?”
“Boy,” she said, “I can’t believe how dumb you are sometimes. We can’t
“So why are we here? Why aren’t we somewhere we can afford? I asked you upstairs and you said I shouldn’t worry, that you were the adult and I was the child.”
“Well, children order hamburgers when they go out to expensive restaurants. That’s all they’re allowed to order.”
“Then, why didn’t you change it? Go ahead. Tell the waiter I can’t have my steak.”
“I don’t believe you. You shouldn’t have ordered it! You felt my foot under the table, you just wanted your steak. Well, fine, you can have it now and you’d better enjoy it, because believe me, it’s the last steak you’ll get for a while.”
She sank back into her chair, her arms lapsing on the armrests. Our waiter arrived with her wine.
“Everything all right?”
A smile came reflexively to her face. “Lovely, just lovely.”
She’d had it with me. She pretended that she simply wasn’t hungry. As if not wanting things was elegant, but wanting them and not being able to get them was not.
She leaned over the table again.
“If you were so hungry, why didn’t you order more at lunch? You love hamburgers.
You usually always order a hamburger.”
“I do not
“Yes you do.” She sighed. “Why can’t it ever just be nice? Why can’t we ever just have a nice, relaxing time?”
“In other words why can’t I just want a hamburger, why can’t I
want what you want me to want. Why don’t I always just happen to want the cheapest thing on the menu.”
“That’s what I do, why can’t you?” she said. “Don’t you think I’
hungry after all that driving?”
“You can have some of mine.”
“No.” She shook her head. “I don’t want any. It’s yours. You ordered it, now you eat it.” She looked around the café. “There’s nothing for me here. I wanted to just stay in and have something quick from room service. Not get all dressed up. I just wanted to relax for once.”
Our food came and I stopped looking at her. I started cutting my steak. It was thick and glistening with fat. I put all four rounds of butter in the baked potato. Steam rose up in spirals. Then I shook on salt, spooned in sour cream. It looked delicious. She took a sip of her soup.
“So how is it?”
I said fine, still looking at my plate.
“How’s the salad? You haven’t touched the salad.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, still eating.
“Try the vegetables, you need those vitamins.” She put down her spoon. “Would you like a taste of my soup? It’s delicious, really, these little bits of carrot. They’re grated very finely. I wonder what they use. It tickles your throat when it goes down, like lots of little sparks.”
She was even smiling.
“No thank you,” I said.
She did the talking while I ate. “You know, you’re really right. This is a lovely place. Lovely. The pool over there, can you hear it? That little glup, glup, glup? And this air. I love these warm, dry nights. I wonder how cold it gets in winter. I know we won’t need really heavy coats, coats like we had at home, but do you think we’ll even need any? Light coats? Sort of raincoat-ish? I’d love to have a trench.”
Then I set my silverware down. I guess I was finally full. Now I looked around, too, and up at the starless sky. “The air is nice,” I said.
“Are you finished with that?”
“What? Oh, the steak?”
“I thought if you were I’d try a bite.”
I shoved the whole plate over to her side. I passed her the salad and the dish of vegetables.
“Oh, no, I just want a little bite.”
“Try the vegetables. They’re very good.” I knew if she finished my dinner, that would be the last I’d hear about the bill.
She sighed and settled in her chair. “Oh, it is. Very, very good.” She leaned over and whispered to me. “You know, for what you get, these prices really aren’t so bad. This is enough for the two of us, really. You know?”
Later the waiter came for our plates. All that was left was parsley. “I’ll take that,” my mother said and grabbed the sprig from his tray. He must have thought we were starving. But my mother really always had liked parsley.
“Will that be all? Or can I get you some dessert and coffee?”
My mother winked. “No coffee, please. But I think we’d like to see a menu for dessert. And would you like a glass of milk, Young Lady?”
I looked up at the waiter. “I’d like coffee, please. With cream and sugar.”
He left, to bring the dessert tray. My mother looked at me suspiciously and smiled. “Ann, now tell me, when did you learn to drink coffee? Were you just bluffing or did you learn? Look me in the eye and tell me true.”
We shared the cup when it came. She took a sip, then I took a sip.
“With you,” I said. “I learned from you.”
I could see her looking at me, wondering. But she let it go and she let the bill go, too. Now, I’m glad she did. You grow up and you leave them. She only had me six more years.
THE HOUSE ON CARRIAGE COURT
e were leaving the house on Carriage Court and Ted the ice skating pro. We’d met Ted when we took skating lessons, first to firm my mother’s thighs, then just for fun. All day the air conditioners in the arena hummed like the inside of a refrigerator. On the door of my locker hung a picture of Peggy Fleming; on my mother’s, Sonja Henie. Framed photographs of Ted during his days with Holiday on Ice hung in the main office, next to the list of hourly prices. In them, he didn’t look like himself. He was young. He had short, bristly hair and a glamorous smile. His limbs stretched out, starlike, pointing to the four corners of the photographs. The lighting seemed yellow and false. In one of the pictures, it was snowing.
In spring, three years before we left, my mother had gone to Las Vegas and married Ted. She came back without any pictures of the wedding and we moved into the house on Carriage Court. She said she hadn’t wanted a big wedding, since it was her second marriage. She’d worn a short dress she already had.
When my mother and Ted came home from Las Vegas they took me for a ride in Ted’s car. He turned into a development on the west side of the Fox River and they told me they’d bought a new house. Before, we’d lived all our lives with my grandmother.
“Guess which,” my mother had said, looking back at me from the front seat. Ted drove a white Cadillac, with a maroon interior and roof.
I knew, I could tell from their faces. They’d bought the rectangular house with no windows. “I hope it’s not that one,” I pointed.
“Because that one looks like a shoebox.” They didn’t say anything, Ted just kept driving. Finally, my mother sighed.
It turned out a young architect had built it. He loved the house. He was only leaving because the house was too small for another child.
After we moved into the house on Carriage Court, my mother and I stopped taking lessons. Ted could fill up the ice with other students and that way he made more money. I quit skating altogether. Eventually, my mother stopped, too. Then Ted went to the rink himself every day, like any other man going to a job.
My mother and I seemed different in the new house. I was always in trouble. Neither of us could remember a time anymore when I wasn’t always in trouble. There were rules. We were not supposed to open the refrigerator with our hands, which would smear the bright, chrome, new handle, but by a sideways nudge from an elbow. “Here,” my mother demonstrated, showing me how to pull my sleeve over my fist like a mitten if I really had to touch the handle with my hand. Now that she was married, my mother decorated the inside of the refrigerator. All our jars were lined up according to size.
Sinks and faucets were supposed to be polished with a towel after every time you used them. Then the towel had to be folded in thirds and hung up again on the rack. Ted went along with all this, I suppose because he loved her.
And now that we lived on our own, we had the same thing for dinner every night: thick, wobbly steaks, which my mother served with baked potatoes. She also gave us each a plate-sized salad. Ted thought salad dressing was gauche, so we sprinkled the lettuce with salt and red wine vinegar. We didn’t have any furniture in the house, except for two beds. We sat on a bed and balanced the plates on our laps.
My mother read health books. She read books by Gaylord Hauser about how he kept movie stars on sets in California looking fresh at four in the afternoon by serving them health food protein snacks. She served us protein snacks. Once a week, she broiled a chateaubriand, which Ted sliced for her. She arranged the pink rectangular pieces on a plate and kept them in the refrigerator
under a sheet of Saran Wrap. We ate them cold, with salt. She made us steak tartare for breakfast. She bought ground tenderloin and mixed it with pepper and capers and two egg yolks. We ate breakfast at the counter, standing up. We spread the meat on buttered whole wheat toast.
There were nights I remembered before they were married, when Ted and my mother had eaten late in the gray television light of my grandmother’s living room. They sat in chairs with standing TV trays. I saw them when I came down for a glass of water. Then, the rare, thick steaks, moving on their plates when they touched them with knives, running with the shiny, red-gold juice, seemed to make my whole face swell with longing.
Now, in the new house on Carriage Court, I wanted anything else. All meat tasted the same to me. It tasted the way my skin tasted, like a sucked piece of my own arm. I asked my mother for tuna casserole. But she only laughed.
She told me other people ate tuna because it was cheap. Plus it wasn’t healthy. Anyway, she and Ted liked meat.
“Very few men are as clean as Ted,” my mother told her friend Lolly. There was nowhere to sit in the new rectangular house on Carriage Court, so they stood, holding their coffee cups. Lolly was another woman from Bay City who’d gone away to college and then come back home to her mother. The way my mother sighed and drummed her fingers on the bare wall, it made you think she was a little sorry Ted was so clean. She might have wished he weren’t always malleable. She sighed again. Still, she wasn’t sure. There was a row of unpacked brown boxes, and I perched crosslegged on one of them. “I’m neat,” my mother said, “I just always have been. I can’t
That was a total lie. But Lolly nodded, sipping her coffee. I was thinking of the inside of my mother’s purse, of all my mother’s purses. In the house on Lime Kiln Road, she’d kept them in a closet, lined up on a shelf. In each one was a nest of old things, brushes, hair, bobby pins, makeup spilled and then hardened, so that the old orange powder and ink stained the lining, broken pencils, scraps of paper, little address books, all worn and woven
together into something whole. But no one saw inside them except me.
“Honey, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred times, don’t sit on those boxes, for God’s sakes! You don’t know what’s inside where! I swear, if I open them and find broken dishes, you’re going to go out and work to buy new ones.”
I jumped off and went to the kitchen. I had no doubt that I’d always be in trouble from now on. There were so many things to remember. Even when I tried I made mistakes. A minute later, I was in trouble in the kitchen for eating grapes from their stems, instead of breaking off my own little cluster.
My mother reached down, out of nowhere in the morning, and laid her cool hand like an envelope on my forehead.
“Where does it hurt?” We didn’t have a thermometer in the house on Carriage Court; she would have to decide. She worked and she always ran late in the morning, so she would have to settle this fast.
“All over,” I said. “My throat.”
She was looking out the window, running through the day ahead, far away, in the out-of-town school. She didn’t want to make a mistake. Well, it could never hurt to rest, she seemed to be thinking. She sighed. “Okay, stay here and sleep. Just stay home. Tomorrow, I’ll write you a note.”
Now that we lived in the new house, I stayed home alone when I was sick. The moisture from my mother’s hand felt good on my forehead and the distant slamming of the front door sounded like relief in my side. I spread out in my bed and moved, falling slowly into another red warm sleep. It was familiar to be sick, I was returning to a place already known. Turning in bed, under the cool sheets, all the sick days seemed the same, crystallized like cabins along one lake, spanning all my childhood years. Outside the smallest hung my red and blue plaid jumper, my first-grade Catholic school uniform, and in a corner my grandmother stood shaking a thermometer, reading it by the window light, where a beating hummingbird fed at the red glass dropper just on the other side of the screen. In another cabin, I was nine and pretending to
be sick: the distant bell rang, faintly, and a test was being given in the gray-green public school. In the fourth-grade trailer, children handed papers back from the front of every row. The harder glittering objects of my healthy passions expired in my exhaustion. I loved the familiar here. The nicked wood of my old dresser, the kitchen table from Lime Kiln Road. I wanted my own mother’s hand.