I sat cross-legged on the carpet and watched my mother in the mirror as she brushed my hair with the antique silver hairbrush Nana had gifted her.
“Comfort is a fleeting phenomenon,” she said.
“Oww. Mommy, you’re hurting me.”
“Just need to get this last tangle out.” She tapped my shoulder. “Sit still, Becky,” she said and went back to yanking on the end of my hair with the hairbrush. “Look. I got it.” She held up a tiny snippet of balled up hair, placed it on the side table and continued brushing.
“What’s a phenomenon, anyway?” I asked.
“It’s a-a condition,” she said. “Like a situation that is observed yet perhaps not fully understood. You’re ten years old. You should know that word. Having a wide breadth of vocabulary will give you an edge in everything you do.”
She sat on the sofa behind me in her navy-blue pleated skirt, and her powder blue turtleneck. She wore some kind of turtleneck sweater every day, either short or long sleeved, no matter what the weather or season, hiding her neck where she had a thin vertical scar that went from just under her chin down to her collarbone. Her eyes were like two dazzling gems, an exquisite blue-green mix with tiny flecks of brown. Her eyelashes were long without a hint of mascara. Her short dark curly hair parted in the middle finished at the chin of her perfectly-shaped oval face with its high cheekbones, the dot of a black beauty mark to the right of her upper lip. I remember thinking she was beautiful as I watched her in the mirror yet tried to get the thought out of my mind. She annoyed me with her strange behaviors much more often than impressed me with her beauty.
We were both brain-gifted. I was in a special progress class at school based on IQ and other tests, and had been selected to skip the sixth grade. She’d often remind me of that particular similarity between us. My mother could talk to anyone on any subject for hours, spouting her broad knowledge of science, literature, history, geography, theater, politics, even quantum physics and the concept of parallel universes. At first, the person would smile, their eyes wide in amazement at the depth of my mother’s detailed grasp of the topic at hand. She’d converse non-stop, go on and on with strangers on the bus, on the street, in the supermarket, at restaurants, at my school with teachers, until they had to make an excuse to leave the scene, somehow get away from her. She seemed to be unaware of their need to retreat. Was that why my father left us? I was well aware of my mother’s flaws. Her serious flaws.
She stared at me in the mirror, her head tilted to one side, hairbrush in hand. “You are a beautiful girl,” she said. “I think you’re going to be a star! Rebecca Stevenson, Tony Award winner!” She shouted and spread her arms out in the air. Watching her in the mirror, I thought she might drop the hairbrush.
“Thanks. Mommy.” I shrugged. “Can I go now? I’m gonna meet Patty and play cards.”
“No. You’re not doing anything with that Patty.”
“Geesh, why had I mentioned my friend’s name? I rolled my eyes, pulled away, and started to get up from the carpet.
“That girl is unkempt, nasty.” My mother’s face contorted like she smelled a dirty diaper or something worse. She tapped my shoulder firmly. “Sit! I’m not finished brushing you.”
“Patty is my best friend,” I said as I complied but sat further away from her reach.
“Her sister is even worse,” she went on, and tugged my sweatshirt for me to move back closer to her. “The bad language both of those girls use. Shameful! I hear them out there on the street. Very bad influence on you.”
“Absolutely not. I don’t want you playing with her or her sister.”
I curled up the corner of my lip as if to say I hate you. I knew she despised me doing that. It was my usual put-down without saying a word.
“There. Done,” she said, and fixed the pink hair-tie around my long brown ponytail, giving it one last swoop of the brush. I started to get up.
“Okay, then I’m gonna play handball with Mitchell instead.” I knew that I’d just sneak around the corner to play cards on Patty’s stoop outside her apartment building.
“Better choice,” she said, and nodded. “Just do me a favor Becky-girl, before you go.”
I picked up my jacket from the easy chair.
“When you cross the threshold at the front door come back three times without stepping on the cracks.”
“Mommy! No. Not that again.”
“Do it,” she said. “I don’t want you to have any bad luck out there on the street. Tomorrow’s your big audition with Richard Rogers. You need to be in tip-top condition.”
I pressed my lips together. I had planned to pretend to be sick that night so I could skip the unwanted callback audition the next day, the audition Mommy wished she was doing instead of me. I felt like her puppet. I didn’t want to be an actress, something she had urged me to do with ballet, tap-dancing and singing lessons each week since before I turned five. Lessons she went into debt to give me. Lessons I didn’t ever want.
“Remember that movie we saw yesterday,” she said, changing the subject. She knelt down on one knee to button up my wool jacket. “That hilarious man dressed up like a woman wearing a mink stole. Tony Curtis! He’s so funny.”
“Yeah, I remember,” I replied. “Kind of stupid. I don’t like him.”
“Stupid? He’s an academy award winner. And he was my best friend. We danced, acted together in the Navy and then did summer stock as a duo in the Catskills.” Her eyes got misty. “I knew him as Bernie Schwartz. Now, the famous Tony Curtis. Of course, I had a stage name too – Gloria Parker. We adopted stage names at the same time.” She smiled.
I shrugged. “Okay Mommy, can I go now?”
I had heard the Tony Curtis story at least ten times before. Ignoring my question, she giggled and fell back on the sofa, sinking into the cushions like a little girl sharing her boy crush, her hands clasped in her lap, her shoulders raised, her eyes up at the ceiling. She went off into a zone beyond our tiny living room. I almost laughed but caught myself and instead, curled my upper lip in disgust.
She straightened and pointed her finger at me. “You keep doing that lip curl thing young lady, and your face will get stuck like that forever.”
“Can I please go?” I asked.
She stood from the sofa. “Remember, three times back over that threshold. No stepping on the cracks. I’ll be watching you down the hallway.”
I turned to go, and moved like a robot, my head fixed straight ahead, my body mechanical, arms stiff at my sides. I would only obey because I was captive to a delusional mother, and I had no choice.
“And find your brother out there,” she added, as I neared the front door. “Both of you back in here by four. We’ll rehearse your ‘I Feel Pretty’andRonnie’s ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’one more time before Nana gets home for dinner.”
“Right,” I mumbled under my breath. “Can’t wait.”
I turned the knob to open the front door.
“I’m watching,” her shrill voice threatened.
I lifted my right foot, careful not to step on the grouted crack between our brown tiled entry and the black and white checkered tiled floor in the hallway just outside our apartment, the closest apartment to the main entrance of the five-story brick building. Then, lifted my left foot over the threshold and placed it next to my right foot, and turned back to face my mother who stood down the hallway in the living room with her arms folded at her chest. I stepped back inside towards her, again careful not to tromp on the grout cracks even though I was tempted.
“No cracks,” I said, my index finger pointing down at my feet. My mother nodded. I turned to cross back into the outer hallway a second time with success, and looked back at her. The sun shot through the narrow entryway, its beam reaching to the living room where my mother stood. Her face looked worn, wrinkled, her body thin, frail. She no longer looked anywhere near beautiful.
“Good,” she said, and came down the hallway towards me, her black stack heels clicking on the tiled floor. “Now do it again. A third time.”
Maybe I would call the social worker, I thought. I had her phone number. The red-haired woman who wore thick black eyeglasses, and carried a black leather briefcase. Dina Weintraub from Social Services. She had given me the blue business card which I hid under the mattress. She came by once a month to check on my single-parent mother, and sometimes lingered, waiting for Nana to get home from work so she could spend a few minutes privately chatting with her in the kitchen. One time I put my ear to the kitchen door to listen. The woman said in a hushed voice, “How is she? Still showing signs of compulsive behavior or delusions?” I didn’t hear Nana’s answer back because I was afraid my mother would come up behind me or that Nana would swing open the kitchen door and catch me eavesdropping. Or maybe I just didn’t want to hear the answer to the question.
The “crack avoidance” routine at the front door was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to my mother’s bizarre behaviors. Each night, she’d demand that my brother and I go back and forth several times across the threshold of the bedroom before getting into bed. Sometimes it was ten times. Sometimes it was twenty. There was a night when I heard her talking loudly on the phone. I tiptoed into the bedroom and picked up the other line to listen. There was nobody on the phone except her, having a conversation with a dial tone which turned into a loud beep. She ignored the annoying sound and just kept on talking without a pause. Her topic was something about the horrid New York City education system. She was shouting into the phone as if she was performing a dramatic scene.
I crossed the threshold three times as she had commanded. I stood alone on the other side of our apartment door, on the black and white checkered hallway floor of our apartment building, and stared at our front door for a few moments without moving. I was ten years old but felt tired. Angry. Sad.
I’ll talk to Nana when she gets home from work, after dinner, when Mommy takes her bath. Nana would listen, probably hold my hand, understand my frustrations, my hopelessness. Maybe she would get Mommy to change her mind about dragging me to that callback audition tomorrow. I just needed a little comfort, I told myself, as I walked around the corner to find Patty. Embarrassed and ashamed, I couldn’t say anything to my best friend. It was my secret. My mother.
Linda S. Gunther is the author of six suspense novels: Ten Steps From The Hotel Inglaterra, Endangered Witness, Lost In The Wake, Finding Sandy Stonemeyer, Dream Beach, and Death Is A Great Disguiser. Her essays and short stories have also been featured in a variety of literary publications.