On the journey to publication unfortunately some chapters needed a trim here is one of those chapters from On Maggie’s Watch

Five
You Love Who You Love
1976

“I could have married the safe-bet, but no, Mavis, I went for the sports car of husbands. A shiny speedster, as if I was some sort of movie star with my hair blowing in the wind.”

With her eyes closed, Maggie envisioned her mother as Marilyn Monroe and then, without meaning to, that actress in Vertigo: dizzy and clingy. Her laughing, funny, quirky starlet-mother vanished. Her father was gone again.

Maggie’s mother relished talking to Mavis Blankenship, her best friend and phone confidant. She held her head in her right hand, telephone receiver to her mouth, cigarette and ice tea waiting. The tip of her nose was raw and pinched. If Maggie looked closely, there were droplets in her lashes, sweat from working so hard to make sense of things.

Maggie was often privy to these one-sided phone conversations, sitting in her private space under the stairs, which was usually reserved for grocery bags and surplus paper products. She liked to sit with her bird-binoculars, peaking through the spaces in the stairs, in the little closet–a dependable unchanging area in a nervous milk-shake world.

She knew she should not be there, eavesdropping on this particular conversation. Despite her cozy surroundings, it was uncomfortable listening to the inner workings of her mother. But she couldn’t help herself. When a squished animal lay on the road, Maggie would tell herself to look away. She would avert her eyes but then look hard, at the last minute, and shiver at the carnage. Morbid curiosity, her father called it. But that was when he was talking about nosy neighbors peaking through the curtains, so this did not help Maggie understand entirely.

Sometimes Maggie’s observations unearthed more questions than answers, which made for some confusing times. Times that needed unraveling like a knot in a piece of twine. She worked these puzzles over in her head until she could pull the thread of understanding clean and tight.

Maggie shifted her position and remembered another conversation she overheard, while her parents cleaned up the dinner dishes. They were talking about Susan Rimbalde, their pretty neighbor with tipped nails, glossy lipstick, and a bold, frosted streak in her hair. In a conversation with her father, Maggie’s mother said Susan was pregnant. Her father replied with surprise, “Really? Does she want another baby?”

Her mother had laughed a bit and said, “For heaven’s sake, no.” What Maggie didn’t understand was why you would do that if you didn’t want another child.

She knew from the playground that boy parts came together with girl parts and that equaled a baby. It was mathematics. A Venn diagram. Her best friend, Julie Gleason, named it “the ding ding” after the sound on their favorite pinball game at the arcade. When the ball dropped down the chute, there was a noticeable double ding that somehow fit the scenario. Sex made sense to Maggie in the way dry puzzles pieces make a picture when you fit them together. If she thought of her parents, like the flat pieces of a larger biological picture, she could allow what they did without helping them out with her own embarrassment.

Maggie decided you must have to do “the ding ding” just once in your life and then you randomly pop up pregnant forever after. This belief was reinforced each time she listened to the women at the church discussing pregnancies and babies.

“God blessed them with another child. Aren’t they the lucky ones!” And they would cluck approvingly. Later Julie clarified the quality versus quantity theory and pointed out luck had little to do with babies.

“You have to do it lots and lots of times to get pregnant,” Julie said. “Maybe a hundred or so and even then there is no guarantee.” Julie had an older sister Rachael who was Julie and Maggie’s own personal puberty-tutor. When cloud gazing and reasonable conversation weren’t able to fill in the blanks, they turned to the Encyclopedia Britannica. If the dry, glossy pages left them wanting more, there was always Rachael.

Although Maggie wasn’t entirely sure Julie and Rachael had all the details right, she found herself horrified when involuntarily visualizing Mr. and Mrs. Rimbalde and their chosen couplings. Mister R. with his high forehead and unattractive collection of saliva in the corners of his mouth and Missus R. with her un-mussable beehive hairdo and A-line skirts. In Maggie’s mind, one time would be tolerable, understandable even, but any more made Mrs. Rimbalde someone else altogether.

From the buffet of tidy things men and women could do together, such as movies, dinner out, or dancing, it was beyond her imagination that anyone, especially her parents, would choose lights on, everyone awake, nakedness followed by a morning’s knowing coffee and conversation about the weather. The shame of it pierced Maggie and raised her sympathetic embarrassment goose pimples. Like when Mrs. Roach hit the high note in the “Star Spangled Banner” at school thinking she got it just right, but the rest of the school knew different.

Maggie flushed, hoping to use her mortification to shove Mrs. Roach’s octave up a third.

Maggie scooted back and took another look at her mother. She was rhythmically nodding at some wisdom Mavis was offering. A kind of best friend Band-Aid, Mavis was known for her balanced lectures. While her father was away, Maggie spent less time nestled under the stairs listening. As much as she loved her father, when he was gone the questions surrounding him could be muted and other mysteries could come forward for pondering. Maggie liked having her mother to herself. Her loyalties were less divided and her attention more focused. She pretended they were college roommates instead of mother-daughter, and she often felt the presence of a soundproof safety bubble over everything they did.

These days were like a sunny Tide commercial breaking up the regularly scheduled programming. During these mother-daughter-friend days, her mother became the host of a children’s show. She created a schedule of activities, parenting ideas cut from the newspaper. Art, music appreciation, zoo visits. Once they made paper-mache vegetables wrapping gluey newspaper around Styrofoam balls. The end product looked glandular and more science class than home economics. They ate pizza from the little Italian restaurant downtown and lakes of tomato soup with hotdog log jams. Occasionally they went straight to dessert, pretending the big piece of chocolate cake was filet mignon. Her mother would say, “Another glass of wine, Madam?” and pour Maggie a glass of grape juice in her best wedding glasses. They always set the table with a place for her father, never forgetting him entirely, his beer glass watching so things did not get too far a field without him.

When he was around, change was always a possibility. A gargoyle perched on a doorframe ready to pounce and mess up the pretty picture. Maggie got the feeling that if they were careful and colored in the lines, he would stay home and happiness would ensue. Sweep the porch, fold the laundry, and make the beds. Her mother cleaned up all her jagged personality pieces and rolled them into a pie-dough circle. She put away her cigarettes, stayed off the phone, and cooked large meals complete with relish tray and dessert. The main dishes were called Tropical Meatloaf Surprise and Shanghai Noodle Delight, and she would carefully print these words on small cards and place them next to the dishes on the dinner table.

While her father was at work, Maggie would find lists of “Interesting Topics for Conversation” written in her mother’s hand and sitting next to her old Betty Crocker Cookbook held together with rubber bands and paper clips. Later, in her bedroom, her mother would practice these conversation starters in the mirror while putting on her favorite coral lipstick and trying on blouses and skirts. This time, Maggie hid and squinted through the cracks in the shuttered door on her father’s side of the closet. Her mother turned this way and that. She pressed in her belly and pushed on her hips. She practiced laughing and flipping her hair, often starting topics to see how they sounded. Maggie was an expert spy. She was invisible.

During these times, Maggie felt the overwhelming love aching inside her. She decided her presence kept her mother anchored to earth. If her mother’s role-play became too animated or too sad, Maggie would materialize and snap her mother back into parenting mode. She would remember Maggie, break the surface, and take a big gasp of oxygen having held her breath for so long. The love Maggie felt for her mother was like eating sour apple candy-the saliva glands complained of the sweet and bitter of it.

Maggie did not understand where her father went or why, but by the time she was nine years old she accepted his leaving as part of her reality. In fact, she often considered any other behavior strange. Maggie felt sad for her best friend Julie whose father came home every night. She wondered why he didn’t stay away more and felt sorry for all the family dinners Julie endured while Maggie was home with her mother. She wondered how Julie could stand the constant pressure. Once, Maggie had asked Julie where she went in her mind when her father and mother fought. Julie had paused and looked at her with the face of someone who, came upon a dead bird, head bowed, wing frayed. Maggie had tried to turn it into a knock-knock joke without much success.

Maggie also misunderstood mothers. She thought they all cried quietly at night. She reasoned this was because they missed their own mommies. Many nights Maggie questioned her mother about her sadness. She wanted assurance she would never have to move out if she didn’t want to. “I don’t want to go to college. I want to stay here and live with you,” she would say, smeary eyed and hopelessly sad for her future, so certain to be lacking in nighttime backrubs and whispered “sleep tights.” Her mother would rub her back with just the right nail pressure, covering all her itchy spots, and say, “Hush, Mags. You aren’t going anywhere tonight. You’re just overtired.” After turning her wet pillow over to the cool dry side and smoothing her hair away from her face, her mother would take off her sweater and let Maggie sleep with it, inhaling safety, comfort and lemony goodness.

Maggie heard her mother say, “Exactly, Mavis. That is exactly right.” There was a pause. Her mother sighed and said, “There’s nothing to do, is there? You love who you love. You don’t plan it, it just happens.” Maggie stretched her legs in her secret nest, hidden away with a Minnie Mouse pillow, book light, and notebook. Propped against a wall, the fourth stair fitting her like a hat, Maggie carefully copied rows and rows of question marks on her school-ruled note pages and then folded them into airplanes and tossed them away. You love who you love, she thought, and wondered what Julie might have to say about that.

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