Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Hootchie-Cootchie Mama

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What I would really like to say to him is, “I don’t like you anymore.” Instead, I serve dinner and say, “Would you like cheese on your pasta?” Inside me is a wretched howl that threatens to rip from my lungs and announce to the neighbors with the impeccable flower garden that all is not well within these walls. I force a benign smile as I dole out the peas. I imagine picking up a fork and poking at him repeatedly to bleed out the lethargy and indifference heavy on his fattening frame. Extreme measures seem justified. I want him to stop pretending we can go on like this. I want him to look me in the eye and notice the flat stare as I stand with one foot already out the door. I want him to draw weapons and fight and curse me, and let me know that it matters. Even then I might not be coaxed back inside. It is time to practice my breathing.

Certain tasks give my days structure. I wake up Augusta for school, iron her clothes, put out her cereal and banana, make her lunch, and start the car to warm it up. David is a fitful sleeper and has already been up for hours hooked to the computer in his basement office.  Occasionally he will charge upstairs to boom, “Good morning!” at bullhorn volume, but Augusta is still rubbing her eyes and pulling loose from the silk threads of her dreams. She regards him warily. He retreats back to the morning talk shows. Augusta and I move through our paces, slowly at first, then with more urgency as the time to leave draws near. It isn’t Augusta being late for school that bothers me as much as her having to stop by the office on the way in and get a tardy slip to hand to her teacher.  I picture the slump of her shoulders as she walks down the hall with that slip in hand, and prod her out of the house to avoid that.

The school handbook states where I am supposed to drop off Augusta, and I try to be a good parent citizen, but I don’t want to sit in a row of idling cars, inching forward until we have a harried moment for Augusta to step onto the curb and close the car door in one fell swoop before the driver on my tail honks. It makes my cheeks feel hot and prickly. Instead I drop off Augusta in Visitor Parking. I sit in peace and watch her scamper on little legs under the weight of her backpack, waving when she turns to see if I’m still there. Then I come home to have another cup of coffee, take a long, hot shower, stoke the fire, check e-mails, make the beds, fluff up the pillows on the couch, do the breakfast dishes, and start any laundry in the bin.

On a Sunday afternoon, with a sharp-teethed Montana wind mocking our anticipation of spring, I pull a couple hundred dollars out of the ATM. Augusta asks where the money comes from.

“Your papa,” I reply. “He pays me money every month so I can take care of you.” I think Augusta is old enough to hear this now and maybe understand.

“David also takes care of us. He pays for the house where we live, the car we drive, the electricity, the water, and sometimes even the groceries. He doesn’t like that I don’t have a job. I have been lucky to be able to spend so much time with you,” I tell her. “David thinks that it isn’t fair, when he works so much. He is a little mad at me.”

“You mean he doesn’t like you? “Augusta asks.

“No, it isn’t that. He just wants me to make more money. If we move, I would have to get a job to pay for where we live.” Augusta wants it to be just the two of us again.

“And we probably wouldn’t have a car.”

“Why not,” she demands, indignant at even the mere suggestion of deprivation. The technicalities of ownership don’t interest her. We use the Subaru every day, and therefore it should be ours.

“Because the car belongs to David and he thinks he needs it.” I know he won’t let me take it again, as I did a few years back when I experimented with that job in Santa Fe.

“But he has another car,” Augusta shoots back.

“It doesn’t get good gas mileage.” This makes no sense to her. The Ford Expedition is his. It smells of chain saw gasoline and stale chips. It is littered with old receipts and scattered sunflower seed shells from long road trips chewing on the seeds and holding a cup under his chin to catch the shells he spits out.  In the back he keeps his ice fishing gear. We only drive it when we have to.

Our gently rusted Toyota Camry, with the stick shift I had to learn to use way past the age when such indignities should have to be suffered, gave out on a mountain pass near Coeur D’Alene. David was driving and didn’t notice the light signaling low oil. I was used to driving with the light on, because it was a bother to stop and money was always scarce, but I knew my car’s limits. That day I was looking out the window. Somehow David argued it was my fault the engine seized in violent shudders and died. I argued he should have known better. To compensate, David bought a used Land’s End Subaru Outback with leather seats and a sunroof. Guilt persuaded him it was within the budget. The Toyota stayed at the shop where the tow truck left it. It cost more to replace the engine than the whole car was worth. Augusta and I had once crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in that little car, looking up in reverence at the crimson spires. That was the February we drove 18 hours to Palo Alto to see my brother for a weekend, then back up the Oregon coast to stand huddled together and exuberant in a lashing wind with the waves pounding and a perfect, luminescent orb of white stone in the sand at our feet.

“Why doesn’t he support us more,” Augusta mutters as she picks at a cuticle. We are in line now at the coffee shack, waiting our turn to get a mocha and a vanilla steamer.

“He does support us, sweetie.” It sounds reed thin, even to my own ears. “He supports us every day by taking care of us.” Augusta isn’t convinced. She thinks David is being mean.  I hand her the chocolate-covered espresso bean that has been placed on my coffee lid.

“You could work during the day when I am in school,” she offers with a hopeful lilt, “like in Santa Fe.”

The Santa Fe job made sense at the time. I had called David from Las Cruces, where Augusta and I were visiting my parents, and told him that I had been offered a Head Start teaching position and that I was thinking of taking it. Twenty hours a week in the classroom, with full benefits and tuition reimbursement. I could finally work towards getting a Master’s. Part of me hoped David would say he needed me and that we had to come on home, but I would have been surprised. When Augusta and I drove to New Mexico in late March, with no real discussion of when we might be back, it was already understood that it likely wouldn’t be for a while. David went fishing the morning we left, and our good-bye was routine, as though one of us was running to the store to pick up milk. A flock of wild turkeys crossing the road was the only fanfare we received as a send-off.

Each month in Santa Fe was a white-knuckler of a juggling act, balancing pride with overdraft and late fees and minimum payment dues. Eating rice and beans for a ten-day spell so I could buy Augusta the Ugg boots she wanted for Christmas. Sending David almost four hundred dollars a month for the privilege of using his car. I remember the night I had only two dollars left for gas, with the tank already on empty, and watching with bemused horror as the orange light didn’t blink off, even after fueling up.  I laughed at the indifferent tilt of sky and the fucked-up nature of my universe, and then took Augusta to Whole Foods so she could fill up on cheese samples.

“I don’t think I could find a job like that around here,” I tell her now. We sit at the traffic light on Main Street, sipping our hot drinks, and watching a dog, tethered by a single red rope, pace in the back of the flatbed pickup next to us.

Augusta’s best friend is leaving in a week for a Hawaii vacation. Her family went last year and liked it so much they are going back. Augusta keeps asking when we are going to Hawaii and wants a bedroom like her friend’s, with plush carpet under her bare feet, and a full-sized bed stacked with floral pillows. Augusta’s room has hardwood floors, sponged green walls that David has inexplicably asked me not to re-paint, and barely enough room for a twin bed. It is the laundry room. Augusta tries to fit all the miniature, polymer clay layer cakes she has made, along with a ceramic piggy bank, her new iPod, feathers and rocks she’s collected, and all of her pairs of earrings on two small dresser tops. There is not enough room. I have to move piles of drawings and journals off the washing machine each time I do a load, so they aren’t shaken to the floor during the final spin cycle. The porcelain doll that once belonged to Augusta’s great-grandmother sits on a wire shelf, where we used to keep the laundry detergent.

I wash and dry the clothes when Augusta is at school, so she doesn’t have to listen to the whir of the machines in her bedroom. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, but this has been Augusta’s room for several years now. She doesn’t want to move back downstairs, where the carpet has wine stains and smells of cigarettes on rainy days, hinting at previous inhabitants and encounters that have nothing to do with us.

David’s daughter has the other bedroom upstairs. It sits empty for two weeks at a stretch, but has been the girl’s bedroom on alternate weekends ever since the court finally granted David permission to have overnights. He has never offered the room to Augusta. When David’s daughter is with her mother, who claimed she could never get pregnant, the bedroom door is closed to save on heating or cooling. The bed stays unmade, the sheets unwashed, and toys lay strewn where they were last abandoned, unless I take the time to go in there and fuss a bit. David doesn’t seem to notice one way or the other. I don’t like the green, fish tank light cast by the gauze canopy that hangs over the girl’s bed. I don’t want another daughter.

I tell Augusta that her best friend’s mother makes good money as a tortilla and chip distributor for the local grocery stores, so they can afford the house with the bedroom Augusta likes so much. We are sitting in the driveway as we do some days after school, so we can finish our talk.

“You could do that,” she says, not knowing that Michelle has already asked me several times if I want to make some extra money by helping her stock shelves. I have always politely declined, except for the day I felt hounded by her persistence and blurted out that I would consider it only if I got desperate. I don’t expect her to ask again.

“Well, sweetie, I wouldn’t really feel right doing that. I am meant to do other things.” I cling to the belief that a degree from Vassar rules out certain choices. I think of myself as an artist, even if I’m not comfortable saying it out loud. “Michelle never went to college.”

“Why not?” Augusta asks. She is truly curious about how this could have happened. She has spent enough time with her opinionated grandfather, who graduated from both Stanford and Harvard, to have been influenced by his belief that those who don’t attend college are to be regarded with a certain degree of pity.

“College can be expensive and sometimes it just doesn’t fit in with whatever else you have going on in your life,” I reply, in the offhanded manner I might use to mention that some people prefer plain M&Ms, while others like peanut. I tell her that Michelle’s husband didn’t go to college either, and that it never really mattered, because he makes good money at the electric company and has been working there since right out of high school.

I collect my wallet and phone, ready to head inside the house. My thoughts have travelled unbidden to nights of lying awake in a bed of flames, waiting for yet another hot flash to release me from its fury, taking my cue from the blazing inferno within to question all the decisions I’ve made over the years that have damned me to this patch of flannel sheet, intrusive snoring to my left, a blank wall to my right that yields no answers and blocks my way out. In the dark, the facts that dangle before me with leering faces are stark and scary. I question why I have to look so hard for meaning, with no health insurance. Why it’s such a big deal to just stock the fucking chips, collect a paycheck, and have some money to get to the eco village nestled in the grassy, rolling hills of Missouri where I picture Augusta, homeschooled and baking fragrant whole grain bread. My liberal arts diploma from the fancy school has tricked me into dependent poverty, feeling isolated amid whispered suspicions of snobbery. I have given up on trying to convince everyone in this town that, “No, I’m really nice. I’m not like that. I’m just like you, only thinner.” Somehow my size has more emphatically established me as other. I just like to stay healthy.

In the early months with David, I worked during the day on meticulously crafted map collages. Downstairs in the unheated basement, I claimed one of the spare bedrooms as my studio. David gave me his old Montana road and topography maps and I cut them up to make new maps with symbols, lines, and arrows drawn in black ink on handmade paper I found before motherhood on a soul-searching, cockroach-infested trip to Jaipur. I thought of them as maps of my life.

One collage needed to be altered to reflect new configurations in my life. I had started it after a trip to Mexico and an explosive power struggle with a lover who invited me to sail his shit-box of a boat with him to safe harbor in Guatemala, then left my lips raw and peeling from having kissed me so hard in the mosquito-infested quarters below deck.

On this collage I had drawn 365 boxes to represent each day I was supposed to go without a man, and within the comforting parameters of each little box I intended to place a deliberate black check, corresponding with the passage of another day, steady on my own course. Instead, I ran into David while walking home from the grocery store and agreed to have breaded whitefish on his back deck before checking off even a third of the boxes. We moved in together not long after.

In the basement studio, I altered the boxes to reflect the buoyant start of a new relationship, then sold the collage at a downtown gallery, for a price I assumed no one would pay. David asked how much the frame cost, and how many hours I had spent on the piece, formed an equation, and said, “You see, you really didn’t make any money at all.” We were new and I had yet to learn how David would dismiss all my artistic endeavors. I had yet to hear his thoughts on cutting funding for the arts in schools.

If I am feeling generous, I heat up some leftovers for David’s lunch and carry it downstairs. I am careful not to trip on the tangle of wires snaking across the office floor, and try to find a place among the stacks of files to set the dish down. It is a cold hovel of a space, with cement floors and dust-filmed blinds that David keeps closed. In the murk and gloom, he spends up to 70 hours a week. While initially I defended what I perceived as his unflagging integrity, I have come to understand that the appraisal work he claims takes him so long is rather an elaborate spooling out of minute detail that serves little purpose other than to swell his well-tended ego by virtue of the conviction that no one works as hard.

The TV is running in the background all day. Silence is near sacred to me, and I can’t imagine functioning this way. I have walked in to gruesome, gory scenes of Hollywood-scripted torture playing out on the screen, while David pecks away at the keyboard. Most days he is still in his pajamas, wearing the knit hat my mom made him, turned up so his ears jut out and the tied yarn ends on the back stick out like straw coming loose from a basket. He doesn’t bother to shower or change unless he has to go out. Sometimes he acts so busy it takes him long moments to acknowledge that I’m standing there with food. I once temped for a slew of high profile corporations in midtown Manhattan, so I recognize busy. I know that it doesn’t take much to keep typing and still look up to register someone’s presence. I flip him a bird as I walk back up the dark stairwell. I know it’s childish, but I can’t help it. It doesn’t make me feel better.

Going up and down the stairs to the basement 25 times is how I stay fit. I can’t remember when David last made any comment about my appearance. Gone are the days when he lingered behind so he could watch me walk in my tight jeans. Back when he called me Hootchie Kootchie Mama. I avoid the gym, with its sodden rag for wiping other people’s sweat off handlebars and vinyl seats, and haven’t been back to the pool  for fear of running into the guy who fell in love with me between laps and followed us to New Mexico, so I exercise at home. My dog sits and watches me on the stairs, trying to figure out if he can or should join in somehow. It bothers me that the corners are lined with a compacted layer of dust, but not enough to rig the vacuum cleaner to the extension cord and lug it up, stair by stair, to suck the filth away. The carpet will still be ugly.  As I near the end of my count, I’m pulling breath in ragged gasps and my heart is racing. I know my legs are getting stronger. I can feel the muscles in my thighs burn. I want to be ready should the time come to step with both feet out the door and walk unflinching towards the great unknown.

In the afternoons before it is time to pick up Augusta, I leash my dog and walk the trail along the river. It is just down the street from our house. A wooden footbridge takes me across marshes that in summer are thick with cattails and droning clouds of mosquito. I duck down a partly concealed side path winding back among low-slung willows and tangles of wild rose, past a stretch of cottonwoods where once I spied a pair of great horned owls, still as feathered stone.  Stretches of blonde sand, river rock, and scattered driftwood border the serpentine Bitterroot.  In the near distance, the solid mass of mountain looms somber and crested with snow, but for a month or two of the year. I feel like a fearless warrior as I walk the woods, my senses alert and humming in the rarefied space of bird calls and leaf rustlings; but when I emerge from the tree line onto asphalt, I stand humbled and merely human.

I save most errands in town for when Augusta is with me. I dread running into someone I haven’t seen in a while and having to smile and answer the question, “So, what have you been up to these days?” I never know where to start. I feel trapped and squirming, like an insect stick-pinned to an unforgiving board. I start moving my lips, painfully aware of the effort of constructing words, syllable by syllable, that represent who I am on any given day in the supermarket aisle. My eyes roll in kneejerk fashion over to the exit. I feel compelled to be good-mannered and spit out a shiny summary, taffy-pulled from the depths of the messy, roiling inner dialogue I live with every day.

Who I am today feels like a distant relative to the person I was that first year as a Ravalli County secretary, scheduling septic inspections at the environmental health office and fielding wide-eyed inquiries about what persuaded me to bring my daughter all the way from New York City to Montana, when I didn’t know a soul here. The novelty of cowboys and backhoes eventually wore off, and I switched to a more serious job as a children’s librarian, sharing my love of words with a rapt gaggle of toddlers each week. I became disenchanted when I realized that the daycare attendants weren’t bringing the kids to story time anymore; it was too much work to boot and parka everyone up for the long trek from the childcare center to the library, literally across the courtyard. I enrolled in lifeguard training and started teaching water aerobics in the pre-dawn hours, cranking up country hits and looking politely past the cellulite and varicose veins, the churning water and girth, to see lithe promise in my bevy of ladies. Then came a stint as a GED tutor. Ghost people emerged from the cold smoke of night, blinking at the edge of the fluorescent-lit rec room, to sit and labor over the construction of a topic sentence. I offered sharpened pencils and reassurance, even when I knew that for most, the pull of their other lives would be too strong to resist and, like that, they would be gone.

Lately I just say I am selling photographs and cards that I make with them. It comes perfectly formed out of my mouth, rehearsed and robotic. Perhaps that is why I am never asked about the subject of my work. “Ooh, nice,” is the invariable response. The bland nature of the exchange is both baffling and a relief. I never have to worry about filling my lungs with a deep breath for courage and launching into the bit about collecting fallen leaves along the river trail to bring home and photograph against a white background so I can list the images for sale on Etsy and ship them to Australia and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I skate with balletic grace right past that and ask, “So, what have you been up to these days?” I am more adept at avoiding these brief, but nevertheless hair raising entanglements when I have Augusta with me. Our cosmos of whispers and giggles easily excludes others.

Family dinner can be a painful affair. David prefers to have the TV running as we eat, plates balanced precariously on clamped knees as we sit in a mute row on the couch. Napkins are superfluous when a pant leg or the back of a hand works just fine. I insist on sitting at a table, with place settings, and making a brave stab at conversation. The wine helps me keep a sense of humor. I sip half a glass as I prepare dinner. I used to go weeks without alcohol and never missed it. Now I count on it to provide loose-limbed flights of inspiration as I rack my brain for entertaining banter. It is encouraging when David at least pretends he is listening, instead of looking pained, as if he’s counting the seconds until he can get away. I am used to my anecdotes being met with silence. Augusta has taken to commenting for him, while glaring pointedly in his direction. She explained one day that she wants me to know that she is listening, and that what I say matters. I try to smooth any sharp edges. Sharing a house goes so much better if we are able to at least maintain a veneer of civility.

David never asked us to come back from Santa Fe. Rather, I persuaded him that we owed it to ourselves to give it another try as a couple. Fueled by parched hours of displaced loneliness and a breast cancer scare, I constructed a fantasy tale of destiny denied that had nothing to do with reality and everything to do with want. My e-mails were impassioned, my phone calls frequent. David had taken to hanging out with a blonde bank teller whose daughter was just a year older than his. He grilled fish for her on his back deck. When I asked if this meant he had moved on, David always replied that he was in no way ready for another relationship (after the hell I put him through), and that they were just friends who liked to get together so their daughters could play. I noted the uneasy fluttering in the pit of my stomach. I fervently whispered to my reflection in the bathroom mirror of the adobe casita we were renting, “If I get him back, I won’t ever leave again.” In the evenings I copied passages from books on Buddhism into a floral patterned notebook and constructed a manual for better living. I believed that with compassion, deep belly breathing, and an awareness of the need to be fully present to my partner, open to the ever-changing fluidity of our union, this time would be different.

The first time David ever called me, he left a message saying he would be honored if I called him back. Honored. I rolled that word around on my tongue like a smooth chocolate. Of course I called him back. We agreed to meet on opening day of the county fair. I saw him first, walking through the dusty food court with his daughter’s legs dangling from the backpack cinched tight around his waist. He spotted me and smiled. We walked through the dimly lit 4-H stalls, letting our daughters reach out to stroke the noses of the pygmy goats and squeal in delight. We talked among the caged bunnies and suckling piglets. We sat together under the hot, white dome of a tent, watching a magician in black out of the corner of our eyes. Later, a full, glowing moon appeared low over the cottonwoods and the lights of the Ferris wheel. I called David, who had already left to get his daughter to bed, and asked if he had seen it. He walked outside to look and we wished each other a goodnight. Our voices were tender and reaching under the larkspur sky.

Hannah E. Palmer moved from New York City as a single mom to raise her daughter in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana. This is her first published essay.

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Haunting. Nice work.
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