Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Disagree to Disagree

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Photo by Ali Inay. See more of Ali's work at instagram.com/inayali

When Anne goes downstairs, she finds her daughter, Charlie, in what she has come to think of as teenagers' natural habitat: standing in front of the open refrigerator door, looking aggrieved. "Good morning," Anne says, forcing cheer into her voice.

"I'm starving," says Charlie.

Anne reaches past her to grab the ground coffee and begins spooning it into the filter, maintaining, as she does, a kind of internal commercial jingle: I will not engage, I will not engage. She could mention all the options from yesterday's grocery trip—the bag of nectarines, the very expensive cherries from Spain, yellow and pink, that she bought because Charlie loves cherries, the cabinet full of cereal, the waffles and breakfast sausages in the freezer—but Charlie has eyes, Charlie can see all these items perfectly well herself. She could remind herself what Charlie's advisor said: that teenagers use complaint as a means of preserving intimacy, to communicate to their parents, in their flatfooted way, that they still need their parents, they still depend upon them. She could also snap, which is the most tempting thing to do, really the default response. But on the tally board in her head with her household on the left side and Ethan's on the right, this would be one more demerit, one more piece of evidence that Ethan's house is the desired location, and hers, not so much. Hers is the Casa of Suck. Ethan's wife probably makes Charlie French toast with homemade Challah bread.

Anne remembers something she read in the textbook for the anthropology course she took in the fall—how humans have the longest period of infant dependency of any primate. And how this prolonged dependence has long been a burden to mothers in particular, limiting the kinds of work they can do outside of childcare. Duh, she'd thought. That was why in her mid-thirties she was taking night classes, incrementally earning her B.A. Because despite what she'd said when she got pregnant with Charlie, about how she was going to finish her degree and work, not become one of those obsessive mothers who get fidgety even when their own family members hold the baby, she had dropped out. All those years ago when Anne showed the smug woman at the daycare—Barb was her name—the breastmilk she'd packed in the insulated tote bag, the woman had said, "Looks like you packed enough milk for everyone in the infant room." Barb's word choice, everyone, had stuck to Anne like a burr. She'd pictured Barb sucking on one of the rubber nipples. How could she leave Charlie with that woman after that?

Ethan had also urged Anne to stay home with Charlie. But years later, he insisted he had merely indulged her. He said that Anne had clearly wanted to be home with Charlie, so he'd assured her that if she wanted to, she could and she should.

The anthropology textbook offered hunting as an example of work that was incompatible with childcare. Next to that chunk of text was a photograph of a woman tending a garden, a sleeping infant strapped onto her back. Anne raised her hand in class and said, "Prolonged infant dependency? My kid's 14, and she acts like frying an egg is as taxing as hunting a wildebeest."

The professor said, "There's a theory that human children grow and mature slowly as a kind of survival mechanism. Remaining small and immature elicits caretaking from adults. It also makes children less threatening." She then talked about how in orangutan populations in which life is particularly stressful or competitive, the young will remain physically and behaviorally immature into adulthood. It's like somehow their bodies know that it's not safe yet to grow.

"I'm starving!" Charlie says, again. Sometimes Charlie will go a good half hour repeating a single phrase: "Where is my phone?" for example. It reminds Anne of that scene in The Wire, where two of the police detectives, McNulty and Moreland, for five minutes utter nothing but the word "Fuck." One of them picks up a discarded gun, says "Fuck." Another looks out a window: "Fuck." To Ethan, this scene was evidence that The Wire was over-rated. "How could that show be nominated for writing awards? The dialogue is entirely composed of 'Fuck!'" But to Anne, it was brilliant, an example of how much communication could occur extra-verbally.

"Let's go out for breakfast then," Anne says. "Let's go to that place that puts out the cookies and coffee for you while you wait to get seated."

 

What if "I'm starving" is the only phrase Charlie will utter, ever again? What if she is permanently language impaired, like that nymph Echo in Greek mythology, cursed so she can only repeat, or like Ethan's stroke-struck mother, who can only remember names of certain tropical fruits?

Anne hears the professor's words again: Survival mechanism. She thinks of one of the tips she'd read in an article about how to help children cope with divorce: Help your child put her feelings into words. Would Anne eventually, with practice, be able to distinguish the meaning behind the phrase, to discern when "I'm starving" meant "I love you," when it meant "Fuck you"? That latter phrase rarely vocalized by Charlie, but often embedded in her words, a vivid candy wrapped in wax paper.

"Let's go out for breakfast then," Anne says. "Let's go to that place that puts out the cookies and coffee for you while you wait to get seated."

They'd gone there a couple times when it was still the three of them, but both times Ethan found fault with his order. The first time his eggs were over easy rather than over medium. The second time his tomatoes didn't taste like tomatoes. "These are the sad tomatoes," he said. Sad tomatoes: That's what he called commercial tomatoes, the kind you find at fast food restaurants and some of the less pricey grocery stores. For a man who neither cooked nor gardened, Ethan had strong opinions about food. Tomatoes should, for instance, smell like sweet dirt.

Charlie says, "I love those cookies!" and Anne feels a strange satisfaction, as though her suggestion to eat those cookies is as good as baking the cookies herself.

The café is only about a mile and a half away and the morning cool, so they walk. Charlie is wearing very, very short cut-offs, shorts that give new meaning to the word "short." Anne hates this look, where you can see the white inside pockets dangling below the frayed cuffs. Those pockets make her think of "I surrender" handkerchiefs. It's as though by exposing them, Charlie is announcing to male passersby that her body is available for the taking. Of course, this thought is terribly un-feminist, so Anne refrains from saying it. But it makes Anne want to weep, the way these girls dress. She wonders what her anthropology professor would have to say about their black eyeliner and skimpy crop tops and denim diapers. How would Professor Feingold reconcile this mode of attire with her theory about the protracted childhood of orangutans? Every time a car drives by, Anne feels on high alert. She expects to see leaning out a window some hairy, low-browed man, with a gorilla's hole-punch nostrils.

"I don't get why exposed umbilical cord scars are supposed to be sexy anyway," Anne says.

"Gross," Charlie says.

"That's precisely what it is. Proof that you were once tethered to my uterus."

Charlie makes a face, but Anne's words have their desired effect. Charlie pulls at the bottom of her shirt.

Then Charlie says, "I've seen those photos of you in that rainbow-colored tube top. And Dad has that long, shaggy hair."

Absurdly, Anne feels sad that she got rid of that tube top, though she wouldn't dream of wearing it now, even if she could pull it off, which she most certainly cannot.

"I never said I'm not a hypocrite," Anne says.

An elderly white man is approaching in the opposite direction, but he's walking on what is the left side of the sidewalk for him, which means that if neither he nor Anne moves, they're going to collide. The man shows no sign of moving out of the way. In fact, he's looking across the street at the houses on the opposite side of the road, not the least bit mindful about what's in front of him. Anne is suddenly seething. Always she ends up being the one to give in and move in these situations; always it's men who enact these games of chicken.

When they're a few yards apart, and Charlie is yanking on Anne's arm, Anne stops in her tracks and waits for the man to notice her. When he finally does, he stops and says, "Excuse me," waits for her to get out of his way.

"You're on the wrong side of the sidewalk," Anne says.

"What?" he says.

Anne looks him in the eye; he looks back at her, folding his arms.

 

Charlie looks as stunned as he does, and Anne thinks of the time she came home with a cake that read "You said you hate me" in purple icing. Anne can't remember now what Charlie was angry about that day, only that when she told Anne she hated her, Anne hadn't felt angry or even sad. Or at least not sad in the way one might think—her feelings hurt. She'd felt a mix of happy and sad the way she had when Charlie had announced she no longer needed help washing her hair. In the case of the hair washing, sad that when she'd washed her daughter's hair the last time, she hadn't known it was the last time, hadn't been mindful, hadn't savored the moment. In the case of Charlie saying she hated Anne, sad that it hadn't occurred to her to appreciate that Charlie had never said anything like that to her before. Since it was too late to buy Charlie a cake for not saying she hated her mother, Anne settled for a cake to celebrate that she had said it.

"Mom," says Charlie, tugging her arm. What if Charlie were limited forevermore to the word "Mom"? What does this particular "Mom" mean? It doesn't sound, to Anne's ear, like the mortified iteration she is most familiar with, "Mo—om!," drawn out to express how lengthily and deeply Anne humiliates her daughter. No, it sounds more like Charlie is frightened. But why frightened? Anne studies the man in front of her. This guy is old. He must be at least 65. Surely Anne could take him in a fight.

Anne looks him in the eye; he looks back at her, folding his arms.

She thinks of a Dr. Seuss book she used to read Charlie, the one about the North-going Zax whose path is obstructed by a South-going Zax. Neither of them gives way. Both fold their furry, Seuss-creature arms, exactly like this dude. Slowly, the city gets built around them; they are a truculent island, girdled in overpasses. As a kid, Charlie was mystified by the two Zaxes. "Why won't they just move?" she asked Anne, and Anne said, "Because sometimes—" and then faltered, unable to complete the thought.

The most dangerous primates, Professor Feingold told them, are the old ones, because they have the most to prove. Challenged by a much bigger young male, one aging orangutan clubbed him on the head with a tree branch and killed him. In general, the dangerous animals aren't the ones you'd expect, a fellow student pointed out. In Yellowstone, the animals that caused the most fatalities were not bears but deer, cornered by tourists wanting to take their pictures.

~

"You're the one who always tells me not to go looking for trouble," Charlie says.

"I wasn't looking. I just kind of stumbled onto it."

"He looked so mad! If he were in a cartoon, smoke would have come out of his ears."

"Really?" Anne says, surprised. To her, the old man looked not angry so much as bewildered. He reminded her of her former mother-in-law, who long before the stroke that reduced her vocabulary to "mango," "papaya," and "coconut," had pronounced life too confusing to follow. "I've learned all my brain can learn," Lois told Anne, who was trying to teach her how to use the laptop she and Ethan had bought her for Christmas. "I can't learn anything else." Later, Anne pictured the blood clot that caused Lois's stroke as a globule of data her brain refused to assimilate.

Anne takes a third bite-size cookie from the white tray, and Charlie says, "That reminds me. I signed us up for the band bake sale."

"Us?" Anne says.

"Cookies, brownies, cupcakes—doesn't matter what, as long as I bring two dozen individual bags tomorrow morning."

"What are you going to bake?" Anne says.

Charlie says, "I was thinking you'd make those bars with the chocolate and cranberries."

"I thought your dad was picking you up at four today," Anne says.

"Yeah?" Charlie says. "I mean I guess I could ask Kay to help me if that's what you want. She does love to bake."

Anne stiffens. "I'll gladly help you," she says. "But you can't go sign up for a bake sale and then pawn the baking off onto someone else."

Charlie gives her one withering stare, turning the space between them black and crackly, carbonized, and then averts her face in disgust. "You always make such a big deal out of everything," she mutters.

Anne knows, having heard this assessment before, that this is the most damning of insults, though she doesn't really get it. She concedes that the "You Said You Hate Me" cake was making a big deal, and mixing mocktails with sparkling cider and maraschino cherries when Charlie got her first period was a big deal. But how was saying "So who is this Aaron?" last week, in the lightest and most casual of ways, a big deal? And wouldn't making a big deal out of the bake sale involve hopping up and down, clapping her hands, and tying matching mom-and-daughter aprons around their waists?

"All I'm saying," Anne begins, then pauses. She suspects that she is about to fall on her knees, crying: Please let me bake all your chocolate cranberry bars! Charlie is like a bad boyfriend she keeps begging to forgive her.

"Whatever," Charlie says, and Anne decides that "Whatever," rather than "I'm starving" or "Mom," is really the perfect expression for a one-word Charlie. "Whatever" has range. It can connote peaceful flexibility: "What do you want for dinner?" "Whatever!" It can be singsong and buoyant. Or it can be scathing as hell.

"Never mind. I'll bake with Kay," Charlie says.

Forget about following your instincts, Dr. Baum, the therapist Anne had seen after splitting with Ethan, used to tell her. Instinct was lizard-brain reaction, and often misguided. Think instead about what you actually want.

Does Anne want to spend her afternoon shopping for cranberries (where will she find cranberries in June)? Does she want to melt chocolate in a double boiler? No, Anne decides, she does not.

"Great idea," Anne says, and Charlie takes a startled bite of her cookie.

For Ethan's house, Kay planted a garden to attract hummingbirds. While Anne wrestles, unsuccessfully, with making concoctions for the hummingbird feeder, the hummingbirds zippily flock to Kay; Kay is a Disney princess with birds perched on her shoulder. Kay tried to explain to Anne once what bright, velvety flowers and vines to plant—which ones would attract honeybees, which would then attract the birds that ate them—but Anne was like Lois refusing to assimilate new information. No, no, no was what her brain had to say, when Kay tried to spoon into it these bird-enticing plants.

Charlie doesn't speak a word throughout breakfast except to the waitress when she orders crepes with strawberries and whipped cream. From their table at the edge of the restaurant's patio, she stares out at the street.

Anne used to pride herself on how coolly she handled Charlie's silences. Ethan, on the other hand, would demand that Charlie talk to him, particularly during meals. Refusal to engage in conversation over food was a deadly sin in Ethan's book. "Talk or else _____," he used to say, filling the blank with all manner of threats, from no visiting her grandparents for spring break to no more private trombone lessons. Charlie would go on eating and staring out the window as though she couldn't see or hear Ethan at all. Usually Anne quietly observed Ethan when he let Charlie get the better of him. Then later in their bedroom, when Charlie wasn't around to hear, she'd remind him once again that he was never ever going to win the battle unless he drastically changed his strategy.

But one time Ethan got so angry that he reached over and took Charlie's plate from her, put it between his and Anne's plates. They were eating tacos, Anne remembers. Charlie's favorite food. Tacos Anne prepared with lettuce and yellow cherry tomatoes she'd picked up at the farmer's market that morning. Tacos Anne made because Charlie was suffering cramps and she'd wanted to do something nice for her. Charlie didn't react. She wiped guacamole from her lip, rested her hands in her lap. But Anne lost it. She'd not only returned the plate to Charlie, she'd screamed at Ethan that he had no right to wield the dinner she'd made as a bargaining chip or punishment.

A week after the taco fiasco, Ethan moved out; that had been one of their last family dinners.

 

Charlie didn't eat the tacos. She sat there at the end of the table, looking back and forth between Anne and Ethan. Anne, refusing to look at Ethan, gazed back at Charlie. Was Charlie waiting to see if one of them would back off? Bracing herself for what would happen if neither of them did? "Why won't either of them move?" Anne remembered Charlie asking, bewildered, about that North-going and South-going Zax, locked in their face off, as the city loops, a slinky, around them.

Anne watches her daughter stare at pedestrians, studies her profile, her lovely, mollusk-like ear. Charlie is stubborn as hell. Well, she gets it from both sides, a double dose, like the recessive genes that gave her blue-green eyes.

What does Anne find so moving about Dr. Seuss's Zaxes? She wonders, stirring the granola in her yogurt into a whorl. They do not strike her as pure antagonists. They are not opposites, after all. They are alike. And by both refusing to move, they maintain a relationship.

A week after the taco fiasco, Ethan moved out; that had been one of their last family dinners.

Anne and Ethan were oddly matched in so many ways. Anne often summed up their dynamic as "agree to disagree." About having more children, for instance—Ethan had been so freaked out when she got pregnant at 21, but then his philosophy morphed into, if you have one, you may as well have four. He wanted kids two years apart, so they'd be close. Easy for him to campaign for more kids, when the parenting mostly fell to Anne. Anne teased him that it was all an excuse to buy bunkbeds. When he talked about how lonely he had been, as an only child, she said, merrily, "Let's agree to disagree."

"I disagree to disagree!" That was almost his parting line. The box he'd checked, filing for divorce, was "Irreconcilable differences."

When the waitress drops off the check, she smiles sympathetically at Anne. She's young, a college student perhaps. When Anne was her age, Charlie had been a newborn; Anne had worn her everywhere in a sling. Charlie had liked to suck on Anne's finger for so long that her fingertip turned pruney. Ethan called the baby, "your barnacle."

The waitress must observe so much bad behavior in her line of work: an anthropologist, studying the primates.

Anne has long been ambivalent about dining out of the house for this reason. On the one hand, the break from cooking is welcome. On the other hand, to dine in a restaurant is to put your relationships on display. Of course, it's only when there's tension that Anne feels exposed. She thinks of that movie Clash of the Titans, which she watched a dozen times as a kid. Zeus moves about stone figurines representing the human characters like they're dolls in a dollhouse, puts them face-to-face with monsters. Then he watches to see what they'll do. Anne feels like one of those stone figurines. That everyone is watching her and that whatever move she makes will be discussed, analyzed. Maybe this is part of why she can't stop thinking about the Zaxes. The way their paths run into each other like that, it's not an accident. Seuss is their Zeus, forcing them into a test they are predestined to fail. Of course, Anne isn't really stone. She is perfectly capable of moving.


Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Monkeybicycle, Okay Donkey, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and other venues. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.

Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books in 2019. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Sixfold, and many other journals. She is fiction editor of Pithead Chapel.


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