Careen left the abortion clinic at exactly five thirty-three in the afternoon. She knew this because she promptly checked her watch, a Mickey Mouse watch that her boyfriend Terrence had given her for her birthday just last month. She'd just turned nineteen. She stepped off the curb on Montgomery Avenue and turned left. This was a sleazy section of downtown Jersey City. She knew by the way the men eyed her, dressed as unbecomingly as she was--in a gray sweatshirt with a Coke stain in the front, baggy jeans, her hair pulled back harshly from her naked face. Her mother had always called an unmade face naked, and she agreed. She was punishing herself today by not looking good.
The bus took a while to arrive, as is the tendency of buses: to procrastinate when you most needed them. It was hot and she wished she hadn't worn a sweatshirt. The cramps in her belly made the heat worse. In her head, she cursed two men who had gotten to the bus stop before her, and were lodged on the black bench. Two men-both dressed in business apparel, one black and one white. The black man was talking on a cell phone; the white man was reading The New York Times. The men—if they would move closer together—would create enough room for her to sit. But logic told her they wouldn't: two men wouldn't choose to sit together in such close proximity. And if they moved to opposite sides of the bench to allow her to sit in the middle, it would reveal, in both these men, a childish inability to defy what Careen considered a perplexing social rule.
Since they couldn't sit together nor could they move to opposite sides of the bench, one man should forfeit his seat. The black man should get up at least, seeing that she was a black woman, a "sister." Or the white man should—not only in deference to her womanhood but to demonstrate that he was not racist. Or they should both surrender their seats, so she could lie upon the bench and rest her aching stomach; they both should go, not because she was black or white, but because she was a woman and whatever happened to chivalry? She was annoyed at herself for not going through her usual beauty regime; she imagined if she had, she would have been seated by now.
By the time the bus came, Careen thought she would die from the pain in her stomach. She would die and these businessmen would go on reading and talking. She didn't know which man was more at fault—the one so engaged in his paper that perhaps he didn't even see her or the one who was gabbing away so energetically that maybe he didn't notice her either.
Careen boarded the bus with the white man directly behind her, and the black man directly behind him. At least these businessmen were decent enough to permit her to board the bus first; though that fact in no way made up for their prior lack of respect. She shuffled through her red sequined purse and with horror, realized she had no money. The bus driver, having seen that "no money" look before was patient with her as her fingers scrambled through every orifice of the purse and only managed a worn-out nickel and a video game token from Thursday night when she and Terrence had visited the arcade. She could hear the heavy, irritated breathing of the man behind her; she was obviously holding him up. The man behind him was too engaged in his conversation to be aggravated about the delay.
"I'll pay her fare," the white man said, and the bus driver looked relieved.
She stepped aside so he could pay; he did so, and then brushed past her without so much as a look when she thanked him for his kindness.
She felt like crying. There was nothing so humiliating as this. The abortion hadn't caused her this much grief, nor had finding out she was pregnant in the first place, nor had anything in her life, ever. As she made her way to the back of the bus—following this rude stranger, intending to give him a piece of her mind—she thought of her father. She thought of him every Sunday baking chocolate chip cookies in a silly white chef's hat or opening up a fire hydrant for her and all her friends on a ninety-degree scorcher. The way his black, deeply muscled chest felt when she hugged him, shirtless, wet from that gushing hydrant—standing on his feet on her tiptoes to try to kiss him. Her father was arrested for possession of cocaine and sentenced to ten years in prison. He had been driving, she was in the passenger seat when it happened, the "Mickey Mouse Club" song was playing; she remembered clearly the whirling blue and red lights the cop car made. "Oh-oh spaghetti-o," he said to her, when those lights went on, the last thing he had said to her as a free man.
"That was very rude of you," she said finally, clutching the red sequined purse to her belly. He was sitting across from her, with his paper; she said it so loudly he was forced to look up.
"I'm sorry. What was rude?"
"Before. When you paid the fare. I thanked you and you didn't say 'You're welcome'." Tears came, disgracefully, and he passed her a small package of Kleenex.
"Oh, I must not have heard you." He was slightly overweight, good-looking in an agitated way. He appeared to be in his mid-forties and had lost some hair; what remained was sandy gray. His nose was a little ski slope, sharp and graceful.
She let down her hair, shook it so it landed atop her shoulders in a single perfect brown mass. She saw him noticing that her eyes were green, not brown.
"I had a bad day at the office and you could say I'm a bit out of sorts. My name is Adam. May I ask your name?"
"Careen. What a lovely name. Unusual, wouldn't you say? I see that is also an unusual purse. It sparkles." He smiled and she couldn't tell if he was mocking its outlandishness or whether he truly appreciated it. She quickly decided on the latter and smiled back. "My father gave it to me when I was a little girl. I used it for dress-up but now I'm a big girl," she said, with a smile that she intended as 'coy.' "My father used to have a briefcase just like that, you know, exactly the same. He was a stockbroker on Wall Street." Her father had been a plumber, but by saying this, she felt she was putting him on equal footing with Adam.
They continued talking, and Careen ended up missing her stop.
Terrence, her boyfriend, had been ecstatic about the pregnancy. After he found out, he produced an engagement ring. Terrence worked full-time at the car wash and part-time at the electronics store. He helped support his mother and three sisters.
"We'll be a family. I love you. You're beautiful. We'll be beautiful together."
She looked at the way his nails were stuffed with dirt from the hoods of cars he had washed that day. Where would they live? With the mother and sisters in the two bed-roomer in downtown Jersey City? She had decided to tell him she'd had a miscarriage.
Terrence was a good boyfriend. But although she didn't consciously acknowledge it, she was a little contemptuous of the way he was always looking at her and making pledges. The way she was just one in a train of women, the caboose perhaps, his mother upfront and his three sisters in braids and plastic barrettes stacked behind her like Dominoes; each girl smaller in stature than the one before her, but none seeming as insignificant as Careen herself, whose skin was noticeably lighter, who did not share the genes for knobby knees and lush black eyes. She wanted a man who had no one, no domestic chain already pulling the weight of chores for him, no similar-skinned females with boisterous voices and tidy hands who all menstruated at the same time, even the youngest, at nine, ('oh boy,' Terrence would say every month); she wanted a man who was an island, but an island she could row to, with effort, an island she could post her flag on and say, aided by her mother's talent for cooking, 'You are mine.'
Adam could be exactly that island, though she noticed with disappointment how neat he managed to keep his condo. She asked him if he ordered take-out and surprised by that question, he responded that he cooked dinners for himself every night; he was a meat-and-potatoes kind of man and could not possibly subsist on pizza and Chinese food.
"But I don't like cooking," he said, to her great relief. "I find it very boring."
"Well," she said, nuzzling him, "let me stay here and I'll do it for you."
She meant it as a joke, but he didn't take it as one.
"You can stay here if you want to. You don't have to go home." She had told him she didn't exactly get along with her mother. How nice of him to want to rescue her from that situation.
Her mother's name was Karen. Karen was white and fat and mousy. As long as Careen remembered her mother had been frumpy, even when she was fairly thin. Funny how her mother had all the elements of beauty-blond hair, pert nose, good complexion, but it just didn't help. She was nondescript wherever she went, to the point of people not remembering her days after meeting her. Karen had gotten very bitchy in recent years, snapping at Terrence who was nothing but polite to her, waving a broom at the sparrows that came to roost on the fence outside, not tipping waiters and waitresses, though Careen worked as a waitress, and Karen herself was a mere bank teller, nothing fancy. And sometimes it seemed she was jealous of her daughter's beauty.
Careen took pride in the fact that she was long-legged, big in the chest, and yet had a naturally petite waist. Her eyes were green, that surreal grayish-green that comes with the mixing of the races. Her skin was the gorgeous shade of brown the local tanning salon advertised; her mother could spend all summer at the beach, slathered with Native Tan lotion and still not achieve that shade. Careen, as a child, had always been mistaken for her mother's babysitting charge. She wondered if her mother had considered that beforehand, the erasure of self that would come when she decided to marry outside her race.
As Adam penetrated her, sheathed in a condom, Careen had a sudden memory of the night she found out her father was dead, knifed in the back during a jail fight. All because of some cocaine; the irony was, he wasn't even an addict, he and Karen were sometimes-users, or so Karen later admitted. Even as a child, Careen had known that if her father had been a rock star, football player, or corporate lawyer he wouldn't have seen the inside of a prison. It wasn't a black thing; after all, O.J. had gone free. It was a money thing. She wondered whether Adam, if caught with cocaine, would go to jail.
The night she had found out about her father she had taken a large wad of cookie dough from the refrigerator and eaten just the chips, leaving the dough in front of the TV. She hadn't felt much grief that first night. It came later, much, much later, and maybe because it was so late, it never left.
Careen brushed her teeth in front of the shining bathroom mirror, the mirror she had just polished. The living and dining room carpets were vacuumed and the wood floors of the two bedrooms waxed to perfection; the tub and bathroom sink carefully scoured. Every time Careen cleaned, she waited for a compliment from Adam, but he never said anything. Maybe it was because his job was so tiring. At dinner, he usually read the paper while he ate, and she could hear the sound of his knife cutting the meat into precise wedges that he chewed thoroughly. A few hours later, he would allow for conversation, but only while he was engaged in preparing for the next morning: choosing his clothes (he was very fussy and indecisive about clothing) and placing them on the bed for Careen to iron at night, shaving (he always shaved the night before, despising a rush in the morning) and flossing his teeth for a good twenty minutes. He kept his nails meticulously short, to the point of being incapable of opening cellophane, and Careen wondered how he had ever gotten on without her. Her nails were long and womanly; and her arms strong and firm from when she used to work out at the Apollo Gym. After eight months of living with Adam, however, they were losing some of their muscle tone; and when she complained about it, Adam laughed, and said he preferred flab on women—it was an indispensable part of the female form.
Now that the house chores were done, there was only the shopping left, and the task of preparing dinner. In the meat aisle of the Shop Rite, she stocked up. Spaghetti and meatballs for Monday, T-bone steak for Tuesday, filet mignon for Wednesday, Thursday was London broil, and Friday, being a casual night, she would prepare tacos stuffed with chopped beef, tomatoes, and shredded cheddar cheese. Saturday and Sunday were eating-out nights, at Adam's favorite steakhouses. Careen had grown up eating mostly fish and chicken; meat was considered costly and only necessary for a special occasion; and she was intuitively afraid of the havoc her new carnivorous diet might wreck on her thighs and belly. She was also afraid that Adam might die of an early heart attack. But she couldn't expect to change a man's lifestyle when he had been living alone for ten years.
Careen looked longingly at the tender white and pink shrimps beached on a quilt of ice; the dark reddish-brown lobsters spreading their feelers out to touch the glass of their tank. The glistening salmon and Red Snapper, the obscenely exposed oysters wedged in their shells. Then she looked into the shopping cart at the dripping meats. Maybe she could put one back. Adam wouldn't mind if she purchased a nice lobster or crab for tonight. Wait, better to call him, check first. She reached into her red sequined purse for the red cell phone he had bought her; a few sequins fell off as she stuck her hand in. "When will you get rid of that thing?" Adam was always asking. "It's starting to fall apart."
Careen's cellular had a special fortune-telling feature called I-Ching. She had been tempted to use it many times already, but in the end, decided she didn't want to know the future. Careen looked at the square blank face of the little phone. Finally, she decided it was best not to bother him at work; she could approach him with the subject of a varied dinner menu at a later date.
The engagement ring came when Careen least expected it and was most hungry for it. She asked where he had gotten it, and he replied that he had bought it at Lenox jewelers; they were having a sale on diamond rings. The diamond was huge, so she couldn't complain about the necessity of Adam waiting for a sale to come around. Adam, being a frank and honest man, had admitted that he would have proposed sooner if he had seen a sale sooner; he had known he wanted Careen as a wife after only three months. She expected kisses of celebration after the proposal but Adam seemed to dislike such shows of affection. Even during sex he did not kiss her, although he was very gentle in bed, and she assumed it was through the lower half of his body that he made his love known.
The wedding and honeymoon in Cancun followed and a pregnancy trailed after those events, like the tail end of a kite; everything blurring together so quickly that Careen couldn't decide whether she was happy or sad to be efficiently pulled from one life stage to another: fiancée to wife to mother. She decided she was happy, because why decide the opposite? Karen was certainly happy, ranting about how she was glad Careen had found a stable man (meaning money), and good thing she hadn't married that "lowlife Terrence."
"He wasn't a lowlife," she said, shocked, "He was very hardworking."
When Careen complained that Adam wasn't affectionate and had never said, "I love you," Karen said that some men expressed themselves through actions, not words. She pointed to the engagement ring when she said that. Careen did have to admit that Adam did try to make her happy; he was always buying her small, expensive gifts he thought she would like.
The wedding attracted numerous otherwise unseen friends and relatives from both her's and Adam's side. Careen's third cousin caught the bouquet and, being only five, proceeded to de-petal it with vigor, leaving the buds all over the glossy floor where some of the younger, unsupervised children picked fallen rice and spit it at each other. Careen's baby shower came eight months later, and only a week after the shower the baby itself, a girl they named Adore; and only two days after the ordeal of birth, Careen was home, trying to remember to wipe the child from front to rear, how to clean the umbilical cord stump properly, how to properly balance the baby over her shoulder for burping.
Adam, unlike husbands she had read about, was not jealous of the attention she gave to the baby. He loved Adore, and told her so, kissing her fingers and toes. It was by watching the way he interacted with Adore that Careen was hit with the sudden, forceful recognition: Adam could show affection and he had just chosen to show none to Careen. Careen, when hit with this realization, didn't know what to do, so for a year she did nothing. After a year, she started to have an affair with a man she met at one of Adam's company parties; she was certain jealousy would bring out the love he had for her.
Christopher George was a placid baby, far easier to care for than Adore had been. Adore had been brought up on formula, but with Christopher George, Careen decided to breastfeed. It was during breastfeeding that Careen felt the closest to another human being since her father died. When Christopher George learned to point, he pointed first to her eyes, then to her nose, then to her mouth.
"Eyes," Careen would say.
"Nose," Careen would say.
"Mouth!" she would exclaim, "mouth" being the grand finale.
Christopher George would let go of her breast to squawk with delight.
Then she would go through the naming again, as the baby was dazzled by repetition.
"Eyes. Nose. Mouth."
The world was hers to define, his to accept. Careen began to fantasize about tricking the baby. Saying "mouth," and "mouth" again when he pointed first to one of her eyes and then the other. Saying "eye" when he tried to jab an exploring finger into her left nostril. Or making up completely different words for the parts of the face, "Agloo" might be nose, for instance, and "Shizee" mouth and "Tryten" could be eye, who would know the difference?
What would the baby care?
Careen began to understand why mothers hit their children.
She never came close to hitting Christopher George, even when the baby was bad; to hit him would be unfair. She imagined the look of wonder and surprise that would appear on his face if she did just that. The eyes would expand from dime to quarter-sized, the nostrils tighten, while the little mouth curled up and died. She would never hit Christopher George.
Adore was a different story. The sassy little girl provoked her to no end, needling her when she was angriest, sensing Careen was already at her worst and still finding a way to worsen her. Careen never did strike out though she was often tempted, thinking back to Karen's careless, unexplained spankings—the dour humiliation of pants pulled down, hand coming down without reason or sense, and worst of all, not knowing where to put her legs, whether to suspend them in air or lie them across the floor like plywood; the uselessness and trouble of owning legs at a time like this; head could be placed in a mother's warm, creased pants, head could be easily done away with, but legs were never easy, no they never were. There were a few times she imagined the joints in her legs were screws like the screws in her father's toolbox and that they could be unscrewed and her legs folded up and put neatly away; in an empty violin case perhaps, stored for later use. Then her mother could spank her and she would not feel the pain of keeping her legs up. It was indeed a strain and her little screw-less joints protested, but to allow them to hang meekly to the floor would be defeat.
She encountered the problem again, as a grown woman, during sex, feeling the necessity of keeping her legs suspended in air. It was a problem, but there was no removal to be had. Legs got in the way; that was just the way it was.
So, remembering the humiliation of spankings, Careen vowed to be a non-violent mother. She tried to follow the mother-protocol advised in childrearing books—1. Calmly explain to the child that the behavior will not be tolerated. 2. Remove the child from the setting immediately, do not allow the child to dominate You the mother.
Did the book use the word "dominate?" Did it capitalize "You?" Careen couldn't remember.
Adam never had the problems with Adore that Careen did—the tantrums, the constant whining. Careen was beginning to wonder whether two females could coexist inside a house peaceably, or whether one would have to go. She got unreasonably angry at the little girl for charging through the hall to the fridge to get Adam a tonic water (that's what he was drinking lately, tonic water), or when Adam said "Someone pass the butter," and Careen, being closest to the little plate with its prim yellow rectangle, would reach to get it, only to be superseded by the ungainly speed of a smirking Adore, who would stretch across the table to seize it with a triumphant "Here, Daddy."
One day, when Careen was braiding and adorning the child's hair in front of the mirror, it occurred to her that she didn't love Adore. It was such a shaming realization that she quickly choked it back, blaming the thought on moody raindrops and grayness tensed against the windows. She blamed it on a week of such rain, such gloomy, niggling, trapping rain.
Because she might not love Adore at all, she had to be sure to love her twice as much. To wake up extra-early to comb and plait the child's hair; to tickle her right before bedtime, then cozy her up for a Little Golden Book, to give her two kisses for every one kiss she gave Christopher George. One night Careen had a dream that Christopher George was a grown man who greatly resembled her father. Adore was the size of Thumbelina in the children's story. And Adam was a housecat, purring at her knees. She blamed the dream on eating pistachio nuts, greasy waffle fries and a chocolate sundae topped with M&Ms before retiring for the night.
As the children got older, it became unmistakable which parent each resembled—Adore: Adam, Christopher George: Careen. Adore's skin was the color of the lightest possible toast when she was born, but as she grew older, it began to take on a shade, which, to Careen, looked like evaporated milk.
"My daughter's skin does not look like evaporated milk," she thought, three times in succession, three being a number best used for banishing.
After the magical three sentences, the whiteness of Adore's skin took on the shade of anything but evaporated milk. Doves in flight or Dove soap, ivory tusks or Ivory soap, the strings that came loose from peeled bananas, sunshine at its hottest, mozzarella cheese (in a good way) and shark teeth glistening (also in a good way).
Adore's hair was dark honey blond and she was very particular about it. She was angry at the curls she could not conquer and at the age of eight, started to nag her father about getting it relaxed.
Careen said to Adam that the girl was too young for that, why did she care about her appearance at all; besides, it was too expensive and Adore was already terribly spoiled. Adam had already gotten Adore a cell phone, and Adore had already run up a two hundred dollar bill. But saying "no" was never Adam's strong point and getting angry at Adore's weekly fits of rage was out of the question. Adore tended to rage on Saturday, which happened to be the day that Adam reserved for quality time with his children. After only three weeks of ruined Saturdays, Adore's hair was straight.
Careen, who had had straight hair since early childhood thought, "I don't understand the obsession." Then another thought, which disoriented her with its malice, "She already has everything. Is it too much to ask that she suffer just a little, just a little, with ugly hair?"
This thought was particularly distressing, because it embodied two levels of evil: 1. She wanted Adore to suffer just a little 2. She thought of the child's hair as ugly and relished her own beautiful hair.
So much for the good mommy books!!
Christopher George had curls; they were coiled like perfect springs, springs that jetted softly upward, while at the same time curling inward like the feet of birds when flying. His skin was the color of a New York City pretzel. When they walked together, people knew he belonged to her.
She was no babysitter, no distant cousin. She was mother, he was son.
They were firm and brown, their limbs in summer tanned to the rich russet shade of lion manes. She was still very beautiful, and he was still very small. She knew that for him to be bigger, a big strong handsome man like she imagined he would be, she would have to be older and not so beautiful. Adam was already mostly bald and mousy now. Yet she didn't have affairs anymore. It seemed too much trouble, altogether. There was the matter of finding the man to cheat with, figuring out where to cheat, organizing the tiniest details like making sure they had condoms, keeping it secret from the children, making sure the man didn't get too intense, making sure she had no emotion whatsoever; it was easier to coax out two shuddery orgasms with her vibrator than to go through the bother of training a man to do it. They should have a school for teaching men the female body, but they don't. It was like screws to undo legs, a wonderful invention that just didn't exist.
"You look gorgeous, Adore." Complimenting her daughter's looks was Careen's way of saying "I love you" and vice versa. It was a fine system, and mother and daughter both adhered to it with rigidity.
"Thanks. But Mother, what eyeliner do you think, light blue or vivid blue?"
"Light. You want it to look natural."
The girl frowned and chose vivid.
Calling mothers "Mother" was the new thing, the hip teenage thing. Adore was fifteen now and looked nothing like her mother at that age. She was both beautiful and different. Her skin was like white chocolate or corneas or lemon Italian Ice. She had acne and Careen felt sorry. It showed on her skin the way it would never have shown on Careen's.
The girl was applying blue eyeliner that brought out the blue in her eyes better. Well, actually, blue-gray, a gray that Careen knew to have come from the mixing of the races, a very lovely dilution of what would have been a too-vivid blue.
"I've gotten a part-time job at the Mandee's," Careen said, "Do I look young enough to be good salesgirl?"
"You look very young, Mother."
"I bet people think we're sisters."
Adore rolled her eyes. "More liner?" she said, squinting worriedly.
"No, I think it looks best subtle."
Christopher George was playing GI Joes with Danny DeWitt in his room. The two boys were making their usual racket firing invisible guns. He seemed to shrug off Careen's kisses now. And Adam, boring, methodical, growing more homely by the hour.
Maybe it was time to have an affair.
Or get a new, trendy haircut.
Or have another baby.
That night, she went into her room and put her hand into the red sequined purse. Into the soft dome-shaped dark. Most of the sequins had fallen off, but it was still bright red.
"Oh-oh spaghetti-o," she whispered and turned off the light so she could lie in the dark and remember what it was like to be a daughter.
Margaux Fragoso recently completed a PhD in English and creative writing at Binghamton University. Her short stories and poems have appeared in The Literary Review and Barrow Street, among other literary journals.