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I’m the sperm that got through undetected and assassinated her opportunity at love. And it seems harsh, but that’s just the type of relationship my mother and I have. She isn’t above hitting below the belt, and well, I learned a long time ago to grow comfortable with the jabs. With rusted brown hair and dirt brown eyes, my skin is too tan, jaw is too square, hips too narrow, and the mole in the left corner of my bottom lip should be on the right. So, not only am I the permanent blemish against her innocence, but I’m too much like him and not enough like her. And I’d survived her in childhood, with only one failed runaway attempt and five years of therapy to trophy my success, (both the sponsored products of her efforts). But at twenty-six years old, ulcers crucify my insides from the thought of having to move back in with her. But what are my options? I could try the homeless thing again. After all, it’s only been twelve years since I last ran away from her and despite my very brief (and immature) imposition on poverty, I’m sure that life on the streets isn’t near the melodrama that they make it out to be on television. Considering the scarce (and often rancid) food, unclean clothes and cardboard bed, it can’t be much different from my college experience. But in my brief stint as a high paid photographer, I grew accustomed to the luxuries of Tivo and wireless internet. (Not to mention the inevitable scathing reaction of my mother, whom I’m sure would brand my version of survival instincts as an intentional attack against her version of motherhood. I wasn’t necessarily welcome, but I was certainly expected to choose her over homelessness. At least for the sake of her reputation, that is.) Of course, I could always forgive my boyfriend and move back in with him. There’s no reason why I should have to suffer for his mistakes. Besides, from what I’ve read, there are cultures where it’s perfectly acceptable for a man to have three girlfriends. “Big Love” almost makes polygamy seem ideal. And at least it would occasionally give me the night off from his amateur porn-like attempts to “get it on.” Maybe some other woman would enjoy the monthly request of wearing adult diapers and a bib while letting him spank her for such trivial offenses as not calling him “daddy.” The whole thing could work out to my advantage.

But then again, I can hardly manage sharing my toothpaste with him, so divvying out my tampons is out of the question. That’s probably why I’ve ended up here, staring at the monstrous black door that dies against her canary yellow house while my nails stencil crescents into my palms—a punishment for knocking. She opens the door, wafting an arctic chill in my direction that carries with it the smell of her usual mixture—a combination of lotions, body oils, mists and perfumes—all fermenting into the musk of a week old fruit basket. I wait for a hug. She doesn’t offer one. It seems cordiality is like the fancy plates that hide in her high cabinets—it’s strictly reserved for guests and I’m nothing more than a menacing boomerang, always snapping back to smack her with her mistakes. I should consider myself lucky for the faceless ‘hi’. It’s half pleasant, intoned with a special emphasis on the ‘h,’ incase I’m not already aware that it’s forced. For a brief moment, I imagine her choking on the small act of hospitability, falling into a flailing fit of hacked air with her arms outstretched and desperately grasping at my ankles for mercy. Her polished, porcelain skin flushing with an awkward shade of purple like an overripe boysenberry. But in reality she keeps breathing long enough to walk away without so much as giving me a chance to respond. I just stare at her back as she dribbles the weight of her M&M like figure in the opposite direction. Suddenly, neither a life without Tivo nor pedophiliac-like group sex seem so bad. But the withdrawn tone of my therapist’s voice steps in as my superego. I can see her 60 year old, withering frame resting against an ivory leather chair while her fingers methodically twiddle against each other. Her monotone voice ricochets against my ears, reminding me that I have to see this through, that confrontation is the only way to heal. As I close my eyes, take in a deep breath and exhale slowly, I realize how easy it is for my therapist to say that when she isn’t the one forced to suffocate on the smell of Potpourri, Scott’s Liquid Gold and Windex. The only confrontation I need right now is with a couple shots of Absolute and two Tylenol PM because all that psycho-babble is meaningless in the face of my mother’s putrid yellow walls which make the house look like the inside of a dried out hardboiled egg. I drop my duffle bags down in the entryway, stacking them right in front of the sign requesting guests take off their shoes. It’s almost a shame that my life can be smuggled

into two mid-sized Columbia bags, but it makes moving more convenient. Or at least it certainly will in this case. I brush past the bags, my heels clacking like muffled cymbals against the hardwood floor. Nothing has changed. Sure the accessories have moved around, but in the same indiscernible way. It’s just another by-product of my mother’s obsessive tweaking. Artwork exchanges places on the walls, as candles rotate holders. The flowerless vases and decorative ostrich eggs switch shelves, while the beaded turquoise and gold pillows alternate sofas and tables rotate 360 degrees. Everyone is expected to notice. I rarely do. Heavy creaks echo across the wood from the kitchen. I’m hungry, but I know better than to expect that she’s cooking. Lean Cuisines were the closest thing to a home-cooked meal she’d ever prepared for me, and even then they were either partially frozen or overcooked. “I have some left over baked chicken, if you’re interested.” I pray it’s something she ordered in. “I’ve been taking cooking lessons.” I should laugh. “No thanks.” “Suit yourself.” I watch her as she fixes herself a plate, slapping a seasoned chicken breast beside a couple spoonfuls of over-oiled pasta salad. The whole kitchen quickly clogs with a bitter scent. Clouds of vinegar roll off of her plate, making my stomach gurgle. “I take it things didn’t work out with that magazine?” My mother has always had a rather perverse logic. She argues that suicides are sometimes a great act of humanitarianism, that if a baby is ugly as a friend you have a duty of informing the parents, and that the only thing worse than being an artist is being a martyr. And even then, she felt the two were pretty much synonyms. Needless to say my employment as a photographer for Rolling Stone wasn’t well received. And there was a time when I would have walked into this neatly accessorized trap, spilling out the details of my termination as if I were in a Sunday confessional. I would have quickly confided in her that I lost my job because I was “too rigid”; that too many music artists complained about my incessant attempts to modify their poses and wardrobes. It would seem that my compulsive drive for perfection too often led to a repeated inability to meet deadlines, forcing them to let me go and reducing me to weekend shifts at Mimi Maternity to pay my bills. Thankfully, experience had taught me to leave those details out. Why load her with the weapon to splatter my self-esteem across the walls simply by handing her yet another opportunity to start in on the whole, “I don’t see why you didn’t just finish college… art is so uncertain… I managed

both a nursing program and a baby by the time I was your age,” speech. It isn’t as if she thought that I could be a prestigious lawyer or anything. It’s just that she expected me to finish at least two years at a junior college. I did her one better, three years at NYU. But in this moment, rather than open flood gates of vile aggression, I opt to shake my head instead, still anticipating a couple blows at “naïve ambitions.” Yet somehow all I get is an inaudible grunt that I can safely conclude to be a “figures,” before she turns her back to me to scrounge the drawers for some plastic-ware. It’s obvious from her demeanor that she’s gradually building up to the real warfare. A simple “figures” is no more than camouflaged intent. And I know well enough to realize that it’s far from the last thing I’ll hear from a woman who anticipated that I’d have a “habit” by thirteen and then overdose by twenty seven. It was my birthright, or rather, “my rite of passage.” Not only was I blessed with the misfortune of looking like him and inheriting his artistic ambitions, but I was simultaneously cursed with the fortune of inevitably inheriting his drug problem as well. And, luckily, I still have one year to prove her right. (Although I am much more of a dabbler than a user, if this is any indication as to what my time with her will be like, that is likely to change.) “So.” She squares off to me, leaning back against the beige speckled Formica counter top while holding her plate level in her right hand. She doesn’t slouch. I do, impulsively trying to hide myself in the barstool by pulling both knees close into my chest with my arms wrapped tightly around them. I’m sure we would be a caricature artist’s dream, rendered as a massive Italian female sumo wrestler going up against a shorter, less cracked out Nicole Richie knock-off. Her eyes dust over the ripped patches of my Guess jeans and Ed Hardy hoodie, dissecting her way up to my face. My skin tingles from the feel of her eyes glaring at me as though she can bleach his existence out of me, or perhaps make my features more closely resemble hers. I return the look, half in rivaling defiance. Age and time have clearly taken turns against her, bubbling pockets of deflated skin beneath her eyes. I follow the crevices of her wrinkles down to her clothes, my eyes quickly brushing over them. You’d think the 19 year age difference would give room for her to be more fashionably inclined. It doesn’t. Her Wal-Mart knock off jeans hardly coordinate with the faded blue oversized t-shirt. It’s obvious that her exquisite taste begins and ends with her house, shown only

through the $2,000 custom designed paintings on her walls that she obviously spent her entire hospital paycheck on. “So what happened?” The accusation drags out in her tone, making it easy to hear the question that she isn’t asking. She wants to know why I destroyed my future; why I let myself be fired and dumped, all in the same week. I choose to ignore it, counting the stray threads that stripe my thigh instead. Naturally, she just repeats herself. There’s no point in explaining though. As with nearly every guy I’ve dated before, she had picked him out. And therefore, he’s infallible because she’s infallible. Just like the last one she found at the zoo last summer. But while Jason swore that the little blue-eyed girl accompanying him was his niece, his wife wasn’t nearly as quick to relinquish her parental rights when she called me. This guy though, was sure to be a “keeper.” Nevermind the fact that he and Jason looked enough alike to be brothers; with bottled-tan skin and sea green eyes, both are a far contrast to my father’s sub-Saharan features. Evidently, she was so consumed with that difference that she neglected to realize that she’d met him in Victoria’s Secret, (probably while she was buying me those same pink, silk pajamas that she gets me every single Christmas). The red g-string that he was holding didn’t send off any warnings. All she saw was his burnt orange biceps, smothered beneath the sleeves of one of his Ralph Lauren polos, and his slightly crooked grin which partially reveals his iridescent teeth. The black lace teddy was hardly an after-thought. He was charming, she was gullible, and so he was destined to be the one. I simply conceded, knowing it was easier to agree with her than face the wrath of her dejected ego. (God knows why she doesn’t spend half as much energy on her own sexual pursuits, but I guess, why sell the cow when you can auction off the calf instead?) Either way, I wonder what she’d think now if she knew her golden boy was also blessed with an overactive penis, (adorned in less than modest packaging). I want nothing more than to tell her—to watch her struggle to adapt to a reality where she isn’t a wedding planner—but I shrug. “It just didn’t work out.” “What do you mean ‘it didn’t…” My mother would make an excellent test recording for the emergency broadcast system. “You’re twenty six years…” The shrill sound of her voice is enough to leave anyone’s eardrums ringing. “…and make a family.” A bolt of pain shoots through the lower half of my body. My abdomen clenches, instinctively propelling me away from the stiffening discomfort of the pseudo-suede stool to stand erect behind the bar. I can feel my uterus

responding for me. The walls constrict and cramp with punch-like pains as though performing their own hysterectomy, while my ovaries wither to the tune of her ramblings about future children and marriage. “What are you thinking?! He is ideal…” Yes, and that’s probably why I caught him knee deep in our next door neighbor after coming home early from my shift at Mimi Maternity… “He has a good job…” One where he is probably banging his secretary… “You should have tied him down while you had the chance.” “Oh yeah, because trying to ‘tie’ a man down worked so well for you, right?” It slipped. The unspoken truth that’s branded me a bastard and her a whore was now staining the air between us like the smell of mildewed rain. And while my conscience chastises my diarrheic lips, twenty years of playing this ridiculous game silences any guilt. Years of implied shame and frustration were bound to come out eventually, and if only for a moment, I’m helpless against the enjoyment of seeing her recoil. But if there’s one thing I know, it’s that my mother doesn’t go down without either a tranquilizer or at least returning a few bruises as souvenirs. And there’s a million ways she can come back from that. It’s just a matter of one simple sarcastic wise crack, like we’ve exchanged so many times before. It’s not like we aren’t well accustomed to my father being that proverbial elephant. That’s how I know him. Not as the father who went to get a pack of cigarettes one morning and never came back. That is Hollywood. This is New York. My dad left to get set of paint brushes. And although he disappeared the second he found out my mother was pregnant, he was still present in all of our conversations, rarely by name but always by our demeanor. Today is just another opportunity, not an exception. So I half wince in expectation of her rebuttal, vacuuming my legs more firmly into my body. I can practically see the words foaming between her lips as an upheaval of bile boils in preparation to pour from her mouth. I anticipate at least a few Satan’s spawn references in return. But instead she just looks at me, collapsing her arms against her chest and leaning further against the counter. She stares at me—and not with the contempt that I braced myself for—but something else entirely. Her dark brown eyes dust me over, seemingly picking each fleck of lint off the sleeves of my hoodie before brushing straight each stray hair.

I’ve seen this look before. July 28th 1986. It was my 5th birthday. I wanted a Sesame Street cake. She bought me a Barbie cake—a black Barbie cake. She thought I’d love it. To this day I see it as just another one of her many failed attempts at “culturing” me, (kind of like the time she made me watch marathons of Good Times and The Jeffersons). It was clearly some morphed brand of reverse psychology, showing me all the ways I didn’t want to turn out. After all, who needs immersion when you’re drowning in a sea of whiteness every single day? But just in case that wasn’t enough to make me feel blacker, I had a proportionally challenged, char-boiled skeleton winking at me through her candle impaled eye. She didn’t get it. All I ever needed was my father. All I ever got was my confederate flag toting grand-parents. And when I asked my mother why he wasn’t there to blow out the candle with me, she said nothing. She just stared at me. And then she hugged me. I know on 7th Heaven this would be one of those moments, that perfect moment, the moment when Annie holds Ruthie and reassures her that she is nothing short of a gift from God conceived in love. But all I can do is hold my breath, praying we weren’t having one of those times. That my mother won’t try to engulf me in an embrace that reeks of spoiled pineapple and coconut juice. I accepted the fact long ago that my parents weren’t the Camdens. They were hardly the Simpsons. Those parents were married. The most my parents could ever bring themselves to share was a defiant spirit, a couple of cheap shots of tequila, a soiled motel room, and some life-ruining bodily fluids for a couple months. There was no gift in my conception. There probably wasn’t even a real orgasm. But while I hold out hope for the best, my body tenses in preparation for the worst. I quickly plug my nose with enough fresh air to get me through a rumble with a perfume that should be renamed “Forbidden Fruit #1.” Luckily, my mother just shrugs her shoulders. “Win some, lose some, right?” Without a second consideration of me, she returns to taking tiny nibbles of the colossal chicken breast that covers two-thirds of her plate. I return to absent-mindedly strumming at the vulnerable patches of torn denim. But I can hear the salted drops of her left eye, pounding against my eardrums as they re-season the food on her plate. My head throbs from the hammering heckle of her sobs grating against my left temple. For once, I’ve finally reciprocated all the years of grotesque mind games that she’s played on me.

But in reality, I look up to see her body in the same position as before, leaning comfortably against the edge of the counter. Her blue eyes glare up at me from behind her plate, laughing at me. She’s smiling, but I can still hear her tears.

Maryn Ellery is a recent graduate of Drake University with a bachelor’s in English Writing. She was born and raised in Kansas City but currently uses her residency in Iowa as fuel to spark insanity in the form of writing.

Loose Ties & Boomerangs  

Online exclusive from Vol. 4 of The Ampersand review, by Maryn Ellery