Portia was a timid girl with big brown eyes, like my father, and walked stately with her long legs and perfect proportions with a posture that was of catwalk models and queens of yore. She was slender and yet her body undulated in a matronly way. She had a rather dainty nose with nostrils that flared queerly when she was perturbed or in discussion. Her wide set eyes lent her gravity in whatever she did and she combed her auburn hair in massive coils around her head when she was older, rarely letting it fall loosely down her back. Opposed to her timid style was her patriotic interest in politics and government, and though she wasn’t a bookworm she knew plenty. I admired her flashes of passion, made that much more serious from the opposition to her ordinary character of passivity and pathos. Her character was a mediation between the intensity of my mother and the deep meditation of my father. Though she was less than two years my junior, I sought her advice almost daily, especially with regard to women. And yet when it came to matters of feminine deference she understood the importance of being admired and appreciated the attention paid to her beauty.
While we studied after school, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with ice cold milk, Mom made dinner and the smells of frying vegetables and the hiss of wine being reduced flooded the kitchen. That was one thing Mom always did well, even if she was drunk already, was prepare feasts.
Mom, when Portia and I look up in an interval from our homework and silence spreads too far, moves the vegetables in the pan with her spatula, causing steam to sibilate and rise, and asks, “So what did you guys learn today?”
“We learned that the atomic weight of Carbon is 12.01 and change.”
“I learned what prevaricate means.”
“What does it mean? I challenge.
“Or circumlocute.” Vegetables sizzle.
“Very good.” Mom, though crazy, was fundamentally reassuring and supportive when it came to her children. No one fucked with her – we rarely did – and, as she would often warn, no one wanted to.
Rather than wait for us to ask about how her day was, she gives a little suppressed laugh as she breads the chicken. 1,2,3,4,5. “What?” one of us finally says. Mom had this way of sighing that was like a laugh, where she would raise her chin slightly and look skywards, which was in marked distinction from her keening sigh, which we heard only in the severest cases. “So today, I’m sitting at the computer, checking my e-mail. And I look over at Cynthia. And her eyes flash, because sees that I know she’s got something in her mouth that she’s not supposed to have. So I lunge, NOOO.” She makes a reaching motion and reenacts in slow motion her lunge. “I have to be careful when I open her mouth because she’d bite one of my fingers right off! (because nearly all of the kids Mom works with have only bicuspids) so I squeeze her cheeks and get her to spit it out. You know what it was? A piece of the freakin’ trake she had chewed off, and she’s sitting there, chewing it like a stogie! I’m like oh my gaw-awd.” She stomps her foot lightly. “And I turn to Bob and I say aren’t these stupid nurses supposed to be watching her? Duh-uh. And Bob goes that’s why we have you, Stella.”
And Mom explodes into the cackle, which is screech-like, and unfailingly turns heads within a twenty foot radius and usually causes people to either try to ignore it, or start telling jokes and laughing themselves, in the way that excessive laughter raises even the slightest hackles of jealousy and curiousity as they try to make it seem like they’re as jocosely enjoying whatever it is they’re discussing. It is then amplified by an hysterical gasping intake of air, as she throws her head back and then looks at us as she nods with her mouth open, displaying about twenty square white teeth, eyes closed, mouthing an inaudible two or three word exclamatory recapitulation or moral to her story as the laugh subsides and she tears up and the laughing sigh caps it off.
Portia and I look at each other wide-eyed, not knowing whether to force a laugh or keep silent.
“I know you guys think I’m crazy” says, shrugging and shaking her head. She tends the vegetables. “But I love it,”. “And no one else can do it but me.”
By eight or nine o clock she’s usually five or six glasses of sauvignon blanc deep, and that’s when she gets really unseasonable. We try not to engage her directly, or if we have to ask questions they’re usually greeted with a strabismic glance and the kind of bobble headed shake that usually means she’s thinking of how to respond, and that it’s not going to be a real answer, but instead will be some attempt at a witty repartee – if she’s in a good mood that is. If she’s stressed or depressed, we usually leave her immediate presence because like playing with broken glass, sooner or later you’re bound to bleed, and you should really just avoid playing with broken glass and try to clean it up instead. In her jovial moods, however, she assumed that any kind of conversation was an attempt to test her and her inability to think resulted in one of her favorite aggressive lines. On more than one occasion I came home from Buckley’s and hungry for a snakc, searched the refrigerator for food. The only noises she ever made were from the cracking of her joints as she walked and the light jingle of her gold bracelets, which she only ever took off before bed, and consisted of a Tiffany bracelet with a quarter sized golden heart that she had received when she graduated nursing school, a charm bracelet, (for she was a fervent believer in any kind of superstition) a thin gold bangle, a twenty four karat chain, and a white gold elliptical link bracelet, which gilded about three or four inches of her wrist.
hmm now where’s that gouda. ketchup, mustard, hot sauce, louisiana hot sauce, mexican hot sauce, stuffed bell peppers, thai hot sauce, soy sauce, o god here she comes.
“What are ya looking for?” she appears like an apparition beside me, wrist shining, holding her glass of wine high hidden in a paper towel, like she’s about to take another sip, standing in her blue terry cloth robe with a cow jumping from one side of the robe over a moon to the other, sleeves pulled up, her hair up, with loose strays around her ears. She cocks her head and looks at me with the face of suspicion and imminent failed repartee.
She bumps me out of the way with her hip, still holding her wine high and with a slight bend, her head dips below her aloft glass and immediately she extracts a wedge of gouda. She slaps it into my hand. “You gotta bend.”
I move to the cupboard and she steps in front of me. “What do ya want? Some pasta, vegetables?” I grab the crackers and move to sit at the kitchen table. The bags under her eyes are swollen and her cheeks are cerise.
“No thanks, I’m okay.”
She begins taking out various meats and cheeses, pastas and vegetables, leftovers, cans, wrapped gourmet items. “I’ll make you something,” in a tone that is firm and challenging.
“Uh, okay.” i don’t know why she insists i’m not even hungry whatever she’ll probably just eat it herself she must be starving man this gouda’s good must be aged at least two years if only these crackers weren’t so crumbly god if she sees me make a mess i’m better off sleeping at buckley’s that could really get her started. Strategically, I sweep the crumbs into an open palm beneath the table to catch them and dust them onto the floor.
“Are you fuckin kidding me?” Arms akimbo, wine glass set down, head cocked, I should have known that she would have seen that; she’s got eyes in back of her head.
“Uh, uh, what?”
She walks over and smacks me upside the head. thank god she’s in a good mood. “I’m gonna break your fucking bawls if you do that shit again. I’m not kiddin you dumbass. Don’t you fuckin make a mess of my kitchen like that or I’ll tweak your ear so hard…you don’t wanna fuck with me.”
Silently I sit and simper as she walks back towards her stove-top creation, thankful that she’s in a good mood.