Because my daddy went to work so early, my mother was always the one left with the responsibility of waking me, if I didn't rise and shine on my own for school. She would usually wake me up by making extra noise outside my bedroom door. She rarely knocked and she almost never opened the door. I could probably count on the fingers of one hand how many times my mother had been in my bedroom while I was in it too, especially during the last five years.
Instead, she would wait for me to leave for school, and then she would enter like a hotel maid after the guests had gone and clean and arrange the room to her liking. I was never neat enough to please her, and when I was younger, if I dared to leave an undergarment on a chair or on the top of the dresser, she would complain vehemently and look like the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz.
"Your things are very private and not for the eyes of others," she would scowl, and put her hands on me and shake me. "Do you understand, Cathy? Do you?"
I would nod quickly, but what others? I would wonder. My mother didn't like any of my father's friends or business associates and she had no friends of her own. She prized her solitude. No one came to our house for dinner very often, if at all, and certainly no one visited my room or came upstairs, and even if they had, they wouldn't see anything because Mother insisted I keep my door shut at all times. She taught me that from the moment I was able to do it myself.
Nevertheless, she would be absolutely furious now if I didn't put my soaps and lotions back in the bathroom cabinet, and once, when I had left a pair of my panties on the desk chair, she cut them up and spread the pieces over my pillow to make her point.
This morning she was especially loud. I heard her put down the pail on the floor roughly, practically slamming it. She was cleaning earlier than usual. The mop hit my door, swept the hard wood floor in the hallway and then hit my door again. I looked at the small clock housed in clear Danish crystal on my night table. The clock was a birthday present from my grandmother, my mother's mother, given only weeks before she had passed away from lung cancer. She was a heavy smoker. My grandfather was twelve years older than she was and died two years later from a heart attack. Like me, my mother had been an only child. Not long ago I found out I wasn't supposed to be, but that's another story, maybe even one that's more horrible than what's happened to me recently. Whatever, one thing was certain: we didn't have much family. Our Thanksgiving turkeys were always small. Mother didn't like leftovers. Daddy muttered that she threw away enough food to feed another family, but he never muttered loud enough for Mother to hear.
Part of the reason for our small Thanksgivings and Christmas holidays was because my father's parents had nothing to do with him or with us; his sister Agatha and his younger brother Nigel never came to see us either. My father had told me that none of his family members liked anyone else in the family and it was best for all of them to just avoid each other. It would be years before I would find out why. It was like finding pieces to a puzzle and putting them together to create an explanation for confusion.
When my mother hit the door with the mop again, I knew it was time to rise, but I was stalling. Today was my day at Doctor Marlowe's group therapy session. The other three girls, Misty, Star and Jade, had told their stories and now they wanted to hear mine. I knew they were afraid I wouldn't show up and to them it would be something of a betrayal. They had each been honest to the point of pain and I had listened and heard their most intimate stories. I knew they believed they had earned the right to hear mine, and I wasn't going to disagree with that, but at this very moment, I wasn't sure if I could actually gather enough courage to tell them my tale.
Mother wasn't very insistent about it. She had been told by other doctors and counselors that it was very important for me to be in therapy, but my mother didn't trust doctors. She was forty-six years old and from what I understood, she had not been to a doctor for more than thirty years. She didn't have to go to a doctor to give birth to me. I had been adopted. I didn't learn that until...until afterward, but it made sense. It was practically the only thing that did.
My chills finally stopped and I sat up slowly. I had a dark maple dresser with an oval mirror almost directly across from my bed so when I rose in the morning, the first thing I saw was myself. It was always a surprise to see that I had not changed during the night, that my face was still formed the same way (too round and full of baby fat), my eyes were still hazel and my hair was still a dull dark brown. In dreams I had oozed off my bones and dripped into the floor. Only a skeleton remained. I guess that signified my desire to completely disappear. At least that was what Doctor Marlowe suggested at an earlier session.
I slept in a rather heavy cotton nightgown, even during the summer. Mother wouldn't permit me to own anything flimsy and certainly not anything sheer. Daddy tried to buy me some more feminine nighties and even gave me one for a birthday present once, but my mother accidentally ruined it in the washing machine. I cried about it.
"Why," she would ask, "does a woman, especially a young girl or an unmarried woman, have to look attractive to go to sleep? It's not a social event. Pretty things aren't important for that; practical things are, and spending money on frilly, silly garments for sleep is a waste.
"It's also bad for sleep," she insisted, "to stir yourself up with narcissistic thoughts. You shouldn't dwell on your appearance just before you lay down to rest. It fills your head with nasty things," she assured me.
If my daddy heard her say these things, he would laugh and shake his head, but one look from her would send him fleeing to the safety and the silence of his books and newspapers, many of which she didn't approve.
When I was a little girl, I would sit and watch her look through magazines and shake her head and take a black magic marker to advertisements she thought were too suggestive or sexy. She was the stern censor, perusing all print materials, checking television programs, and even going through my schoolbooks to be sure nothing provocative was in them. She once cut illustrations out of my science text. Many times she phoned the school and had angry conversations with my teachers. She wrote letters to the administrators. I was always embarrassed about it, but I never dared say so.
Yawning and stretching as if I were sliding into my body, I finally slipped my feet into my fur-lined leather slippers and went into the bathroom to take a shower. I know I was moving much slower than usual. A part of me didn't want to leave the room, but that was one of the reasons I had been seeing Doctor Marlowe in the first place: my desire to withdraw and become even more of an introvert than I was before...before it all happened or, to be more accurate, before it was all revealed. When you can lie to yourself, you can hide behind a mask and go out into the world. You don't feel as naked nor as exposed.
I wasn't sure what I would wear today. Since it was my day in the center of the circle, I thought I should look better dressed, although Misty certainly didn't dress up for her day or any day thereafter. Still, I thought I might feel a little better about myself if I did. Unfortunately, my favorite dress was too tight around my shoulders and my chest. The only reason my mother hadn't cut it up for rags was she hadn't seen me in it for some time. What I chose instead was a one-piece, dark-brown cotton dress with an empire waist. It was the newest dress I had and looked the best on me even though my mother deliberately had bought it a size too big. Sometimes I think if she could cut a hole in a sheet and drape it over me, she'd be the happiest. I know why and there's nothing I can do about it except have an operation to reduce the size of my breasts, which she finds a constant embarrassment.
"Be careful to step on the sheets of newspaper," Mother warned when I opened my bedroom door to go down to breakfast. "The floor's still wet."
A path of old newspaper pages led to the top of the stairway where she waited with the pail in one hand, the mop, like a knight's lance, in the other. She turned and descended ahead of me, her small head bobbing on her rather long, stiff neck with every downward step.
The scent of heavy disinfectant rose from the hardwood slats and filled my nostrils, effectively smothering the small appetite I was able to manage. I held my breath and followed her. In the kitchen my bowl for cereal, my glass of orange juice and a plate for a slice of whole wheat toast with her homemade jam was set out. Mother took out the pitcher of milk and brought it to the table. Then, she looked at me with those large round dark critical eyes, drinking me in from head to foot. I was sure I appeared pale and tired and I wished I could put on a little makeup, especially after seeing how the other girls looked, but I knew Mother would make me wipe it off if I had any. As a general rule, she was against makeup, but she was especially critical of anyone who wore it during the daytime.
She didn't say anything, which meant she approved of my appearance. Silence meant approval in my house and there were many times when I welcomed it.
I sat and poured some cereal out of the box, adding in the blueberries and then some milk. She watched me drink my juice and dip my spoon into the cereal, mixing it all first. I could feel her hovering like a hawk. Her gaze shifted toward the chair my father used to sit on every morning, throwing daggers from her eyes as if he were still sitting there. He would read his paper, mumble about something, and then sip his coffee. Sometimes, when I looked at him, I found him staring at me with a small smile on his lips. Then he would look at my mother and turn his attention quickly back to the paper like a schoolboy caught peering at someone else's test answers.
"So today's your day?" Mother asked. She knew it was.
"What are you going to tell them?"
"I don't know," I said. I ate mechanically, the cereal feeling like it was getting stuck in my throat.
"You'll be blaming things on me, I suppose," she said. She had said it often.
"No, I won't"
"That's what that doctor would like you to do: put the blame at my feet. It's convenient. It makes their job easier to find a scapegoat."
"She doesn't do that." I said.
"I don't see the value in this, exposing your private problems to strangers. I don't see the value at all," she said, shaking her head.
"Doctor Marlowe thinks it's good for us to share," I told her.
I knew Mother didn't like Doctor Marlowe, but I also knew she wouldn't have liked any psychiatrist. Mother lived by the adage, "Never air your dirty linen in public." To Mother, public meant anyone outside of this house. She had had to meet with Doctor Marlowe by herself, too. It was part of the therapy treatment for me and she had hated every minute of it. She complained about the prying questions and even the way Doctor Marlowe looked at her with what Mother said was a very judgmental gaze. Doctor Marlowe was good at keeping her face like a blank slate, so I knew whatever Mother saw in Doctor Marlowe's expression, she put there herself.
Doctor Marlowe had told me that it was only natural for my mother to blame herself or to believe other people blamed her. I did blame her, but I hadn't ever said that and wondered if I ever would.
"Remember, people like to gossip," Mother continued. "You don't give them anything to gossip about, hear, Cathy? You make sure you think about everything before you speak. Once a word is out, it's out. You've got to think of your thoughts as valuable rare birds caged up in here," she said pointing to her temple. "In the best and safest place of all, your own head. If she tries to make you tell something you don't want to tell, you just get yourself right up out of that chair and call me to come fetch you, hear?"
She paused, and birdlike, craned her long neck to peer at me to see if I was paying full attention. Her hands were on her hips. She had sharp hipbones that protruded and showed themselves under her housecoat whenever she pressed her palms into her sides. They looked like two pot handles. She was never a heavy woman, but all of this had made her sick, too, and she had lost weight until her cheeks looked flat and drooped like wet handkerchiefs on her bones.
"Yes, Mother," I said obediently, without looking up at her. When she was like this, I had trouble looking directly at her. She had eyes that could pierce the walls around my most secret thoughts. As her face had thinned, her eyes had become even larger, even more penetrating, seizing on the quickest look of hesitation to spot a lie.
And yet, I thought, she hadn't been able to do that to Daddy. Why not?
"Good," she said nodding. "Good."
She pursed her lips for a moment and widened her nostrils. All of her features were small. I remember my father once describing her as a woman with the bones of a sparrow, but despite her diminutive size, there was nothing really fragile about her, even now, even in her dark state of mind and troubled demeanor. Our family problems had made her strong and hard like an old raisin, something past its prime, although she didn't look old. There was barely a wrinkle in her face. She often pointed that out to emphasize the beneficial qualities of a good clean life, and why I shouldn't be swayed by other girls in school or things I saw on television and in magazines.
I laughed to myself thinking about Misty's mother's obsession with looking younger, going through plastic surgery, cosmetic creams, herbal treatments. Mother would put nothing more than Ivory soap and warm water on her skin. She never smoked, especially after what had happened to her mother. She never drank beer or wine or whiskey, and she never permitted herself to be in the sun too long.
My father smoked and drank, but never smoked in the house. Nevertheless, she would make a big thing out of the stink in his clothing and hang his suits out on her clothesline in the yard before she would permit them to be put back into the closet. Otherwise, she said, they would contaminate his other garments, and, "Who knows? Maybe the smell of smoke is just as dangerous to your health," she said.
As I ate my breakfast, Mother went about her business, cleaning the dishes from her own breakfast, and then she pounced on my emptied orange juice glass, grasping it in her long, bony fingers as if it might just sneak off the table and hide in a comer.
"Go up and brush your teeth," she commanded, "while I finish straightening up down here and then we'll get started. Something tells me I shouldn't be bringing you there today, but we'll see" she added. "We'll see."
She ran the water until it was almost too hot to touch and then she rinsed out my cereal bowl. Often, she made me feel like Typhoid Mary, a carrier of endless germs. If she could boil everything I or my father touched, she would.
I went upstairs, brushed my teeth, ran a brush through my hair a few times and then stood there, gazing at myself in the bathroom mirror. Despite what each of the girls had told me and the others about herself, I wondered how I could talk about my life with the same frankness. Up until now, only Doctor Marlowe and the judge and agent from the Child Protection Agency knew my story.
I could feel the trembling in my calves. It moved up my legs until it invaded my stomach, churned my food and shot up into my heart, making it pound.
"Come on if you're going," I heard Mother shout from below. "I have work to do today."
My breakfast revolted and I had to get to my knees at the toilet and heave. I tried to do it as quietly as I could so she wouldn't hear. Finally, I felt better and I washed my face quickly.
Mother had her light gray tweed short coat on over her housecoat and was standing impatiently at the front door. She wore her black shoes with thick heels and heavy nylon stockings that nearly reached her knees. This morning she decided to tie a light brown scarf around her neck. Her hair was the color of tarnished silver coins and tied with a duck rubber band in her usual tight knot at the base of her skull.
Despite her stern appearance, my mother had beautiful cerulean blue eyes. Sometimes I thought of them as prisoners because of the way they often caught the light and sparkled even though the rest of her face was glum. They looked like they belonged in a much younger woman's head, a head that craved fun and laughter. These eyes longed to smile. I used to think that it had to have been her eyes that had drawn my father to her, but that was before I learned about her having had inherited a trust when she turned twenty-one.
When my mother accused my father of marrying her for her money, he didn't deny it. Instead he lowered his newspaper and said, "So? It's worth ten times what it was then, isn't it? You should thank me."
Did he deliberately miss the point or was that always the point? I wondered.
I knew we had lots of money. My father was a stockbroker and it was true that he had done wonders with our investments, building a portfolio that cushioned us for a comfortable, worry-free life. Little did I or my mother realize just how important that would be.
Mother and I walked out to the car, which was in the driveway. My mother had backed it out of the garage very early this morning and washed the windshield as well as vacuumed the floor and seats. It wasn't a late-model car, but because of the way my mother kept it and the little driving she did, it looked nearly new.
ar"You're pale," she told me. "Maybe you should call in sick."
"I'm all right.' I said. I could just hear them all saying, "We knew it. We knew she wouldn't come." Of course, they would be furious.
"I don't like it," Mother mumbled.
Every time she complained, it stirred the little frogs in my stomach and made them jump against my ribs. I got into the car quickly. She sat at the wheel, staring at the garage door There was a dent in the comer where my father had backed into it one night with his car after he had had a little too much to drink with some old friends. He never repaired it and every time Mother looked at it, I knew she thought of him. It made the anger in her heart boil and bubble.
"I wonder where he is this fine morning," she said as she turned on the engine. "I hope he's in hell."
We backed out of the driveway and started away. My mother drove very slowly, always below the speed limit, which made drivers in cars behind us lean on their horns and curse through locked jaws of frustration.
Before my father had left, he had helped me get my permit and then my license, but Mother didn't like me driving. She thought the driving age should be raised to twenty-one, and even that was too low these days.
"People are not as mature as they were when I was younger," she told me. "It takes years and years to grow up and driving is a big responsibility. I know why your father let you do it," she added, grinding her teeth. She did that so often, it was a wonder she didn't have more dental problems. "Bribery," she spit. "Even hell is too good for him."
"It wasn't just bribery, Mother. I'm a careful driver," I said. She had yet to let me drive her car and had been in my father's car only twice when I had driven, complaining the whole time, each time.
"You can never be careful enough," she replied. These expressions and thoughts were practically automatic. I used to think Mother has tiny buttons in her brain and when something is said, it hits one of those buttons which triggers sentences already formed and ready to be sent out through her tongue. Each button was assigned a particular thought or philosophical statement.
This morning it was partly cloudy and a lot more humid than it had been the last few days. The weatherman predicted possible thunderstorms later in the afternoon. I could see some nasty looking clouds looming in the west over the ocean, waiting like some gathering army to launch an attack.
"I'll be home all day," Mother continued as we drove along. "If you need me, you don't hesitate to call, hear?"
"All right." I said.
"I've done all my food shopping. I've got to work on our books."
She meant our finances. My mother had gained control of most of that fortune and prided herself on how well she kept our accounts. She attacked it with the same degree of efficiency she attacked everything else. There was a button in her brain connected to "Waste not, want not."
When Doctor Marlowe's house came into view, Mother clicked her tongue and shook her head.
"I don't like this' " she said. "I don't see any good coming from this."
I didn't speak. With obvious reluctance, she turned into the driveway and pulled up just as Jade's limousine was pulling away.
"Who is that spoiled girl?" she asked, her eyes narrowing as the limousine disappeared. She hoisted her shoulders and looked ready to pounce on my answer like some alley cat.
"Her name is Jade," I said. "Her father is an important architect and her mother manages sales for a big cosmetics company."
"Spoiled," she declared again with the rock solid firmness of a doctor pronouncing someone dead. She nodded and raised her eyes. "As ye sow, so shall ye reap."
She stopped the car and looked at me with eyes that always seemed to lay the blame totally at my feet, despite the way she would mutter about and curse my father.
"When will this be over?" she demanded, gazing so furiously at the house, I thought she might cause it to explode right before our eyes.
"I guess it'll be the same time as yesterday and the day before," I told her.
"Um," she said. She thought for a moment and then turned back to me sharply. "Remember, don't let that woman make you say anything you don't want to say," she warned.
She nodded, her eyes still fueled by fury, remaining as bright as two Christmas tree lights. Her lips stretched and she spoke through clenched teeth.
"I hope he's sitting in hell." she said.
I wondered why I didn't.
I should, I thought. I should hate him more than she does.
I gazed at the front door of Doctor Marlowe's house.
Maybe today, maybe today I would discover why all this was so.
It gave me the strength to open the door and step out. Mother looked at me, shook her head, and drove away, her neck as stiff as ever. I watched her stop at the end of the driveway and then turn into the street and head back for home.
Then I took a very deep breath, pressed my clutched hands against my stomach, and walked up to the door to press the doorbell. When Doctor Marlowe's maid Sophie opened the door, I was surprised to see the three of them: Misty, Star and Jade, standing there right behind her, smiling, or more to the point, smirking out at me.
"We decided not to waste our time back there in Doctor Marlowe's office. If you didn't show up on schedule, we were all going to go home." Jade said, lifting the right comer of her mouth, and speaking in her most arrogant, haughty voice.
"I'm glad you came," Misty said with her habitually bubbly smile.
"Let's get started." Star added. She brought her hands to her hips and leaned toward me. "Well, c'mon in. Don't stand out there all day gaping at us like some dummy. Doctor Marlowe's waiting for you."
I stepped in and Misty jumped ahead of Sophie to quickly close the door.
"Gotcha," she said and laughed.
They gathered around me to march me back to Doctor Marlowe's office and for a few moments, I felt like I was going to my own execution.
There was plenty about myself I wanted to see die. Maybe, I thought, it was time to do it.
Copyright © 1999 by the Vanda General Partnership
Cat had listened patiently as the other three girls in Dr. Marlowe's therapy group shared their innermost feelings. They had described their broken families honestly, to the point of pain. If Cat doesn't tell her own tale, the others will see it as a betrayal. So she has no choice.
Or does she? Maybe she could lie -- just make something up. Anything would be better than the truth. For Cat has the darkest, most horrifying secret of them all....