Gabriela Denise Frank
Americans have something lonely about them. I don’t know what the reason might be, except maybe that they’re all descended from immigrants.
―Ryū Murakami, In the Miso Soup
Growing up, I felt a sick attraction to people with money. My parents were the opposite: minimally educated, obtusely Midwestern, financially brittle—embarrassing to my younger self who sensed the yawning gulf between the folksy us and the flawlessly untouchable them. I wanted to apologize for Dad’s baggy Levi’s and pearly-button plaid cowboy shirts, for Mom’s crooked teeth and dime store perm, and the synthetic beige carpet flooding our cheap, master-planned home. My parents’ artlessness made me want to assure strangers that, even though they couldn’t, I noticed everything that was wrong with us.
My mother was a confounding role model. Beneath her compliant Catholic schoolgirl facade flourished an independent spirit. On the outside, she was the peacemaker, the deflector. She conjured a deferential stoicism when faced with my father’s blustery tirades, but when he wasn’t looking, she enjoyed unraveling his rules and took quiet glee in undermining his reign. From her, I learned to weather his abusive temper while secretly doing my own thing.
“Want to drive?” Mom asked one day when I was fifteen, pulling over her maroon Grand Prix to the side of the road.
“Dad said I can’t until after I take the safety class,” I said. I winced, imagining how much trouble we’d both be in if he found out.
“He’s not here, is he?” she smirked, raising her right eyebrow. “If you won’t tell, I won’t.”
Mom and I were co-conspirators that way. She encouraged me to learn skills she never did, like swimming or riding a bike. I think she wanted me to develop independence so I could make my break when the time came, like she never did.
“Your mother was a good girl,” Grandma Rose often said, patting Mom’s hand as we sat in my grandparents’ sunny kitchen in Detroit drinking coffee with lots of sugar and cream.
Mom was a talented actress, so I doubted Grandma Rose knew about her secret plots. Still, I never understood why she upheld them—the good girl act or her unhappily married life. She stiffened when Dad manhandled her as she prepared dinner each night, but she never turned him down or protested, not a word. As his wife, her body was his right. He might reach out to squeeze her breasts or cup the cheeks of her bottom with his rough hands, pulling her pelvis to his as she attempted to sauté strips of liver into the marginally edible shoe leather we smothered with melted butter and onions. She never stopped his advances, rather she shielded me from them while letting him have his way. Like any other child, I assumed my parents’ marriage was the definition of marriage itself.
I always fall for the wrong people. I get this from Mom, I think. I am a shorter, muddy-haired version of her. I have her swan’s neck and almond eyes, her long waist, the swell of her hips and bosom; however, my pale skin bruises and burns with slightest bit of sun or trauma. Press into my flesh and you’ll leave red fingerprints behind. Mom’s skin had a resilient olive-yellow tint. She was pure-blooded Italian-American whereas my blood is alloyed with my father’s German-English cells.
Nothing about me is pure anything.
I was thirty-two when I heard my mom’s voice in my mind during a business trip to Portland, Oregon. She’d been dead for sixteen years, but her hiss sawed back and forth in my brain. I stood, shivering and wet, in my boss’s hotel room.
Did your great-grandparents come all the way to America so that you could do this? she demanded. I pictured her raised eyebrow, her hands on her hips. In that moment, I was so unsure of myself, my knees knocking as I dripped rainwater onto the dark green hotel carpet. The room was decorated with poorly crafted oil paintings and brass lamps that shouted a Trump-like faux-luxury. The company was paying for our stay, yet I was embarrassed by the shabbiness, as if I was twelve years old again and my parents had selected the hotel.
I stood near the bed waiting for Tony, my boss, to emerge from the bathroom. Meanwhile, Mom’s admonitions reeled in my mind: What are you thinking? Have you forgotten your marriage? Are you ready to throw away your career over this? Get out while there’s still time. As usual, my mother couldn’t see the full picture. The moment I had crossed the threshold into Tony’s room, it was already too late.