You knew her as the breath in your mouth, the full in your stomach, the world in your head. Loved her as if she were everything. Loved her black hair, fuzzy soft from too many perms. Some nights she'd wrap strands of it round fat pink curlers. They were hard, hurt to sleep on, but she never complained. Beauty hurts she'd explained a thousand times. In the morning at the kitchen table over hot chocolate and biscuits you'd watch her unfurl bouncing candy curls. As she dropped the curlers onto tabletop crumbs you'd slip them one, two, three, on your fingers, playing puppets. Ten little pink Indian boys flapping. Then her voice would boom shoot them down. Don't play with my curlers. No more little Indian boys.
Later, your legs dangling long and bony over the edge of the toilet you'd watch her get dressed to go out. In her pink bra and matching panties she'd stand in front of the bathroom mirror. Doing her face she said. From the flowered makeup bag she kept under the sink, she pulled worn labeled bottles. There were magic potions in those bottles. Secrets she'd share with you one day. Secrets you'd later conjure up while standing in front of a hotel bathroom mirror, doing your face. Secrets that would move you from her to there to another place. A pink-tiled glistening place with overripe fruit scents and coarse man hands caressing. But you didn't know that back then with your scabby knees and bowl-wide eyes. So you watched her and learned.
The routine was the same. First she'd dab five dots of toast-colored liquid on her face — center of forehead, chin, nose, left cheek, right check — an anointment from Maybelline. It reminded you of the priest dabbing your forehead on Ash Wednesday. God, how you wanted to smear those ashes away, but Mama said that would be a sin. So you pressed your chopped short bangs as low as they would go and walked around all day with chin tucked to chest, frowning. Now, with her chin held up, she'd swirl the makeup into her skin tanning it craning her neck both ways to make sure it blended right. Then she'd dust candy-colored streaks just below each cheekbone, yawning back to her cars. She'd turn her tuck-you-in-safe-and-sound Mama eyes into sparkly disco night eyes with a few sweeps of glittery lilac powder. Three coats of black velvet mascara, a thick swipe of watermelon pink lipstick and she'd be done. Done, except for the looking.
Taking a deep tummy-tuck breath she'd look at herself. Look hard, squeezing through her reflection, squinting eyes, crinkling brow, Then suddenly she'd see what she was looking for. Beauty. Her going out powder fresh freshly painted beauty and she'd smile. You'd smile with her. Gap-toothed and earnest loving her. Filled to bursting with the love of her smile. But you didn't know that the beauty she saw was not the same beauty you loved. Not the beauty of cinnamon buns baking, Beatles tunes humming, cool breeze porches swinging, lazy Saturday mornings sleeping, warm Mama hands hugging. No. The beauty she saw was different. Pool hall pin-up beauty, half-lidded eye beauty, breasts spilling over thin fabric beauty, dark-eyed man turning head beauty. Turning side to side in the mirror, smoothing hands over stomach, her waterfall of hips, eyes falling into cleavage, around overripe melon bottom, she watched herself never once imagining the beauty you saw.
Later, long past dinner time, as the last good TV show was rolling into credits and your grandmother was yelling about getting a good night's sleep, she'd call. Hi Princess, she'd say. Hi. What are you doing still up? Did you eat dinner? What did you eat? Questions avalanching through the phone. With your eyes tight and your lips pressed like a dried cherry and the earpiece of the phone against your ear but the mouthpiece turned up over you head so she couldn't hear your clenched breathing, you listened. I'll be home in a bit. Just a little bit more. I'll tuck you in. OK. OK?
You couldn't see her on the other end, but you knew. She was crouching half-drunk around the pay phone at Sweet Williams Saloon. Cigarette burning too close to fingertips, motioning to the bartender that she'd be off in a second and would he draw her another beer. Half-drunk but not drunk enough to forget to call. If only she'd forget to call. Better to be forgotten than betrayed. Better to not know she was safe in a pool hall with her shirt unbuttoned too low and her skirt too short and her perfect face sliding into smears. If only she wouldn't call, then you could pretend she had been in a terrible car accident, lost her legs, part of her sight. The doctor saying she'd be confined to bed forever and only you, just you, could care for her. Everyday, making her buttery grilled cheese sandwiches and tea like she likes with milk and half sugar, half Sweet ’n’ Low. You would read her stories about lost princesses and found kingdoms, comb her soft pillow-worn hair, make her smile. Make her yours. She'd look up at you with wet eyes and love you more than anything. More than beer and cigarettes, more than jukeboxed music and the clatter of pool balls, more than any stubble-faced man with fat fingers and thick wallet. More than the whole world. Yes, more than the whole, entire world. My princess. How could I live without you, she'd ask.
But instead, again, again, you listened to her on the phone. Trying hard not to believe her. I'll be home in a bit. Just a bit. I love you. I love you? Me too, you'd finally whisper, already starting to believe her. Then believing her. You'd sneak to the front room past your grandmother's snores and wait by the window leaning long over the back of the sofa. If she were home, she'd yell at you for that. Burning your eyes into each pair of headlights that turned into the street, willing them to be hers. Hurry up Mama. Please hurry up home. Sleep burning your eyes. Falling finally.
In the morning when you woke for school, she'd be in the kitchen fixing cinnamon toast and bacon and singing Good Morning Good Morning, it's time to get up in the Morning. While you ate, she chattered on about sunshine and what a great day it was going to be. Maybe it was when she went to the refrigerator for more milk that you noticed her last night's clothes peeking out from her robe. When she saw that you saw she'd quick tighten her terry robe belt and say, my how pretty you are today. And guess what, after school I will take you to Sears to buy a new outfit and we can visit the candy counter and buy a pound of those chocolate snowflakes you love so much.
Oh, you didn't want to. Knew, knew, knew you shouldn't. But you couldn't help but believe her. All day at school you thought about it. Maybe a red-flowered sundress with straps that tie on the shoulder or even a pink tank dress with a slit on the side just like hers. You spend the day thinking skipping in park thoughts, butterfly traced sky thoughts, Mama's potato salad at picnic thoughts, Mama holding your hand humming thoughts. Then the teacher, with gray hair screwed about her head like a furnace blast, slammed a book into your desk, ripping you awake, demanding you answer the question she knew you didn't hear. The other kids stared red into your cheeks, but it didn't bother you too much. It would be OK because Mama would be there when you get home and take you shopping and buy you paper bags of chocolate snowflakes and hold your hand.
But she's already getting dressed when you get home. Already rubbing hot roses into her cheeks. Smoothing her hair out with a spray of cheap perfume, spritzing it down her arms, across her crotch. Slipping into a stretch of pink nubby material with matching high heels. She's humming. No song, just humming as she looks at her reflection sideways. Squinting ugly beauty through dimmed lids.
You don't say anything, don't think anything. Go out back by the rusty swing set that you are too big to play on. Sit in the grass and watch bold-minded stars trying to cut early through the not dark sky. Listen to an ice cream truck in the distance playing a song you remember her humming to you once. After forever, she comes out to you. Reaching out her squeaky girled laugh. Bending over for a kiss. Swooping down toward you she seems larger than you remember, a giant. She could crush you, push you so far into the grass that they'd never find you. So you pull away. Not far. Just enough. Enough to make her recoil like a tight-hinged door. Her face slipping into hurt.
What's wrong with you, she demands pulling up to her full monstrous height. Behind her, a moan of clouds crawls past looking like a furious halo about her head. You want to tell her, need to tell her, but words don't come, can't come. No words to cross the gap pulling her farther and farther away. So you press fingers into dirt and look down. You're not acting like my little princess she says and turns hips swinging, head shaking, toward the car.
Sky falling darker, you crumble further into the ground. Lie down. Put your head in the grass. Grass in your ears. Tiny black bugs bouncing against your eyelids. Car sounds roaring away, scratching through your silence. Your body like cement, you wait. But tears don't come. Just another night.