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A Mother's Duty
“He says there are too many syllables in my name. ‘Ste-pha-nie Pe-zott-a.’ He’s right, Ma. You should of picked something short, like Dove.”
Arlene clamped her mouth shut as she finished loading the dishwasher. She glanced out the window at the desert landscape. Her daughter leaned against the faux granite counter in their galley kitchen in Phoenix.
“I told him to call me Steph, like everybody else does. He said he’d invent a name that suits my vibe.” Stephanie ran her hand through her hair, recently cut short and died vampire black. She looked up at the ceiling as if she found her boyfriend’s face etched there. She hugged herself and swayed a bit. “I’m going to get ready.” She padded to her room.
Arlene did not approve of vampire black hair, but she let it go. Stephanie, her lastborn, had recently managed to finish high school and get a job. Burger King but so what, a job. Arlene had been holding her breath as well as her tongue while Stephanie recovered from a breakup that had caused her to mope for months. Arlene didn’t allow herself to resent the mess Stephanie left in the living room or the clutter on every available surface in the bathroom. Instead, she came home from work and tidied up, waiting for the day her daughter would get over herself and fledge the nest. She hoped it would be soon, but reality was reality. Arlene could be patient when she had to—consider her twenty-year marriage to the oaf who had fathered her kids—but patience came at a cost she no longer wished to pay.
She checked whether it was past eight o’clock, when electricity gets cheaper, and hit the dishwasher’s start button. She turned her attention to the pots. The old dishwasher couldn’t handle encrustations, so she had to scrub. Her daughter’s music reached and offended her ears, but okay. It was good Steph was going out again, although the guy sounded awful. Evidently, he played pinball for a living in a bar. Arlene had a hard time imagining you could make money playing pinball, but each new generation had its own brand of folly, and hadn’t she been foolish in her own time? Otherwise she wouldn’t be a divorced mother of three living in a funky rental with roof rats. This apartment was better than the one she got right after the divorce, though. This neighborhood was safe, there was covered parking for one car, and Steph had her own room. That room featured one window, a cheap mattress from a box, and the skinniest of closets, but Arlene was proud of providing for Stephanie, of whom she was also proud. Steph had been a model student in elementary school, but then she went gaga over boys, maybe because her two older brothers had indulged her. When she developed into a pretty teenager with a full chest, she attracted one boy after another and fell out with each of them in turn, the last one dramatically, and she forgot about school.
Steph appeared in the kitchen in black hot pants and a black blouse with sheer sleeves. A gigantic faux leopard bag hung over one shoulder. Arlene had to admit that however inappropriately clothed, nineteen-year-old Stephanie Pezotta was a looker. She grabbed a hug; Steph squirmed out of her grasp.
“When will you be back?” Arlene asked.
Steph rolled her eyes. “We’ve been over this. I’m going to Nicky’s place after he gets off work. Don’t wait up.” She snatched the keys to Arlene’s car from the bowl on the table and slipped out the door.
Annoyance flickered at her daughter’s presumption. Yes, she’d agreed to share the car, and Steph was a better driver than her brothers—not even a scratch in three years—but she should have asked. Arlene hadn’t had a Saturday night date in forever, but she might have wanted to go to Walgreen’s, and lord knows you can’t do anything in Arizona without a car. As she turned off the kitchen light and prepared to turn on the TV in the living room, she caught herself mid-stride. Why should she sit for hours worrying about Stephanie? Why shouldn’t she evaluate the boyfriend herself? Of course, Steph wouldn’t like it, but too bad. Vigilance was a mother’s responsibility. If she’d intervened more, maybe her sons would have shaped up sooner.
She opened her closet to look for something appropriate, something that would not bare her bosom but still appear stylish because Steph would care. She passed on the scoop neck T-shirt bearing an image of their late, lamented dog and selected another scoop-neck rimmed in rhinestones, which she paired with black leggings. Putting make-up on in the bathroom, a wave of doubt flowed through her. But she considered herself cool enough to hang out at a bar, and her daughter needed support. Every time Steph talked about Nicky, Arlene detected signs in him of the colossal selfishness she had tolerated in her ex all those years. She would not let Stephanie make that mistake.
By the time Arlene’s Uber made it downtown, the streets around the bar were parked up, and she was glad she hadn’t had to circle the block for a space. She tipped the driver, a chatty former cop who told her to watch out for muggers in this section of town. She frowned at the implication that she had no business being there. Stephanie was her business, and she’d do whatever it took, including pay thirty-five bucks for a fifteen-minute drive. It was still early, and the queue at the entrance to the bar was short. Taking her place in line, Arlene noticed an alley across the street where a half-naked girl stood beside a garbage bin exchanging something with a person in a hoodie. It was May, already ninety-five degrees, too hot for a hoodie. Arlene shook her head and looked away. Then it was her turn to enter, and the tattooed bouncer asked her to prove she was over twenty-one. She handed over her license, wondering if she could pass for younger than her fifty-two years. She approved of the discreet sign on the wall behind the bouncer reminding patrons to leave their weapons and drug paraphernalia outside.
Past the vestibule, she entered a dimly lit room with a shiny bar in the center and gaudy pinball machines lining two walls. She walked to the bar and ordered one of the advertised specials, a fruity gin cocktail. She scanned the room while the bartender, a girl with two nose rings, prepared the drink. Arlene looked around. A pimply young man in shorts leaned into the pinball machine he was playing while his buddies egged him on; a few couples sat at tables across the dimly lit room. She could imagine a raucous crowd filling the relatively empty space as the evening proceeded. Then she spotted Stephanie and he-who-must-be-Nicky standing at the mouth of a corridor, arguing. Every muscle tensed as Arlene watched Steph turn her back on Nicky and flounce over to a table with a sign “Reserved for DJ.” Nicky disappeared down the corridor. Arlene scooped up her drink and scooted over to sit beside her daughter, who was poking her phone.
“Hey,” Arlene said, the spirit of cool.
“What are you doing here?” Steph slammed her phone into her purse and got up. Arlene pulled her back into her seat.
“I just want to meet Nicky.” Arlene sipped her cocktail. “How did your underage self get in here anyway?”
“Nicky and I come in the staff entrance.” She looked down. “I have an ID.”
“Is he the DJ?” Arlene pointed to the sign.
Steph sighed. “No, Mom. I told you he fixes the machines. The DJ starts at nine.”
“I didn’t expect to find you here. You said you’d be at his place.”
“No, I said I’d be there after he gets off work.” Steph fished her phone out of her bag, her way of ignoring her mother.
“I’ll go home after I meet Nicky.” She thought Steph should leave, too.
Steph thumbed her phone. In a minute, Nicky showed up at their table. Arlene could see why her daughter was attracted to him: light eyes, dark hair, good skin, lean, with a cocky smile. Steph wouldn’t be able to decipher that smile. To be fair, it had taken Arlene years to decipher her ex’s.
Steph didn’t look up from her phone. “This is. My. Mother.”
“Steph says you fix the machines. Is that hard? Do you need special training?” Arlene asked as she tendered her hand for a shake.
“Picked it up.” He returned her grasp for a nanosecond. His gaze swiveled around the room, as if checking for machine malfunctions.
“Have you worked here long?”
“I’m freelance.” His mouth shut tight.
Arlene realized he’d offer nothing. “How about you show me how to play pinball?”
He glanced at Steph who rolled her eyes. He nodded. “I’ve got a minute.”
He led Arlene to the machine in the farthest corner, and Stephanie trotted behind them. He pulled a token from his pocket and started the game. Arlene squinted against the flashing lights and the frenetic video playing in the back panel. Not the pinball machine of her youth, although the flipper mechanism seemed to work the usual way. Nicky had his hands on the controls, demonstrating silently. Arlene bellied up closer to the machine and nudged him with her elbow. He sidestepped and let her take over. She missed her first flip and the ball slid into the pocket. He placed his hand over hers, saying “Let me show you how it’s done.”
She slapped his hand away. “I know how it’s done, thank you. I just need a minute. It’s been years.” She pulled the spring to release the next ball and concentrated on its path. It bounced off a bumper and headed for the left flipper. She timed the whack perfectly and the ball shot up to the top, very much in play. She kept it going for two more round trips, smirking in satisfaction, and then let go, saying, “Steph, want a turn?”
Stephanie shook her head and flounced off. Arlene thanked Nicky for the demo and followed her daughter back to the DJ’s table. Nicky did not join them, to Arlene’s relief. It was clear he wanted nothing to do with her, and now that she’d seen him in action, the feeling was mutual. Arlene sipped the fruity cocktail that the wait staff had left on the table and wondered what Stephanie made of her mother’s pinball lesson. More people had entered the bar, and the noise level had risen.
Steph shook her head. “If you already knew how to play pinball, why did you ask him to show you?” Her voice wavered.
“I thought maybe pinball was different now. And I wanted to get to know your date.”
“And did you?”
“Well, I got to know that he’s controlling. He didn’t want me to play my way.” Arlene hadn’t meant to blurt like that. She wished she could take back the words, save them for a quiet tete-a-tete over a good meal cooked by her with love.
“You set him up. I’m so embarrassed!” Steph riffled through the giant bag hanging off her shoulder and handed the car keys to her mother. “You said you’d go. The car is around the back. Nicky will bring me home.”
It took Arlene a moment to understand that Steph was ejecting her in favor of that lout. She accepted the keys and slid off her chair without a word. In a daze of hurt, she found her car near the service door at the back of the bar. Inside it smelled like Steph’s floral shampoo and nothing else, thank goodness. She drove home with a tight chest, afraid for Stephanie and angry at her refusal to listen. Angry also at herself for being clumsy. What had she been thinking, dressing up to go to a bar and acting out like a kid? Remorse swept through her. Squirming, she told herself she’d had to give her daughter the benefit of her hard-won experience. She flashed to many nights sitting in the car waiting for her ex to come out of a bar, usually drunk and insisting on driving. She didn’t want Steph to go through that. Although she had to admit Nicky didn’t appear to even be drinking, never mind drunk.
Arlene took off her dress-up outfit and put on shorts and a T. She went to the kitchen and emptied the dishwasher, shaking her head at a couple of crusts that both she and the machine had failed to remove. She scrubbed off the crud, dried the subject dishes, then sat down, feeling at a loss. Too soon for bed, too long until Steph’s return. She turned on the TV, hoping for a mystery so good it would succeed in distracting her. Fat chance.
Stephanie opened the front door shortly before dawn, and Arlene heard her the way the mother of a newborn picks out her infant’s slightest mewl in a crowd. She listened as Steph entered her room quietly. Rousing, she waited a minute for Steph to settle in. When she knocked on the door, Stephanie opened it, her hair a mess and her face in a pout.
Arlene brushed past her daughter and sat on the bed. “I’m sorry I interrupted, but I love you so much I just wanted to help.”
“How does mocking my boyfriend help?”
Arlene decided on the spot to abandon her policy of not badmouthing the noncustodial parent. “Steph, I’m worried because every time you talked about him, he reminded me of your father. Your father was so wrapped up in himself that I didn’t count. You kids didn’t either. You know that. I can’t stand to see you stuck with a narcissist.”
“You don’t know Nicky. He’s not a narcissist. He doesn’t have time for chitchat because he works hard.” She drew herself taller. “The bar is his night gig. He also does IT for a law firm.” She hung the shirt with sheer sleeves in the skinny closet. She spun around to face her mom. “I’m the only girl he ever asked to live with him, and I’m thinking about it.” Steph placed her hands on her hips. “I’m going to sleep now.”
Arlene rose and pecked her daughter’s cheek. She paused a moment in the hall outside Steph’s door, listening to drawers opening and closing and then nothing. Light was beginning to seep around the edges of the blinds, so she went to the kitchen to start her day. There was no sense in trying for sleep when she’d just been issued an ultimatum: “roll over or I’ll leave.” She loaded the coffee maker and popped a slice in the toaster. When the spluttering stopped, she poured herself a cup and settled in her favorite chair in the living room to think.
Would Steph really go? Legally, Arlene couldn’t stop her from shacking up with that guy, but she wouldn’t buy Steph a car, and Burger King didn’t pay well enough for Steph to get one. She doubted Nicky had an extra set of wheels. The thought of her vulnerable daughter catering to a user made Arlene want to tear her hair out.
Then another idea nibbled at the edge of her consciousness: wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the bathroom all to herself? The prospect of a finally emptied nest made her heart swell. She had given so much and put up with so much for her three kids. To have peace and quiet in this very apartment! She could even spend a little money on décor and maybe bring a friend home. She cataloged the men at her office: no one worth spending money on. But surely someone out there would want to have some fun with her. Just a little unencumbered fun, for once.
She went to the kitchen to refill her cup, and as she poured, guilt pulled her down. What kind of mother abandons a kid headed for trouble? It wasn’t a question of love—she loved Steph with every ounce—but of responsibility. Did Arlene owe it to God or the universe to keep Steph under close observation, or could she consider her maternal debt paid? Arlene’s mother would have kept her home forever, demanding obedience, which explained why Arlene had married so young.
A memory of that wedding in the church on Staten Island in which she’d learned her catechism insinuated itself into her thoughts. That day, Lou Pezotta, wearing the baby blue tuxedo that matched the sash around her waist, seemed to be the answer to her prayers.
He wasn’t the first, though. Six months earlier, Arlene had developed a crush on a Chinese-American boy she’d met on the ferry the day she and her besties went to explore Greenwich Village. Lian hung out with them and escorted her all the way home although he lived across the City in Queens. For a couple of months they rendezvoused at the ferry terminal in Manhattan, and her crush swelled into love and heavy petting. One day she brought him home with her, and as soon as the door closed behind him, shit hit the fan. Her mother was unequivocal: Italian girls did not marry Chinese boys, and Arlene was grounded. No ferry rides, no boys unknown to her family, and of course not a hint of sex. When Lou, who lived down the block, made a play for her, she figured she’d go out with him because he satisfied her mother’s conditions. He promised to “take her away from all that,” and she wanted to go. It was only after they moved to Arizona that she discovered what she’d signed up for. She was pregnant by then.
If she was going to be a better mother than her mother, she should let Steph do as she pleased. But her chest got tight when she pictured Steph with that guy. What kind of lowlife propositions a nineteen-year-old? Arlene’s head ached. She wished she could talk to someone, but it was too early to phone any of her girlfriends. She said “I give up” out loud and dumped her cup in the sink. Soon the supermarket would open; she looked for a pen and paper to make a list.
When Stephanie entered the kitchen after ten, Arlene was standing at the counter with the ingredients for Steph’s favorite Sunday brunch of cheese omelet, muffin, and fruit salad splayed in front of her. She said good morning and began to peel the skin off a section of an orange because that’s the way Steph liked her oranges.
Steph eyed her mother. “Is someone coming for brunch?”
“Just us. I figured we could talk while we eat. Want to help?”
Steph found a paring knife in a drawer and stepped to the counter. Arlene waited a beat. Nothing. They worked in parallel until they finished the orange. Arlene asked Steph to cut up the rest of the fruit while she grated the cheese. She took out a cutting board that had been a wedding present from her Aunt Claire and cleared her throat.
Steph blurted, “If you’re going to ask if I’m moving out, you can just ask.”
Arlene lowered the chunk of cheese. “Okay. I’m asking.”
Steph sighed. “I want to live with Nicky, but I need to get a car first. He told me I could use his when he’s working, but that sucks. I realized it last night when I had to wait for him.”
Arlene stopped her cheeks from spreading into a smile. She flicked her eyes heavenward in gratitude. “Two eggs or three?”
Steph said, “I’m not eating.”
Fine, Arlene thought, go hungry you little twit. She cracked two eggs into a bowl for an omelet for herself and beat them energetically. Maybe Steph would realize a few more things about Nicky in the coming weeks or months. But if she didn’t, so be it. She would have to learn the hard way. Arlene decided to let Mother Nature take over. What might have happened, Arlene wondered, if her mother had let Mother Nature rule? She might have grown tired of making the hour and a half journey to Queens by ferry and subway. She might have disliked Lian’s mother’s spicy cooking. Or maybe she’d have gorgeous Eurasian kids who did really well in school. But then she wouldn’t have Stephanie, and the very idea hurt.
“Can I still use the car?” Steph sounded tentative.
“Sure. Just ask first.”
Arlene plopped butter in the pan and congratulated herself on not repeating her mother’s mistake. Then an odd thing happened. She sensed her mother nearby and felt sorry for the woman. No, not sorrow, more like solidarity with another mother who had tried her best, as inadequate as her best had been. Arlene’s heart softened. Maybe she had something to thank Nicky for after all. Nah, not Nicky, Stephanie. She who cluttered the bathroom sink and displayed bad taste in boyfriends, she had conjured her grandmother indirectly. Arlene was grateful for the blessing.
Steph turned away, saying she was going to shower. At the kitchen threshold she looked back and said, “You’re wrong about Nicky, you know.”
“Maybe. I’ll make you an omelet when you’re done.”
Arlene thought, Mother Nature is going to teach you manners, my girl. When the time comes, if you need to get out of a bad situation, I will not say “I told you so.”
The second bedroom, however, will be ready. Always.