I was sliding on my butt around on the kitchen floor, trying to catch and force my sick cat to swallow a giant blue pill, while my eight-year-old daughter stood over us, watching us with complete disdain.
"So, I need to know, what is your job, Mom?"
I got the capsule in the back of the cat's gullet and clamped his muzzle shut. There was something I didn't like about Aretha's tone.
"What do you mean, 'What is your job?'' " I imitated her prissy tone. "You know perfectly well what I do; I write--in fact, we just spent fifteen minutes in the car together while I complained about my latest contract."
Aretha's eyes narrowed and her hands went to her hips. It was so unnerving to stare up at this haughty queen that I stumbled getting to my feet.
"No, Mom," she said, in a voice so loaded with sarcasm that, by all rights, I should have evaporated on the spot. "I need to know what it is that you do exactly when you 'write.' "
I had scraped my palms during the pill tussle, and Little Miss Superior had not even begun to get out the cat food, as I had requested five minutes before this inquisition began. I decided to let her have it.
"Look, stop treating me like crap and tell me what's going on with you, because the last thing I need after I've been doing my job all day is for you to talk to me like I'm not worth two cents." This time I was the one with a tone of voice; I was loud and mean. She shrank and turned around to leave.
My bite was worse than the cat's. "Don't you dare walk away from me. That's even worse." She still had her back to me, but I could tell she was crying. I softened. "Is this something about school; are you supposed to write about my job for your homework?"
She nodded. "It's for Mrs. Stein's class," she wept. Mrs. Stein is her writing teacher.
"Aretha, we talk all the time about my writing--you were just teasing me today that I haven't written a book all about your life yet! Do you really not understand what I do? Or are you embarrassed by what I do?" The second I said the word embarrassed, something curled inside my chest like a crushed leaf.
Her head sank down. "The last thing you said," she whispered, as if to spare my feelings by not repeating it. "I didn't tell you this ... it happened a long time ago." (That could mean anything from yesterday to three weeks ago.)
"I was standing in the cafeteria line, and this boy who I don't even know poked me in the back and said, 'I know what your mom does. She writes about S-E-X!' " She started crying harder. "And he was singing it like it was a dirty song, and I wanted to slap him so hard that his head would fly off because it's none of his business, and it was so humiliating, and now Ms. Stein is making us write a paper about what our parents do for a living, and--"
"You don't want to say that I write about sex because everyone will get hysterical--"
"And they all think sex is disgusting, and I don't want them to hate you, and I hate this paper because I don't want to answer any personal questions!"
All of a sudden, I felt as if I needed a fainting couch. "Can we go lie down and talk about this?" I asked.
In truth, I had been waiting for my daughter to come to me with this problem since I first became pregnant. I remember how people would ask me--before they even inquired about christening names, or if I knew what sex the baby was--"Aren't you worried about what your child will think of what you do?" They would look at me gravely, as if a great sorrow were about to unfold.
I had one acquaintance, a sex therapist, who called me up twice to warn me: "If someone like you has a daughter, she will hate you, and there's nothing you can do about it. I brought home a box of tampons when my kid was twelve, to talk about her period, and she screamed at me that I was a slut."
I didn't know what to say to all the "well-wishers" who warned me how ill-fated my motherhood would be. Something like, "Wow, thanks for the heads-up. I'll schedule an abortion right away"?
Instead, my defense was to consider my own childhood. I got bullied for so many things: thick glasses, pathetic social skills, orthopedic shoes, homemade clothes, and, most of all, for being a kid who didn't have two parents at home. My mother was divorced in the sixties, and at the time it was remarked upon by grown-ups in hushed tones, as if she were gravely ill. One high school English teacher, who didn't like me, announced in front of our entire class that she couldn't help it if I was "from a broken home." I thought that was ridiculous, but when I told my mother, it broke her heart.
I know what it's like to survive being a "weirdo," and I concluded that you can't build your life around a fantasy of conformity. Those kids who had all the right labels going for them weren't happy campers either--as I found out later, when they became my friends. I was proud of my mom and how we lived, even if I didn't like my awful shoes and glasses.
Yet now, Aretha was breaking my heart with her story. If only I were a nurse! A children's librarian, an Avon Lady! I wanted to protect her from all the bullies, no matter how much that might concede to their ignorance. "You don't have to write about me at all, honey," I said, "You could write about your dad's job, or your godmother, or anybody you want."
"I don't want to write about them, I want to write about you," she said. Her stubbornness surprised me.
"Well, I know your teacher feels fine about my books; she would never make fun of you."
"She's not the problem." Aretha sighed, and of course she was right.
"Look, you asked me the other day what 'ethics' is," I said, "and it was practically impossible to explain. But this--this is a perfect example. If you choose to, you never have to say 'sex' in your paper, and you can talk about all the other things I do when I write. But if you don't say it, you might feel like you have to keep this awful secret that makes you feel ugly inside. Sometimes it's worth it, in the long run, to just say, 'My mom writes about sex, so grow up and get over it!' "
Aretha frowned. "No, as soon as I say 'sex,' they will all start laughing and then they might ask me questions like, 'What kind of sex?' or, 'Is it man-woman sex?'--and I don't want to talk about it!"
"Oh, they make me sick," I said, "Every single one of them is going have sex with someone someday, and then they'll wish they hadn't spent so much time obsessing about how disgusting it's supposed to be."
Aretha didn't have much interest in the future karma of her tormentors. "So you don't care if I don't say you write about sex?"
"No, I don't care at all. I just want you to pay attention to your feelings, and see if you feel okay later about making a secret like this. I don't want you to feel like you can't be yourself and be proud of your family."
"Not all secrets are bad," she protested. "Like when you have a present for me and it's a secret, or when we want to surprise someone and it's a secret."
"Yeah, those are fun secrets--you're right, this is different. It's the kind of secret where you feel like you have to hide something about yourself because other people won't like you. Sometimes people just aren't worth it."
Aretha handed me a Kleenex box, because this last bit of advice on my part made me start crying again. "I honestly don't know what you should do," I sobbed. "I just know one thing--this is a really hard assignment, and I can guarantee you that there are a lot of other kids freaking out right now about what they're suppose to write."
She looked at me like I was daft. "Nobody else's mom writes about sex!"
"No, that's not what I mean ... I mean, there are kids in your class whose parents don't have any kind of 'job.' What are they supposed to say? 'We're getting food stamps right now, but the welfare office is cutting us off in two weeks'? Or what about the kid whose folks are growing pot, or the kid whose mom is a lesbian insemination doctor? What if you had a dad who was a toilet plumber?"
"A toilet plumber?" Aretha howled and fell off the bed, screaming. "Omigod, a stinky toilet plumber man!"
Finally, I had come up with a worse alternative than being a sex writer. "You know, a toilet plumber makes a lot of money," I said. "If I was a toilet plumber, we'd probably have a new car and a swimming pool. And they work on something that everybody has to have, but they're embarrassed sometimes to say what they do because everyone laughs at them and thinks it's gross, just like you."
Aretha became quiet and looked as if she had taken this to heart. Finally, a sense of righteousness was upon me, and I knew what I wanted her to do: "Look, I don't care what you say about me, but I want you to promise me that you won't laugh at a single other student's paper, because you know now how hard it is to write something like this." I crooked out my little finger to her so that we could make a pinky-swear vow.
She curled her pinky around mine and squeezed. "I promise," she said, but her eyes were far away. "A swimming pool, for real, Mom?" she said. "I wish you were a toilet plumber!"
from Mommy's Little Girl, Thunders Mouth Press