J a n u a r y   2 0 0 6

Guest Writer

This is my mother talking
Customer service
by Kristin Hilton-Callis

ust be careful, honey, because when you're picking a husband, you're also picking an ex-husband. So think rich. And no pre-nups."

This is my mother talking to me, my mother, for crying out loud, in the car, talking to me about Jason, on the way to meet Jason, my fiancé, for the first time. And you'd think she'd tone it down a little, just out of some kind of respect for the ring on my finger and how much I told her I love the guy.

When I tried to explain it, I didn't use words like "kindred spirit" or "my other half" – if I had, she would have fallen on me with those pink claws of hers and ripped my voice box out. No. All I said was: "I'm happy, Mom. I really love him, Mom. Please don't kill him, Mom." Or at least, "Please don't kill the part of him that wants to marry me."

But she will not tone it down. In the car, all she wants to know is how much money he makes. Well, I don't have the exact figures, Mom. I'm not his accountant. He drives a Lexus, isn't that good enough? "Good enough for who, honey?" she wants to know. "Good enough for him or good enough for you?

"Because," she says, "there's a big difference, honey."

I can't believe how tired I am of her already and we only left the airport 20 minutes ago. I haven't seen her in eight months. How can she still be talking like this after all the divorces and Robert's cancer? How can she talk like she hates love, after Robert? I saw her by his hospital bed the day before he died. I saw her stroking his hand and kissing his face even though he was out cold from the surgery and his mouth and eyes were crusty and his skin looked dead. Oh, Robert. I saw her crying all over his stiff, yellow hand, so how can she still talk about love like it's made out of plastic?

She is now asking me – and I can't believe this – if I want Stepdaddy Ted or Stepdaddy Jojo to walk me down the aisle. Because, she explains, those are the two who still keep in touch with me, don't they, and send me money for school.

She starts talking about Jojo, and how hurt he'll be if I don't ask him, especially after I didn't even bother to tell him about graduation, not even one day in advance, out of consideration for his investment. He had to find out from someone he barely knew, a month later, that I had my degree and was working for a firm downtown.

I'm pulling up to the hotel, still listening to Mom rave about Jojo's generosity. For the first time since the airport, I look at her. She's wearing a pink-and-white suit that looks bunchy on her short torso, and pink heels. Well, good going, Mom, I want to say. That looks like another Chanel suit – in fact that looks like some of Jojo's fabulous generosity spread all over you like a soothing coat of Pepto Bismol. Just let the money medicate you until you find another life-donor with deep pockets, someone as shallow as you deserve. You don't deserve another Robert.

Robert was too good for my mother. I mean, I don't say that to her face, but I think it, and it's true. He was too real, too much his own person, for all of her face-plastering, chemically-pheromoned, dollar-sign-pupiled garbage.

When I met Jason I thought, you're a lot like Robert, with your books and your music and your deep eyes. And you talk to me, like Robert, about something besides clothes and dreams in relation to money. So, yes, I'll go out with you. Yes, after three months, I'll marry you.

And I loved it that Jason's family was poor and sprawling with, I swear, one hundred cousins all as red-necked as roosters. He laughed when I told him about my screwed-up life and all my "stepdaddies."

"You poor kid," he'd say. "You poor, sad kid. Money's a bitch."

But that was his happy sarcasm because he didn't know my mother. He could joke about it and think it was like some movie if he wanted, because he had no idea what it's like to be 10 and washing the dried crust of scotch out of glass after glass – half of them printed with pink lipstick, half of them bare – on a Saturday morning. Watching Scooby-Doo on the tiny kitchen TV with the volume turned low in respect for hangovers.

He didn't know about "making nice" and "turning on the charm" and, in general, he didn't know anything about being a prop. How could I explain to him about me as set dressing in the same way as a chair, a table, a painting – carefully placed in a room to exude the right kind of aura?

I always had nice clothes, I'll say that. But I never chose them. I always had nice manners, but behind them I was hating my mother, hating her boyfriends, lovers, husbands. All of them but Robert.

I remember when my mother brought him home, how she was smiling her fake, demure smile – her victory smile. (She never brought a man home unless he had spent some "decent money" on her. In Robert's case, it was a first-edition Proust, in French, which she didn't care to read. I read it, though. It was a beautiful book and I took it with me when I moved out. She never even noticed it was gone, which says, I think, quite a lot about how small-minded she is.)

Anyway, the first time she brought Robert home he looked at me, actually into my eyes, you know, down into them because he was tall. And he wouldn't let my mother rush me off to my room or to a friend's place because, he said, he wanted to talk to me, to find out about me.

I loved all his questions. Nothing about boyfriends, or schoolwork, or if my hobbies were shopping or talking on the phone. No verbal pats on the head like that, as if I were some species of intelligent canine. We talked about politics and literature, world events, music.

In the background, after a while, my mother started complaining (whining, really) about a headache. I wanted to scream at her when she sent me to the kitchen for aspirin and a glass of water, but I didn't dare.

Just inside the kitchen door, I could hear Robert saying to my mother that I was a lovely woman. Those were the exact words, too: A lovely woman. I felt a little buzz when he said it, as if my mother were somewhere else and he was speaking right to me, feeling with his voice right to my ear on the other side of the kitchen door.

"No," my mother said. "No. She's a young woman, Robert. She's a young woman and that amounts to being a child."

At that moment, I wanted to be fierce – to show her how mad I was, for once. I wanted to slap her, I think. It was only later, thinking about it in my room, that I realized she was jealous. Jealous of me.

She didn't bring him home as often as the others because sometimes when she did, Robert's conversations with me would go on for hours. Oh, she would hold out for a while, bleating about a headache or nausea, then finally (at last!) sway dramatically off to her bedroom to lie down.

It was then that I came alive, for the first time, really, with another person.

I felt as if I had an existence, unknown before, that Robert had discovered and was leading me to. And he cared enough to actually do it; that's what was amazing, to me at least. I wouldn't even think twice about my mother when she had gone to bed, alone. (That had to be a new experience for her.)

In the morning when she would tell me how gauche it was to monopolize the time of her guest (believe it or not, she always referred to her men as "guests," even the ones I would catch wandering out of her bedroom in nothing but a pair of boxers) and how, even if it didn't embarrass me, it certainly was humiliating to her to have such a forward child. I didn't care. For once, she couldn't even touch the inside of me.

I don't want her to be able to touch me now. I'm telling myself, as we get out of the car and I watch her pink heels click through the thick, glass hotel doors and up the short marble staircase to the concierge's desk, I'm telling myself (is she really letting her hair go gray?), I'm telling myself that I've passed whatever barrier of time kept me an emotional slave to her opinion of me, but I'm not sure if it's true.

I don't want to be around her long enough to find out that it isn't, but I'm doomed to her company for a few more hours at least, while we have lunch with Jason and then, after lunch, I know she'll send him off without me. And she'll insist on a talk, a real heart-to-heart as she says, which just means she'll do all the talking and I'll do the acceptable nodding and yessing and casting of my eyes downward so that she'll think I'm sincere and maybe the whole process won't take so long.

She's talking to the concierge at the hotel's reception counter and he's bowing his dapper gray head at her like we've entered a more refined state of existence simply by gliding into his hotel, bowing over her hand as she slides her platinum card across to him.

I wonder if he's bowing to her or to the card and then it comes to me (with a smile that I hide from her) that it's really the same thing. But it's crazy the way she's loving it – all the attention, the fawning, the compliments – without the slightest understanding that it's all just customer service, the same as Jason's mom dished out to the barefoot crowd at the rundown hillbilly grocery she worked at for years and years and now says that she misses. (Can you believe she would actually have any kind of melancholy feelings about being the clerk at the Swamp Mart or whatever it's called?)

Not that it was a bad job (I'm not bourgeois) or that I don't like Jason's mom (I do), but that my mother thinks she's getting some kind of special treatment because of who she is, instead of how much money she throws around in these situations.

We go into the hotel restaurant – finally, after she gives her room a long once-over while the bellhop watches nervously (she actually runs her finger over the tops of picture frames looking for dust) and after she presses the right amount of cash into his sweaty hand. Oh, and I have to mention how long it takes her to primp in front of the mirror, raking her nails through the dusty blonde hair that has been chestnut, ebony, platinum and titian (anything but gray, which it really is under all that dye).

We go into the restaurant and Jason waves from the table he's gotten us by the glittering bank of windows. My mother's going to hate that. Not the windows – being on display is exactly her kind of thing – but the waving. Boisterous waving smacks of eagerness, excitement, delight ... all insipid emotions to her.

I don't care, though, whether my mother likes Jason or not. He's got one thing in his favor – he's male. So when she gets to the table and Jason is on his feet and holding her hand and then her chair, she's rolling her eyes in a way that women of a certain age think is flirtatious, while sighing out breathless "thank yous."

Her fluttering nauseates me but I know that, later, Jason and I will laugh about it. Later, he'll hold me and tell me how he finally understands how horrible it must have been for me growing up with such a vacuous fraud of a mother. Jason and I can hate her together and then I won't feel so alone like I sometimes do when he thinks I'm being dramatic or "poignantly melancholy," as he puts it.

Lunch, frankly, is going much better than I expected. Jason is always a good socializer (that's one of the things I love about him – how simple it is for him to put people at their ease), but today he is charming. Expansively charming, even. My mother is lapping it up, thinking it's all meant for her, not knowing how much effort he is putting into this lunch for my sake. Well, this one's mine, mother, and he's got money (a lot) and he's intellectual. So bat your eyelashes, croon his name, lean in close enough to count his pores, but hands off.

I can't stand watching her.

Jason is asking all sorts of questions designed to arouse some sort of empathy between them. He was raised by a single mother. He knows the sacrifices. How did she manage it? Isn't she proud now? Wasn't it worth it – her daughter now an impressively intelligent young lady with a career all her own ahead of her?

I'm nauseous at this point. Sacrifices! What a word! What did she ever give up for me? I'd like to ask that question – shout it at her – but there's no answer. I'm sure there's no answer.

I'm so relieved when lunch is finally over – there's an extravagant battle over the check (as if my mother would ever pick up a check when there's a man around) that results in Jason pulling out a couple of hundred dollar bills, which is going to irritate my mother because that kind of gesture is nouveau riche (like she's got old money).

I'm so relieved that I even give my mother a little shoulder-hug. She suggests that Jason "finish handling the business end of lunch" while I walk her to her room, which is just a way of getting me alone so she can talk to me.

Out in the lobby, she starts in. "Honey," she sighs and sighs and sighs. "Honey, how long has he had money? Did his father have money? That is certainly a question you should have asked, but apparently didn't (or perhaps you did and didn't pay enough attention to the answer). He's far too eager and, really, nothing is worse ..."

And so she goes. I shouldn't be surprised that she doesn't like him. I mean, what was I really expecting? She keeps it up all the way to her room, but she's losing me. With each pathetically critical stab of the hypocritical dagger she slides out of the sheath of her narrow mind, I am falling more and more in love with soon being Mrs. Jason.

She drones on, but I don't even hear her because my mind is already making plans to move the wedding up a couple of months.

Ha-ha, mother! I can't wait (and I'm imagining the whole scene, preferably as it takes place in Jason's mother's Elvis-themed living room and we're all enjoying tall glasses of hideous sweet tea). I can't wait until my mother meets Jason's family.

She sends me back down to the lobby so I can say goodbye to Jason. She wants me to "get rid of him, honey, so we can figure a way out of this mess." It won't matter what she says, although she doesn't know it yet. It won't matter to me that she rants and raves and throws a fit – I'm marrying Jason. And she can just go to hell.

In the lobby, Jason is waiting in one of the huge and uncomfortable club chairs underneath the monstrous potted olive trees. My heart swells when I see him – I can't wait to tell him how difficult my mother is being (and will continue to be, as he'll understand more and more during our marriage). He wants me to sit beside him and, when I do, he takes my face in his hands.

"Baby," he says, "this is all going to work out just fine. I was a little worried, yes, about things. Especially the way you talk about her."

He's talking about my mother, I guess, and who wouldn't be worried?

"She's a champ, really, if you think about how hard it is to get by in this world ..."

He's still talking, his hands warm on my face, his freckled smile moving just inches away from me. He's telling me about my mother. Get this – he is telling me about her!

I take his hands off of me. He's still talking. Why won't he stop?

"Stop!" I want to scream.

Now (I don't have a choice), I'm pulling off the ring he gave me and putting it hard into his palm. At last he's quiet.

I take a last look at Jason's stunned face as I leave him to go back up to my mother's room, back up to her because I'm finally getting it. Finally getting that there's no escape.

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