When the writer's family moved to the Southwest, she and her mother got more than desert landscapes: They got a violent Christmas Eve that would mark their time there forever.
There was a yelp from the other room and my heart stopped.
I followed the noise across the hall, through my mother’s room and into her walk-in closet. I didn’t go to her in her shredded flannel nightgown. I just saw it, took note of it and all the little broken blood vessels in her neck, thousands of them crawling up toward her face, on their way to her once bronzed cheeks, and I knew that she had been shaken, inside and out. I didn’t go to her. I went to him.
He was holding a tennis racket and despite his small-town star-quarterback hands—thick and bejeweled with the rings of accomplishments past—I didn’t feel the kind of fear I should have. I didn’t believe he would hurt me, although when he did finally put his hands on me, lifting me out of his way on the stairwell landing and flinging me to a corner, I knew I had some thinking to do.
I was no physical match, after all. With eyes on graduating with honors, I had grown attached to the rantings of Katie Roiphe and Germaine Greer, and though my thesis-writing was stalled, I decided on a radical approach to the here and now, and some sort of post-feminist oomph tumbled out of my mouth, accusing him of being no man at all. A funny thing to say when a modern college girl is trying to shed the world of gender bias. But then again, it is a funny thing to be thinking like a feminist when one’s mother is lying, frayed through and through—at the hands of a big, strong man—on her closet floor.
All of this because, after that Christmas Eve dinner he had gone to their room in anger—he, an insatiable consumer of stiff cocktails and good-looking women was not, by a technicality, my stepfather any longer. By then he was already my former stepfather, my mother’s former second husband—formerly married once or twice before us, formerly employed, too. But a laughing and back-slapping, shoulder-rubbing, haunting presence in our lives still, and especially on that cool, dry December night.
I waited before my next move and saw him reach for a golf club—ours was an athletic household with many yuppie weapons at our disposal. It was the first time I was scared, not for my life—because he seemed to have no bone to pick with me that night, because he didn’t seem to see me at all—but for my mother’s. I grabbed a phone and ran to the downstairs guest bathroom where I made a phone call and prayed. The man at the other end of the line stayed on until a spotlight shone down on me from what felt like heaven. And then there were police and more prayers as I followed the police officer through the house.
Before the yelp, before the golf club and the feminism and the spotlight, I had been sleeping, I think. Sleeping off a glass of wine or two. I’d had a crush on the waiter who was probably not worth it, but who had kept me going, kept me alert and focused on something other than a dinner that was a study in Grand Marnier and Merlot and their effects on the flailing middle aged.
Not a hearty drinker, my mother had gone from shiny and new to worn-out and drawling somewhere in between bacon-wrapped scallops and a filet. The decadence of both the place and the meal matched the occasion—it was Christmas Eve in Scottsdale, calling for twinkling lights strung from high-up Spanish ceilings, woven precariously in and out of the thorns of a giant cactus—the emblem of the American Southwest, and a prickly reminder that we two Jewesses were no longer in the realm of the green valleys and crisp Christian traditions of rural Pennsylvania.
We were in new territory indeed. Behind us we had left rooms of Southwest-influenced design—pastel chevrons and pickled wood items and yes, a cactus. It was ironic then that out here we lived amidst granite countertops and ultrasuede dining room chairs. Things that didn’t belong to us filled the vaulted spaces, wide open spaces that should have freed us in some way from the 8-foot ceilings of our model home in our model development in a once great mid-Atlantic American town. I had been enjoying this dry, red-earthed place a little—on my break from the freezing dredge of a suburban Boston college campus. In the hot desert sun, sitting on a bench outside of a hair salon where they sold turquoise jewelry alongside flatirons and hairclips, everything was appealing in the very way Boston was not. It was so sunny and new.
Sunny and new was something for my mother—a vibrant, shining person who had worn out her welcome in a place filled with the little cliques and histories of the professional boomer set. Or was it that she had tired of them? She had hit the road in a hurry—she did everything in a hurry, made a dinner party that way, drove a car that way, fell in and out of love that way. So away she hurried with a man so damaged her own damage seemed beside the point, leaving in her wake many successes, a few failures, and two near-adult children not yet ready to be hurried out of childhood, whose belongings didn’t make the cut. We didn’t even know to care then—we went where she went. We loved what she loved. We would get to vacation in the wild west It would be fun.
But now, there she was, in her Lanz of Salzberg nightgown, suddenly less Sound of Music and more Nightmare on Elm Street—holding a butcher knife.
“Is he dead?” I asked.
She shook her head no and we started to laugh, really laugh for a whole loud minute at the absurdity of this question. The same way we had laughed so many times my whole life long. My mother’s sense of humor, her ability to see the funny in the image of herself wielding a big knife, draped in a nightgown inspired by her extraordinary love of Maria Von Trapp and other cozy things, was what made her special and charming and a good mother. It was a survival instinct that had saved us before and I was rooting for it to save us now.
We let the manhunt commence around us as we sat together, her holding that butcher knife and me holding us together with my relief at having discovered her breathing and in one piece. Until they told us they had him, until they told us he was on his way to jail, until they asked me to write a report, which I did, hands shaking, my worst and most furious piece of writing to date.
Safe for the night, I felt myself wanting to go home. Not back to college but home to the Pennsylvania cactus and the things that used to be ours.
She would stay out there a little too long after that Christmas Eve night. She would move from the vaulted-ceilinged home of her dreams to an apartment where more calls to the police would be made, some of them made by me, all the way from my linoleum-floored kitchen in Waltham, Massachusetts, where someone was burning couscous and someone else incense and someone else at both ends.
And when I would go to visit her after that I would meet a sneaker salesman who wore Justin cowboy boots and who took me two-step dancing far away from suburbia and where there was a bonfire and other cowboy types and his good friend would tell me that he had lost his girlfriend in a car accident and that their song was Garth Brooks’s “The Dance” and would I please dance with him to it now. His shoulder smelled like fire and beer and I cried as our boots scraped the ground. I cry still when I hear that song, partly for the girl in the car accident and partly because there was a time when I danced next to a bonfire in the desert to country music with people I’ll never see again in a place that lives like a dream in my memory—a dream with a funny timeline and distorted faces and a police helicopter light shining in on a barely-legal girl hunched in the corner of a guest bathroom in a house full of stuff that never belonged to her.
Our cactus in Pennsylvania was not big. In fact it had shriveled by the time that house was sold. Once, as a child, I had run down the stairs too fast and when I turned the corner I smacked my hand into the thorns. They were alive with poison and my hand stung and then was stiff from the trauma. I stayed home from school, I think, to nurse my unlikely injury and curse that cactus and my mother’s strange ways. If only a Ficus tree had been in that spot. If only she hadn’t been drawn to prickly things.
But then, no. If a Ficus had been in that spot, the house wouldn’t have belonged to people like us, and we were cactus people really.
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