We know not to ask for anything extra. Even as the tiered shelves of sweets gleam up at us in the checkout line, we keep our eyes forward, refuse to embarrass ourselves with desire. To desire without fear is a privilege, a privilege we dream of tasting, only in secret, how we imagine it, sharp and bright in our mouths. How it will feel to be full, no distant worry twisting our stomachs to knots. These same mouths know the polite silence of poverty; our parents tell us not to complain, not to covet what we don’t have, so lucky to have a roof over our heads at all, much better off than most. How they halve the apple in their pocket, telling us it should last till supper, while we grow out of our cousins’ clothes, corduroy jeans rising above our ankles, inseams insulting our bodies, bodies that betray us each spring, another pair of shoes, another hem to let down.
Some nights, when we can’t sleep, our mother strokes our hair and tells us stories of grandeur, of Cleopatra, Princess Diana. Women whose stars burnt them, but who seem so impossible, as if our mother has plucked their names from the thick summer air, jewels we are allowed to keep. Our mother, a midwestern woman who had left her parents’ home for the confines of God and family, her faith forever running hot and cold, tempting fate to seize her. We love her with our breath held, attentive and cautious, ready for her spite or her smile. Our mother, the fire starter. The eye roller. The semi-professional alcoholic. How she can commit to a punch line, how she paints profanity like pulling feathers from the air. The delight of her double standard. How her smooth hands jam a bar of soap in our mouths if we cross a line and curse, and how she hides her cigarette smoke, a magician of vices.
Once, to show our father that she loved him, she threw his best dress shoes into the blackberry bushes. No, in fact, she threw out only one of the shoes, leaving its match abandoned on the front porch. A day later, realizing what she had done, she spent hours of the afternoon crawling through those barbs, trying to find her apology, her flesh bruised and burnt. The shoe was unrecoverable. But our father didn’t raise an eyebrow, knew better than to push his luck when she was penitent.
When they fight, we keep ourselves in the basement, the house always a few degrees cooler, in sentiment and Celsius. We try to be the right kind of good to her. We try to be quiet enough, our faces calm as a sheet of ice, eager to help, desperate and hungry, with our breath held, while her anger tours the kitchen, her despair waltzing through the living room until it’s inches from us, close enough to touch. But we don’t touch her, not until it passes. Not until it’s safe to be ourselves.
In return, she cries at crimes we’ve never committed, locks our windows at night and screams to scare away the boys that she says will ruin us, the boys she promises are coming. What she thinks we do is always worse than what we are capable of doing. But still we dream of tasting what’s reckless, hope that fate offers us mistakes even we can make. How we long to be ruined, if only to be touched first. If only to taste what our bodies can’t afford.