Way too often, man, just way too often I find myself thinking of the fridge. The light from the fridge especially. It’s usually when Chaunce is rummaging through there, closing herself in it, banging her head on the shelves. It’s usually at night when Noah’s by the window smoking her cigarette, beautiful even in rollers or messy buns. She’ll open the fridge to get something, forget it, go smoke.
I think about walking into the kitchen when I was younger, seeing the door open, the light breaking through the thick darkness, smelling my mom’s cigarettes, realizing she was gone.
It took a while of sitting in front of that fridge, watching the cold air flow around me as light smoke, to realize she wasn’t coming back. Or maybe it hit me right away. I just got this instinct to sit down in the light and breathe.
My momma had hair down her back, bone-straight, blood red hair. She spent a ridiculous amount of time dyeing it, flat ironing it, making sure there wasn’t a curl to be found anywhere. When Astor does talk about her mother, which is almost never, she mentions her height. I doubt any other woman could even dream of being as tall as my mom.
The day she left, earlier that morning, she stood in front of the fridge and stared down at all the food. Single mom or not, she kept it packed with everything I liked, could like, might take an interest in. She hardly ate, but she made sure I stuffed my face with food as often as possible.
“Jukel. We’re out of milk.”
“Sorry, I had some cereal. I’m late for school…” You know, she wasn’t prompt. My momma wasn’t strict or even very bossy. The best way to describe her was relaxed. All my teachers hated her.
“You know how to shop? For milk? Or clothes?” There was a distant edge in her voice. Her mind was somewhere in the fridge. In the onions or the kale or the cilantro.
“Yes, Momma. Yeah. Of course.”
“You know, I wake up a lot and wonder what you’ll become. If you remember certain things. If you’ll forgive me for those things someday. What will the son of a…the son of…” she let the sentence trail off and die, squinting into the fridge. Later, sitting around starving with no money and too much pride, I sat in the same spot she stood and thought about apples a lot. Pears. The small containers of juice that my momma would buy in bulk.
Strawberries. Sharp cheddar cheese. Tuna salad.
“Momma…I got your back. I don’t care what you’ve done. I’m with you.” I patted her shoulder, and she was so stiff she could’ve been a wax sculpture. She just stood there staring at the food, eyes jumping back and forth. I turned awkwardly, not knowing what to say but feeling like she wanted me to say something.
I could’ve asked about the things I didn’t understand. The scars. The black patches growing on my stomach. I could’ve asked her about so many things, but I just chuckled nervously.
“I would kill for you, Jukel. Do you know that?”
I wondered a lot if she’d actually left me money. Hid it somewhere. If she expected me to be able to find it, to take care of herself. Maybe she planned on coming back? It was hard to admit that she’d left me there to starve, to be homeless.
Maybe she assumed I’d ask for help. I didn’t.
I’d seen her once after that, at the hospital when Chaunce was born. She walked in with her hair tied up in this big, ridiculous bun. Sleek. That’s all I could think when I saw her.
That woman is sleek.
She walked up to us in all the chaos, looking expensive and well-fed, and had the nerve to give me a shy smile. I recognized her after she smiled bigger, hope flooding her face. It was my face but more feminine, much lighter. Her hair was still blood red. I realized that I’d married a girl who reminded me of my momma through and through. Noah was small, but she exuded a type of confidence and presence that I only saw in the woman that left me hungry and broken.
“I don’t have time. I honestly don’t have time. The baby was too small. There’s…there’s not enough time in the world to tell you how worthless you are.” Like I usually do when I’m angry, I shook. It rattled through my arm almost, pushing against my teeth. I tried to swallow it, absorb it in the joy I’d felt a second ago. The fear for Chaunce and Noah. Noah was hungry, cursing everyone out to bring her some food or a pack of cigarettes, terrorizing the nurses.
My momma moved her hand over her already slick hair and at least stopped smiling.
“I can explain it to you now. I shouldn’t, but I want to. I want to tell you what I’ve been up to, Jukel. If you’ll give me a second. I know you’re busy but…now is the time. What with…the girl. Your little girl.”
Ashamed. She was ashamed, and I couldn’t tell if it was something about the past or the future.
I shook some more.
“You can wait. It’s been a while. You can wait until I’m ready, too. You will.” I felt rage pushing the shaking to an uncontrollable level. It felt like a rubber band was pulling slowly in my head, ready to snap.
Really ready to snap and murder everyone around. She moved closer to me and touched my cheek as if daring me. Daring me to kill her. Maim her. Drag her around the hospital.
Astor rushed by, a big bag of fast food crunched in her hand. We all looked frazzled, soaked with sweat, but happy. Chaunce was smaller than she should’ve been, but she’d made it.
“Did they have to put her in the incubator?” she asked quickly, not noticing my momma standing so close to me. I briefly flashed back to reality, calming down.
“No. No, it doesn’t look like it. Get that food to that woman before she eats us all.” Astor managed to laugh, glancing back at my momma for a quick sec, then sped off. When I turned back to my mother, I found her frozen.
“What?” She backed up, shocked, disgusted. She looked at me like I’d violated everything she’d ever stood for.
“Oh, Jukel. Oh, Jukel. All the work I’ve done fighting those…monsters. All the work and you…you can’t. Not that one…anyone but her.” She turned to leave, eyes watering. I wanted so badly to grab her or push her or hit her. Something. I couldn’t figure out what I was feeling. She breathed my name over and over.
And you know, now that I think about it, she wasn’t disgusted. She was terrified.
“Jukel. Don’t you know what she is?” Anger or not, the way her voice broke sunk deep into my stomach. Again, she turned to leave me. Forever this time.
“Don’t you at least know what you are?”