Photo by Mona Cao.

My mother kept lovers the way most people keep dogs: well-groomed and outside the house. I didn’t start to catch on ‘til I was ten. Then, she kept men’s razors stashed in the bathroom cabinet; and after dropping me off for bowling on Saturday nights, she’d dash over to Pineapple Jack’s pub across the lane. Though it was my grandmother who retrieved me from the King Pin alley, my mother was always home when I awoke, seated in our dim- lit kitchen, a coffee cup and Virginia Slim as her only company.

In those days, she dressed to the nines, decked out in black platform stilettos, big-bodied hair, and burgundy lip stain. Perched at the rim of her tub, I was allowed to watch as she assembled herself for work at Tornan Intermodal. Tornan was a trucking operation run out of a tin-roofed trailer and gravel lot in Memphis, Tennessee; when I asked my mother what she did there, she said she flirted, mostly.

“When you’ve got a man for a boss, big tits and sweet-talking’s the only thing that’ll get you anywhere. On top of having half a brain, of course.” With her D-cups, sticky delta drawl and eight years of self- schooling, she was fully equipped for the task. By the start of her second year there, she’d been promoted to lower management.

When I began dating, she had only two pieces of advice: never fall in love and save giving head for the rare occasions that you do. Just two weeks later, I broke the second rule behind a Mormon church. But I practiced the first like a daily-made mercy; sex soon became my religion, and love its lone vice.

They say single-motherhood breeds daddy disorders, young women looking for the lost affection of their fathers. But I wanted only men’s moans, and equally the wide, winking thighs of other daughters. I sought the wise smiles and leashed glances exchanged across discount grocery aisles. I spent nights craving the tired skin of thirty-somethings. Nothing was better than their bedrooms: the mingled smells of hot, tossed murmurs and long-damp laundry. Plenty of men said they loved me, and I’m sure some believed they did. What was the fun in love? Infatuation, as I phrased it.

Twenty is a year for making mistakes, and that summer I fell in love. He was a graduate student, and earnest. It was my policy not to mess around with married men, but this one said he was mid-divorce, and what a mouth. My mother called daily to scold. “It was an accident,” I said. “I swear!”

He taught me to make tea, the way Yankees drink it, searing and creamed. On weekends we took midnight drives to the docks in Branford, Connecticut, where we rolled cigarettes and kissed each other’s stomachs, spoke broken Spanish between dead rocks and cradled faces when sleep started to creep in. The whole way back, we sang along to the Monkeys, pitching out hands to grasp the push of wild air.

We made love only once: outside, splayed naked in park grass. That night, it was the color of plums. The lawn had a pulse, and with our rhythms we met it — down, I know I kept my head down, and his eyes were squint, shut. When that mouth made my name, I cried.

And after, all quiet. The night not even tuned to static, silent.

Law school boys like to ask the same question: How can a feminist fuck so many people? But you don’t get it, I protest. Sleeping together is one thing, but every after-sex coil, with love-locked arms around my middle makes me cringe. It’s then that I feel instrumental, a pole to grip in the wash of insecurity: Was I good, baby? Did I come too quick, baby? You’re not seeing anyone else, are you, baby?

I have to ask whether we aren’t all just framing fantasies across the faces of breathing, feeling people. Maybe it doesn’t matter when it’s mutual. All I know is this whole thing feels pretty fleeting, and I don’t think I’m ready to let any dogs inside the house.