Budget Suites, 2001
That spring, we live at the Budget Suites on the edge of the strip. My mother goes in to the business office every Monday and reserves our hotel room-apartment hybrid for another week. We switch units a couple of times. In one room, the air conditioner is broken, and even in the springtime Las Vegas is too hot to just leave the windows open. In another, we have ants.
We get up extra early in the mornings because it’s at least a half hour drive to my elementary school. The first week, I am late every day and I show up out of uniform because my mother didn’t think to pack any of my school clothes. I spend the whole week in bright colors and jeans before my kindergarten teacher calls my mother in.
“Sorry, we’ll do better,” my mother says that Friday when she picks me up. She walks me towards the exit and my teacher doesn’t get a chance to respond before we are in my mother’s car, a new black convertible that has only two seats.
We drive right by our house on our way to the freeway. I press my nose to the window. My mother doesn’t look away from the road.
We used to live in Summerlin, before the Budget Suites, and we continue to live there for a little while after my mother’s first period of independence. I remember looking at our suburban community the year before from my father’s helicopter. There were rows and rows of houses with pools that took up most of the backyards and every few blocks, large plots of grass with palm trees lining the perimeters.
Our house was a two-story copy with white walls and white carpets. My mother hated the whiteness, said everything was always dirty, and spent a lot of time with the vacuum cleaner and a bottle of Clorox.
She is happy, I think, when our mini-apartment is dark-colored. The floor and the walls are brown, and the single loveseat in the living room that doubles as the dining room is a muted orange. I miss my bedroom. I miss my white sheets and my plush carpet and my own bed and my cat and my father. But I am glad, too, that she took me with her, that she wants me with her.
We spend most of our time together. After she picks me up from school, she finds us dinner. We watch movies and we dance to her favorite songs and I do my homework on the floor while she watches me. Then we go to sleep, side by side in the queen-sized bed.
Some nights, we trek down to the pool. I feel like a fish in the water, like it’s where I belong. I alternate between dropping a set of keys to the bottom of the pool and diving down to retrieve them. I like to do it without opening my eyes if I can, by just skimming my hands and my body against the pool’s floor until I can feel the metal against my skin. In the shallow end, I dip my head just below the surface and hold my breath for as long as I can.
My mother doesn’t swim. She stews in the sweltering water of the hot tub with a can of Diet Coke and a bucket of ice. When I get tired, I join her. Every few minutes, I have to get out and jump into the pool, or at least lie on the cement, but she can sit in the water all night.
My mother looks different in the glow of the hot tub lights. Her skin becomes a dark almond and her hair curls and tangles on her shoulders. She almost looks like a mermaid when she puts both her arms in the water, like she’s rising from the sea.
It reminds me of this picture I have of her from when she was younger. I think she must have been 19 or 20 because her hair is long and permed into curls so tight that she doesn’t even look like herself. She’s sitting on a curb in shorts and a T-shirt, with a travelling pack strapped to her back, and it’s the end of summer, probably, because her legs are tanned and thin. She looks happy. She looks free.
We meet Charlie at the Starbucks we go to every Saturday morning. My mother’s friend Janie, a blonde 40-year-old who sometimes strips at Cheetahs, is dating Charlie’s father.
Charlie looks like an overgrown boy. He wears grey sweatpants and a T-shirt, and a thin layer of hair coats his chin. My mother loves it. I think he makes her feel like a teenager, even though she’s 34 already.
In a few months, once we are both in love with Charlie, he will buy a pet tarantula and name it after my mother. He’ll ask me if I want to hold it.
“They don’t bite,” he’ll say. “Promise.”
I will shake my head no, and still, I will cup my hands and close my eyes. I’ll swear I can feel it crawl across my fingers, its hairy legs scraping past my skin. When I open my eyes, it’ll turn out that there was never anything in my hands, and I will open and close my palms and wonder at the empty space between them.
When Charlie’s sons first come to live with us, a few months after Charlie moves in to our house, I go crazy for Skylar. He’s only 5, blonde, and what I picture my children will look like someday. His shoulder blades are angel wings and he likes to jut his chest forward and push his shoulders back so that we can all admire them.
Petey, the second son, the 2-year-old, is less interesting. He sleeps most of the day, and when he doesn’t, he ambles through the living room, walking along like he’s tumbling or hardly walking at all. I’m not supposed to pick him up and carry him, because I might drop him. My mother doesn’t pick him up either.
I don’t remember either of them, much past that. I have this memory of being in the swimming pool one afternoon. Skylar is there too, but it’s just the two of us. He does laps around the pool, his kickboard hugging his chest, while I lie lazily in the water, trying to fill my lungs with enough air to keep me afloat without having to kick.
Skylar starts to thrash in the water, and I look over to see his arms beating, his kickboard just out of reach. I don’t remember, really, if I swim over to help him, but I must, because in a few moments, he is hanging on to the pool’s edge, his fingers turning white with the pressure.
Skylar and Petey go live with their mom after a while. I cry for days before I realize that I’m not suited for sisterhood, anyway.
On the Fourth of July, Charlie drives us to his father’s house for hot dogs and fireworks. I wear as little clothing as possible and tie my hair up into a tight ponytail.
When we get there, my mother and I go to the backyard to pick fruit. We like to scour the grass for crabapples and oranges and peaches and apricots. She picks them all up at first, dodging only the fruit with gaping holes or maggots worming through the skin. I am more particular. I pick up a peach, turn it over in my hands, and most often, put it back on the ground.
Soon, she is called back to the patio for food. Charlie is standing over the barbeque, his shirt off and his skin just starting to sweat. Periodically, the mist fans on the side of the house go off, and he is pelted with water droplets.
She walks towards him, and when she’s within his reach, he grabs her around the waist. She laughs loudly and tries to twist out of his arms. I trail behind her and nestle into a patio chair. I like to watch them when they’re together. Sometimes, I wish I was in the middle with them, too, that my mother would pick me up and Charlie would wrap his arms around the both of us.
They see me looking at them, and Charlie calls me over.
“Burger or hot dog?” he says once I make my way, barefoot, across the hot concrete.
That night, after my belly is full and my eyes are starting to drift shut, I retreat to a lounge chair further in the yard. The whole table is still shouting and laughing. I watch Charlie clink his glass against Janie’s, and Charlie’s father holds his glass towards my mother.
“Congratulations,” I think I hear Charlie’s father say, the liquid in the glass sloshing to the brim.
They all smile and I sink further back into the recliner. It’s just dark enough that the fireworks are starting to go off. They shoot into the sky, one after another at first, until the whole sky is filled at the same time. I want to ask if we have any, if we’re setting any off, or if they have a sparkler for me, even.
I shout to them, but nobody hears me over the cracks. They just keep talking. Janie motions her arms in front of her face, and Charlie and his father laugh. My mother doesn’t speak. She leans back in her chair. I can’t really tell in the dark, but she looks almost like she’s grimacing.
Las Vegas, 2006
The second time my mother gets engaged, I am 11 and it is the summer before I start junior high. That morning, instead of dropping me off at day camp like usual, she lets me sleep. When I wake up, at first, I think that maybe she is sick, or one of our cats has run away, or she’s forgotten me and gone to work.
I find her in the living room. She sits on the floor with her legs to her chest, her chin resting on her knees. When she sees me, she unfolds like a flower and motions me over.
“You didn’t go to work?” I ask as I sit beside her, pressing my back against the leather couch. She doesn’t say anything and I’m not sure she’s even heard me. Instead, she reaches over and holds me and we both stare into the black screen of the television until I can almost see our reflection.
My mother looks beautiful. She has exotic skin and doe eyes and is always distracted. Some nights when I am at the end of my bath, she sits on the edge of the tub and braids my hair. I dip my chin into the bubbles that come to the tub’s rim as she tells me how glad she is that it’s just the two of us, that it’s always been just the two of us. She weaves her hands, fingers looping one under the other, until my hair is tied back so tightly that my temples stretch towards the back of my head. She finds me a towel.
Sometimes she comes back to my room after she thinks I’m asleep. She sits on the end of my bed as though she is keeping a vigil, as though she is a child afraid to be on her own. My mother doesn’t like to be lonely. My mother is only my mother some of the time.
As I sit and stare at her through the television screen, I find my arms worming their way around her back until she isn’t just holding me, but we are hugging. I ask her if she is sad and she tells me she isn’t. I wonder if she is telling the truth.
“I’m getting married,” she says, her mouth moving against my hair.
“Oh,” I say and nod my head as though I believe her.
By the fall, my mother has a new boyfriend. His name is Clyde and he’s a bouncer at a club called Cherry. He likes to take her out on nights that he’s not working. I stay home alone and when she calls the house phone late at night to make sure I’m OK, I sometimes just let it ring.
Las Vegas, 2006
I am friends with a girl named Echo in sixth grade. She has long blonde hair and a smattering of freckles across her face. I like her because she thinks I’m funny and she braids my hair for me, but mostly I like her because my mother doesn’t.
She invites me to her house for a sleepover once. I’ve been there before, in the daytime, but my mother doesn’t let me spend the night because Echo’s parents are never around and her sister is a high school dropout.
I beg and whine and plead with my mother until she gives in.
“You never let me do anything,” I tell her, until finally she gets tired of listening to me ask if I can spend the night, or just tired of me in general.
Echo and I go to her house on a Friday after we finish school. She lives within walking distance, but just barely, and by the time we make it there I’m sweaty and I miss being picked up in my air-conditioned car.
She lives in a house at the end of a cul-de-sac. For a long time, hers is the only cul-de-sac I’ve ever really seen. She has a pet iguana and three dogs. I only see her parents once before they leave for the night.
We spend hours on her computer and downstairs doing our makeup. When it starts to get dark, we lie on the couch and watch MTV. Her brother, who’s 14, comes home just after nine.
Justice is tall and attractive. He has dark hair and isn’t interested in me at all. When he walks in the house, he looks at us only briefly before he stalks upstairs to his bedroom. Soon, he calls Echo up, and when she comes back down she sits on her legs and asks me if I want to go smoke with her brother.
“Um,” I say, “I don’t smoke.”
“That’s OK, you can still come with us,” she says, tilting her head to the side.
They have a garden shed in the backyard. It’s made of wood and the door is closed shut with a padlock that only looks half on. Justice smashes it in with a hammer and we pile inside.
At first, I think it will just be the three of us, but then the door is wedged open again a few minutes later, and a large Hispanic boy holding a sweatshirt in one hand and a gun in the other walks in. I recognize him as the boy that lives a few houses down on their street.
He closes the door behind him and we each sit in a corner of the shed. Echo and I sit on stools, Justice on the floor, and the boy on a wooden box. Justice lights a blunt and passes around a bottle of alcohol.
“Are you scared of this?” The boy says to me, motioning to the gun between his feet. I don’t say anything.
I wonder, sometimes, how long it would take for my mother to panic if I didn’t come home in the morning, if she would call the police right away as soon as she called me and I wasn’t there, or if she’d wait me out, thinking that I was just trying to hurt her.
He asks me again, but I don’t respond, and he loses interest. He watches Echo, instead, who’s choking on the smoke she’s just tried to inhale. When she starts to cough harder, he takes her outside by the arm, and I can hear her vomit on the rocks.
I wake up early the next morning and call my mother on my cell phone. She doesn’t answer the first time, so I call again.
“Will you come pick me up?” I say.
“Now?” she says. She sounds like she’s just woken up.
“Yes,” I say. “I’m ready to go.”
“I’m coming,” she says. Her car doesn’t pull up for almost half an hour, and once it does, I run out to meet it in the middle of the street.
“Did something happen?” she says when I slip into the passenger seat.
“No,” I say.
“She just has to go somewhere with her parents,” I lie.
I buckle my seatbelt and press my back into the leather seat. I can’t help but think she shouldn’t have let me go.
The night we move in to the new house, the car rumbles under the weight of our possessions. The movers won’t arrive until the next morning, but we have what was most important anyways: the cats, our clothes, and my mother’s dishes.
The house is empty and beautiful. The kitchen cabinets are a cherry red, and the appliances all stainless steel. There’s no carpet, just wood floors, and the walls are dark beige. I imagine that we will be happy in this house, together.
While my mother takes a bath, I unpack the few linens we have in the car. I spread out blankets in the middle of my new bedroom and toss the pillows on top. I walk through the house, slipping my socks against the hardwood floor, until my mother gets out of the shower and I take her place.
When I get out, she is already asleep. I slide on top the makeshift bed without turning the lights on. She faces away from me, her dark hair spilling onto the pillow. I curl my knees to my belly and slip my hands under my head.
I almost want to call her name, to say “Mom” and have her wake up long enough to look over at me and tell me goodnight, but I don’t say anything. I lie awake and watch her body move with her breath. I stare so hard that she starts to blend with the background, her body enveloped by the dark, until it’s almost like she isn’t even there and I’ve been alone all along.