My aunt Nonie keeps a framed picture of herself and my mother on our kitchen wall, near the clock. The circular fan on the windowsill turns its grilled face back and forth, back and forth, and the frame stirs a little on its wire hanger, settles, stirs. The chrome of the fan shows a curved reflection of the stacked plastic glasses on the shelf above, and the arms and hands of the girls in the picture. The girls are playing dress-ups and my mother always got to be the bride. Because she was youngest, Nonie says, she took unfair advantage. My mother’s name is Lola. We seldom talk about her and we almost never say her name.
To think her name feels like breaking the rules, but they were Lola and Noreen, those sisters. They’re both swathed in filmy white that was probably window curtains, but over that my mother wears a crocheted jacket they must have thought looked lacy, and it covers her to her hips. She’s maybe eight or nine in her crown of braided flowers, weeds, long stalks of delphinium that are already falling apart, but she looks eerily grown up in the lipstick, which is way too dark for a bride. She stands there like she knows it, guarded and defiant, the shapes of her coltish legs dark in the sheer fabric, but she clasps her hands uncertainly and looks up into the camera. She’s of two minds. The picture is the only reason I forgive her at all. If she were pulling a face or acting cocky, I think I might hate her. Nonie has an arm around her. She’s much taller, being seven years older, so she’s the boy, with a penciled mustache and her long hair plaited back. Their father was a Jehovah’s Witness preacher and they weren’t allowed to cut their hair or drink cola or celebrate holidays. I don’t know who allowed them to dress up or what cola has to do with religion. My mother’s hair was wavy and red and such an eyeful they made her keep it in braids. The day after my grandfather’s funeral she cut it into a Rita Hayworth swoop. Their mother was too sick to stop Lola making up for lost time, Nonie says. She died before long and Lola finished high school, then went to live with Nonie. That didn’t last long. Nonie was in what she calls her respectable phase then, having left Charlie when he wouldn’t marry her. She went off to Atlanta and met her first husband. She left him pretty soon and married her second one. He was quite a bit older and she spent a few years a safe, kept woman down there where it was nearly always warm. Building up steam: she says that about herself. She says she was shameless. She’d never had anything, then she got it all. One day she walked off. But she left things, not kids. She says she wants me to be able to take care of myself, without cleaning up other people’s dishes, doing other people’s work. She says we have Termite, and we have to take care of him too. When a woman wants things she can’t get for herself, Nonie says, a man can smell it. She says never let a man inside you unless you want him around forever, because you can’t get rid of him after that, no matter how many times he leaves you or you leave him. Nonie was telling me that before I even knew what it meant: inside you. When I was younger I would see a heart scrawled on a sidewalk or a bathroom stall, on the wall near the pay phone at Mini-Mart where Nonie’s friend Elsie works, and I would think: inside you. Like it was feelings, romance, Elsie’s cheap mystery novels with women on the covers. No, Nonie told me, it’s when a man puts his body into your body. Then he’s inside you, and your body remembers each time, every man, even if you try to forget. You came back and worked for Charlie, I said. Is that why? He’s inside you? Now you get it, Nonie said. But why him, I said, and not someone else, another one? Because I was so young then, Nonie said, when we started there were so many times. You’ve got to be careful when you’re young. You’ll be fifteen soon, listen to what I’m telling you.
She got me thinking about a boy I knew when I was a little kid, then not so little. He’d be all over me but I wouldn’t let him inside. I was already too full of Nonie’s words. A man can smell it. Forever. Inside you. Even if you try to forget.
This first appeared in NERVE in 2003.