FRESH YARN: The Online Salon for Personal Essays//Current Essays FRESH YARN: The Online Salon for Personal Essays//Contributors FRESH YARN: The Online Salon for Personal Essays//About FRESH YARN FRESH YARN: The Online Salon for Personal Essays//Past Essays FRESH YARN: The Online Salon for Personal Essays//Submit FRESH YARN: The Online Salon for Personal Essays//Links FRESH YARN: The Online Salon for Personal Essays//Email List FRESH YARN: The Online Salon for Personal Essays//Contact


Far From Home
By Jen Maher

It was the summer of Helter Skelter and Fear of Flying propped up next to the fake Tiffany lamp on my mother's bedside table. Those works of sex and murder are forever intertwined with images of my mother's fleeting penchant for over-large sunglasses, at-home perms, and macramé halter-tops. I'm not sure she even read those books, the way they seemed to sit there all summer long, but they were saved the indignity of Shirley MacLaine's latest, which was shoved in the bathroom trash container under crumpled lipstick-blotted tissue and damp cotton balls. A secretary friend who was working at Capitol Records gave Don't Fall Off the Mountain to my mother, unaware that her tolerance for The New Age was right up there with her love of poorly behaved children and American cigarettes. I had lots of time to look at these books, the spines, the jackets -- the reverse-negative of Manson's face, the cover of Jong's book with its partially hidden naked woman's body behind a sheet. In the morning it was my job to bring my mother cups of English breakfast tea (the habit she refused to give up since moving to the States from London with my good-for-nothing father nearly fifteen years before), and it always took a while to wake her up. I'd scoot away the highball glass and ashtray from the night before, as well as her reading glasses (much smaller than the ones she wore with the halter tops), and set down the tea, whispering, "Mom, Mom, you gotta get up," and by the time our two cats got the message and started kneading her face, I had practically memorized the blurbs on both books.

My mother was a secretary for a jazz musician then, and taking night classes to become a paralegal. She had also for the first time (though it was a style she kept for the rest of her life) cut her hair like Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby, a film she claimed my father went to see when she was in the hospital giving birth to me. The classes and the jazz musician on their own would be enough, but together they were exhausting. Once Mom would get through a day typing up memos on a waterbed, taking the jazz musician's clothes to the dry cleaner's, and arranging to buy presents for his assorted family members and girlfriends, she had to haul herself into our old green Chevy Nova with its scratchy tapestry seats, and trek to the local community college. Here she sat surrounded by people much younger than she, with whom she had nothing in common save for a series of varied wrong life-turns that had led them all to a stifling classroom in California's San Fernando Valley from 7 to 10 o'clock three nights a week with the hopes of achieving not something great, but at least something more. By the time she got home, whether from work or classes, it was all she could do to give me a quick kiss on the cheek, ask how dinner went (or, if she was home that night, heat me up something on the stove) and sit in the living room with the lights off chain-smoking, listening to Don McLean albums and sipping gin and tonic. I knew better than to bother her and often fell asleep on the couch next to her with my book in my lap, my head bobbing when the clink of the remaining ice cubes rushing down the glass towards her lips signaled it was time for me to make my way upstairs to sleep.

The plan was that while she was at work, during my summer vacation, I was to be "watched" by my brother or my sister, who were ten and twelve years older than me respectively. Being the baby who was intended to save the marriage but probably twisted it to its eventual breaking point with my chronic asthma and insomnia, I was the afterthought at the forefront of everybody's mind. Meaning, the PLAN was for them to keep an eye on me around the pool and make sure I ate some version of lunch, but in reality my sister had gone to live with her best friend in Laurel Canyon in April and my brother's idea of babysitting was to get up around noon, slather himself with Hawaiian Tropic (back when the bottle was glass and its raised metal label connoted sultry apothecaries and a world without skin cancer) get the bong going, and sit on the wall at the back of the pool listening to Peter Tosh and sending me into the kitchen for beer after beer. I imagine that if I started to drown he would have most likely noticed it, but that was the extent of his responsibilities. And while he always took a break to watch re-runs of The Twilight Zone with me at 3:00, I wasn't especially sad when he decided to hitchhike with some friends to Humboldt to protest the logging industry. Plus, he left his reggae tapes behind and they helped me fall sleep.

With no other options, my mother was forced to decide ten years old was an okay age to stay home alone, combined of course with frequent phone calls to check up on me and cheerful morning notes about having a good day written with smiley faces on a napkin. But otherwise I was free, with the whole house to myself from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., longer if she had to go to class. At first I loved it -- I had been practicing to be an adult my whole life it seemed, and there was no better tutor than afternoon TV -- between the soap operas and the home and garden shows, by the second week I had made three batches of decorated sugar cookies and committed to memory exactly how women "made love" (with lots of make-up and the sheet pulled up nearly to one's clavicle) though I was years from my period. I also decided, after a particularly heated Phil Donahue show about the Jewish Defense League that I would forever be a Democrat, to the great delight of my mother, who thought imposing one's politics on one's children was the wrong thing to do (that I got my politics from a talk show, however, was no problem whatsoever. Men with white hair to this day seem oddly attractive to me).

But by the time the Claxtons moved in next door, I was sick to death of my daily life. Swimming isn't much fun when there's no one to play Marco Polo, or underwater telephone with, and besides I wasn't supposed to go swimming when there was no one in the house anyway, in case I hit my head or something. My first introduction to the Claxtons came when we saw Erik, who owned the house next door, talking to two adults in his driveway when we were pulling up from the grocery store. Erik was a stuntman, a romantic figure who, I would brag to all of my friends, was stunt coordinator on The Six Million Dollar Man. He was going to be "on location" he told my mother and I, and the Claxtons were going to sublet for the rest of the summer. They had two boys, Travis and Aaron; Travis was my age and Aaron was only six. They looked really similar and, oddly enough, they both also looked like me: wispy white blonde hair with tints of green from chlorine, long arms and legs, freckles and a perpetual peel. After the somewhat awkward introductions, Erik's then-girlfriend, Ellen, a woman so enchanting I could hardly speak in her presence, offered me a cookie from inside the house. She proffered it to me like I was some kind of pet or a two-year-old, bending down too far in her too-tight jeans and saying, "Wanna come in for a cookie? A real live cookie?" She hadn't had much experience with kids, which should have come as no surprise since, despite (or perhaps because of) her glittery eye shadow, she couldn't have been much more than 22 years old. Notwithstanding my shyness and previous awe of her, I caught Travis' eye halfway through the cookie offering and we both tried hard not to laugh, an instant bonding experience cut short by me being ushered into the house for said treat.

PAGE 1 2

-friendly version for easy reading
©All material is copyrighted and cannot be reproduced without permission

home///current essays///contributors///about fresh yarn///archives///
submit///links///email list///site map///contact
© 2004-2006 FreshYarn.com