I didn’t read a lot of female writers before I came to Montana. I think it’s because I believed that women didn’t know how to do much besides cry and make babies. I would like to soften my position. Mary Gaitskill, Mary Robison, and Joy Williams are three writers I have come to appreciate. Besides a penchant for the name Mary (one of my all time favorite names, ordinary as it may be. It is often my pseudonym. I am named after my Aunt Mary. etc.) and being white, these women share the gift of nuanced, informed prose. They know things about humans. In this sense they are like mystics. I think writers are sort of magical. I have created many unpleasant things through my own writing, for example. Once, I turned a man I knew into a coke addicted maniac. I turned myself into a data entry person. I may have turned one of my old bosses gay. I digress, big time. I just wanted to share with you this Joy Williams impersonation. Mother, I hope you don’t read this, and if you do, I hope you don’t take it personally. I love you. I wouldn’t change anything. What has and hasn’t happened made me who I am today, and I’m grateful.
Every year my mother and I went to the city to see the Detroit fireworks. Afterwards we would eat at a restaurant in Greektown where men made of rock wore nothing but leaves in front of their privates. The year before I circled around one of these statues and put my hand under the leaf. A table in the balcony above me cheered when I did it, and I got embarrassed and cried, but my mother hugged me and said that nobody thought I was gross. She was always on my side. She told me that everyone thought I was cute and funny and loved me, and I believed her, but suspiciously.
That was a full year ago and this year I knew a lot more. My mother had a boyfriend that summer named Lou that I didn’t like. I hated when Lou came with us places because he always got to sit in the front seat. Mom couldn’t hear anything I said in back and kind of seemed like she didn’t want to. I sang along loudly with the music and kicked the back of Lou’s seat.
My mother clutched my hand tightly when she led me through the crowd. I liked all the black faces and I felt like they liked me too because we were different from each other and that was very interesting. My mother was a drinker. Every year she brought a thermos full of Vodka. We laid a blanket on the grass in front of the river and we stared at exploding lights and the smoky shadows they left behind. Years later, in that same spot, the fireworks would remind someone of Vietnam and he would shoot three strangers, but nothing bad happened that year.
Before the Greek restaurant and after the fireworks mom and Lou got drunk and yelled at each other a lot on the sidewalk while I stared into an alley. At the time I thought anybody who set foot in an alley got raped, and I thought getting raped meant a strange man beat you up and then took a razorblade and ripped holes in your clothes. I’m through, you crazy bitch, Lou said. He walked off in the other direction and my mom started crying. She took my hand and led me around the city, wheezing and stumbling. It took us a really long time to find the car, and I was mad because I didn’t want to find it, I wanted to go to the restaurant where they set the cheese on fire and the waiters scream, “Opa!” which means, “Look out!”
My mom rested her head on the steering wheel. Fuck you, she said. Fuck you. Fuck you. It was embarrassing, her talking to someone who wasn’t there. I didn’t answer. I think the silence upset her even more, the no one answering. No, she said. Fuck him. Not you, honey. Fuck him. She put the key in the ignition. I had the thought that it might have been safer for an eight year old to drive the car home than for my mother to.
Lou was through with her that night, but not overall. Like twenty years after that, my boyfriend and I had an apartment in Detroit, in that same neighborhood even. We filled old water bottles full of whiskey and walked down to the river to watch the fireworks. When we drank too much and screamed at each other on the street, at least we knew where we were, and we could walk home. Fuck you, I would say to him. Fuck you. Not fuck her. I said this right to my boyfriend’s face. In this way, my mother and I are different.