Mother, May I

His name is Tripp. We meet at the downtown park, near the swings, I with a cigarette perched between my chapped lips. He carries his little sister on his hip, both of them sweating, and introduces himself as, "Gerald Hart III, Tripp because my mom doesn't like the name Trey."

"Claire." I pull my lips into a crescent moon, flick my cigarette butt into the patches of dying grass around our feet. It's dry enough to catch fire.

/

My parents fight like a dance, scream over the television, the rush of traffic outside.

"What is wrong with you, Tanner?"

" I know where you were! The whole damn town knows that you're whoring around. "

"Who have you been talking to? Just because I don't sit in the kitchen and cook all day you assume I'm cheating! What am I, your maid?" My mother's mouth catches my father's fist like a ball and glove. I grip the staircase railing, watching with trembling knees as he kicks her into a lamp.

"I swear I didn't do anything. I love you, baby."

Everything is ok if I tell myself she deserves this. Her sequined stilettos fly from her feet and hit the wall.

/

I bleach the red from my hair in celebration of two months without chewing my nails. Mom twirls the strands in her skeletal fingers, tangling her hospital IV. Dad grips a good fistful when I break a supper dish, smashing my face into the fridge.

/

Tripp meets me at the park every Wednesday, tugging his sister along by one chubby arm. She stamps her feet and complains that she's hot and bored and he lets her run around by herself, while he and I split cigarettes beneath the monkey bars.

"How old is she?"

"Mallory? Two."

"Do you watch her every day?"

"Only Wednesday."

"What do you do on Thursday?"

"Nothing." Tripp looks up with muddy brown eyes, the cigarette filter sticking to his dry lips. "Do you have something in mind?"

/

Tripp's house is a cave at the end of a cul-de-sac, a bland array of beige furniture and paint. The carpet is a moldy green, collapsing under my dirty shoes, spitting puffs of dust.

"Nice place." A grand piano sits in a corner of the living room, finger prints pressed into the grey film covering the keys. I trace my fingers over the prints, over the framed photos sleeping on the piano's closed top. Frozen in a picture, Tripp smiles up at me as a skinny toddler with crooked teeth.

"My parents won't be home for a while," he calls from near the kitchen, "so we can do pretty much anything."

Anything becomes watching old reruns of American Idol on the big screen TV, sipping flat ginger ale straight from the bottle, Tripp's arm hugging my shoulders.

"You bored?"

I shrug, "Kind of," curling further into Tripp's chest, snaking an arm around his ribs. He returns the gesture with clumsy hands that slide over my waist.

"I haven't had any practice," he explains. I don't tell him that I've never kissed anyone either.

/

Dad waits for me to shut the door from his red patchwork lazy boy, beer bottle sweating in his hand. "Where have you been?"

I wonder if he can see Tripp's hand prints etched into my skin, pulling at my hair. I tell him, "Library," and flee up the stairs.

/

Mom brings handfuls of apologies home from the hospital and sprinkles them like seasoning into the canned soup she makes for dinner. She walks the house barefoot, her loose skirt hanging below her knees. "I promise, from now on I'll be a good mother."

I start to brush my hair every night before bed, smearing purple varnish over my fingernails. "I met a boy."

Mom taps her chin, advises me not to settle too soon. "That was my mistake with your father. I wish I'd given myself more time to experiment."

I nod, push my protests to the back of my tongue. Settle? Mother, I cannot see it.

/

Over a month, I memorize the band posters on Tripp's walls, the choreographed poses, stoic faces.

"What kind of music do you listen to? I don't recognize any of these."

Tripp digs a pile of CDs out from under a mountain of clothes and plants them in my hands. "You can keep them as long as you want. Just don't lose them."

The CDs never make it out of the room, dropping into another corner of his messy room as my fingers climb up his shirt.

/

August settles my typical routine back into place. I come home to find Dad kicking Mom into the walls, screams echoing off the ceiling, bloody floors.

"Go to your room, Claire!"

I shrink against the door, perspiration freezing my back to the wood, and once again I am five years old, terrified of being caught in the battle of fists.

"Do you hear me?" They both stop to wait, like statues, frozen. No one breathes.

My hand moves on its own towards the phone on the entryway table, taking it from its holder. "I'm calling the police."

"No you are not. Put the damn phone down now!"

Mom starts to sob into her hands, choking, wailing. Dad visibly wilts, anger seeping out through his reddened skin. My fingers search for the right buttons, slick with sweat.

Mom begs, "Please just go. Don't do anything you'll regret."

And he bursts, exploding with rage, seething, shaking. "Do you know what I regret, Grace? I regret having anything to do with you. I regret giving you this disgusting whore of a daughter, running off with that boy, that… that… You're just alike." He leaves, shoving me aside to get to the doorknob, to get out. My eyelids shut.

"Thank you baby, thank you so much." Mom's voice begins to bleed into an incoherent whine.

The phone is heavy in my palms, shooting furious heat waves through my veins. I open my eyes and hurl it into the TV. "We are not the same, Mom. We are nothing alike."

/

Tripp helps me climb through his bedroom window, closing the glass behind us.

"Are you sure your parents won't know I'm here."

"Not if we aren't loud. I locked the door."

Impulse seizes my hands. My fingers find each other across the back of Tripp's neck and fumble for something, anything to hold on to, leading our feet backwards. The bed swallows us alive.

/

"Was that bad?" Tripp asks and in the dim light I can see his hands still shaking.

"I don't know."

"Well, was it good?"

"I don't know."

He sighs, shifts on the mattress which squeaks in protest. "Tell me something about you."

My tongue clicks against the roof of my mouth, and I have never felt so dead in my life. "What do you want to know?"

"Anything." Tripp strokes his chin, the small bit of dark stubble prickling from his face. "Everything."

I ask, "Do you think I'm a whore?"

"No," he sighs. "Why?"

I picture my mother alone in the house, still crying on the floor where I left her, her makeup dripping in black streams down her cheeks. I have her hands, skinny fingers that grasp for nothing.

/

School kicks off in September, sprinkling my days with homework and pep rallies. Tripp emails me pictures from his sister's third birthday party, short messages tagged to the end. "I miss you. We should hang out soon."

I forget to reply, consumed with cheating my way through chemistry, blending in with the masses roaming the hallway. My friends- girls I've known since Kindergarten- bear stories of vacations in Las Vegas, the boys they slept with. I'm out of place among their short skirts, bare legs; my jeans are ripped, rolled up to my knees.

"What did you do, Claire?"

"Not much."

"Any boys?"

"Just one."

Eventually, I send Tripp a single email, "Wish I could- so busy. Miss you too."

/

Dad stops coming home after work every evening and the house sinks into a heavy quiet. Mom stops cooking; I return from school to find her lounging on the couch in front of the new TV, infomercials rolling across the screen. The contents of the fridge begin to rot.

I ask her if she's really too tired to get up. She retaliates with reminders of the calls she's been getting from teachers; I haven't been keeping up with my work. We declare a truce over stale bread and orange juice.

/

I run into Tripp in October, in front of the Halloween Supercenter that opens downtown every fall. We exchange an awkward hug and tense greetings, laughs that don't even reach our lips.

"Long time no see." Tripp's cut his messy hair to above his ears and his school uniform hangs stiffly from his bones. He looks like an ordinary prep school boy, the type my friends and I swore we would never… I wonder if that type of boy has freckles on their chest, dark circles around their eyes.

"Yeah." I want to say I'm sorry, ask if he wants to make plans, do something later this week; ask if he's been sleeping, ask him what's wrong.

"So are we…"

Instead my mouth forms, "I guess so," and he replies something I don't hear, a long string of words my ringing ears can't make out.

"I guess I'll see you around."

"Sure. Bye."

/

Dad returns home on a Sunday and brings a gun to the dinner table, black and shining in his left hand. Mom and I watch as he blows his brains out over the kitchen cupboards.

/

Different policemen take their turns through the front door. The questions pile up as realization settles in. "Did your father ever hurt you physically? Besides this incident, was he ever violent?"

I answer, "Yes, yes, yes, yes." I tell them everything, gnawing my painted nails until they bleed.

/

We don't hold a funeral.

Mom sits in the living room, tapping the raised scars left from the dinner glasses, wine glasses Dad smashed over her face. "Maybe this is a blessing in disguise. It's just you and me now."

I've slipped into the habit of ignoring everything she says, walking past her as if she's invisible.

"You need to listen to me. I'm your mother."

"And he was my father. When did I listen to him?"

/

The kids at school plaster my locker with cards and pile apologetic smiles on my head.

"We saw what happened in the newspaper." The group of skirt wearing girls gather around my desk, their skinny thighs goose-bumped by the winter's approach. "I'm so sorry, Claire."

I smile and nod and don't say anything at all.

/

I come home to find a man over, he and my mother half naked on the couch, her thick layer of pale make up rubbing off on his brown face. He jumps to his feet when the front door slams, mouth open, pants unzipped. "Grace, who the hell is this?"

Mom grabs her shirt off the floor to cover up the belly where I hid for nine months, the breasts that nursed me. "Wait a minute, let me explain."

I don't. I run.

/

Tripp lets me in through the front door; his parents are at a hotel for the night. "Anniversary," he says. "They like to re-consummate the marriage every year." I nod and nod like I know what he's talking about, tug at his clothes, tell him that I can't get the image of my father's blood splattering the counter out of my head.

He leads me into his bed with all out clothes on, his icy feet bumping my legs, our heads crowded on his lumpy pillow.

"I saw the newspaper article." He touches my hair where the orange is starting to push back the yellow frizz. "I'm sorry about your dad."

"Everyone got what they wanted."

"You wanted him dead?" He touches my hands; my nails have started to crust with scabs. He asks what I want.

I tell him, "Nothing, nothing at all."

He says he has nothing to give, no idea what he's doing as his hands slip around to my shoulders- cold skinny hands, not my father's hands. I kiss him and these are not my mother's lips.