My mother and I shop for groceries at Key Foods every Saturday morning. Mom lugs a wheeled portable navy blue plaid fabric handcart behind her. The cart will be full in one hour, when we return home. I am eleven and taller than my mother by several inches, so my eyes skim above the billow of her short grey hair as it moves in the breeze on the way to the store. Mom wears no make-up, but shapes her eyebrows into black arches that hang like severe punctuation marks over her almond-shaped hazel green eyes. Her lips are pale oleander petals. She dresses in demure polyester beige slacks and a white cotton jacket, but she categorically refuses – as she will throughout her life – to wear flat shoes or sneakers for the weekly chores. Her gold-embellished platform sandals clack on the sidewalk ahead of me. I love grocery shopping with my mother, except for every Saturday at Key Foods.
The middle-aged butcher materializes as we round the corner from the produce aisle. No matter how quickly I rush past the butcher counter or if I evade the area by circling the opposite end of the aisles, there he is, calling out to my mother, who then calls out to me. The butcher wipes his hands on a stiff white apron, raises a sausage-like hand in greeting. His arms are plush and heavy with dark hair. His olive skinned face is unlined and smooth, with two large black caterpillars hanging over bloodshot blue eyes.
“How are you today, Valentina?” he asks. “Fine, just fine,” says Mom with a smile that is simultaneously innocent and flirtatious. I force myself to study the scuffmarks on the grey linoleum floor, but still I feel the butcher’s eyes rest for several long seconds on the tiny buds of my breasts underneath my shirt. They have just started to grow and, to my extreme mortification, my mother refuses to allow me to encase them in a training bra. “You and your daughter are looking lovely as usual,” he says. Mom’s appreciative laughter twinkles like radiant spring sunshine. I look up and see that the butcher’s eyes have settled on the zipper of my black acid-washed jeans: just where they do every week; just as if I am a piece of tender pink lamb. “Your daughter,” he says. “She is growing so quickly…”
Mom talks to the butcher for a few minutes more, asking me questions to include me in the conversation. “Yula,” she says. “Tell him what you’re studying in school these days.” I want to please her, to oblige, but something that feels close to fear and not far from revulsion crystalizes inside me. Mom tries again a few moments later: “Yulichka, dear, the nice man just asked you a question…” Her eyes implore mine. I have no words for her… or for him. As we walk away, Mom’s breath scalds my ears, hissing and spitting. “Ju-li-a,” she scream-whispers. “You! Are! So! Rude!”
* * *
I am standing outside my daughter’s bedroom, peering at her through the open door. Rory is four. She is very thin and very tall. She sleeps on her back – her arms spread widely on either side – and snores quietly atop her flowered sheets. Her golden green eyes flit underneath closed lids; long, honey-colored eyelashes rest on her fair, finely-freckled cheeks. She has pushed her amethyst curtains open so that the afternoon sun streams into her room, and she has lined every inch of her bed’s perimeter with stuffed animals: her “audience.” Her small, bedraggled hand puppet, Eeyore, rests on the Dora pillow by her tousled head. I can hear my neighbors mowing their lawns as Rory naps, smell the freshly cut green grass wafting through an open window. Sunlight, spring grass, my beautiful, irrepressible daughter lounging in peaceful repose: these are all wonderful things, but I am wrenched by fear. One day, sooner than I would ever wish, Rory will encounter all of the contradictions involved with becoming a young woman and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, I can do to protect her.
* * *
Mom takes me to Italy when I turn fourteen. Shortly after our arrival, Mom meets an Italian man named Sandro at a train station in Rome. Sandro is in his late-twenties. He wears a button-down shirt with rolled-up sleeves, khaki shorts, and supple brown leather sandals. Thick, black hair frames his face. Whistles blow all around us. Steam hisses from the tracks; the air is heavy and hot. I admire the metal beams and windows overhead. Italians hustle, jostle, and press: hoisting luggage, gesticulating with their hands, speaking a language I don’t understand. I smell espresso and sweat. Mom somehow engages Sandro as an impromptu tour-guide while I try to reorient myself in the strange, thrumming world around me.
After roaming the streets for some time – Sandro casting his arms one way and another as he explains the sights – we seat ourselves at an outdoor café with dark blue tablecloths that flap crisply in the wind. Sandro sits directly across from me at the undersized four-person table, engaging my mother in conversation. “I am so proud of my country,” he says with a thick Italian accent, lips curling up in a sultry half-smile. He presses one of his legs against mine. I feel the scratch of his hair, his hot, moist skin. “We have such traditions,” says Sandro. “We love the family life, we love to eat and to drink!” Before I think to react, his other leg traps my legs in between his. My mother’s laughter flutters through the air; I know she is happy for the company and for the respite from the punishing obligations of real life.
“We love the beauty,” says Sandro. “We love the great amore!” Under the table, Sandro’s fingers traverse the tendons and muscles of my left leg. The birdsong in my mind grows silent. I glance at my mother, who sits to my right; she sips water from her glass and leans back in her chair, smiling at Sandro. Later in life, I learn that fourteen marks the threshold for Italy’s age of consent, but I do not know this as I eat an early dinner with my mother and a stranger in this foreign country.
I straighten my back. My body betrays me: I’d have green lights down to my toes if only he was my age; but he isn’t and I don’t. In fact, I have never felt such a strong urge to backhand someone. Sandro’s hand retreats with caution after taking in my warning glance, but his legs remain with confidence. He lights another cigarette – flicking his gaze toward my mom but resting it evenly with mine – and says: “You know, Valentina. I have this beautiful cottage on a lake in the north.” He exhales a plume of smoke. “You and your daughter should come see me there! What a nice time we would have!”
* * *
My current strategy is this: teach Rory to fight dirty when (and only if) the situation truly warrants it. Teach her how to execute a respectable one-to-four; teach her to go for the groin in self-defense; teach her the vocabulary of being brave and strong in the face of fear and bullying, whether she is the target or not. But also: teach her how to use her words to drop kick, and teach her to thwart danger with unspoken threats from the daggers of her eyes. My strategy forgives Rory for responding petulantly to perverts and letches; it gives Rory the big OK to resist any comments, leers, and jibes she finds untoward or humiliating to herself or to others. Basically, my strategy so far is to create a young Black Ops superspy with crazy ninja skills, a keen mind for social nuance, and a rock-hard body empowered with self-sufficiency, discipline, and strength. And I thought my mother had high expectations for me.
* * *
I am standing on the elevated platform of the A train at Rockaway Beach. It is a cold November afternoon, the sun hard and white in the pale grey sky. Wind whips my ruby-red hair around my face, blows wrappers and trash along the tracks below. I am seventeen. Tommy stands too close to me, yelling. Tommy is brown through and through: brown moppish hair that falls into his eyes when he tilts his head just so; large brown eyes; golden brown skin that stretches on long, taut limbs. His thin, beautiful fingers are bones and nails bitten down to nubs. Tommy is the jokester in our circle of friends, and, when he tells a funny story, his skeletal arms flail around him and his full, mulberry-colored lips waggle dramatically. Tommy introduces me to Star Wars and Baskin Robbins gumball ice cream. I don’t like Tommy at first… until I find that I like him too much.
Tommy stands at least a head taller than me. He holds the white plastic shopping bag that I have given him in his right hand, waving it frenetically around as he yells. It crackles and flaps in the cold wind. He keeps asking me: “Why?” The bag contains one silky pair of women’s underwear, a timeworn pair of purple fishnet stockings, every gift Tommy has ever bought for me, and every love letter between us. He knows why. I peer wondrously into the deep maple pools of his eyes. I mash my hands to my eyes to break the compulsion. Tommy yells: “Tell me why!” People shuffle reluctantly down the platform, eyes averted. He knows. I want to tuck myself into his arms to hear his madly fluttering heart, feel his great heat; I want to rip out his eyes, thrust them onto the dirty tracks. I want to say: Was she worth it? When the train comes, I board it and Tommy doesn’t follow. I sit in a corner seat so that I face as few people as possible and sob hysterically for the duration of the long, long train ride home. When the train arrives at my station, I stand up, sit back down, stand up again. A cop standing by the worn metal subway doors leans towards me, pats my shoulder, and says, “Don’t worry, hon. It’ll get better.”
* * *
If Rory asks, I will tell her: Sometimes it gets better and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you grapple with the choices you have made, even if you made all of them correctly. Sometimes you feel inexplicably sad when, by all accounts, you should be happy; and sometimes you feel happy, though others believe that you should be sad. Sometimes, you forget the sweetness of a first kiss and relive only the firm pressure of the door as it closes behind you. Nothing is ever as tidy and straightforward as you would like it to be.
I will pray that I can be strong for Rory when she needs me to be strong, and soft with her when she needs a little extra cushion of surety and safety. I will pray that she makes smart decisions and forms lasting friendships; that her sense of empathy, humor, creativity, and intelligence grow in oversize proportions as she grows into the woman she is to become. I will savor my daughter’s sweet embrace and her irrepressible warmth. I will rejoice every time she etches an indelible love note on the landscape of my heart.