Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 Protecting Gwennie

 

 

From the top of the basement stairs, Texanna eavesdropped on her daughter Gwennie and Gwennie’s friend Brendan, who’d walked in pigeon-toed. She couldn’t see the couch from her perch on the stairs, but she could see both kids’ legs stretched out from it, his already dense with hair, and hers with the café-au-lait birthmark on her right. Texanna saw their backpacks cast out in front of them, her daughter’s with a loosely stitched-on PETA patch saying Club Soda, Not Seals. They were both seniors, and tall—thanks to Texanna’s ex, Dan, Gwennie had grown five inches beyond her mother. Texanna hugged her knees and dug her toes into the faded maroon carpet.

“What style you going for?” Brendan asked.

“This shirt,” Gwennie said. “Goodwill.”

Yes, Texanna said under her breath. Gwennie was all about recycling—impressive that her philosophy carried over to clothes.

“You don’t realize you’re hot. You remind me of the Abercrombie girl,” Brendan said. “I’m serious.”

Please, Texanna thought. She herself wasn’t a bad-looking woman—short reddish-brown hair still full of body, hints of gray coming in at the right places, as fit as could be expected. She wouldn’t want to be any other age right now.

“That sounds more like Martha than me,” Gwennie said.

“I told my mom when Martha thought she was pregnant,” said Brendan. “I thought she’d be chill. Not,” he said.

Ha, Texanna thought.

Brendan crossed his legs and looked to be shifting his weight on the couch.

“That’s stupid. Just because she said to come to her doesn’t mean she’d be chill,” Gwennie said. “It’s like call me if you’ve had too much to drink.”

Texanna had said that countless times, but it was true that Gwennie had never done so. Texanna had never called her mother for a ride, either. She fluffed her hair on one side.

“I thought I was pregnant once,” Gwennie said.

Texanna held her hand aloft, not making a sound. She didn’t breathe. She couldn’t get her breath, and a spasm erupted in her lower back.

“Shit,” Brendan said.

It couldn’t be. Ever since Gwennie had started dating Kevin, when she was fifteen, Texanna had talked about protection. She’d deliberated over what to advise her daughter. This was one of those rare subjects that made her resent single motherhood—it would have been nice to add in a guy’s perspective for Gwennie. Texanna’s mother had told her to save it for marriage, but now that Texanna was raising her own daughter, she wasn’t sure that was the right message. Compatibility in that department might be something to evaluate before marriage. She wanted Gwennie to grow up and have a good sex life, not make it so taboo that she couldn’t express herself, and yet she wanted to keep her safe. Eventually, she figured out a rule: wait until marriage to do it unprotected. Be discriminating, she told her, even when you are protected. Think about it: What are your criteria?

On the other hand, she didn’t want to sound like she was encouraging Gwennie. Make sure to wait until you’re ready! She knew it was a cliché but added: You’ll always remember your first! Clearly she could chip off that last part. Kevin the deflowerer now loomed in Texanna’s mind: his full lips, his greasy hair combed into his eyes, his sneakers with artfully broken laces.

You might get hurt, she had said.

“Did he pull out?” Brendan asked. “I always do. I hate it, too, cause it’s feeling so good, and then, harsh. Like say you were snowboarding, your hands wet inside your gloves, and you ripped a glove off in the freezing air.”

“Poetic,” Gwennie said.

And there was Gwennie’s sarcasm. All through sixth grade she’d quoted Artemis Fowl: “The sarcasm made a slight whistling noise as it flew over Loafers’ head.” For years Gwennie had pointed out that the sarcasm made a whistling noise over Texanna’s.

“Your hair’s different,” Brendan said.

Texanna couldn’t hear Gwennie’s response to her straightened hair. Maybe she’d smiled, or rolled her eyes, or made a face at him. How casually they’d moved from pregnancy to Gwennie’s dark, uncontrollable hair that she’d just had heated by flat iron, section by section, to a temperature of four hundred degrees, and then smoothed with gloss.

“I like it curly, actually. It’s sexy,” Brendan said.

In her mind Texanna saw the kids’ view of the basement fireplace’s brick hearth, which hadn’t been lit in years.

 

The next morning Texanna watched her daughter through the opening from the kitchen into the living room. Gwennie worked out a new piece on the violin, her nails bitten down, her fingers agile. They’d worked out that she practiced in the morning—otherwise, her brain wasn’t fresh, and the day got away from them. Morning practice was the only way to guarantee consistency. Here Gwennie was, committed to morning violin, and yet, unless there’d been a protection malfunction, she’d broken the rule Texanna had finally gotten clarity on through all her protection monologues. With the concentration of playing, a circle formed on Gwennie’s chin, and the skin above her right eyebrow wrinkled. She wore rolled-up jeans and a camisole underneath a thin tee that read “Mountain Dew.” Her playing violin was so right, so precious—the way she held her hands and tilted her head, her perfect posture. She stood with her hip cocked, elbow at her waist, her feet apart, and her eyes on the music. Her fingers didn’t need her eyes to know what to do. And the music itself—Texanna hadn’t grown up with this kind of music, this Mozart. If she’d done nothing else right as a mom, she’d done this music. The thought of Gwennie in concert dress, in her black bottoms and white top and her lips shiny with Viva Las Vegans lip balm, made Texanna’s eyes grow moist with happiness and sadness at once.

While Gwennie practiced, Texanna assembled a healthy breakfast: a spinach omelet with egg whites only and a side of sliced apples. Gwennie ate too little, and not enough protein, being a vegetarian, so Texanna tried to get a good breakfast into her before school. Thank goodness she ate eggs. But then Gwennie’s neck suddenly tensed with effort before she slid out of tune, the high C becoming a low one, something that had taken her years to correct in lessons. Texanna had trouble not reacting to mistakes and made a face without meaning to. Suzuki Violin was all about self-correcting, as the parent advisor reminded them at every festival. That was one of Texanna’s shortcomings, that she couldn’t let Gwennie self-correct.

Gwennie stuck her tongue out, then dangled her bow from a finger. “Most people my age are still asleep at six in the morning.”

“Isn’t the swim team up at the school by five?”

She held her violin under her chin, hands free, and pointed her bow at her mother. “You wouldn’t let me do swim team.” It was true Texanna had discouraged anything that might have compromised violin.

“You can do swim team, sweetheart,” Texanna said. “I just want you to keep up the violin.” Gwennie didn’t even need to excel at violin. She just needed to be good enough, to appreciate music, to get into a good college. That would do.

“My brain’s not even awake.” Gwennie held the violin by its neck and swung it, the bow a natural extension of her other hand.

But now that once upon a time Gwennie thought she was pregnant, Texanna had lost all investment in the swim team versus violin debate. She wanted to say that she wasn’t ready to be a grandmother, not ready for Gwennie to contract some disease, or die. She wanted to say that Kevin wasn’t where her self-esteem would come from, nor Brendan.

Thank God for past tense. Gwennie said she thought she was pregnant. Once. Thank God for once. Texanna paced from one end of the counter to the other, the loafers she wore with her Bermuda shorts sticking faintly to the linoleum.

“How about a little getaway this weekend? Before they start piling on the work,” Texanna said. Rental rates at the Cape would have dropped now that school had started.

“Let’s not,” Gwennie said.

“It’ll be a break from everything. We’ll leave the violin at home.” Now Gwennie looked interested. She laid her bow and violin on the sectional and walked into the kitchen.

 

Gwennie started out driving on the way to Cape Cod. “Which way?” she asked Texanna as they exited the neighborhood. In spite of her capability in most other departments, Gwennie had a bad sense of direction. They stopped for gas and dinner before the bridge. When Texanna didn’t finish her Quarter Pounder, Gwennie said, “You ought to finish it since a cow died for that burger.”

Texanna took another bite.

Back on the road Texanna took the wheel. They were too quiet, but Texanna had trouble starting casual conversation, her brain soaked with Gwennie’s having lost her virginity and apparently without protection. She pointed out the classic 1930s SAGAMORE BRIDGE sign. “I’ve always liked that sign,” she said.

Gwennie didn’t answer. Whenever Texanna crossed this bridge, she thought of how Dan hadn’t kept his eyes on the road, even on the Buckman Bridge, three miles long and her with thoughts of how to escape from a sinking car. The river only a few feet drop. In the bluish light of the highway, she’d always looked at the shadow of his chin’s cleft. He used to get mad if she told him how to drive. She used to say, “Precious cargo,” throwing a deliberate look back at Gwennie’s infant seat. Or else she would silently count the seconds his head was turned from the road. One, one-thousand; two, one-thousand; three, one-thousand. Three seconds, more than enough time in which to get hurt.

“The Bitch is back,” Gwennie said finally. “She texted Kevin for advice on colleges. I don’t trust her.”

“Not that he’d be a good resource, he who chose not to go away for college.”

Gwennie reclined her seat and lay on her side, facing the door.

“I’m sorry. I had a bitch friend,” Texanna said. “Luckily we lost touch once I left Florida.”

The scarf Gwennie wore around her neck yesterday she now threaded through her belt loops. “I’d like to see Dad. It’s been a while,” she said. “I’d like to see some of his recent art. I’ve seen it online, but in person.”

“I know he’d like to see you, too,” Texanna said.

Gwennie didn’t like to visit him because no kids or teens lived there, and the complex was creepy, full of bachelors, with an empty pool with crabgrass outlining its cracks and warm crumpled beer cans under rusty lounge chairs. Texanna knew it’d be good for Gwennie to have her dad back, but selfishly she liked being the parent who was there for her.

“I remember your bitch friend,” Gwennie said. “With the really red lipstick, from your high school reunion. You know, you shouldn’t wear such baggy clothes,” she said as she knotted her belt scarf. “You could have a cute figure if you bought more fitted stuff.”

“Ha,” Texanna said. “I’m glad to be healthy.”

“I emailed Michael Moore,” she said. “He should do a documentary about food. He could do it. Food sucks now. It’s like, the pesticides, the growth hormones, the industrial meat. I can see him interviewing factory farmers.” She bit at her cuticle, a habit Texanna had worked to get her to break. But this was the longest utterance Gwennie had made in a while, and Texanna knew better than to interrupt her.

“I hope you get a response,” Texanna said.

“Only vegetarianism can save this planet,” she added. “Sickos up next in our queue.”

“Everything okay with Kevin?” Texanna asked then.

Gwennie’s lips vibrated with her long, scornful exhale. Damn it, Texanna knew how to get her daughter to talk. She knew that a dinner out, or a trip to the mall or the movies would do it, and that a bald question like that would not.

It was dark by the time they pulled into Chatham and arrived at the rental house she’d found online twelve hours earlier, a tiny gray cape with white trim and a recently paved driveway. The house was a mile from the beach on a road with no sidewalks, but they could drive to the beach. That was economizing in Chatham. Down at the pointy part of the Cape’s elbow was the fancy Bars Inn, but this little cape where you supplied your own sheets and towels was Chatham Texanna-style. She lifted the oilcan for the hidden key. Inside, the house was nothing special. Texanna went around and turned on all the lamps, which had matching round white ceramic bases, and that night they watched a documentary Gwennie had brought about the ocean running out of fish.

 

The next morning they both slept in, but Gwennie later than Texanna. Soon Texanna drove off for donuts and coffee. Once back, she sat at the ugly dining room set, similar to furniture she saw at Goodwill from time to time. She’d filled her own house with secondhand finds, especially lamps, their bases run over with organic rusty vines or painted with delicate blue bamboo.

Cat hair swirled around the felt pads on the kitchen chairs’ feet, and she found a bag of litter under the sink while looking for the garbage can. No wonder Gwennie’s allergies were acting up. She heard her daughter slide open the door to the balcony. She heard her sniffle.

“A cat lives here. We should get you out. You’ll feel much better if we sit on the front stoop and drink our coffee,” Texanna said.

But at nearly eleven o’clock, Gwennie was ready for shopping. They drove downtown and started up the street lined with boutiques. They passed a fifty percent off swimsuits sign, but the suits in that window had skirts and shorts attached, and Gwennie didn’t even turn her head to window shop. A girl passed them on her bike. A young woman jogged by, needing a better bra. Gwennie veered into a bathing suit shop for younger people, and she picked through the racks while Texanna loped around the store, wondering when it happened that none of this fit her anymore. Her current suit she’d found at Macy’s, lucky find because it had been a great suit for the last few years—black shorts and a bikini top almost like a sports bra that hid her flaws but not too “old lady.”

Soon Gwennie slipped into a dressing room with a dozen clacking hangers. The drape rustled on its rod, but she didn’t come out to model anything. She didn’t need Texanna’s approval—Gwennie was spending her own money, anyway. Babysitting jobs had enabled her to afford her own clothes, hair treatments, Frappuccinos at Starbucks with friends, her own choices. Texanna watched the curtain shift and wondered if she’d left her daughter unsupervised too much lately. Of course, you couldn’t linger with teenagers every minute. She waited for when Gwennie was receptive and left her alone the rest of the time. But she’d freed herself up to be with Gwennie; for the most part, she’d been able to arrange her hours at the frame shop to coincide with school hours. She’d kept herself available. Dating hadn’t been a priority, but Carey Byrd, the woman who’d sold her the house, contacted her every time her brother was in town, convinced that because they both collected lamps, they ought to be introduced. Texanna had imagined Jake Byrd with facial hair, maybe even a long, grizzly beard, like one of those men she saw at Goodwill and yard sales. She put him in an overcoat. She tried to imagine his lighting, making it masculine, atomic, mid-century, black and silver—phallic, probably! She thought it suspicious that Carey kept trying to set them up over the years. He must be an eccentric, his place crowded with lamps on every flat surface and most with three-way bulbs and dimmer switches. Maybe he had weird social skills or a porn problem. Or maybe Carey just didn’t like his current girlfriend, or didn’t know what to do with her brother when he came to visit.

She’d had a few dates with Ronan across the street before calling it off. She didn’t want to go out at night, didn’t want her life to get that complicated, didn’t want it to matter what she looked like, especially naked. She focused on Gwennie, and that felt right. Now she and Ronan waved at each other, which gave her a tiny pang, his eyes crinkling, since of course he’d never worn sunscreen in his life. She had friends she met for girls’ night out, on occasion. Companionship might be nice, although Texanna thought it possible that one marriage was enough. She liked having a bed to herself, dinner not expected at the end of the day, a smaller place. She would never tell a boyfriend about this new issue with Gwennie. She liked going to movies alone, where she could cry if she wanted to. Lately she liked Michael Moore movies with Gwennie.

The shopkeeper told Texanna there was a bench outside the door.

“I’ll be right outside,” she yelled. “Call me if you want to show me anything.” Though she doubted Gwennie would.

She bought a basket of fish sticks at a stand on the corner and sat on the bench. With her final fish stick she wiped the last bit of tartar sauce out of her basket, and she shoved the fish into her mouth, last night’s movie on her mind, as Gwennie came into view with a small bag. Strands of hair had fallen out of her ponytail, from trying things on.

“I can see why people become shopaholics,” Gwennie said. “I love this bathing suit I bought.” She sounded more like herself now.

“I bet it was your allergies.” Texanna wiped the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “You always used to perk up when you got out of a place you were allergic to.”

 

Back at the house Gwennie carried the bag into her bedroom and reemerged with a big T-shirt over the new suit. Curly ties flopped out of the T-shirt neck. “They’ve got two bikes,” she said. “How about the beach?”

Texanna thought biking would be good for them both. Gwennie wheeled the bikes out of the garage, two helmets dangling from her right hand. She took the men’s bike since she was tall enough to manage the bar. Gwennie’s, with multiple speeds, was a brand Texanna didn’t recognize, but Texanna’s was an old Schwinn with a woven plastic basket for their two towels. They walked their bikes up the steep driveway and then took off down the quiet single-lane road, Texanna following Gwennie. The new black asphalt with bright yellow lines dropped off to a rougher shoulder that Texanna avoided. Gwennie’s ponytail sat at the nape of her neck, low to accommodate her helmet, and her vertebrae bumped out of her hunched back. Her legs were thin, firm, and tan. Texanna wore her athletic shoes, but Gwennie was fine in flip-flops.

They pedaled up the shady road dense with scrappy bushes and trees, a rugged and less developed part of town, in spite of the new pavement. From the car the road had seemed flat, but in fact they’d been on a gradual incline, and sweat dampened Texanna’s back as they turned right onto a busier road. She didn’t want to share the road with cars, which blasted her with a hot breeze scented with gasoline. When a truck passed too close, she sidled onto the shoulder. She coasted to a stop and dismounted, her legs rubbery. She leaned over, her hands on her thighs, while the noise of cricket wings swelled and then subsided in the heat. She lifted her bike back onto the road and worked hard to catch up with her daughter, who hadn’t noticed her mother wasn’t trailing her.

As they approached the rotary, Texanna figured Gwennie, with her bad sense of direction, wouldn’t remember the way to the beach. “Veer right!” she called.

Gwennie must not have heard clearly because she turned to look at her mother just as a grocery truck passed Texanna on her left. Gwennie wobbled toward the truck and then jerked her handlebars to the right. The truck missed her, but she’d overcompensated, her bike had leaned surreally to the right, and her body had lost contact with her bike, before both girl and bike were flung onto the gravel shoulder.

Texanna’s hands slicked the handlebars as she pumped to reach Gwennie. She shouldn’t have yelled the way. What would it have mattered if they’d taken a wrong turn? Once at Gwennie, she threw her bike aside and knelt, urging “Gwennie Marie,” like she had when her daughter was little and in trouble for leaving drops of glitter glue spangled all over the dining room floor, or the time she stuck her hand down Clive Junior’s pants. Gwennie’s eyes were closed. She looked fragile, her feet long and thin in flip-flops, the t-shirt she wore over her new suit big as a dress.

“Gwennie!” Texanna held her hand on her daughter’s rising and falling chest, and her ear against the girl’s mouth felt warm breath.

Then Gwennie opened her eyes. “I think I blacked out for a second,” she said. “That was cool.”

“I’m calling an EMT,” Texanna said.

“No, you’re not.” Gwennie rolled onto one elbow and then got to her knees. “Ouch,” she said because of the gravel.

“We should get you checked out.”

“I’m fine.” Gwennie stood and brushed tiny stones and dirt from her knees.

“We should go to the emergency room, make sure you’re okay.”

“It’s your fault I almost got hit by a truck.” Gwennie righted her bike, and from her expression, Texanna almost expected Gwennie to hold up her fists and throw a punch.

“I was just giving you directions,” Texanna said. Gwennie set her eyes on the road leading to the beach. Thank God she was okay, Gwennie who didn’t realize the danger she’d been in, oblivious Gwennie with the not-yet-developed frontal lobe. “Let’s walk our bikes up to the beach,” Texanna said. She thought she might not ever bike again, especially with Gwennie.

“I’m fine to bike,” Gwennie said.

“Let’s just walk. Please!”

They walked a few steps.

“I’m not walking when I’ve got a bike.” Gwennie swung one leg over the middle bar and launched herself onto the seat. She wobbled for a second but steadied and struck off on her own, and Texanna had to pedal hard to catch up with her.

 

The parking lot for the public access beach was crowded. Texanna heard a loud crack on the asphalt when a seagull dropped a crab. The crab’s legs wiggled before the seagull picked it up again with a firmer hold and flew off with it.

Down on the beach Texanna and Gwennie scooted seaweed to the left and right and set their towels perpendicular to the coast, their feet stretched out to the sea. Surprisingly the new suit was a one-piece—navy blue with tiny white polka dots. A string ran around the back of her neck and attached to the top of a keyhole between her breasts. High-cut leg holes skimmed her hipbones. Gwennie loosened her ponytail and then laid her head on the towel. It occurred to Texanna that Gwennie might not want to mess up her hair.

“Can your hair get wet?”

“No,” Gwennie said.

Texanna scrunched her nose at Gwennie. Who would come all the way to the Cape and not even swim, and on such a rare September day, not warm but hot, when they needed a calming, cooling, restorative swim more than anything? She headed for the water. She passed a woman and a little boy working on a sand castle, a father holding a baby in a swim diaper, several teenaged girls lying out, all with pierced navels, and a couple making out in the water. When her legs got tangled in seaweed, she shook it off and kept going, hoping to pass the point where seaweed would hold her back. She dunked, rinsing her sweaty scalp.

Gwennie lay on her back, eyes closed, when Texanna returned and sat beside her. Gwennie was still and didn’t open her eyes.

“Gwennie?”

“I’m not asleep, just resting.” Drops of perspiration flecked her temples. “Stop staring at me,” she added.

“We need to have a talk.”

Gwennie shielded her eyes and squinted at her mother.

“A protection talk.”

Gwennie lay back on her towel and closed her eyes. “The only warts I have are the ones in my nightmares, after these talks.”

“Not protecting yourself can kill you.”

“I know, I know.” Gwennie rolled onto her stomach, signaling conversation over. “But I’m practically an adult, and it’s not your business.” Her voice was muffled, buried in her towel. A terrycloth pattern had imprinted on her shoulder blades.

“I heard your conversation with Brendan.” Texanna brought her towel to her face and covered it for a second. Then she peeked out to see Gwennie lift her head and stand up. Texanna stood to face her.

“You make me want to do it unprotected just to spite you,” Gwennie said.

Texanna focused on the telltale violinist’s rash on Gwennie’s neck from where the instrument sat under her chin, the rash that bothered Gwennie but that Texanna found romantic, the mark of a pursuit. To think that a passion could change a neck.

Gwennie pulled her suit up over the whiter parts of her breasts and then back down to meet her hipbones. After gazing down the beach, she flounced toward the ocean, the only place she could escape her mother besides the parking lot. She paused at the edge of the cool water and stared out over it. Texanna listened to the rustling of the sea oats. She heard crickets, a plane, and the soft, quiet waves. Then she walked toward the water, passed Gwennie, and lunged in. She made her way through pockets of colder and then warmer water, working against the resistance and the seaweed and toward the horizon, where two fishing boats lingered. Another gull swooped near them. It wasn’t easy when Texanna had grown up with Florida beaches. Here she could only find blackened oyster shells, slipper shells, and an occasional razor shell, the water was cold, the rocky beaches required shoes, and there was this profusion of seaweed. She heard Gwennie wade in behind her. Maybe she’d write Michael Moore, and if he hadn’t snapped up the food idea, maybe he’d be willing to consider this one: sexual public health, with an emphasis on the cool factor of condoms.

“The seaweed’s bad,” Texanna said. She bent and tried to clear a path for her daughter, but like a wake following a boat, the seaweed only built up behind her, making it worse for Gwennie. She looked sideways at her daughter, whose skin was goose-pimpled now, a breeze blowing her fine body hair. A clump of seaweed tangled against her daughter’s belly. When they were deep enough to swim, Gwennie dipped back and wet her hair, and it was curly again.

 

 

 

Laura Gabel-Hartman’s stories have appeared in Carve Magazine, MAKE: a Chicago Literary Magazine, Red Cedar Review, Rio Grande Review, and Southern Humanities Review.  She's a native Floridian living in the Boston area and is at work on a novel in stories.