R uth was nineteen and had been dating Dennis for three months, far too long already, when she found a way to swing the conversation around properly.
They discussed his parents, who had divorced, and then her mother, who was widowed. They talked about the general wisdom of marriage as a social contract. Dennis had taken an anthropology course at the community college and had a tendency to think about things. Then he said, "Well, do you want to do it, Ruth? I mean, get married?"
She turned her dewy eyes on him and swore she could feel the forest animals transforming her rags into a glorious ball gown, just like they did for Cinderella. She knew he was asking a rhetorical question, but she answered anyway: "Oh, yes, Dennis. Let's do it right away, shall we?"
Within days, the church had been so thoroughly plastered with iris and lily, and entire boughs of lilac and apple blossoms, that asthmatics and allergics were given a handkerchief at the entrance and asked to occupy the last row of pews.
Ruth wore a cream-colored dress upon which she herself had painstakingly sewn hundreds of tiny rose-colored artificial pearls. Ruth had delicate coloring, and, although the seasonal theory had not yet been advanced, Ruth had foresight. She knew that only those with certain coloring should wear pure white or black. She wasn't one of them. Her skin had soft pastel undertones and so she chose off-white, almost yellow really, for the dress, still respectable, and then sewed those rosy pearls around the neckline and sleeve ends so that they'd be close to her skin and thus display her coloring to its best advantage. She carried a bouquet of short pink roses from which trailed ribbons of pink, purple, and yellow.
Dennis had been given a charcoal-colored suit to wear. He couldn't wear black either, though he didn't know it. He wore what was given him and found himself suddenly at the front of a church next to a woman he barely knew. Behind him he could hear his mother sobbing and felt that he understood her for the first time. His father stood next to him, Ruth's mother waited across the aisle, each in the colors Ruth selected. The minister was allowed to wear black, even though it didn't suit him.
Ruth was overwhelmed by the wedding march, all the faces turned to her, smiling, wiping their eyes. She overheard a woman whisper, "How lovely!" The church smelled like dish soap and flowers, and aside from the tacky guest who chose to wear a red dress, everything was pastel.
Ruth glided down the aisle unescorted and looked up to the minister with urgency. Her mother straightened the gown's train and someone took her hand. She was so delirious at the decorating coup that she forgot to look at Dennis until the very moment he lifted her veil.
She noticed that his tie was askew and then looked up at his face, the hazel eyes flecked with yellow, the rosy shading on his eyelids. Suddenly she realized she was going to have to tell him.
"Do you, Ruth..." the minister asked, and because she was so distracted, so overwhelmed by it all, she didn't answer "I do."
But in the same loving, devoted voice she would have used to say "I do," she looked at Dennis and said, "I'm pregnant."
Aside from the various sinus-draining activities of the asthmatics and allergics, the church was completely silent.
Dennis looked down the aisle to the swinging doors that led to the vestibule, a neutral space, which led to the outside. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his mother practically leap out of the pew enraged and he heard Ruth say, "Denny, honey?"
He began running. It was a nightmare. He was swimming through muck, he couldn't get his legs to work. The doors seemed to recede the faster he went and all the air was sucked out of the church, leaving only the honeyed scent of flowers which reminded him of his grandmother's funeral.
Then he was gone and the flowers settled in the calm after the doors swung shut. Ruth, being both pregnant and understandably upset, moved to the nearest urn of flowers and vomited. The minister, who discovered only that day that he had allergies, sneezed into his open Bible. From the back of the church, a chorus of asthmatics called out, "God bless you."
With a beginning like that, you are bound to have certain peculiarities. At least that's the case with me. According to my mother's stories, I developed very early on a preference for symmetry which nearly became a compulsion.
Symmetry is not exactly the right word. What I wanted was for everything to be paired. On the kitchen table, the salt and pepper shakers had to sit together, equally full. The napkin holder was a problem because it was singular and I eased the anxiety of this by centering it between the salt and pepper shakers. At least if it was unpaired, it would have someplace to belong.
The seats on my swing set had to be both still, or both moving. This made it hard for me to play by myself. Of course, I wanted to have a play partner anyway, because two of us swinging made everything right in the world. When my mother waved from the window, I pretended my father was standing behind her with his hands on her waist, the missing piece that perfectly filled her overwhelming emptiness. And me the napkin holder in between.
To her credit, Ruth carried her pregnancy before her like a badge of honor instead of anything remotely shameful. In a town where news that she'd been jilted had spread before the minister's last achoo, she was an item of curiosity. Or rather, I was an item of curiosity. I'm sure there was great speculation about whether or not Dennis was really the father. If he wasn't, then who? It's pretty small where we live, even smaller back then, and all of the potential mates were accounted for.
Ruth acted always as if she were beyond reproach, as if maybe her husband had gone off to fight in the Civil War and she was doing her stoic duty by repopulating the county. She demanded and somehow received respect instead of scorn or derision.
As a result, I was something like the town mascot when I arrived. Everyone had participated in the great myth of my origins, and I was welcomed like some lucky charm we'd been needing all along. Everyone touched me. Women changed my diapers, and I never lacked for a masculine presence. There were always men around, but mom never dated because, of course, that would be disloyal to her husband, the martyr.
It took years to get any information about my father. At first she told me that my father had died before I was born and that was why I didn't remember him. She didn't have any pictures because they'd eloped and then they'd been too busy preparing for my arrival. We lived with my grandmother, also widowed, and for a time I feared that it was my fate as well to have a daughter but no husband. Immaculate conception, perhaps. It seemed the family line was entirely female. Utterly unmatched.
Mother sold Avon, then Mary Kay, and then Jafra cosmetics. The town would have been lipstick-less had it not been for her zeal. They'd also have gone helplessly about in the wrong colors, unaware of their assault on the aesthetic, except for mother's patient examination of the flecks in their irises, the shading of the skin at the wrist and on the eyelids. Women were transformed.
From the time of my earliest memories, my mother was rapturous about my coloring. I was one of the chosen few, one of those rare people in our small world who could wear pure white and darkest black. To my mother this was almost worth having married a man who died early and left her with an infant. At least he'd passed on his coloring.
Her greatest epithet when she was mad at me was 'Princess Winter-Spring-Summer-Fall.'
"Just who do you think you are? Princess Winter-Spring-Summer-Fall?"
"Princess Winter-Spring-Summer-Fall, you get in here right now!"
It meant that I thought I was something really special, but really I had all my seasons confused and this was of course completely obvious to everyone but me. Privately, I called it 'PWSSF' and said it back to her under my breath
One day when I was in High School, mother began a job as a purchasing consultant for a beauty supply store. She was delirious with happiness and evidently felt strong enough to feed me a different story of my origins. She'd not told me the truth before, she said, because I was too young. Now it was time for the harsh reality.
"Your father," she said, "left me when you were a few months old." According to her mood when she told the story, he'd been a drinker, a womanizer, a wife beater, and sometimes, after a glass of wine on Friday nights, the sweetest, most romantic man. "He had a brain, too, that one."
He was irredeemably nasty or else he was too good for this world. Either way, I understood why he had to leave. I was going to do it too, and I was neither of those things.
I grew less compulsive as I got into my teens, but my obsession with pairings helped me in a way I'd never anticipated: poker. I didn't consciously count cards, but I knew if both black queens had come up or just one. I was especially deadly at 7 card stud because of the number of up cards.
Over on the side of town where no one knew what colors to wear, I had found friends who didn't give a fig about the fact that I could wear black and white. They were awed by my card skills and vowed to get me out of my clothes sooner or later in a game of strip poker. As it was, I'd sit there fully dressed watching them shiver in their underclothes.
I learned things about coloring that would have impressed even my mother.
In High School I had a sort of special but lonely position. Teachers liked me because they remembered me as a tot which meant that everyone else found me annoying or freakish. It was kind of like being the principal's kid, or the minister's. There were other such kids in the school, but we avoided each other because we knew that our power to repel others would only multiply if we got together.
Janice became my friend out of sheer accident. She'd borrowed a pencil from Chris, who sat on the other side of me in algebra class. She pitched the pencil back to him when Mr. Wojdyla's back was turned and it hit me in the head causing me to give a short screech. Mr. Woj sent me out into the hall and, as it turned out, missing the lesson that day resulted in my getting a B on a test and a B++ in the class, the only B I got all through High School. That single B sitting alone on my report card almost drove me nuts. I often thought about blowing it in another class so it wouldn't be the only one.
Anyway, Janice chased me down in the hall and apologized. From then on, in her mind, we were friends, and who was I to argue? Her friend Chris lived over on Winatonka Street, the dirt road that would throw you off your bike. He was frequently left alone at home with the liquor cabinet and Janice got me invited to join them for strip poker.
My mother was so happy I had a real friend she didn't care where I was going. Actually, she was thrilled with whatever I did. I was her great project in life.
Strategies for strip poker include careful wardrobe choices. Of course you want as many layers as possible, easy enough in winter, but a little harder to pull off in warm weather. There isn't a qualitative difference between shorts and long pants so that's not a sacrifice. The trick is to get another layer on top. I usually went for a bra, a skimpy top, and then a light vest. Not so much as to appear like cheating, but that crucial extra item on top.
No matter how hot it was you had to wear socks and shoes. Those were the safety layers.
Of course everyone in town knew about my mother being jilted at the altar before I did, but by High School, I had the general outline. One detail I'd heard over and over didn't really sink in for some reason until one night at Chris' when he and Janice were down to their underwear and I had one bare foot. Janice was in black underwear and I was trying to explain, ala my mother, why charcoal would be a better choice
Light bulb. Why was Denny wearing a charcoal-colored suit when he was supposedly responsible for my unusual and cherished ability to wear black? Light bulb. Denny was not my father.
Oh, my mother's secrets were intricately tangled! Who could my father be? Could he be of a different race? With such delicious new information, so many thrilling possibilities, I got distracted. By midnight, I forgot there was still a king out and was forced to choose between my shirt and pants.
Mom never would give up the goods on my father, the one responsible for half of my genes. She told me that it didn't matter.
How could it not matter? I asked her. Here I am going through life all lopsided, everything about me leaning toward one side and so single, so freaking off balance.
She asked me to please not use the word 'freaking' in her presence and I thought about the pathetic possibility that she'd fucked exactly once in her whole life. That I'd already seen more naked flesh than she ever would. That I liked it.
This is when my anxiety started to resolve and I began to believe that I was not personally responsible for creating a world of perfect balance.
I thought about how many ways I am not like my mother and how those things must have come from my father, whoever he is.
I could picture the two strands of DNA waltzing together, pairing up with exact and fabulous rightness. Two strands of the zipper merging to create me: whole, full, and protected.
I thought: I don't need to have my parents sitting next to each other like bookends to keep me complete. I am already the only self I could be.
It was the first time I ever believed that it might be enough.
Over on Winatonka Street, everyone at the table was stripped to their black or white underwear and I was laughing as I slipped off my bra: suddenly I didn't care if the whole world knew that my left breast was bigger than the right.
Forthcoming in Barnabe Mountain Review