The Glove Compartment
For everyone in else in my family, the realization came gradually: a gesture here, a phrase there eventually added up to what they had seen all along but had not wanted to know.
It wasn’t like that for me. I saw everything clearly in one brief moment, like that first slap across the face from a love.
The truth about my mom didn”t mean to me what it meant to everyone else, though. It didn’t change any of the things that mattered. I still longed to be with her, to know her, to smell her. I still revered her. I changed only in that I was careful; I knew how fragile she was, and I knew not to ever again look for secrets.
The day started out well. I ate cereal and watched cartoons with Valde, who was just five, while mom got ready. She put on a burgundy crushed velvet shirt that made her look regal even though it was a little hot for long sleeves. I hadn”t lived with my mom for seven years—since I was Valde’s age. Mom ushered Valde and me into her 1972 Impala and drove downtown.
After we parked, we walked a few blocks to a building so brown and grainy that it looked as if the earth had jumped up to cover it. We walked in, grabbed a number, and sat in orange vinyl chairs attached to each other at their bases. Mom said absolutely nothing, and Valde wasn’t giving up any clues, either.
There were women with children in every corner of the room. It was obvious that we were waiting for something, but there were no magazines, no books or television, and no nice couches like at the doctor’s office. My mom looked better dressed than the other moms, but her face wore the same void expression.
Occasionally, a man or lady would call out a number, and one of the moms would get up and herd her children to the counter. She would fill out some papers, sit back down, and wait to be called into another room through a set of double doors.
We waited and waited, and no one called out our number even to go to the first window. It was past noon, and I finally said, “I’m hungry.” Valde just looked at me, and my mom didn’t even do that.
Finally, a lady came out and said, “Last case for today.” My mom stood up and walked to the window. Valde and I followed. The man at the counter said, “Eight a.m. tomorrow.”
We walked outside, got into the boiling car, and headed back to my mom’s apartment. I started looking at everything in the car, beginning in the back. I catalogued it all in my mind as pieces of a mom I didn’t know: clothes, books in French that she no longer read, and a macramé wall hanging she had made.
In the front, there wasn’t much until I opened the glove compartment. I pulled out all the papers, put them in my lap, and devoured them one by one. Pieces of a puzzle I had to solve. There were several overdue bills sent to old addresses, a letter thanking her for outstanding work taking the census, and an overdue bill from Cincinnati General Hospital.
She must have known that I would see it, but she didn’t say anything until I asked, “Mom, what’s ‘dilation and curetage’ mean?” Without turning her head, she answered, “An abortion.”
I acted as though I was reading the rest of the papers, and even unfolded and tried to re-fold a U.S. map, but I really wanted to shut that glove compartment quickly and forever.
When I did, I looked at the gas gauge and said, “Mom, we’re out of gas!” Valde, in all his five year-old Buddha wisdom, looked at me like I was the biggest idiot he had ever seen.
My mom stopped the car in middle of an intersection. When she turned to look at me, she yelled, “Why the hell do you think you sat in the welfare office all day? You know, you’re just like Auntie Doll, always wanting people to bury themselves in the backyard when they’re still living.”
It wasn’t the words she said, because they made perfect sense to me in the way that what isn’t sane often does. It wasn’t the welfare office, no food, or the bills. It wasn’t even the accumulation of years of my dad telling me that my mom was a high-functioning paranoid schizophrenic that finally made it clear. No, for me, it was the look in her eyes as she raged at me. The look that said I was not her very own daughter to whom she had given birth. Like she wasn’t seeing me, but someone else. Maybe my dad or my grandma or the people who wouldn’t hire her to teach anymore. Or maybe she looked at me like I was everybody. Everybody in the world.