Mother loved to read historical romances. She would find them at the Goodwill for ten cents apiece and bring home a stack. On almost every cover, a handsome, rugged-looking man held a beautiful woman in his arms. Sometimes the man wore a Civil War uniform and held a woman in a billowing dress. Other times he wore a royal crown and cape while he embraced his queen. Ripped bodices were optional.The historcial context varied, but the story never did: the search for love ended in someone’s arms.
She often sat on the gray couch in the living room to read. One summer day, I sat on the arm of the couch by her while she drank her can of beer and read. It must have been a day like the one in this photo. She was wearing shorts and a sleeveless blouse. I could see the blue spider veins in her thighs as she stretched her legs out on the coffee table.
I started reading the last words of each sentence to amuse myself and wanted to say something to her about it, but I didn’t want to disturb her. So I would read some of the words, then wait and listen for the soft slur of her finger on the paper as she turned the pages. I looked at her profile, her beautiful nose, straight and softly rounded at the tip; her lashes thick with mascara; and her lips, parted as if ready to sip from either her beer or her book; and I wondered if she even knew I was there.
Immersed in her book, she had no idea that I was reading the words with her. Her books, I thought, must hold some secret, one that she needed to be reminded of over and over, one embrace after another.
For the first time that I remember, I understood that we were completely separate beings, sharing the same space, our thoughts known only to ourselves. She knew nothing about the things my sister and I whispered while we were in bed at night, the forbidden sugar that I put on my cereal before anyone else awoke, and my fear of losing people. These and thousands of other thoughts belonged only to me. As I leaned on her arm and felt her warm skin next to mine, I realized that she, too, must have whispered things in the night to my father and done things in secret that no one else knew of besides her. Inside her head another world existed, one that I knew nothing about, that I would probably never know anything about.
I felt like I had just awoken from a deep sleep in a strange room, not knowing exactly where I was. Everyone lived a hidden life, unknown to anyone else, and words were all that we had to find one another. We stumbled in the dark, calling out, searching for the other, reaching out, always reaching out. And sometimes, if only in books, we found solace in someone’s embrace.
My head felt light and I wondered if I would fall off the couch. I leaned over, kissed mother on her forehead, and went outside into the sunshine looking for an adventure before the end of my childhood summer.