Stephanie had wished for perfect legs, but was used to the warts on her left leg. They were set in a cluster at the front halfway between her knee and thigh. They appeared during puberty, and when she was young she connected them with a felt pen. Lately, she thought about inking them permanently.
It was midsummer, too hot to go out covering them. As accepting as she was of these blemishes on otherwise ivory skin, Stephanie always wore long skirts or stockings, jeans and capris. While she dealt with perfection better than others would, she assumed, she remembered what she was told when they appeared: that she remained special. That self-evolved till today she did not feel at all embarrassed to go out into the neighborhood in red and black checkered shorts, crossing the street in her strapped vinyl sandals, toes painted lilac to match the bra under her black top. If anyone stared at the warts, fuck ’em, she concluded.
When Stephanie laughed, she glowed. That was what she was told. The personality was important, and her smile indicating her depth of charm balanced any physical imperfections.
Meningitis at age seven had stunted Stephanie’s growth. She grew no taller than four-ten, eternally shopping in juniors, but the size teasing stopped long before high school ended.
Her body was compressed: round arms, legs and shoulders, but what was striking about Stephanie—aside from being curvaceous—was her gray eyes and upturned nose; the honey-blonde hair and the dark eyebrows that framed her round, smooth face. If she were a foot taller, Stephanie often surmised she would be a flawed beauty. With her height, she was satisfied with pretty. Pulling back her hair, Stephanie cut across the East Village pavement with a hint of swagger, moving against the light toward the street corner. Yes, pretty.
But, yes, the cuteness factor came up more often than not. Stephanie did not like being called cute, or adorable. She often deeply resented being mistaken for a little girl, even though her breasts showed otherwise. Stephanie was twenty-nine, not twelve.
Yet everything returned to the moles on her left leg. Stephanie kept putting off removing them. As a teenager, it was due to the expense. This was not covered by her family health plan. Now older, Stephanie had gradually gotten used to their existence, and daily thoughts of wandering into a tattoo parlor. She just could not decide what design would work. She thought of a dragon, or maybe a Celtic design, but the pattern was so anarchic that she never gave the option much more than a fleeting consideration.
So they defined an aspect of her physical identity. Short, stubby, a runt, an adorable mutt, tiny, cute, sweetie, peewee, and finding it hard to find the right size while shopping at innumerable store racks. Stephanie, that’s me, she would say to herself, and to others while usually in bed with them.
Stephanie stopped in the street to pet a terrier leashed to a post outside a coffee shop. While casually pulling the spaghetti straps of her top, she rubbed the dog behind the ears. It loved the attention and licked her hands, and nuzzled against her legs.
The terrier was tiny, but she knew his bark was loud. Probably could do more than just nip at you when feeling threatened. Stephanie had learned to take care of herself. In her large shoulder bag there was pepper spray and a screwdriver.
After she allowed the dog to lick her fingers one more time, Stephanie rose to leave and continued down the street, passing where she had her manicure, the bar where she met friends, and another coffee shop.
* * *
The walk was a daily routine. Stephanie would continue down several blocks, passing the park, turning right at the end, going one block and stopping for an egg cream across the street. Then she would sip it in the shadows under the awning and watch people walk by.
She would make up stories about them, usually silly stuff, quietly mouthing absurdities involving aspects of their lives that she knew had no basis in reality. Over there was a man who collected Pez dispensers and kept them in a glass case set above his bed. The aging woman pushing her shopping cart was an oil heiress living in a rent-controlled walk-up amid stacks of old Vogues and Harper’s Bazaar. On a decaying mantelpiece in her living room she had a framed certificate from her theater group proclaiming her the IT girl of 1954. The kids running across the street were actually Brazilian royalty from a cadet branch of the long-exiled family, though the parents never told them that, waiting instead for circumstances to change for their triumphant return to Rio.
Stephanie could make up a story about everyone. This is what we humans are here for, she thought.
After finishing her egg cream, tossing the cup into the mesh garbage can on the corner, she fished through her bag, realizing she had left her book at the apartment.
Happy endings pleased her, thought Stephanie. So did sad ones, but in reality, time flowed indifferently. It continued at its own pace—too quickly for some, painfully slow for others. The randomly lucky among us drifted forward with blessed stability, rarely caught in the rapids, or cycling into a whirlpool, moving on until this stream reached its mouth in the endless ocean beyond. This had been what Stephanie had concluded as she watched her mother die, hands grasping tightly before they grew slack against their will.
Stephanie’s upcoming doctor’s appointment was in two days. Twice yearly she had a breast examination. Mom was thirty-four when she passed. Stephanie was twelve.
Twelve. Now twenty-nine. At the same age, Mom may have had the initial tumor, so since Stephanie turned twenty-one, this was what she did. Boobs squished and freezing on the cold metal plate. Fucking painful.
That was life, along with meningitis, four foot ten inches in height, and moles on her leg. The doctor would also remind Stephanie to check every morning to see if the moles had grown, multiplied or changed color.
Mom never had moles, but she did have a husband. He carried Stephanie on the rest of the journey. They talked in the morning and the evening on the telephone, sometimes Skype, always text. Brunch on Sundays in Greenwich Village and long walks together, chatting.
They skipped brunch twice a year. Stephanie preferred being alone on that Sunday before the doctor’s visit.
Stephanie bought tickets for the opera next month. They had never gone. It was a surprise.
* * *
At the used bookstore next to the 99-cent pizzeria, Stephanie could not find much to read that she either didn’t already have or interested her enough. Out of frustration, she chose Speedboat by Renata Adler, seeking escape in the obscure. She also wanted to remember Mom. She listened to Lloyd Cole, and “Speedboat” was the song she liked the most. The book had been beside the bed the day Mom died.
“There are only so many plots,” Mom once told her, quoting the novel. Yes, her story ended, while Stephanie’s continued, prose flights tapping in rhythm to each step on the pavement while Stephanie moved on blissfully forward except twice a year.
The café music system focused on her parents’ age demographic; “Never Stop” by Echo and the Bunnymen played. Stephanie had happy memories of that song while Mom worked on her projects; when she had first been diagnosed she would play the music loudly while painting in the atelier upstairs in the summer home they had in Southampton. Both she and Dad felt empty without her and sold it for huge bucks shortly before the housing crash. They were still living off that sale. Dad took his retirement at fifty-five and she provided blog content and handled uploads for a news site.
* * *
Mom never desired a mausoleum by which to be remembered, but she had work in the MoMA collection, and two paintings hanging at the Getty in Los Angeles. Stephanie remembered being with Dad at the opening of Contemporary American Painting at the latter.
That evening, all Stephanie could think of was Mom smiling when she looked at her daughter’s legs, seeing that Stephanie had taken a felt tip pen, connecting the dots that had suddenly appeared. Mom reached out with her free arm from the hospital bed, gently tracing the lines, telling her. “You’re special. Always be you. That’s all.”
Stephanie took art in high school, the teacher knowing whose kid she was, but she struggled and quit junior year. She was not her mother. She floated in her own solitary stream, their hands separating at the bend.
Sipping her Italian soda, she went back to Speedboat. “Bring someone new,” Inez had said. “Not queer. Not married, maybe separated. John and I are breaking up.” Stephanie smiled at that. Mom said that to her Dad, and it was the last laugh they shared before the tears arrived.
Stephanie kept reading. We may win this year. We may lose it all. She stopped there, feeling sad. Dad still quoted that line, this handed to him from Mom, who read it first from Renata Adler.
* * *
The target demographic playlist droned forward with dreadful randomness. The Smiths, Tears for Fears, The Clash, A-Ha, Simple Minds; the Simple Minds song was one Dad played often: “New Gold Dream”. Her parents met in 81, and married in 82, Mom pregnant in 83 and Stephanie born in 84—that new gold dream of his, theirs and ours.
Still no Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. Stephanie always thought “Perfect Skin” was personally ironic, which was fitting because of the lyrical contradiction of climbing up flights of stairs to a basement flat. Mom wasn’t Greta Garbo with cheekbones like geometry, but trying to see her, thought Stephanie, was in vain.
Stephanie smiled again. She opened her notebook and wrote the thought down.
Another song from early childhood played. “A Plan, Revised” by The Trypes. She was shocked to hear this outside of the old atelier. She stopped reading to listen.
She heard her mother’s voice. Can’t resist the fever, can’t resist to understand, can’t resist the feeling, can’t resist the undertow, can’t resist the future, can’t resist the feeling.
This time machine needed to stop running. Her heart already lay as heavy as a doorstop when The Trypes segued to OMD. More randomness for the slowly aging, which was again rather amusing since Stephanie surmised she might very well be the oldest person in the café.
She pulled out her iPhone and texted her father.
I love you.
He did not hesitate. What did I do this time?
You’re always here for me.
You worried about Monday?
All will be well.
How is your day otherwise?
She paused. Thinking of Mom. Reading speedboat in a café. Hearing old people music, LOL.
Aaargh! I am not that old, child.
They played new gold dream!!!!
Any joy division yet?
No. Waiting for THAT song to play, tho.
I figured. Ugh.
She paused before typing it out. You still miss her, don’t you?
His answer was immediate. Why is the bedroom so cold?
Stephanie nodded. Yes, adding hearts. He had his friends and maintained the estate. Though Dad had long settled into another life, he remained a part of Mom’s forever, granting access to researchers, working with gallerists on sales and supervising her exhibits. Recently, he had a discussion with a filmmaker about a documentary. Stephanie wasn’t ready for that. Neither was Dad, but he listened.
Occasionally he dated. Stephanie learned to accept it, but it took a while.
Dad loved his Yankees. She remembered him and Mom taking her to see Mattingly’s only other home playoff against Seattle, which went into extra innings and ended with a Leyritz two-run homer in the thirteenth. Yankees win, DAAAAAAAA YANKEES WIN!
Mom wore her Yankees scarf and didn’t get sick until she threw up on the ride back from the stadium.
You will tell me how the appointment goes.
She paused. Yes. Always, she typed.
They continued texting before Dad said he had to run to meet with his old work buddies. She put the iPhone back in her bag and got up to order another Italian lemonade, returning to Speedboat, reading until she got bored and left the cafe.
* * *
After returning home, Stephanie pulled off her top in the bathroom, undid her bra and felt her breasts for anything unusual. She knew what to worry about. There should have been no change from the morning. There wasn’t.
Her anxieties grew the closer it came to the appointment.
She checked again.
* * *
That night, Stephanie sat in darkness on the edge of the bed, nude. She had on her mother’s favorite lipstick. Mom called it Board of Ed red, a reference to when she had been a teacher in the city schools. Whenever she had to go to the main office, that was the color the supervisors invariably wore, particularly the least sympathetic ones. There were many.
Stephanie kept little of what had belonged to her mother. A painting Mom did of her when Stephanie was seven. That hung in the living room. She sat on the floor in Mom’s old studio she shared at Cooper Union. Her back was turned in front of a blank canvas, holding a marker in her hand. The meaning intended was her life had begun, and what lay ahead. Stephanie had no recollection of posing for the painting. The meningitis had been that year, and memories from then were vague.
She had Mom’s vintage Jezebel red prom dress. This originally belonged to her grandmother. Stephanie had the skirt taken up for her senior prom because she was so short. It was a YSL original, and still had the Neiman-Marcus tag from 1958.
She had her jewelry and this tube of MAC lipstick. Stephanie only wore it twice a year. She broke that rule tonight.
“I am terribly pale,” Stephanie said. “And you were always so tan. I don’t look at all like you. Instead, I’m as Great-Aunt Harriet as the day is long. I am not a painter. I can write, though. Not like Renata Adler, but I am literate.”
Stephanie stood up. “But I kill in this red. Damn.”
She pulled down her hair. “I’m always me, Mom.”
Her hands dropped to her sides. “Mom,” Stephanie said.
She reached out. “Mom?”
Mike Lee is a writer, labor journalist and photographer based in New York City. Current and forthcoming publications include The Ampersand Review, Paraphilia, Sensitive Skin, Reservoir, The Avenue, The Drunken Llama, Visions Libres, Glossolalia, Dime Show Review, Solidago Journal, The Flash Fiction Press, Peacock Journal, Third Street Writers, Corvus Review, Violet Windows and The Potomac. A story collection, titled All Your Ambition, was published in Germany by VL Editions. Website: http://www.mleephotoart.com.