I imagine pressing my thumb into the shoulder flesh of the woman standing in front of me. She’s wearing a knit top with a boat-neck collar revealing a wide swath of skin. She reminds me of my mother. It’s not fat running along the slope of her neck and shoulder—it’s a puffiness that comes with age if you’re not the lean type. When I was very young, probably four, I used to press my mother’s flesh and marvel how it turned blankly pale until I let up, and the blush returned.
I haven’t talked with my mother in years. She’ll be fifty-five soon. The woman in front of me hikes her purse up and takes a step forward.
My mother was—and probably still is—a liar. She lied about the important things like paying our taxes and she lied about the trivial things like where she spent the afternoon. She called them all white lies.
My father explained to me many times that she had grown up in an Eastern Block country where deception was necessary for survival—and then it had become ingrained. He tried to convince me she wasn’t a bad person, that she was full of love—lying was her fall back.
A man joins the woman with the knit top, circling his arm around her back—protectively, it seems to me. I never protected or covered for my mother the way others did. It was probably bad luck for her that just as I reached the age of seeing my parents with detached eyes, I also found the great I Am—Truth itself. Without Truth there was nothing—there could be nothing. Truth was the foundation for everything good.
And I had a mother who shrank from it.
The line moves forward a few steps, as a brutal-sounding machine grinds coffee beans and releases a stream of hazelnut into the air. The man ahead of me pats the woman’s back and goes to find a table. The woman places her forearm on the body of her bag. She must be bearing down because the narrow strap digs into her shoulder. It’s painful to look at, and I itch to reach over and move it, but I’m not the daring kind.
Once when I was a teenager, my mother caught a group of us playing Truth or Dare—just as I was about to kiss Toby Mulligan. Forget the truth, she advised when we told her what we were doing, the dare is always more exciting.
Forevermore, I chose truth. The dare I filed in the devil’s camp, and there it stayed thirteen years until yesterday in Sunday school. That’s when five-year-old Luke asked me, “What does daring mean, Miss Pulaski?” I had said the word as I was reading a story about David to them. Competing thoughts waged in my mind canceling one another out. “Let’s look it up,” I said.
I choked a little on the words as I read the definition to my class. I was picturing a young woman fleeing Warsaw, ignorant of the changes Lech Walesa would soon be bringing to Poland through Solidarity. True—it was through conniving and half-truths that she and her seven-year-old brother were able to cross the Baltic into freedom, but I couldn’t deny that it had also taken an extraordinary amount of courage—of daring.
The line is at a standstill and my agitation intensifies. The woman ahead of me has not let up on that strap—it continues burrowing in, blanching the area around it. Why won’t she reposition it off of her bare skin? My own shoulder has begun aching. Doesn’t the woman realize she’s not allowing the tissue to breathe? Pressed long enough, it has no choice but to die.
I’ve applied pressure to my mother for a long time. First, when I was younger, through voluminous accusations and later through my distance, my silence, essentially issuing an ultimatum: change or else.
The line moves again, and the woman, whose shoulder has become an agony for me, orders. As she reaches for her wallet, she finally lets up—giving the strap slack. The blood rushes back into the area, and I exhale. An angry red line appears and I have to clasp my hands together so they don’t reach out and touch it, caress it, sooth it.
One last step forward, and suddenly it’s my turn.
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