By Natasha Yglesias
“What are we doing?” I ask in the backseat of one of Mother’s cars. Or maybe I ask, “Where are we going?” Maybe we are standing, burning, at the bus stop for what seems like hours—Mother’s car broken down and driven to the dump—sun beating hot and flat forever.
“Please,” Mother sighs. “Always these questions. No more today, okay?” Yes, those questions and others, too, like, “Where did my things go?” or, “Where is the food?”
I catch her packing the car some early mornings, hurried and quiet to avoid landlords and neighbors. Each time I ask, “Where to now?”
“Somewhere new,” she declares, buckling me into the back like this hasn’t happened before. Looking over her shoulder as she starts the car, she says, “Pick a direction.”
“Up,” I say, letting my eyes close. It is the only way to go from here.
Motels are much better than Mother’s cars—the sleep is better, and they are warmer, too. Each one is different and yet the same—those stacked, uniform exteriors, little L-shaped buildings surrounding their parking lots. The paint is always ugly, colors either too dark or too bright. Lobbies always smell like microwaved food. Rules are often printed on taped papers: “Inquire about Weekly Rates” and “Overnight guests must be registered.” While Mother checks in, I scan displayed brochures for things we cannot afford to do. Come visit Splash Town: the coolest place in the desert! There’s always one for the tramway, too: Take a ride to an alpine wonderland 8,500 feet atop Mt. San Jacinto.
I love when the motels have pools. Not all have them; it feels like a vacation when they do. I enjoy the long outside walkways that wrap around the higher floors; I like that I can wander. On weekends when Mother does laundry, I look for the other children stuck in the same strange limbo as me. “This is only temporary,” their mothers say to mine—so sure—and she nods as if she feels the same. While they talk the other kids and I climb up and down stairs, we peek through room windows. We race down the walkways shrieking, “Tag, you’re it!” until our mothers rush forward, hands braced, calling out, “Hey now! Careful!”
We play, too, Mother and I. We braid each other’s hair. We jump on the beds, rearrange the rooms until the furniture is collected in the center. We dance, we sing songs. We dive into the pool when the sun is too strong. She carries me on her back; I grip her slick shoulders as she charges through the water as fast as she can. We practice handstands, we practice floating. “How are you? Are you happy?” she asks, drying me off with those ubiquitous white towels, my hair damp and crunchy from chlorine.
How can I not be? We are greedy, Mother and I. We take long, hot showers in these motels, we turn on the air conditioner full-blast. The whole day! No landlords to come knocking on our door, demanding what we do not have. That does not stop me, though.
“Can I have this?” I say, pointing my hand, tugging hers. As we roam thrift stores, I bring her new things to consider. “What about that? What do you think?”
“Let me see,” Mother says, checking her purse. She turns over the threads, searches for the coins that might have slipped through tears in the lining.
“Stay up late. Spend the night with me,” Mother says, pulling me next to her. “We can tell school you’re sick.” Good—I’d rather not go. The other kids are nosy; they try to find out things that aren’t their business. “Let’s have a sleepover,” girls say to me, looking to each other with meaningful glances that are closed off to me.
“I’m not sure,” I say, remembering rules posted in lobbies. “I think that costs extra.”
They whisper behind my back right in front of me. They laugh at Mother as she argues with the other parents, crowding the curb with her rattling car, our luggage in the back as she waits to pick me up. Forget them! What do they know about her, about us?
After showering we play card games, Mother’s favorite. She teaches me hold’em and blackjack, we use corn nuts from vending machines as poker chips. I think she likes to play me because she always wins. She scoops up the nuts with glee, crunches away. Licking salty fingers, she says: “Better luck next time,” and “Maybe my luck is turning!”
Nestled in each other’s arms we lie in bed and watch black and white movies. My favorite has a leopard named Baby; Mother stops each time it’s playing on the classic movie channel. We have fallen asleep to it four times by now.
Sometimes I wake to spy her by the window, thumbing through her things. Counting, I think, to make sure she hasn’t lost more than she already has. She only stops when her focus is on me, so I try to find ways to distract her. If she still worries then, she hides it well from me.
“What are you doing?” I ask her. “Why are you up?”
“No more questions,” Mother says, kissing my eyelids shut. She pets my head and once again it feels like I’m all she worries about. “Time for sleep.”
“Time for breakfast!” Mother says, hurrying me out the door. What a treat, pulling into the Carl’s Jr. drive-thru. We order until our laps overflow, amazed how much costs so little. French Toast Sticks, hash brown rounds, mini buckets of syrup. Mornings where I am reminded life is sugary sweet. I come to school with sticky fingers. No more reaching for answers when my glazed fingers keep coming back to my mouth.
“Winner, winner, chicken dinner!” Mother says, which means we will eat well. It does not mean, however, that we will always eat chicken. At dinner, we rip off the ends of our straws’ paper sleeves, we aim and blow, send them soaring into each other. Since we have no quarters, we sing the songs we want to hear. We laugh so loud that our neighbors in the next booth turn and frown. I stuff my face full of mozzarella sticks and French fries, gulp down strawberry milkshakes. When she doesn’t eat, I make sure to offer to share.
“No, no,” she says, like watching me eat makes her full. “This is all for you.”
Everything always is.
Back in a room, Mother is waiting for me. Tonight, maybe we’ll make a fort out of extra pillows and sheets she’s gotten from Housekeeping. Perhaps with her special deck she’ll show me shuffling tricks she’s learned over the years. We’ll order a pizza, and it will be enough for her to eat as well.
“How are things at home?” my teachers ask, pulling me aside while the other kids head to lunch. Their faces are worried; they are watchful. “Are you being taken care of?”
“Yes,” I say, and this is true. It stays true even after they ask, “Are you sure?”
Natasha Yglesias is an MFA candidate in Fiction at the Bennington Writing Seminars. She was an honorable mention in Glimmer Train‘s April 2015 Very Short Fiction Award, and her work can be found in Lockjaw Magazine, Thin Noon Journal, and Waypoints Magazine. She lives in the Bay Area and is currently a reader for Post Road Magazine. You can find her on Twitter at:
Art by Michelle Johnsen, art editor
Michelle Johnsen is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.