A Deep Plum Nightie

I was flipping through a tall stack of Mama’s magazines one afternoon when I was twelve years old. She was flying back to Iowa from Los Angeles and I was waiting for her in my room. Sitting with my legs crossed in bed, I spread a Victoria’s Secret catalogue in front of me—the Christmas edition. Women pranced around the glossy pages donning Santa hats, carefully placed atop long hair that curled down their backs like smoke. They wore matching lingerie, red velvet stitching and translucent mesh covering thin torsos in minuscule. White furry cuffs dangled loosely at one model’s slender wrists and I wondered who she was, this girl-woman, what kind of house she lived in, what her bedroom must have looked like, and who she would be surprising with her brand new see-through Santa robe.

My own bedroom was tucked away into the far southeast corner of our house. My walls were covered, floor to ceiling, in the remnants of a choice Mama had let me make at six—an offensive shade of yellow paint that reminded me of biting into a ripe lemon. Mama let me help her stencil in the daisy border. Every time I looked at those daisies, I could still smell the paint’s acrid fumes, could still feel the headache, the twinge in my upper arms. Blobbed and crooked, my daisies stood out from Mama’s, discombobulated flowers trying to escape an otherwise seamless border. The model from the catalogue would never paint her bedroom this color, I thought. She would certainly never choose plain old daisies.

I couldn’t hear when the front door opened and closed from my bedroom, but I always knew when Mama was in the house. Her presence was warm, like vanilla after a rainstorm, and it followed her everywhere. I always thought I was the only one who could sense it. About halfway through the catalogue, I felt it. Her heels click, click, clicked up the stairs and a glassy voice drifted in from the hallway, finding its way to my bedroom door. A soft knock and Mama’s smile peeked inside—so wide, sometimes, it shocked me.

“Hey, baby!” She flung herself across the tiny twin mattress on her stomach, feet kicking behind her in the air. The catalogue fell to the floor.

I threw my arms around her neck and stayed put for as long as I dared. When I released her, she took in my face for a long time before speaking.

“Jesus,” she said simply. Rarely did I see Mama in moments of vulnerability, her mauve-colored lips frozen in a half-smile.

“You look more like Lily every day. Do you see it?”

I knew what she meant. Our photographs, side by side, were uncanny. Same finely pointed nose, full lips, and high cheekbones. Same fine, auburn-tinted hair. And I finally knew where the wide, round shape and blue-grey color of my eyes came from. My body was fuller, of course, at twelve than Lily’s was at nine. In that way, every day, I was looking more like my mother.

“Anyway.” She waved her hand in front of her face and, like the flip of a page, the vulnerability had gone and she was my strong Mama again.

“How was swim camp this week?” She shot me a wink. “Meet any cute boys?”

My nose started to burn, that sting meant to fend off juvenile tears. Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry. Then Mama’s ever-familiar words came back to me. Crying only shows them that they’ve gotten to you. That they’ve won.

I told Mama how August was off to a rough start. How Lucy Miller and Hope Burgress had been spending a lot of time together that summer and, according to my best friend Georgia, “had grown dangerously close.” How Lucy and Hope had giggled together over a loose sheet of paper in the back of the locker room one afternoon before swim practice. How I kept looking back at them, trying to figure out what was going on. How every time I looked back, they shushed one another and went silent, lips tight in stifled laughs.

And then, after practice, everyone rushing to their lockers, chlorine filling my nostrils and water dripping over the tiled floors, I put in the combination on my locker and yanked it open. A sheet of loose-leaf paper wrapped into a tight diamond fell to the ground. Knowing where it had come from, knowing who had drawn it, I crouched down and sat on my feet. I stared at it for a while, felt stuck in that place, chatter and screams and locker doors opening and closing around me. I unfolded it, smoothed it out.

A woman with oversized lips like a duck’s lay spread-eagle on a bed. Above the woman in curly letters were the words “You know what these are good for. Like mother, like daughter.” Underneath the bed in big block letters was the word, “Superslut.” Don’t cry, you little girl. Don’t flipping cry. I fought that familiar burning in my nose. My eyes glazed over the picture and took in every last detail.

“Mama,” I whispered in my bedroom, over and over. Her face remained neutral, and she was careful not to get too close to my body. She always knew those things, those little human things, like how the slightest touch of innocent compassion in a tender moment would only make things worse.

“Look at me, Lana. Look at my eyes and breathe.”

As I focused on her, trying to calm down, trying to think of anything but the note, my eyes lingered over her lips. Those girls were right. Our mouths really were alike. Aside from Mama’s mauve paint. I wore only Burt’s Bees chap stick. Mango.

“Alright, now come here. Come here.” Her arms opened wide and I nestled into her. The moment I smelled her sweet aerosol fumes, my tears broke their barrier, streaming down my face. I thought she’d be disappointed, thought she would remind me to be strong. But it was like she gave me permission, permission to be weak. Permission, only in front of her, to be vulnerable.

She pulled back from me and asked if I wanted to lie down. I nodded, silently, and felt my body hit the small bed, springs squeaking softly below.

“You said this was Lucy and Hope, right?”

I nodded. Mama’s eyes narrowed and she bit her bottom lip.

“Well, you know how their mothers are, anyway…” She began, but quickly seemed to lose her train of thought. She started to make these little circular patterns on my back with her hands. Pat, pat, pat. Circle, circle. Pat, pat, pat. Circle, circle. The repetition gave me something to focus on and the warmth from her hands kept me calm.

“Can I ask you something, Lana?”

I nodded, voiceless.

“Why do you think these girls played such a nasty prank on you?”

I just lay there, thinking. Not knowing what answer she was looking for, or why my friends would do this to me.

“They just don’t like me, like at all,” I choked, barely able to keep the stinging from triggering the waterworks again.

“Hmm…” Mama hummed. “And why do you think, then, that they brought me into that exceedingly clever little note of theirs?”

 Pat, pat, pat. Circle, circle.

I was stumped by this question. “Maybe they don’t like you either.”

She smiled, shaking her head from side to side, her soft bangs shimmying along her forehead.

“No, sweet girl. It has nothing to do with liking either one of us. I think that they see your beautiful face, they see your good heart, they see how kind you are to them. And they think it’s not fair, it’s not fair that a girl so kind can be so beautiful. And that’s when they start to get angry. There’s no explaining it, no rhyme or reason to the thing. They’ve just grown up a little differently from you. They’ve been exposed to all of these personalities and these people who are all just like them. And then they see you, and you’re different because you don’t lose your temper like their fathers do, and you don’t yell at them like their mothers do. And you care. You wear your heart on your sleeve, sweet girl.”

Pat, pat, pat. Circle, circle.

“And besides, who knows what kind of nonsense Christi Miller spouts at home about our family. Filling their heads will all sorts of junk about…” Mama stopped herself, shook her head.

“What…” I wondered aloud, confused at what she was trying to tell me.

“Anyway,” she continued, ignoring my inquiry. “I think that’s what frightens them the most. How open, how genuine you are. Because they know they’ll never be that way. And so they turn your sweet nature into a vulnerability. And they decide to do this thing to you.”

I listened to the soothing hum of her smooth voice more than the words she spoke. It wasn’t until years later that I fully understood what she was getting at. Because at twelve, all I heard was that those girls were jealous of me because of my high cheekbones and full lips.

“So why did they bring you into it?” I asked.

She blinked, hesitated. “Because I look just like you, and remind them of you.”

“Oh.” I stared at her, understanding, but not. I wanted to smile, to show her I was all better. Instead, I breathed deeply and asked about her trip.

Mama parted her lips. “First, are you gonna be alright? Or do I need to talk have a little chat with Christi Miller about her daughter?”

I shook my head. “You know that would just make things worse, Mama.”

She nodded. “Yeah. Alright, fair enough. Though I’ll be honest, I’m dying for an opportunity to rip into that woman.”

My lips cracked into a small smile, followed by one loud snort. Mama joined in, sniggering at first, and then easing into her infectiously loud laugh, each chuckle reverberating around the daisy-bordered walls of my bedroom.

“Lana,” My name was spoken between broken laughs. “Can I…can I tell you something about my trip?”

I nodded and her eyes steadied, her laugh fainting.

“It’s a secret, though. So you can’t tell anyone, alright? It’ll just be between us.”

Her eyes grew big, desperate. Light from the setting sun streamed into the bedroom, turning her irises a translucent green. I wanted to swim in them.

“Alright, well. Your dad and I…you know I love him very much, right?”

Of course, I nodded.

And then she told me. Told me all about how her and Aunt Cathy (Mama’s best friend) had spent an entire day in the water at Santa Monica Beach. How beautiful the sun had looked setting over the ocean. You’re so deprived here, sweet girl. We’re all so deprived living here, so far from an ocean. How hot it was during the day and how quickly it cooled at night. How the clouds created this prism–purple, red, and yellow shot through like little streaks of glass that almost touched you, if you weren’t so far away. How at the end of the day they’d gathered up their things and tossed them in the car. How they’d changed out of their wet suits in the back, globbing on deodorant and makeup and slipping on gauzy dresses over their damp bodies.

How they’d strolled around the small beach town, eager to experience its night life.

How they’d wandered into a fine seafood restaurant and how there had been a wait for a table so they had taken up residence at the bar. Had ordered plates of oysters and dry, white wine. How two men, Young, my mother described them, had sat across from them at the bar. How Mama and Aunt Cathy had gotten loud, like they sometimes did when they were together. How their laughter had grown out of each other, like new buds sprouting out of the stalk of a flower.

How Mama had just been Aunt Cathy’s wingman, at first. I can see her, striding right up to those strange young men and saying “Excuse me, but do you see my friend over there? I’m afraid that she’s lost her wallet. And she’d be ever so grateful if one of you two gentlemen would buy her next drink.” I can see her lips, pressed together in a wide grin, her teeth only showing in smiles meant for people around whom she felt completely comfortable.

How they’d ended up buying Mama a drink, as well. And then another. And then another. More than three drinks in one night never boded well for my mother. I was drunk, she said. I felt lonely, she said. I’ve felt lonely, she said. He had an interesting take on life and, quite simply, it appealed to me, her eyes closed, not wanting to look at me, for me to see her in that moment.

I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know, for sure, what she was saying. She didn’t go into details. She just left it there. Left it there, until,

“Do you forgive me, Lana? Will you still be my friend?” Pause. “You look so much like her, you know. I know that I keep saying that, but you do. I just can’t get over it.”

She flashed me her teeth, that familiar smile, mauve over white. My own adolescent story seemed to mesh with her very grown-up one, the emotions meeting and mingling and molding into one. And then I felt for my mother, in that moment, I really did. And so I nodded. Over and over again, Yes, I forgive you. Yes, I’ll keep your secret.

She inhaled deeply. “Good girl.” Circle, circle, circle. Pat, Pat.

I continued flipping through her Victoria’s Secret catalogue after she left my bedroom a few minutes later. I remember hoping, quite fiercely, that I might have need for these items someday. It wasn’t the models themselves in all their beauty that interested me. I wasn’t the kind to admire that rail-thin figure in models—my mother, she had curves, the kind that drove people crazy. I was much more interested in the lives that these women, or at least the women who bought these things, lived. Because, of course, I so desperately wanted to live these women’s lives. I could see them: the traveler, packing a black lace thong and matching bra into her suitcase just before flying to Spain to meet her fiancé for Christmas; the sweet housewife looking at herself in a red satin push-up in the mirror and giggling, thinking of her husband’s delight at her bold choice of lingerie; the VP at some big corporation quickly tugging on a pair of nude, low-cut bikini underwear and bright pink bra, with no time to find a proper match.

I remember sitting on my mother’s bed just before she took off for that trip to L.A. I was telling her about a funny book I’d just read, and recommended it for her trip. I unzipped the front of her suitcase to slide in the book, and noticed a deep plum lace nightie folded neatly inside. The Christmas catalogue had a similar one on page 26, which is why I mention it at all.

Christina Holt grew up in the Midwest and graduated from Western Illinois University in 2010 with a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature. After living in Chicago for 5 years where she worked in publishing, Christina decided to pursue her MFA in Creative Writing at Western Washington University. [