The Moon at Noontime
by Eileen Tomarchio
I was a girl who loved to peel dried Elmer’s glue from my palms and fingers. Stuck in the basement where the TV was, out of Mom’s way, I’d pinch the well-timed edge and prolong the pull-away, the cling of flesh where the glue most adhered, the release, the skin’s snap back to itself. Patience made for tidier sheaths, no tears or gaps. Waxy ghosts of my hand, a whiff of salt and distant factories. My mistakes were repulsive things, the moltings of snakes and frogs. My best efforts I positioned on the couch arm as if they were parchments in a museum display. With every flaying, I gasped at my raw hand as if it were something I’d just discovered, an accidental creation.
Basement-time cycled through the same five, six commercials. Right hand, left hand, right, left, right. Random noises overhead. Mom pacing, tussling aloud with Paradise Lost and “Learn Italian” tapes. Dropped macramé hoops, flung crochet hooks, scissors. The grunts and stumbles of step aerobics.
I thought—What if I could be of help? Show her what comes of attentiveness? One day, I laid some sheaths along a paper napkin draped on my forearm and went upstairs.
“Look,” I said as Mom knelt with her CD boombox, a composition notebook on her lap. Her hand gripped her pen so hard her knuckles looked humpbacked and bloodless.
She surveyed my bits of handiwork like they were stale samples on a dessert tray and went back to writing. “This was in my head when you were born,” she said, but not deliberately for me to hear.
I stayed and listened and tried but the music was ungraspable. Like hives of stinging bees, word problems in math class.
Back in the basement, I mashed my sheaths and rolled them on the linoleum floor, the particle board walls. Tinier and tinier balls until there was nothing left of them but their tackiness.
My own daughter falls in love with a dress for Homecoming in her size. Strapless, peachy-flesh-toned, spun by fairy godmothers, the way it molds to her shape. The way it makes her look like she isn’t mine. No bulge or pocket of air, none of the ruching or riding up when it’s so skintight it has nowhere else to go. It steals my breath. A year ago, she would have scowled or recoiled if I told her how beautiful she looks. If I said so now, she wouldn’t deny it, and that’s why I don’t say it. I worry over her comfort in her own skin.
Try a size up, just to be sure, I don’t say, either. It takes all my will. I tell her to get out of the dress. By the time she’s done in the fitting room, I’ve paid for it. A little shocked, she keeps up with me as we head to the car.
At night, I fret, thinking of the dress and of Hannah in it, of a boy peeling it away by hand, many boys by sight. Tossed onto scuffed tile, broken cement, dirt where grass can’t grow. A mistake. I picture Hannah gathering it up when it’s over, trembling and alone, struggling to put it back on again but unable to because her hands are too damp.
My father tried to act pleased about his birthday cake. No after-dinner Lucky Strike, no griping about the Eagles or the neighbors’ hot tub motor. The cake wobbled as Mom plonked it down next to the uncleared dinner plates, the errant peas and mashed potato globs on the table where she’d missed her aim. I gasped for her benefit.
“You shouldn’t have. I mean it,” Dad said and kept saying as he palmed sweat off his hairline.
Mom sat, crossing and uncrossing her legs. A cigarette pulled long at her dry lips, showing their raw insides. I remembered her saying the Serenity Prayer sometimes before starting a recipe, the first part at least, the plea for acceptance of the things she couldn’t change. Now I looked around the kitchen. Broken discs of wrongly-timed devil’s food. Springform collars and bottoms stacked in nervous sculptures. Frosting smeared on the drawer handles. All the unsightly cost of a single creation.
I reached for Mom’s plate and scraped her barely-touched dinner onto Dad’s plate and Dad’s onto mine.
“Just leave it, Carrie,” she said. I did.
Breath held, she cut the three layers, holding the knife with both hands, like a sword for battling or knighting. No candles or singing or making a wish or blowing out. Not even for my benefit, even if it wasn’t my birthday. Dad looked almost relieved. I said the Serenity Prayer to myself.
Together they ferried the teetering slices to paper plates, Dad bracing them with the flat of his hand. “Easy,” he whispered. When mine fell apart mid-air, they hustled it onto my plate in a hail shower. Dad laughed and Mom started slicing me another, but I said it was okay and took a bite before they could say more.
Dad sat back and forked his own, chewing with eyes closed.
“Ah…mezza mezza,” he said finally with a see-saw of his meaty hand. “Just kidding, it’s perfect.”
Mom laugh-cried as she picked up the stacked dinner plates and scraped the mash into the garbage, saying she’d eat her slice later.
She never saw Dad pull what looked like a piece of himself through his lips, a glob of icing-smeared skin, and hide it in his fist. Never saw me bite down on something wrong, too, and peel it from my tongue. Parchment paper, I realized, at the same time noticing the curls and streamers of it on the counter, nudged by the hot breeze coming through the screen in the fluke autumn heat wave.
We finished our cake in a rush, wiping our mouths, swallowing hard as Mom sat down again, her sudsy palms face-up on her lap. Dad and I couldn’t look at each other. Even later, while Mom was crashed on the couch and we finished clean-up and ran the window fans, we kept our eyes on what our hands were doing.
Hannah tells me the air-conditioning in the gym was set so high a bunch of freshman girls stole some of the boys’ suit jackets and wore them for most of the dance. “We literally attacked them,” she says, chuckling. “They just huddled in the corner the whole time ‘cause it was freezing. It was so lame. They were too scared to dance with us.” I’m folding and refolding kitchen towels, wiping and re-wiping the counter under the bread basket where, I swear, the seeds and crumbs spontaneously generate. Hannah’s at the age where it’s harder to tell if she’s embellishing or withholding. She’s no more or less talkative than she usually is, which doesn’t help. Not that I’d know how to interpret her meaning if she said more, said less. I assume everything is missed signs between us. Overkill, maybe, but it’s more than my mother ever did. I don’t think my mother realized there were signs to miss.
Later I knock on Hannah’s door but she’s asleep already. Goodnights, gone the way of Weird Al singalongs and American Girl Doll theatricals. I pick up a pumice stone and sniff her dead skin embedded there. It takes all my will not to look at the pictures on her phone, the three-quarter body turns and lolling tongues and peace signs. All my will not to pick up the dress poised like a shunted chrysalis on her desk chair and inspect for pulls or rips. Evidence of friction, resistance, frenzy. Of succumbing. Why not of goofball stumbles or innocuous dares or those ferocious, obliterating hugs of girls?
She’s spread-limbed on the bed, a sightless newborn again, cupped hands reaching for solidity. No accident. I can’t remember the last time she gave me a hug I didn’t ask for, even silently. I try to imagine what selves she imagines becoming, but it’s not for me to get ahead of her like that.
I’m guessing she won’t want to wear the dress again because girls this age can be like that. I’ll take it to the dry cleaners tomorrow, pay for any repairs, and either store it in a garment bag or give it away. I’ll pray for the wisdom to know the difference.
For days after Dad’s birthday, I coaxed tiny trimmings of parchment paper from corners and under tables. It felt wrong to throw them out, these leavings of what had taken so much out of my mother. I put them in my Popples lunchbox where I kept the glue sheaths that were greying and melting together in the heat that wouldn’t go away. Eventually, I stopped peeling Elmer’s because all I was getting were mistakes. Dad came home from work a little later every week. Mom stopped cooking, stopped baking, blaming it on the weather, even after it got cool and then cold and then hibernal. She barely left her bedroom, though she always made sure to come out for a little while before I went to bed. An asynchronous slice of the day that felt both wondrous and unsettling, like seeing the moon at noontime. On her cheek and temple were the impressions of her chenille bedspread, dozens of dots like reptile markings. I could estimate how deeply she’d napped by how long the dots stayed before fading. Sometimes she’d crush me close, so close and so ferociously it was as if she wanted us to go back and be one body again. Then just as suddenly she’d peel me off her cheek and I’d touch my own, feeling for the ghost there.