Excerpt from In Loco Parentis, Chapter 3
My mother’s plane is early, so she is waiting outside baggage claim with her taupe hard-shelled suitcases at her side. She is wearing one of her cat sweatshirts with a turtleneck underneath and stretch jeans that still keep a crease. Other people speed past her rolling pull-luggage and chatting on cell phones. As she pivots her head catching glimpses of city folk, I can tell that she’s overwhelmed by the bustle of LAX.
I always say that I grew up in Pittsburgh, but actually I’m from Aliquippa, a country town outside city limits where people still burn trash in a barrel behind their garage. On Kate’s first trip to Southern California during the eighties, she came off the plane with a hive the size of a pancake on her cheek, so that’s the first thing I look for as I approach my mother. No hives. Good. I notice she has a new hairdo, a variation on her teased Liza Minelli with curled pieces framing her ears. She has indulged in new glasses, too, rimless oval frames that make her look hip for fifty-seven.
“I’m sorry. I should have called the airline,” I say as I rush toward her, my light purse swinging from my shoulder.
Kate raises her arms for an embrace, “That’s okay. I just got my bags. I hope the roses didn’t melt.”
My mother has been obsessing about the roses for two weeks. She has made 75 white chocolate roses for the wedding tables. They and other decorations probably take up much of the space in her bags.
We squeeze each other for a good thirty seconds. After the last few days, this feels divine. Then Kate pushes me back and inspects my face through her new glasses. I knew I couldn’t hide it for long, even though I purchased a scar cover and applied it just before I left the house.
“What in the world?” she asks.
“I fell in the park, got some gravel in my chin and my—” I lift my right palm covered with a large band-aid.
“With four days to the wedding?”
“It’ll been fine, mom.”
“I have vitamin E capsules in my suitcase. We can break them open on the scabs. Did you take up jogging again?”
“You’re thin enough.”
“Mom, I still need to lose some inches or the gown won’t fit.” I pick up one of the suitcases with my uninjured hand. “We better go.”
When we rest the luggage next to Giovanni’s subcompact, my mother is puzzled. I would have told her about my car being stolen, but she wouldn’t quit about my weight, how my hips are shaped like all other Hazlinski women’s, and that if she’d let me, she would alter my gown to perfection. Kate does sew, but a wedding gown might be out of her league. I take a closer look at the cat sweatshirt as I reach to the bottom of my purse for the keys. It’s a newer one of her silk-screen creations, a silver Persian wearing a bride’s veil. “Great shirt, mom.”
“Thanks. I wondered when you’d notice. Where’s your car?” she asks, scanning the parking garage.
“We’re taking Giovanni’s.”
“Oh, the boy’s. Your’s in the shop?”
“Uh, no. It was sort of stolen.”
“At the park where—“
“You were mugged? I knew this would happen here.”
“No, I didn’t lock it. Old habits.” I pull Giovanni’s keys out of my purse, trying to hide the pot leaf medallion attached to the ring. This is her first time meeting Giovanni. I don’t want to jinx the whole thing too early. I open the trunk and push aside discarded CDs and a ratty Mexican blanket. The suitcases barely fit, but in they go.
“Watch the roses in that one,” Kate says. “You mean to tell me you were injured, in a park, with no car?”
“Well, Paul was there.”
“And what did Mr. Wonderful do?”
“He took me to a doctor. And now I’m fine.” I open the passenger door and guide her onto the low bucket seat. After sliding the pot leaf off the key ring, I get in on the driver’s side, shut the door, and grip the steering wheel, which is a bulky chain, the links welded together.
Kate’s nose twitches. “He’s a smoker?”
“Yeah,” I say, dragging it out into two syllables. I start the car, which has a rumbling muffler, and back out of the space.
“Kids smoking now. Can’t believe it. Did you ever tell him how I quit?”
“I think you should go for it, Step-Granny.”
With her mouth poised for a lipstick check, she pulls down the visor above her head. A box of rolling papers and an empty pot baggie fall onto her lap. “That will take some getting used to.”
“Tell me about it.”
Kate holds up the baggie by one corner and sniffs it. “Is this what I think it is?” Even from the driver’s seat, I can smell the weed penetrating the plastic.
“Well, what are you going to do?”
“For now, put it back.” The ticket booth is just a car length ahead, so I slow down and reach for the package of rolling papers on her lap, but Kate gets them first.
“Do you put up with this? Does Paul?”
“He’s working on it.” I roll down my window as if a toxic vapor needs to escape.
Gripping the baggie with one hand and the rolling papers with another, Kate raises her arms and shakes the paraphernalia. “The minute I found something like this, it would be hit the road, buddy.”
I grab a dollar bill rolled up in my pocket and pay the ticket booth guy, who doesn’t even look up from his Daily Variety. “Thanks,” I say and wait for the red-striped gate to lift. Seconds tick by, prolonging my response to Kate’s comment. How I am to respond when I know she’s right? For my self-preservation, I can’t let her know that now. “We’re trying to set some boundaries for him.” I glare at the guy with the Variety. “Excuse me.” Another car’s screeching tires jar him from his reading. He closes the cash register, the gate rises, and I’m headed to Paul’s house, where Giovanni still slumbers past two in the afternoon. I imagine his dread-locked hair spiking outward on his pillow and his clothes from the night before mingled in with the sheets and opened magazines. I’m headed to this place with my mother, in her cat appliqué sweatshirt, who has me pegged in less than ten minutes.
When I told Kate about my engagement to Paul, she tried to hide her ambivalence but, ultimately, failed. Sure, the idea of her daughter being settled, finally, after the disastrous elopement with the oboe player was gratifying on one level. Plus, she loved the idea of a wedding, the chance to use her decorative talents for her own daughter. How many silk flower sprays had she designed for other women’s daughters? How many trellises had she laced with tulle and gold ribbons? But my mother doubted the sanctity of marriage. Abandoned by my father when Kate was 21 and I was an infant left an indelible mark. Trusting men was a dangerous game. Too proud to return to my grandmother’s house, Kate persevered, working graveyard at a ribbon factory that was within walking distance of the tiny apartment where we lived. At night, her neighbor put me in a crib with two other babies. Working these hours and caring for me, Kate became so thin that she couldn’t breast feed. Formula was too expensive, so she crawled back to my grandmother, who called her a fool for marrying a “do-nothing,” drunkard Welshman.
That’s Kate’s tale as I know it. Relying on a man can lead to ruin. It hasn’t helped my case that Paul is divorced, older, and has had partial custody of his son. My mother sees my impending marriage to Paul as an invitation to doom. She imagines that being a stepmother to a “teenager” like Giovanni will upend my life even more than it’s been over the last several years. I tell her that Giovanni is no longer a teen, that he has matured into a 20-year-old, but when she fires questions about his future, I’m helpless. “Does he work?” Not at the moment. “Does he go to college?” Not exactly. He quit. “Does he get along with his mother?” Not really. She drops him off at Paul’s house without notice. Giovanni and Terry scream at each other over the phone and sever ties for months.
As we approach Paul’s house, my mother is enamored with the flowers. Back East, most annuals are near death from November frost. “What a growing season,” she says. I’m grateful that she has forgotten, if for just a few minutes, a blight more threatening than frost.
We park the pot-mobile in the driveway and unload Kate’s stuff. She comments on the over-grown rose bushes, which “must be cut down to the stump,” as we pass the planter that forms a perimeter around Paul’s ranch-style house--a combination of stucco, knotty-wood planks, variegated bricks, and aluminum-framed windows. The door sticks, as usual, when I insert the key. With some pressure, it springs open from the jamb, and there, standing naked—except for his low-slung bikini underwear—stands Giovanni, blocking the harsh sun with his forearms. “What the fuck?” he says. A wedge of light illuminates his Mick Jagger body with a Y-pattern of dark hair spreading over his pectorals and descending along his torso in smooth waves. Seeing this is a first for me though I’ve heard Paul warn him about answering the door in his underwear. The suitcase in Kate’s hand drops to the floor. I look at her and see her other hand, fingers splayed, gripping her face like a tarantula.
“Uh, mom, this is Giovanni.”
“Well, yes, hello.”
“Yo. Is she like my step-granny now?”
I look at my mother and now see a hive the size of a quarter forming on her right cheek. “Uh, yes. Yes she is,” I say.
Giovanni reaches between us and pushes on the door, cutting the natural light to a slice in the dim entryway. To my surprise, he picks up Kate’s suitcases and asks, “So where’s she staying?”
“Your dad’s room, our room, the room where your dad and I—”
“Now Martha--” Kate adjusts the purse strap on her shoulder. She is trying not to look at Giovanni’s thin muscles straining with the bags, but through her bifocals I can see her magnified eyes trained on Giovanni’s exposed body. “I’m not taking your bed,” she says.
“We talked about this, mom.”
Giovanni turns and swings the suitcases in motion down the hallway. His triceps and lats contract from the weight. Gripped in the tight underwear, his boyish cheeks barely move as he navigates around the corner toward his room. Already the smells are assaulting my nose. I can only imagine my mother and her pine cleaner obsession inhaling the combination of pot, incense, sweaty socks, and moldy carpet. I glance to the right and see his room now strewn with clothes and towels, a guitar with a busted string mingled in the bed sheets, a pile of coins heaped on the floor next to the tilted nightstand with three legs.
“You can stay in my room,” Giovanni says and backs up as if he’s about to heave the suitcases toward the vaporous mound on his bed.
Kate holds an index finger to her nose and rubs the nostrils. “Uh, I don’t—”
“I’m just messing with you,” Giovanni says.
Even though it’s 2:10, Kate requests a stiff drink after Giovanni retreats to the bathroom for a shower. Normally, Kate waits for that magical time of the evening, 5:00 sharp, to indulge in a cocktail, usually a highball. Back East, it’s past five, so she thinks we should break out the booze. With all the chaos over the last few days, however, I haven’t had time to do my Kate shopping, which includes Half-and-Half, Donald Duck Orange Juice, rye bread, sweet butter, Lebanon bologna (if I can find it), 7-Up, and a fifth of Seagram’s. The only alcoholic drink in the house is an old bottle of sparkling wine, a Christmas gift from one of Paul’s orchestra students. It’s hidden in the vegetable crisper. We have to keep the in-house liquor supply to a minimum because Giovanni has taken beer, wine, gin, Kahlua, whatever, and drunk all the contents, sometimes in one sitting. I reach into the crisper and find a bag of limp zucchinis clinging to the bottle. I slide the bag into the trash and present the wine to my mother, who is sitting at the kitchen table pulling a loose thread from a placemat. From where she is seated, I can see her glancing down the hallway in the direction of the bathroom where Giovanni is showering. Her hive has taken over her right cheek and looks hot.
“This is all we have right now. I can go to the store really quick,” I say.
“Let’s see it,” she says and grabs the neck. She studies the label. “This will do.”
“Okay.” I take the bottle and peel back the foil. The wire closure looks rusted, but I manage to untwist it and rock the cork until it gently pops. I let out a whooping sound, expecting Kate to join in the celebration. Instead, she is looking at the clock on the microwave. “How long has he been in there?”
“I know. He takes long showers.”
“How does he wash that twisted hair?”
“I think it’s more like a rinsing.”
I pour the bubbly into red wine glasses and hand one to Kate. She raises her glass for a toast. I clink her rim and slide into a chair next to her at the table.
“Well, to marriage,” she says. “You’re going to need cases of this stuff.” She takes a sip and presses the glass to her hive.
“Do you want a Benadryl?” I ask.
“It’ll go down.”
“Remember last time?”
Kate takes a swig and shakes her head as if dismissing the memory of our rush to an urgent care facility the last time she developed a hive that puffed up one eye. It was her first visit to the L.A. area, and she swore she’d never return.
I just get a mouthful of the wine when Paul pushes open the door and approaches the kitchen. “There she is,” he says when he spots Kate. He reaches down and squeezes her around the shoulders, just like he does with his own mother. He kisses her on one cheek but stops short of kissing the other. “Oh no, not the hive again,” Paul says. “Martha told me.”
“This one’s leaving me. Don’t worry.”
Paul sets his briefcase on the counter and kisses me on the lips, an area without stitches. “Well, the two of you are still beautiful to me.” Paul studies my face and strokes my temple, “How’s it feel?” I nod and can smell the valve oil on his hands. He must have had brass ensemble today. Paul turns to Kate, “Did you hear about the tumble in the park?”
“Parts of it. What happened?”
I narrow my eyes at Paul, making sure he has the lie in launch mode. Letting Kate know about the argument in the park would be disastrous now.
“We were jogging.”
“At night?” Kate asks.
“It’s cooler. And Ms. Graceful, here, takes a dive across some gravel. When I took her back to the parking lot, her car was gone. She’d left the keys inside, the door unlocked.” Paul runs his hands through the curly hair behind his ears. “Hey, did the police call?” he asks me.
“No, but it’s early,” I say. “It could be days.”
“So, whoever it was, got the car and the purse.” Paul tucks in his polo shirt near the small of his back, which makes him look thinner across the stomach. Pre-wedding stress weight loss, I guess. “And the keys to the house. Did you get a chance to call the locksmith?” he asks.
“Yes.” I glance at the clock. “He should be here between three and five.” Like anyone in this situation, I had to spend hours this morning trying to get my life back in order. After submitting my police report, I endured the pleasures of the DMV. Then I called my insurance company, my bank, my credit card companies, the cell phone people, and several other agencies to guard against identity theft. I did wonder who would want my pitiful bank account and maxed-out credit cards? And who would claim my DMV photo, which was taken from a low angle and makes me look like a Czech prison matron?
My mother is nodding while Paul shifts the topic to her flight from Pittsburgh. I see him charming her, even if it’s one millimeter at a time on the mother-in-law-to-be metric ruler. I get Paul a glass and pour him some wine.
“Thanks.” Paul turns back to my mother and raises his glass, “Salud. Did you meet Giovanni?”
“Yes, I saw him.”
“Giovanni treated us to an underwear greeting,” I say.
Paul sighs. “I told him—”
“Told me what?” Giovanni asks then darts past the table and opens the fridge. He pulls out a Yoo-Hoo and opens the twist top with the bottom of his N.W.A. t-shirt. Now he’s wearing baggy jeans slung low enough to reveal a band of regular briefs. His dreadlocks, still damp, send rivulets down his forehead. He puts the bottle to his lips but doesn’t take a sip. Instead, he points at the sparkling wine in Paul’s glass. “Hey, man, can I have some of that?”
“Uh, no,” Paul says.
“I think y’all having a mid-day par-taye. I’d get busted for that shit.”
Paul raises one hand to his lips and glares at Giovanni. “Please watch your mouth.”