This is a work of fiction written for the Mumsnet competition ‘We were going out to dinner.’ Living as an expat some relationships back home get distorted. Some people get confused about your choice to live overseas, confused why you don’t visit more, confused why you aren’t more involved in their everyday life. This is one version of such a relationship*.
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Mama said she didn’t want to cook so we decided we’d go to the Tex-Mex place over by the airport. She was antsy about me taking too long to get ready and I couldn’t tell if she was mad or not.
“You think it’s safe to eat spicy food when five months pregnant?” Mama asked when I requested we go there.
“Millions of pregnant people get away with it so I’ll probably be okay,” I replied as I got in the driver’s seat of my rental car. Mama got in the passenger seat and smoothed her hands along the leather.
“This one’s the best Mexican restaurant in the state of Oklahoma. Run by Mexicans,” she said. “Them Mexicans can cook. If you can believe that.” She slapped her thigh.
“I can believe it. Why wouldn’t I?” I didn’t bother looking at her. The road was more interesting than her opinions about Mexicans.
“Well, because they’re no good at anything else. Apart from stealin’.”
I rolled my eyes, knowing she was trying to get a rise out of me.
“You don’t remember what it’s like here, now you’re living over there.”
“I miss good Tex-Mex, I remember that much.”
Mama knew living in England had changed me and being a woman of uncertain power (she had run out of husbands and her only child lived a long plane ride away), she liked to flex her abilities from time to time just to see what effect she still had on people. Like an old woman sitting on a park bench throwing that fizzy candy, Pop Rocks, at pigeons instead of birdseed every now and then, just to see.
“Let’s swing by Walmart first. I need to pick something up,” Mama said.
“Let’s go after we eat, I’m starving.”
“It won’t take long. And how’re you so hungry? When I was pregnant I could hardly eat anything I was so full up with you.”
“The baby isn’t that big yet, I guess.”
I wasn’t sure about her mood so I gave in and turned in the direction of Walmart (it wasn’t really on the way) and drove across town.
“Go on down to the front,” Mama said when I pulled into the giant parking lot. We got out and started walking up the slope towards the wide, automatic doors of the Walmart.
“Well I never,” she said to a woman who had just walked through the big doors towards us. “I haven’t seen you in a month of Sundays.” And in reply I hear a voice I hadn’t heard for a decade. I knew it immediately, which was good because I wouldn’t have recognised the haggard face.
“Here she is!” the woman sang out. “The one that got away!” It was Tiffany, one of my former stepsisters, wearing a Walmart uniform, one hand on a bony hip, looking at me like I owed her something. This is the one I never got on with. We shared exactly the same birthday but that didn’t mean we were anything alike.
Tiffany was always the mean one, which gave her the edge. She loved to play tricks on me that would end up making me look a fool. One time telling me I couldn’t chew gum while riding the horses or it’d make them bolt. She rode horses everyday but it was about my third time on one so I believed her. Not wanting a horse to bolt with me on it, I swallowed my gum. My mama laughed later and said, “Honey, horses don’t care if you chew gum, tobacco or your fingernails. She was just jealous ‘cause you had that pack of bubble gum I bought you and I didn’t buy her any.”
The last time Tiffany tried one of her tricks was when I caught her in the closet with my boyfriend, her shirt off and his hands all over her. I moved out then and Mama won’t ever let me forget that I abandoned her to that girl. Not surprising they became such good friends, Mama says.
I looked at Tiffany now, all scrawny and messed up.
“Just finished your shift?” Mama asked.
So that was it. I understood why Mama wanted us to just get going when I was taking so long to get ready at the house. She was trying to catch Tiffany still at work.
“I have and I was just about to go fix me some dinner.”
“Tiffany has been a real angel to me in times of need,” Mama said, getting straight to the point.
“Oh Maybelle, you’re exaggerating. How you been, anyway? You’re lookin’ goo-ood today, must be having your daughter at home helpin’ out that’s put you in such a good mood!” She swung her hips to emphasise goo-ood.
Here it is: My mama, Maybelle hates that I live so far away and continually looks for ways to tell me so and Tiffany still loves the opportunity to make me look bad. Simple as that.
“Well, I don’t know about me lookin’ good but you’re right, it sure is wonderful having my daughter back home with me. Even if she can only give me a couple of days.” Couple of days. My plane ticket was booked for a ten-day visit and she knew that. “I just thank the Lord I’ve got you nearby Tiffany. I surely do. There’s been some dark times for me and you helped me get through them, honey.”
“I’m always happy to help with Sister so far away an’ all.” She still called me Sister? She never called me by my real name when we lived together those years our parents were married, only Sister.
“I’ve had some wonderful news; I’m going to be a grandmother,” Mama said. Tiffany looked at my belly. I hardly had a bump yet, even though I’d already developed the habit of holding my palm there.
“You know it wouldn’t hurt to visit your mama more,” she said to me. “Specially now she’s goin’ to have a grandchild.”
“I didn’t know meth-heads could string so many words together,” I said.
“Oh! For shame!” Mama swung her hips around in a great motion of intent and faced me like she was going to tell me what for. Who got the hip swing from whom, I wanted to ask.
I grabbed her arm and started to pull her towards the store but she was slow to move. Tiffany hovered closer to me like a horsefly I wanted to swat.
“Don’t matter, Maybelle. It really don’t.”
“She’s pissy ‘cause she’s hungry,” Mama said. “She always had low blood sugar. Got that from me.”
“I’m not pissy.” I glared at Mama.
“Naw, Maybelle, that ain’t blood sugar’s got her pissy,” jumped in Tiffany. “She’s just mad cause you’n me are friends. You remember she used to always tell anybody who’d listen how she hated you for treatin’ me like your own child?”
Mama gasped and looked at me. I rolled my eyes at her and made my lips into a thin line of impatience.
“Oh Sister, you are hurtful.” Now my mama was calling me Sister? They must call me that when I’m not around.
“I’m hungry, Mama. Let’s either go in and get whatever you’re after or go.”
“You’re still all about you, ain’t ya? Sister needs some dinner, Maybelle,” Tiffany said, shaking her head like it was a damn shame. A gust of wind flew in off the fields and we all reached up to hold our hair.
“All right, let’s talk about you, Tiffany. Still married to Gary?” I asked the piece of white trash that wouldn’t leave us alone. Gary was my boyfriend who discovered tits in our closet with Tiffany. They got married, then a few years ago he got mad at her for sleeping with his best friend (again) and turned her in to the police for selling drugs. But when they came to get her she had planted it all on him and high-tailed it out of town till the dust settled because she had overheard his conversation with the law on the phone. He’d been high as a kite when he called them and just sat on his sofa in their living room making the phone call. Gary always was dumber than a box of rocks, Mama used to say.
“We’re still married,” she said with a triumphant thrust of her pimply chin.
“What a catch.”
“Maybelle! Can you believe the words comin’ outta Sister’s mouth! If she isn’t satisfied criticising her own mama, she’s now criticising my husband. Don’t you ever speak about him in that way again, Sister.”
“I was speaking about you.”
“At a time like this, Sister,” Mama joined in shaking her head. “When all I wanted was to just make some happy memories with you before the baby comes and you bring all this into my world.”
“Seems a shame,” the trash added.
Well. At that point I’d had enough and I kicked a trolley that someone had just wheeled back as far as the doors and had started rolling towards us. Tiffany laughed and Mama leaned back in horror.
“My. Word. Your. Temper!” She flicked her hair back over her shoulder as if it were heavy as a blanket.
“I’ll wait in the car,” I announced. I tried not to flounce off. My hormones were screeching all over the place and I was about to cry. I knew Mama and Tiffany were just putting on a show. Tiffany couldn’t stand ten minutes of my mama’s company.
“Tex-Mex now?” I asked, once she had got herself settled back in the car.
“You can see with your own eyes how difficult life has been for that poor woman. I wonder about your conscience. You should show your Christianity and be kind to those who don’t have as much as you.”
“Tiffany had the same opportunities I had,” I said as I drove out of the parking lot.
“Not all of us are blessed.” Mama was looking out the window across the brown fields, acting like she couldn’t look at me.
“I’d love to be blessed with some food right about now.”
“I’m not sure that I’m very hungry anymore. That ugly scene has put me right off my appetite.”
“You want to go back home?” I dared her.
“Yes, I think I do want to get back.” Mama continued to stare out the window while I drove in silence to her house, turned off the car, followed her inside then I packed my suitcase and went back out to the car.
“Oh I see. You’re going to punish me now.”
“No, I’m going to a motel so we don’t kill each other.” I popped the trunk and threw my suitcase in. “You know, I love you the same whether you’re messing with my head or not, but I’d spend more time with you if you’d stop.”
“Well, hell,” she said and chewed the inside of her cheek.
I drove out to the edge of town and found the Ranch Motel.
“Oh, you’re Maybelle Ferris’ daughter!” said the woman when I’d filled in the card.
“She sure is proud of you. We get to hear all about that wonderful life you’re living in England.”
“I’ll bet,” I smiled politely and concentrated on the room key. She didn’t ask what I could see she was just dying to ask: Why would a child as loved as myself want to stay in a motel rather than with her own mama?
I walked to my room and dropped my suitcase on the floor by the bed then sat in one of the chairs, regretting not getting some food somewhere on the way over. I got up to look through my suitcase for the cookies I packed for a snack.
I had finished eight cookies when there was a knock on my door. I looked through the peephole and saw Mama standing there with two big bags from the Tex–Mex restaurant.
I chewed on my lip a moment by the door before opening it.
“You didn’t think I forgot about gettin’ you some Mexican, did you?” Mama asked as she walked through the door. She put the bags down on the table and started unpacking the food. “Brought your favourites. Now come eat. You need to be fed and that baby needs food too. You think it’ll love Mexican as much as you do?”
“Hard to tell what it’ll be like,” I said, imagining a little girl who looked a lot like me.
“Well, I know one thing’s easy to tell: you’ll make a good mama.”
“How could you know that?” I asked as I started looking through the bags of food.
“You’ve had a good teacher!”
I didn’t say anything, still annoyed about the set-up with Tiffany.
“If you can learn from your own mama’s mistakes then you’ll be a wonderful mama.” She was apologising. I raised my eyebrows, then decided to let it go.
“I’m sorry I got mad, Mama. Hormones.” I accepted the apology by returning one.
“I know, honey. Now, hand me that bag and I’ll finish settin’ up so we can have us some dinner.”
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*Yes, I have a lot of relatives in Oklahoma. No this is not based on any of them.