The Other Mother: A Lesbian's Fight for Her Daughterby Nancy Abrams
On a spring day in 1993, Nancy Abrams helped her daughter dress for day care, packed her lunch, and said good-bye. Next she drove to court, where she learned that in the eyes of the law she was nothing more than “a biological stranger” to the child she helped bring into the world and raise. That was the last time she would see her daughter or hear her
On a spring day in 1993, Nancy Abrams helped her daughter dress for day care, packed her lunch, and said good-bye. Next she drove to court, where she learned that in the eyes of the law she was nothing more than “a biological stranger” to the child she helped bring into the world and raise. That was the last time she would see her daughter or hear her voice for five years.
The Other Mother begins as Abrams and her female lover decide to start a family together. With giddy anticipation, they search for a sperm donor, shop for baby clothes and crib, and attend childbirth classes. But despite their high hopes, the relationship begins to fall apart, and they separate when their daughter is a toddler. Problems between the two intensify until, shortly before her daughter’s fifth birthday, Abrams loses custody.
In unprecedented depth, Abrams’s compelling narrative examines the social, legal, and political implications of gay and lesbian parenting. Her haunting memoir asks the question, “What makes a mother?” It is a question that biological parents, co-parents, adoptive parents, step-parents, and divorced parents must each answer in their own way. In telling one woman’s story, The Other Mother makes a solid case for legal protections, including marriage, for lesbian and gay families.
“An absorbing, well-told story . . . an original contribution to the emerging body of work on gay and lesbian parenting.”Jane Schacter, Professor of Law, University of Michigan
Read an Excerpt
Yesterday someone asked me when I last saw you. I tried to come up with an answer, but as soon as I began to mentally roll back through time my mind slid off a cliff into clear white space. I had to say I didn't know.
When you were born, we counted first the days, then weeks, then months that you were with us. "Can you believe she's a whole week old?" Norma would ask, staring at your eight-pound body wriggling in my arms. At nine months we had a miniature birthday party for you to commemorate that now your lifetime outside of the womb equaled the time you had spent inside. On your first birthday, relatives traveled from New York City and New Hampshire to celebrate with us in Cambridge. When you were about eighteen months old, I heard a friend who had no children tell someone else that you were "about two." I scolded her later. "Don't you know that until a baby is twenty-four months old, you count her age in months? Eighteen months has nothing to do with two years old."
Now six months or six years makes no difference to me. You are someplace else. I can't see you or speak with you, so why bother counting? If I really try, I can come up with this statistic: I have missed five of your birthdays, and all of the seconds, minutes, and hours in between.
The story I am about to tell you is one I wish I never had to recount. I'd rather fill these pages with tales of your childish antics; running just for the sake of it, turning things over to find out what's on the bottom, spilling things just so they could berefilled, bringing rocks, weeds, and blueberries home in your pockets as presents. But there is more that you must know and I must say. The way that I came to be your other mother is an unusual tale. The way I lost you, more so.
Telling this is a painful task. I approach it as I would combing the tangles out of your windblown hair. I start where there is some order, high on the scalp, drag the comb through what is smooth and easy to sort: to the right, to the left. Stop at the knots. Take a small section and find what separates easily. Try again.
You should know that even now, sometimes when I dress for work, instead of finding the agate earrings I am searching for, I come across one of your barrettes, like the plastic one with a yellow rabbit in the center. Then the whole morning at work I think about the barrette you left behind on one of your visits long ago.
I should record the fact that before you and your mom moved away, you gripped me in your arms, told me I was your prisoner, and wouldn't let me say good-bye.
These stories tell themselves over and over in my sleep. They are the stories that live in the short silence I hope you never have to hear, between the question "Do you have children?" and my answer: sometimes "yes" and sometimes "no."
Here's what my daughter wore to day care on June 15, 1993: a short-sleeved shirt with pale pink stripes and matching pants, white socks with pink stitching, and her 101 Dalmations sneakers.
It was the last day I saw her. That's why I remember the details: How I poured Cheerios and milk for breakfast. How I tried to make it just another morning. I didn't even pack her suitcase until after my partner drove her to day care. Then I got dressed, and went to court.
Every time a new friend or acquaintance visits my house and sees along the mantel a parade of photos of a little girl starting at birth and stopping abruptly at age fourlike a time-lapse photograph of a flower whose petals never open all the waythey ask, "Isn't there something more you could have done?" My gut lurches at the question. As it does when anyone asks how long it's been since I've seen her. Four and a half years. A lifetime, literally, when you consider: She was four and a half years old that last day. Nine now.
The day I went to court, my daughter forgot to put on her silver ring, the one with a turquoise stone the size of one of those sugar dots on paper strips she loved to tear off with her teeth. I found the ring on the edge of the bathtub. Next time I cleaned, I moved it into the bowl where we keep hair ties and barrettes.
I'm wearing that ring now. On a chain around my neck next to a sterling silver symbol I received as a gift, which in some ancient alphabet is said to mean fulfillment. I wear that necklace, and I hope. Fulfillment of this desire seems a simple wish.
But I know now that what's simple, what's easily achieved, is the emptiness of longing. Fulfillment is not.
It was 1986. I was twenty-two years old, and I felt my heart had been broken one too many times. Six months earlier my last lover had pulled away from the curb on her Honda Rebel 250 motorcycle. Now I was ready for someone new, and I demanded a replacement relationship the way some people insist on a first-class seat on an airplane: It was available, so I had simply to request one for myself and agree to pay the price.
My romantic desperation had not been earned. I'd had a handful of boyfriends in high school and college, but in those days I tended to be the one doing the leaving. Since becoming involved with women I'd had two romances I considered substantial and a few flings. No one had warned me that a relationship was something that had to be built. If I was too sensitive to disappointment, it was because I hadn't bargained on the time it would take to create "happily ever after."
My friend Samantha had come over to eat dinner and watch MTV. As I spooned mounds of steaming rice and lentils onto our plates, I couldn't resist breaking into one of my frequent laments about being single. And Samantha couldn't hold back from offering her stock reply: "You can't rush these things."
"But it's already been so long," I said, stroking my cat, Ahab, who had climbed into my lap.
"You haven't even gotten over Evel Knievel yet."
"She has a name."
"It wouldn't be fair to your future girlfriend to get involved now, you're still pining." Sam was forever practical. Everything about her, from her perfectly straight hair that fell just past her shoulders, to the parallel lines made by her thin eyebrows and level mouth, seemed studiously planned and carried out. Life was a science to her, and there were right ways and wrong ways to do everything, including cooking rice and falling in love.
"The next one, whoever she is, is for keeps. I can't take another heartache," I said. I may as well have affected a swoon for all of the melodrama in my voice. But that was how I felt back then, eating dinner from mismatched bowls in front of the television as the fading late-autumn sun threw stripes of light across the room. Michael Jackson was singing "Billie Jean" when the phone rang. Ahab scrambled to the floor as I stood to answer it. It still seems too convenient that in the middle of that conversation with Sam, someone should have called to ask me out. But that's how it happened.
"What's that grin for?" Sam asked when I came back to the living room.
"Who says you can't always get what you want?"
"Who was it?"
"Amy, from my karate class, the one I told you had been flirting with me last week. She asked me to a movie."
(That's how things seemed to be for me then. I made demands, and they were answered. Friends have said to me, "You're so lucky," or "Your life seems charmed." Someone said it to me just recently, when the job I'd had my eye on for several years suddenly opened up just when I was back on the market for a new position. I did get the job. But what does that really mean about luck? About a charmed life?)
Two nights later, Amy and I had our date. After a movie and a beer at a new café in Harvard Square, she invited me to her apartment. Despite a valiant effort, I felt nothing more for Amy than I had when I taught her how to curl her fingers into a proper fist in the beginners' karate class where she was my student. I was beginning to think Sam was right. Maybe you can't just grab for love like that.
As we climbed the porch steps to her apartment, I tried to think of an excuse to go home early. But in the endless moments while Amy fumbled with her keys, I dropped my eyes and noticed a canvas that someone had left on the porch to dry. It was a picture of a black horse stampeding through a cabbage-colored landscape. Somehow the dark colors appeared bright, making what might have been a portrait of doom into something beautiful. The paint was applied so heavily it had ridges almost wide enough for a fingertip to ride through, like the folds in a bowl of just-whipped cream.
"Like it?" Amy asked, clicking on the porch light. If she had painted this, there must be more to Amy than I'd discovered that evening. "My roommate painted it," she said.
It was another week before I met Norma. Amy brought her to the next karate session. "This is Nancy Abrams, the one who liked your painting so much," she said, introducing us.
A nervous smile spread across Norma's lips. My eyes accidentally locked into hers, making me uncomfortably aware that we were exactly the same height. As if I had purposely intruded, and she was warning me away, Norma looked off to the side. Or maybe it was a sign of her insecurity, shyness, a desire for privacy.
Norma Jean I wanted to say, letting myself take in her flawless skin, her sad mouth. But she told me her name was just Norma. Norma Friedman. As she spoke she smiled. Her eyes, although not sharply focused, challenged mineto flirt or fight, I couldn't be sure which. The extra-large T-shirt draped over her birdlike frame gave her the appearance of being helpless. Still, something proud in the way she held her neck convinced me that she was a match for anything the world could offer. As she learned to punch and kick, Norma threw her arms and legs as one might toss a scarf around one's neck; with a looping, casual sweep.
One night after class, Amy offered to give me a lift home with her and Norma. I wasn't sure whether Amy was still interested in me, or if she sensed my attraction to Norma. But in that moment I wasn't worrying about Amy's motives. I accepted the ride.
Norma sat in front beside Amy, never looking back to ask me a question or add to the conversation. While I struggled to keep up with Amy's patter, I listened to the silence surrounding Norma. Aloofness never scared me away. Its curious emptiness always drew me in, as it did that night.
"Why don't you come by our apartment for a cup of coffee?" Amy suggested. We had stopped at the light where she'd turn if I declined. But curiosity about Norma made me say yes.
When we arrived at the run-down Victorian house where they occupied the first floor, Norma slipped into a bedroom off the kitchen, saying she had a phone call to make. I tried to hide my disappointment and drank from the cup of peppermint tea Amy made me. For an hour I took delicate sips while Amy tried to engage me in conversation about the karate class, cooking, coming out, everything except what I wanted to talk abouther roommate.
Finally, giving up any hope of seeing Norma again that evening, I rose to leave. "I could give you a ride home," Norma said, emerging at last, wearing a black scarf and knit hat pulled down to her eyebrows. "I'm going to Store 24 for some ice cream anyway." Nothing seemed to move as Norma stood there in the doorwayexcept for the great waves of energy in her green eyes.
I followed Norma into the convenience store, saying I wanted to buy a newspaper. I already had one delivered to my house, but I wasn't telling. In the store, I discovered a different side to Norma. On every shelf she seemed to find something amusing. She made the fluorescent-lit aisles feel like a playground. She shook a box of macaroni-and-cheese mix so that it sounded like a set of maracas. "I love this stuff, don't you?"
"Macaroni and ice cream?" I asked. "Doesn't do anything for me."
Finally she laughed. I did too. She picked up a quart of Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream. Sitting in the parked car with the heat turned up, we ate our ice cream with flat wooden spoons.
Besides her taste for packaged pasta dishes and unusual ice cream flavors, I learned little about Norma that night. Like me, she had graduated from college the previous spring. She had majored in art history, but was now working at a pizza shop. I was putting my liberal arts degree to an equally useful end: I was managing a health food store.
Amy called a few days later. She, Norma, and some friends were going to drive out to Springfield to go to a new bar Friday night. She wanted to know if I'd like to join them.
"All the way across the state?"
"Sure, it's an adventure."
Friday morning I woke to the sight of snowflakes drifting past my window. It'll be an adventure all right, I thought. The sky was an impenetrable gray; there was no chance the weather would change soon. Norma called to announce the obvious: Everyone was backing out because of the snow.
"I guess this isn't exactly road trip weather," I said.
"Road trip weather? That's a funny thought. Wouldn't this be road trip weather if we took a road trip in it?" she asked.
"You mean you still want to go?"
"Don't you?" A snowplow scraped along the street below. Now that it was just the two of us, I realized I did want to gomore than ever.
"The only problem is that my car is no good in the snow. I don't have the right tires, and my windshield wipers get stuck all the time," Norma was saying.
"I'll pick you up, then."
"You think it will be okay, don't you? I mean with the snow and everything."
"Of course I do. We'll be fine." In that moment, my confidence seemed genuine, even to me. I hardly noticed that I was convincing Norma of the solidity of her own rash plan, that I'd made an about-face in the minutes since I'd picked up the phone.
I called in sick to work, telling myself that the store would be quiet anyway. That freed me to spend the rest of my day choosing an outfit and cleaning out my car. The weather report came on and confirmed what I already knew: The snow was not about to let up. This is crazy, I told myself, as I drove to Norma's place.
Less than an hour into the trip, what had been snow turned to icy rain.
"I knew we shouldn't have done this," Norma said. By now it was as though the stormy drive had been my idea from the start.
"Come on, this is perfect road trip weather if you ask me." I meant it, too. Inside the car it was warm and smelled of our damp sweaters. Outside, the world was suffused with a gentle, faraway glow. Norma told me about herself and her family. She didn't speak to her parents much, but she said she was very close to her older brother, Eli. Even though she was working at a pizza shop, Norma had ambitions. She had applied to graduate schools and she planned on becoming a lawyer. "An artist needs a practical profession. Something to fall back on," she said. "Besides, I'll need to support a family someday." Those sounded like far-off plans. I was more interested in what she told me about the present. She said she was trying to get over a string of bad relationships. The women she'd dated recently seemed to be using her for sex, she said.
Stay with me, and no one will ever hurt you again, I wanted to tell her.
About thirty miles outside of Springfield we saw a car that had skidded off the highway and crumpled against a guardrail. "Why don't we pull off here? We don't have to go all the way to Springfield just to get a drink, do we?" I asked.
Norma agreed and I pulled off the pike in Sturbridge. We found a pub and went inside. "See, it's even more of an adventure this way," I said. "Who knows what we'll find."
The bar was decorated with prints of old cars, tired brass railings, and green walls. "It reminds me of this place my father used to bring me to," Norma said. The way her voice sounded I couldn't tell whether the atmosphere seemed friendly or sinister to her. "It was dark and cozy like this," she said. "I must have been fifteen years old. I remember I always ordered a strawberry milkshake, and my father would say, 'You're a cheap date, kid.'" Norma stabbed a french fry with her fork. "There was this woman who would come to the tables to tell people's fortunes. She must have had a dozen bracelets on each arm and she moved her hands a lot when she talked. I loved the sound those bracelets made." As though she were suddenly conscious of her own voice, Norma paused. I tried to think of something to say that would encourage her to continue. I was mesmerized by the steady clicking of her carefully pronounced words. But I didn't have to encourage her. "My father bought me a cup of tea one night even though he knew I hated it," Norma said, picking the story up again. "The fortune-teller told me I had to drink it all if she was going to see my future. I still hate tea."
I had nearly finished my burger and had ordered another beer. Norma had taken only a few bites of hers. Instead she collected french fries on her fork and shuffled them around, making trails through a puddle of ketchup on her plate. She held her burger for a while and put it down without eating any.
"What did she say?" I asked.
Norma smiled, a wistful, child's smile. "I don't remember all of it." For a moment I thought that was the end of the story. But then Norma continued. "She said I'd die young. I remember that."
"That's horrible. What kind of a person would say a thing like that to a child?"
"I still believe her," Norma said.
"Don't be ridiculous. We make our own destiny. There are always choices."
"But don't you think some things are meant to be? I got that feeling when we met. Didn't you?"
"Yes," I said. "I'm glad we met."
In the near-empty pub we sipped our beers and talked about everything. The only world that existed was the one lit by the green glow of the candle in the netted glass on our table. The waiter came by, asking if we wanted refills. From the sweep of his eyes around the vacant tables I knew he wanted us to leave, too. I asked if he'd heard a weather report.
"Where are you heading?"
"Back to Boston, we hope."
"I wouldn't try it. The pike is pretty bad," he said.
"What?" Norma asked. "You mean we might not get home tonight?"
"We could try. I think we'd be fine."
The waiter suggested a motor lodge a few blocks away and went off to write our check.
"Maybe he's right We'll just wait it out here." Norma said. I tried to contain the happiness in my voice as I agreed.
I drove the car through the deserted streets and slid into a parking spot. The motel lacked charm or character, but covered in snow it looked inviting. The room was typical: small, anonymous, and just clean enough.
"This is pretty funny, isn't it?" Norma asked.
"It's not so bad." I pulled off my shoes and spread my damp socks along the radiator to dry.
"I don't have any pajamas," Norma said, and she giggled again. She sat at the edge of the bed still wearing her coat and hat.
"But we just met."
"Oh well," I said, trying to make light of her concerns.
"I don't want anything from you, you know."
"Don't worry. We just got stranded," I said. But I was disappointed. I wanted her to want a lot from me.
"I just don't want it to turn out the way everything else has turned out lately. You know, like I was telling you ..."
"With those other women?" I turned on the television, and sat back on the bed. "We'll watch a movie and go to sleep. It'll be like a slumber party."
I kept my word, staying on my side of the double bed. But that night it was as though Norma's warm scent was a living presence, rolling against me, keeping me awake.
In the morning we found a diner and ordered pancakes.
"You know what my theory is?" Norma asked.
"What is it?"
"I think if one person has a crush on the other, the other usually has one in return."
As I poured syrup onto my pancakes, I wondered what to answer. I didn't say right then that I wanted to test her theory.
Two weeks later Norma and I went out dancing with some of my friends in celebration of my twenty-third birthday. Even Amy came, having resigned herself good-naturedly to the way things were turning out between Norma and me. My friends switched partners and danced in groups, but I danced only with Norma. We laughed when we accidentally bumped knees and hips. Each time our dance steps collided I was reminded of how new our knowledge of each other was.
We all returned to my apartment for champagne. Norma looked beautiful in her vintage dress and Bakelite earrings. I thought that the modest, old-fashioned neckline made her look all the more sexy.
After my friends left, I drove Norma home and gave her a slow kiss good night. We hadn't spent a night together since out chaste evening in the motel and I'd resigned myself to taking things at a snail's pace. "Call you tomorrow," I said.
"Don't you want to come inside?" Norma asked.
"Of course I do." But before the words were out of my mouth, she had hopped out of the car and was pulling my door open.
I woke the next morning under a quilt, two comforters, and a batiked cotton bedspread. The blankets were all new and brightly colored, but they held the warmth of the night the way old things seem to do.
Cold air had crystallized on the single window above Norma's bed, letting in a dull glow that reminded me of the candlelight we had made love by the night before. I propped myself on my elbow and looked at Norma, who was still sleeping. Her curls lay flat against her scalp. Her dark hair contrasted sharply with her pale skin. Awake, she'd surely put on lipstick in some shade of purple, and blue-tinted mascara. She might wrap a green scarf around her head. Her hands would punctuate her sentences with jabs at the air. I felt privileged to know her sleeping, naked face, and leaned down to kiss her. From the intentional way her eyes opened, I suspected that she had been awake for some time, feeling me watch her. She kissed me back and I fell into the soft, easy world of her embrace.
"You'll be late for work," I said.
"What about you?"
"I'm in even worse shape. I have to stop home and pick up some clean clothes."
Norma slid out of bed, and crossed the painted floorboards to the closet in one long stride. She wore a black cotton camisole and matching underwear, which she immediately covered up with a pink terry robe. "Here," she said, throwing me a long knit sweater decorated with flamingos and palm trees. Next she produced a pair of red leggings, short purple boots, and thick gray socks, the only neutral color in the ensemble. "You can wear these," Norma said.
"No I can't, Norma," I said, holding up the sweater. "Don't you have anything a little more subdued?"
"Oh come on, Nancy, you can't go through your whole life wearing nothing but plaid flannel and blue jeans. Live a little."
"But I'm going to work."
"Well, these aren't work clothes."
"It's what I wear to work."
"Yeah, but you can get away with it. I don't have your fair."
Norma turned back to her closet and fished out a turquoise tunic with a black zigzag stripe around the shoulders, and she traded the red leggings for a black pair. "There, this should suit you, it's got black in it," Norma said.
"It's still a little adventurous, but it'll do," I said.
Norma gathered the clothes I'd rejected into her arms, and went to the bathroom to make herself up and get dressed.
"You look great," Norma said returning to the room. "They won't even recognize you at work."
"I hope not," I said. But I felt pleased. Normas was right, after all. I hadn't worn anything so colorful in years. I'd bought into the lesbian antifashion aesthetic of the early eighties, and wore mostly flannel shirts and denim. When I had to dress up I ironed a blouse, wore a cardigan sweater, and put on pleated trousers and cowboy boots instead of sneakers.
Kissing Norma good-bye that morning before we each went to work felt oddly familiar, as if we'd been waking up together forever.
In the months that followed, Norma and I created some of our own routines. We spent most of our time at my apartment, since I had no roommates. Norma cooked our dinnersmacaroni and cheese out of the box, or ravioli from a canand I supplied our desserts, pints of ice cream, the most unusual flavors I could find. We liked to watch sitcoms in the evening and imagined ourselves in some kind of lesbian farce. We were two girls together, helpless when lightbulbs needed changing and when fuses inevitably blew. We had fake arguments about who was the butch. Meanwhile we raided each other's closets and jewelry boxes. There was a silliness that surrounded us and made us happy.
One evening Norma turned up at my apartment by surprise, a shopping bag in each hand. "Happy Anniversary," she said, handing me her packages.
"Four months today."
"Well, I'm not sure exactly, but I needed an excuse. How's this? Happy Thursday!" I laughed and peeked inside one of the bags. "They're for you, do you like them?" I pulled out a green silk blazer that shimmered in the light and slipped it over the sweatshirt I was wearing. "Keep going," Norma prodded. There was a mustard yellow blouse and a pair of black stirrup pants.
"This is so wonderful. Thank you."
"Keep going, there's one more."
At the bottom of the second bag was a package gift wrapped in newspaper. Norma had written across it in blue, orange, and pink crayon, A rainbow of colors to brighten your world. All my love. Inside was a dime-store paint set and a box of colored pencils.
"Do you like it?" Norma asked.
I opened the paints, licked my thumb, and rubbed it in the purple. I smudged the paint on Norma's chin and kissed her. "I love you." As soon as I said it I giggled, as if to lighten the seriousness of what I was feeling.
Norma pulled me toward her. "When you laugh like that, it sounds like crying," she said.
One night, after I had returned home late from a concert, I called Norma. I knew that she stayed up past midnight, so I was in the habit of calling her at any hour. At first when there was no answer, I thought she might be sleeping. But her phone was right next to her bed; she would hear it ringing, and she would know it was me.
My next thought was to be jealous; maybe she had someone else over. It was irrational, but I couldn't put the thought out of my mind. The next day when I drove by her house I didn't see her old Toyota in the parking lot. I was convinced she had spent the night out. When she finally called me a day later, she wouldn't answer my questions about where she had been. That confirmed my suspicions, and I told her I couldn't continue seeing her.
When she finally broke down and told me that she had gone to Emergency Services because she had been feeling suicidal, I was sure it was a far-fetched excuse. Only when she rolled up the sleeve on her heavy wool sweater and showed me the scratches running across her forearm did I believe her. Seeing those raised red lines on her skin and the storm building behind her eyes didn't make me want to turn my back and forget Norma. It made me want to help. I wanted to be with her all the time so she would never feel that desperate again. Next time, I wanted her to call me, not some stranger at Emergency Services.
There's a scar on my arm, too. It starts at the bend of my wrist in the shape of a long, messy teardrop, then narrows into a line that runs dangerously close to a bold blue vein. It fades out a couple of inches above my elbow. Mostly, I forget about it. But I'm reminded of my scar when I'm talking to someone, and the person confesses to me that he or she, or a sister or brother, once tried to commit suicide. Or she admits having thought of suicide. Or understanding it. And then looks at me, a little too seriously. Then I remember the scar, and I feel guilty.
Truth is, I'm too curious to kill myself. It's the reason I stay at parties or movies, even after I can see that nothing is going to happen; it's a dud. But it might get better. The end might make everything that came before seem more interesting or meaningful. Someone might arrive. If I leave now, surely I'll miss something.
My scar is from an accident that happened when I was four years old. I wanted to close the storm door to the kitchen, which was blowing open and shut in the wind. It wouldn't stay closed. So I punched it. And the glass shattered. That's what I told my parents. It made perfect sense to me then. But now, remembering how I refused to let the cut go unbandaged, even after the stitches had long since been removed and the rawness healed, I wonder. After my mother refused to let me have more gauze, I arrived at nursery school with toilet paper coiled down my arm and Scotch-taped into place. It was the year my grandmother died. My mother was distraught. I already knew what my father's temper looked like, and I knew it was ugly. My parents' marriage, I know now, was already beyond repair. My hand through glass was my first serious broadcast. It's the reason I know a call for help when I hear one. Mine echoed for years against the walls of my childhood home, unanswered. "She was trying to shut the door," my parents probably told friends who asked about my bandages. A child debating the wind with her fisthow stubborn!
If Norma was calling for help, I wanted to answer. I thought I knew how.
I started by asking Norma more questions about her past. I listened more carefully to the stories some of her friends told about the times in college when she had overdone it with drugs and drinking. It seemed that before we began dating, Norma's peaks of hilarity had been matched by frightening valleys of depression. Amy said that Norma had told her of a time when she had contemplated suicide on a daily basis. And Norma admitted that this hadn't been her first trip to Emergency Services. But in the months that we had been together, this was the first evidence I'd seen of a serious problem.
As I rolled back through the weeks we had spent together I searched for signs, but all I could come up with were the quirks in her personality that I found appealing, or the extremes in her moods I chalked up to an artist's temperament. I was an adult, but somehow I had preserved the magic thinking of a child. I didn't doubt that I could impose my vision of our relationship over the reality of it. I believed somehow that by loving each other we would fix each other, and that by my wanting things to work out we could make them work.
In any case, the good things we brought out in one another were more important in my mind. I was beginning to see the world the way an artist does, squinting at the most ordinary sight to see a sensuous palette of soft colors instead of mundane objects. I had always been organized and focused, a Jew with a Protestant work ethic. Norma insisted on playing.
Seeing my wardrobe now as the creative opportunity Norma had insisted it could be, I bought a new gangster hat, white with a black band, at a secondhand store. I stopped by Norma's apartment to surprise her and get her reaction. It had been only a week since she had had her crises, but already I'd put it behind me.
Norma answered the door with a sketch pad under her arm. "I was just going to call you," she said.
"Well, here I am."
"We have to talk."
I sat opposite her in the small living room. No lights were on, but the bright blue afternoon lit the room well. "I'm leaving," Norma said.
I felt as if an ocean wave had just crashed on me. "What are you talking about?"
"I was accepted to graduate school."
"That's great," I said, trying to sound as though I meant it.
"It's a very competitive program. Yale."
"You were accepted at Yale? They have an art program?"
"That's amazing. I'm so impressed."
"But I have to move away. It's too bad, but ..."
"Wait. That doesn't mean it's over with us. I can move, you know, I'll come with you."
"It's too soon for that kind of a commitment."
For nearly an hour I insisted that following Norma to Connecticut was the right thing for me to do. After ail, what did I have to hold me back? Just a job schlepping crates of tomatoes around for rive dollars an hour. Finally, she agreed.
The next day I ordered subscriptions to two Connecticut newspapers. I began bringing the classified section to Norma, and together we looked for a job for me and apartments for the two of us. Norma suggested we drive out to New Haven and start looking around. I had her convinced.
I wouldn't have moved when the phone rang, but Norma thought it might be her brother, who was traveling in Europe at the time. She'd given him my number and told him to call as soon as he settled in.
Ahab sprang from where he was curled on the radiator, and followed at my heels as I ran to pick up the phone. A minute later Norma appeared, wrapped in a towel. "It's my mother," I whispered. "She wants to visit for the weekend." Ahab crawled into Norma's lap and kneaded her towel with his paws.
"Mom, I have some news," I said, mopping the drops of water that had fallen onto the phone. "I have a new girlfriend. You can meet her when you come." Norma looked down and smiled shyly as I stroked her bare shoulders. "You'll really like her. She's an artist." Norma kissed the back of my neck. Her lips felt like little flowers blossoming down my spine. "She's unbelievably smart, too. She was accepted into Yale's law program, but she turned them down." Suddenly my back was cold. Norma had left the room. My mother was saying that she couldn't wait to meet her. We made our plans, and when I hung up I went to find Norma.
I knocked on the bathroom door. "Hey, are you okay in there?"
There was no answer. I could hear the sound of water rushing in the sink. "Norm, is everything all right?"
"Leave me alone," she said. I tried the door. It was locked. "Just go away, would you?"
Before I could wonder what I had done to offend her, the door eased open. "If I tell you something, will you promise not to hate me? And promise you won't tell your mother, either."
"Of course," I said.
Norma's voice tightened into a determined staccato. "I lied to you. I don't know why. I just thought I had to impress you or you wouldn't love me. Why would you love me anyway? So I had to. I just made a little something up. I didn't think you'd believe me. I never did anything like this before. I feel so stupid."
We were standing in the doorway like neighbors exchanging gossip on the stoop. Norma's arms were crossed in front of her, I was holding my towel around me with one hand. "What, Norm? What is it?"
"I never got into Yale. I never even applied."
For some reason, I laughed. I knew I should be appalled, but I wasn't. After ail, it wasn't as though Norma had cheated on me. She hadn't committed a crime. It didn't hurt. I expected a lie like that to actually cause me physical pain. My father had always said that the worst thing I could possibly do was lie to him or my mother. The truth had become almost a religion for me. But this blasphemy was thin as air. And the absence of pain was like a joy in itself. So I laughed.
"It's not funny," Norma said, although she was laughing too. But haltingly, as if she'd stop suddenly if I did. "You're not going to leave me, are you?"
When we stopped laughing I looked into Norma's face. It looked different. For the first time I noticed that her right eye was slightly wider than the left. One nostril was fuller. Her mouth tugged slightly to one side. It was a barely visible asymmetry, but I wondered why I hadn't seen it before.
"What are you looking at?" Norma asked.
"You," I said. "Just you."
Meet the Author
Nancy Abrams is a journalist living in New England.
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