Tap-dancing child abuser. That's what The Sunday New York Times from March 8, 1993, had called Vivi. The pages of the week-old Leisure Arts section lay scattered on the floor next to Sidda as she curled up in the bed, covers pulled tightly around her, portable phone on the pillow next to her head.
There had been no sign the theater critic would go for blood. Roberta Lydell had been so chummy, so sisterly-seeming during the interview that Sidda had felt she'd made a new girlfriend. After all, in her earlier review, Roberta had already proclaimed the production of Women on the Cusp, which Sidda had directed at Lincoln Center, to be "a miraculous event in American theater." With subtle finesse, the journalist had lulled Sidda into a cozy false sense of intimacy as she pumped her for personal information.
As Sidda lay in the bed, her cocker spaniel, Hueylene, crawled into the crook formed by her knees. For the past week, the cocker had been the only company Sidda had wanted. Not Connor McGill, her fiance. Not friends, not colleagues. Just the dog she'd named in honor of Huey Long.
She stared at the phone. Her relationship with her mother had never been smooth, but this latest episode was disastrous. For the umpteenth time that week, Sidda punched in the number of her parents' home at Pecan Grove. For the first time, she actually let it ring through.
At the sound of Vivi's hello, Sidda's stomach began to cramp.
"Mama? It's me."
Without hesitation, Vivi hung up.
Sidda punched automatic redial. Vivi picked up again, but did not speak.
"Mama, I know you're there. Please don't hang up. I'm so sorry this all happened. I'm really really sorry. I—
"There is nothing you can say or do to make me forgive you," Vivi said. "You are dead to me. You have killed me. Now I am killing you."
Sidda sat up in bed and tried to catch her breath.
"Mother, I did not mean for any of this to take place. The woman who interviewed me--"
"I have cut you out of my will. Do not be surprised if I sue you for libel. There are no photographs left of you on any of my walls. Do not--"
Sidda could see her mother's face, red with anger. She could see how her veins showed lavender underneath her light skin.
"Mama, please. I cannot control The New York Times. Did you read the whole thing? I said, 'My mother, Vivi Abbott Walker, is one of the most charming people in the world.'"
"'Charming wounded.' You said: 'My mother is one of the most charming wounded people in the world. And she is also the most dangerous.' I have it here in black-and-white, Siddalee."
"Did you read the part where I credited you for my creativity? Where I said, 'My creativity comes in a direct flow from my mother, like the Tabasco she used to spice up our baby bottles.' Mama, they ate it up when I talked about how you'd put on your tap shoes and dance for us while you fed us in our high chairs. They loved it."
"You lying little bitch. They loved it when you said: 'My mother comes from the old Southern school of child rearing where a belt across a child's bare skin was how you got your point across.'"
Sidda sucked in her breath.
"They loved it," Vivi continued, "when they read: 'Siddalee Walker, articulate, brilliant director of the hit show Women on the Cusp, is no stranger to family cruelty. As the battered child of a tap-dancing child abuser of a mother, she brings to her directing the rare and touching equipoise between personalinvolvement and professional detachment that is the mark of theatrical genius.'
"'Battered child!' This is shit! This is pure character-defaming shit from the most hideous child imaginable!"
Sidda could not breathe. She raised her thumb to her mouth and bit the skin around the nail, something she had not done since she was ten years old. She wondered where she'd put the Xanax.
"Mama, I never meant to hurt you. Many of those words I never even uttered to that damn journalist. I swear, I--"
"You Goddamn self-centered liar! It's no Goddamn wonder every relationship you have falls apart. You know nothing about love. You have a cruel soul.
God help Connor McGill. He would have to be a fool to marry you."
Sidda got out of bed, her whole body shaking. She walked to the window of her twenty-second-floor apartment in Manhattan Plaza. From where she stood,
she could see the Hudson River. It made her think of the Garnet River in Central Louisiana, and how red its water flowed.
Mama, you bitch, she thought. You devouring, melodramatic bitch. When she spoke, her voice was steely, controlled.
"What I said was not exactly a lie, Mother. Or have you forgotten the feel of the belt in your hand?"
Sidda could hear Vivi's sharp intake of breath. When Vivi spoke, her voice had dropped into a lower register.
"My love was a privilege that you abused. I have withdrawn that privilege. You are out of my heart. You are banished to the outer reaches. I wish you nothing but unending guilt."
Sidda heard the dial tone. She knew her mother had broken the connection. But she could not lower the phone from her ear. She stood frozen in place, the sounds of midtown Manhattan down below, the cold March light of the city fading around her.
After years of directing plays in regional theaters from Alaska to Florida, after numerous Off-Off-Broadway productions, Sidda had been ready for the success of Women on the Cusp. When the play finally opened at Lincoln Center that February, it was to unanimous golden reviews. At the age of forty, Sidda was eager to bask in the light of recognition. She had worked on the play with the playwright, May Sorenson, since the play's first reading at the Seattle Rep, May's home turf. She'd directed not only the Seattle premiere, but productions in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Connor had designed the sets, and one of her best buddies, Wade Coenen, had done the costumes. The four of them had been a team for years, and Sidda had been thrilled to sit back with her pals and soak up some glory.
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