"Mom, can you still wear white if you're not a virgin?"
My nine-year-old daughter, Eva, knows the perfect way to get my full attention.
I push up my sunglasses and look at her hard. This is supposed to be a special mother-daughter day. I took off work to bring her to the country club pool, but lately, being Eva's mother is anything but relaxing. "Do you know what a virgin is?"
"Yes." She sounds so matter-of-fact.
"How?" I demand, because I sure as hell didn't tell her. My most gruesome memory is my mother sitting me down on my bed and explaining in horrendous detail "the story of the sperm and the ovum." I've vowed to find a better way to introduce Eva to the story but haven't found it yet.
"You've had sex ed already at school?"
Eva sighs heavily. "No, Mom, that's in fifth grade. I've still got a year. But I read a lot. Between Judy Blume and Paul Zindel, I know everything."
That's as scary a statement as I've ever heard. "So you know about sex?"
"Yes." Her lips compress primly beneath the brim of her straw hat. It's actually my hat, but she claimed it once we sat down.
I push my sunglasses even higher so they rest on top of my head. "You know about getting your period?"
"You know how babies are made?"
"Doesn't that fall under the sex question?"
Wow. She does seem to know quite a bit, and I watch her as she returns to the magazine she's reading.
"This is so ick," she says in disgust, turning a page in the bridal magazine on her lap. She brought three bridal magazines to the pool today and has been riveted for the last few hours by the oversize glossy publications. "There's nothing nice in here at all."
"Which magazine is that?"
"Seattle Bride." She tosses aside the slender magazine with a contemptuous snort and reaches for another. "They don't know how to do weddings in Seattle. The styles are so ugly. The best weddings are always in the South."
I can't stop staring at her. So hard to believe this little girl came from me.
"So, Mom, back to my question," she says, flipping through the next magazine, Southern Bride. "Can nonvirgins wear white?"
"Yes," I answer reluctantly, thinking this is a discussion I'd very much like to avoid. "It's done all the time."
"So you don't have to wear ivory or pink?"
"That's an old rule. No one follows that anymore." Or there'd be no white weddings, either.
Eva pauses briefly to study a beaded gown with an equally ornate veil. "Obviously, virgins can't have babies.
Well, except for the Virgin Mary, but that was an exception to the rule, so if you've had a baby . . ." Her voice trails off as she looks up at me. "Probably not a virgin."
"Probably not," I agree.
"So you're definitely not a virgin."
"I'm just asking."
"It's none of your business, but no, I'm not a virgin. Not that I had sex to make you."
"Gross. Don't talk about making me."
"You're the one talking about virgins!"
"It just is. Ew." She shudders and slams Southern Bride closed before turning on the lounge chair to face me, her long dark hair falling over her thin shoulders. She's so skinny that her hipbones jut out and her long legs look vaguely storklike. "Too bad you can't wear white at your wedding, though, because ivory dresses are u-g-l-y. Ugly."
I don't know who this child is or where she came from. I know she's biologically mine—she looks just like me at nine—but what about the rest of her DNA? Whose sperm did I buy, anyway?
"I could wear white, Eva, but I don't have, nor do I want, a boyfriend. And the last thing I'm interested in is ever getting married."
She sighs wearily. "But if you don't even give marriage a try, how can you say you don't like it?" Advil, Advil, Advil. Need Advil badly. "Marriage isn't like broccoli. You don't nibble on a stem to see if you like it."
"You're comparing men to vegetables?"
I almost liked it better when Eva thought I was a lesbian.
Two of the kids in Eva's New York preschool class were raised in lesbian households, and the kids were fantastic, funny, bright, well adjusted. At three, Eva was crushed when I told her that there would never be two mommies in our family. We were a one-mommy household.
"Just one mommy?" she'd cried. "But what about the Ark? All the animals came in twos."
It seemed like a good teaching opportunity, so I explained that Noah's pairs weren't female and female, but male and female, and I hastened to add that the decision wasn't so the world could live in harmony, but for reproductive reasons. The animals on Noah's Ark had a serious job. They had to repopulate the world that had just been drowned in the forty days of rain.
The drowning part of course caught her attention.
As did other Old Testament favorites like Cain killing Abel, Sodom being set on fire, Lot's wife turning to salt, and Abraham laying Isaac on an altar as a sacrifice. The dramatic illustration in her children's Bible of Abraham holding a knife over his son particularly fascinated her. Gave her some nightmares, too. But she never forgot the story.
She never forgets anything. She has the memory of an elephant.
"I thought we were here so you could swim," I say, trying to change the subject, wanting her to go play, be a normal little girl, although that's probably pushing it. "The pool closes next week once school starts, and it'll be nine months before it opens again."
Eva glances past me to look at the crowded deep end. The pool is packed today, as it's in the mid-nineties and nearing the end of summer.
"I am hot," she admits, fanning herself.
"So go swim."
But she doesn't move. She lies there on her side, studying the girls playing in the deep end. She's scared. Scared of being rejected again.
With me, she's brave and funny. Articulate and confident. But around the little girls here, her confidence vanishes. She just doesn't fit in, and I don't know why. She had no problem making friends in New York City. She was reasonably popular at her school in Manhattan. Why doesn't she have friends here?
"Should I go off the diving board or go down to the shallow end?" Eva asks, leaning against her arm, her dark green eyes tracking every move the girls make.
"Do what you want to do."
She hesitates and then slips off the lounge chair and drops her towel. "Okay. I'll swim in the deep end."
I shouldn't be, but I'm nervous as I sit in my lounge chair at the edge of the Points Country Club pool, watching Eva paddle around the deep end trying to get the other girls to notice her.
Just as she's done all summer. Just as she did last summer after we'd moved here.
I try not to stare at the group of girls playing just out of Eva's reach. Why don't they like her? Why won't they include her?
Eva's staring at them, too. She's clinging to the tiled wall and watching with wistful eyes as they splash and laugh.
Despite my studied nonchalance, I worry. I hate that wishful expression on Eva's face. It's so not who she is, so not who she should be.
Eva's brilliant. In kindergarten, she read at a sixth-grade reading level. This summer, she's managed many of the classics quite nicely. Her favorite cities are Tokyo and London.
So why doesn't Eva fit in?
Eva's decided she wants to be popular, and not just popular, she wants in with the most popular girls, the exclusive clique of the very rich, very pretty girls who aren't at all interested in being friends with her. And instead of accepting their lack of interest, she's determined to change them. Or her. Neither being a winning proposition.
Earlier in the year, I tried to explain to Eva that wanting to be liked, and wanting to be popular, is the kiss of death. I told her that she was just giving away her power, giving it to girls who don't deserve it, but Eva shook her head and answered with that martyred saint expression of hers, "Some people like to be liked."
She's right. I never needed people the way she does. I never cared what people thought. I still don't. My parents say I marched to a different drum from the time I could walk, and I've made my living being different. Apart. Unique. First as a graphic designer, now as the head of my own advertising company. My vision creates my art, and my art isn't just what I do, it's who I am.
I knew the move from New York to the Pacific Northwest would be difficult for me. I never expected it to be so hard on Eva. I grew up here, in Seattle, and left as soon as I turned eighteen. I never planned on returning—this was where my parents lived, not me—but then eighteen months ago, a work opportunity arose and I took it.
Despite my misgivings.
I watch Eva, my stomach in knots. We should have stayed in New York.
"Eva!" I lean forward and call to her. She turns to look at me, her long dark hair streaming water. "Want to go?"
She scrubs a hand across her wet cheeks, her gypsy eyes too wise for her years, eyelashes long, dense, and black. In the last year, I've begun to see the hint of the cheekbones that will one day come. She has my face. I wasn't pretty as a child, either; my looks came much later, when I was older, sometime late during college.
"Not yet, Mom." Her attention's caught by the cluster of little girls climbing from the pool and race-walking to the diving board.
The little girls are pretty in that golden shimmer of late summer—tan, long limbed, sun-streaked hair. They have cute little noses that turn up, wide wet-lashed eyes, and gaptoothed smiles where baby teeth come and go. Children of privilege. Children who grow up belonging to country clubs and private tennis clubs and, if you're very lucky and live on the water, one of the exclusive yacht clubs, too.
Hugging the pool wall tighter, Eva watches the giggling girls take turns jumping and diving off the board, trying to outdo one another with big splashes and new cool maneuvers.
And behind the diving board are the little girls' nannies and moms. You can tell which girl belongs to which mom. Children and parents come in matching sets here, neat, tidy, incredibly groomed. Most of the moms wouldn't dream of actually getting in the pool with their children, despite being in outstanding shape (thanks to private fitness trainers and visits to a local, exceptional plastic surgeon who never names names).
I'm not pointing fingers, though. I wouldn't get in the pool here, either (although I have, when Eva's been especially lonely and desperate for companionship), not when every woman on the side will stare, sizing you up and down as you peel off your clothes, drop your towel, and climb in the pool.
They'll give you the same once-over as you climb out, too.
Each time. Every time.
And I guarantee nearly every woman is silently measuring. Comparing. Do I look that fat? Is her figure better than mine? Does she have flab? Dimples? Do my thighs jiggle like that, too?
These thoughts remind me of why I loved New York. New York was cool and sharp, beautiful in a hard, glistening way Bellevue isn't.
Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle, is soft, squishy, with exceptional public schools, big shingle houses fronted by emerald green lawns, sprawling upscale malls, and a Starbucks on every other corner. In this place of affluence and comfort, I feel alien.
Like Eva. But not. Because I don't want to fit in. I don't want to be like these women who have too much time on their diamond-ringed hands and who drive immaculate Lexus and Mercedes SUVs.
The girls swim close to Eva, and suddenly Eva is pushing off the wall and swimming toward them. I'm torn between exasperation and admiration. She tries every day. She doesn't give up. How can I not respect her tenacity? I never liked no for an answer. I should be glad she doesn't, either.
"I can dive," Eva says to them, smiling too big, trying too hard, setting my teeth on edge. "Want to see?"
One of the girls, I think it's Jemma Young, makes a face. "No."
But Eva, now that she's finally made the first move, persists. "I'm hoping we're going to be in the same class again this year."
Jemma rolls her eyes at the other girls. "Yippee. That'd be fun."
I press my nails harder into my palms at Jemma's smart answer. Why didn't Jemma's mom teach her any manners?
"So fun," another little girl chimes in sarcastically, playing Jemma's game.
The little girls are all giggling and looking back and forth from Jemma to Eva.
I feel wild on the inside, like a mama bear needing to protect her cub. But I don't get up. I don't do anything. This is Eva's battle. She must learn to fend for herself. Even when it breaks my heart.
Jemma and girls flick their wet hair and swim toward the side of the pool. As Jemma hauls herself out of the pool using the ladder, she glances at the others, lined up little duck style right behind her.
"Let's go get ice cream," she announces imperiously.
The little duck friends follow.
Eva tries to follow.
She starts to climb the ladder, and she's smiling, keeping that too wide, too hopeful smile fixed on her face just in case Jemma turns around and asks her to join them. But of course they don't ask her. They walk away, heading toward the snack bar.
And Eva's smile starts to fall. Her face is so open, so revealing. The anger in me rises again. I want to take Eva by the shoulders. Shake her. They're not going to ask you to play. They're not going to include you. Stop hoping. Stop making them so powerful. Stop allowing them to hurt you.
Eva doesn't know yet what I know about the world and being female. She doesn't understand that you have to establish yourself, establish your identity and boundaries, young. Girls can be vicious, far more cruel than boys, because their world is made up of language, stories, and secrets. Too often, little girls and women start a conversation with, "Don't tell anyone . . ." Three words I've learned that too often lead to pain.
In the boy world, any boy can join in provided he can spit farther, ran faster, hit harder. The boy world isn't an inner circle, but a totem pole hierarchy based on strength, guts, courage. Bravado.
It's the world I'd give Eva if I could. Instead, Eva's world makes me sweat. Bleed.
Goddamn town. Goddamn country club. Goddamn girls who won't let Eva in.
I gather Eva's magazines, placing the copy of Elegant Bride and Modern Bride in my tote bag before rising from my chair and holding up her striped towel. "Eva," I call to her, "want to go to Cold Stone?"
She's still watching the girls drip their way around the pool, past the mothers clustered at tables and lounge chairs, toward the snack bar nestled against the country club's shingled wall.
"I could just get a Popsicle here," she says, her wistful gaze never leaving Jemma and gang.
I spot Jemma's mom, Taylor Young, across the pool. Taylor blows Jemma a kiss as her daughter passes. Taylor Young, the original Bellevue Babe in her fitted light blue Polo shirt and short white tennis skirt.
Taylor, Taylor, Taylor. Wife of VP of Business Development Nathan Young, room mom, school auction chair, president of the PTA. Why? Because nobody must do it better.
Blech. I'd rather shoot myself between the eyes than spend every afternoon at Points Elementary.
But that's not nice of me. Taylor can't possibly spend every afternoon at school. She obviously does other things. Like highlight her hair. Visit Mystic Tan. Botox her brow.
Am I bitter? Hell, no. I'd hate Taylor's life. I love working, love my career and my colleagues, the intensity and challenge of it all. My life is one of taking risks. That's what brought me back to the Pacific Northwest, after all.
"Can I ask Jemma for a sleepover?" Eva asks timidly.
I'm jolted by Eva's question. Jemma Young for a sleepover? Oh, Eva. Jemma Young doesn't even treat you nicely. Why do you want her as your friend?
But I don't say it. I hold my breath instead, count to three, and then exhale. As I exhale, I draw Eva toward me, wrap her towel around her shoulders. "She might already have other plans."
Eva shrugs. "She might not." Her shoulders are so thin. She's tall, bony, delicate.
"And I haven't had a sleepover all summer."
When I was growing up, playdates and sleepovers weren't the thing they are now. Maybe now and then you had a friend over, but it wasn't this almost daily round robin of going to friends' houses that dominates the Points Elementary School scene. "That's true, too."
Eva smiles at me. "So it's okay?"
"Mm-hmm." I'm biting my tongue, biting it hard, knowing that Jemma's just going to reject her, wanting to protect her from the rejection, but not knowing how to. For the first time in my life, I wish I were someone else, wish I'd been crafted from different material. If I were like other women, if I were more domestic, more maternal, I'd know how to handle this, wouldn't I? I'd know what to say, what to do, to make my daughter more secure, more popular. More like the people she wants to be.
"Will you go with me?" she asks, pressing her towel to her mouth and chewing on the thick yellow terry cloth.
Will I go with her?
I don't even have to look at my Eva to see her. She's imprinted so deeply on my heart that I just know her, feel her, love her with the love of a mother lion or tiger. The love of a protector. I would do anything for her. "Yes. Let's go ask."
We—Eva—asks. Jemma says no. It takes all of five seconds to ask and be refused. As Eva heads into the girls locker room to get her clothes, I see Taylor Young rise from her chair and walk around the pool. She's stopping now to say hello to some women who've just arrived. Her smile is big. She's so shiny and pretty. So perfectly assembled.
My dislike doubles, grows. I want to punch her in the face. Not nice, but I've never claimed to be nice. I'm honest, and that's something altogether different.
Jamming my hands deeper in my slouchy cargo pants, I'm acutely aware of how different I dress from the other women here. Even though it's a country club pool, I'm wearing an old faded black T-shirt, old cargo pants that ride low on my hips and are frayed at the hem, and gray paint-splattered rubber flip-flops.
My hair, a dark brown that people like to call black, is loose and reaches almost to my waist and doesn't have a style. It's just long, but it's how I've worn my hair since college, and I like it. I don't try to be soft or pretty. I just want to be me.
Eva emerges from the locker room as Taylor Young walks our way. Eva, still in her swimsuit and with her clothes balled in her arms, stands at full attention as Taylor approaches. She's looking anxiously at Taylor, smiling too big, waiting to be noticed.
When Taylor is about to pass without making eye contact or acknowledging her, Eva shouts out, "Hi, Mrs. Young. How are you?"
My hand clenches. I wish Eva hadn't done that, but now Taylor pauses, turns in her short tennis skirt, and looks at Eva, and then me, and back to Eva. Her lips curve smugly. "Hello, Marta. Eva. How are you?"
I nod my head. "Hello, Taylor."
"I'm good, Mrs. Young, thank you," Eva answers breathlessly, smiling hard. "Are you having a nice summer?"
"Very nice. I hope you are, too." And with a smile at Eva and a brief incline of her head in my direction, she moves on toward the locker room.
Eva's wide, tight smile fades as Taylor disappears into the locker room. Her shoulders seem to curve in. "She's the nicest mom. Everybody says so."
I say nothing. What can I say?
We head to my truck, and I toss the wet towels in the back of the pickup. "You okay?" I ask her as we climb in.
She nods once but doesn't say anything.
As I drive, I play my favorite Wyclef Jean CD. Eva just sits next to me, staring silently out the window. Her eyes are watery, but no tears fall. I tell myself it's the chlorine from the pool, but I know the truth.
For a moment, I think I could hate Taylor and Jemma and all of them at the pool, but hate is such a useless emotion, and I don't want to hate anyone.
Besides, Jemma's just a little girl, and Jemma's entitled to like who she wants to, even if Eva's not one of them.
"Want to go see a movie? Go out for dinner?" I ask, glancing Eva's way again, thinking of fun diversions.
She shakes her head, her long black hair hanging in inky tangles down her pale back. "No."
"Is there anything that sounds good? It's only Friday night, we could go home, pack up, head to Grandma and Grandpa's cabin at Lake Chelan—"
"I just really wanted to have someone stay the night at our house. Play at our house." She's pressing her towel back to her mouth, chewing relentlessly on the corner. "I just think it'd be fun."
For the first time in a while, I see the world as a nine-year-old, not a thirty-six-year-old, and she's right. A sleepover would be fun.
* * *
That night, Eva sleeps with me in my bed. We're calling it a "slumber party," and I'm trying hard to make it different from the other nights Eva's crept into bed with me because she's lonely or had bad dreams.
For the first few years of Eva's life, she slept with me or in a crib next to my bed. From the very beginning, it was just the two of us, and I couldn't bear to put her in a separate room. It was hard enough leaving her every day to go to work. I hated having her so far away at night. But then my insomnia returned, and I couldn't sleep—would lie awake all night, fidgeting in the dark, trying not to wake Eva—and eventually I decided she was better off in her own room.
But she's back tonight, along with a stack of her ever-present bridal magazines, and we're watching a Hilary Duff movie on cable and eating popcorn and hot-fudge sundaes; and even as Eva snuggles close, using my lap as a pillow, I know I'm a poor substitute for a best friend.
Remembering my own best friends, I stroke her long hair; the black tangled strands that hang down her back are still chlorine rough. I should have made her wash her hair and condition it when we returned. But that's so not my style. Instead I ordered out for barbecue chicken pizza. Trying to distract her. Trying to distract myself.
Growing up, I had best friends, great friends, friends my parents hated.
The corner of my mouth curls as I picture Sam and Chloe, friends who wanted to be as different as I did. Sam dressed punk and Chloe Goth, but both rode skateboards as I did before we got our driver's licenses and went for funky muscle cars and barely running sports cars. We weren't soft, pretty girls. We were too angry. Which is probably why I got shipped off to boarding school my senior year.
Sending me to boarding school had been Dad's idea. Dad was old school. A retired major from the Deep South. All his life, he wanted sons. In the end, all he got was me.
Slowly, I untangle the tangles in Eva's hair, hearing the movie dialogue but not listening. I understand what Eva wants, more than she knows.
I never did get my dad's approval, and I adored him for much of my life. But nothing I did was good enough, nothing was right. He wanted sweetness, goodness, charm, docility. And I wanted fire.
Glancing down at Eva, I see the crescent of black lashes, the slight curve of future cheekbones, the full upper lip, and the firm, rounded chin.
This, I think, is the child my father wanted. My fingertips trace Eva's cool brow. This is the daughter he would have cherished, adored. A delicate girl. A brilliant yet eager-to-please child, one who could be molded into a southern belle, his idea of the ultimate beauty queen.
The movie ends, and Eva scoots down beneath the sheet. It's a hot night, and we've no air-conditioning, and even with a fan pointed at the bed, the air is still, hot, thick, heavy.
"Mom?" Eva's cheek nestles in the pillow, her feet reach out and wrap around my legs.
With the window open and moonlight spilling, I can see her face. Her profile is pale, goddesslike in the dark. She was born with an old soul, and even though she's nine, she's mastered the pensive look perfectly, a troubled line etched between her brows. "What, baby?"
"Do you think Jemma's mom is pretty?"
I feel like a cat with a hairball. I want to retch. Instead I touch that furrow between Eva's eyebrows, willing it to go away. "Mmmm."
"I love her clothes, and her hair. I think she's so stylish and pretty."
I can't even come up with an appropriate answer, but fortunately, Eva doesn't seem to need one.
"You'd look beautiful in dresses and outfits like that, Mom. Don't you think? You could be so beautiful if you tried." Eva smiles up at me, and her smile briefly dazzles me with its innocence and hopefulness. Eva can be so serious, and then when she smiles it's like the full moon at midnight. So big and wide, glowing with light.
I lean toward her, kiss her. "I love you."
She's quiet for a long time, and I think maybe she's fallen asleep. But then a moment later she whispers, "So white would be okay? Because I saw the most beautiful dress for you, Mom. It looks like a ball gown—"
"Don't make me send you back to your room, Eva."
"You know weddings aren't my thing. The whole idea of dressing up like a Madame Alexander doll and marching down an aisle while everyone watches curdles my stomach."
"That's rude," she protests, cold feet rubbing against my calves.
"But it's true, and Eva, you don't have to get married to be happy."
"Maybe not, but there's no reason to make fun of people who want to get married."
"I'm not making fun of them. I'm just saying, don't try to be part of the pack. Be the wolf. It's so much more fun."
Eva giggles. "You're weird."
"I know, and I like it. Now go to sleep."
"Good night, Mom."
"Good night, my Eva."
Eva scoots closer and tucks her hand into mine. "You know what I want, Mom?" Her voice is pitched low, and it sounds strangely mature in the dark room.
My fingers curl around hers. Her hand is warm and small in mine. "Please don't mention weddings or marriage."
"No, it's not that."
"Then tell me. What do you want?"
"I want Jemma to like me."
The pressure is back, a weight on my chest. I clear my throat. "I'm sure she does—"
"No, she doesn't." She sighs softly, sounding far too old for her years, but maybe that's what being an only child does to you. "I can tell she doesn't like me. But maybe she'll change her mind. You know. When she gets to know me.
I squeeze Eva's hand tighter. "Let's hope so."
Excerpted from Odd Mom Out © Copyright 2012 by Jane Porter. Reprinted with permission by 5 Spot. All rights reserved.
Odd Mom Out