Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Free Prayer
by Sara Stevenson

"Mother? How old were you when you got your first boyfriend?" my eleven-year-old daughter asks. She smiles, tilts up her chin, and curls her hair behind her ear with her fingers, a habit she's been repeating since she and Wyatt started going.

"Are you and Wyatt going steady?" I ask.

"Steady? No. What's that? We're going. You know," she shrugs.

I'm pouring the pasta and its oily water into the colander. I shake it as if it were a kettle of fish under the cold tap water. "Honey," I begin, "I remember boys and girls going steady in fifth grade, but I wasn't one of them. I thought boys still had cooties, or they thought I did, but I did not have a boyfriend."

"So, Mom. When did you get your first boyfriend?"

"I was a late bloomer. I can't even remember," I lie. I can remember. The answer is too humiliating. Twenty-one. I was twenty-one before I fell in love, reciprocally. Before that, I was the queen of unrequited love, but Cara doesn't need to know everything. Some things I will keep to myself.

I remember the exchange from last night as I drive to work this morning. I drop off Cara at school and then drive to the Heart Hospital where I work. I've been a nurse for twenty-two years, but I dread my current nursing job. I get this nervous feeling in my stomach, the same queasiness I used to feel in junior high, standing on the vibrating dance floor in a huddle of girls, wondering why no boy had the nerve to approach us.

I went into nursing to be with patients. I love talking to people, listening to their problems, reassuring them out of their fear and pain. But that's not what nursing is anymore. At my latest job, I spend all my time behind the computer correcting the mistakes part-time lab technicians have typed into patients' charts. I rarely get to interact with a human face.

On my way to work I always pass the Church of Glad Tidings. A big banner with red letters reads: "Free Prayer". Next to the banner is a wooden gazebo housing two fold-up metal chairs. In one, sits a church volunteer; the other chair is vacant, waiting to be filled by a person in need. Each morning I feel tempted, afraid my hands will turn my steering wheel against my will and lead my car into the church parking lot. Today I've made it past one more time.

I'm so mad at Dad! He says I'm not allowed to call boys. He says it's different when I'm older, but now it leads to a bad reputation. And Mom won't let me wear my tank tops to school either. They just don't know what it's like to be my age. They are too strict!! There. I wrote in my journal and I feel better. I'm using rainbow gel pens on scalloped black pages with silver lines. I've written in my neatest cursive. It looks beautiful even if the thoughts are mad. Dad embarrasses me. I'd much rather Mom take me to school. This morning Dad was yelling out to me in Italian as he drove away. I don't know what he was saying, but everyone was staring. I kept walking into school with my backpack to him. And it's not just Dad that's bugging me. Mom gets all dreamy and far away when I ask her about her first boyfriend, what she was like in fifth grade. I know she's hiding something from me, but I can't figure out why. Usually she tells me everything. Too much, actually. I wonder if she was happier then, in fifth grade, than she is now. She hates her job. The other day she was talking to Lauren's mom about quitting nursing to drive a school bus instead. She wasn't joking, either. I would die of embarrassment if my mom drove a school bus, but she says it pays $12 an hour, plus benefits, whatever those are, and she'd be able to have a latte at Starbucks, take a yoga class again, and hang out with mothers in between bus runs. Plus, she'd get the same vacations I do, so I wouldn't have to sit at my grandma's house bored out of my skull every school holiday. That part I do like.

I look up from my computer screen, twist my wrists, lean back, close my eyes. In need of a break, I turn away from my screen, and everything fades into red dots, as if the world has a rash. I grab my jacket and head for an exit. Once I pass through the glass doors, I enter the most beautiful spring day. The light dazzles off a just-washed red car. The redbuds are blooming, and soft green leaves open on oak branches. And I hadn't even noticed. This morning when I went into work, it was raining and cold.

I sit on my boulder in the park next to the Heart Hospital. I love to sit here, close my eyes, and begin to drift into dreams. I can't fall asleep sitting up, but I slip into these half dreams and then jerk awake, in awe of how far my thoughts can travel and how little I understand their source. Pictures in my mind meander until I steer them towards remembering my first date.

It's a blind date. We went water-skiing on Lake Grapevine with my friend Margie, her boyfriend, and his brother. I was supposed to be the boyfriend's brother's date, but I felt more like we were chaperones for Margie and her boyfriend. The brother and I never connected. He drove the boat. I water-skied when it was my turn, and when it wasn't, I lifted my face into the wind and closed my eyes as the motorboat bounced over wakes, loving that it was too loud to feel awkward in silence.

Another early date was at a dance Margie decided to have at her house. We were sophomores or juniors in high school. I invited my friend from Spanish class, Doug, who was a year ahead of me. My friend Janet's parents were going out that night, so Janet was cooking lasagna for four couples, including us, at her house before the dance at Margie's.

I spent hours beforehand in the tub shaving my legs, smearing myself with Charlie lotion, taking heavy breaks of daydreaming to James Taylor songs, focusing with attention on each movement in my grooming ritual, such as safety-pinning my bra straps to my formal. Still, I was unbelievably nervous -- afraid, really. What we would talk about was my greatest anxiety.

Funny, when I think about it now. I have a reputation for never being at a loss for words. Still, even though Doug and I talked in Spanish class whenever our teacher looked down to write on the transparency, a date was different. It had shifted the tectonic plates beneath our friendship. Doug might as well have been an alien.

He picked me up in his white Cutlass with a maroon landau. I loved this car. I'd even made a booklet with cutouts from a car dealer brochure, trying to convince my dad to buy me one, but he said I was too irresponsible. Doug drove along, and we didn't have much to say. Suddenly I was afraid the Charlie lotion in combination with the squirts of Charlie perfume smelled too strong, and I agonized, hoping he had a slight cold and wouldn't notice. I kept imagining how I would rush into Janet's bathroom as soon as we got there to try to scrub some of it off.

When we got to Janet's, I ran straight to the kitchen. Christine was there and offered to fix me a vodka tonic. Please, I begged. She filled a water glass with ice and then mixed a drink -- pouring in two jiggers of vodka instead of one. I grabbed the glass and took a sip. It tasted bitter, stung the inside of my nose, but I forced myself to gulp it down, the way I made myself finish my milk before my mom would let me leave the dinner table. I downed the entire drink in less than a minute. That's the last clear memory I have of the evening. The rest I pieced together from details others told me later, sewed together with flashes of my own leftover memories or imagination.

I spent the entire dinner party throwing up in Janet's bathroom and then went on to Margie's house, where I spent the rest of the night throwing up in her upstairs toilet, her brother's girlfriend consoling me, holding back my hair, and deflecting my constant apologies. At one point, my friends later told me, the attendees were gathered on the grand steps for a group picture, and I somehow broke out of the bathroom and fell down the stairs in order to be included. Remembering such raw desperation makes me shiver.

Last night was the big night. I was so excited and nervous. Wyatt and I double-dated with Ava and Joel, and Ava spent the night with me afterwards, so we could go over every detail of our date. After we all jumped on the trampoline, Joel and Wyatt wanted to spend the night, too, but Mom said no. I wore my turquoise tank top. With a sweater, Mom insisted. I also wore my watermelon lip gloss and kiwi face glitter. I pulled part of my hair back, the way Dad likes it. Mom took us to the movie, but she sat in the back of the theatre while we sat up real close to the screen so I wouldn't have to wear my glasses. After the movie, we were playing air hockey and video games. Mom said it was too cold in the air-conditioning, so she waited for us outside. When we came out, I was afraid Mom would be mad because we had played so many games, but I couldn't find her. I looked all around, and then I saw her, way at the end of the parking lot. She was standing there, staring at some tree, lifting her hand to touch the purple flowers. "Mom," I yelled out. She looked up, and for a second it was like she didn't know who I was.

Cara's first date went well. I sat with them at dinner. The kids complained about their teachers and took turns sweeping their fingers through the candle flame, the way we used to do. At one point I looked across the table at Cara, and her beauty arrested me. She was watching Wyatt as he told a story, and the glitter on her cheeks, the gloss on her lips mirrored the glow in her eyes from the candlelight. She didn't look like my little girl but a young woman. I certainly upgraded my genes in the looks department when I married Dennis. Whenever I notice our beautiful daughter, I feel a combination of pride and envy. I always wanted to be beautiful, but even Dennis, when pressed, won't say I'm pretty. He says I'm attractive, which is a euphemism for trying with what little you've got -- like an "A" for effort.

Earlier in the evening, I had gone outside while they played their noisy video games. I watched a beautiful sunset, bisected by some telephone wires, beyond the concrete parking lot. The colors melted into each other and kept changing in their intensity. The sunset slowly muted to a smoky purple, but the kids were still in the theatre. I got bored and started walking around the parking lot perimeter. Someone had just planted a row of redbud saplings that were sprouting in bloom.

The first time I paid attention to the order of flowers blooming, we lived in Houston, and Cara was two. It used to take us an hour to walk to the park two blocks away because Cara would have to stop and examine every fallen twig, sprinkler head, acorn, or ant. Trailing behind her, I had the leisure to notice all the flowering plants and trees in people's yards. The flowers took turns that spring, like actors approaching center stage at curtain call. Redbuds bloomed first, then azaleas, jessamine, daffodils and tulips, wisteria, pansies, snapdragons, honeysuckle, Confederate jasmine, and lastly, the crepe myrtles in the hot June sun.

In the parking lot the evening of Cara's first date, I stood close to a redbud tree; the buds weren't red but pale lavender with purple hearts. They looked like purple popcorn, and I reached out to lightly touch one. That's when Cara's shout pulled me back to my chaperone duties. As I turned toward Cara, I realized it didn't matter that I hadn't started my period until ninth grade, or never grew the melon breasts I always imagined in my fantasies, or was late in love, or had my heart broken, or couldn't change my love life's trajectory. Dennis and I had ended up loving each other, and we had created, with God's assistance, our daughter Cara.

That half-hour in the parking lot, where I witnessed nature breaking through the plain pavement, I remembered later as grace, a free prayer.
Sara Stevenson, an Austin mama of two, taught high school English for thirteen years. Her writing has appeared in The Austin American-Statesman, The Houston Chronicle, The Houston Post, The Texas Observer, Short Stories Bi-Monthly, and Writersdigest.com