(If you missed Part One, it's here.)
The stepmother clicked the button to end the call before it started ringing. Then she took a deep breath and began to dial again. She stopped halfway, remembering some of the worst verbal insults that had made their way back to her, some of the angry and hateful facial expressions—all the ugliness that the mom obviously hadn’t had any problems tossing her way.
She looked over at the glowing blue book that had prompted all this, sitting innocently on her nightstand, and she frowned at it. This is all your fault, you stupid, little thing. You have no idea what I’m up against.....
She set the phone down and thought about all the things she needed to get done around the house. Her mind turned to an automatic inventory of the fridge, what she needed to get from the store, then it wandered to the laundry room, the bathrooms. Hmmm... how were they doing on toilet paper?
The blue book sat there... waiting. Oh fine, she huffed to herself and picked it up, opening it in the middle, just for fun.
A heart of war needs enemies to justify its warring. It needs enemies and mistreatment more than it wants peace.
"Needs." The word stood out on the page. Did she need this conflict on some twisted level?
She thought back to her original impulse, her knees clacking against each other under the table as she and the mom faced each other with nothing more than two steaming cups of liquid for defense.
She stared out the window for a few moments, her mind blank and empty. Then she dialed the number again.
There it was. That voice. She hated this woman, after all she’d done to them. All that b.s. in court. What she'd put the kids through even though she held herself up as some kind of devoted mother. What in God’s name was she doing calling her? Her husband was going to kill her. Her heart was loudly pounding a thousand miles a hour, her chest suddenly felt tender and sore. She needed more air. And dammit, she knew when she opened her mouth she was going to sound like a Nervous Nelly.
She cleared her throat. “Yeah, um—hey. It’s me.”
What a rude way to start a phone call, thought the mom. No surprise there. This had better be quick. And why wasn’t HE calling her instead? Something must be up. She checked her watch.
Well now, THAT wasn’t very friendly, was it? thought the stepmom. No “Hello?" or "How’re you?” or good manners, or anything! See? Here I am trying and this is what I get? There are some people that ARE just simply impossible.
What the hell do you know about real life?, she accused the authors of that stupid little book.
"Um, yeah. So, uh.... I—-" The stepmom cleared her throat again. She didn’t want to sound like a pansy, like she was wheedling, pleading. Where was all that blustering confidence she felt only moments ago? “I’ve been reading this new book and uh, I thought I’d call... and uh, yeah.Talk.”
The stepmom bumbled on.
“To you. I thought I’d call and talk to you.” Why wasn’t this stupid woman making things any easier. Damn her! Maybe the stepmom could just come up with an excuse to get off the phone right now and stop this slow filleting of herself alive.
The mom was instantly wary. She could hear the nervousness in the stepmom’s voice, which certainly intrigued her, but she’d be damned if she was going to have any more contact with this other woman than was absolutely necessary.
And hopefully, that would be... NONE.
“Talk to me about what.” The mom kept her voice flat and plain.
The stepmom was now actively kicking herself. Her innards were turning over and over and rearranging themselves. Maybe an alien would pop out of the middle of her chest—that’s what this was all about.
Coffee. Laughing, remember? Human BE-ING. Heart of war or heart of peace, the stepmom recited mentally like a zombie mantra. Suddenly, she thought, oh fuck it. She can’t kill me if she’s not actually here to bite my throat and drain me like a vampire. What do I have to lose anyway?
It’s already bad enough.
The stepmom took a deep breath and tried to clear her panicky head.
The mom heard this exhalation through the phone and thought, Wow, this is really weird. Something’s going on here. I wonder if I’ll be able to use this against her later somehow. Maybe they’re having problems? The mom filed these thoughts away and continued to listen, waiting for the stepmom to verbally hang herself. For some unknown reason, she had a mental image of a mountain lion in the deserts of Big Bend National Park, lying in wait while the unsuspecting hikers walked by on the path below, down the hill from the silent, tightly-wound feline.
Focus, focus, the mom reminded herself.
"Well, it’s about conflict and how it happens. How it gets generated." More silence. It was clear the mom wasn’t going to help her out—no surprise there—she would just have to plow through on her own. "Well, and it made me, I mean—I know you’re going to think this is crazy — but it made me just want to, um — to pick up the phone and call you. I thought maybe there might be a way for us to— "
Now there was an unusual grouping the mom had never heard out loud before.When was the last time she and the stepmom had ever been an US? She stifled a manic giggle.
All of a sudden, it occurred to the mom that the stepmom was actually scared. She imagined her over there, in their house, gripping the phone. The mom could feel two roads instantly stretching out in front of her. The familiar one was all about strategy, advantage, amassing your weapons, building your arsenal. The other one gave her a twinge in her stomach. What would happen if she cut the other woman a bit of slack for once?
“To, um—” the stepmom reluctantly repeated.
“Go on,” the mom said in a warmer voice. Something peculiar was happening to her. She felt like a curtain was being pulled back and she was seeing more of the other woman than she’d ever seen before, like the stepmom had stepped out from behind a desk and had actual... legs. She had the bizarre sensation of watching the stepmom go from black and white to Technicolor, just like in the Wizard of Oz.
The stepmom rushed on, encouraged. “Well, I know you probably think I don’t like you — and actually,” she hesitated, aware of the need to choose her words v-e-r-y carefully, “I’m not actually sure what I think of you—like, you know, the real you. I mean, honestly—I don’t even know you.”
The mom leaned forward in her seat, paying close attention. She thought of all the things he’d probably told the stepmom and got a sick little feeling in her gut. Watch out, she warned herself. You could be walking straight into a trap.
“Just like you don’t know me," the stepmom continued. "And yet — and yet, there’s all this tension between us. And we’ve had all these horrible moments, these bad experiences of not getting along. And all the fighting. The court stuff. The money. And disagreeing about everything—big, small, whatever." She rushed on, wondering who was controlling the words coming out of her mouth. "And you may not even believe me, but there have been times when I actually stood up for you when ___ was trashing your name. I mean, sorry—I probably shouldn’t say that—but I just want you to know that I just wish we could.... I mean, I just wish it were just possible to maybe set some of that aside, like in a box, and—- "
The stepmom stopped abruptly. Perhaps the she had gone too far. She sensed an incorrect breach there, what she had just said, as if she was going against her own husband in the face of the enemy.
There was a long awkward silence.
Finally, the mom just threw it out there, like fragile fruit landing softly in a basket. She felt a momentary flush of pride at her generosity.
“You mean, like actually, get along?”
It sounded as absurd as planning an arduous mission to Mars together in a cardboard box, from beginning to end.
They both laughed, breaking the tension. This must have been one of the world’s weirdest, most awkward phone calls. Moms and stepmoms weren’t supposed to talk to each other for a good reason!
It dawned on the stepmom that this was the first time she had ever laughed with the mom about anything.
It dawned on the mom that this was the first time she had ever laughed with the stepmom about anything too.
The stepmom soldiered on, feeling emboldened. “Look. Would you be up for maybe getting together in person and just talking about this? Like maybe just for coffee or something? Or at the park? Whatever works for you—” It occurred to the stepmom that she’d never used those last words with the mom either. Hmm, something to think about later....
The mom looked again at those two roads stretching out in front of her. If you took a new road and went off course, you could find yourself in a real crisis, running out of water, having your trail of breadcrumbs eaten by birds, losing your way. Night falls and you are royally screwed.
She thought of the kids and got an instant pang in her heart. Never once in her wildest dreams would she have ever imagined—breathing in their soft, sweet little heads—that she’d be negotiating a park date with that strange bitch of a woman who was now also in charge of their lives, in her own little kingdom. Then she thought of the pain and confusion she could see in the kids’ faces sometimes when they returned home, a certain emotional fatigue and exhaustion that popped through here and there.
This must be so hard for them....
The stepmom hesitated. If the mom turned her down now, there would be hell to pay, because this would be it. This would have been evidence of her sticking her neck wayyyy out on the line, and if that bitch of a bio-mom threw THIS back in her face, well, she’d regret it—once she saw what was coming her way. Fine, so the mom had the power to trump the stepmom in all KINDS of ways, but the stepmom could be as wily as the best of them. You just wait. She was about to crisply say, You know what? Forget it. This was a mistake calling. I don’t know what made me think I could—
“I would love to meet you.” said the mom, although her tone of voice sure didn’t make it seem like that was the case.
It was more like she was saying, Meet me at the park at sundown and I will calmly shoot you in the forehead—because I am a really good shot. Either that, or, Sure, come at dusk, when I turn into a bat—and unless you’re wearing a turtleneck made of steel, prepare to die, Inigo Montoya.
The stepmom was confused, flustered. She wasn’t sure which way to go here. “Really?” she said.
The mom’s voice softened. “Yes, really. It might be the dumbest thing we ever did, but sure, what the hell.”
There was that pairing again.
“Should we bring weapons?” the stepmom offered helpfully.
They made plans for tomorrow and got off the phone, disoriented and slightly dizzy. But also... oddly hopeful.
And very, very curious.
© 2009 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved