My mom liked other moms. She had an eye for women. They met up in the playground. I watched them laugh at each other’s inaudible jokes as I rode down the slide. I envied how easily they passed the cigarette. Sometimes they took so long that I imagined they had no home to return to. No family. I tried to guess what they were talking about. Ice cream, wars, bad tattoos. It was always the other moms that did the talking.
There was a different mom every time we moved. Tall, short, blonde. Loud or not. My mom was the only constant in the story, looking brown and curly like a small dog. She nodded a lot. She smiled. Made the other dog feel heard that way. She was everything Dad was not. The big bad wolf. He said things like “baby” or “smarts” for absolutely no reason. Mom scowled. She sighed. Blew away imaginary balls of smoke into our kitchen. Her fingers twisted the corners of the tablecloth listening to Dad talk. Folded the napkins into the blueprint of our house: a square.
I repeated Dad’s words to myself like a mantra every time I watched Mom.
Smarts. Smarts. Smarts.
Some days, I felt bad for Mom. I sat in the backseat and watched her watch the road. I tried to guess whether she was thinking about me or other moms. It was impossible to have a read. Next guessing game would be on her next failure: low gas in the tank, a wrong turn. Anything to blame on her. That was when I felt closest to other moms. They were also clueless.
My mom spoke to other moms on the phone. I listened from the other room. Other moms switched to more cheerful tones, though my mom never said anything interesting. I could almost hear them smile. I loved to imagine their mouths. I loved to imagine their teeth, hair, height. What it meant to be tall in some places and short in others. Everything about them resonated differently. Even the way they hung up varied.
Click, I love you. Cluck, I don’t.
The next time we moved, we did it on Mom’s terms. There was no Dad, not anymore. There was silence in the house, the kind that scared me. At night, I imagined a black wolf lurking outside of our new home. Looking in for its first prey. Mom would tell me to pop a Xanax if she knew. She would read me from her bad poetry, the way she sometimes did with other moms. It was a game we used to play when I was a toddler: I the target practice, she a prop gun.
Every time she drove me to school, we stopped by the coffeeshop. Waiting outside, I imagined her sidling with the next mom in line, how their elbows touched. I imagined myself howling. Practicing Dad’s voice inwardly. Training my lips to curl the right way.