“Do I have to go Mom?”
My whining voice as my mother tried to coax me away from whichever Judy Blume book I was deeply nuzzled into. She had the night off from school and had a “date” with the adulterous man she was seeing. My mother dated rarely but when she did, she went for anything other than what was good for, or could be good, for her. This particular man was one I had a fiery hatred for. First of all he was married and while everyone around us told us he wasn’t, his daughter, that he brought with him on several of his outings, assured me, he was still in fact very married and while we knew of her, his wife knew nothing of us. Even then I didn’t have too many hang ups about that kind of thing. To each their own and it isn’t any of my business to tell grown ass folks how to live. That said, this was my desperately needing mother and I knew….could tell by the way she selected her perfume from the glass tray atop her dresser what kind of night she was hoping for. The kind of knight she was hoping for, and I was sure this black grease wreaking, slow witted, living in a hotel room user was the polar opposite to what she needed.
“Please Mouse. Come with us. We are going to that shrimp place”
The words still a bubble in the air above her head and I was shoving my summer blistered heels into my Keds, standing tall as I ran my pudgy hand over my layingaroundallday shirt and with a slightly defeated snarl replied, “Okay fine! Just make him leave me alone”
So not only was this man a liar, a user and a cheater, he was also cruel in that way that only profoundly stupid men can be. Every time I came to dinner he would call me “Hungry Hungry Hippo” and when he’d call to speak to my mother the first question, out of his tubby face, “So Sam, you still ugly?” so needless to say spending the night with Ms. Blume’s perfectly aged stories were a far better option for me but, well there was that sweet smelling momma of mine, and the promise of fried shrimp, a thing I had only known because of that grease stinking ape, and the only thing I could find pleasure in when he and my mother would start kissing, the sight and sound making my stomach turn….turn right to that bucket of fried shrimp.
“Nance, you got your wallet? His thick southern accent oozing with a sickly sweet stench as we approached the iron rod covered walk up window. Took us like 20 or 25 minutes to get there and it was in a part of town that my mother would never be caught dead in…the part of town that drew me back years later for its honesty and truth no matter how busted, broken and sad. I looked up, well across as I was nearly as tall as she at this point, at my mother and refusing to make eye contact with me she reached into her purse and pulled out her pocketbook. Dinner on her, again. “Yeah, I have some cash” she sputtered and with that the goon belted out his order.
“Yeah, we’ll be having 2 pounds of those fried shrimps and don’t cheap out on the ketchup sauce! I also want a shake” like he was a 10 year old getting to pick dinner on his birthday. I was actually ten and while I sat there, thirsty because it was only his drink requirements dealt with, my legs dangling off the side of his oversized van thing that looked like a Frito Lay delivery truck, I listened to the two of them coo and flirt and the only thing that kept me from either retching or snapping my ten year old leg off in his dumb ass, the briny, bready, horseradishy aroma and roof of the mouth scraping of those perfectly fried and cocktail dunked “shrimps”
Fixed coral colored tails fanned out, deeply brown coating squeezing the flat splayed shrimp bodies, hard fried just enough that the crunch of their flesh between my teeth drowned out the ever screeching lies, empty promises and eventual bickering and tears that were coming from the belly of the van. The spent tail quarters and nose expanding aroma of cocktail sauce my music as I sat on the bumper of the van after being pushed out so, ‘the grownups can talk” the grunts and slow rocking of our chariot teaching me how I never wanted to talk in that kind of grown up way. The fragrant briny whiff a comfort as I sat in the dark on a swaying bumper as drug deals, sexual exchanges and toothless homeless folks passed me by, not noticing, for a second, my Keds dangling from the Frito Lay looking van. Never seeing me dip my chin into the bucket to hide my tears of frustration, maybe humiliation as I found the one and only good thing in that moment, becoming once again a submissive to the seduction of oceanic fragrances. That and knowing that my mom would be needing extra hugs that night and I would be the one giving them to her….which was why she begged me to come in the first place.
The other night my son and I sat with two very real loves of my, of our lives, and we all crunched away madly on old school breaded shrimp, this time the submission of their crunch covered flesh nearly silent compared to the boisterous energy and welcoming exchange and debates spinning around the table. My voice, his voice, our voices all bouncing about as the hedonistic tug of thick cocktail sauce, heavily flecked with serious tatters of horseradish and sweet tomato ketchup were wrapping me up in a kind of embrace that I so longed for 35 years ago. I might not have noticed how powerful the moment had it not been for the nights spent on that Frito Lay bumper and the resulting tight hugs and hair stroking, another one of our role exchanged moments that taught me to be just a little stronger.
Can’t smell the ocean, oysters, clams or fried shrimp without feeling nostalgic and a bit taller. It’s that kind of observation that reminds me, there is plenty of bad but if you can, somehow, find some tiny bit of hope, strength, power or courage in them…someday those bads will smell and feel a whole lot like a much needed embrace.