My work in progress is called “The Alligator Purse”. Chapter 1 is here…
May 2, 2012
“My daughter Savannah just doesn’t understand why seeing her is so difficult for me. She was there again today…”
In the café’s dark bathroom, Savannah pulled out a pink and white box from a crumpled brown bag. She chewed on the end of the packaging to tear through the plastic wrap. The looped letters of the name on the label offered so much hope and promise, but she could only muster up hesitation. In her solitary world, the implications of a baby were tremendous.
She entered the stall and locked the door. Even with no intention of using the seat, Savannah found it important to wipe down the stool. Then she lifted up the tattered edges of her skirt and squatted to take the test. With one shaky hand on the metal wall and the other holding the plastic wand, Savannah followed instructions for the first time in years. The brownish tint of her urine and its pungent odor surprised her. But the stream was steady and it didn’t take long to soak the stick.
Reading the pamphlet that came with the test while she waited for an answer proved unhelpful. There was nothing in it about what to do next. Savannah focused on the explanation, “if two lines appear, you are pregnant.” She believed she shouldn’t hope to bring a child into her situation, but she couldn’t help but wonder if a granddaughter would bring her mother back into her life.
When the results appeared, Savannah collapsed back onto the toilet seat. Momentarily, she weighed the many decisions before her but her head began to hurt. Savannah looked at the stick once more, wrapped it in toilet paper, and through it in the trash can hanging on the wall. She steadied herself and unlocked the door. As she digested the news and its impact, she walked toward the marble sink.
Savannah held her trembling hands under the tepid running water while she looked at herself in the mirror hanging over the sink. A ghost of her former self stared back. She blinked her eyes to scare away the vision, then reached for a towel. As she wiped her face with the warmed cloth, she leaned in closer to the mirror and pulled at the thinning skin around her dark eyes. Her cracked fingernails trapped dirt and grime that might not ever escape.
Her wavy blond hair now hung in matted strands around her sunken face and no longer resembled her mother’s. Her tailored clothes were stained and hung loosely on her diminished frame. As she lowered her arms, she caught sight of the red tract marks that had replaced the sparkly bracelets she once wore. She wiped them with the towel and wished they could disappear.
It was the first time she had really seen herself up close in months and she didn’t recognize the figure reflected in the silver glass. It shouldn’t surprise me that my own mother won’t speak to me, Savannah thought to herself. Maybe it was a mistake to come here.
She rushed out of the bathroom and headed toward the front door. Just as she was leaving the café, Elizabeth rounded the corner at the end of the block. Savannah froze when she saw her mother headed her way.
She knew it was most likely that her mother would once again dismiss her as merely a memory. Savannah wondered if Elizabeth even admitted to having a daughter any more. She watched her mother navigate the crooked sidewalk while trying to balance her shopping bags, as if they were the only things requiring her immediate attention.
Her mother wore a dark red suit and matching shoes with a slight heel. The long sleeved jacket she wore was buttoned to the top and her fitted skirt stopped right above her knees. Her blond curls were piled into a loose twist and wavy strands hung comfortably around her face. Even her makeup looked freshly applied – her cherry-colored lipstick still glimmered.
Savannah knew that Elizabeth was on her way to the café to meet her fiancé Brad for their regular Tuesday lunch date. Feeling pressure to be the first one at the table, she’d want to arrive a little early. Savannah stood in front of the café’s large picture window hoping that something could change. As Elizabeth looked around her daughter, presumably trying to find Brad, the chilled May mist settled on Savannah’s face and a quiver snaked down her spine.
Brad had warned Savannah to stay away but she didn’t fear him noticing her there. She felt sure he’d be too busy on his Blackberry to give credence to anyone not in business attire. Her worn raincoat was ragged enough to never fully draw in his eyes. Just to be sure, however, she kept her back to the café’s entrance and moved a little further from the entrance. The rain droplets from the large green and white striped awning gently washed her mousy hair as she tugged on one of the matted clumps.
When Savannah saw Elizabeth drawing closer, she turned toward her and uncrossed her shivering arms. She wanted to be noticed without seeming confrontational. But, as Savannah expected, her mother hustled right by into the warmth of the café. Their shadows barely even whispered to each other.
Through the sizable front window, Savannah watched her mother plaster on that familiar smile, crinkle up her nose, and give a puppet wave to the hostess by slightly tapping together her fingers against her thumb. Then she pointed to her favorite table in the corner of the restaurant and started walking toward it in front of the hostess.
The hostess followed her back to the secluded table. As the hostess scraped the wooden chair across the rustic floor, Elizabeth shooed away the menu.
Savannah closed her eyes and remembered her mother’s order. The menu hadn’t changed in thirty years and neither had Elizabeth’s selection. Savannah could almost hear her mother say it, “I’ll have the cup of tomato soup and a half sandwich on whole grain bread with lettuce and tomato. Please do hold the may-oh-nnaise.”
Savannah opened her eyes and saw Brad sauntering by, predictably late by five minutes, guaranteeing he would not be the one left waiting for someone else to arrive. He tapped away at his Blackberry with his left thumb as he opened the door with his other hand. Savannah’s eyes followed him as he entered the restaurant. She hated to admit how handsome he really was but, in moments like this, it was hard to deny. He appeared so focused and determined. The rain shining in his thick black hair gave him a just showered look. Savannah understood why Elizabeth was drawn to him. It was why she stayed that remained such a mystery.
Brad entered the café and sat down at the familiar table without looking up at Elizabeth. She simply waited for him to be done with his email or text or whatever it was that had captured his attention at the moment. She fumbled with her engagement ring and the over-sized stone at its center as she patiently anticipated the inevitable question.
“What’s she doing outside?”
“Who?” Elizabeth pretended to wonder.
“Nice try,” he answered, finally putting his phone down next to his fork on the table. “You know it’s not fabulous that people might see her here.”
“She is my daughter,” Elizabeth reminded him.
“You must remember she represents everything I am not.”
“Things weren’t supposed to be this way. She should’ve graduated from college this month. This isn’t easy.”
“Let me say that differently. She represents everything we are not.”
“I know,” Elizabeth said now fiddling with her napkin.
“Why don’t they ever bring over menus?” Brad asked and raised his hand to call over the waitress.
In front of the café, Savannah’s stomach filled with bubbles that erupted in her abdomen and rose to her throat. Instinctively, she lowered her right hand to her belly and rubbed it softly side to side. Rather than linger abou, she walked around to the back of the restaurant and spied the dumpster.
The cobblestone alley was wet with rain and slime. Savannah carefully side-stepped the overstuffed bags lining the narrow corridor of trash. She ignored the stench, knowing that the discarded scraps would be delicious and plentiful. The dainty women inside the café most often left their meals half-eaten, pretending to be full. The reality of it was they feared gaining even an ounce of additional weight, especially in a restaurant staffed by beautifully young and too-thin college students who flirted effortlessly with the male guests dining there.
As Savannah tipped her waist gracefully over the edge of the moss green dumpster, she looked for the freshest fare. She easily found a chicken salad sandwich in a clear plastic take-away container that had hardly been touched. The lettuce under the croissant was not yet wilting and the tomato still sweated with moisture. She stumbled when she picked up the container and saw the familiar alligator purse.
Forgetting her hunger, she tilted her head and dropped the sandwich. It had to be the purse she remembered. She knew it was. Her father had special-ordered it for her mother on their last trip together to Paris. The swirled “E” on the front and the bag’s taffy orange tint were undeniable. It was Savannah’s go-to purse when she played dress up as a little girl.
She wondered why the purse was there. Her mother loved that purse and so did she. From Savannah’s way of thinking, it simply did not belong in the trash.
Carefully, Savannah slid her hand in between the dumpster’s edge and her stomach to buffer it from the jagged ridge along the top. She leaned further in and grabbed her mother’s old purse. As Savannah turned away from the trash container and its rotting contents, she sunk to the ground. Purposefully, she pulled her knees to her chest and the purse up to her delicate nose. The putrid smell of the garbage could not mask Elizabeth’s beloved lavender perfume. She drew in the scent, leaned back her head, and became seven years old once again.