Daniel John

Cheryl didn’t know how her mother could have let herself go like that. Parts of her jiggled. She sorted her salad into different piles then mixed them together again to make it look like she was eating. Now and then, when her mother was watching, she put her fork in her mouth as if there was food on it. She finally tired of the silence.

“Men are fetishists. You know that, Mother,” she said in a bored voice.

“That sounds like a rude word,” Margaret replied.

She hadn’t said anything so far because she was working on not commenting on Cheryl’s black mascara, silver sparkles on the eyelids, skin–tight black tube dress, shiny black lipstick, and lack of appetite. It was hard enough to get her daughter to agree to meet her twice a year for lunch, even though they both lived within a few blocks of Harvard Square. They may as well have lived on opposite coasts. Cheryl’s father had died when she was sixteen, right when she was in the full oedipal flush of loving Daddy and hating Mommy. He was dead within six months of coming out. Cheryl had hated her mother ever since. “Oh, Mother. It just means they focus on one part of a woman’s body, objectify it, and look for it on every woman they see, separate from the full woman.”

The full woman? the waiter wondered, rushing past. Full of beans? Full–figured? The older woman certainly was, and gorgeous, too. The younger woman was a stick in a black sock. What a shame. Women never understood that what a man wanted from a woman was a woman.

“The full woman?” Mother asked. “Full of what?”

She was aware she was eating the whole cheese plate, but couldn’t help herself. Not commenting on Cheryl’s not eating compelled her to eat everything in sight.

“Full of everything. I mean not separate bits, like breasts, hips, legs! For crying out loud, I even met a wrist man once. Can you believe that?”

“I met a woman like that. She said if a man had bad wrists she didn’t even want to talk to him.” “What was a bad wrist?”

“A bad energy connection to the hand. She shuddered to think of it. She was an artist, so I thought she meant the way they held the brush.”

“Mostly, it’s men who cut women into pieces and revere the piece.”

“So what fetish are you? Penises?”


The waiter nearly tripped. They couldn’t be talking about him.

“Don’t yell at me, I’m just making a point.”

She giggled – a short, fractured sound – then set her black–lined lips firmly together again. “Mother, if you insist on being impossible I am going to . . . going to . . .”

“Eat your salad?”

“I give up,” Cheryl said, and put down her fork. Seeing her mother twice a year was at least once too often. She shifted in her chair, preparing excuses to leave.

“Oh, good!” her mother beamed. “Now that you’ve given up, we can relax. What was that were you saying about breast men?”

Definitely a not–to–be–missed conversation, the waiter thought as he hurried past, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s the busiest it’s been all day.

“Mother, you do understand! Why were you pretending?”

“I wasn’t. I was taking issue with your condemnation of men. It’s true, men do that thing you say, but only because they’re scared. If they narrow their woman problem down to one area, ankles, for example, then they have less to be scared of. You have to be gentle with men. They’re more emotional than we are, they frighten easily, and they suffer terribly from womb envy. We devour them, you know, and all they get is . . . close your mouth, dear. Flies will get in. Finish your salad.” Then she realized she’d broken the food taboo. “Salad has vitamins,” she added quickly.

“Did Dad know you think like this?”

She waited until the bitter memories of betrayal had passed, then said, “I wish you could ask him. He would have been better on this subject than I am.”

“Better? He was a man!”

“Yes, dear, your father was a man,” she deadpanned, an ironic hint of the old outrage in her voice.

“Of course I know my father was a man!” Cheryl said heatedly.

The waiter whizzed by. Now that was interesting, he thought. She hadn’t known her father was a man. Perhaps they were wondering about his own gender. He decided to swagger more when he passed their table.

“Has something happened recently in the men department?”

“No!” Cheryl angrily brushed a strand of dull black hair away from her mouth. This is why she hated to go out with her mother. She always ended up feeling sixteen, not twenty–six.

“No wonder. Listen, darling–”

“–Do not call me darling!”

“I’m sorry. Cheryl–”

“–And I’m going to call you Margaret from now on.” She glared at her mother.

“. . . That’s fine, dear. Call me Margaret. Anyway, once you accept that women are the more powerful sex you can forgive–”

“–Men? Forgive men? Did you know a rape occurs every twenty–nine point two seconds?”

“It takes longer than that. The average man requires three minutes after penetration.”



“Margaret! I hate it when you do that!” She tried to glare again, but she was wilting from her own truth. Her face sagged. “I lied. There is something the matter in the men department.”

“Go on.”

“It’s Ned. He left me.” Cheryl examined her fingernails, tried to find one that had something left to bite. There wasn’t one. She nibbled on her naked fork.

“That’s terrible.”

“Maybe it’s for my own good. I was too dependent on him.”

“It’s okay to be dependent on a man. That’s what they’re for.”

“Mother!” She rolled her eyes to the sky above. “It is not okay to be dependent on a man.”

“Yes, it is. You have to take care of the relationship all by yourself, right? Especially his feelings, and especially the sex, right? So it’s okay to be dependent on him in general, since he’s depending on you for all the specifics.”

Cheryl looked baffled. “That makes sense, kind of . . . but if only I’d – I mean, I should have made sure that he felt okay enough to stay with me–”

“–Should have nothing. When a man leaves you it always seems as though he would have stayed ‘if only’ you were better. Or thinner. It’s never true. And even if it is true, it’s still not true. After all, you have your self–respect. What else?”

“What do you mean what else?”

“You know. What else about Ned? What else was the matter with him?”

“Oh God, how did you know?”

“By the way you licked your fork instead of eating lunch.”

“Oh.” Cheryl put down her fork. “Well, he left me for the love of his life: Henry. I never had a clue, not in two–and–a–half years. How could I be so dumb?”

“Hey! You’re talking to the original dumb bunny here. Sometimes gay isn’t something you start out as, it’s something you sort of grow into. Anyone can be fooled by a bisexual, including the bisexual. Did he know he was gay before he fell in love with Henry?”

“No. Yes. Well, it’s complicated. He didn’t want to be gay. He’s still not sure if he is. He’s been friends with Henry for ages and ages. He said my love made him strong enough to love Henry. He went on and on about how grateful he was to me. I didn’t have a clue about any of this. We were having waffles and maple syrup with yogurt last Sunday when out of a clear blue sky he says, “Cheryl, I’m gay, but I don’t want to be.” I couldn’t think of a thing to say. He went on and on for a long time about how our love was the catalyst and support, etc., etc. I couldn’t think of a thing to say. Did I already say that? When he finally stopped talking I told him I had to go for a walk. When I got back, five hours later, the place was so clean it was as if he’d never been there at all, as if two–and–a–half years of living together had never happened. He’d even vacuumed the back of the closet. I couldn’t eat for the rest of the day. I never had a clue. I swear. I never did.”

“Was he a breast man?”

“Would mesdames care for some dessert?” the waiter inquired, deeply embarrassed. He felt trapped, in a truly delicious way.

“Pecan torte,” Margaret said, smiling. The waiter saw so much experience in that smile he wanted to climb into her lap.

“Excuse me!” Cheryl said loudly, “I’d like some more Perrier.”

He swiftly turned to face her. “Certainly. Nothing for dessert?” The girl was so scanty he could hardly bear to look at her.

“No. Nothing.”

He whisked himself away. The gorgeous woman would never criticize him. That stick of a girl would never stop.

“Why did you ask me that?” Cheryl asked.

“I would think only a bisexual breast man would cut you off like that, with the cruelty of absence; like a weaning, to the point of absurd cleanliness.”

“How can he be a breast man if I don’t have any breasts to speak of?”

“Because he was gay.”

“You’re not making sense. A gay man can’t be a breast man.”

“Unless he doesn’t know he’s gay, in which case he can only tolerate skinny – I’m sorry. Your father never. . . could never. . .”

“It’s all right, Mother, don’t worry. I’ve had the test.”


“It’s positive.”

“It’s positive?”

“Yes. It’s positive. I’m pregnant.”

Margaret felt punched in the mouth. There was a brisk, windy silence. The weather suddenly cooled. She looked up. Clouds were louring over Harvard Square. Most of the other tables were already empty.

“A cool day in June,” she said, and stood up. Her daughter didn’t move. Cheryl’s straight black hair cut too short made her pinched, pale face look like a bed stripped of all its sheets, and the rictus of black lipstick like a stain on the mattress. Her too–tight black dress was last week’s party. Margaret knew better than to ask about food. Or if she was being lied to about a granddaughter.

“Come on, Cheryl. Let’s go.”

“I quit my job yesterday,” Cheryl said in a low voice. She slouched in her chair like a heroin addict. “I don’t know if I should tell Ned anything.”

“Drastic times call for drastic measures,” Margaret said firmly. “Let’s go shopping.” Slowly, Cheryl stood up. She was shockingly thin. How could she possibly be pregnant? She reminded herself once again not to say anything about food or weight. The waiter glided over with the check, handed it to Margaret, and beamed at her while she counted out the cash and a generous tip. He couldn’t say thank you enough.

“The waiter’s in love with you,” Cheryl said as they walked up the street.

“Just watch me jiggle these babies.” She did a little shoulder shimmy.

“Mother! I mean, Margaret!” A smile snuck out Cheryl’s black–lipsticked mouth. Then her face fell. “What am I going to do?” she asked plaintively. She looked like a teenager dressed up as a harsh and metallic twenty–six.

“I don’t know, dear. We’ll think of something.”


“Yes. We. That’s my grandchild, so we’re in this together.”

A sudden gust of wind curled litter up into the sky in a mad rush, then blew it on down the street. Margaret took her daughter’s arm, and together they let the wind push them to the kiosk at the center of Harvard Square. She guided them to the right to walk along Massachusetts Avenue.

“How long ago did Dad die, Mom?”

“. . . Ten years ago. Today.”

“Oh. Of course it was today. How could I have forgotten?”

“You had enough to deal with,” her mother said. Her voice was old and tired. She didn’t want to ask about AIDS.

“I didn’t tell you everything,” Cheryl said.

“Oh. . . What?” She wouldn’t cry, no matter what.

“Ned has AIDS.”

Margaret did not break her stride. She absolutely could not go through this again. She looked straight ahead and did not cry. “Cheryl, be kind and answer me straight and fast on this one, okay? Do you have AIDS?”


Margaret gripped herself with an iron grip the way she had gripped herself when she’d walked into the hospital and found Cheryl’s father dying in his lover’s arms. Not his loving wife’s arms but his underage–boy–lover’s arms. He died without touching her or even wanting to look at her. He pretended not to hear her when she spoke, and his little lover gave her the evil eye. She told the nurse to give the flowers to someone who really needed them, and walked out. She looked straight ahead through the memory of that day and the silent whiteness of the months that followed and carried on, one step at a time down Massachusetts Avenue in front of the Harvard University Quad, one step at a time.

The sun shone bleakly through the clouds. An errant spring wind made them both shiver. Drastic measures, she said to herself, and refused to cry. Without hesitation, she led her daughter to the women’s section in the Harvard Bookstore and bought a bag full of books of women’s erotica. Then she insisted they both walk to Cheryl’s post–Ned–infected apartment for a cup of tea.

When Cheryl put on the kettle, Margaret read racy bits to her daughter.

“Margaret, what you are doing? Are you hitting on me?”

“Oh, don’t be silly, dear, that waiter looks a lot better to me than you do.”

“But porno with Mom? This is weird, very weird.”

“Hush up and listen.” She curled up in one of the pair of retro 60s beanbag chairs, one striped like a zebra, one spotted like a dalmatian. The chair gave beneath her like cotton candy. She didn’t know if she’d be able to get out of it without a crane. Cheryl settled into the other bean bag. She floated on top like a pool toy.

“It’s AIDS that’s weird. Sex is the life force, and we both need a little pep talk in that area. It’s been a very long time since your father died, and he was getting funny long before he started experimenting.”

“That is like a curse or something, both of us having the same tragic experience with men.”

“No, it’s not. You’re first attracted to the opposite–sex parent. That’s heterosexual normal. Now where did I hear that, anyway?”

“I don’t even like to think like that. It makes me feel programmed, like a robot. ”

“Things are so hard for me right now, I just might go back and pick up that waiter.”

“Mother! He’s my age!”

“So what? He won’t notice. You have to learn how to enjoy men the way they are, dear. They can’t change. However, they love to promise they will, it’s like a religion with them. Just don’t believe it.” Then she reached into the bag of books, opened one at random, and read, “Tasha knew he liked bosoms, so she slowly unbuttoned the top button of her soft white linen blouse and leaned over the table between them – ”

“The table between her bosoms? Stop! You can’t say ‘bosoms’ in this country! Stop!” Cheryl cleared her throat and stood up abruptly. She paced to the window, then turned and faced her. “Mother, I lied to you. I don’t have AIDS. I don’t know why I said I did. I was mad at you. I think it was about Dad. I mean, about Ned. We’ve both been tested and re–tested, many times.”

“Are you pregnant?” Margaret asked, carefully.

“Yes. And the ultrasound and all possible tests say perfectly normal. I don’t like being so mean to you! I’m sorry! Oh, I’m sorry!” She fell onto the bean bag chair and sobbed.

Margaret heard the truth in her daughter’s voice and exhaled a great load of death like gray grit. Fat tears rolled down her cheeks.

“I don’t know why I lied to you about it,” Cheryl said. “That was really, really cruel of me and I’m so sorry, Mom, I really am. Ever since Dad died I’ve been convinced I had AIDS or was about to get it, any second. I’ve never told you, but I’ve gotten tested every few months since he died. Every cough, every cold, I’d think, this is it, just like Daddy, any day now I’m going to die–I loved him too much. And I always thought his death was your fault, that you could have stopped him from going gay and dying if you loved him more, or at least noticed him more. I mean, really, how could you live with a man and not know he’s gay? . . . Oh. Right. Listen to me talk! I don’t know anything about living. All I really know how to do is wear black and think I’m going to die. And I keep falling for guys who don’t know they’re gay or aren’t yet. Ned was my third almost–straight serious boyfriend. I’m like the last straight stop on the train to Gay Land.”

She looked wide–eyed at her mother. She hadn’t looked this sixteen since she’d been sixteen. It was more than she’d ever shared about her father’s death.

“I think I need some popcorn, a lot of popcorn,” Margaret whispered, wiping her eyes. “And don’t go easy on the butter.”

“You mean the way Dad always liked it, at any hour of the day or night?” Cheryl asked, her eyes brimming. “I am loaded with popcorn. There’s hardly any food in the apartment–maybe some soy sauce–but there’s always popcorn. I think I have some in every cupboard. And the fridge has nothing in it but butter. It’s all I’ve eaten for a week.” Cheryl grabbed a tissue and blew her nose. “It’s a girl. I’m going to name it Margaret.”

“How wonderful. Just don’t name it ‘Mother.’”

“Oh, Mother. I love you.”

“Margaret,” she corrected, and began to sob in great heaving gushes the way only a full–figured, big–boned woman could.



Published by North Atlantic Review, Fall 2004