The Riddle of the Sphinx
First Published in TOYON Volume 57 2011
The mall was crowded. Mom had me by the arm, pulling me into one store and then dragging me out another. “Come on,” she said to me over and over as we made our way through a storm of jeans and shopping bags. Passing the perfume cart, the pretzel counter, and the kiosk selling pillows, we ended up in the beauty department of one of those huge, shiny department stores where it’s always cold and the mirrors are lenient. We may have been passing through on our way to the kid’s section. Maybe I needed gloves or a sweater, or new underwear. I don’t remember.
“Good afternoon,” a young girl said. This young girl was beautiful. She had a neon smile and hair of shiny chestnut that hung in perfect lines down her back. She was wearing a black suit with a crisp white shirt, the collar of which rested on her lapels like a giant flower. “My name is Amber. Would you like to try some of our new products?” She held up a squeeze bottle.
“Oh, uh, well,” my mother said, wiping her nose. “I’m not sure. We’re kind of in a hurry. What are they?”
Amber swooped in. She pulled a director’s chair up to the counter and before I knew it, my mother was captured.
“Here,” my mother said, shoving the shopping bags in my direction. “Hold these.”
Amber looked at me, “And what’s your name?”
“Jennifer,” I said.
“Would you like to try some products too?” She held the squeeze bottle up to my little brown eyes.
“No, she would not,” my mother said, turning to me. “Stay there and be quiet.”
“Okay,” Amber said to my mother. “I think for your skin type we have a prefect new moisturizing product that just came in. And you have to try our new foundation. It’s a brand new anti-ageing formula. We gotta keep those men happy! Am I right?”
My mother was lost. At home, where the couch sagged and my father was always mad, she was in her element. In the kitchen, standing over a pot of something meaty, her apron cutting into the sides of her large stomach, her scowl was queen. And at night, when we went to bed and she took over the living room, her chubby fingers gripped her bottle of Bug Light like a scepter. But here in the department store, where everything was beautiful, her doughy, troll face was a joke. Here she had no power. She was a woman whose face was at the hands of a younger, more beautiful girl for whom alcohol meant parties not caves. Amber’s manicured hands moved swiftly, and within minutes my mother was covered in foreign colors and liquids.
“Here you go,” Amber said, holding up a mirror. “What do you think?”
My mother didn’t need to say anything. Her eyes, sad and disappointed, stared through the mirror. She was defeated, and she knew it. “Is this some kind of joke?” she asked in that quiet tone angry mothers hold the patent on. “I look like a clown.”
Amber’s smile fell. “No, M’am. You look wonderful. And I think with the right use, these products could really make your skin and face look wonderful, not that it already doesn’t.”
There was despair in my mother’s anger, a kind of deadly silence: the way she hunched her shoulders and didn’t make eye contact. I could feel the tension build, like the entire mall was filling with swamp water.
My mother stood up and pushed Amber out of the way. She grabbed the shopping bags from me. “Come on,” she said. She walked swiftly away from the forest of glass counters. I had a hard time keeping up with her. We weaved in and out of garment displays, snaking our way toward that corner in every department store where the clothes start to wear thin and the only thing visible are the bathrooms.
My mother stood over the sink, scraping the make up off with coarse paper towels. She was silent. When she was done, her face red and splotchy from the roughness of the towels and her hands, she calmly sniffed back some tears and walked back to the beauty section.
Amber, who was still standing by her counter, still fresh, still beautiful, flinched when she saw us return.
My mother walked up to her. “I’m sorry for my outburst,” she said. “I’ve had a, uh, long day. You know, shopping and all.”
“Not at all,” Amber said, her smile returning. “I really do think these would work for you, though. Would you like to take home some samples?”
Amber was winning. Even as a child I knew it. She had my mother, my mother who would have given anything, me even, to win back some of her beauty.
“No,” my mother said, now smiling. “I’d like to actually buy some.”
As Amber’s face lit up, I realized I was confused. Did my mother think she was able to apply the stuff better than Amber, who was now behind the counter, pulling some shiny boxes from an invisible drawer? There was light chatter as the credit card and shopping bags were exchanged.
By the time we got back to brown car, she was perspiring. We loaded the bags with little care into the trunk. I pulled the seatbelt across my chest as my mother huffed her way into the driver’s seat. She took a sip of the soda in the cup holder from our earlier excursion to Burger King, the smell of which still lingered on the fuzzy upholstery. She sighed and rolled the radio dial to a station that played all her favorite soft rock songs. When the comforting, obvious beats began, her eyes softened, and her mouth widened in relaxation.
We pulled out of the parking garage and onto the busy street. Through the smudged window, I could see that Los Angeles was alive that afternoon. Children holding basketballs and iPods ran with abandon down the cracked sidewalks. Old women in wool stockings and shapeless sweaters dragged carts of groceries across the street. I felt separated, like the car window was a barrier through which I could only observe the rest of the world. Even the palm trees, which whipped against the sky, seemed a million miles from where I sat in my parents’ beat-up car.
We stopped at a red light, and I watched as a blue car pulled up to a gas station on the corner. Out of the car stepped a middle-aged woman in blue shorts and a white t-shirt. As her car filled up with gas, this woman walked around the car to clean her windshield. She bent over her hood, and I got a perfect view of her large, dimply butt.
My mother looked down at me and asked, “Is my butt as big as hers?” The question was so simple, so quiet, that I practically didn’t hear it over the radio. The tension that shot across my shoulders was enough for me to realize that I had heard it. Of course my mother’s butt was bigger. But, what choice did I have?
“Of course not, Mommy,” I said. She smiled, the light turned green, and we drove home.