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Authors: Robin Stevenson

Tags: #Young Adult, #JUV013060, #Contemporary

Escape Velocity (8 page)

BOOK: Escape Velocity
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“Lou!” She actually looks pleased to see me. “You didn't have any trouble finding your way?” Without waiting for an answer, she gestures to two young women standing beside her. “Anneke and Kristina. Two of my students. My daughter, Lou.”

Anneke is blond, tall and pretty in a generic kind of way; Kristina is short, plump, Asian. She flashes a mouthful of steel braces when she smiles at me. “Your mother is brilliant,” she says. “I guess you know that though.”

And I guess they don't know anything about me or my mother. I don't want to be rude, but I can't think of the right response.
Yes
, as if I do know that? Or,
Thanks
, as if they are somehow complimenting me by extension? Too much time passes, and Anneke and Kristina exchange uncomfortable glances. “Uh, you enjoyed the class then?” I say, belatedly.

Kristina flashes me some more metal. “Very much,” she says. “Your mother is a very inspiring teacher. I've been working on this novel…well, it's only a few chapters at this point…but now I feel like I have a direction, you know? And confidence. I mean, Zoe gave me more confidence in my own voice.” Her cheeks flush dark red, and she glances at my mother. “You really did.”

Confidence in my own voice
. I have no idea what she means, but it sounds like a nice thing to have.

Anneke chimes in. “Everyone, well, we all talked during the breaks, you know? And everyone said it was the best writing class they'd ever taken. I learned more in three afternoons. And Zoe is so supportive. Like, there was this guy in the class whose stories, well, he read some aloud and they weren't...” She glances at my mother. “They needed a lot of work, you know? But Zoe picked out this one thing in his story that was original and interesting and talked about how it could be developed and even though the story was so…you know?”

I hope she expresses herself better in writing than she does out loud.

Zoe catches my eye, and there is something there—a flicker of sympathy, maybe, or amusement—and then it is gone. “Well, you two are very kind. It is a terrific class. A real pleasure to teach,” she says. “And I always get a lot out of it myself.”

“A two-way street,” Kristina says, nodding solemnly.

I know my mother hates expressions like that—she has practically bitten my head off for using them. She says using clichés is sheer laziness, but now she smiles. “Exactly.”

Then a woman—the bookstore manager, I think—is ushering everyone into their seats. The front seats are full, so I find one near the back, at the end of a row. Mostly the crowd is made up of older women, with a handful of men scattered about. The manager, who has short spiky hair and a lot of brightly colored jewelry, steps onto a low stage, adjusts a microphone and introduces my mother: “Very pleased…Zoe Summers…local poet and novelist…award nominations…critically acclaimed…” It is kind of freaky. This is the stuff I already know about my mother, the information from her book jacket basically, the public face. And yet seeing her up there in front of all these people makes it all real in a different way.

“Your mother said she needed to be free in order to be an artist,” Dad told me once, trying to explain her decision to leave us. I look at her, the books, the crowd, and I think, So this is what she traded me for.

My mother moves to the center of the stage. “Hello,” she says. “Thank you all for coming. I won't bore you with a lot of talk about myself. I'm going to read from my novel, Escape Velocity.” She drops her eyes to the page, holding the book with one hand, lightly touching her necklace with her other, and she starts to read aloud from the story of Claire.

“Claire Rosser had always assumed that she loved her husband, but when she realized that he was in love with someone else, she felt a tremendous and unexpected sense of relief. It was all very well to love someone, but being loved— being the object of love—conferred a tremendous weight of responsibility. It wasn't until after that weight was lifted that Claire realized it might have been the only thing holding her down. Living without it was like living in a world without gravity…”

I've read these words so many times, but seeing my mother read them aloud, hearing them in my mother's voice—well, it's kind of hard. I'd figured out that Claire's character is based on my mother, that Claire's feelings are my mother's own, but hearing her read it makes the words sink in even deeper, and it hurts. Claire escaped, and she had no regrets about it. I'm pretty sure my mother doesn't either. My eyes sting. I blink a few times and let the words wash over me, let the meaning fall out of them so that it is like listening to a rushing stream. Like listening to music

What scares me most is that I recognize those same feelings in myself. That desire to escape, to run away. To shake myself free of all the things that hold me stuck in place.

I decide there and then: I will never, ever have a child.

When my mother finishes reading, there is a moment of silence and then everyone starts to clap. The applause lasts for a while, maybe twenty or thirty seconds, and then it fades away. Except for one pair of hands at the back of the room that keep on very slowly clapping, clapping, clapping, probably only ten seconds or so longer than everyone else, but long enough that people are turning around to see who it is. A couple of people start clapping again, like they're confused about whether they stopped prematurely; then the clapping trails off.

Like everyone else, I crane my head around. The lone clapper is a woman standing at the back. Long fair hair streaked with gray straggling halfway down her back, a colorful scarf, faded black sweater that hangs limply to her knees, long skirt, winter boots. She's older, maybe fifty or sixty, and extremely thin. A backpack lies on the floor beside her and a large plastic bag dangles from one arm, swinging back and forth and bumping her leg as she claps. She looks like a homeless person who has wandered in off the street, and I wonder if she just saw the crowd and decided to join in.

Then I look back at my mother. She is staring past the crowd, her eyes fixed on the woman at the back of the room, and it is clear that the woman, whoever she is, is no stranger to my mother.

“Bravo!” the woman calls out. “Bravo!” Her voice sounds like forty years of cigarettes.

My mother ignores the woman and answers a few questions from the crowd. I want someone to ask if the novel is autobiographical, but no one does. Someone asks what inspired the story, and she answers evasively, talking about how so many things inspire her and how writing is an organic process and how difficult it is to analyze the origins of a novel after the story has taken on a life of its own. Liar, I think. I want to stick my hand up and say,
Me! I inspired it. I was born and she had to escape before I sucked the life from her. Check out page twenty-four, where she calls breast-feeding infants parasitic creatures. Check out page seventy, where she talks about the bottomless wanting and endless neediness
.

But I don't say anything.

After the questions, she sits down to sign books. Anneke and Kristina wander over to me. “Great reading,” Anneke says.

I nod. “Yes.” I look around, but I can't see the old woman. Maybe she left. “Who was that woman at the back?” I ask. “The one who kept clapping?”

Anneke shrugs. “Looked like a wino. Getting out of the rain, probably.”

“Is it raining?” I look at the window, but it is so dark out now and so brightly lit in here that all I can see is the reflection of lights and bodies and books.

“Pouring,” Anneke says sourly. “And I didn't bring an umbrella.”

Eventually the lineup to get books signed shrinks down to five, then two, and finally none. Kristina and Anneke head off on foot, and I follow my mother to her car.

“Good turnout,” she says. Her voice is flat.

“Really good,” I say, even though I have no idea what would be considered good or bad. We walk in silence, ducking our heads to avoid the rain, and get into her car. She drives fast through the dark streets. I expected her to be excited about the reading, but she seems distracted.

“Who was the woman in the back?” I ask.

My mother doesn't take her eyes off the road. “What woman?”

“The one who went on clapping after everyone else stopped. Long gray hair.”

She doesn't answer.

“Mom?”

“What?”

“Do you know her? You looked sort of shocked to see her.”

My mother says nothing. Then, just as I decide she isn't going to respond, she turns and looks at me. “No one important,” she says. “She is no one important.”

It is an obvious lie, but she doesn't say anything else and something in her tone warns me to drop the subject.

I can't though. I can't leave it alone. “I wondered…”

She sighs. “What. What did you wonder?”

“Who she was. Why she was there.”

My mother is quiet for a long time, maybe a minute, and I start to think she isn't going to answer at all. “She showed up once before,” she says at last. “A few months ago she came to an awards gala and tried to talk to me. She was drunk and smelled awful. It was embarrassing. I told her I didn't want her there and, to be honest, I thought that would be the end of it.”

“So she's like some kind of celebrity stalker or something?”

“I'm hardly a celebrity. But stalker? I guess we'll see.”

“She looked like she was maybe homeless or something. Didn't you think? I mean, everyone else was all dressed up.”

My mother shrugs. “I wouldn't know.”

I don't believe her. I don't know why I am so sure about this—I don't know her well enough to be so sure— but I am certain that my mother is lying.

Nine

Z
oe and I stay up late and watch one of the movies she rented. It is artsy, slow-paced and subtitled, and I'm tired, my mind too full to follow the story. I let my attention drift while keeping my eyes fixed on the flickering images, and hope my mother won't want to discuss the movie afterward. She doesn't. When the credits are done, she goes to bed without saying more than good night. I think she rented the movie so that we wouldn't have to make conversation.

The next morning I end up sleeping until almost noon, despite the time change, and when I wake, the room is bright and the apartment is still and silent.

I lie in bed, with no real desire to get up or do anything. Tomorrow I start school here. I am nervous, as I always am when I have to go to a new school, and I don't like the reminder that I might be here for a long time—weeks? months?—but I feel a stirring guilt as I realize that I am also excited. Back in Drumheller I could see the future stretching out in front of me like a dusty road, straight ahead all the way to the horizon. No surprises. No friends. That line from my mother's first book slips into my head:
The future was closing in and setting around her, as gray and hard as cement
. That's how I felt too. Trapped.

Here in Victoria, I don't know what to expect. It feels like anything could happen.

Eventually I make myself get up. Zoe isn't home, and I can't be bothered showering. I pull on the same jeans I wore yesterday, pour myself a glass of orange juice and snoop around my mother's apartment some more. It's sort of creepy, how little clutter there is, how little there is that is personal. No photographs, no scrawled notes, no diary. Even laundry is neatly folded in the hamper in her closet—what kind of person folds their dirty clothes? Her apartment is like her car—clean, empty, impersonal. I pick up her copy of
Escape Velocity
, which is still lying on the coffee table where she left it after last night's reading, and flick through it for markings, notes, highlighted sections. There is nothing though—no clues to help me decode it further than I already have.

I think again about that odd woman at the reading. My certainty that Zoe was lying is fading, but still, there is something about that woman and my mother's reaction that I can't let go of. It is a rough spot on a smooth surface, a dirty mark on the polished veneer, and my mind keeps going back to it the way my tongue always finds that chipped place on my front tooth.

It feels like a crack in my mother's armor.

Zoe shows up mid-afternoon, but she has someone with her: a tall slender guy with dark-lashed eyes, dreadlocks to his shoulders and smooth skin that is closer to black than brown.

“Lou, this is my friend Brian.” Zoe is wearing a white shirt and faded jeans, and she looks like she is lit up from within. I feel a pang of something—envy or admiration, love or hate—and have to look away.

I shake his hand and wonder if Brian is the latest boyfriend. He is good-looking enough, and my mother is never without a man in her life. Men are one of the things she would talk to me about during our occasional phone calls. I guess she thinks it's a good subject for mother-daughter bonding, only obviously I never had much to share so the conversations usually ended up with her giving me advice:
Never let a man know how you really feel. Keep them guessing. Watch out for men who need you. You don't want to be someone's crutch. Always remember who you are.
Etcetera, etcetera.

BOOK: Escape Velocity
7.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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