I worried about my mother. A year after my father died, a few days after I had turned sixteen, I walked into the house from school to find her on her back on the living room carpet in front of the fireplace, her body writhing and her eyes clamped shut. Her mouth wriggled with shrieks and low-toned words that I couldn’t decipher. I immediately thought of my father – the sight of his body convulsing into cardiac arrest the night in winter I hadn’t been home. I leaned over and vomited onto my shoes. My calls to Rosemarie bubbled in my throat and broke without a sound.
My mother sat up a few moments later, stiffly and fast, like a cadaver springing upright from some kind of lingering muscle spasm. “Help me, Theresa,” she said. She stared, wide-eyed, at the gold crucifix she was holding. Then she closed her eyes and hugged the crucifix to her chest. “God is trying to talk to me. I felt him. I felt him, Theresa, inside me.” She opened her eyes, then closed them again. “He’s taking care of us. I knew he would.”
I covered my mouth with my hand and coughed. She looked at me, teary. “Good gracious, Theresa – are you sick?” she said, and I began to cry.
After that night I could not bear to feel alone. I began sleeping with the radio on and my door open so I could see Rosemarie’s. Each time I allowed myself to think of something the slightest bit cruel or profane, my heart rate plummeted to a sluggish drawl, making me painfully self-aware – as if I knew some kind of punishment would eventually come.
I discovered Rosemarie in the upstairs bathroom holding an electric blue pregnancy test strip the same night my mother told me that I had been “unplanned.” Hair the grayish color of cold dishwater, mouth steady as if she had just asked me to chop the carrots, she actually stood in the kitchen with one hand propped on the sink and said to me, “You know, Theresa, it’s funny, but you were unplanned.” Unplanned, like an unexpected glitch in their itinerary, as if I had popped onto their front lawn and rung the doorbell just as they were on their way out.
“What?” I said.
“Don’t be upset,” my mother said. “It doesn’t mean you’re not loved, because you are, very much. You know that. I was just thinking about how sometimes God has a destiny for us that we may not anticipate. But of course, He never gives us more than we can handle.”
“I see,” I said.
“But this is why,” she continued, “many times, we simply can’t afford certain things. And I know it’s hard for you to stand by and watch your friends get this and that and go here and there, but you have to realize, life is about sacrifices.” Her fingers, pink and swollen from sliding the tray of roast chicken in and out of the oven, fluttered up to the small crucifix resting in the hollow of her neck. “Just remember who made the biggest sacrifice, Theresa. We have to keep our priorities in order. If we do that, we’ll never be spiritually or physically hungry.”
“I know, Mom,” I said. I glanced down at the thick, glossy college viewbook, heaving with the weight of its construction paper pages, that I had carried downstairs to show her. The words I had been so excited to say now slunk from my lips, slow and useless. “But I just wanted to tell you, I’d like to apply to Wellesley next year.”
She sighed and dragged her hands across the fringed yellow hand towel she kept tucked in her skirt. “I don’t know, Theresa,” she said. “We’ll have to see.” She gave me a quick little hug, hands squeezing my upper arms and body shrugging up against mine. “And remember, we’re so glad you came along.”
Halfway up the staircase my mother had left a pile of my sister’s clean long-sleeved tees, still emanating warmth from the dryer, for Rosemarie to take to her room at her convenience. I glared at the happy gaping mouth of the top shirt’s round neckline. Then I kicked at it and watched the pile slide over into a kind of neat disarray. The top shirt slipped between two wooden slabs of the banister and floated down to the hallway rug, cotton arms undulating.
“Oops, unplanned,” I said aloud.
Thomas Lacey was an elementary school classmate of mine who used to boast about being adopted, being selected and special. “Your parents ended up with you and they couldn’t do anything about it,” he would say melodiously to anyone who teased him. “I was chosen!”
One afternoon, tired of his perfectly-parted brown hair and shiny leather penny loafers, I said, “You’re just around because your parents were doing the hanky panky. You were a mistake.”
Thomas stood absolutely still for a moment. Then he stretched out his two pudgy hands and grabbed my cheeks, twisting the skin until my eyes watered, teeth bared. “You!” he yelled, pushed my face away, and ran toward the third grade door with his loafers clunking on the asphalt.
Yes, me, I thought now. I had been the one to dislodge the unspoken fear that had been festering in the deepest reaches of his stomach since the day his parents had told him the truth about his roots. But as I stared down at Rosemarie’s tee-shirt, arms splayed in a dramatic finish on the floor below, I realized that Thomas had unknowingly named me a member of his club. The only difference was that he had been lucky enough to be put up for adoption.
“Rose,” I said from the landing. “Dinner’s in a few minutes.” The bathroom door was closed and she didn’t respond. “Rosemarie.” I rapped two knuckles on the stained wood.
“My God, Theresa, what do you want?”
I grimaced at the door. “What’s your problem?”
“Leave me the hell alone,” Rosemarie said, and was quiet. I heard the pop of plastic, as if she had sat down on the toilet seat cover.
“Are you okay?” I said.
“Theresa, go away.”
I pressed my shoulder against the door and curled my fingers around the gold knob. “I’m coming in,” I said.
Our bathroom door didn’t have a lock. When I was eight, Rosemarie and I accidentally barricaded ourselves for three hours after fooling around and yanking the inside doorknob clean from its screws. We told our parents we had wanted to make a Barbie Malibu in the tub with my mother’s blue bath salts, but really, I had convinced Rosemarie to show me in secret the first few dark, curly hairs that were springing from the neatly creased, triangular meeting of her thighs. She was ten and although it was very exciting, I remember thinking that the wisps of hair looked unclean, even sinister.
With a push, I lurched into the bathroom and caught Rosemarie crouched on the top of the toilet, a thin white strip with a bright blue tip pinched between her forefinger and thumb. She turned her eyes up to me.
“Shut the door,” she said, her voice trembling. My focus darted around, seeking a clue to help me understand. I drank in the disheveled kit on the marble counter, the clear plastic bag and cardboard packaging and unraveled instructions with that minute black print.
“Shut the door, dammit – are you deaf?” she said.
I shut the door.
“Guess what?” She spread her arms wide. “I’m pregnant.”