BY: Amy Eaton
Phoebe drives a 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme with a black hard top. Two door. Her dad owns a body shop and he’s custom painted the car for her the same shade of rusty orange as her fake suede coat. When Phoebe started coming around, my aunt was living with us. My mom had been hospitalized for a serious lupus flare, and my aunt stayed on for a little while. She saw the orange car pull up in front of the house, watched Phoebe get out of the car, then rolled her eyes, muttering “Jesus Christ. Even her car matches her coat.” My aunt returned home to New Hampshire soon after Phoebe’s coming around became a regular thing.
When I get in the car I have to squish myself around the passenger seat to get in the back. I never sit by the window, but situate myself on the hump in the middle instead. I lean forward, shoulders braced on the back of both the driver’s and the passenger’s seat, my head jutting in between Phoebe and Mom.
I listen to their conversation, which is almost always boring, about people at The Bank where they work, or about Phoebe’s family. They never talk about our family, just hers. Everything is about her. I listen to the conversation like it’s a tennis match, eyes to Phoebe when she speaks, back to Mom when she speaks. Mom cracks jokes and Phoebe twitters, smacking Mom playfully on the thigh while she drives and rolling her big eyes charmingly. I’m just as funny as Mom and I try to interject sometimes, to join in, but it almost always falls flat and I’m back to being the third wheel, awkward and burdensome.
“She’s really beautiful,” Mom tells me later when we’re home alone, “like Mia Farrow.” I don’t know who that is, but Phoebe has large blue eyes and her nose and chin make her look a little like an elf. Mom thinks Phoebe’s clothes are elegant: A-line skirts, blazers, pantsuits, flowy patterned scarves tied fancily around her neck—everything in oranges and golds and shades of brown. She changes her hair a lot: pages, bobs, pixies, shags, dyes it blond, brown, a different blond, with makeup to accentuate this month’s look. Phoebe is elegant and classy, Mom says. I figure Mia Farrow must be one of those old movie stars that is really boring.
They are a lesbian couple, Mom explains. Or, she says, other people might call them dykes or lezzies or lesbos or lezzes or lesbian lovers. Mom tells me she’s in love with Phoebe, and while this is fine, I shouldn’t tell anyone. Not my friends or teachers, not Dad or his family. They wouldn’t understand. Dad’s parents would take Mom to court, deem her an unfit mother, and take me away to live with them in New Hampshire, and I wouldn’t be able to live with her anymore. I might not even be able to see her. So, I don’t tell anyone.
It is 1974. The words “faggot” and “lez” are tossed around as jokes and insults frequently. I freeze inside every time I hear these words, wanting to fade into my surroundings, become invisible, praying that no one can see my terrified expression beneath the mask I constantly wear thinking it will protect me from having my life turned upside down.
My babysitter, a heavy Irish Catholic woman with a red bouffant, pink lipstick, and a bad tooth, raises an eyebrow at me when I’m sitting on her front porch with my nose in a book instead of playing Red Rover with the rest of the kids in the vacant lot next to her house.
“Your mom and Phoebe,” she says while she waters the hanging plants on the porch. “They’re just really good friends, right?” I am a horrible liar, but I have no choice.
“Yes,” I say, looking intently at my book, “really good friends.”
She snaps her gum, cocks her head, and looks at me piercingly while she crosses the porch. I move my feet off the railing so she can water the spider plant in front of me. “Uh- huh,” she smirks slightly. “Really, really good friends.”
Before Phoebe, it was just me and Mom. Before Phoebe, there were occasional boyfriends and other single mom friends with kids my age, who were my dearest, bestest friends. Before Phoebe, my dad could come over to the house and hang out—even spend the night once in a while, not just pick me up or drop me off. Before Phoebe, Mom sang along off-key to Helen Reddy’s “You and Me Against the World” while vacuuming the living room. Before Phoebe, there was a relaxed hippie lovefest feel to our home that I adored—discussion rather than rules, open doors, a beanbag and butterfly chair in the living room, a blasé attitude about nudity. But then Phoebe visits Mom in the hospital when she’s sick with lupus and starts coming around our house when Mom gets out. We see friends less and less because all of Mom’s spare time is spent with Phoebe.
Phoebe is jealous. She shows up frazzled at the door, arguing while Mom tries to calm her down after the landlady, who is also a friend, has come by to visit, and I hear Phoebe upset, saying, “I wonder—what did she say to you? What were you wearing when you answered the door? Were you dressed? Is she in love with you?” I hate shutting the door to my room, but when she gets like this, I do. It’s exhausting to listen to. Even though my parents haven’t been together since I was two, Phoebe insists they legally divorce, which neither of them really have the money for. She does not want my father allowed in the house, not even on the porch when he comes to pick me up or drop me off when he has me for the weekend. Phoebe chips away at the life we had before until it’s just her and Mom and me. I walk in to Mom’s room without knocking one evening to ask a question and I’m reprimanded sharply with, “Maybe you don’t care if the entire world sees you naked, but Phoebe does!” I suddenly feel ashamed for something I’m bewildered by and walk back to my room without getting my question answered.
After Phoebe, it’s really just her and Mom. I don’t fit in anywhere.
Halfway through third grade, we move in with Phoebe. “The apartment’s very modern!” Mom tells me, trying to get me excited for the move, never mind that I’m a huge fan of Little House on the Prairie and all things old. It turns out that Webster Court is newer than our old house, but really, it’s just a fairly shitty housing development on the other side of town.
I change schools. I know no one. I have always been a loner, but I have never been this lonely. The kids at Webster Court and at school seem tough and they scare me. Everything scares me. Our apartment is on the second floor near the alley. The buildings, cookie cutter four-unit boxes, form a cul-du-sac that butts up to the the Susquehanna River. Terri Blazek and Lisa Hart, two sisters close to my age, live on the first floor across the alley. From my bedroom window, I can see into their kitchen. Lisa is in my class. Sometimes we walk to school together. Lisa’s quiet and always looks half asleep, but Terri’s loud and tough with wiry red hair, and I’m careful around her. Their drunk grandma sometimes stays with them and fights with their mom or maybe the mom’s boyfriend. The mom is skinny with long blond hair and heavy eye makeup, and she always looks tired. I think she’s pretty. Her boyfriend is slender and dark skinned with a low, soft voice. When Grandma is there, I hear her yelling, the sound of bottles opening, racial slurs, glass breaking, Lisa and Terri’s baby brother crying. Lisa looks exhausted at school when Grandma’s there. I want to say something to her, but I don’t know how.
There are fights at my house, too. On bad days, when Mom and Phoebe come home from working at The Bank, they go straight to their room and shut the door. Nobody asks me how my day was, nobody checks to see if I’ve done my homework before I started watching crappy TV on our tiny eight-inch set. I turn up the volume when I hear yelling and crying through the door. At some point, Phoebe storms out of their room and out the apartment door, threatening to drive into a tree or off a cliff. My mother chases after her, frantic, yelling her name, pleading when she runs after her out the apartment door, downstairs, and outside. I keep watching Star Trek, pretending I don’t see or hear anything, but after this happens enough times that it’s no longer a shock, I just think, oh please oh please oh please oh please just let her do it already. But she doesn’t, and sometimes they make up by the time Mom makes some dinner. Or sometimes we all act like nothing’s weird, and eat spaghetti with Ragu while watching Sonny and Cher.
Mom sees Terri crawling out of her bedroom window and decides she’s a bad influence. She forbids me to play with Terri or Lori. Terri knocks on my door after school when I’m home alone with the dogs and asks if I want to come out. I open the door as far as it will go with the chain lock on and tell her I can’t, I’m no longer allowed to play with her. She steps back, confused and then pissed. “Well, I’m going to beat you up then!” she yells and hits the door hard. For what seems like ages, kids will run up the stairs, bang hard on our apartment door, and then run back downstairs and out the building, all before Mom and Phoebe come home from work, and it’s just me and the dogs, who are useless. Terri’s in fifth grade. Fifth graders get out of school ten minutes later than us third graders. I run home every day after school so she won’t get me.
It’s my job to walk the dogs. I have to walk them in two separate trips. My dog, Zan, is a spastic, scruffy handful that Mom and Phoebe gave me for Christmas last year, even though I was quite clear that I wanted a cat. “He’s a Cockapoo!” Mom told me, gleefully chuckling at the obscenity of the word. I am mortified. If anyone asks me what kind of dog he is, and they inevitably do because he looks like a freak, I have to say both “cock” and “poo,” to perfect strangers, or worse, kids that may want to beat me up. Phoebe’s dog, Jody, an ancient black Pekingese, has a harness instead of a collar. I walk the dogs by the river past the flood wall, where I am out of sight from the neighborhood kids. When I don’t see anyone watching me, I take the Peke for a little ride. I spin around and around, raising and lowering her leash like she’s on the flying swings ride at an amusement park. Her tongue sticks out between her teeth and her eyes glaze over. Her paws stick out straight like she’s a zombie. I tell myself she likes it.
Terri finally gets me. I have to take out the garbage and she and a bunch of kids are hanging around the carports by the dumpsters. I throw the garbage in as fast as I can, Terri rushes me, and I bolt, but not fast enough. Just as I open the building door and get to the worn-out red-carpeted landing, she catches up to me and punches me hard in the back. I sprint up the two flights of stairs, terrified.
“Yeah!” I hear her yell. “You better run!” I’m crying by the time I shut the apartment door, more from shock than from actual pain. Mom looks at me.
“Terri hit me in the back!”
Her eyebrows squinch together. “You go tell her I want to talk to her.”
“Mom! I can’t! She’ll kill me!”
“She won’t kill you. Go outside and get her.”
I trudge back downstairs. Standing close to the door, I see Terri.
“Oh, you’re back for more?” she taunts.
“My mom said she wants to talk to you.”
“She wants to talk to you.”
Terri begrudgingly agrees. When she follows me up the stairs, she says, “If she tries to hit me back, I’ll flush her down the toilet.”
Mom doesn’t yell or threaten her, but does talk to her, informing Terri “We don’t hit people.” Somehow it’s effective and, just like that, the ban on hanging out with Terri and Lisa is magically lifted.
Mom calls Hal, Phoebe’s dad, and tells him he needs to come and get his daughter. She has a child to raise, she says, and Phoebe is not okay. Hal comes with a truck and moves her out of our apartment. A few months later, our old landlady lets Mom know our old apartment is available and we move back to our old house. I am overjoyed to be at my old school, with my old friends, at home. The break up, sadly, is temporary and although we never live with her again, soon enough, she is at our house or taking Mom for coffee at the Argo or the Spot or the Park Diner, where they sit for hours and hours and talk. I skip it whenever I can. She spends Christmas with us.
Christmas is overwhelming. Phoebe’s done well at The Bank, getting promotions and she is generous with gifts for both me and Mom to the point of making me uncomfortable with the bounty of such materialism. Every year there is more abundance. Boxes from Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s with Jordache jeans, shirts from Brooks Brothers for mom, matching sets of towels or cookware. A trip to London and Paris for the two of them one year. It goes on and on and every year it’s more materialistic. Mom gets all soft eyed and gushy, swoony with appreciation, some childhood void in her finally being filled. It feels wrong to me and I’ll basically hate Christmas the rest of my life.
Phoebe is promoted to an officer at The Bank and goes back to school—first to the community college, then the state university. She wears big glasses when she studies at our house while Mom does her laundry, makes her instant coffee and ham and cheese sandwiches. “Stay out of her way,” I’m told. “Shut the door if you’re going to play guitar. Don’t distract her.”
I tell. I don’t mean to, but I tell. I’m in eighth grade art class at the new junior high when two girls eye me across the room, conferring with each other till the one with the blue eyes, perky face, and bobbed hair comes and stands in front of my desk. Her name is Melissa.
“You want to sit with us?”
I move my stuff to work alongside them. The other girl, Kara, has huge tinted glasses with a K in the corner and long, wavy brown hair. They invite me to a party at Kara’s house that coming Friday. Mark Quattlebaum will be there, they tell me. The band is going to play. I don’t know who any of these people are, but I go.
In a few short weeks, Kara and Melissa and I are inseparable. The idea that we would not spend our weekend nights together sleeping over at one of our houses is suddenly unfathomable. We talk about everything that is important to fourteen-year-old girls trying to figure out what exactly is important in life while we smoke clove cigarettes: who’s cute, who’s pretty, poetry, music, is it possible to survive a nuclear holocaust, what drugs and alcohol have we tried, what drugs would we never try, how many boys have we kissed, what else have we done in that department.
“My dad’s an actor,” Melissa says. “We know a bunch of gay people from the theaters he works at.”
Kara says, “Oh, that’s really interesting. My mom knows some gay women from the Women’s Studies department at the university.”
I haven’t said a word. Kara and Melissa notice my silence and Kara says, “What about you, Amy? Do you know any gay people?”
Time freezes. For six years I’ve never breathed a word of the truth about my home life to anyone. I look at each of them, think about what they’ve just said, and I nod.
They stare at me. I have just become way more interesting.
I confess to Mom that I’ve told my friends that Mom and Phoebe are a couple, explaining how I’m sure it’s not an issue for friends who have parents that are actors and university professors. Mom’s face goes kind of gray and the muscle by her jaw pulses. I know she’s frightened, but she tries to hide it from me. Phoebe is furious. She doesn’t speak to me for weeks. When Kara’s mother picks up Kara from my house, Mom is anxious and distressed. I’m not sure if this is because Kara’s mom is clearly drunk, or that she’s eyeballing Mom like she’s an interesting specimen.
I’m sixteen when they really break up. She’s been a part of our life for almost a decade. Phoebe does it over the phone. I hear Mom’s voice rising in pitch, trying to reason with her and finally saying in wounded dismay, “After all this, to use my illness against me, that is just the cruelest thing.” They argue and argue and it’s like being a kid at Webster Court again. In my head, I am willing Phoebe to just go, get out of our lives. When she actually does, I am thrilled and terrified.
Mom walks to The Bank where they both still work. She walks home after work. I sit in the dining room doing my homework, listening for the bell on the gate to tell me she’s home. When I hear her steps on the porch stairs, I open the door for her and catch her as she collapses on me, sobbing, exhausted from keeping a brave face and dodging questions all day. She cries as I hold her, rocking her back and forth. When the crying slows, I walk her to her room, tuck her into bed, bring her water, and let her sleep till I’ve made us some dinner. I do this day after day for weeks. It’s awful.
A few months later, when Mom is doing better, I decide that I should maintain a relationship with Phoebe. Or try. We are family in our peculiar way despite my resentment of her endless need to be the center of Mom’s universe. We’ve always joked that she’s not my stepmother, but my fairy godmother.
When I got my ears pierced when I was fourteen, I confided in Phoebe, hoping she’d have my back since ear piercing had been forbidden.
“Oh shit,” she said when I pulled back my long straggly hair to show her. “Okay, leave this to me.” She somehow convinced my mother, who never drank due to her lupus, to have a glass of wine with dinner. Mom was swiftly buzzed.
“Amy has something to show you!” She signaled me to move my hair out of the way.
“Oh, babe!” Mom wailed. “You’ve mutilated your body! Ohhh, noooo… Oh, hon… They look very nice.”
Phoebe handed me down her high heels until my feet grew larger than hers and helped me do my hair and put on makeup for dance recitals. She passed on her old clothes to me, which, while not quite my style, were still nicer than most of the things I owned.
I call Phoebe and ask if we can get together. She sounds pleased and tells me to meet her at the Argo Diner, a place she and Mom would go for coffee.
When I show up, she asks me a few perfunctory questions about school and my life and then launches into a monologue about her parents, her job, her brother. I never get another word in. She pays the check and we leave the diner. “I’m so glad we did this,” she says and leans toward me for a hug, which feels awkward. She’s never been affectionate with me. And then she kisses me on the lips, not a peck that missed my cheek, but a real, actual kiss. I am trying to figure out just what the hell is going on when she pulls away from me and walks to her car. She drives a black Mazda RX 7 these days. I realize there is nothing to hold on to. As far as she’s concerned, I could be my mother. I’m a fill-in. I never contact her again.
Phoebe marries an Italian guy who looks like a giant grasshopper, all long elbows and knees—a grasshopper with a serious coke problem. I run into them when I’m seventeen, barhopping at a skeevy dance club. She gives me a nod, implying that she won’t blow my cover. The grasshopper looks at me quizzically. She leans over and whispers something to him and he gapes at me, bug eyed.
She is arrested for embezzlement in 1984. Mom is eating dinner and watching the news, lounging in the beanbag chair.
“An officer at the Binghamton Savings Bank has been charged with embezzling funds of approximately $100,000. Sources say she spent the money on clothes, a sports car, and a close female friend,” says the news anchor. Mom rolls out of the beanbag chair onto the floor and wails, “I’ve been slandered! I’ve been slandered!”
I sit on the floor by her and rub her shoulder. “They never said your name. It’s not slander if they don’t say your name.” I don’t point out that it’s not slander if it’s true. When we look around the house, we realize Phoebe has given us almost all of our belongings. Our dishes, silverware, glassware, our cookware, our bedding, most of our clothes and shoes—they’re all birthday gifts, Christmas gifts accumulated over the years. It’s all stolen.
She writes Mom from prison, saying she’d always wanted to confess to Mom because she knew Mom could make her stop. Mom was the kind of person who would walk back to the grocery store still carrying heavy groceries if she realized she’d been given fifty cents too much change. Mom would have helped her make it right, her letter says. This pisses me off. I want her to stay out of my mother’s life. I’m leaving for college and I’m afraid to leave Mom. She’s dating someone new and has found some friends in the local lesbian community, but I fret as if I’m the parent and she’s the child. I don’t want to leave her all alone. I’m worried about how she’ll manage on her own.
During my freshman year of college, Mom calls me at school with the news that Phoebe’s out of prison and she’s pregnant. Not too long after that, the grasshopper ODs at O’Hare airport.
Phoebe has a baby girl. They move to Las Vegas, which seems fitting. Las Vegas, that great mirage in the desert built on stolen money.
Amy Eaton is a writer, director, and performer living in Chicago. Her work has recently been seen in Fillet of Solo, MissSpoken, and Write Club Chicago, where she is a three-time victor. She is currently at work on a memoir.