It’s a landing ritual. Within an hour of the wheels touching down, the sentence starts its relentless loop: “I saw you last night avec tes pompes dans tes mains.” It’s always bilingual – as if it captures the two-sided voice of my then teenaged brain: “Je t’ai vu with your shoes in your hands.”
It was late when I came home from my boyfriend’s house. He was the town rebel – rock and roll singer, half shaved head/half a frizzy-curled set of ringlets, earrings, family with all sorts of convoluted drug and sex and kids-out-of-wedlock. We are 18, the two of us. I saw his picture recently. He has a close shave, looks older only because it is the full head of hair now, not half cropped. My host mom had never liked me dating him. Her house was atop a cliff looking down at the lower city. She had climbed up through marriage and liked to ignore the once before, down below. Even in this little village of barely-on-the-map- France the divides that tie us were strong. Looking at the anti-image of ourselves, we seem to understand who we are, where we belong. Without it, we find ourselves untethered. It is harder, more inside-out-vulnerable, less tolerable.
So “home” I came, maybe 11pmish, not as bad-girl as the next, not stoned or drunk or having stolen a car. I did take my shoes off, it’s true. I was trying to be quiet, also true, which could have seemed like slinking. My parents were visiting, and already I knew I had pushed the boundaries of politesse by going out at all. To wake them would have confirmed my selfish debut of mini-adult adventuring.
I did peek in at my host brother. He was sixteen. I was eighteen. He had hit an emotional growth spurt and, compared to when I had first arrived, 10 months earlier, we were much more compatible and friendly. It was easier to talk with each other now that we were both more like 17 than 15 or 18. So, yes, I did peek in. I did say, “Olivier? Tu dorms?” And then I climbed the steps to my room, steep and at the highest part of the house, practically tipping over the side of the cliff. He did not respond, still young enough to sleep like a baby, head rolling side to side with the weight of his dreams.
I did not have designs. I was not looking to fool around or seduce or engage or kiss or touch him. But now, today as a mother of a thirteen year old boy, the shutters of my core slam down on my shame. What she must have thought. Feared. How angry she must have been. She spit at me, his mother. The next morning she greeted me with barred teeth – spite and rage, betrayed. The girl she had been, the girl she had taken in, had walked across the threshold of her son’s room; and she was not having it.
I am 46 years old and still this exchange pins me. My heart picks up its pace. I am embarrassed. Humiliated. Ashamed. How could she even think? And yet, how could she not? Mother of a son charged with protecting him from those who cannot be trusted, especially when they seem like they can be. This is the burden of mothering. I want to take my own son, put him in a closet, lock it, and leave him there, to preserve and hold and shield him. Now I understand, when then it just seemed so unfounded.
I want her to know that moment between us stays with me. We are the holder of our children’s everything. Though they shed us as they grow, we stand ready against the threat. I am with her, mother to mother.
© Gabriella Strecker, 2016
photo courtesy of http://haute2wear.com/raise-your-hand-if-you-love-these-red-shoes/