A question asked by my boyfriend Brandon: "What if your mom had said yes all those years ago?"
And by an exercise in a writing book I found recently at the Goodwill, titled What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers
The exercise is called creative wrong memory and it involves writing out a memory, but altering it in some way: adding color, changing the outcome, or changing the players. The idea behind this exercise is to learn how to mine your own memories for use in fiction.
So I combined this exercise with Brandon's question and came up with the following!
(A quick note on the formatting: the writing exercise advises the writer to use italics for any portion of the memory that is added or changed. So that's what I did. Thus, in order to indicate emphasis, I used bold.)
The day dawned crisp and sunny for everyone else in Santa Cruz. It was spring in the cute California beach town: the birds were chirping, the sea lions were barking, the hippies were sleeping it off in their vans.
My day, on the other hand, began on my knees in the bathroom of the Vertigo Cafe, with my face hovering inches over the toilet bowl. My friend John had taken me out to dinner the night before and I was saying goodbye to the chicken pot pie and garlic bread and mashed potatoes that I'd so eagerly scarfed down. I puked until I was empty and then kept at it for a while longer. Morning sickness was a real bitch.
I checked the wall clock behind the cash register when I left the bathroom after round fifteen or so. It was eight thirty in the morning. My mom was supposed to show up about three that afternoon. That left me with six-and-a-half hours to kill. I had no money, nowhere to go, a nauseous belly and three cigarettes in my pocket. But what else was new? Such was the life of a gutter punk.
The only good thing about being awake at that ungodly hour was that I had no competition for seats. Cafe Vertigo was the only coffee shop I'd ever heard of that stayed open until two in the morning, and from sundown til last call, any day of the week, the place was hopping. I'm talking standing room only. But today I had the place to myself. I grabbed a magazine, hopped up on the window seat, and settled in to wait.
Mom showed up thirty minutes late, true to form, with my little sister Melissa in tow. Melissa was my little sister only because she was three years younger than me, but at fourteen she was already tall enough to look down on me. I didn't know when that had happened. It had been more than a year since I'd seen her. God, everything changed.
Even my mom. It sounds stupid to say “She looked so old.” It sounded stupid to me even then, in my head. Because of course she was old. She was my mom. I'd gotten older and so had she. I guess that's what happens when you don't see people. They change and it surprises you.
“Look at you!” Mom said with a big grin on her face, “You look good!”
I smiled at the compliment but regretted it before I could manage a weak, “Thanks.” Was she for real? You look good? That was the first thing she thought to say to me when she came to visit me on the street?
Mom and Melissa headed to the counter to order coffee. I followed. Melissa ordered first: one coffee for her and one for me.
Mom ordered next: a cup of coffee for herself, then she turned around and asked me, “What kind of cigarettes do you smoke?”
“Um, Camel straights,” I said.
She added a pack to her order.
They paid, the cashier handed everyone their coffees, and then we moved back to our table. As we worked our way over, Melissa slipped a ten dollar bill into my hand.
“What is this?” I said.
“Take it,” she said.
“Thanks,” I said.
We settled into our seats, and that phony smile reappeared on my mother's face. “So how've you been?” She said.
“Good,” I said automatically.
A voice in the back of my head shouted: You have NOT been good! You've been fucking HOMELESS, and it's ALL HER FAULT. But I kept quiet.
“Did you have somewhere to sleep last night?” Mom asked.
“John got a motel room for me,” I said. Then, before I could chicken out, I blurted: “I'm pregnant.”
I took a big sip of the scalding coffee before anyone could ask me any questions. But nobody did.
“Wow!” Mom's eyes grew wide and her smile somehow intensified. “How wonderful!”
Melissa said nothing.
That was not the response I'd anticipated.
“Being pregnant is such a special time for a woman. I remember when I was pregnant with you, Shana.”
I opened and closed my mouth a few times before I stammered: “But I—I'm homeless. What am I going to do? I can't have a baby out here.”
I said the words, and they were like an incantation. For the first time since I peed in a cup at the Planned Parenthood and my condition was diagnosed it felt really real to me. Like it was really happening. I was really pregnant. There was a human being incubating in my womb, and in a matter of a few short months that baby was going to force it's way out of me.
What the fuck was I going to do?
No one said anything. Minutes ticked by and still no one said anything. Melissa stared at her coffee cup; I stared at my mom; and she just smiled that empty, sappy smile.
I lit a cigarette to fill the silence and sucked in its delicious poison gratefully.
“You're going to be okay, Shana,” Mom finally said, “You always figure something out.”
She meant for her words to be uplifting, but they weren't. I didn't want to hear about how I was going to fix the situation. I wanted to hear someone say they were going to rescue me. I wanted a hero. Because I'd never felt so helpless in my whole life.
“Tony's gone back home to Pennsylvania,” I said. “His mom won't send me a bus ticket so I can be with him. Not that I expected her to,” I added, “she doesn't even know me, but...I'm trying to get the money for one myself...John said he might be able to help...”
I let my voice trail off, hoping she would fill in the blank with something helpful like: “I'll buy you a bus ticket, Shana! Of course you need to be with the baby's father.”
But: “I hope you can find the money,” was what she actually said.
My own feeble hopes crashed to the floor.
Melissa's eyes flicked up from her coffee cup and met mine. It was just a moment, but it was long enough for me to see the hurt in her heart.
“We're gonna have to get going in a minute,” Mom said, “I promised Carlos we'd stop at Home Depot on our way back.”
They were going to leave. They were going to leave and then I'd be alone again. I panicked.
“Well, could I—I mean, could I maybe have dinner with you tonight?”
Melissa's head snapped up. “Yeah Mom, can she?”
Mom looked from me to Melissa and then back to me. In another timeline, this would be when she said no. It would be when she dragged my little sister out of the cafe and drove her home crying. It would be when she left me, her pregnant seventeen-year-old daughter, on the street. And it would be the last time I saw her for years.
But in this timeline Mom said yes.
“Fine Shana.” Heavy sigh. “You can have dinner with us. But you're not spending the night. So don't ask.”
“I won't,” I said.
We stopped at Home Depot first like Mom promised my stepfather she would. She picked out planters for their backyard and Melissa and I played hide and seek among the two-by-fours. We laughed and laughed. My morning sickness was gone. For the first time in months I didn't feel like I had to watch my back. I felt like a kid again.
Me and Melissa were so busy having fun that when Mom was ready to go we were oblivious. She had to get one of the cashiers to call us three times over the loudspeaker before we noticed. Mom was so embarrassed! It was great.
On the ride to their house Mom gave us the low-down on how she wanted to handle dinner:
“You guys keep yourselves entertained outside or in Melissa's room until Carlos gets home. I want to be the one to tell him that we're having you over for dinner.”
I looked at Melissa. She rolled her eyes. I snickered.
“I'm serious Shana!” Mom said, glaring at me through the rear-view mirror. “The last time Carlos saw you wasn't the greatest time, if you remember.”
“I remember,” I said. And I did. I remembered my stepfather telling my mom he'd had enough of me. I remembered him telling her that either I had to go or he had to go. And I remembered her saying goodbye to me.
“I just want things to go as smoothly as possible,” Mom said, “so do what I say. All right?”
“Yes Mother,” Melissa and I chorused, then exploded in laughter. Mom heaved a weary sigh.
I heard Carlos slam through the front door about half past six. Melissa heard him too—I caught the look of fear that flickered over her face—but neither of us mentioned it, and the look was gone almost as fast as it came.
Melissa had been showing me the scrapbook she kept of the kids she babysat: a brother and sister, ages seven and three. After our stepfather came home we kept up the pretense of the show-and-tell for as long as we could, but the raised voices from the kitchen killed our high spirits. Before too long, Mom knocked on the door.
“Shana,” she said, pushing open the door without waiting for an invite, “I'm sorry honey but you're going to have to leave.”
Melissa started to cry.
“But we haven't eaten yet,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “This just isn't going to work out.”
“You'd let him do that?”
Melissa cried harder.
“You'd seriously let him tell you not to feed your own daughter? Your pregnant daughter?”
“That's not fair.”
I stood up. “What the fuck do you know about fair?”
“Stop it Shana,” Mom snapped. “Don't make it worse. Just leave.”
“Are you giving me a ride?”
“Of course not,” I said. “Am I supposed to hike the forty miles back to Santa Cruz?”
“I don't know. But that's not my problem. Figure something out. Or call your friend John.”
“I think he's visiting family in Santa Monica. Besides, I can't call him for everything. I'm not his responsibility. He's not my parent.”
“That's enough! Go. Now.”
I walked out of Melissa's room, down the hall, and into the entryway. Melissa's hysterical cries echoed throughout the house. I saw Carlos standing in the kitchen. He had his back to me. I flicked him off, then opened the door and walked out into the night.