MOTHERHOOD: Extenuating Circumstances by Joyce Carol Oates

motherhood

From The Ontario Review

Because it was a mercy. Because God even in His cruelty will sometimes grant mercy.
Because Venus was in the sign of Sagittarius.
Because you laughed at me, my faith in the stars. My hope.
Because he cried, you do not know how he cried.
Because at such times his little face was so twisted and hot, his nose running with mucus, his eyes so hurt.
Because in such he was his mother, and not you. Because I wanted to spare him such shame.
Because he remembered you, he knew the word Daddy.
Because watching TV he would point to a man and say Daddy
Because this summer has gone on so long, and no rain. The heat lightning flashing at night, without thunder.
Because in the silence, at night, the summer insects scream.
Because by day there are earth-moving machines and grinders operating hour upon hour razing the woods next to the playground. Because the red dust got into our eyes, our mouths.
Because he would whimper Mommy?—in that way that tore my heart.
Because last Monday the washing machine broke down, I heard a loud thumping that scared me, the dirty soapy water would not drain out. Because in the light of the bulb overhead he saw me holding the wet sheets in my hand crying What can I do? What can I do?
Because the sleeping pills they give me now are made of flour and chalk, I am certain.
Because I loved you more than you loved me even from the first when your eyes moved on me like candle flame.
Because I did not know this yet, yes I knew it but cast it from my mind.
Because there was shame in it. Loving you knowing you would not love me enough.
Because my job applications are laughed at for misspellings and torn to pieces as soon as I leave.
Because they will not believe me when listing my skills. Because since he was born my body is misshapen, the pain is always there.
Because I see that it was not his fault and even in that I could not spare him.
Because even at the time when he was conceived (in those early days we were so happy! so happy I am certain lying together on top of the bed the corduroy bedspread in that narrow jiggly bed hearing the rain on the roof that slanted down so you had to stoop being so tall and from outside on the street the roof with its dark shingles looking always wet was like a lowered brow over the windows on the third floor and the windows like squinting eyes and we would come home together from the University meeting at the Hardee’s corner you from the geology lab or the library and me from Accounting where my eyes ached because of the lights with their dim flicker no one else could see and I was so happy your arm around my waist and mine around yours like any couple, like any college girl with her boyfriend, and walking home, yes it was home, I thought always it was home, we would look up at the windows of the apartment laughing saying who do you think lives there? what are their names? who are they? that cozy secret-looking room under the eaves where the roof came down, came down dripping black runny water I hear now drumming on this roof but only if I fall asleep during the day with my clothes on so tired so exhausted and when I wake up there is no rain, only the earth-moving machines and grinders in the woods so I must acknowledge It is another time, it is time) yes I knew.
Because you did not want him to be born.
Because he cried so I could hear him through the shut door, through all the doors.
Because I did not want him to be Mommy, I wanted him to be Daddy in his strength.
Because this washcloth in my hand was in my hand when I saw how it must be.
Because the checks come to me from the lawyer’s office not from you. Because in tearing open the envelopes my fingers shaking and my eyes showing such hope I revealed myself naked to myself so many times.
Because to this shame he was a witness, he saw.
Because he was too young at two years to know. Because even so he knew.
Because his birthday was a sign, falling in the midst of Pisces.
Because in certain things he was his father, that knowledge in eyes that went beyond me in mockery of me.
Because one day he would laugh too as you have done.
Because there is no listing for your telephone and the operators will not tell me. Because in any of the places I know to find you, you cannot be found.
Because your sister has lied to my face, to mislead me. Because she who was once my friend, I believed, was never my friend.
Because I feared loving him too much, and in that weakness failing to protect him from hurt.
Because his crying tore my heart but angered me too so I feared laying hands upon him wild and unplanned.
Because he flinched seeing me. That nerve jumping in his eye.
Because he was always hurting himself, he was so clumsy falling off the swing hitting his head against the metal post so one of the other mothers saw and cried out Oh! Oh look your son is bleeding! and that time in the kitchen whining and pulling at me in a bad temper reaching up to grab the pot handle and almost overturning the boiling water in his face so I lost control slapping him shaking him by the arm Bad! Bad! Bad! Bad! my voice rising in fury not caring who heard.
Because that day in the courtroom you refused to look at me your face shut like a fist against me and your lawyer too, like I was dirt beneath your shoes. Like maybe he was not even your son but you would sign the papers as if he was, you are so superior.
Because the courtroom was not like any courtroom I had a right to expect, not a big dignified courtroom like on TV just a room with a judge’s desk and three rows of six seats each and not a single window and even here that flickering light that yellowish-sickish fluorescent tubing making my eyes ache so I wore my dark glasses giving the judge a false impression of me, and I was sniffing, wiping my nose, every question they asked me I’d hear myself giggle so nervous and ashamed even stammering over my age and my name so you looked with scorn at me, all of you.
Because they were on your side, I could not prevent it.
Because in granting me child support payments, you had a right to move away. Because I could not follow.
Because he wet his pants, where he should not have, for his age.
Because it would be blamed on me. It was blamed on me.
Because my own mother screamed at me over the phone. She could not help me with my life she said, no one can help you with your life, we were screaming such things to each other as left us breathless and crying and I slammed down the receiver knowing that I had no mother and after the first grief I knew It is better, so.
Because he would learn that someday, and the knowledge of it would hurt him.
Because he had my hair coloring, and my eyes. That left eye, the weakness in it.
Because that time it almost happened, the boiling water overturned onto him, I saw how easy it would be. How, if he could be prevented from screaming, the neighbors would not know.
Because yes they would know, but only when I wanted them to know.
Because you would know then. Only when I wanted you to know.
Because then I could speak to you in this way, maybe in a letter which your lawyer would forward to you, or your sister, maybe over the telephone or even face to face. Because then you could not escape.
Because though you did not love him you could not escape him.
Because I have begun to bleed for six days quite heavily, and will then spot for another three or four. Because soaking the blood in wads of toilet paper sitting on the toilet my hands shaking I think of you who never bleed.
Because I am a proud woman, I scorn your charity.
Because I am not a worthy mother. Because I am so tired.
Because the machines digging in the earth and grinding trees are a torment by day, and the screaming insects by night.
Because there is no sleep.
Because he would only sleep, these past few months, if he could be with me in my bed.
Because he whimpered Mommy!—Mommy don’t!
Because he flinched from me when there was no cause.
Because the pharmacist took the prescription and was gone such a long time, I knew he was telephoning someone.
Because at the drugstore where I have shopped for a year and a half they pretended not to know my name.
Because in the grocery store the cashiers stared smiling at me and at him pulling at my arm spilling tears down his face.
Because they whispered and laughed behind me, I have too much pride to respond.
Because he was with me at such times, he was a witness to such.
Because he had no one but his Mommy and his Mommy had no one but him. Which is so lonely.
Because I had gained seven pounds from last Sunday to this, the waist of my slacks is so tight. Because I hate the fat of my body.
Because looking at me naked now you would show disgust.
Because I was beautiful for you, why wasn’t that enough?
Because that day the sky was dense with clouds the color of raw liver but yet there was no rain. Heat lightning flashing with no sound making me so nervous but no rain.
Because his left eye was weak, it would always be so unless he had an operation to strengthen the muscle.
Because I did not want to cause him pain and terror in his sleep.
Because you would pay for it, the check from the lawyer with no note.
Because you hated him, your son.
Because he was our son, you hated him.
Because you moved away. To the far side of the country I have reason to believe.
Because in my arms after crying he would lie so still, only one heart beating between us.
Because I knew I could not spare him from hurt.
Because the playground hurt our ears, raised red dust to get into our eyes and mouths.
Because I was so tired of scrubbing him clean, between his toes and beneath his nails, the insides of his ears, his neck, the many secret places of filth.
Because I felt the ache of cramps again in my belly, I was in a panic my period had begun so soon.
Because I could not spare him the older children laughing.
Because after the first terrible pain he would be beyond pain.
Because in this there is mercy.
Because God’s mercy is for him, and not for me.
Because there was no one here to stop me.
Because my neighbors’ TV was on so loud, I knew they could not hear even if he screamed through the washcloth.
Because you were not here to stop me were you.
Because finally there is no one to stop us.
Because finally there is no one to save us.
Because my own mother betrayed me.
Because the rent would be due again on Tuesday which is the first of September. And by then I will be gone.
Because his body was not heavy to carry and to wrap in the down comforter, you remember that comforter, I know.
Because the washcloth soaked in his saliva will dry on the line and show no sign.
Because to heal there must be forgetfulness and oblivion.
Because he cried when he should not have cried but did not cry when he should.
Because the water came slowly to boil in the big pan, vibrating and humming on the front burner.
Because the kitchen was damp with steam from the windows shut so tight.
Because he did not struggle. And when he did, it was too late.
Because I wore rubber gloves to spare myself being scalded.
Because I knew i must not panic, and did not.
Because I loved him. Because love hurts so bad.
Because I wanted to tell you these things. Just like this.

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