There is still a puritanical streak in some families, especially where daughters are concerned. And even the most modern mother may have trouble accepting a child's sexuality. This was published in a literary magazine in the mid 90s.
"Mum?" Whenever Jennifer turns a one-syllable word into four, Stephanie knows whatever comes next, she doesn't want to hear. The last time Jennifer did it, the next sentence tumbling out was, "I've been kicked out of school". Stephanie had been relieved to learn it was only for leading a demonstration against school policy in under-funding women's sports. School can't be the issue. Jennifer graduated two weeks ago.
"I know why Tina Turner is liquid sex," Jennifer says. She pops the top of a can of Coke.
Shit! My daughter has lost her virginity, Stephanie thinks. For a minute she hopes she's wrong. A glance at Jen's face makes her file the idea under Wishes, Impossible.
The grandfather clock chimes 10:00 p.m. Stephanie, tired from a too-long day in court, wants to say, "Just once can't we hold a major conversation before ten at night?" She doesn't. It's this particular conversation she doesn't want to have. Jennifer reaches up to close her bedroom door, hiding the chaos inside.
Stephanie isn't thinking about the dust balls larger than the cat under Jennifer's bed. She imagines her daughter on the bed, her face washed in passion. The image fades, replaced quickly with a series of flashbacks: Jennifer's head pops up over the bumper guard in her crib; Jennifer scooches down to look at a toad; Jennifer, dressed as Goldilocks, strolls across a stage.
Memories melt into the present. "Be cool," Stephanie says to herself thinking – I want my little girl back.
Fresh from showers, the two women wear oversized T-shirts. Jennifer's came from the concert she'd gone to last Saturday with David. Stephanie's T-shirt reads "When I am old I will wear purple." It was purple, a 45th birthday gift from Barbara, the same friend who'd sat in Stephanie's kitchen six years before holding a conversation that elephant-memory Jennifer just referred to. Once again Jen has tested Stephanie's resolve to be a better mother than her own.
"You aren't saying anything." Jennifer crosses her legs Indian style and pushes her long hair, still damp from the shower, out of her eyes.
"We're not talking about an actual Tina Turner concert, are we?" Stephanie asks.
Jennifer blushes. "No. Well, yes. In a way. The one you and Barbara went to. When I was 12?"
Stephanie's remembers her college chum's visit. They sat in her kitchen. A bottle of Pinot Noir and several cheeses rested between them on the oak table salvaged from Goodwill.
Barbara had come for a conference. To thank Stephanie for saving her from a hotel, she'd produced two Tina Turner Concert tickets.
"Admit it. You came up here for the concert not the conference." Stephanie cut herself a piece of Roquefort and put it on a piece of her home-made, three-grain bread.
Barbara did her shrug, the one that Stephanie knew said, 'You caught me'. "Tina's incredible. I can't believe her energy. For two hours she never stopped moving."
"And she's older than we are," Stephanie had said.
"That woman is liquid sex." Barbara bit a piece of bread spread thickly with Boursin.
She picked up her glass, "Love red wine with cheese."
Jennifer sat in a chair in the family room part of the kitchen. Closing her book, Blubber, which she was reading for the fourth time, she asked, "Why is Tina Turner like liquid sex?"
"OOPS. Didn't know she was around," Barbara said. She wasn't the type to quote clichés about big ears and little pitchers. Neither was Stephanie, but her mother would have said that.
"Don't worry about it, Barb," Stephanie said. "Jen, we'll discuss it when you become sexually active." Stephanie had forgotten the conversation – until now.
The phone rings.
"Let the answering machine pick it up. Please!" Jennifer asks. They listen to it saying
Jennifer, bored with the normal "no one can come to the phone right now..." had recorded the new message a week ago.
"Hello Jennifer. Tell your mother that is not a proper message for an attorney. Call Grammy back when you can. I want to take you shopping Saturday."
Stephanie tenses automatically, disliking herself for once again letting her mother's voice get to her. "I assume it was David," she asks.
"Of course." Jennifer looks at her mother sideways. "Last night."
Caramel ambles over placing himself between mother and daughter. Jennifer scoops him up. Purrs barely drown out Stephanie's racing heart.
Stephanie thinks how as she'd eaten dinner with her date, her daughter's hymen was disappearing. Floating in her brain is her annoyance that when her date had propositioned her, she'd said, "Let's-not-rush-it". Mother and daughter had started dating both males the same day. Her daughter had rushed it.
"This morning, you asked me if I got lucky." Stephanie reaches for the Coke and takes a long swig, knowing the caffeine won't keep her awake any more than Jennifer's revelation. "I said, 'What a question to ask your mother?' Now I wish I'd said, 'No, did you?'"
Jennifer looks at the cat. "David was worried you'd come home and find us."
Stephanie's eyes drifts to Jennifer's room where it happened. She wonders why she feels so uncomfortable. Hasn't she spent all Jen's life trying to develop an honest relationship? Then when Jennifer comes to her in the way Stephanie always wanted, all she wants to do is to cover her ears and say, "Not yet. Stay my little girl."
Jennifer stretches and turns. She lays on the rug putting her head in her mother's lap. The cat curls up in the hollow of Jennifer's tummy reminding Stephanie of Jennifer in a sleeping bag in a corner of the classroom where Stephanie plodded toward her law degree. Jennifer had a stuffed animal named Kitten Kat that she'd held the same way.
Jennifer takes the Coke from her mother. "Anyway I told him you'd be cool. He asked what I thought you'd say."
Just yesterday Stephanie told her secretary how much she liked David. That was before he deflowered her daughter. She pictures David sprawled on their worn couch saying how he wanted to open a clinic in his neighborhood after med school. David comes from a very poor area. His idealism reminded Stephanie of her first husband, Jennifer's father, whose hopes to help others ended with a Vietcong mine.
"What did you tell David I'd say?" Stephanie asks.
"I said you'd asked if we practised safe sex."
Stay cool, Stephanie thinks. "Did you?"
"Of course. I borrowed a condom from your dresser. Safe from babies, safe from AIDS."
"Good." Stephanie pictures Jennifer at five lying in the hospital after the car accident that made Stephanie a widow a second time. The image fades to her daughter starting school still on crutches.
She sees the two of them writing down Jen 's rules for the year each fall. The last one was always, "If you've done something wrong, tell your mother before she finds out." Sometimes Stephanie thought the last rule was a mistake, because Jen felt she could really mess up, then tell her.
The rules, posted on Jennifer's bedroom door, provoked a number of clucks from Stephanie's mother, who also clucked at the worn furniture, at Stephanie's insistence on getting her J.D., at Jennifer's unshined shoes, and at almost everything else Stephanie did.
Stephanie earned her mother's contempt because she never stayed home as a "proper mother" should. "I am teaching my daughter how to survive in the world," Stephanie hollered one night after her mother began her long list of charges.
"Spend the same energy in finding another husband," her mother said, "That's a lesson, too."
She and her mother will never agree. No common ground exists between them. There is no common ground between her and her secretary either. She'd found Maureen in the ladies room, her head on the sink, dissolved in tears, earlier that day.
"What's wrong?" She scooped Maureen into her arms.
"I found birth control pills in Mary-Catherine's school bag." Mary-Catherine is Maureen's 15-year old daughter.
"At least you don't have to worry about her getting pregnant," Stephanie said, thinking that Mary-Catherine had at least used some maturity.
When she regained some control, Maureen said, "It's a sin to practise birth control!" Stephanie had no answer for her secretary.
Jennifer's eyes meet Stephanie's. The desire for common ground with this person floods Stephanie floating.
"Mum?" Jennifer's voice catches. "You unhappy?"
"No honey, I'm not. " Stephanie strokes Jennifer's damp head resting heavily on her lap. Stephanie doesn't want to break the moment. The cat, thinking he will be left out of a good rub, pushes between mother and daughter.
"You always told me to make my first experience worthwhile. I did."
"I'm thinking of my best friend in high school," Stephanie says.
"Yes. Like Grandma her father thought only bad girls had sex before marriage, but she was so in love she couldn't wait. Anyway, when her mother noticed her period was late, Claire confessed. Her mother took her to the doctor, but she wasn't pregnant."
"I don't see anything funny in that," Jennifer says. She rolls the Coke can back and forth on the floor. Caramel's paw shoots out to play with it.
"No, that part wasn't funny," Stephanie says. "But, on the way home Claire's mother said to her, 'Oh dear'. She started a lot of sentences with, 'Oh dear'. Then she said, 'I suppose now you've done it once you'll want to keep doing it.'"
"What would Grammy have done in the same situation?"
"Your grandmother talked a lot about keeping boys' respect despite all the talk about free love. Translate that as not letting them do IT. However, the night before I married your father she told me "If your husband respects you, he won't ask you very often."
"Did daddy respect you?"
Stephanie pushes Jen's head off her lap and stands up to stretch. Her legs are stiff.
"Thank God, no. And neither did your stepfather."
"Mum, I want to keep doing it: I don't want David to respect me that way, anyway."
"I want for you what you want." She means it more than anything she has ever said. The cat winds in and out between her legs.
Stephanie bends down to kiss her daughter's head. "If David wants to stay over, it' s OK."
Jennifer jumps up to hug her mother. She hovers a good five inches above the older woman. "Love you. I'm going to bed. I've got the early shift tomorrow." Jennifer works as a life guard at the Holiday Inn pool. Stephanie can't swim.
Jennifer puts her hand on the door knob to her room. "It was your last condom. I'll replace it tomorrow." She goes into her room. The door clicks shut ever so gently.
Stephanie looks at the closed door for a minute or so before crossing the hall to her own room. The cat has settled on her pillow seconds ahead of Stephanie's arrival. Caramel looks perturbed when Stephanie insists on making her own place.
Suddenly Stephanie feels very old, but it's all right. As she falls asleep she hears Tina Turner singing Simply the Best. The music comes from Jennifer's room.