I hate Russian sage. Such an ugly little plant, faded purple, as if you’d taken something decent and put it through the wash too many times. I hate that planted so much of it around the house without asking me. The smell gives me a headache. The smell reminds me of the summer my mother was in love with Lenny. I told you about Lenny, I know I did, and I told you about the sage too, the beaming bushes around the hotel’s perimeter, crowding the lamb’s ear, the black-eyed susans, the knee-high grasses. I’d sit on the curb and pluck leaves and crush them between my fingers, letting them get sticky with juices, herbal with smells, and I’d hold my fingers to my nose and breathe in deep, sage smell basting the inside of my nostrils. My mother saw me, and she yelled for me to stop. Lenny would think I was picking my nose and Lenny already hated kids, even the polite and well-behaved ones, which my mother was convinced I wasn’t. That’s why she didn’t let me come into the hotel with her.
Why she didn’t let me stay at home, I don’t know. There was no one to watch me. There was no one to watch me in the hotel parking lot either, but she knew I wouldn’t do anything. I lacked the creativity for destruction possessed by other kids; she’d tell me to sit still and wait, and I’d wait, rubbing my hands on concrete, staring blank and baby-faced at every new car vomiting guests into the lobby. It would get dark and the hotel’s neon sign attracted swirls of moths, and the moon competed with the round faces of streetlights for my attention. I didn’t know the difference between airplanes and shooting stars yet, so I made five wishes a night on average.
Lenny managed the hotel restaurant. He got my mother free dinner. She dressed up each time, slacks and blouses that would be professional if they weren’t so low cut. I would watch her smear on layers of lipstick, eyes snake-like in the mirror, hypnotized by her own mouth.
“Can I put on lipstick?” I asked.
“No. You’re too young.”
My mother’s attention came in waves. It was useless to ask for anything when she was preening. All I wanted was for her to take her eyes off the mirror and give me a smile. But I had to wait.
Then it came, all too much, overwhelming, smothering, feathery -- those must be the last feelings of a rabbit before a hawk swoops silent and violent from the heavens. Her eyes too close to mine, her smile stretching wide inches away, her moist sweet-smelling hands cupping my chin. It happened too quickly for me to react. She said something I didn’t understand, brought her hot lips to my forehead, and then flew away again. I wanted her to come back. I was too boring to hold her attention.
Lenny wasn’t boring, not to her. He’d stand in front of the lobby, and she’d melt into him, dissolve into silly-girl giggles, doe-eyes. Her hands cradled his chin. I felt insanely jealous. He didn’t even know who I was.
Once, she and I were in the car, and she was applying mascara in the rearview mirror, mouth gaping like a dead fish, and I asked “When are you gonna tell him you have a kid?”
“Soon. I don’t wanna ruin anything yet.”
“Why do I have to wait outside? Why can’t I at least go in the lobby?”
She turned to me, sudden and smooth, head twisting too far, the way owls do. Her eyes, big and bug-like, inches from my face, her perfume clogging my mouth. “I’m your mother, honey, okay? You have to listen to what I tell you.”
It didn’t make sense. I had my own thoughts, I could move my own body, but I couldn’t let my thoughts do what they wanted with my body. I had to listen to my mother and obey her commands, wait patient like the tied-down golden retrievers with furry chins on their paws and leashes tied to bike racks.
Once, there was a dog waiting next to me, a dachshund, but I didn’t know that word yet. To me, it was a weiner dog, hilarious in name and proportion. It looked so stupid and so sad, eyes shifting and lost, scared, wanting more than anything for its owners to return from the cheap little hotel restaurant.
I sang to it. All the songs I knew came from TV shows. On nights she went out with Lenny, my mother let me watch as much TV as I wanted afterwards. I thought I was pretty good. Sometimes I’d sing for my mother, and on nights she was in a good mood, she’d clap along, eyes squinting with delight. If her date with Lenny didn’t go well, she’d tell me to shut up. I thought, maybe, if I got really good at singing, if I could entertain her for long enough, she wouldn’t have to seek entertainment elsewhere, burrow herself in Lenny’s arms. We could spend a nice evening at home or something.
The dachshund, the weiner dog, didn’t react to my singing. I wasn’t what it wanted -- its owners were still in the restaurant.
It was a heavy night, moist, dark, wet-smelling like moss, clear skies with millions of white stars like pinpricks, the hotel glowing yellow and electric, and I wanted to run somewhere very fast. But I wasn’t an impulsive kid, and what if my mother walked out and saw me acting a fool?
But I still wanted to do something. My legs were falling asleep on the concrete, filling with itchy static and I stomped them. This startled the dachshund. I went to pet it, leaning in fast and sudden, and it shied away from my attention. But the leash was short and tied down tight, so it could only move so far away. I untied the leash, my small fingers struggling against the knot on the bike rack. I wanted him to run away into the night. But he just stared at me. He wasn’t going anywhere. We sat and waited patient together, sweating on the summer concrete.
Anyways, I want you to return this Russian sage. There’s much better plants. And I want you to ask me next time, okay?